Friday, November 16, 2018

THE BREEZE AND I

I used to be pathologically indecisive when it came to picking a restaurant, especially if I was in a place I didn’t know well, or at all.  I’d walk the streets, annoying my companions, saying, Oh this one’s too full, this one’s too empty, this one’s two bright, the menu at this one is way too long to be any good, and so on. 

I have got better, and it’s in part because of reading Jonathan Gold’s food writings.  If ever there was a man prepared to venture into an unpromising mini-mall to eat in an unpromising hole-in-the-wall restaurant it was Jonathan.  The economist called him "poet of the strip mall eatery" which somehow doesn't quite get it, though I'm sure they meant well.


I’m sure Jonathan sometimes ate some less than stellar food, but he was a man who always knew that another meal was just around the corner.  And when an unpromising restaurant turned out to be really pretty good you experience a satisfaction that doesn’t come from a restaurant for which you had justifiably high expectations.

 And so a couple of nights ago, for perfectly good if slightly complicated reasons, my companion and I were walking down Green Lanes, in Stoke Newington looking for somewhere to eat, increasingly prepared to settle prepared for anywhere that was open, wasn’t lit by bare fluorescent tubes, and had at least two customers.

We ended up in Mediterranean Breeze – a Turkish fish restaurant, which looked OK from the outside, was decently lit, and had just one occupied table, a party of three women.  It was in fact way too big to be considered a hole-in-the wall.


We sat down, and the three women immediately left, but we were already in so we stayed.  For the rest of the time we were there it was just us, a waitress (who I think went home after a while), presumably a chef though I never saw him, and Tony the wonderfully welcoming maitre d’.


The food was good, but on the night it seemed absolutely wonderful – the bream was fresh, the fried potatoes were perfect, the wine was cold and decent and cheap, Tony was a gem; and it seemed like we’d made the restaurant discovery of a lifetime.


And you know, it really didn’t look like the kind of place that would give you an amuse bouche, and they probably wouldn’t have called it that, but before the main courses we were presented with two gorgeous, plump, rich, briny oysters. 


For a while, admittedly quite a short while, it felt like I was sitting in the best restaurant on earth.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

GIN CRAZY




You know, a part of me will be really glad when this whole ”gin craze” is over and gin is once again left to the hardened professionals, like me.

I like gin a lot and obviously I prefer a good gin to a bad gin but I really don’t need it to be artisanal and hand-crafted. I certainly don’t need it to be made with “shoreline botanicals including ground ivy, bladderwrack and scurvygrass." Yep, that’s a real thing –  those things are apparently in Edinburgh Seaside Gin:


I first witnessed the effects of gin, when I was a kid at my cousin Margaret’s wedding – she's the bride seen below.  


Her mother, my auntie Daisy, was in floods of tears at the reception, and I already knew that people do get emotional at weddings, but Daisy was utterly inconsolable because she hadn’t been introduced to some relative of the groom, and she took this as the worst possible, infinitely wounding, insult.  Even though I was just a kid, this struck me as out of proportion, but my dad explained to me that Daisy had been DRINKING GIN!  This, he said, was what happened to people when they drank gin – they ended up swept away by floods of uncontrollable emotion. My dad didn’t like that sort of thing one bit.

Recently I encountered (I mean obviously I didn’t drink it) this stuff: Pinkster – “premium gin made with real raspberries.”





Now look, if by some bizarre chance, I wanted strawberries in my gin, I’m quite capable of putting them there myself. I don’t need some ginmeister, or former accountant, to do the job for me, OK?

And then last week in an otherwise very sensible restaurant named Pulpo they were offering a special cocktail, the Reverse Martini.  


 I asked the waitress for details. She said, “You know how a martini is lots of gin with a tiny splash of vermouth, well this is the reverse, a lot of vermouth with a tiny splash of gin.” I turned it down obviously and I’d like to believe that nobody ordered it, but I expect somebody did.

