Friday 13 December 2013

Sparky’s Roadside Barbecue, 204 NE 1st St, Miami, FL 33131

I’m going to be spending a lot of time in Miami next year and one thing that is really important to me is to find an amazing BBQ restaurant, somewhere I can rely on 100% of the time, somewhere where I can eat at least once a week. I found a local place called Jimmy’s BBQ, which was fine; but that was all that it was: fine. I was really disappointed by this so did a little bit of Google research. Then I found Sparky’s…

This place is listed in the top 2% of restaurants in Miami, of which there are 3,535! It is a short ride away on the Miami Metro Mover, a free-to-ride light rail system with a station that is directly opposite Sparky’s, a very unassuming looking place that you probably wouldn’t give a second look to if you didn’t know it was there.

Inside is more of the same: unassuming, but with a great character and an eclectic mix of customers; suited-and-booted city boys, local workmen and cops. In my experience, any eatery in the USA which attracts cops is worth a try, given that they mostly spend their days driving around looking for the next bite to eat. We sat down and ordered from the super-friendly staff.

I had one of the combo meals: pulled pork, brisket and two sides for $14.75. This was easily amongst the best pulled pork I’ve ever eaten; it was full of flavour and melted in the mouth. The brisket was just as good, much more thinly sliced than I had experienced before, all the better for it. The brisket was beautifully marbled which gave it a fantastic flavour. The sides were both good too, which were fries and coleslaw.

Sparky’s makes its own BBQ sauces, many flavours of them. The classic BBQ sauce is probably the best but all are tasty. We were offered some spicy sauce by one of the staff and whilst these were American spicy (i.e. not very spicy at all) they were incredibly tasty. Alternating between the various sauces available really elevated this dish further still, it just kept on giving.

This was easily enough food for me; however, I had a sudden realisation that I had been in Florida for a week and hadn’t eaten any key lime pie! This was a) quickly rectified and b) a big mistake because I couldn’t move after that.

The combo I ate at Sparky’s Roadside Barbecue is a very deserving SUPER-DISH and somewhere I expect to visit many, many times next year. If a measure of success is how long before you visit a restaurant again, then the fact that we were sitting there less than 24 hours later means it must be very good indeed. Highly recommended.

Saturday 7 December 2013

Jazzing up my taste buds in New Orleans!

I'm lucky in that I get to travel in my job; to the USA, India, Australia and all over Europe. And this week (first the first time) I got to tick one of my genuine 'bucket list' locations : New Orleans, 'the big easy'! This was one of those places that I fell in love with the second I arrived : it was just so cool, and there wasn't nearly as much Katrina damage as I had expected to see so the city appears to be well and truly through the worst of it. We stayed in a hotel on Bourbon Street, right in the thick of it all, and got to visit some very famous and exceptionally good places to eat.

Commander's Palace

This is quite possibly the most famous restaurant in NOLA (New Orleans, Louisiana) and is renowned across the country as the home of great seafood. My starter was a trio of three soups : crab and foie gras (rich and velvety), gumbo (so very, very, very good) and turtle! The latter had to be tried for novelty value and whilst the flavour was good I think it was the naughtiness of eating turtle that made it all the more enjoyable. Main course was rabbit, which was lovely but honestly unremarkable. The side order of crab was better. Dessert was another signature dish : bread and butter pudding soufflé. Divine. Great surroundings, great service and great theatre at the table made for a very enjoyable meal.

Café du Monde

Another 'must-do' is this NOLA stalwart. Great coffee and great beignets (doughnuts covered in icing sugar). Straight from the fryer, these were the perfect way to start the day (two days, following a return visit).

Steamboat Natchez

I have written before about the fact that boat + food = disappointment and this was no exception, although a long way from the worst boat food in the world. However, a good opportunity to taste a bunch of local specialities. My dad has often waxed lyrical about the merits of catfish, and can now add my voice to this. Great. As was the gumbo, but all else average.

G W Fins

Another popular NOLA seafood restaurant, and a SUPER-DISH I will not forget in a hurry! Lobster tail to start, with a mustard mayonnaise dip and a little fondue pot of melted butter. Absolutely divine, a great example of where the sum is greater than the gastronomic parts, this was a to-die-for piece of shellfish! Main course of flounder (stuffed with blue crab and spinach) could only be a disappointment after this starter, as indeed it was. I also liked this place as it is so nearly called Flynn's, so made me think of Tron.

