19 June 2009

Dine Hard

It's been quite a week on the food front. After the light(ish) delights of the Tricolore, the week kicked off in boozy fashion at Planet Hollywood.

While I wouldn't have declared PH my greatest dining experience ever, the place has a lot of good memories for me. It was also the sort of place that, actually, was way better than you thought it was going to be.

Sadly, that was a while back and, despite the MPW input, in recent years the slump seemed to have set in. My last visit - perhaps five years back - was a night of blandness, grey deep frozen burgers and overpriced beers. However, aware that the chain was reducing the emphasis on movie memorabilia and focusing more on the food - the Vegas branch, for example, now includes a very well received steak house - and knowing that they're very capable of surprises, I popped along to the new location to test it out.

To give them some credit, it is early days. That might explain the typos on the menu - including one promising a particularly alcoholic cocktail is a "true taste of heave on earth" - the slightly slow bar service and a couple of other issues. The biggest complaint though? Why offer to cook my burger how I want it and then serve it well done? The burger itself wasn't bad at all, although the bread wasn't everything it could be. Chips were okay (even if they did come from a packet) and the chicken wings were excellent. Sadly the blackend shrimp, the first dish that years before had made me think "oh it's not just a theme restaurant", was under spiced and mushy.

Being snobby, we also wanted to see more bananas in the shared banana split, less of the spray whipped cream and a bit more creativity in the trimmings: a good fudge sauce, for example, or some salted butterscotch. Mind you, the chocolate ice cream was pretty darn good, some of the cocktails were very enjoyable - although at least two should never have seen the light of day - and the huge birthday parties that were in seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely.

Clearly, with 30 branches worldwide, and Robert Earl having the sort of bank balance that, if it was mine, I'd check daily just to make me giggle, such "flaws" won't affect the crowds. It is what it is. It's just that for a tiny bit of effort - proper chips, a grill chef who knows what "medium" looks like, some improved ingredients - PH could lift itself out of the mainstream.

14 June 2009

Magic Tricolore

After the moderate excesses of lunch and with Mrs L finally speaking to me again - "Scallops? Champagne? I thought you were just going for a burger!" - supper needed to be a light and vibrant affair.

Happily, a quick detour to the old employers, Neal's Yard Dairy, had resulted in a lovely Pugliese loaf and an assortment of cheese finding its way home: a two-year old Coolea of astonishing depth, a lump of Crozier Blue tasting better than I've EVER tasted it, and a Tunworth that, while not at its pungent peak, is creamy and smooth an
d pleasantly cabbagey. And then, on the way out, I remembered the Beefsteak tomatoes that have been catching some rays on the windowsill, the thriving basil plant and an avocado that should be touching perfection... So I bought some beautiful mozzarella and the results - plus black pepper, sea salt and Mehmet's beautiful olive oil - were perfect summer supper


13 June 2009

Not Playing Silly Burgers

As you may be aware, me and burgers have not been good bedfellows of late. Frankly, I'd go so far as to say I'm doomed when it comes to the joys of a fine burger. After four bookings and four attempts to hit Hawksmoor, I still haven't sampled their bonemarrow-rich version. It took me four visits to the Coach & Horses before I got my laughing gear around one of Henry's excellent versions of this staple dish. And after two or three postponed lunches with Iqbal at Roast, I was starting to think I'd never sample Lawrence Keogh's spin on meat in a bun.

Worse, in the meantime, the one burger I had managed was from the Ultimate Burger Company or Ultimate Burger Kitchen or the Hell Yes, We've Got Good Burgers Conglomerate or whatever the fuck the GBK-wannabes are calling themselves these days. Whatever it was called - a Fine, Ultimate or Gourmet burger - it was surely done so in an ironic manner. It wasn't the worst thing I've ever eaten but it was very, very poor.

So, with this irony in mind, I wasn't going to settle at Roast today until the burger was cooked, steaming and on a plate in front of me. After a starter of scallops - fat, fresh and dotted with garlic, chives and hazelnuts and served on a puree of Jersualem artichokes
- and an interim course of smoked black pudding (every bit as good as it sounds),

and following a quite stunning bottle of Roast's own English wine from Chapel Down - think Sauvignon Blanc freshness, Viognier-esque fruitiness with a finish of elderflower - it was time.

