Monday 29 April 2013

Restaurant 65, Hemel Hempstead Old Town

We had a conference at work last week, so there were thirty or so of us for dinner close to the office, so in stepped Restaurant 65 and a special ‘chilli’ menu to enjoy. This is exactly as you would expect, chilli was in every one of the courses that made up this special menu. First came a lovely glass of chilled prosecco, with a candied chilli in it, which was actually very nice; then onto the six courses…

First came ‘pit of darkness’, simple rye bread served with a chilli oil dip; this was as you would expect and was very tasty. Second came ‘gates of hell’ which was a mango, lime and (you guessed it) chilli shooter, a sort of evil amuse bouche. This was also very good, although the fact that it was served in the kind of plastic shooter glass that nightclubs serve Sourz in sort of cheapened the effect!

Third and fourth are fish course and main course respectively. The fish course (‘eternal damnation’) was seared sea bass, with a risotto flavoured with lemon and scotch bonnet peppers. This dish was served with a coriander pesto and a smoky chilli oil. The sea bass was absolutely delightful, really very good, easily the high point for me. I tactically sat very near to a fussy-eater friend so I got to eat this excellent dish twice! ‘Sands of time’ was corn fed chicken breast with a chilli rub. The vegetable accompaniments would have been lovely if you could taste anything over the ridiculous heat of the chilli rub, which I think was entirely unnecessary.

A very welcome fifth course was ‘cleanse the spirit’, a simple carrot and ginger sorbet which was a godsend after the chicken. This was another highlight for me, and again I got to eat two! ‘Last rites’ finished the meal and my taste buds. I’ve never eaten a white chocolate cheesecake and found myself saying “needs chilli”, I won’t be starting anytime soon. Again, ridiculous and over-the-top!

In summary, a very mixed bag: some great, some far-from-great, but all interesting. I would definitely re-visit this restaurant again, but this time I would order from the regular a la carte menu and give my taste buds a chance.

Friday 26 April 2013

Chiangmai Cottage, Hemel Hempstead Old Town

Everybody loves Thai food; it somehow takes the best bits from Chinese cuisine and mixes them with the best bits from Indian cuisine, and the sum is greater than the parts. 2 + 2 = 5 with Thai food. Chiangmai Cottage in the old town part of Hemel Hempstead is somewhere I have been two or three times before and it has always been excellent. I was entertaining a colleague from Ireland this week so this was my first choice. Then I decided I would consult Trip Advisor and see which was the best rated restaurant in Hemel Hempstead, it was this one!

My companion didn’t want to order the mixed starter (WTF?) so I had to choose something else. That something else was a beef salad, which I wouldn’t normally order but I just fancied a change. The salad was marinated grilled beef, tossed in fresh thai herbs and a spicy citrus dressing, garnished with fresh coriander. It was immense, so I’m going to give it a SUPER-DISH for being a) delicious and b) different. Highly recommended.

Something a bit more familiar for lunch. We shared a steamed coconut rice and a chicken pad thai, both simple and lovely. A main dish each were chosen to share. For me, ped ma-kham, a favourite of mine; this is sliced duck breast in a sticky tamarind sauce and is served with crispy noodles. The ped ma-kham here is just as good as my favourite local Thai restaurant. The other main course was hoi-shell phad prik thai drum, which is scallops with kaffir lime leaves. This was every bit as good as good as the duck, so we scored on both main course choices!

In summary, another great meal at this restaurant. Any co-workers reading this and staying over near the office, go here, you won’t be disappointed at all.

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Simon’s stag do (Bristol)

My mate Simon is the ultimate non-foodie, as anybody who knows him will understand. When we worked together he would have the same lunch EVERY single day with NO variation whatsoever: ham sandwich, Penguin chocolate bar, an apple and water biscuits. He likes Penguin biscuits so much; he would often dress as one…

So, naturally, his stag do in Bristol last weekend included no 'official' food of any kind, the plan being to grab what we could between activities. This article details my attempts to try and beat the system he had devised and introduce some food that was, if not great, then at least interesting.