The Central Grocery

Last of all was as good as anything else eaten in NOLA : a muffaletta. Say what? A big-ass sandwich. This was another city tradition and was great fun. Made fresh by a team of three people in the back of the coolest Italian grocery store this side of Naples. Thin slices of different meats (at least salami, ham and turkey) plus two different types of cheese (mozzarella I could recognize) plus a sort of pimped tapenade. It was this latter ingredient that makes this dish distinctive, a very coarse and impossibly tasty tapenade. My best guess at ingredients : olives (obviously), capers, peppers, pickled carrot, pickled gherkin, pickled cauliflower and chilli. Divine, and a great end to some exciting food.

I really enjoyed NOLA and would love to visit again for a little more time. The food was mostly excellent and all was served and presented with aplomb. However, I did manage to spend 4 days in 'the big easy' and not eat a single oyster, crawfish or alligator!

Sunday 1 December 2013

McDonald’s Xmas 2013 menu

Special edition meals at fast food joints are something I look forward to, even though 95% of the time they are just not as good as the standard thing I order. Today we had lunch at McDonald's, so I got to try the festive menu : festive deluxe, chicken celebration and the cheese melt dippers.

‘Tis the season to savour our 100% beef patty with all the trimmings, like bacon, cheese, Batavia lettuce, red onions, honey BBQ glaze and smoky peppered mayo, all in a cheese-topped bun.

Firstly, the festive deluxe, which didn't seem to have any Christmas connection whatsoever. Also, it was entirely awful, with soggy lettuce (I don’t know where Batavia is, but they can’t grow lettuce!) and odd-tasting cheese. I also have no idea why peppered mayo is considered festive? This is definitely something I wouldn't order again.

Treat your taste buds to a crispy golden chicken breast fillet with cheese, red onion rings, Batavia lettuce, smooth festive relish and cool mayo, all within a sesame-topped bun.

Secondly, the chicken celebration, which (although not especially Christmassy either) somehow felt more relevant to the season. Poultry instead of red meat was a good start, and at least the sweet chilli sauce was the right colour for cranberry.

The cheese melt dippers were good, as they generally are when McDonald's drag these out from time to time. I would suggest ignoring the festive tomato dip and just going for regular BBQ as the accompaniment. I don't understand why this mozzarella (which, whilst average, does at least taste like a cheese you recognise) can't be used in other burgers? Other than cost, obviously.

Conclusion? Have a Big Mac. If a Big Mac scores 4/5 on the fast-food-burger-for-less-than-a-fiver scale, then the festive deluxe and chicken celebration score 1/5 and 3/5 respectively. For a 5/5 keep going past McDonald's and pull into Burger King for a Whopper instead.

Friday 29 November 2013

New World, Chinatown, W1D

If you want to enjoy good Chinese you would do well to keep well away from Chinatown. In London that is, as other Chinatown's somehow seem to be somewhat better (Manchester is a great example in the UK). However, for me, there is one shining oasis in a sea of unattractive ducks in steamy restaurant windows.

New World is one of the oldest Chinese restaurants in London, supposedly, and given that the menu hasn't changed for about 50 years I can believe this. It is also one of the very few places in London to still do a trolley dim sum service. We go semi-regularly as a group of friends and a few weeks ago we squeezed in a cheeky visit whilst in Soho for the evening. Some excellent dim sum dishes were selected from the trolley, my favourite being the big pork buns. About 10 dishes were shared between two of us and all were great, except for chicken feet, which I won't be ordering again. No-one should, ever.

OK, so the staff are rude and the restaurant was closed down by the council a few years ago due to a complete lack of hygiene in the kitchen but all that is part of its un-changed, crumbling 1960s charm. In Soho and want a Chinese? Afraid that a Chinatown restaurant will lead to (at best) regular trips to the bathroom? Give New World a go, right by the Chinatown NCP so well placed as part of an afternoon shopping trip.

Go during the day for trolley service dim sum, or during the evening for one of the set meals (No. 5 is my tip) and make sure you have the salt and pepper squid. If you are lucky you'll get a big revolving table, we like to pretend we are there to conduct an illicit business deal of some kind, spinning our offer around the table (like in the first scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom).

Monday 25 November 2013

Giraffe, Watford (and 48 other locations in the UK)

I’ve visited Giraffe before, at Lakeside, at least five years ago. It was rubbish. So I didn’t go back.

The other day I visited the big, shiny, new Tesco at Watford, where they have a big, shiny, new Giraffe. Tesco acquired the restaurant brand in March this year so that they could fill some of the under-utilised space in larger stores. Smart idea actually, the same applying to the Harris + Hoole coffee shop that Tesco acquired a (non-controlling) stake in.

