Tuesday, 24 May 2016

"Wellness" and food

I'll cut to the chase: for years, my life has been disrupted by anxiety problems. This is nothing new to friends and family and it's also something I have few qualms in talking about. It's something I've grown to accept as part of being me. One half of my family's lineage back to my grandfather has suffered at some point in some form. I console myself knowing that it's in my DNA and Natural Born Worriers tend to be good people.

Plenty of opinion has been expressed of late on Twitter about the merits or otherwise of "wellness" and food. However, so much of it seems to be centred around physical health. I wanted to put a different slant on and how I use food for 'wellness': mental wellness.

A few Saturdays ago, I woke up in a fug of anxiety and pretty much from the word go knew that this was a "bad day". A day to where not getting into a downward spiral would be a challenge. A day to get out, do something - anything - to help the day improve. I'd planned a trip to A Casa Mia, a pizza place in Herne Bay that holds the UK's only accreditation from the Naples Pizza Association. I wasn't going to let myself give in and stay at home.

The 'verace' bufalina pizza at A Casa Mia is a thing to behold. Watching the pizzaiolo press out the pizza dough, add the very straightforward toppings of uncooked tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil, sitting it in the proper wood-fired oven for all of 30 seconds, taking it out, adding the mozzarella midway through cooking so it doesn't melt into milky mush that befalls most Neapolitan attempts at pizzas, putting it back in the oven for another 30 seconds, topping it with more fresh basil and oil, and sitting eating this very simple work of art - I remember that I was supposed to be feeling anxious that day.

You see, food has this effect on me. It  soothes, it brings me into the now, not something next week or next month that was the focus of my anxiety. Food is, I suppose, therapy. Wandering round a new part of London or East Kent to visit a market. Buying some ingredients for a new dish I'd not tried making before. Sitting at the bar and watching the kitchen at it at absolute full tilt. It's all good. And - oh! cooking! Complete calm. My ultimate quiet being the slow, steady ritual of making a ragu and the steps needed to get it up to scratch. And of course, eating.

Fire away and rubbish the "wellness" aspect of food fads from the physical standpoint. But if, like me, your goal of "wellness" is making yourself feel more becalmed, more on an even keel, then whether it's a hunting down that little canteen in Croydon that allegedly does great Hainanese Chicken Rice, finding that back-street hole in the wall in Chinatown that sells fresh noodles or sous-viding a whole chicken (oh yes, this is on my list) then tuck in. You have a kindred spirit here.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

David Brown Delicatessen, Whitstable

I'm always likening food to music. Byron are Radiohead: went massive but remained cool. McDonald's are STEPS: a dirty secret when drunk. Gourmet Burger Kitchen are Coldplay: an interesting proposition first up but now a bit naff and overtaken by others. You get the drift - I hope. During my moshing years of the 1990s, Supergrass were the band I wanted to be in. Quite cool and always looked like they were having fun. By that line of thinking, David Brown Delicatessen in Whitstable are Supergrass. It's the sort of place, not that I would ever open a place, that I'd want to be involved in.

I'm trying to find a little pad in Whitstable to unwind, and more often than not I've ended up in here. The formula is very simple. A delicatessen flush with antipasti, breads, pizzas and cured meats from Brindisa on the left hand side and a small cafe-bar on the right hand side that when it's going at full pelt probably caters for 15-20 people I'd guess.

On several visits I've had a robust, smoky chickpea and chorizo stew, a chicken, morels and spinach stew (see below) that had bags of flavour: both mopped up with their homemade focaccia, a very simple roasted chicken breast with a few saute potatoes and whizz-bang romesco sauce that I completely forgot to get the recipe, an earthy mushroom soup with the funk of truffle oil. I've taken a train-picnic of a simple square of their focaccia into which I stuffed probably enough salami to make a cardiologist lower his glasses slightly and give you a withering look. The one common denominator is how straightforward and well cooked EVERYTHING I've had there has been.