The Willow Walk
We didn't start well. Breakfast at a Wetherspoons pub in Victoria on Friday before getting on the bus. Ordinarily, I would avoid a Wetherspoons for anything other than cheap beer. However, the breakfast wasn't too shabby, and worth the £5.95 we paid for it. The hash browns were a little soggy and the beans were developing a skin, but other than that all was passable; even the ‘tell’, the sausage. A sachet of HP Sauce helped too; a cheap foodservice brown sauce just wouldn't have worked. A good condiment lifts many a bad meal!

Los Amigos
Fast-forward to Bristol and we are walking to our hotel. A very unlikely sign encourages us towards 'burritos in car park' a few minutes away from the hotel. Check-in, dump stuff and look for burritos. Really, in a car park? Yes! This place was a great random find, and the lovely lady who runs it says she does brisk business with the workers from the many nearby building projects. We arrived just as she was thinking about packing up; she had run out of everything except chicken so she gave us a cheeky discount (£4 instead of the usual £5). Lovely burrito. The chicken was good, the beans were good, the salsa was good, the chilli sauce was good, the rice was... hard! Not sure whether this was under-cooked or suffering from being at the bottom of the tray all day, I suspect the latter. Only a minor irritation that didn't detract at all from a lovely little lunch. Really worth seeking out, the kind of little eatery I wish I had near my own work place.

My Burrito
Another day, another burrito! This time from a place in the city centre, right off the quayside. Interesting selection on offer here, many different salad options with choices offered on the type of beans and the strength of the salsa. I chose black beans and the medium, smoky salsa to accompany my excellent beef. So, best burrito in Bristol? On taste My Burrito had it for me on taste, but it was twice as expensive as Los Amigos, and My Burrito was just too busy to be the convenient offer it should be. Another great lunch though, sitting on the breakfast bar in the window watching the world go by.

Bristol Cider House
Saturday afternoon was spent visiting the epic SS Great Britain, an absolutely fantastic experience. Quickly back to the hotel to change shirts and then straight out for some cider tasting, accompanied by 'nibbles'. Pork pie, beef pasty and scotch eggs were all very average, but the cheeky little cheese selection (cheddar, brie, stilton, Neapolitan-style-oddity) complemented the cider in an acceptable fashion!

Quick Crepes
Eight pints of cider, Jaeger bombs and champagne doesn't do anything for your taste buds but I was sober enough to decide that a 1am crepe is better than a kebab. The guy had only been making crepes for a day and this showed in the slightly under-cooked product of his labour, but a great opportunity to further cement my belief that Nutella improves the taste of everything! Probably my favourite thing I ate all weekend.

Back in London with five minutes before my train home, exactly enough time to get a smelly snack to offend other passengers! I went through a stage when Wasabi was my favourite little take-away when working in London, but I haven't been for a while. I had the spicy chicken with rice. It was pretty tasty, and pretty spicy, but nothing above average; the rice was well cooked however. An anti-climatic end to the weekends food, but it filled a hole nicely.

Conclusion? Not the gastronomic car crash I was expecting, so I can feel like I have managed to beat Simon! Both burritos were great, as was the crepe, all very enjoyable eating experiences. However, one wasted opportunity: the cider tasting could have been a great chance to indulge in some honest West Country fare, good enough to match the excellent cider on offer. Possibly a high quality ploughman’s, like you would get on a cider farm serving lunch? Or just a great pasty? Or better quality, more locally-representative cheese? The food let this place down a little I felt, however I'm guessing that a pub that seems to serve exclusively stag parties on a Saturday night will know exactly how discerning their clientele are!

Monday 22 April 2013

Yiasou Souvlaki Bar, Harlow

Getting married. Having a child. Winning the lottery. All of these are an exciting event in anybody’s life, but they pale into insignificance when compared to the joy of the discovery of a new takeaway to try! I’m not sure whether this place has newly opened, or whether it has just passed me by, but when I found the delivery leaflet on my doormat on Thursday I knew right away that my dinner was sorted for that evening.

I ordered the mixed meat souvlakia meze (£8), which includes chicken, pork and beef. I wasn’t 100% sure exactly what souvlakia was, so here is what Wikipedia had to say on the matter…

Souvlaki (σουβλάκι) is a popular Greek fast food consisting of small pieces of meat and sometimes vegetables grilled on a skewer. It may be served on the skewer for eating out of hand, in a pitta sandwich with garnishes and sauces, or on a dinner plate, often with fried potatoes.

