Sunday Roast at Trinity

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I’ve been slightly annoying (or maybe just seeming weird to) Rachael by repeatedly remarking that ‘that’s been cooked sous vide‘. Boy, can you make a great roast by cooking the beef sous vide! Additional confirmation comes in the form of an assurance that the beef has been cooking ‘overnight’, and therefore will come rare, or medium rare, as the chef provides it.

“[T]here are other elements to a good Sunday Roast”

But there are other elements to a good Sunday Roast. A perfect yorkshire pudding – yes, that huge mushroom above is an enormous, delicious baked batter – is definitely necessary in my book. All the better when there’s an additional jug of gravy to pour into it. A perfect (sous vide) carrot is a delicious, though slightly embarrassingly singular, vegetable. It is slightly made up for with a carrot purée. Spinach increases the five a day quotient, in a way that the single leaf of onion (though delicious) does not.

But this Sunday Roast is all about being a cut above. The bone is presented with rosemary literally aflame in the marrow, which is oozing and naughty and fatty and slimy and gorgeous.Every part of the dish is spot-on, and a cut-above, and whilst this isn’t going to replace your regular Sunday lunch affair, it is certainly the sort of ‘aspirational’ benchmark that you’re not going to achieve at home, but is good to have in the back of your mind.

I haven’t properly addressed the beef. Perfectly rare and tender. The offer of a grating of horseradish atop the cut was gratefully encouraged by all. A crust was caramelised and lightly crunchy but miles away from tough.

Add a spectacular couple of starters, and you get a meal that was only marginally let down with relatively mediocre desserts. I’m glad I’m moving away from this place, as I could have gained an expensive habit!

Hot Dog at Big Apple Hot Dogs

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We were lucky enough to catch up with Big Apple Hot Dogs at Feast. This foodie festival by London Bridge featured a range of the top food stalls currently plying their trade around London, within a vibrant atmosphere of eager eaters. But we headed straight for these posh sausages.

“So what makes this a posh hot dog?”

First issue: it’s one of those dishes. Yes, that’s right: it’s almost completely impossible to eat. At least not with a) your dignity intact or b) your clothes unstained. It’s served simply in a bun with optional fried onions – but adornment is where the ‘little’ starts and ends – it’s huge, juicy, dribbly and oozing with flavour. Could I eat another one straight away? You bet I could!

So what makes this a posh hot dog? Time Out seems to have real trouble with this notion – though it seems perfectly happy with posh hamburgers, and haven’t we had ‘posh bangers’ in the UK for years? The answer is that it is made from good cuts of free range meat, presented in a freshly baked (though relatively plain) bun, and yes, it’s grilled not boiled – we aint on a New York street corner!

The rest of Feast was somewhere between delicious and disappointing. ‘Small portions so you can try lots’ weren’t accompanied by corresponding reductions in prices – or at least not to levels that you or I might consider cheap tasters. And this is generally street food not Michelin-starred restaurant fare, which you might expect to come with a plastic-knife-and-fork pricetag. Everything I ate was delicious, however, and the range was good – though some things disappointingly sold out.

Pie And Mash at Square Pie

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Pie and mash is something of an East End institution. Like jellied eels, this is simple fare that you’d expect to be served to market stallholders for a tasty hot lunch. It’s one of those dishes that has been given a ‘gourmet makeover’ – and clearly the more irony that can be squeezed out of cooking well something that is traditionally as far from foodie-heaven the better for such makeovers.

“No, I’m not saying it’s Fray Bentos, heated in a greasy spoon’s microwave”

The problem I have with Square Pie’s pie and mash isn’t so much that it isn’t good – it’s a perfectly palatable and enjoyable lunch – it’s just that it isn’t really so much better than any other pie I’ve eaten. What’s great about a proper English pie (and yes, I’m a purist who believes there simply has to be pastry all the way round, not simply on top, and woe-betide those who cook some puff pastry separately and then plonk a miserable rectangle onto some stew) is that it’s warming comfort food. Made from straightforward ingredients, that have frequently come from the cheaper end of the spectrum (or the cow!) – hint: kidneys don’t feature solely for their taste – pie offer hearty food without too much mucking about. I’m not advocating that Square Pie should muck about more – there are many other places with frankly over-thought-out fillings – but just that if they’re not going to, it’s hard to detect that gourmet flair.