Whenever I've been in there, the staff and indeed the chefs that I've happened to meet in there - both current and former - that prop up the bar with a coffee or a wine all look like they enjoy themselves there as an employee and a punter. A grand sign. A merry band of people enjoying themselves. That Supergrass likeness again...

This place sits amongst some great restaurants in Whitstable: Wheelers - well everyone knows about Wheelers, Samphire and its changing, clever menu, my best meal ever down the road at the Sportsman, the spectacular fish and chips at VC Jones (all cooked in beef dripping, nod to that cardiologist again) and great, robust generous plates of food at Clare Brown at the Oxford. But there's nothing better than a regular fall-back: in London it's the Anchor and Hope and if I do, please pray for me, finally find a place in Whitstable - then this will be mine here.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

The Hare and Billet, Blackheath

It was probably fair to say I'd given up on Blackheath as a 'dining destination', as tour guides would say. True, there are one or two places worth a go once in a while: Laicram gives you what feels at least like an authentic Thai, Buenos Aires has a fair steak or homemade chorizo, Zero Degrees remains an unfalteringly steady venue especially for pizzas and Chapters offers a higher-end dining option. It's not all chains that seem to be able to stomach the high rent in the area (100k a year for the Venice/Mountain View site, anyone?) which is heartening. I shouldn't be too down on the place having lived here for 7 years.

However - the idea of what you'd call a 'craft beer pub' in Blackheath? Oh no. No chance. Craft beer and associated pubs to my mind still seems quite entrenched in East London. Blackheath, even at the stretch of the most ripe imagination, will never be East London or indeed hip and overrun with bearded men gasping for a Camden Hells. Brockley, maybe. Blackheath: no. The best you'll get in Blackheath is the wonderfully perfect pub's pub, the Dacre Arms, and Lord may this survive.

Therefore a craft beer pub with really strong food was really pushing the boundaries of the imagination. Joy of joys then when a mixture of both plonked itself on Blackheath's doorstep in the shape of a refurbished Hare and Billet in February of this year. A bar twenty-strong with pumps and taps? Sorry, did I hear this correctly? A bar menu that dares to challenge Blackheath with the word gremolata on its menu and negroni on its cocktail list? Pull the other one.

Several 'booze-only' visits have been rewarded with rapidly changing list of pumps: once-weekly according to a member of the bar staff. Whitstable Brewery, London Fields Brewery, Truman Brewery and Kernel Brewery to name but four. A weissbier was on tap along with a dutch-style "Wit" beer and also on one trip, the most dangerous lager ever: Curious Lager from the Chapel Down people in Tenterden. Plastic glasses, which will make some spit I'm sure, are available for drinking on grass over the road for an informal al-fresco option. See below for a snapshot of the beer list on one visit and make your own mind up:

The other surprised - you've guessed it - is the quality of the food. A plate of confit duck was lentils really had little in it to find fault. Crisp skin, not at all flaccid, along with well-seasoned lentils, carrots and a roasted shallot near the point of collapse - which is a good thing, of course. This strikes me as quality pub food that recalls the likes of benchmark food pubs The Anchor and Hope and The Eagle. Salt cod, pork belly, foie gras, cuttlefish and stuffed courgettes give you the sort of level they're aiming for here. A friend also reported a generous, fully-flavoured chicken and ham pie for 2-3 to share (echoes of the Anchor and Hope again).

If there's one stalling point that will divide - as it already has done on the Blackheath Bugle blog for example - it's the prices. Bitters come in at £3.50-£4.00, some of the ales on tap hit as high as £6 a pint and the food is typically around £15 a main, £7 for starters in a town where punters are probably more used to £10/£5. However the reality of the situation is that Blackheath has more than enough of a captive audience to want to pay these prices in return for good quality food and a diverse range of booze - including myself. 

Blackheath has an absolute bloody gem here.

Monday, 31 December 2012

Obligatory end-of-year lists

Lists are everywhere. In the spirit of Hornby, the Christmas down-time gave me a chance to think of what I noticed from last year. It's pretty much all positives as it's nice to positive when looking back over a year and it's more fun to write positively.