I would say a very accurate description of a tasty dish; the meat was subtly spiced and had a great dry texture to it, a sort of light crust. Served with chips which were fine but not amazing, and a salad that consisted mostly of iceberg lettuce so a little disappointing. I ordered tzatziki to accompany my dish but unfortunately they sent garlic mayonnaise instead. The mayonnaise was tasty, albeit the portion was a little small. I really enjoyed the flatbread that came with the dish, just crispy enough and full of flavour.

On balance, despite a few frustrations, an enjoyable meal. However, I’m not sure whether this is because it was genuinely good or because it was new and different and therefore perhaps more interesting than it would otherwise have been? Basically, I need to order again to be entirely sure, so watch this space!

Sunday 14 April 2013

Everest Gurkha, Chelmsford

I'm a big fan of Nepalese food. My parents live in Folkestone in Kent and nearby is the army base where the Gurkha's are based. There are a lot of Nepalese-owned businesses and a few restaurants, with one in particular (Gurkha Palace) a family favourite. So I think I know a little bit about what makes good Nepalese food. Not long before my business moved away from Chelmsford, Everest Gurkha opened, about 60 seconds walk from my old office. This has been on the 'places to try' list since then but I don't often go to Chelmsford. A visit last night (to the excellent Ale House nearby) presented the perfect opportunity to try it.

When we walked in the restaurant at about 19h30 it was busy and for a second we thought we wouldn't get a table. Luckily we did. The decor is a little garish in places (multi-coloured up-lights that belong in an episode of 'Buck Rogers'!) But overall a nice environment, and certainly an improvement on the previous incumbents, Cosmopolitan.

Three of us ordered the beef dumplings to start with, essentially a sort of dim sum. When the dish arrived, it looked a little uninspiring. However, these were light and flavoursome, and the spicy yellow dipping sauce that accompanied them was great.

Main course for me was dal maasu, a sort of thali dish with a few things to try. There was a lamb butuwu curry, a clay oven cooked chicken tikka, dal tarka and steamed rice. All were great, right down to the fluffiness of the rice. It always surprises me how nice a simple serving of rice can be when steamed perfectly. The high point of the main course was the dal, which had a deep yellow colour and was very fragrant. I shared a potato dish with a mate and also ordered a garlic nan bread but these were entirely unnecessary with all that I had to eat.

The staff were attentive and couldn't refill and replace our beers quick enough, the excellent Gurkha brand which is becoming more common; presumably this is because it is now brewed in the UK, which I don't think it was previously.

All in all, great food in a great place at a great price, a little over £25 each before service. Highly recommended, and one to visit for all you 'Chelmo' readers.

Monday 8 April 2013

Beef with the chicken (Nando’s)

I want to start out by saying that I love a Nando’s, for a quick(ish) lunch it’s hard to beat. When I worked at Chelmsford I would go pretty much every week at least once, and it was something that I really looked forward to. Double chicken pitta (hot) with chips and coleslaw, with a side order of chicken livers; and a generous splosh of the extra hot sauce on the chips. Perfect.

Perfect? Yes, as long as you think about Nando’s as fast food, which is absolutely what it is. I think it exists in a pretty unique place in the market, somewhere between a quick-service-restaurant like a McDonald’s and something a little bit more up-market like a Pizza Express. Need a chart? Thought so…

I reckon that Nando’s is (at best) twice as good as a normal fast-food restaurant. A recent visit for a quick lunch for two adults and two children cost £45, which I think is a ridiculous amount of money for what it was. An equivalent amount of food at a KFC, for example, will cost on average £17.50. So Nando’s is a little over 2.5X as much money, but I’m not so sure that it is that much better in terms of quality. If you find a good KFC (they vary massively) then the food can be ⅔ as good as Nando’s… so it is possible to get food that is 75% as good for only 40% of the price.

I love Nando’s, but it is very expensive for what it is, too expensive for every week… its fast food and it needs to remember that. It’s Jenny from the block. End of rant.

