Seseri Skewers at Bincho

image

It’s been a bit of a mission getting these seseri skewers.

“You’ll have to be lucky – or have a special arrangement – if you want to catch them”

We first tried to acquire them on Chowdown Showdown Getsaround, but were informed that they’re only sometimes on the menu and that they didn’t have them. Well done, again, Time Out, you’ve put a special on your list of the 100 best dishes in London. That was only the initial indication of the difficulty. In fact, it quickly became apparent, when trying on a few occasions to phone and see if Bincho had them, that they really were only rarely around. Even calling ahead and asking for them to put in an order failed: they said they had done so, but the day before called to let us know they hadn’t been able to get any from their supplier.

By this point, I must have begun to make an impression, because the manageress offered to take my number and call when they had some in. I didn’t hold out much hope, but sure enough, a couple of months after – and two weeks ago – I got a call to say they’d be coming the next day. Hilariously, this was sandwiched between two other evening Chowdowns, but we couldn’t do anything other than take them up and go for three in a row.

So, here we find ourselves, with eight seseri skewers on order between the three of us. That’s chicken neck for those of you not up on your yakitori ingredients.

As I always try to make clear to those who turn their noses up at eating chicken feet: it’s the fatty, gorgeous deposits, just beneath the skin but close enough to the bone to be steeped through with flavour, that make the meat from thin, scrawny bits of animals (such as their necks) so goddamned delicious. And, as it ever was, these sticks of difficult-to-come-by morsels are genuinely as delicious as their rare charm suggests. Fatty, crispy, melty and oozing with flavour. They are also drenched in a superb sweet-tart-fruity sauce, the remnants of which we devour with other dishes.

I’d tell you to rush out and get these skewers, but I was paying attention, and spotted that you’ll have to be lucky – or have a special arrangement – if you want to catch them.

Kedgeree at The Wolseley

kedgereebrightened

If you haven’t eaten at The Wolseley – do so! Based in what was once a car showroom (think Rolls Royce not Vauxhall), and if nothing else the setting is utterly splendid. Perfect for a romantic evening, so long as you like a buzzy, busy atmosphere. And the food won’t totally break the bank. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t expensive – it is – but there are a variety of more affordable options on the menu. Kedgeree, at £12.00 is one of these more affordable options.

“It’s about as far from the vibrant, coronation chicken yellow that it can sometimes be”

Eschewing the obvious breakfast appointment for the dish, Rachael and I headed to The Wolseley in the evening (having taken our permission from the Time Out instructions that the dish makes as nice an end as it does a start to the day). I take things one step further with a starter of Eggs Benedict. This turns out to be a bit of a error, though not because of the dish itself. A perfectly toasted muffin holds an exquisite poached egg, and the most sumptuous, giggle-makingly delicious hollandaise I’ve even tasted. The reason it was a bit of a mistake is that said exquisite egg rather pre-empted the exquisite egg perched on top of the kedgeree! My mistake.

The kedgeree itself is more lightly curried that I would generally expect. It’s about as far from the vibrant, coronation chicken yellow that it can sometimes be. Rachael compliments the way that every grain of basmati remains separate, and it’s true: it hasn’t taken on any risotto or congee consistency, but remains a dish of many individual grains. I think this may be because the stock is a little watery, at least to my taste. Flakes of smoked fish are small, but make themselves known, and this certainly helps to bring the whole dish together: rather than delivering a bowl of weakly-flavoured rice with chunks of protein.

That said, the egg, once cut and allowed to ooze gloopily across the pile, takes things to another level, and what looks like a small plate does manage to satisfy. I insist to Rachael that the egg must be cooked sous vide (don’t all big top restaurants employ the technique for eggs?) – but this may be more down to my obsession that the truth. Without it, I think this dish would have been a pleasant, but rather ordinary one – lucky it was there!

Bacon Cheeseburger All-The-Way at Five Guys UK

image

So here’s a weird phenomenon that seems unexpected for capitalism. A US burger joint opens a branch in London. This is, presumably, not a big deal.

