Sunday, 30 January 2011

Review of MeatEasy - Jan 2011

Where#MEATEASY, New Cross
How much: £12.50 a head, burgers are between £6 and £7.50
Come hereif you want a proper burger, and you're not allergic to grotty student pubs in New Cross.

If you're a food blogger, skip the next couple of paras. You know why I spent several hours on a Friday night queuing at a glorified short order grill plate above the least attractive pub in New Cross. If you're not, read on.

Imagine a man, a visionary man, who travelled the world seeking that holy Grail of Western working class food, the perfect burger. Well he exists, and on returning from his meaty pilgrimage, bought a burger van and proceeded to churn out meat patties the like of which the world of excitable food bloggerdom had never before seen. Fast forward a year or so, and the Meatwagon has been plying its business round the pub beer gardens of (mainly South) London. The meateligentia flocked to worship at the altar of the perfect chilli burger and God's own post pub bite, the Philly cheesesteak. Word of mouth and twitter hype ensure the queues stretch round the garden (and down the road), all appears rosy. The fall came in late 2010 when some scrote stole the Meatwagon, forcibly ending that chapter. News then that the Capital Pub Company had found a space for the master to carry on his work came as welcome news, particularly to me, as I'd never been lucky enough to sample his wares.

I took with me the equally visionary Nico Polo, now returned from his Russian trek, both of us keen to sample the hype. I wasn't joking about the pub, this is as resolutely ungentrified as they get. The entrance to #Meateasy is round the side, up a fire escape and over a roof walkway. Grab a raffle ticket as you arrive, and wait to be called out by the megaphone touting staff. Food arrives on paper plates, rolls of kitchen paper wait to wipe your greasy chops, it's as perfunctory as you get. You get three items per raffle ticket (a sensible system to limit tactical group buying) and I'd advise that you use them wisely.

We went for two to share, with a selection of sides. a Dead Hippy, their take on the In-N-Out secret menu, 'animal style' burger. Two thick and ill-formed patties (the more irregular the patty, the better the char and the fuller the flavour) come mustard fried and served in a soft white bun, sufficient only to soak up the sweet meat juices mingling with the special thousand island style sauce. A taste of fatty heaven. The chili cheeseburger packed a punch, with peppery green fellas instead of the expected con carne sauce. The only disappointment came with the sides. With the exception of some excellent and fresh onion rings, the others were standard, salty (even the 'slaw randomly) and to be honest, felt like they'd been too long under the heat lamp, this was particularly true of the Buffalo Wings, if anything, they felt like they'd been dumped back into the frier for a second go. I'd advise saving your precious choices for another burger, or one of the divine Philly Cheesesteak rolls. 
#Meateasy on Urbanspoon

Review of the Herne Tavern - Jan 2011

WhereThe Herne Tavern, Peckham Rye / East Dulwich
How much: Starters around £7, mains between £10 and £14. 
Come hereif you've got kids but can't give up going to the pub.

The Herne, or the East Dulwich Crèche as it is known locally, is another of those slightly grotty South East London pubs that's been tarted to an inch of its grubby (read authentic) life. It sits on one of the Victorian terraced lined roads with views across Peckham Rye. The terraces have, in the main, been turned into flats and crammed full of the young professionals who find themselves priced out of nearby Lordship Lane. 
Looks-wise it hasn't been given too much of a renovation. It's a 'character' pub innit. The stained glass has been cleaned and the dark wood doors and furniture stained with years of tobacco are now polished and restored to ramshackle functionality. Owned by the team behind the Palmerston, a similarly sympathetic renovation on Lordship Lane with a reputation for great grub, I was expecting good things for a pre-wedding lunch spot. 

The menu is gastro standard. The kids portions a nod to the nappy wielding Napoleons who control the purse strings round here. Starters hover around £7, sample dishes including a Spiced Cauliflower Soup and Noisette of Denham Vale lamb with Pease Pudding. Someone's certainly thought about the menu, even if it is relatively simple stuff. After a dirty burgering at New Cross pop up dive bar MeatEasy the previous evening, I sadly forced myself to turn from homemade (organic of course) burger and the Galway rump steak. Bereft of other fleshy delights, I went for Cornish Mackerel, stuffed with a slightly subdued salsa verde and served with ratte potatoes (a little like fingerling) and rocket. The two pieces of fresh and tasty fish were well cooked but it's a hard sell at £12.50 a portion. The Masticator plumped for a Smoked Haddock, Bacon and sweetcorn chowder, thick, rich and perfectly pleasant, he was a happy camper too. 
Like the Palmerston, they keep a good range of (relatively pricey, even for London) ales. It's a good place for the local professional parents and those who want to share a meal with them.
Herne Tavern on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Review of Hawksmoor Seven Dials - Jan 2011

WhereHawksmoor, Seven Dials, Covent Garden
How much: £55 a head, mainly on meat this time.
Come hereif you've got pure meaty soul. 