I was really interested to try Giraffe again so ordered something just right : familiar yet somehow a signature special. I chose the kimchi burger. I’m a big fan of Korean food so kimchi is something I’m really keen on. Burgers I’m keen on too, obviously! This was Westernised kimchi but made a great burger, the slaw was fresh and crunchy if not spicy. For a chain restaurant, this was a decent burger, small perhaps but tasty. The fries were also good and dipped in the BBQ sauce they were great.

So, an enjoyable experience and a good lunch for £9.95. Giraffe is being added to that discreet list that includes Nando’s, Wagamama and Pizza Express as the top end, acceptable face of fast (or semi-fast) food.

Thompson @ Darcy’s, St. Albans (twice in two days)

Just like buses, you wait for ages before trying a new restaurant and two turn up at once. Except they are both the same restaurant and they aren’t going anywhere, so more like a bus garage really. Dropping this analogy now. Last week I was entertaining overseas visitors (from Spain and USA respectively) and traditional British fare was the name of the game on both occasions, coincidentally we ended up going to the same place on consecutive nights (neither of which I booked).

This is a solid, renowned restaurant in St. Albans that has just been taken over by a chef named Phil Thompson, who you will not have heard of; however you may have heard of his previous restaurant, Auberge du Lac at Brockett Hall. Here he held a Michelin star and is no doubt hoping to replicate this fine-dining success at Darcy’s.

To start with on the first visit I had the boudin of confit duck leg with smoked duck salad. This was a standout dish for me, I love duck (especially smoked) and this was a divine starter. This was accompanied by a celeriac remoulade and pistachio, equally divine. This is one of those dished that you really want to cut a piece off of so that you can let a friend try it; although I would obviously never, ever do that. A SUPER-DISH for the duck.

Main course was the ubiquitous and can-always-be-relied-upon-to-be-good pork belly. Specifically, a belly of Dingley Dell pork with red wine braised cheek. It was very nice but not at the top of the pork belly score sheet. The cheek was divine, very rich in the thick red wine sauce. The accompanying cauliflower cheese was OK, as was the crackling.

We didn’t make it to dessert. Well, mentally I did and was looking forward to it, but others were tired so we had to cut things short. Fast forward to day two…

I was first to arrive so was phoned by colleagues and asked to order a selection of starters, which I did. There were eight of us eating and seven separate starter dishes so I ordered one of each plus an extra portion of the duck from day one. In a way, this was sort of like ‘X Factor’ or ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ where one dish has been voted through to the next live show, whereas the others didn’t make it to boot camp.

Main course this time was pan roast fillet of sea bream with a thyme confit and savoy cabbage. I’m a big fan of sea bream and this was a lovely dish. However, I have some major beef with this fish dish : after I had polished it off I remembered that it was supposed to be served with a razor clam, which was conspicuous by its absence. I might not have realised if it hadn’t been for the fact that a colleague had the same dish on day one. Cheated.

Dessert was cheese, a perfectly good but pedestrian selection of British cheese, including the (I think) gimmicky Stinking Bishop). The walnut bread was very nice but the homemade chutney was a little disappointing, it seems to me that my expectations are sky high when a chutney is served in a Kilner jar so this made the disappointment more marked.

All in all, great food on both nights. Some average parts to both meals but I’m prepared to overlook these because I enjoyed the starter so much. Well worth a visit.

Sunday 13 October 2013

Hotel New York, Rotterdam

This is somewhere I have visited before, although the first time was for drinks and bar snacks. I was told by a colleague that the food here was somewhat average, but I liked the atmosphere and history so much that I was determined to give it a proper try. The hotel is located at the end of a wharf, adjacent to the Holland America Line terminal; this hotel has been the first pleg of the journey from the Netherlands to the United States of America for more than 100 years.

Starter was a shared platter, which included all sorts of lovely things : smoked salmon, cured ham, tuna tartare, carpaccio, Greek feta salad and plenty of bread with tapenade. All were lovely, especially the tuna. We also had half a dozen oysters to accompany the starter : two wild French ‘fine de Claire’, two small French ‘papillon’ and two local Dutch oysters. All had different, distinct flavours, the ‘papillon’ in particular I enjoyed.

Main course was simplicity itself, half a lobster (served cold) with bread and mayonnaise. The lobster was of a good size and was very succulent. Served with a portion of chips on the side! Pretentious... moi?

