Saturday 30 March 2013

Loch Fyne, Chelmsford

Regular readers will know that seafood is very much my ‘thing’ when it comes to what I like to eat. I’ve been to Loch Fyne many times before but not for a few years, so was keen to give it a go, meeting some old friends for dinner in Chelmsford.

A dozen rock oysters to start. They were just about fresh enough (given that they have travelled from Scotland) and the sherry vinegar and shallot accompaniment was good, although not so keen on the salsa verde. The trouble is, recent visits to The Company Shed mean that my benchmark for oysters in the UK is so much higher than it once was, and this was apparent at Loch Fyne. The oysters at The Company Shed are twice as fresh and twice as good as those at Loch Fyne, add the fact that you can get three for the same price as one and there really is no competition. Once you’ve had the best, there really is no looking back.

Main course was much better. Scallops with black pudding, an absolute classic combination. Beautifully served with some micro herbs and with an equally beautiful pea puree. Twice-cooked chips on the side were nice but not great. The best bit was the samphire, always a favourite for me and very well cooked at Loch Fyne. On the whole a very respectable main course.

Those that I dined with have complained that I oftentimes sit on the fence when it comes to reviews on this blog so I’m going to be very clear on this one…

If you really like seafood, go somewhere else.
If you are a 'sort of' seafood fan, go to Loch Fyne.

And if you live anywhere in or near Essex, that ‘somewhere else’ just has to be The Company Shed.

Rich, Amanda and Charlie, I hope that is clear enough for you?

Wednesday 27 March 2013

Freeze-dry retro (Vesta)

When I was growing up, convenience foods were OK; they weren't considered as negatively as they are nowadays. I remember when the Pot Noodle was released and the excitement it caused, there was literally nothing like it. Equally, Super Noodles and Cup-a-Soup. Before then, it seemed that the convenience foods on offer for a quick lunch were sandwiches, cheese on toast or a can of soup. These new, freeze-dry options were exciting and quickly became a staple in the Stokes household.

Fast-forward 15 or 20 years and these are not something that are on the menu in polite society in 2013. However, a wander around Poundland the other day (no sense of shame here at all, I love a £1 shop) and I was re-introduced to what I would consider the Rolls Royce of freeze-dry meals : the Vesta range! Paella, beef curry and (especially) beef risotto were favourites so I purchased all three. I've worked from home three days this week so this gave me a chance to try them all.

Any good?

The quick and obvious answer is 'no', and in many ways this is the right answer. They don't have a lot going for them : these are not quality meals in any sense, and given that even in the microwave they take 19 minutes to prepare they aren't at all convenient. I could make a version of any of these dishes from scratch in less time.

But there is some good. The flavours are fine, if a little exaggerated. The beef risotto is the 'best' and the beef curry is the 'worst', with the paella somewhere in the middle. Adding a generous knob of butter improves these meals dramatically and a perfectly respectable lunch can be enjoyed, ideally with some good bread to dip in and soak up the juices.

But these meals work on another level, what they represent to me is a link with the past, to something I would have enjoyed as a child and teenager. I think if (like me) you have a connection with these products you will enjoy them, if you don't then I suggest you run a mile. An analogy for me are films : 'Revenge of the Nerds' or 'Holiday on the Buses' are not great films in the accepted sense, but they meant a lot to me growing up so I will always love them for that.

Worth a punt if you see them!

I'll return to this theme shortly, with other ranges to try. Plaudits to Poundland for giving these brands a lifeline, that store is a treasure-trove of forgotten and un-loved brands of yesteryear. And also to Vesta for sticking with the product and not messing with the design... the instructions on the back are for a 650W microwave, who has one of those any more?

Saturday 23 March 2013

The Gandhi, Woodford Bridge

I was on a course Thursday and Friday and stayed overnight in The Prince Regent Hotel in Woodford Bridge. I know this area well as my secondary school and VI form were five minutes away from here. I'm loosely familiar with places to eat around here, especially the chippie that I would buy lunch from most days at VI form.

We all know that when 12 blokes (and one lady) who don't really know each another get together there is a moral requirement to have a curry! So we did, at The Gandhi. My familiarity with this restaurant stems from many years ago so I decided to order my 'comparison dish', chicken dansak; also some mushroom rice and a keema nan.