1) The Cursed Restaurant, Chinatown.
There is a site next to De Hems which had four different restaurants this year. It's haunted or cursed or is very lacking in rabbits' feet. In two of its incarnations I had two lovely meals. The first time was the in its Manchurian Legends guise: wonderful sweet and sour delicately battered pork loin and oozing stewed pork belly. The 2nd time around a very simple braised beef brisket noodle soup for a stupid £5.80, which made me want to try much more of the menu. It shut 2 weeks later and is now rebranded Leong's Legends Inn which appears, from the menu at least to be a carbon copy of the restaurant opposite.

2) Ginstock
It all worked out perfectly. One of those joyous breaks in the summer weather where the sun finally shone to make up not only for miserable summer but also for Ribstock's drenching and we all drank far too much gin, served every which way and loose. It got busy: too busy. People complained in person and on twitter and the complainers who left missed rivers of booze flowing for the rest of us. Bad luck! £1 negronis from the Polpo team? Oh alright then - I'll have five. I really hope that this sort of event proves viable and profitable for the organisers to continue with these as the 'stocks so far have been have all proved remarkable value. When you get good weather into the mix it's a no-brainer. And no, I was too much of a nonce to try Rumstock the morning after.

3) The Beer House, Charing Cross Station
A pub? In a station? I officially declare that 2012 was the year of Pubs in Stations. The Parcel Yard in Kings Cross was a delight. This one in Charing Cross Station with its huge array of craft beers (and Heineken for the unsteady on their feet) doesn't necessarily make it a "go to" venue but definitely makes it a "Oh I'll get the later train then" venue - and also makes it my most-visited watering  hole in 2012. Having said that, I have deliberately taken two people here this year because it's stocked to the rafters with all manner of beer from around the world. The soundtrack is often quite good here, too. A hugely pleasant surprise given the previous pub in that location was somewhere you'd probably need chainmail to enter to be on the safe side. They have also apparently opened in Paddington and Waterloo. Good on them.

4) Burgers and More Burgers
I refuse to declare that 2012 was the "Year of the burger". I'm sure someone else has. Using the Young and Foodish Top 10 from 2011 as a guide, I tried pretty much all in the Top 10 with a group of friends and above all, it made me realise that burgers come in myriad forms but the simplest are seemingly the best. With that I mind I tip a meaty hat to guys at Tommi's Burger Joint. Very reasonably priced, bursting with flavour and served by friendly people. No low-lighting and grease everywhere, no immaculate presentation in a slightly stifled pub dining room atmosphere, just a simple, meaty, tasty, well-priced burger served by charming staff - at around two thirds of the price of the former and about one-third the price of the latter. And it is (for the time being) BYO. Handy.

5) Spuntino
Remember that place?! Really cool when it opened. Everyone loved it! And likely everyone got sidetracked by burgers and ramen and other openings. It's still really great. Really great. I had one of my favourite meals this year here. House pickles here would be on another "Top X" list somewhere for favourite dishes in London. The chef was sat there whilst I ate and was kind enough to share a printout of all the pickle recipes. How is that for service? Makes you want to come back time and again. Fried chicken, house slaw, sliders. Some of it may coat the arteries, but it also warms the soul.

Happy New Year.