Sunday 7 April 2013

The Rib Man, Brick Lane, E1

This morning I managed to tick off one of the entries on my food ‘bucket list’ and visit The Rib Man on Brick Lane, part of the extensive and varied range of food available at the market on a Sunday. I have heard about this place many times and then when it was featured on Lorraine Pascale’s TV show, it was somewhere I desperately wanted to visit. If you click onto the website, you will see a picture of the proprieter serving Adam from Man vs. Food, and if it is good enough for him it just has to be amazing! My expectations were sky-high this morning at 9am when I tucked into my first bite of the rib meat roll.

Was it worth all the hype?

Hell yes. Best rib meat I have eaten by a country mile. Must have been cooking for hours to be as tender as it was, it just melted in the mouth. This was beautifully flavoured pork and there was a lot of it, a truly great portion size for £6. Just as importantly, it was served in a roll that was worthy to contain the excellent pork. And the homemade BBQ sauce is simply great, a real depth of flavour that you just couldn’t get in an off-the-shelf bottle, an amazing recipe that is now sold bottled from the stall. My friend and I seriously considered ordering another rib meat roll straight afterwards, and then again when we walked past on the way back to the car. It was that good.

A great experience and a lovely way to start the first sunny day of the year! I chatted to the guy who owns the stall for a while and he was super-friendly, genuinely happy that we were enjoying his food so much, he passionately cares about his food. A sign of success is surely in the way that he runs out of food typically three hours before the official end of the market, so go early! The Rib Man is also to be found at Kerb (formerly known as Eat Street) on King’s Boulevard near the new King’s Cross concourse on selected days mid-week so worth checking it out there also.

An easy choice for a SUPER-DISH and very, very highly recommended. So very, very good.

Wednesday 3 April 2013

Sfizio, Ware

I was out for dinner on Easter Sunday and the pub we were going to was frustratingly closed for food. So we decided that given it was a ‘funny’ day for opening hours, it seemed prudent to go to a large-ish town and try our luck there. So we went to Ware and had a hunt around. I have eaten in Ware a few times, but only in an Indian so was interested to see what else Ware had to offer.

We found an Italian hidden away in a side street called Sfizio.

The menu looked interesting from the outside so we decided to give it a go, a family business for about 10 years. First impressions were mixed : a large Italian family around a noisy table was a good sign, but the décor wasn’t great, a little clinical and the lighting was way too bright. However, the attentive waiter meant that we soon got into the place, especially when we discovered they serve proper Italian Peroni, not the UK version you see so commonly over here!

Starter was mushroom ravioli, which was one of the daily specials. This was served in a gorgonzola cheese sauce and was appropriately strong and tasty. My only complaint (as a pedant) was that the pasta was a little too al dente for my liking, but I am clutching at straws here.

Main course was rose veal wrapped in Parma ham, served in a tomato based sauce. Great, although could have done with an extra two or three meatballs as I felt the dish was a little small. Served with sautéed potatoes which were lovely and crispy and an OK side salad. The revelation from the main course was the homemade chilli sauce that arrived on the table to accompany our main courses, just spicy enough not to mask the flavour. Delicious.

The high point was the homemade tiramisu for dessert, also from the daily specials selection. This was a big portion but I could have easily eaten this over again it was so lovely. I’m awarding a SUPER-DISH here as it has inspired me to work on perfecting my own tiramisu, a dessert I adore when done well.

In a nutshell, highly recommended. A great random find. Seems to be plenty of interesting places to eat in Ware so watch this space… I have my eye on a Spanish and a Turkish restaurant to try in the near future!

Tuesday 2 April 2013

Bengal Spice, Loughton

I’m pretty sure this place used to be called The Eastern Eye, just a few doors down from the police station in Loughton. I’ve been plenty of times before and always nice enough, but I think that Friday night was the first time I have been since it has changed hands.

I wanted something mild and light, having over-indulged (unusually!) the few days before. So I went for the chicken shaslick. It was lovely. Fragrant, fresh vegetables and juicy chicken.

Also some cabbage bhajee to accompany and a keema nan. I’m a big cabbage person and don’t often see it on the menu at an Indian restaurant, I’m really glad I did as it was as lovely as the shaslick. Keema nan was good, but I couldn’t finish the whole thing so had to hand over the last quarter to a friend.

This place was great, really nice and definitely somewhere I want to go more regularly. Those I had dinner with all agreed as well, everyone enjoyed what they ordered. Been looking for a eating-out staple Indian for a while, and Bengal Spice in Loughton might just be it. Recommended.