Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Green Man and French Horn: offaly good..

Cosy. On a cold November's eve, the wind blustering, the Christmas lights shining (why oh why so early?), we needed a restaurant to warm our cockles, to provide comfort from the Outside. So it was to France we turned, specifically the Loire - stepping inside The Green Man and French Horn, you leave the Outside well and truly behind. A warm welcome, soft lighting and a hallway of a restaurant that somehow makes you feel that it's not just that, we were set up for a night of jollity.

Now I had high hopes for Mr Green and his horn, he is backed by the kind of people who know how to run a restaurant. People who have done this before, well. Take Terroirs, a split level restaurant just by Charing Cross serving two different menus, everything excellent. Brawn, another of theirs, may have run out of their namesake last time I was there, but my oh my did the rest of the menu make up for it. Needless to say I hardly came to this most strangely named of former pubs without expectations.

And I am glad to report that there is no need to draft in Mr Blonde, Mr Blue, Mr Brown or any of the others just yet, Mr Green is doing just fine. A raft of small plates were on offer: London's favourite, rilletes; Jerusalem artichokes, that oh so windy of veg; leeks with brown shrimps. You could make a meal out of these and leave very, very happy.

We decided to get a few to share: "Fresh cheese" was an undressed burrata, resplendent in its nudity; duck egg and salty anchovy soldiers, umami heavy, was a combo to be repeated at home; Game terrine, rich with the weight of venison; sweet and soft Rillon (pork belly), with bitter endive leaves and the punch of mustard. 

"Fresh cheese"
Duck egg with anchovy soldiers
Game terrine
Rillon and endive
Of course, being in "France", we had to indulge in some snails - tender little morsels with a subtle parsley and garlic sauce, interspersed with the crunch of croutons and fried hedgehog mushrooms, a real highlight.

The snails
So onto the main course we marched and I did my usual thing. If there's offal, I'll have it - I just can't help myself. At least this time I knew what I was getting into, despite the kindly look of concern from our waitress. Andouillette - a French sausage like no other. I first had it in Edinburgh when out with a group of mates following one too many pints of IPA (Deuchars, of course), it was described to us as a sausage made with belly. We assumed, belly pork, the meat. No, no, no, you need to go a little deeper than that - it is essentially chitterlings (small pig's intestines), mixed with tripe and wine, encased in more offal.  It is pungent stuff, but once you get over the wiff, it is something to be treasured. And none more so that at the Horny Green Man's place, it may not be from the Loire, but they have it nailed down. Splendid.

Andouillette with mash and mustard sauce

Others went for mussels and clams (both tasty, but a little measly), a rather pricey piece of sea bass (£23 for a smallish portion), and the skate  - pan fried, the whole wing was served. All eminently serviceable, but not up to the same highs as the starters.

On to something sweet - others had the poached pear and salted caramel sauce, "winemaker's tart", and the rice pudding. All great, but the pudding was the star; it enveloped you, a great big bear hug of a dessert. As usual, I had the cheese - limited choice, but what we had was great.

By this point we had worked our way through a little of their rather splendid wine list (which focuses on small scale French producers), and had warmed up sufficiently to contemplate the Outside. Sad as we were, it was time to venture back out into the bluster, leaving behind only memories of a thoroughly enjoyable evening. 

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Saturday, 16 November 2013

Dinnerathon Goes to Mexico: The Yucatan

Cancun, baby! Spring Break, pool parties and long, long beaches. That's pretty much all I knew of the Yucatan.  Not somewhere I would have thought to visit.  But, recently, I did. And, yes, from the state of the people getting off the plane from the UK, I am sure that Cancun is all of those things. But, as I found out, the Yucatan is so, so much more.