“A shake down in which many cows are set to lose their lives”

Firstly – there’s loads of great burgers in London. This is a statement that might not have been true a few years ago. Another friend (and sometime Chowdown Showdown co-conspirator) – James – and I used to have something of a food challenge of our own, back then. We were trying to find the best burger in London. In those days it might have been possible to eat all the top burgers. There were some posh burgers (a trend that started in earnest with Gourmet Burger Kitchen – this was a time when there were still only about eight outlets, rather than one on every high street), but few enough that it was possible to aim for them all. Nowadays there’s not just one Byron, but a whole budget-night full of them. There’s Haché and Meat Liquor, Boulud and Honest, Dirty and Burger & Lobster and Patty & Bun and you get the idea. Not so easy to try them all (though others, admirably, are having a go).

Secondly – so what? We’ve got US fast food, so what’s the big deal with more of it. They’re all just doing the same thing, right? (Right, wrong? Well let’s see!)

But here’s the fun bit (and the conundrum for capitalism) – the US burger joint opens a branch in London at exactly the time that… another US burger joint opens a branch in London! Suddenly, it’s a story. For the media it’s Five Guys vs Shake Shack. Battle Of The Burgers! A shake down in which many cows are set to lose their lives. Suddenly, just by opening competing restaurants at once, they’re a big deal, and get a massive publicity push. It’s almost as if they’ve coordinated.

Did I mention they’ve both set up in tourist-central Covent Garden, barely seven minutes walk apart?

The two places have very different philosophies. Shake Shack is (cheap) gourmet, with fancy(-named) toppings and flavours tailored to the location.So you’ll find Cumbrian sausages and a ‘Union Shack’ ice cream mix. There’s burgers and shakes and frozen custard (yes, that’s just ice cream) and concretes (that’s just ice cream with things mixed in, but harder than a McFlurry).

“There’s Haché and Meat Liquor, Boulud and Honest, Dirty and Burger & Lobster and Patty & Bun and you get the idea”

Five Guys, on the other hand, offers just burgers (with cheese, bacon, or neither), hot dogs (though not yet in their UK branch), fries, and 125 (count ’em) flavours of fizzy pop (I think they call it ‘soda’ over the pond) from a ‘Coca Cola Freestyle’ machine – apparently the first in Britain. Tailoring to your taste is their thang, and you can have any or all of 15 toppings added to your burger for nothing.

….oh, and they refuse to have freezers on site – so it’s all about fresh meat, and potatoes, cut into chips without every becoming sub-zero. I guess this also explains the lack of ice cream and shakes!

…oh, and they’ve continued their US tradition of having free sacks of monkey nuts to crack open (obviously the most fun part), and munch on while you queue.

I have no option but to go for the bacon cheeseburger ‘all-the-way’. The ‘all-the-way’ bit means that it has all of their most popular / standard toppings slapped on – lettuce, tomatoes, grilled onions, pickles, grilled mushrooms, mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard. Really – I have no option: Tom got their ahead of me and jumped straight into the fifteen minute queue, and by the time I’d got there he’d ordered for me. But he was right – this is what I’d have gone for anyway. Luckily, I get there while he’s still waiting for our meal to be cooked and bagged – the burgers are cooked to order (you trying have all 748,272,943,723,780 combinations, or whatever implausible number a mathematician would tell you there can be, ready to eat) – so I’ve time to grab some monkey nuts.

The burger comes wrapped in foil in a paper bag, with a cup of medium-cut fries overflowing and chucked into the bag with another handful chucked in for good measure. As you can see from the picture above, the burger is literally stuffed to the point of overflowing, and this one requires braving it with a firm grip and diving in with a wide-open mouth. The ‘normal’ burgers are actually double-patties – you have to opt for the ‘little burger’ to get a standard human-sized version. The chips, too, are generous, and this is the small portion. It’s a foolhardy man who goes for the medium or even the large.

To be frank, you don’t taste the individual flavours of each of the toppings. And if you were a purist foodie, this would spell trouble. “It’s all about the ingredients”, you’d cry. But the delight in this (and certainly the all-the-way option), is the mixture. The sheer indulgence of having an everything burger. It wouldn’t have altered things much if they’d blitzed the toppings together in the blenders that they don’t have on site before chucking it into the bun, except (to a small degree) from a mouthfeel perspective. But there’s hints of mushroom and onion and mayo and pickles in a way that is more burger-cocktail that celebration of locally-sourced produce (though the produce presumably is).