And just when you think it can’t get any worse, this stuff hits the news: Morus LXIV.  We’re told it’s distilled from the leaves of a single “ancient” Mulberry tree.  We’re also told that with each leaf is “hand-harvested” and “individually dried.”  Do the leaves know they’re been hand-harvested? Do they care?


Harvey Nicks in London is selling this stuff in a “set” – a 70cl jar and a 3cl one – yeah, yeah, it comes in jars, and the set costs £4,000. That's not a typo.  There are only 25 large bottles available.  I do hope that’ll be enough.  If the good folk who make the stuff would like to invite me to a tasting, I'd definitely be there.

And speaking of typos:


REARRANGING THE DECKCHAIRS

Yes, it must be hard to think up an appropriate name for your fish and kebab shop, but this does make you wonder what other options were on the list:


Walthamstow - photo by Luna Woodyear-Smith.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

"I WEEP FOR YOU," THE WALRUS SAID

I bought a new oyster knife.





Seems to work pretty well, though I think a bit more testing will be required.


Monday, November 5, 2018

FISH WITH EVERYTHING


Look, I don’t want to go all Proust and Plato on you but I’ve been eating a lot of fish and chips lately and I’ve been having notions that are both Proustian and Platonic. And what I’ve been thinking is that every time you eat fish and chips it sends you searching back through the lost time, and you think about all the other fish and chips you’ve eaten in your life.  These were in Walton on the Naze a year or two back:



And when you’re with other people you find yourself in conversations about the best and worst, the most surprising fish and chips you ever ate.  You talk about the ones you had when you were a kid in Blackpool, or somebody says his uncle used to run a fish and chip shop, and so on

I always think about the time my mum sent me to the local fish and chip shop to buy “two fish and chips,” and I had to wait a long time in the queue and I noticed that everybody else was ordering “fish and chips twice” so when my turn came, that’s what I asked for.  I wanted to fit in.  But when it came time to pay, my mum hadn’t given me enough money. The bloke behind the counter was surprisingly sympathetic and let me have the order “cut price” as it were.  
But when I got home I was in terrible, terrible trouble from my mum.  She’d wanted two fish and one chips, not two fish and two lots of chips, and clearly I was and a wastrel and a bad son.  My mother wasn’t always blessed with a good sense proportion.


This isn't the actual fish and chip shop, but this is from Sheffield at about that time.

Anyway, here are some other fish and chips I have known in recent times. These were from the Pikey on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles.


These at H. Salt, on Hollywood Boulevard:


These are from Riverside Fish and Chips in Manningtree, eaten outdoors by the estuary:.




And these I had at the weekend in a rather fancy pub/restaurant off the Kings Road called the Coopers Arms.  


They looked pretty appetizing and the girl behind the bar who served them said, “Is there anything else I can get you?”  And I said, “Yes please, some vinegar.” She disappeared for a couple of minutes and came back and said they didn’t have any vinegar.  Really?  I mean really.  How is that even possible?   She gave me a couple of extra slices of lemon but it wasn’t the same.

And naturally all this got me thinking about Platonic ideals.  Is there a perfect form of fish and chips?  I think there is.  I think we all carry with us an ideal noition of fish and chips that allows us to seethe imperfect examples of fish and chips that we are confronted with in the real world.  Vinegar is definitely part of the ideal.   


Frankly, I suspect Proust wasn't a great lover of fish and chips.

Monday, October 22, 2018

POLISHED

Isn’t this fantastic?  Isn’t this what all restaurant bills should look like?  Four simple statements: pig troters (sic), rabbit, duck, bottle of red. Isn’t it also, arguably, what all meals should be like?


The trotters were in aspic – the blandness of the aspic and the intense porkinesss were a winner, especially since it came with a little jug of vinegar:


The duck looked like this, it’s stuffed with apples, and you can’t lose with that can you?:


The rabbit was in mustard sauce and was good too, but not very photogenic, and though not as good as the duck, and I did have some food envy.