We headed straight for a taxi on landing, down the coast to Tulum (two hours drive south, a very reasonable $100). Tulum town itself it is a little disappointing, a strip stretched along the main highway south.  But it is not the town you go for, it is the beach.  Now I am not a beach person at the best of times, fill a beach with people and  I will be even less enthused. But our hotel, El Pez, was situated on a point, an empty beach on both sides, waves crashing outside our wonderful room as we slept. Delighted.

Paradise at El Pez
So to the serious task of eating.  Tulum is set up for tourists.  There is no getting away from that, so options for the real deal are limited.  But the food at El Tabano was excellent, and the steak at Casa Banana was great.  One place of note is El Camello in Tulum itself, a ramshackle place at the end of the strip, it serves mountains of fantastically fresh ceviche. although the tacos were less impressive.

The ceviche at El Camello - super fresh!

In terms of things to do, the impressive Mayan ruins on the coast take a day, and the Grand Cenote is certainly worth a visit.  We went by bike to both, the best way to get around, but ensure your bikes are fine before you set off. Cycling with a flat tyre is no fun, as we found out.  Other than that, there's not much to do, but that seems to be the point.  It is a place to leave the world behind.

Mayan ruins at Tulum
So two books and a great deal of sleep later, we reluctantly left Tulum. We had intended on getting a bus to Chichen Itza, but there was only one space left. A taxi for £40 for a two hour ride seemed eminently reasonable, so we went with that instead.  For proximity to the ruins we stayed at Hotel and Bungalows Mayaland - a vast place, full of tired rooms and some of the worst food I have had, anywhere. The hotel was set up for large tours, my idea of hell. One night would have been more than sufficient.  However, one perk of the place is that it has its own entrance to the ruins, allowing you to be the first one in.  Quite a special experience standing at the foot of the main pyramid, sun rising, not another soul around.  The Cenote nearby is also absolutely worth a visit, but get there before one to avoid the hoards.

The (one and only) benefit of staying at Hotel and Bungalows Mayland

The Cenote
From Chichen Itza we moved on to Merida, again by taxi.  Yucatan's largest city. Merida is the administrative and cultural centre of the Yucatan.  On a recommendation from The London Foodie, we stayed at the Hotel Hacienda Merida.  Situated in a colonial townhouse, this hotel was one of the highlights of the trip.  Beautiful room, a stunning pool and some of the friendliest staff I have ever come across.  It was a real oasis from the hustle and bustle outside.

Hotel Hacienda Merida

Food in Merida was a mixed bag, the stalls at Mercado Santa Ana served up some of the best slow-cooked smoked pork I have had, La Chaya Maya the worst food of the whole trip (old fish, pushed on us in an attempt to shift it almost made me sick - to be avoided at all costs!). Rosas y Xocolate had an interesting take on Mexican fusion, albeit in rather cold surroundings.

The best slow-cooked pork I have ever had from Santa Ana Market

Chilies in Merida Central Market
Tortilla making in Merida
But our favourite places of all in Merida had to be La Negrita and their sister bar La Fundacion - both full of locals and without the usual tourist tat that seemed to be the mainstay of so many places in the middle of Merida. La Negrita is an old cantina. a place men used to go to escape the world, given a lick of paint and more than a hint of style. We ended up going so many times, the barmen got to know us. Local artisan beers, some of the best bar snacks I have ever had, and a great laid back vibe. La Fondacion is more a late night place: an impressive selection of mezcal and live music make for a great night out watching the locals try to out dance each other.

The bar at La Negrita - a Mexican Dalston
The "snacks" at La Negrita - the "ticames"(I think) at the front right was incredible fresh!
 The Yucatan had been fun, but now we were off to Oaxaca - holy mole, I couldn't wait.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Grain Store: can I go back already?

"Surprise!", well that's the name of the menu we had. But it shouldn't really have been. Grain Store is Bruno Loubet's new place. Of course it was going to be good. I just didn't know it was going to be this good. This generous. This fun.