I do, somehow, manage to eat the lot without slopping it down my front, and it’s actually pleasantly filling rather than stomach achingly large. I made the mistake of checking out the nutritional information on their website, and discovered that a Bacon Cheeseburger All-The-Way goes down with a staggering 1,115 Calories. The ‘little’ fries come in at just 526 Calories.I’m glad I drank water! Okay, okay, so you don’t want to be hearing about how bad for you this stuff is (as if you didn’t know), but two things are clear: 1) it’s obvious why the food tastes so damn good (and so damn bad!) and 2) with those large fries I couldn’t even contemplate contemplating coming in at a measly 1,314 Calories (!) I’m beginning to understand the need for wider seats on planes!

This isn’t posh food, but it’s not McDonald’s either. It’s fresh and freshly cooked, and whilst it is no health food, it’s definitely tasty. The patty isn’t the perfect medium-rare celebration of top-notch beef that you can (thankfully, finally) find elsewhere in London, and the bun isn’t artisan sourdough or brioche, but this is a good, mid-range burger. That you’ll only want to eat for a treat.

Sea Urchin Sushi at Nizuni

image

This is our second visit to Nizuni.

“I’ve been calling, every couple of weeks, to ask if they have any sea urchin”

The first time round, when it came to ordering, the waitress said, totally matter-of-fact, “Sorry, we don’t have uni”. As if she had no idea of the terrible, disastrous import of the words that came so easily to her. We just went on ordering, too far committed to get up and leave… then ate our meal and headed to Manchurian Legends for their skewers!

So I’ve been calling, every couple of weeks, to ask if they have any sea urchin yet. Every time they’ve said no, or there’s another delivery next week, or there’s a supply problem and we don’t know when we’ll have some in. At no point did they say “Oh, it’s the urchin obsessive again”!

On Monday, though, everything changed. I phoned up and she said “Yes, we do have that”. As if she had no idea of the terrible, wondrous import of the words that came so easily to her. I immediately phoned Rachael, who couldn’t adjust her plans, so we braved it and called again the next day. They went above and beyond: having the fabled foodstuff two days in a row!

So we’re here again, with a round wooden platter holding two of these unexpectedly difficult to come across morsels. And yes, expectations are raised.

Biting in, I’m surprised. I guess I’d expected something tough and chewy, at the cuttlefish end of the sushi spectrum. Instead it is gooey, mushy, and almost gritty. It tastes characteristically like roe, with that fishy, smoky, not quite there yet flavour. So, of course, I feel a bit slow off the mark when I discover that, sure enough, you only eat the roe – or, more precisely, the gonads (bite on that!) – of sea urchins. The rest is generally considered inedible.

I prefer cuttlefish sushi to roe (if I’m honest), but this has a uniqueness of aroma and sparks my interest in its colour and solid-liquid texture.

Worth the wait? Well, if I tell the truth, I’m not convinced it was as fresh as the clear difficulty of getting hold of it might imply. I can imagine a cleaner, less fishy taste, and one that feels richer and more indulgent. Had expectations not been raised, I might have been more pleasantly impressed. Unfortunately, they had been.

Grilled Pork at Eyre Brothers

image

We arrive at Eyre Brothers with really high hopes.

“I’m still convinced that Iberico pork is in a whole different league”

For me, ‘grilled pork’ at a place called ‘Eyre brothers’ had conjured up an image of a stuffy old-time city steakhouse with besuited middle-aged salarymen chomping down on expensive expense-account lunches. On looking at the website, therefore, I was very pleasantly surprised that, in spite of the name, Eyre Brothers is actually a Spanish restaurant – in fact, another in a run of tapas joints on Time Out’s list. And the grilled pork? Not a slab of Germanic gristle, but an Iberico pork steak, of the sort that at Fino I struggled to believe had not come from a cow. So expectations were raised.

I’m still convinced that Iberico pork is in a whole different league, and as succulent, tender and delicious as the best beef steak. I’m still convinced it must be cooked rare, and needs minimal seasoning. The trouble was, that’s as far as they seem to go at Eyre Brothers. Sure, people – including me – frequently demand that chefs don’t get in the way of letting their first-rate ingredients shine. As a tapa nestled among a tableful of other tasty morsel, simply-grilled pork would be outstanding. But costing £21 served atop some fried sliced potatoes? It left me a little cold. Everything it had going for it was the deliciousness of one ingredient, which tells me more about the restaurant’s shopping-strategies than the chef.

Maybe I’m just not an (expensive) steak and chips guy, or maybe I had set the bar too high. Or maybe I just love tapas too much to go to a Spanish restaurant and settle for a single large dish, no matter how delicious the central element is.