Was it worth the weeks of waiting? Do bears bear? Do bees bee? It's glorious: 10oz of Welsh Black beef, Ogleshield cheese (see Hawksmoor, THAT's how you spell it), a bun that absorbs the juices without disintegrating, a couple of rashers of fine bacon... I'm stuffed to the gills but my mouth's watering at the thought of another. It's accompanied by a sweet little frying basket of really good, golden, crispy chips. And, unlike Hawksmoor - as pointed out by The Boy Done Food - it's served by people who are happy to bring you food rather than people who apparently begrudge your very existence. It's yours for £12 (£2 extra for the bacon) from the bar menu or the Weekend Brunch menu. I'd heartily suggest you try it.

12 June 2009

I Did It My Hue..

My previous experience of Vietnamese food was limited to Pho, the well received chain dotted around Central London. Judging by last night's experience, however, I've got to say Pho is really rather dull. Is it just me? Did I miss the point? Or is that the authentic experience and Khoai Cafe the place doing the crowd-pleasing anglicised thing?

Working from home, my day is kickstarted by running Mrs L to the station. It means she can travel from a station further up on the Northern Line and improve
her odds of getting a seat, and the 10-15 minute round trip makes me feel like I've driven to work. I sometimes even stop to buy a coffee and recreate the whole commuting experience...

Anyway, a while back I noticed that we had a Vietnamese restaurant lurking just up from the Arts Depot in Finchley, Khoai Cafe. "Might be worth a try," I thought, and filed it away for future reference. Our first attempt to visit was a Monday... where we quickly discovered that they don't open on Mondays. Never mind, we found a decent local pizza and enjoyed the stroll. Last night though, after 48 hours of RMT enforced domesticity, we needed to stretch the legs so headed back down there. An hour later, sinuses cleared by some bird's eye chillis and shirt inevitably splattered with soup, we wandered back, content and energised by some seriously good food.

Next time, we probably won't bother with the Cha Gib (spring rolls), although they were delicious. It's just the Pho and the Bun Hue were so good, we really didn't need the extra course. We both opted for the special topping: instead of a choice of beef, chicken, tofu or prawns, you get the lot, plus an amazing grilled fishcake. It's a feast in a bowl. The spillage improved when I started decanting the noodles to a smaller bowl and scooping them, Japanese style, straight to the mouth rather than the lengthy, shirt-destroying slurp. Mind you, that's also when I was caught out by my over-eager sprinkling of the bird's eyes. But hey, it improved the snoring apparently, so it was worth the small amount of eye-watering I went through. The Vietnamese beer - particularly the slightly sweet Saigon - helped ease the burn too.

Best of all though? The Goi Xoai Xanh (green mango salad). Sweet, sour, soft, crispy... So many contrasts that pressed so many buttons. It's dangerous to know that it's just up the road. I suspect I may be taking lunch hours slightly more regularly when the cashflow improves...

11 June 2009

All Things Come Tapas

It's been a long week. That's partly due to the Tube strike - Bob Crowe I hold you entirely responsible for my missed dining opportunities - partly due to having a real desk clearer of a time but mostly down to the effects of way too much sherry on Monday night.

There are very few reasons to go out and drink and eat and carouse on a Monday but, as reasons go, a Dine With Dos Hermanos event has to be one of the best. After the highly successful night at Vinoteca a few months ago, I was intrigued to see whether Messrs Majumdar could better that achievement. They did. That's partly due to the sort of people they attract - and how nice to finally meet the people behind Food Stories, Cheese and Biscuits and Eat Like A Girl, not to mention Henrietta of the Rare Tea Company and Jay Rayner himself - but, I suspect, mostly due to the location, Casa Brindisa, and the chance to consume my bodyweight in ham, sherry, smoked anchovies and an Iberico pork fillet that I may see again in my dreams.

Simon has already gone into fabulous detail about what we consumed, so I won't repeat all of that. Instead, I'll just offer a further pat on the back (x 2) for a cracking evening. And make a mental note that four glasses of PX is good if it's Sunday afternoon on a sofa, and bad if it's Monday evening and South Kensington...

9 June 2009

Quick Lunch with Slow Food

Yesterday was a very good food day. It was almost a very, very good food but, perhaps happily in terms of waistline, the proposed brunch meeting got brought forward to Sunday evening drinks. Still, lunch followed by Dinner with Dos Hermanos was still a pretty damn impressive effort.

I'll get to the latest Majumdar Spectacular in a day or two (thanks to Bob Crowe being an insufferable wanker of the highest and wankiest order, I can't go anywhere by tube for 48 hours so I might as well catch up on blogging), but just a quick note - ironically - about lunch.