Saturday, 8 December 2012


Given that the world (OK, London) has gone ramen-mental, this recipe for stock took my eye on Felicity Cloake's article on ramen in the Guardian. It was actually posted in the comments page by someone called "Sparebulb". Sparebulb, thank you. I think I'll give this a try.
"...what I learned was to make a great stock you should avoid vegetables since they take more away than they contribute.
If money is no object then I use 1KG (approx.) of chicken wings for every litre of finished stock, essentially a supermarket pack. Since stock is always better made in bulk (just because of the time it takes to make a reduced clarified stock) you could order a 25KG box of chicken wings from a butcher or wholesaler, they will be cheaper than buying the equivalent weight from a supermarket- they will probably come frozen or have previously been frozen.
Now, while buying 25KG of chicken wings seems very expensive, you now have a lot of chicken wing tips that serve no real purpose, in fact you could argue the only bit of a chicken wing is the ‘mini-drumstick’ part- save them for the first BBQ of the season, they will be fine in the freezer and can be prepared at the same time- the marinade won’t work below 6C but you just bring them up to room temperature and it will kick in. You might even add them to the finished ‘ramen’ if you wish.
Anyway, back to the stock, for every litre of stock, in addition to the chicken, you want an inch of ginger, a supermarket bunch of spring onions and about a tablespoon of chopped garlic. The garlic (and the other vegetables) is all optional, but you will get the general style this way. I have long since dispensed with chopping garlic and ginger and use frozen cubes available in many supermarkets and ethnic stores- they are ice cube sized so you just use one of each. The spring onions I just chop into thirds (remove blue rubber band first).
The rest is simple stock making, but for added value I will run past that. The vegetables do their work quite fast, so they can be removed early on, based on a few litres of stock this will be about one hour, the finished stock will be strained after 2 hours. Always start with 150% of water for the finished stock (at the two hour point, see below you can reduce that further later). When it comes to straining the stock, you obviously need something to contain it, a colander to contain the now cooked to death chicken bits only fit for the bin. You also need muslin, not a Muslim, although an extra pair of hands is useful and food can build bridges between communities. You probably haven’t got muslin, buy one of those bandages used for supporting broken arms, they are sterile and all pharmacies sell them.
Finally refrigerate the stock, at this time of year, and if you have masses of finished stock, use one of those 25 litre plastic containers that Wilkinson’s sell for home brewers and stick it outside- the lid will protect it and we are looking at overnight temperatures that are probably around freezing. Any sediment will drop to the bottom overnight and then you can gently simmer the stock down to about a third of its original volume."

Monday, 10 September 2012

A Taste of Noma at Claridges

Three months off work on gardening leave comes to an end. My last day of being a man what lunches. And why not end it all off by spending £300+ in the space of about two-and-a-half hours. Insert high-class prostitute comparison here. I'll admit here to being not particularly too bothered with "fane daning". Starchy tablecloths. The table de-crumber applied always by the most unsmiling member of the waiting staff. Just the bloody table de-crumber full-stop. The feeling you're being watched; monitored, even. Monitored for bad knife skills. But it was my last "working" day of 3 months off so why not spunk it up the wall.

Ushered into the main room at Claridges it was immediately obvious that two things were present. Firstly, a really nice buzz, flecked with excitement. Secondly, fuckloads of CASH. Lakshmi Mittal was centre stage on a table of ten people with plenty of staff and - latterly - Rene Redzepi cooing at them. Half of my table were also cooing at Mittal from a distance. Money talks?

The food arrived and first up were some "snacks". A selection of foraged plants with edible soil were very...planty? The soil was gritty and honestly, not particularly nice to eat. Then came the ants. The ants! Live ants desperately trying to escape from creme fraiche on lettuce. I'd read about these on twitter and opinion was divided, including my 2nd least favourite word, meh. It sits behind nom, in case you're even remotely interested. The ants tasted of lemongrass. There we are. I'm not even going to put a photo up. You know the score. Ants.

Then the real dishes came out. A raspberry soupy thing in a teacup was pleasant. I that all I can muster on the subject? I guess so. It was very pretty, though:

Better was the caviar and clotted cream alongside it that was served with Claridges own scones. Savoury delight. Try not to use umamj here, Richard. I Next up was an oyster poached in buttermilk for a short while. I've tried oysters twice. Both times I daren't chew. Both times I just tasted the vinegar and shallots with which I washed them down. I'm not going to bollock on about loving oysters and then only ever swallow them without chewing, so I tried chewing. Nope, I still don't like oysters and their mineralness. Not even when Rene tries to tease me into liking them.