This was all, as you can see from the bill, at the Daquise, a Polish restaurant in Thurloe Street, South Kensington, and I realize I’ve been going there for a very long time. Although since the restaurant has been in business since 1947 there must be people who’ve been going there much longer than I have.   

Below is how the Daquise looked it in 1970 – two doors away from a Wimpy Bar – and it’s survived much longer.  Sometimes (if not all that often) there is justice in the food world.


There was, apparently a very serious fire there in 2005 but the place been restored in order to look very much the way it always did – and the menu has been gently updated without making you think it’s getting fancy.  There’s still borscht and black pudding, but I remember I always used to order the stuffed cabbage and that seems to have gone from the menu.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

BLOOMING WITH RELISH

Here in London I’ve been eating the inner and outer parts of pigs (I’m not sure that they all constitute organs).

Here at a restaurant named Noble Rot on Lamb’s  Conduit Street, my companion and I ate the set lunch – the starter for which was  pig cheek salad.  Sounds quite humble – but it was an absolute stunner.  Fatty, tart, - and yes, there was greenery too:


And on the menu at Josephine’s Filipino restaurant on Charlotte Street there was something  described as “deep fried pork flowers served with spicy vingar.”
Now you understand the “bloom” reference. I asked the waiter what that was and he said “pork skin” – so of course I ordered it.  It looked like this:



The internet suggests that there’s only one restaurant in the whole world that refers to this dish as pork flowers - and that's Josephine’s.  It’s more usually known as Sitsaron Bulaklak, sometimes referred to as ruffled fat or chitterlings, and more anatomically as pig mesentery.  Now, I perfectly understand the need for euphemism in food, but these are definitely not pork skin.  They were nevertheless really, really good.  Chewy, of course but deep fried so also crunchy.

And at the Punch Tavern in Fleet Street, on a Monday night when the whole area seemed strangely deserted and bleak, there was this serving of pork crackling.  


I suppose crackling’s a euphemism too.


Sunday, October 14, 2018

DELICATE AND TENDER

You’re surely familiar (I mean, I’ve banged on about it often enough) with the great early scene in the movie The Quiller Memorandumin which Alec Guinness (Pol) recruits George Segal (Quiller) for what sounds like a suicide mission.  Guinness toys with sandwiches throughout the scene. The screenplay is by Harold Pinter.



POL bites into his sandwich and grins at QUILLER … He offers the sandwiches to QUILLER.
POL. Some leberwurst ?
QUILLER. No thanks.
POL. Or some schinken? (He examines the sandwich.) No, wait a moment, what am I talking about, this isn't schinken, it's knackwurst. What about some knackwurst?
QUILLER. I'm not hungry.
P0L. Aren't you? I am.
He bites into the sandwich, chews a moment and then stands.
     You don't mind if I eat while we walk?


Comedy of menace – we got it!! So imagine my excitement when I was shopping in the Waitrose by Russell Square in London, and found the “Delicate & tender German sausage selection.”


Now you and I may not think that German sausage is especially delicate or tender but you can’t argue with Waitrose, can you?  As you see, the collection consists of “coarse Shinkenwurst, succulent Bierwurst, and smooth Extrawurst. 


I’d have thought those adjectives were unnecessary, but again Waitrose is the boss


Now, only a fool would attempt to parody our Harold but I find myself imagining a scene in which some British spymaster in Berlin might say to one of his charges,  “No, wait a moment, what am I talking about, this isn't succulent Bierwusrt, it’s smooth Extrawurst. What about some smooth Extrawurst?

And then imagine my further excitement in finding that Waitrose also sells Bury Black Puddings, from a company that claims (and once again I wouldn’t argue) that black pudding is a superfood.  


Their website also has recipes for Vegetarian Black Pudding Samosas, which does raise suspicions, I mean come on, have the courage of your convictions, guys.

I don’t think these were the tastiest black puddings I ever ate.  I think they needed more fat, and I wish I’d bought some that I saw when I was up in Sheffiield, but fried up with potato they were good enough.  The thought that they were a superfood didn’t help much.


