Tuesday 23 July 2013

Bavarian Beerhouse, City Road, EC1V

Sometimes, on a night out, you will want to do something culturally enriching. Perhaps a play, or an art installation. Maybe even a recital, or a mime? Then, at the other end of the spectrum, are those nights when you want to just get drunk. Very drunk. Very quickly. For the latter, I genuinely don’t think there is any better venue in London than the Bavarian Beerhouse, two minutes walk from Old Street tube station.

First and foremost, this is a venue that sells beer. Many different types of traditional German beer are served here, from a light pilsner to a dark, intense wheat beer. These are served as pints or in a two pint stein, non-Brits and non-Germans please note that these are the only two acceptable measurements of beer. As well as the beer, there is a great selection of schnapps and liquors, and of course Jägermeister. The wild cherry (wildkirsche), and forest fruits (waldfrucht) are favourite schnapps flavours and also of note is the kleiner feigling, fig and vodka bottle shot. And best of all, drinks are served by a buxom German waitress in traditional Bavarian dress and if you order 10 they come with a firework!

If you go, you have to try the ‘porno fizz’, a vodka and sherbet mix. You pour the sherbet sachet into your mouth, then the vodka, before shaking your head vigorously to mix and then swallow. But enough about alcohol, this is a food blog, right?

Every time I have been here I have ordered the German platter to start with, a selection of German dishes to try. This constitutes five elements: zwiebelmett (a German sausage speciality), Münchner wurstsalat (thinly sliced knockwurst sausage with onions and pickles), kartoffelsalat mit speck (potato salad with bacon), Schwarzwälder schinken (Black Forest ham garnished with tomatoes and gherkins) and obazda (a Bavarian cream cheese speciality). All are great except for the cream cheese, no matter how many times I have tried this, it is still rank! Accompanied with a great (in both senses of the world) pretzel, the perfect starter.

To follow, currywurst mit pommes, a curried sausage with chips. Super-simple and super-tasty. This is a very sweet curry sauce, a bit like Northerners have on their chips. We also ordered a giant meatball capped with a fried egg to share. I had not had the latter before but this was very tasty too.

So, want to get very drunk, very quickly? Go to the Bavarian Beerhouse on Old Street (there is another one by the Tower or London) but line your stomach with some excellent German food whilst you are there. Always a great atmosphere, and always very rowdy. Recommended.

Thursday 18 July 2013

An Indian food adventure!

I was recently lucky enough to travel to India on business. India is somewhere I have always wanted to visit, but an opportunity has never (until now) presented itself. Given that we order an Indian takeaway at least once a week my expectations were very high. When discussing food in India, it seems to me that there are three things that are constantly mentioned, I’m going to call them the TIFINs, The Indian Food in INdia clichés. These are as follows…

1. The Indian food in India is nothing like it is in the UK.
2. The Indian food in India is the best Indian food you will ever eat.
3. The Indian food in India is guaranteed to make you very ill.

Instead of reviewing the food I ate individually, I’m going to cover each of these clichés one at a time.

1. The Indian food in India is nothing like it is in the UK.

False. Actually, the food in India was in many ways similar to that available in the UK. Firstly, in terms of nomenclature, where many of the same dishes exist with broadly the same flavour. We had tikka masala dishes, jalfrezi dishes and dansak dishes; all of which are stables in the 9,000 Indian restaurants in the UK (one for every 7,000 Britons). Broadly, the taste is at least similar; if you ordered a chicken tikka masala in India, it would very much feel like it was from the same family as one that was ordered here.

One interesting difference were the bar snacks on offer. An Indian dish selection is definitely better than crisps or nuts, but possibly not any better than pork scratching’s… up for debate!

2. The Indian food in India is the best Indian food you will ever eat.

True. I had some of the most amazing food on my three days in India. I vowed that I wouldn’t eat any ‘Western’ food and apart from a small relapse (eggs benedict for breakfast) I stuck with this. Two of the three nights we ate in Masala Bay, the Indian restaurant in the hotel (Taj Land’s End, Mumbai), where the service and atmosphere was every bit as good as the food. Our Indian host and guide was a food obsessive too so he ordered on our behalf and the food that emerged kept everybody very satisfied.

Two particular dishes of note. Firstly, a simple lamb curry; this just dissolved in your mouth like the very best Greek kleftika and was a revelation; I think we all would have been happy eating just this one dish! Secondly, the garlic prawns. Massive butterfly cut prawns (I would say more like a langoustine) drenched in a buttery, garlic sauce. Simple and divine.

Another interesting culinary experience was palm, as a dessert / palette cleaner. A sweet paste wrapped in a leaf, with cloves piercing the leaf to impart flavour. I do love the taste of a clove but had to remove these before eating as the cloves were obviously very, very overpowering. Truly something different.

On the second night we ate at a local restaurant called Pali Village Café, recommended by our Indian partner. A very unassuming, authentic restaurant that you wouldn’t stumble upon, you would have to know where you were heading as it was very off piste. The food was, without exception, wonderful. Every dish was a delight and in the atmosphere of this restaurant made for a very special meal indeed. Again, a local ordered for us so I have little idea of exactly what I ate, but would happily do so again. The cherry on top was the ride back to the hotel in a beautiful Rolls Royce Ghost, not an everyday experience!