Dessert was my favourite, a sort of Dutch version of ‘café gourmande’ called the ‘grande dessert’. This included seven separate elements (count them) : mango ice cream, forest fruit macaroon, raspberry ice cream tartlet, tiramisu, lemon cream, fresh fruit, biscuit and whipped cream. All were good, and the mango ice cream in particular was fantastic, as was the tiramisu.

It isn’t often I am genuinely stuffed after a meal but this was one of those occasions. My second time in this surprisingly great city, and my second great meal. 100% success rate for Rotterdam to date!

Friday 13 September 2013

The perfect pulled pork… a super quick recipe!

OK, so a super-simple and super-quick-to-prepare recipe, one that can be left in the oven and forgotten about (although the smell is impossible to ignore)! You’ll need to get a big piece of pork shoulder or loin, if this is a big joint bought from a supermarket you will probably need to remove the string; leave to rest in a baking tray.

Mix together some salt, pepper, mustard and chill (finely chopped fresh or powder) with some olive oil and make a paste; rub this into the pork. Sprinkle some garlic cloves (to taste) and onion over the pork and in the tray. Pour a cup of white wine vinegar and a cup of cider into the tray and then cover fairly lightly with baking paper and then a little tighter with foil before sticking in a pre-heated oven on a medium heat (180C ish). Leave as is in the oven for three hours and then take out to remove the baking paper and foil. Put it back in the oven for another hour uncovered.

Take it out of the oven and ‘pull’ it with a couple of forks to break it up and serve… amazing in a roll with some BBQ sauce and coleslaw.

Thursday 5 September 2013

Preparing a lobster

I thought I would write about something a little different, something that I know people are often not confident enough to do… preparing a lobster. I have killed and cooked (usually at the same time!) a lobster from time to time but if they are available fresh there seems little point in doing this yourself. Especially if you enjoy your lobster (as I do) served simply: cold with mayonnaise and crusty bread. This particular lobster was purchased from Folkestone whilst visiting my parents; it came from one of the seafood stalls along the harbour quayside. It was £9, which is a good price for what was a larger-than-average lobster.

First of all, you need to lay the lobster down flat and stab your knife in the head, as shown above. A thick, sharp knife is crucial when preparing a lobster; otherwise you will make a mess of it (speaking from experience) so sharpen a knife just before you start. Push the knife all the way and cut forward through the front of the head. Then turn the lobster around and cut to the back, keep going until the whole things splits into two halves.

Then there are the only fiddly bits. Firstly, you need to remove the ‘sack’ from behind the lobsters eyes, I’m pretty sure that this is the stomach, and needs to be removed from both sides of the body. This can be messy but is not too difficult. Secondly, you need to remove the digestive track, like you would if you were preparing a butterfly prawn. This is broadly in the centre but might be found slightly to one side so check both halves of the lobster. Get a knife underneath and tease it out all the way along. Discard what you have taken out and give to the cat!

That is pretty much it, so simple! It is worth preparing the lobster on a chopping board that has a channel around it to capture the juices; if you don’t have one just put your regular chopping board inside a tray and capture any juices that way. Either pour the juice back over the lobster, or (as I do) mix it with some mayonnaise as a pimped-up accompaniment. Just needs some fresh, crusty bread and it is ready to go! Try it.

Sunday 4 August 2013

Le Blanc Nez, Sangatte, France

This is one of my favourite restaurants of all time; somewhere I have visited frequently, somewhere I like to introduce to friends. Le Blanc Nez is in a village called Sangatte, in northern France, about ten minutes’ drive from the Eurotunnel terminal in Calais. I have visited a few times as a nice break to the journey when returning from the south of France on holiday, but mostly as day trip. Last weekend I went over with some friends for a few hours on Saturday night, for a ‘booze cruise’ and for dinner at a favourite eatery.

First and foremost, this is a seafood restaurant, with some of the best fresh fish and shellfish you will find. But there is plenty to offer those who are not big seafood fans; I have had excellent beef bougignon and confit duck at this restaurant over the years.

This also a very English-friendly restaurant, the menu includes English translations if your French isn’t what it could be; I reckon that half the patrons are English people who have hopped across for the day for lunch and a bit of shopping.

 I nearly always have the pate to start with at Le Blanc Nez because it is SO good. La terrine maison is one of those dishes that can be relied upon 100% of the time. The pate is flavoursome and smooth, as good as any I have ever eaten. Served with a fantastic, fresh, red onion relish and accompanied by a fresh salad, some excellent beetroot and some spicy little cornichons. An amazing SUPER-DISH.