My friend Phil was once offered a job as an apprentice black pudding maker in Lancashire.  The job description said something like “Mustn’t mind wading ankle-deep in blood.”  He declined. The main objection to doing such a job, I imagine, is that it would take all the joy out of eating black puddings, and nobody wants that.

Friday, October 5, 2018

SCRANNING IN SHEFFIELD

I have been in Sheffield eating like a lord, and also like a Sheffielder, which in many ways is same thing.



I think I grew up in Sheffield at a very bad time for British food.  A previous generation would happily have eaten rabbit, pigeon, pigs’ trotters, maybe even venison if they were able to get it.  A later generation grew up watching fancy chefs on tv and "experimenting" with kiwi fruit. But I grew up in the days when a mother could think she was doing right by her family when she served frozen fish fillets, and steak and kidney pie out of a tin.

Consequently I don’t often get nostalgic for the food of my youth, but the roast pork sandwiches of Sheffield (and I know they’re found other places too) continue to haunt my taste buds.  This is one I ate at the weekend from Beres Pork Sandwich Shop in the city centre.  


Beres have been in business since 1961, which probably makes them newcomers in the world of the Sheffield pork sandwich – Funk’s of Hillsborough have been around since at least the 1890s.

And you know, I like the roast pork well enough, but I think it’s the extras that really move me: the stuffing, the apple sauce, the crackling, all of them present in the sandwich above.  The crackling is only “recommended for people with strong, healthy teeth” – it says so on the bag.


It surely comes as no surprise that Sheffield is the home of a good meat pie, and so no huge surprise that there’s a restaurant on Division Street called Pieminister – part of a small chain that was actually founded in Bristol.  We tried going there at about 9 o clock on Saturday night, but were told they’d sold out of everything except mashed potato, which was surely a good sign, so we returned the next night.


The two pies you see in the picture above are the Moo – “British Beef Steak and Craft Ale,” and the Deerstalker – “Wild British Venison, Bacon, Red Wine and Green Lentil.”  Gotta say I didn’t notice the green lentil, but you tend not to when there’s venison around.


I don’t suppose hotdogs are especially local to Sheffield.  I occasionally had one as a kid, but it wasn’t a meal, just something you ate when you were at the seaside or at a fun fair, kind of like candy floss.  But after eating hotdogs in Chicago last month it was impossible to resist the “Bulldog” on the menu at the Fox and Duck in Fulwood Road, Broomhill, a pub that calls itself “a lively boozer.”  And no, I have never heard the word scran used in Sheffield or anywhere else.


The Bulldog was pretty decent, and the things on the top that look like wood shavings are in fact “grilled and crispy onions" sitting right on top of the raw onions.


There was also deep fried and breaded haggis with tandoori ketchup (fusion cuisine, we got it!).  It looked like this and was “interesting” though I don’t think it would satisfy many true haggis fans:


Need I say that Japanese food didn’t feature in my family’s cuisine, or anybody else’s at the time I was growing up in Sheffield.   Just a few years back, as my Japanophilia was taking hold, I tried to find a Japanese eatery in Sheffield and could only locate one, which from the reviews sounded very dodgy indeed, so I didn’t eat there.  But now Sheffield has a significant Asian population, not many of them Japanese I’d have thought, but even so these days you can find 15 or more Japanese restaurants in town.

We settled for the Mr Miyagi Revolving Sushi Bar, again on Division Street, just a pie or gyoza’s throw from Pieminister.  Of course like many other restaurants that describe themselves as revolving, the restaurant itself doesn’t rotate, but there’s a circulating conveyor belt that delivers the food.  In this case the empty belt continued to move at eye level, even as the food came via a waitress.  



Above is a Classic Sashimi Set, and two Oyster sashimi – which were as good as you could get most places, and more than you could once possibly have hoped for in Sheffield or within a few thousand miles of it.