English Breakfast at Pollen Street Social

image

I’ll soon put up a review of my whole experience of the tasting menu at Pollen Street Social. The quick version is that it was an amazing culinary experience that introduced me to – or, more precisely, reintroduced me to – a host of flavours and dishes. But that’s for another time. The Chowdown Showdown Londontown reason for being here was the third dish on the tasting menu: the English Breakfast.

“This is as much a game or a magic trick as it is aiming for verisimilitude”

It seems to be part of the ethic of Pollen Street Social that the more simply a dish is labelled, the more complex and unexpected the food itself will be when it appears. With the English Breakfast you’re presented first with a (very cute) egg cup, with nothing in it. Rachael and I joked that this could be The Emperor’s New English Breakfast, and that we should start spooning air into our mouths and remarking on how delicious this truly modernist, truly minimalist, truly deconstructed item is. Next, they bring a tray with straw, and what look like soft-boiled eggs (opened by Little-Endians), with a sprinkling of red on top. But not all was as it seems…

Nestled inside the eggshell were a number of layers, each nodding at an element of a full English. At the bottom was a sour-sweet tomato purée, fresh and aromatic. Then comes a layer of finely chopped earthy mushrooms. Rich, creamy scrambled eggs is next, then a frothy, airy potato foam. Sprinkled on top are tiny crispy shards of bacon.

A testament to the brilliance of this dish is that, despite occupying only the space allowed by an eggshell, every layer was substantial enough to taste, feel, enjoy and identify. Granted, together they weren’t exactly like an English breakfast (and I’m not convinced I know what the potato was representing – please leave your suggestions below!), but this is as much a game or a magic trick as it is aiming for verisimilitude. Every part of it – from look to taste to dramatic presentation and set-up – made this dish, and it was a real joy to consume.

I’ll confess now: this wasn’t my favourite course of the tasting menu. That’s definitely not to take away from it, since the bar was set very high. You’ll have to stay tuned for my review of the other dishes to find out why not!

Recipe: Haagen-Dazs Strawberry Cheesecake Loaf

image

A cake loaf with the flavour of fancy ice cream – what more could you want?

I first saw the idea for this on Quora, and it fits firmly into the ‘cooking hacks’ notion of recipes, what with having three / four ingredients, and taking about 3 minutes to prepare. The result was a pretty successful, though very crumbly cake – but the short cut doesn’t deliver what you might hope for from a fancier recipe.

“A cake loaf with the flavour of fancy ice cream – what more could you want?”

I’ll probably try it again, with another flavour of ice cream – probably one with more solid ‘chunks’ that will add some interesting variety. Oh, and probably a flavour with a chocolatey bent.

I didn’t add any salt to my cake, and that was a mistake, since it was a little blander than I’d hoped for. Obviously if you go for a saltier ice cream (I’m thinking e.g. cookie dough) you might want to hold off, but I’ll be adding some next time.

Quora suggested that you could mix the flour with half the ice cream, and then fold in the rest of the ice cream to create ‘streaks’ of flavour veined through the cake. I found that half the ice cream produced a very dry dough that you wouldn’t be able to fold anything into, so I didn’t bother in the end. Your mileage may vary.

So here’s the recipe – simple as:

Recipe: Haagen-Dazs Strawberry Cheesecake Loaf
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
A moist, super-simple loaf cake that takes about 3 minutes to prepare. You can (probably) use any ice cream flavour. The cake should rise, crack and brown a bit, producing a light but slightly moist, doughy cake. Obviously stating the flour by volume rather than weight is a cardinal sin of baking, but since the whole idea is to be super quick and simple (and scale easily) this is the way to do it!
Author:
Recipe type: Dessert
Cuisine: Cake
Serves: 4-10
Ingredients
  • 1x 500ml pot Strawberry Cheesecake Haagen Dazs
  • 400ml self-raising flour
  • ½ tsp salt - optional, but advised for all but saltiest ice creams
  • 2 tsp vegetable oil, or butter, to grease
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 175C (450F).
  2. Allow the ice cream to pretty much melt. (I used the 40 minute trip home from the supermarket to achieve this.)
  3. Pour ice cream into a mixing bowl.
  4. Fill the now-empty pot four-fifths full with flour, stir in salt, and mix into ice cream with a metal spoon until mostly non-lumpy.
  5. Oil / butter loaf tin until well-greased.
  6. Bake for 45-50 minutes, until a cocktail stick stuck into the centre comes out clean.