It was OK, definitely above average but nothing spectacular. I do wonder if I ordered sub-optimally, as others seemed happier with their own dishes. It was also more spicy than it needed to be, spice-for-spice-sake. The quality of the chicken was good, however the sauce was somewhat disappointing. The mushroom rice was good (why wouldn't it be?) and the keema nan was better still, a generous and even filling of mincemeat made this the high point. Whoever first thought of putting mincemeat inside a nan is a genius, up there with the man who first combined garlic and bread or cheese and toast.

Worth a visit if you are in the area, but I wouldn’t actively seek it out from further afield based upon my experience on Thursday.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

The Company Shed, West Mersea

As reviews go, this is a big one for me. Really big, as this is my favourite place to have lunch bar none, more so than anywhere I have ever eaten. You really need to like seafood as that is literally all they sell, other than a salad. If you want bread, wine or anything else you will have to stop off on the way and buy it yourself. The only accompaniments of any kind that they serve is lemon wedges and Tabasco for the oysters. The Company Shed is all the better for this, as this really lets the quality of the super-fresh seafood shine through.

I ordered four separate dishes…

Firstly, the ubiquitous seafood platted. Every element of this platter is excellent. The prawns are sweet and meaty, the salmon is perfectly smoked, the green lip mussel is big and chewy, the mackerel is subtle and smoky and the crevette is the biggest and juiciest you would ever want. And in the middle of the plate is the ½ crab, which is as good as any I have ever had. Every bit as good as the sweetest Cornish or Cromer crabs. What amazes me when I have this dish is the price, it is £11.50. Yes, £11.50… I honestly don’t think you can get a better plate of seafood for the price.

Oysters are my favourite thing in the world to eat. Those served at The Company Shed are native oysters (not the bigger rock oysters) which can be relatively difficult to find. Half a dozen fresh oysters are as good as it gets. No tabasco for me as I think this is sacrilege, adding so much flavour to something that is perfect as it is; sherry vinegar and chopped shallot is about the limit, anything eels just disguises the taste of perfection. 75p each, you can barely buy oysters in a supermarket for that!

At lunchtime today, I ordered a hot dish for the first time. Scallops with bacon, an absolute classic, and the best I have had in the UK. Big, super-sweet scallops, with the roe left on as it should be. These were so good, and the tried-and-tested combination with bacon was wonderful. A generous portion and good value at £6.95. I would definitely order a hot dish again, my friend had the tiger prawns and these looked delicious.

The final course was the roll-mops (£1.10 each). I absolutely love roll-mops and know how hard it is to find good ones. Put aside all those preconceptions you have and try those at The Company Shed, they are a long away from those that you get in a jar. Chalk and cheese. For me, these are the best thing on the menu, an absolute revelation. Who knew that roll-mops could be so damn good? I’m giving these a SUPER-DISH but they really deserve a category all to themselves.

Never doubted that this place would deliver once again and it did. Everything about the food was excellent and the 1980s interior just adds to the experience, and an experience is exactly what The Company Shed delivers. It’s worth noting that food like this deserves great bread so make sure you take something good with you, plus some butter and (if you want it) some mayonnaise. The fresh fish counter is worth a look too on your way out, all fresh off the boat that morning.

If you like seafood as much as I do then you simply have to go, I passionately believe that you’ll find no better at any price anywhere in the UK. As soon as I left after lunch I was thinking about planning my next visit, how many places can you say that? So highly recommended, it’s obscene!

Friday 15 March 2013

Parsnip wine stage two (bottling)

Expectations are high; I love fruit and vegetable wine and I really want this to work! My parsnip wine was left to ferment for a little over two weeks. I did sneakily open the fermenting vessel a couple of times to have a little sniff. The liquid was very gently bubbling and there was an audible hiss as the yeast worked its magic. After about two weeks the alcohol content reaches a high enough level to kill off the yeast and fermenting stops. This means it is time to bottle the wine and wait for the flavour to develop.

This second stage is very simple, if a little fiddly. The liquid is poured through a jelly strainer and a muslin so that as much sediment is removed as possible. And from this second vessel (another, smaller bucket) it is funnelled into bottles. Everything was sterilised first, as this is a point in the process where contamination can be a problem.