3. The Indian food in India is guaranteed to make you very ill.

Unfortunately, also true. I’m not going to share any scary details, but I was ill on and off for three weeks after returning to the UK! At one point I didn’t eat a single thing for four solid days, but frustratingly didn’t lose any weight. WTF? I’m told that one way to minimise the risk of getting ill is to eat nothing from the streets, to stick only to hot food in Western hotels. I failed.

One of the best things eaten in India was a sort of ‘burger’ from a street stall outside a university, one of our hosts jumped out the car to get these for us whilst we were stuck in traffic and hungry (see attractive picture above). This was meat-free, consisting mainly of potato that was beautifully spiced. In some ways, whilst this was a very simple thing, it was also the best thing eaten in India. It was certainly the thing that I will remember most from India, for many reasons!

So, first cliché (in my opinion) busted, but the second and third held true! A great gastronomic experience and one that I hope to repeat again.

Saturday 13 July 2013

Crazy Cajuns, Birmingham, AL

It’s not very often that I get to have something truly different for lunch, but yesterday was one of those days. I’m in Birmingham, Alabama on business and whilst out and about with my hosts we stopped for lunch at Crazy Cajun, a very ordinary looking place on a small outdoors shopping mall. This wasn’t one of the places that I had been recommended before my trip so when I first saw it I was a little un-sure, possibly even disappointed.

That disappointment changed very quickly on entry, Crazy Cajun is über-cool; with taxidermy and all sorts of paraphernalia on the walls. A truly great environment, so I ordered a root beer and interrogated the menu. I’m not especially familiar with Cajun food, I’ve eaten it many times in the UK but it hasn’t been at all authentic, so this was like a new experience. Strictly speaking, I don’t think Cajun is an Alabama speciality but this place came highly recommended from my hosts.

We had alligator as an appetiser to share on the table. I’ve had alligator before in the USA and it’s something I enjoy, it can be a little tough and fatty but it tastes great. The cocktail sauce that accompanied it was delightful too.

Next on the list was Louisiana Gumbo, described as ‘an authentic dark file gumbo’, which was served with rice. The gumbo in Crazy Cajun had won awards in 2006, 2007 and 2010! The choice was chicken and sausage or seafood; we ordered ‘ya-ya’ which is all of the above mixed together. The gumbo was super-tasty and really very well spiced. The rice was sticky and served on top of a gumbo that was full of flavour and full of meat and fish, including the ubiquitous crawfish (spelt the American way). I’m not sure how to describe the flavour but it tasted like it had some Asian fish sauce in it. I’m sure it didn’t, but whatever it was tasted wonderful.

Main course could have gone very wrong! One of my hosts was very keen on a dish and recommended it to me; I didn’t feel like I could say ‘no’. It was a pasta dish, and regular readers will know that I’m not a big fan of ordering pasta in a restaurant; however a recent pasta success in another establishment meant I should give it a go. So I ordered the (unassuming sounding) seafood rotini…

Fresh Louisiana crawfish tails, Andouille sausage and shrimp simmered in a Creole fettuccini sauce, served with rotini pasta.

This dish was fricking amazing! The crawfish, sausage and shrimp were all divine, and there was a lot of each in the dish, with just the right amount of pasta. But the sauce… fricking amazing is the only way I can describe the rich, creamy and spicy Creole sauce. I’ve not enjoyed a dish so much for a long time, and just thinking about it now makes me very hungry indeed. I’m also not sure I’ve eaten a plate as food as quickly before.

In fact, the sauce was so good that I 'borrowed' some leftover bread from one of my hosts to ensure that not a drop of this excellent stuff wasn’t wasted. I desperately wish that I lived near this place; I would visit all the time and work my way through the rest of this excellent menu. Any one of the dishes eaten were deserving of a SUPER-DISH but it has to go to seafood rotini as one of the best things I have eaten in a long, long time.

Thanks to Brad for recommending such an excellent choice for lunch, looking forward to coming again!

Friday 12 July 2013

American Coney Island, Detroit, MI

It has long been a personal ambition of mine to visit one of the places that has been featured on Man vs. Food; this week I finally did it! In the 2009 season of the show, Adam visited Detroit and talked about the rivalry of two places serving a ‘Coney Island’; for those of us not from Michigan: a Coney Island is a hotdog topped with chili, raw onions, and mustard. It’s what other people would call a chilidog.

Gust G. Keros immigrated to Detroit (via Coney Island, NY) from Greece in 1903 and founded American Coney Island in 1917. His nickel Coney Island hot dogs were a success and he brought his brother William over from Greece to help. William opened Lafayette Coney Island right next door and there started the rivalry. The evening I visited, I was off to a baseball game with dinner provided (hotdogs!) so I had to pick just one of the two restaurants to taste; I chose American Coney Island, as it was the first of the two to open almost 100 years ago.

Inside was a (British guy’s view of a) classic 1950s American diner, with formica tables and plenty of tiles on the wall. Also on the wall was a picture of Adam from Man vs. Food enjoying his Coney Island. I ordered mine to-go and took a bite into it outside.