 

Charcuterie at The Bull and Last

image

Charcuterie platters. They’re like tapas, right, but where you don’t get any choice, and they just serve you meat and, unless you’re very unlucky, a few chutneys and/or pickles? Actually, this is as much the reason why I tend to have a good time when I order these as why I never do so: because you get a whopping pile of tasty, salty, fatty meat, in a whole variety of guises. So I dove into the opportunity to head to Highgate (gastro-) pub The Bull and Last, visiting with Rachael and my parents.

“My theory was that watermelon pickle wouldn’t work”

The wooden board at The Bull and Last held products from a wider range of animals than you’d normally expect from a typically pig-heavy cuisine. Instead of the usual ham and chorizo and more ham offering, we found duck prosciutto – thin, delicately dried strips that genuinely sat somewhere between duck breast and bacon; chicken liver parfait (okay, it’s never going to be my favourite, but it certainly packed a creamy, indulgent punch – in exactly the way that means I find it a bit creepy and unpleasant); ham hock terrine was spreadable, but in a chunky way that didn’t lose all texture; duck rillettes were stringy and fibrous in just the right to-the-teeth fashion; pig’s head was rendered down into almost a croquette; chutneys and mini-pickles cut through the fatty mass of meat, though the perfunctory rocket salad was pretty bland and didn’t add much.

I was sneaky enough to ask if I could have some of the watermelon pickle that was an accompaniment to another dish. My theory was that watermelon pickle wouldn’t work. I contend that I was right, though Rachael and my parents were a little more generous and felt it was ‘interesting’. We all know what that means.

The selection was well-chosen, and a little different, and the thought that went into the creation and presentation of the whole menu shone through. This creativity was especially apparent in the desserts, particularly my pain perdu with hazelnut cream and a (yes, I’m cheeky) substituted-in (but correctly!) Ferrero Rocher ice-cream. Rachael’s Kernal Stout ice-cream, on the other hand, wasn’t exactly to my taste.

Overall, I’m game for trying more of the menu. You won’t even have to twist my arm!

Char-grilled Quail at Song Que

image

You notice two things on entering Song Que. Firstly, the Vietnamese cafe is hardly an elegant, haute cuisine establishment with smart design where you might expect one of the best eating experiences in London. Secondly, the place is simply heaving with people, crammed close together around tightly-packed tables.

Having tried this dish, I can appreciate why they’ve all come.

“the place is simply heaving with people”

The quail, grilled and chopped into quarters was crisp and moist without being greasy. It has a fairly light spicing that adds bite, but with attention to not competing with the tender flavour of the bird. It’s definitely a fingers-affair, where I feel no guilt at nibbling round the bones to get every last morsel. Quails aren’t famed for the quantity of the meat on them, so I’d definitely advise one each if you want more than a taste, and it would be a massive shame to waste any by politely picking at the dish with cutlery.

Served with a perfunctory garnish of lettuce, this isn’t going to satisfy someone looking for a perfectly presented dish, or a balanced starter… but I wouldn’t return to the restaurant and fail to order it.

Fish Pickle at Rasa

image

Generally we think of pickling as a way of preserving fresh foods, and creating flavourful accompaniments to potentially otherwise dull mainstays. Usually this would be something cheap and plentiful, so its interesting to see a pickle making use of an expensive protein as is main ingredient. I’d assume this is down to Rasa’s previous incarnation as Rasa Sumadra, a specialist outlet of this high-class Indian franchise with fish taking centre stage. We had to order the pickle specially, since it doesn’t feature on the standard Rasa menu.

“We had to order the pickle specially”

So how is it? At first, you’d be forgiven for not realising that it’s actually fish. The flavour is there, but well masked by the strong vinegary, spicy, sugary additions. In fact, it’s in the texture, with the soft, chewy bite that makes you realise the centimetre cubes are chunks of preserved ex-swimmers. And this is where the fish shines, since it is a great addition to the texture of pickle, creating something substantial, meaty and dense without creating something unrecognisable. It’s definitely not fish curry (and it would be a horribly sour and sweet one if it were). Distinctly pickle, but also rightly something with a bit more right to strut its stuff on the chutney plate.

No, I wouldn’t make a trip out just for this. And given you’d have to phone ahead to get it, it would take planning to come by. Maybe I’ll try to make my own. It has certainly made me rethink the humble pickle.