I have six individual bottles of 500ml each. These are going to be my test bottles. The first will be opened in four to six weeks and then every month after that to determine from when the wine is truly palatable. However, I did have enough left for a cheeky little glass and after only a couple of weeks it actually tasted very nice. It didn’t have a very well developed flavour but was perfectly drinkable. It was also very strong; I do have a hydrometer that I will use to determine the alcoholic content.

My next job is to make a big batch; I’m thinking at least a dozen 1l bottles or possibly more. Initially I will make some more parsnip and then try beetroot. I’m going to do this soon so that I get a head start, I don’t want to wait until I am happy with the flavour before starting to make some more. I can’t wait that long. So far, so good; just hoping that it tastes as good as I desperately want it to!

Thursday 14 March 2013

Fish & Chip Quality Awards

Few things are as important in life as fish & chips. Still the nations favourite takeaway and a Friday night fixture in houses up and down the country. A good fish & chip shop is hard to find and when one is discovered it should be frequented as often as possible, as so many are struggling.

Finding a good chippie is a challenge, but I have recently discovered a website that is a good way to cut a corner. This is the Fish & Chip Quality Awards, the standards of which only 3% of the 8,500 chippies in the UK are able to meet.

The aims of the scheme are as follows…

The UK’s best quality and best tasting fish and chips.
Fish sourced from environmentally sustainable stocks.
Freshly and safely prepared under well managed conditions.
Clean, hygienic and safe premises.
Well trained staff and service with a smile.

Each premises is inspected by a trained industry professional (a job I feel I could do). Personally, I’m not especially bothered about sustainability or hygiene, as long as the food is good, but this is good to know.

So, log onto the website and enter your postcode. A world of quality fish & chips awaits you, it made me consider places I wouldn't have normally given time of day to.

Saturday 9 March 2013

The Red Dog Saloon, Hoxton Square, N1

This is very much a mid-level restaurant ‘of the moment'. This is for two reasons: 1) it’s in a ‘cool’ location and 2) because of the Man vs. Food style challenge that they publicise at every opportunity. The Devastator challenge has been covered in many newspapers and magazines over the last 18 months or so, and continues to be talked about on TV; last week, even on ‘The Alan Titchmarsh Show’ (not a show I watch)!

On Thursday night I visited The Red Dog Saloon for the first time; this was for a friends leaving do at work, so it is worth stating up front that we started to drink before 6pm and didn’t eat until after 9pm, never a great thing!

First, starters. This looked like the standard plate of deep-fried bits and bobs that nearly every middle-of-the-road pub and restaurant will sell. Actually, it was really very good and each of the five elements (onion rings, chicken wings, mozzarella sticks, stuffed jalapenos and king prawns) were excellent. The chicken wings in particular were meaty and juicy and just the right side of too spicy.

The challenge is called The Devastator and if you complete this in 10 minutes you get it for free. I inevitably chose this for my main course, but I opted not to attempt this as a challenge, instead to enjoy and savour it as a main course. This is because of the quantity of alcohol already consumed and the likelihood of seeing it all again.

When the burger arrives it is genuinely a spectacle. The way that it is held together by wooden skewers shows that this is a main course that means business and demands respect. Hopes were high. As there are so many parts to it, I’m going to split this into three categories: the good, the bad and the indifferent…

The good.

The pulled pork was excellent, really excellent, and there was a lot of it. Equally good were the homemade condiments, especially the Kansas City sauce. I could have eaten a whole plate of the pulled pork doused in this sauce.

The bad.

The fries were very disappointing, barely cooked and devoid of any real flavour, I think because of the oil that they were cooked in. Equally disappointing was the bacon, there was never the 6 rashers that the menu states. It was too crispy (and I like crispy bacon), so much so that it just turned to dust when eaten.

The indifferent.

All the rest. The bun, the cheese, the accompaniments and unfortunately the burgers. None of it was bad. It was just very average.

So, in summary, not somewhere I would actively recommend. But equally not somewhere I would exactly avoid. I wouldn’t go as far as to award a TOTAL-STINKER as it was all just too inoffensive but I can’t help but be disappointed. There is something very exciting about a food challenge and they are few and far between in the UK. You are better off switching over to Dave, watching a few episodes of Adam devouring something epic on Man vs. Food and tucking into a smaller, better, burger.