I'd been invited out by Catherine Gazzoli, the new(ish) CEO of Slow Food. As an organisation, Slow Food has come in for a kicking in recent years and, frankly, it's probably justified. With Catherine, a no-nonsense New Yorker, on board, you get the feeling all the kicking is now coming from within. If you've been wondering, like many, just what Slow Food is all about, expect a lot of information and changes in the coming months...

Anyway, we rattled through a great lunch deal at Moti Mahal yesterday and crammed a lot of food, chat and information into a very enjoyable hour. With the knowledge of the meat feast to come, I resisted the urge to order the chicken and instead went for the spiced vegetable dumplings in a yoghurt and saffron sauce. Sounds like a gentle, korma-style affiar, doesn't it? It wasn't. The sauce was rich, thick and packed deceptive fire. A fine naan, some not so great potatoes and decent cauliflower cakes bolstered the meal and it all came to a princely £12 a head. If they switched the spuds for a bowl of rice, this would be as good a swift lunch deal as you can find in Covent Garden.

4 June 2009

And It Was All Yellow...

One day. One day it WILL happen. Oh yes. It will. One day, I will make my occasional pilgrimage to the Hammersmith Cafe and NOT have the Yellow Curry.

Right. History. Back in the day, in my first "proper" media job at the late, lamented Footloose Magazine (sniff, sob), we were based in a little office overlo
oking King Street. And for lunch, I'd wander up and down the road to the assorted snacky places between the Tube and Dimes Place. While there were a lot of predictable chains, it's not actually a bad stretch for food (and getting better all the time) and so lunches were generally alright.

Somehow, though, I missed the Hammersmith Cafe. Admittedly, if you just peered up little side street it's on, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was a humble greasy spoon. And, indeed, it is. As a greasy spoon, it's actually pretty good but the real reason for a visit is the Thai food. In the evening, it opens as a BYOB Thai restaurant but at lunchtimes, they offer(ed) a more limited range of dishes and a few daily specials.

I only discovered this when Alex, now a good mate, joined the company. He got very excited one Thursday. and when asked why explained it was Yellow Curry Soup Day. And that, you see, was the start of an ongoing love affair with cheap and cheerful Thai food.

Back then, it was £3.50 for a main course. The Yellow Curry Soup was the Thursday special - and the spoiler of many a shirt as me, noodles and Yellow Curry do not mix. But it was worth the laundry bills. Even better, Chicken Yellow Curry was one of the fou
r or five regular dishes they offered and it didn't take long until I was an addict.

These days, it's a a bit of a trek to the Hammersmith Cafe but it's worth the com
mute and it's also a good excuse to grab lunch with my editor at the Irish Post. The prices have gone up - it's now about a fiver for a main course - but the menu has been extended, the Yellow Curry Soup is now available to stain shirts five days a week and they've even started doing starters like these gorgeous pork and prawn dumplings.

That little lot set me back about three quid.

And then there's the Yellow Curry soup, of course...

Admittedly I didn't order that. I've never mastered the art of eating it (like Mrs L says, for someone who eats out for a living, I'm not very good at it) so instead I was going to try one of the excellent stir fries. Or the special of the day with chicken and basil and chilli. Or maybe a Red Curry. And, of course, I had the Chicken Yellow Curry. Fiery, deep, rich... oh it's just gorgeous and a trip down memory lane to the first job I adored. It's not the prettiest of dishes so no photo. But if you're ever in that neck of West London, I doubt you'll spend a better fiver this year.

2 June 2009

I Blog Therefore I...

Without wanting to start a great existential debate, a possible forthcoming (let's say) scenario has got me thinking about the big blogging question. And that, of course, is why do I do it?

I'd like to think my intentions are vaguely pure, and that it's a chance for me to ramble away on subjects dear to my heart - well, subjects that are coating my heart in a fine layer of very expensive fat, more accurately - and talk about things that otherwise I don't get to write about. I'd also like to think that it's about the pleasure of writing. It's strange to think that one of my hobbies is therefore the same as my job, but maybe that makes me lucky?

The blog is also a calling card, of course. It's so much easier guiding people here to prove I can string a sentence together and have a more than moderate grasp of punctuation rather than assembling a load of links or bits of paper. But I think that's it. I'm not after a TV deal (hell, the camera adds 10lbs which must make me look like Cartman in the Weightgain 4000 episode), I can't see the publishers queuing up - I don't have a particular area of expertise anyway - and I'm not a frustrated journalist. Maybe, then, it's more of an occasional diary?

Or maybe, as my friend Anne so accurately described Twitter, it's "only so much up your own arse wankdom". I really don't know but if anyone has any thoughts as to the purpose of blogging, I'd be delighted to hear them...