It was a great chilidog. The wiener was long and moist and the bun that it came in was light. The raw onion and mustard was great and the chilli was just spicy enough to be really interesting. It was as great as those ingredients combined together could be; never going to win any food awards but a great way to spend $2.50. I got very messy, which in my book is usually a sure sign of great food.

But the taste, to a certain extent, was secondary to the fact that I got to do something that I have wanted to do for a very long time. I travel a lot in my job which can oftentimes be a pain, but it is little episodes like that which put a big smile on my face and make me feel very lucky. Can’t wait to return to Detroit and try Lafayette Coney Island next door! And I’ll do what Man vs. Food didn’t; I’ll drop off the fence and choose a winner! A wiener winner, if you will? No? OK.

Andy Murray… my part in his success!

I’m really not a sport fan at all; Formula 1 is the only one I really follow. And F1 it isn’t really a sport in the accepted sense, i.e. in sport a human being does all the work, as opposed to a car, some mechanics and a state-of-the-art development centre. Tennis doesn’t really interest me except when two things collide… Wimbledon and Andy Murray. When that happens I get really excited. This is due to two things: 1) the sense of history associated with a British player winning the tournament and b) the fact that my company has been sponsoring Wimbledon since for more than a quarter of a century.

This year I went on the first day of the tournament and saw Andy Murray beat Becker 6-4 6-3 6-2 and went through to the second round of the competition. What part did I play in his success? Good question. A big part of a British players success in any sport on home turf is the mood of the crowd (see London 2012 for evidence) to provide inspiration and improve performance by a few crucial percentage points. This year I played a role here, and my personal inspiration in turn was linked to the excellent food eaten at Wimbledon in the suite that my company has adjoining Centre Court.

It wouldn’t be appropriate to review the free food and drink that I consumed in vast quantities at Wimbledon a few weeks ago, but I will draw attention to the afternoon tea served. This part of the day is always the high point for me when I’ve visited the tournament; especially the scones and the quince paste that accompanies the cheese. Divine. I’ve done a lot of different corporate entertainments at sporting events over the years and Wimbledon is very much in the premier league.

Well done Andy, and well done me for helping you.

Saturday 6 July 2013

BHS Café isn’t all bad… who knew?

I had lunch with my mum on Wednesday, which is always a pleasure (she reads this so I have to say that). We were looking for somewhere to sit down for a light snack and she suggested the café at BHS. Yeah, I know, BHS! I was a little worried but hunger took over so that was that.

BHS was founded in 1928 and, even in 2013, it often seems only a few tape measures and ornate columns away from being Grace Brothers. We ascended the escalator into the dark first floor of the department store, which feels a lot like going back in time and waking up in 1975. The tables and chairs were awful and the décor was worse. Grey, beige, grey, beige. My mum had a sandwich and I decided to try a chicken burger. The lady serving said that it would take 15 minutes to cook, so at least it was being made fresh. I sat down and waited.

When it arrived I was pleasantly surprised. It was actually quite nicely presented in a basket, and was accompanied by chips and onion rings. When I ordered the lady asked me whether I wanted burger sauce or firecracker sauce, so I said “both” obviously. Both were great, the burger sauce was nothing like those big bottles you get in kebab shops and the firecracker sauce lived up to its name, some decent heat. The chips were great, freshy deep-fried along with the onion rings. Crunchy and delicious. The chicken burger was lovely too, not amazing but far better than expected and encased in a nice glazed sesame seed bun. Even the tomato and lettuce was fresh; well, fresh for an in-store café.

In summary, a surprisingly tasty experience; seek it out and see if you agree. I think Young Mr Grace would be very impressed!

The John Barleycorn PH, Thresher’s Bush

This is a favourite pub in my house, a stalwart that can be relied upon 99% of the time to offer great seasonal food in a friendly atmosphere. Also great for a lunch, sitting outside in the sun next to the big pond. I visited last weekend for the first time in a few months and I almost didn’t bother reviewing this place as it is on the ‘usual’ list and has been mentioned in my blog before. Except the starter just had to be shared…

There is always an extensive specials board here; in fact I’m not sure I have ever ordered much off the 'normal' menu. One of the options on this visit was a black pudding and sausage meat croquette with a homemade piccalilli. This was an AMAZING starter, one of the best I have had for a long time. The black pudding was full of flavour and the sausage meat was great too, subtly spiced and wrapped in a light breadcrumb crust. The piccalilli was every bit as good as the dish it was accompanying. I could have eaten this three times over for a main course. SUPER-DISH.

The rest of the meal was liver and bacon (beautifully pink) with garlic potatoes, with Eton mess to follow. Both were great (as expected) but this review is all about the starter so I’ll leave it there.

If you live near Harlow, Sawbridgeworth, Hertford or (at a push) Chelmsford then a trip to Thresher’s Bush is a very rewarding one. It’s just a shame that the ever-changing specials menu (the best thing about the pub) is also the very reason why you will have to be very lucky to find the croquette described above! A frustrating catch-22 in a way, but something that is worth living with; a great starter I might never have again!