Ok, so rocking up at ten on a Friday night after a few lagers wasn't going to be the best introduction to the meaty joy that should be a night at Hawksmoor but, having been to a recent and successful Steak Club at their older brother in Liverpool Street, at least one of the gang knew what to expect.
We went expecting the finest burgers, perfect post pub fodder, and were drooling at the description of the Third Burger, a rotating option aside their classic hamburger and the Kimchi Burger, a spicy Korean melange attracting Marmite-like attention from the reviewing community. This month's Third Burger was enthusiastically sold to us by our bubbly server, and promised a topping of pulled pork rib topping the Longhorn and bone marrow patty, enthusiastically moulded from the best the Ginger Pig has to offer.
After that description we were sold. Draft brew (slightly too floral) arrived in pint pots which, along with the communal bar tables and the uber-friendly staff gave the reservation free bar area the feel of an up-market American frat bar.  
At this point our server, mortified, appeared from the kitchen to inform us of the end of the burgers for the night. Made fresh, the fridge was bare, and the burger had to wait for another day. Instead we went for the bone-in Prime Rib and the Porterhouse. Two full kilograms of meat serving to sate three hungry (slightly drunk) men. Minimum sides needed, the steak was sufficient. 
Many have tried to describe these steaks, I can't really see the point. Cooked perfectly, they're sweet and meaty joy. Start by imagining the best steak you remember tasting. Now imagine the steak that steak wanted to be when it grew up, and then you're part of the way there. The triple cooked chips were a little lacklustre and passed hardly noticed, though the bone marrow went alongside the steak perfectly.
It's not the cheapest night out. A kilogram hunk of the finest steak will set you back around £65, though that should feed two (normal) people and you get a pretty decent list of smaller cuts, at around the £20 to £25 mark.If you're a fan of culinary subtlety (or heaven forbid, vegetables) then Hawksmoor isn't the most obvious place to come. And while I plan on bringing my other half here, it's not the most obvious place for a date night. Bring your friends instead, grab a hunk of prime rib, and settle down for a dose of the meat sweats.
Hawksmoor (Seven Dials) on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Katzenjammers and Maoz Falafel, alternative beer soakers - Jan 2011

Most beery nights out in this country seem to end up with some form of badly packed meat. (fnaar..) It's inevitable that we'll end up in the local kebab, pizza or burger joint, many of which haven't changed in years, despite the general increase in food quality across the country. I can track my life by these places. Drunken nights in Balham ended with the famously titled Chicken Under The Bridge. This substituted for a university institution in my affections, the doner meat pizza from Primo Pizza in Hull, itself a replacement for the Grantham Charcoal Grill, where I first witnessed the power that grilled meat, heavy seasoning and raw onion can hold over a grown man. 
And so it continues. Regardless where I'm lucky enough to trough these days, I'll always have a soft spot for the simple joys of a post beer bite. Sometimes you've just got to keep it simple. 

Here's a couple you may or may not have tried, I'll add more over time...
Where: Katzenjammers, Southwark Street, London Bridge
How much: Food is between £7 and £10 a head but you're here for the Bavarian lager predominantly 
Come here if: you fail to get into Brindesa and don't fancy any of the pricy options nearby.

In a nutshell: Barvarian style bierkeller in Borough. The name translates as caterwaul, appropriate for somewhere designed around low slung ceilings and loud, communal conversation. It was half full but still verging on too loud, not somewhere to take a date certainly, but the kind of place an office party could get their vocal chords limbered up before heading to a discotheque. The beer list is solid, lengthy, German and available in steins. The food list is perfunctory and pig flavoured. A number of different sausages come with (badly) fried chips, the other specials include Wiener Schnitzel, a plate size slice of pork, covered in breadcrumbs and forced into the fryer. Germany perversely manages more Michelin starred restaurants than any other European country other than the UK and France, but manages to have a universal reputation for bad, fried food. Katzenjammers offers a fun night, but won't change your mind about the cuisine.