King's Cross is growing up. The teenage years of all night raves seem a distant memory. Gentrification is working its wily way. Gone (almost) are the sleazy bars and warehouse clubs (much to Mr Meantime's disappointment). In their place, plush flats and restaurants. Set in a large warehouse next to (the rather disappointing) Caravan, is Grain Store. It's all open plan New York warehouse, the kitchen stretches along one side, colanders for light shades, friendly waiters a hive of activity.  No table cloths, lots of smiles - no pretence. I was hooked by the time I had the first sip of my truffle martini (okay, so maybe there's a little pretence).

The courtyard outside The Grain Store: gentrification in motion
You can either choose from the menu or go with whatever Bruno has decided is best that day - the "Surprise" menu. It's not a tasting menu, you share four different starters, then each have the same main and desert.

Up first: tender octopus; peppers; punctuated with coco beans. Rich with smoked paprika, it may well have introduced itself with an "Hola" and demanded a cerveza. I loved it.  There was also yoghurt flat bread topped with carrot spread and grated carrot. Not something I would have chosen from the menu, but it worked.

There followed a hulking whale of an aubergine, chopped in half, the middle scooped out and stuffed with tomato sauce and lamb: a novel moussaka. And no, that's not a mirror, it was a half an aubergine between two; a whole aubergine for the table of four. We also had girolles and (wood-scorched) leaks. Simple, bold flavours - although I wish they had left a bit of the "scorch" on the leeks - they were peeled, tender, but they had lost a bit of that smoky oomph!

We were starting to think that the moussaka and mushrooms had been mains - we were filling up. But no, there was much more to come. Christmas had arrived early. On a plate. Roasted partridge replaced the turkey. Baked celeriac the brussels. Pickled red cabbage brought snow drifts to mind.  A roasted greengage - summer fruit eaten in the depths of winter. It made me want to snuggle up with a wood fire and a dram - cosy food.

Finally we were brought a chocolate and red bean pudding, with ginger ice cream. The fiery ginger made for some of the best ice cream I have ever had. Sat alongside, a rich chocolate pudding surrounded by crumbs of what tasted like oreos, and a rich bean sauce. "I don't really like chocolate" I said. The plate was licked clean.

Before we left Grain Store, we booked our return visit - a group of twelve this time. We are all going for another "Surprise!". I, for one, can't wait! 

Grain Store on Urbanspoon

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Saturday, 21 September 2013

Jubo: London's love affair continues

Just when you think London may be slowly falling out of love with American fast food, when sensible, grown-up, dare I whisper it, healthy, restaurants are opening to fanfare, you are again faced with chicken strips. Okay, so Jubo isn't quite in the same mould. Its Manhatten via Seoul. Nevertheless, the American influence weighs heavy.

Nestled into the corner of the ground floor in the Bedroom Bar, Jubo serves food to eat while drinking. There are wings, chicken strips, and steamed buns of various sorts. Kimchi slaw. A beef-stuffed sub. Perfect food after a few cocktails.

The "Yangnyeom Tongdak" (Korean-fried) chicken came winged or stripped, with soy or hot and sweet. We went for the strips, three of each. I am reliably informed by my trusty companion Wikipedia that the difference between American and Korean fried chicken is that the Koreans are not happy with frying their chicken once. No, theirs is double-fried for extra crunch (cue Heston's next show, triple-cooked chicken). And, sure enough, the chicken was super crunchy, but still juicy and tender inside. The hot and sweet ones with sesame seeds slipped down a treat.

We also got the Bulgogi (Korean-marinated) beef sub - a tasty roll, but nothing exciting.  Kimchi slaw was disappointing - the fermented hit lost in a sea of mayonnaise.

Hirata buns, one filled with slow-cooked pork and sriracha, the other with portobello mushroom, were rich, the mushroom heavy with umami. A couple of years back, they would have been exciting. Now they were just a little disappointing, at least when compared with those on offer at places like Yum Bun round the corner. Still, not a bad effort, and certainly fine to nibble on while drinking with friends.
The mushroom hirata...