Friday 8 March 2013

Harry’s Café, Dawson Street, Dublin 2

Like a lot of capital cities, I think it is very hard to find good food reasonably priced in Dublin. However, this week, success! A place called Harry’s Café, which is just off St. Stephens Green so a super-central location. The website describes the restaurant as follows…

Enjoy the best Irish and Continental foods, prepared with
loving care and served in a casual and relaxed atmosphere.

All of that is true. Whilst the restaurant was mostly empty (it was a Tuesday night) there was no lack of atmosphere, thanks in no small part to the great selection of tunes playing. And as everyone knows, a good tune must have been released in the 1980s.

Course by course…

Chicken liver pate with melba toast. A classic, simple pate like you might make at home, and absolutely delicious. A good size slab too, with great fruit chutney. On balance, pate is probably the starter I order most often and this was as good as any I have eaten recently.

A new place for dinner often means a burger. If you can’t get a burger right, you might as well give up and close your restaurant. With burgers, I think there is a ‘tell’ that will point to the quality before you have taken the first bite: if you are asked how you want your burger cooked then 9 times out of 10 it will be great. This shows confidence in the raw ingredients that most places just don’t have. The (rare) beef was lovely and so were the fries. However, the best plaudits are saved for the tomato and red pepper relish. Divinely spicy and very fresh.

Dessert was inevitably for me a selection of Irish cheeses. All were good and there were plenty of thin, crispy biscuits to accompany them. A generous block of quince paste too which was great. The olives were nice but unnecesary.

So, for 18 (we were just in time for the early bird menu) a great place to eat, and one I will definitely endeavour to visit again.


Sunday 3 March 2013

Nanny Harrington's rice pudding

Nanny who? Nanny Harrington, my mum’s mum. One of the staples at the Harrington household was the rice pudding, something my brother and I would eat very often and something that evokes real nostalgia for me. It makes me think of playing Star Wars in the garden and getting told by granddad to get out of his shed before sitting down to a lovely lunch, followed by ‘The Munsters’, ‘Get Smart’ and ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’!

I’ve not made proper rice pudding for a very, very long time so really excited about making it for dessert this evening, after an excellent beef stew. My recipe is very simple, and I think it makes a rice pudding that is very much like the one that Nanny Harrington would have made.

Method: Melt 50g butter in a casserole dish and add 100g of pudding rice. Stir. Add 75g of sugar and continue to stir until the rice swells a little bit and forms a sticky mess with the sugar. Pour in 1l of full-fat milk, 150ml of double cream and 1tsp of vanilla essence (½ a vanilla pod ideally, but we had run out) and very gently bring to a simmer. Grate ½ a nutmeg over the top and bake for 1½ hours in an oven at 140°C.

When it come out it should have a thick brown skin that needs a knife to remove from the side of the dish. Rice pudding skin really is a delicacy, it is the best bit and anybody who says otherwise just needs to jog on. This is perfect served with a generous swirl of strawberry jam (from Tiptree naturally).

This dish was a great success, and very evocatively captured the mood in Nanny Harrington’s house of about 20 years ago, even down to the retro casserole dish that I got in a junk shop for 50p. Loved this epic dessert (which is simplicity itself) so much!

Saturday 2 March 2013

Raj Lodge, Old Harlow

Most Friday’s I work from home. In order to break up the day, I like to over-indulge for lunch. Sometimes just something nice from Sainsbury’s or a sneaky little take-away, but sometimes I like to go out for lunch; even on my own! About five minutes’ drive away in Old Harlow is an Indian restaurant called Raj Lodge. I’ve been a few times in the evening and I suddenly remembered yesterday that I have seen a lunchtime special on offer, so decided to try this for lunch.

This lunchtime special is made up of four things: chicken tikka masala, vegetable curry (like the one you would get with a biryani), rice and a naan bread; all for £5.95. You know what? It was great. I would never normally order a chicken tikka masala, but this was fresh and fragrant; and the rest were all excellent. The naan bread was especially good, straight off a hot stone and perfectly crispy. I can’t remember the last time that I ate this quickly either!

As I said, I have been here before and the food has always been good but the lunchtime special was a revelation for the price. This is easily the best value place I know to eat and will now be a Friday regular… an un-beatable pence-per-mouthful and a worthy SUPER-DISH!