Where: Maoz Falafel, Old Compton Street, Soho
How much: £5.50 for a Maoz Royale (three falafel in pitta with hummus and fried aubergine, served with a massive salad bar)
Come to eitherif you just can't cope with another lamb shish or dubious chicken inna bun
In a nutshell: Post drink dining for vegetarian drinkers. 

The idea of a vegetarian fullstop on an evenings entertainment isn't everyone's idea of fun (and never used to be mine). Then I met Maoz. Freshly made falafel, a large salad bar and Belgian style fries. Cheaper than you're average 'bab, and a darn sight healthier. Service is quick, and you get all manner of crazy sods through their glass doors, spilling onto the basic formica tables. You order your falafel, small deep fried sphere of chickpeas, they arrive served in a pitta pocket that you then fill from the extensive salad bar. I'm a particular fan of the roasted cauliflower, coriander and red chilli sauce combo. Each to their own, just try and forget that there's no meat...
Maoz Vegetarian on UrbanspoonKatzenjammers on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Review of Jamie's Italian, Birmingham - Jan 2011

WhereJamie's Italian, The Bullring, Birmingham
How much: £40 a head, three courses and a substantial amount of wine 
Come hereif you're shopping in Birmingham, with kids on a Saturday? I don't know what to say here, massively out of my comfort zone. 

I'm a snob. Utterly. Especially when it comes to my food. A patronising, whinging little sod. So had you suggested that I might actually enjoy a Saturday afternoon meal at a celebrity fronted chain restaurant brand in a shopping centre in Birmingham, I'd have smiled, muttered something about terroir, and removed you instantly from my Christmas card list... As a hackle raiser, it's as close as you can get me without putting me in a room of Daily Mail subscribers. But enjoy it I did..

Now don't get me wrong, I believe that this to be an isolated incident. In the same way that if you play Russian Roulette, every now and then you won't get shot. It doesn't mean that if you survive you should take it up as a regular hobby. I'm not planning on reprising my views on La Tasca, and I'm certainly not stopping my campaign to close Aberdeen Angus Steak Houses. Jamie's is easy to spot. It's a monstrous carbuncle on the side of the monstrous carbuncle that is Birmingham's Bullring shopping 'quarter'. We were there for a good friend's birthday and wouldn't have missed it, but certainly hadn't picked the spot. I was pre-emptively planning the slating as we walked through Saturday chain store hell towards the two floor pukka palais. The menu is short, sweet and filled with pasta and hyperbole. The pasta list is long and relatively standard, though I'm pleased to see rabbit, non pasta mains bring only a few interesting choices (along with an 'Italian' burger and two steaks) but the overall feeling is a positive one. There are certainly some good flavours here.

 Sharing starters brought me three fat arancini, risotto balls stuffed with mozzarella and mushroom, served with a spicy tomato dip. Dense, simple and on the money. Often used in Italy as a way of using up leftover rice, these were plump and joyous justifications of their constituent parts. The Vole went for two starter sized pasta dishes; Monachelle Puttanesca, with tomato, anchovies and olives, and a mushroom Panzerotti. The former was well cooked, and prepared fresh in the glass sided demonstration pasta room to the front of the store, with a thick flavoursome sauce, slightly (like my main) heavy on the salt, but fundamentally sound. The later, a meaty mushroom ravioli, I can barely recall as it vanished within minutes, my usual right to graze was revoked. I went for the Fritto Misto and a side of Funky Chips (I bet AA Gill never had to ask for that). It'll be a challenging plate for some. Assorted sealife, heads and skin included (Auntie Pat would struggle with such a vivid recollection of her dinners recent history), dusted with flour and fried fresh. Served in a brown paper bag, piled with baked noodles and a couple of erroneous slices of dried fruit. It was a trencherman's portion almost enough without the parsley and garlic soused Funky Chips, themselves relatively forgettable if perfectly acceptable.