And that's where I end up with Jubo. If you are going expecting a revelation, you will be disappointed. If you are meeting a few drinks and want some tasty bar snacks to sit alongside your cocktails, Jubo will do just fine.

Jubo on Urbanspoon

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Sunday, 8 September 2013

Auntie Naan: definitely an improvement

Before Auntie Naan (what a name!) opened there was only one option for spice on Broadway. Joy. It may well have been called Misnomer. Recommended by a friend of a friend from whom no further recommendations were sought. It served the worst food I have ever eaten.  It was like they had established an Indian restaurant based solely on Tesco club card points and a microwave, by someone who was quite happy to take your money and then smirk. Everything about the place was utterly awful.

So you can imagine my scepticism when Joy closed down and a new Indian "concept" restaurant popped up in its place. Was this the old place with the same owners, but with a lick of paint and some trendy old beaten up furniture?  It is entirely possible it is, I forgot to ask.  But, if it is, you can rest assured that more thought has been put into a single dish at this re-opening than the entire menu at Joy. It's all Indian-British fusion - spicy fish fingers, "Bombay" wedges and a few samosas, bhajis and curries thrown in for food measure. I was intrigued enough to give it another shot.

First to the five stars, you walk in and feel like you are on holiday. Roughly sawn wooden floors and walls, brightly painted chairs and tables, a superb outside garden area and a generous helping of random Indian signs. It may not be like the cafes I have experienced in India, but in this case that is a positive. Someone has clearly spent a long time working out how this place will look.

Turning to the food, it is a mixed bag. The onion bhajis are things of splendour - sweet onion, crispy on the outside with a hit of fresh chili, I could have munched a whole bag of these. The wedges and samosas were fine (if a little toned down), but both needed more crisp - a little anaemic, I suspect they were rather hastily warmed up.

I liked the idea of the fish fingers, but the crumb needed more spice and the fish inside was slightly overcooked.  Minor points, but the difference between fine and good. Nothing really to right home about. What was exceptional was the curried mayo which came alongside - sweet and sour with a hit of tamarind, this was no ordinary mayo.

The only real let down was the chaat salad - a mixture of chickpea, radish and cucumber. With just a little lime, chili and seasoning this could have been the perfect accompaniment to the rest - as it was, it was just a little underwhelming.

So no more Joy. But happiness instead. The food won't blow you away, but it's not bad.  Auntie Naan brings something different to Broadway - some fresh flavours and a great new place to meet with friends for something light to eat.

Update (23 September 2013): having only been open for some three weeks, Auntie Naan has shut down (well at least it is closed at the moment for what appears to be a name rebrand).

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Sunday, 11 August 2013

Flesh and Buns: Izakaya arrives in London

Flesh and Buns is the new offering from those clever people behind Bone Daddies. Having taken the ramen world by storm, they have now decided to introduce London to the joys of Izakaya dining. What, you've never heard of Izakaya? Really? Neither had I. But, given that it is essentially Japan's answer to a pint of bitter and scampi fries (with the bitter replaced by sake and the scampi by sushi), I thought it was something I should explore.

The restaurant is gigantic, a large high table stretching all the way down the middle. Think Wagamama, but much, much cooler. The menu is made up of snacks, small hot and cold plates and "flesh and buns". Everything is for sharing.

We kicked things off with some "chips and dips" - tasty homemade rice crackers, shiso avocado (essentially guacamole, I struggled to detect any shiso) and tomato jalapeno (for which read salsa). I loved this take on Japanese/Mexican fusion.

Tuna tataki was seared on the outside, served with a tart grapefruit, chili, coriander. If this is food to drink by, pass the sake. Beautiful to look at, even better to eat, this was a splendid dish - all of the flavours balanced perfectly.