For main course I had l’assiette de fruits de mer, which is one of the most frequent dish-in-restaurant combinations I have every ordered, not least because it comes in its own little boat. Yes, a boat, served on a bed of seaweed! There are seven different elements to this dish… oysters, langoustines, prawns, shrimp, winkles, whelks and a whole crab. The offer is seasonal and changes throughout the year, often including smoked fish also. This dish costs €28, which is great value when you consider that an equivalent dish in the UK would cost anywhere between £30 and £40. All of the elements of this (second) SUPER-DISH are great, the oysters (my favourite thing in the world) are fresh and served with a red wine vinegar and shallot dressing, the langoustines are big and juicy and the crab is always a meaty little fellah.

So, well worth a day trip just to go to Le Blanc Nez, or why not combine with a visit to the nearby Cite Europe shopping centre and pick up some cheap alcohol from Carrefour? This restaurant never disappoints, especially if you are a seafood lover, the staff are friendly and attentive and the atmosphere is unpretentious and relaxed.

A Stokes family favourite that is very, very highly recommended.

Saturday 3 August 2013

Frankie & Benny’s, Harlow (and every other provincial town)

I honestly can’t remember the last time I visited a Frankie & Benny’s, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the current century. There’s a four letter word beginning with ‘s’ that seems to have been specifically invented to describe the food at Frankie & Benny’s, from what I can remember. Where we live there is a limited choice of restaurants within a short drive, and fewer still that are family-friendly. So, when Frankie & Benny’s opened in my home town a few months back I made a mental note to give it another go, through a fathers lens.

We had an early lunch one Saturday a few weeks ago. I had the chicken parmigiana…

A succulent chicken breast coated in garlic and herb breadcrumbs. Topped with ham, melted mozzarella and mamma’s Neapolitan sauce. Served on a bed of Neapolitan spaghetti with corn on the cob and your choice of house fries, salad or a jacket.

One of the most disappointing things I have eaten for a very long time. The chicken wasn’t succulent and it didn’t taste of garlic, the ham was straight out of a packet and the mozzarella was, I think, not mozzarella at all. But the worst thing about it was the Neapolitan sauce, which was entirely tasteless. An average Neapolitan sauce contains tomatoes, onions, basil, garlic and other herbs; I find it impossible to understand how these ingredients can be mixed together and be totally devoid of any real flavour. The food was bad and the service matched so I have to award this lunch both a TOTAL STINKER and SNAIL SERVICE.


Alex and Olivia both had the kids meal, chicken strips and spaghetti Bolognese respectively. The portions were generous and the quality of the food was above average, when compared to other kids options at other restaurants, and great value at £3.95 for a main course, drink and dessert. And the ‘fun pack’ was great too, well thought through and high in quality; it literally kept them entertained the whole time we were there.

So, it seems that four letter word is still appropriate when describing Frankie & Benny’s, which probably won’t be a surprise to you. But, if you have children, and you can tolerate tasteless food, take one for the team?


Resto Bistro, Epping

I’ve driven past this place, in Epping High Street, hundreds of times. I’ve pretty much ignored it, as often there are a gaggle of awful TOWIE people crowded outside. However, when searching for somewhere to eat recently, a friend said that she had eaten here and that it was nice; so we decided to give it a go.

Starter was from the specials board, a simple plate of Parma ham and avocado, with a sweet onion dressing. Simple, unpretentious, fresh. Not the best Parma ham I have eaten but the perfect starter for a very hot summer evening.

For main course I had what this restaurant is apparently renowned for… ribs. The ribs are available with a mind-blowing choice of sixteen different sauces! Chicken gravy, Jack Daniel’s, hot chilli, garlic butter, mesquite BBQ, sweet chilli, Thai green curry, Indonesian satay, tomato and herb, hot piri piri, mustard, horseradish, Texas sweet onion, reggae-reggae spiced tamarind, onion gravy or creamed green peppercorn. I chose the reggae-reggae spiced tamarind. Firstly, because I love tamarind, and secondly because Levi Roots is too-cool-for-school, not quite as cool in gastronomic terms as Colonel Sanders, but still cool. I had the regular portion for £21.95 and I’m glad I did, the large (£25.95) would have been far too much, even for me. On the side were some nice French fries and adequate coleslaw, but the ribs were every bit as delicious and melt-in-the-mouth as expected.

For dessert I had (what the menu described as ) ‘the best ever chocolate fudge cake’, served with whipped cream. It was certainly a great dessert, but not quite the greatest. Perhaps more accurately described as ‘one of the best and certainly the richest ever chocolate fudge cake’.

So, a lesson learned. Never judge a book by its cover, and never judge a restaurant by the ridiculous orange people standing around outside!