The gurning mug of the owner is unavoidable. Walls not covered in the stripped back mock industrial aesthetic, 'it's just a working kitchen mate, no airs or graces fella', were stacked high with shelves covered in his bestselling volumes, as if the 10 foot high name on the side of the building hadn't given away the founder's identity. Like a loll-tongued messiah, he was unavoidable. The specials board spoke the word of St Jamie, an 'amazing' soup vied with the 'wicked' skate, even the bar staff in the too small reception cum bar were resolutely on brand, forcing me through their small but 'wicked' wine selection. But despite this, I could find little to complain about here. They were enthusiastic, efficient, knowledgeable and (with the exception of the Mockney barman) resolutely free of any corporate line. The staff seem happy and committed, and it's a good thing they do, as it's rammed solid when we arrive at 4pm on a Saturday afternoon, by 6.30, the queue is out of the door and by the time we leave at 7.30 the small bar is packed with a Saturday night crowd. The money men behind this, and the benevolent leader, must be beaming with joy. Regardless of his stated desire (laudable if overplayed) to get 'ordinary' folk eating better, with the locations in the some of the most affluent shopping areas of the country, he's also proving that he's not entirely disinterested in getting the middle classes to give him their money.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Indian Mischief in East Dulwich - Jan 2011

Where: Indian Mischief, Lordship Lane, East Dulwich
How much: £20 a head including drinks and desserts
Come hereif you're on a classy curry night in South East London and can't get into Ganapati. It's not one for post beer sustenance but is something light, vegetarian and different to the standard Lordship Lane curry houses. 

I'll immediately caveat this with a note that the restaurant has just opened, but it's worth knowing that they're still finding their feet, certainly front of house if not in the kitchen. They've taken over the space on Lordship Lane previously occupied by generic Chinglish Chopstix, and I do hope that they're more successful. The team behind woefully named Indian Mischief have at least sought to strike out from the more generic curry houses that litter Lordship Lane.

It's a small, thin space, with white modern furniture (unchanged drastically from the previous occupants) and a long bar occupying most of the room. It's unlike many other spaces, and too antiseptic to be that appealing. The faux candles don't inspire a mood, drowned out as they are by the strip lights. There's definitely a sense of effort here however, the cutlery and crockery and the artful layout of the food point at someone who's keen not to be seen as one of the crowd.

It's a rare menu too. The fully vegetarian cuisine (certified by the Vegetarian Society) and the farsan, or side dishes served with everything, led me towards Gujurat, a province in the North West of India hailed by seminal cookery writer and chef Madhur Jaffrey has termed as "the haute cuisine of vegetarianism", promising. However 
the predominance of rolled dosa (thin stuffed savoury pancakes) is more of a Southern Indian thing. Either way, there are some really interesting dishes that you won't have seen before. We started with acceptable samosas and lovely fresh lentil doughnuts or Vada, another South Indian speciality, served with a number of artful accompanying splodges, all but one unidentifiable to our affable (and very new) waiter. Friendly and enthusiastic as he was, he felt more like a friend of the owner than staff. 

We split two mains, a cashew nut Mahlabhari curry (not something I've ever heard of before) and one of the special dosas, rolled and stuffed with a spinach mix. The cashew blend was pleasant, creamy and with sufficient bite. Aromatically flavoured, if not particularly highly spiced. It arrived with a portion of rice and a side of diced onion and tomato. The dosa was exceptional. Well prepared, nicely spiced and with a moreish spinach filling, it came with a yoghurt sauce and further helpings of the artful splodges, identified by us now as 'brown' - a spicy mix probably containing tamarind, and 'grainy brown' - not tasting of much, but with a grainy texture. If there are any experts out there who could identify, I'd be interested in knowing what they are. 

Desserts and coffees were as expected, neither a carrot halwa or a cardamon coffee were worth writing home about, though I was pleased to see some good Indian beers on the menu and a range of lassi. The wine list is short and perfunctory, with nothing topping £20. 

Overall, it's an interesting option, though not somewhere I'd go out of my way for. By the looks of it, they do takeaway, so it might be an option for a healthy dinner in the future, though I'm not sure how the dosas and those lovely fresh doughnuts will transport. 

Monday, 3 January 2011

A review of Wuli Wuli and Camberwell's other Chinese restaurants

There is something a bit cringy about taking photos of your food for a blog. I know it, and despite that am guilty of it. But I do stand by it as a way of demonstrating in a way that words seldom can (unless you're Coren, O'Loughlin or Gill-like, and in which case frankly, start getting paid for it).
There are exceptions however, when you imbibe something that sings to your tastebuds like Susan Boyle and has the misfortune to look similar... Wuli Wuli definitely falls into this category. I can't, even kindly, describe what arrived as beautiful or pleasing to the eye, but dear reader, there are times where you don't, and shouldn't, care.