Then came the "flesh". A hulking great lump of pork belly, mustard miso sauce and the fluffiest buns you will find anywhere in London. Our waitress tried to pull the pork at the table, sadly for her, she ended up in a bit of a wrestling match - moist on top, it had dried out a little at the bottom, pork has pulled easier before. That said, once she had put her all into it, it came apart fine, with a dribble of the fiery mustard miso and some pickled apple, the buns were devoured in record time.

Surprisingly filling, we probably didn't need anything else. But of course we had done our usual of ordering one more dish than the staff recommend (when the Fashionista is on form, and snacking food is the game, it is quite incredible how much can be devoured). And so we ended up finishing on some chicken yakitori - grilled skewers of perfectly moist, marinated chicken interspersed with crunchy spring onions. A great end.

So let's get back to the premise of Flesh and Buns. Food to accompany sake- there is a great selection (sadly, given it was lunchtime and we had a busy afternoon stretching ahead of us, we didn't get involved). It does that admirably. But to relegate the food to a sideshow would be harsh in the extreme - it's far more deserving than that. I, for one, can't wait to round up a few mates and head there for a sake-fuelled session of Izakaya. The scampi fries may at last have found their match!

Flesh and Buns on Urbanspoon

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Saturday, 10 August 2013

Hawksmoor Spitalfields Bar, A Special Place

When you go out not intending to eat, let alone drink double shots of mezcal, but leave somewhere feeling full, smiling, you know the place you've been was special. And, so it was, last Thursday I was going for two beers, then home to enjoy the treats my lovely neighbours had given me to celebrate the end of Ramadan. So, two turned into three, it always does. Then of course we had to finish the round. The Italian suggested a cocktail at Hawksmoor's bar, underneath their Spitalfields restaurant. Okay, just one more then...

Who was I kidding? Walk into a Hawksmoor and not eat? That was never ever going to happen. One step into the achingly cool bar (the de rigeur metro tiles have even been aged!), I knew my Ramadan feast was going to have to wait for another night.

So let's get one thing straight, there are no steaks - if that's what you're after, go upstairs. But there are ox cheek nuggets (I was sold!), burgers, pulled pork rolls, chili dogs, wings and ribs - need I say more.

We opted for a burger, pulled pork roll, ox cheek nuggets and pig's head poutine. And a cucumber and watermelon salad also turned up - we weren't complaining, respite for the arteries.

As you would expect, the burger is good. Very good. Rich, juicy beef, perfectly cooked medium-rare, topped with cheese in a beautifully soft brioche bun. Best of all, it is only £8.50. That is the same price as GBK. One can only imagine GBK's margins are significantly larger. Seriously, £8.50? It is an absolute steal! The Italian had the pulled pork which went down a treat.

The sides are where things started to get really exciting. I had no idea what poutine was when I ordered it, I was lured in by the pig's head. Turns out it is a perfect dish for two Scots to devour following a night on the beers. Originating in Canada, it is made up of chips, cheese (yes, okay, not the holy trinity of mozzarella and two types of cheddar you get at BBQ Kings in Glasgow, but good nonetheless) and gravy. Not content with that, Hawksmoor have added pig's head. Filthy, yes. Healthy, no. Worth it once in a while, absolutely.

We also had the ox cheek nuggets - slow-cooked cheek, encased with some mozzarella in breadcrumbs, with some kimchi dipping sauce. I could have eaten these all night long.

And, to freshen things up, a salad of large chunks of cucumber and watermelon, with a touch of ginger, chili, garlic and, I think, some fish sauce - this was a refreshing counterbalance to the rest of the meal. Excellent in its simplicity.

So the bar is cool and the food is great, but it is the drinks, or, more specifically, the barmen, who really make this place really stand out. Excellent cocktails (butter infused bourbon old fashioned anyone?) served up by a tag team from Turkey (Mr Pinky, you know who you are!) and Wales - we were kept in stitches for most of the night. If you like fun, go. If you don't, well, that's your loss, this place isn't for you.

Hawksmoor Spitalfields Bar on Urbanspoon

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