Things then took off. The best sourdough bread - heck the best bread I've probably ever had was served with very light almost cream-like butter and a punchy goat's butter. I'd jested to my host that I didn't like goats cheese before the meal and he took it literally; a pungent rapeseed oil was brought out for me. Bless. Beef tartare, which we ate with our hands and came with a wipe of tarragon was beautiful and perfectly seasoned and gave a first glimpse into why Rene bloky is popular.

A lump - yes a lump - of celeriac was next, poached in goat's butter and served with a slick of truffle sauce and was nice for two mouthfuls. But after the 4th and all the way to the 8th it became overkill, but I'm not helped by thinking that truffle reminds of stale sweat. Still, things were end on a high. The 48-hour cooked neck of lamb served in hay and with a pea broth (that was suggested should be mixed with creme fraiche when we'd finished the excellent spring vegetables in it) was tremendous. 

Several of the table thought it was the best lamb they'd tasted. I wasn't arguing and it got me thinking about working out how to set my oven to 75c to invest in some serious slow-cooking at weekends. All weekend. I couldn't help thinking "expensive meal....cheap cut of meat", but maybe I'm just a tight-arse who wants value from his sizeable outlay. A cheery bunch of elderly gentlemen on the adjacent table were dismantling the lamb with their hands on the next table and knawing on the neck-bone. Maybe this sort of thing happens every day at high-end restaurants. Does it?

Not having a sweet-tooth, the dinner surprisingly peaked at dessert. Walnut ice-cream came topped with frozen dust-like cream and frozen berries. I'm assuming here that someone was having fun with some dry ice. It worked, oh how it worked. Nothing on the plate was too tart or too sweet, a glorious gentle dish. Apparently it comes from the menu in Denmark: no wonder they wanted to show it off.

Would I do it again? Probably. Was it mind-blowing? Nope. Were there some really memorable dishes? I reckon so. Did you not enjoy some aspects? Yep. Oddly enough, the one thing I'll take with me was the hum in the room and the cheery, chatty staff that Claridges offered up, both of which helped to dispel my disinterest of high-end eating out - at least for the afternoon.

When I walked out, a group of people were cooing over Rene Redzepi and asking him to sign all manner of things. I briskly walked over, offered him my hand and simply said "Thank you". He looked touched and held his heart. I suspect I'll be doing similar when I dare to look at my bank account. 

Scores on the doors, Miss Ford: somewhere between 6 and 7.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Le Gia, Deptford

It seems as though the Kingsland/Dalston type area of London is the place to be for Vietnamese food. I'm sure at one time - not too far in the distant future - that Kingsland and Dalston were quite edgy, before it got inhabited with cool people with beards, knitted jumpers and skinny-fit jeans. I am getting old because I find this funny.

Deptford and environs however seem to remain edgy. Downright rough, in my not particularly finely-honed opinion. On the other hand, it does seem to have a coterie of Vietnamese places. A trip to Panda Panda last month threw up a half-decent banh mi and directly over the road from this place is a large whitewashed building that houses Le Gia. I've been twice now.

First time I had some pretty decent fresh rolls and this second visit threw up a very decent pho. On both occasions I was the only person in there for lunch. Eerie. Especially when the only thing accompanying me was a) the waiter (on both times courteous and friendly, for what it's worth) but b) seemingly the Stock, Aitken and Waterman equivalent of Vietnamese pop - on karaoke for me to sing along to. If I could pronounce the words.

Anyhow - that pho. It came with a light stock, much lighter in colour than the one I had further up the DLR at Cafe East that stands as my benchmark in pho (in my limited experience) in London:

Pho Tai, Lê Gia, Deptford

Generous amounts of beef - that in its journey from the dumb waiter down to my table had already gone from rare (if it indeed started off as rare) to cooked, but had a good flavour nonetheless. The stock itself was very savoury - maybe a slightly heavy hand on the cinnamon, but not enough to make it unlikeable and it was duly supped up. I also quite liked the noodles that came with it that were al dente (or Vietnamese equivalent) and not at all mushy.

Seeing as it's not too much of a faff of a detour to head there en route to London, I'll be back - but maybe I need to try the other places in the neighbourhood. 7.