There's certainly no finesse about the bulk of the menu, or the majority of the delivery. It's perfunctory, acceptable and seemingly well done generic Chinese. Where it differs however, and why it demanded a visit, was the Sichuan specialities on the menu. The default starter of aromatic duck was pumped. Tasty, well cooked and enormously proportioned (if perhaps not enough crispy skin for my liking). This was a big bit of Donald for a great value £6.40. Freshly prepped veggies too, rather than the fridge freezing soggy pot of cucumber and spring onion you can often encounter. When done well I've got no problem with the well-known dishes many of us Brits grew up with, but I'm always going to take a punt on something different when on offer, particularly when spice, chilli or weird texture combinations are integral. 
They have a good thirty or so Sichuan specialities clustered at the back of the menu, my strong advice is to start here, get some rice if you must but don't look any further. Forgive the Chinglish translations and some of the less thrilling descriptions. Saliva Chicken (stop tittering at the back) translates into Mouthwatering Chicken, an allusion to the sensation the peppercorns give your tastebuds, rather than the main ingredients! If I'm honest, none of it sounds great on the page, but I'm going back on a weekly basis until I've tried it all, so that should tell you something. Also of glorious note were the Fried Aubergine with Minced Pork, a dense gravy-like broth slow cooking the aubergines to fall apart completeness, the bite then coming from the succulent pork. 

We're fairly well resourced for Chinese and South East Asian food in Camberwell. Fellow Camberwellian A Rather Unusual Chinaman covers several of these too (and takes a much better photo). 

  • Lamoon on Denmark Hill makes a decent stab of the more mainstream fare you'd expect and does an excellent Salt and Pepper Soft Shelled Crab. 
  • Silver Lake has been around for a number of years and though, according to some, has dropped off in recent years, their Korean and Japanese dishes are still freshly prepared from good ingredients and they do a good line in slightly unusual choices. I've got very good memories of a Braised Crystal Chicken dish. 
  • The other newcomer, Silk Road, serves a short rustic menu from Xinjiang province, like Sichuan rich in lip numbing chilli heat. Particular kudos here goes to the prosaically named Medium or Large Belt Noodle. A steaming thin broth of delightful pepper and chilli zing, packed full of potato and rough chopped chicken pieces. Once the solids have been imbibed, your server arrives to perfuntorarily plonk a plate of homemade belt noodles into the remaining liquor soaking it up like a firecracker gravy.

Wuli Wuli on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Here are a few of my favourite posts...

I'm surprised.
If you'd told me a year ago when I started the Grumbling Gourmet that I'd still be going with it a year later, I'd have laughed, confident at my general lack of application, and suggested that you were likely to be mistaken.

So what have I learnt? Mainly that it's harder than it looks to write repeatedly about the same subject without descending into cliche and repetition (particularly true when you mainly write about burgers and steak). Secondly, that I eat out more than I thought I did. Thirdly, it's bloody good fun.

I'm not as presumptuous as to suggest that there's anybody desperately hoping for a round up of the best openings of the year, and so I'm just going to direct you to a few of my favourite articles of the last 12 months. 

Best place to host a Steak Club: Hawksmoor
Best place to go for brunch: Hawksmoor
Location of my final mealHawksmoor
Best place for a long, long afternoon of Soho food and drink: close call, both Polpetto and Bob Bob Ricard get honorable mentions, but the Dean Street Townhouse takes it for me.
Teary eyed farewell to: proper old school cafe Sergios
Most awaited opening: Forget Heston's new gaff, or the return of Pierre Koffmann, this one goes to  Camberwell's push for a Michelin star, Angels and Gypsies, after a three year wait...
Nearest I came to doing some proper research: A slightly obsessive article about the history of pizza 
Best burger I ate in 2010: In' n' Out Burger, San Francisco. That is all. 
OK, I will mention my favourite restaurant too, just because it gives me a chance to relive one of the most wonderful meals I've ever eaten. Worth flying to San Francisco for on its own: Zuni Cafe.

As I say, it's been a year of much drinking and eating. I've not written the half of it up, which goes somewhere towards explaining why I'm a considerably rounder (if not rounded) person than I was 12 months ago. Thank you all for reading. It's been a pleasure, and I'm glad so many people have enjoyed it. If you fancy joining me for a bite in the new year, drop me a line.