So this is a (good) standard pie with, yes, above-average mash and a healthy slosh of gravy. I’d happily eat it again, but I reckon I could do so in a variety of venues. No, I’m not saying it’s Fray Bentos, heated in a greasy spoon’s microwave, but I hope I’d never find myself quite that desperate (or unable to eat a Full English!).

Middle of the road.

Anjou Quail at Texture

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Sometimes modernist cuisine can be very naff. Let’s be honest, in striving to create new flavours, and to boldly surprise diners, the new chefs can end up making food that’s totally preposterous. Exploded this and compressed that, such-and-such foam and dehydrated thingumy often go too far. Texture isn’t like that.

“Sometimes modernist cuisine can be very naff”

Modern Scandinavian cooking is on offer. But the idea isn’t to push ingredients beyond breaking point, but to show you what those ingredients really mean. So the quail is served pink and moist and oh-so tender, with a matchbox of breast and two lollipops (though I love that Americans call them ‘popsicles’) of leg. Sitting on a bed of sweetcorn, with corn jus and some spicy popped corn, this is actually a remarkably simple dish. Simple, but supremely delicious.

Quail can, obviously, taste quite gamey. And presumably it’s exactly this flavour that hanging and ageing meats is intended to develop. But this is so, so subtle, with a meaty, poultry taste that is gently aromatic, sweetly herby and almost salty-sour.

Would I try this again? Yes. And with staff that went so far beyond helpfulness after a confusion regarding the booking, I’d happily recommend the place!

Fried Yam Paste Meat Dumplings at Royal China

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It has taken a while for us to make it to Royal China. The main reason is Rachael’s absolute insistence that dim sum may only be eaten at lunchtime. This is, of course, a) absolutely correct and b) an absurd extra hurdle to add into a food challenge. Until I realised they don’t actually serve these little portions of deliciousness after 4pm!

“[They] have an excellent crunch-squish mouthfeel”

One of the delights of dim sum is that you get to have a variety of dishes, and choose a meal with things that complement and play off each other, so the presence of a particular item on Time Out’s top 100 list might seem a little odd. For one thing, whether you have a nice small dish meal is so often a matter of the selection rather than one stand-out plate. So the question is do the yam paste dumplings particularly impress.

The answer is probably no. Sure, they’re nice, with a vermicelli-like shell of crispy strands of fried yam coating the standard-flavour pork dumpling meat filling. They’re volcano hot to bite into, and (beyond the fear of burning) have an excellent crunch-squish mouthfeel, that does offer a fun texture to ponder alongside slick cheung fun and soft, doughy char siu buns. But there’s no blow-your-mind flavour from two relatively low-key ingredients, or other sensation that would make me rush back.

I doubt I’d miss these if I failed to order them on a return visit. Does anyone disagree?

Chorizo Sandwich at Brindisa

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The chorizo sandwich at Brindisa is one of the few Chowdown Showdown dishes that I happened to have eaten before embarking on this quest. Rather than being located in a restaurant, it’s served from a small kiosk attached to Brindisa’s shop in Borough Market (rather than Tapas Brindisa, their sit-in eatery). There tends to be a long queue, and many’s the time when I’ve been in Borough Market and vacillated between this sandwich and Kappacasein’s oozing raclette or sublime cheese toastie. Invariably I go for one of the cheese options (and it never disappoints!). So, having a good reason to go back and have the chorizo was excellent, and I’m pleased to say I didn’t shirk my duties!

“It’s even less imaginable that anyone would be crazy enough to fiddle with the formula!”

The thing about chorizo is that it’s so good at making just about anything better – toss in stews to add a little fatty heat; mix into you burger meat; add, along with brandy and manchego to make an excellent chicken dish (which I’ll put up a recipe for sometime!) – that it’s easy never to give it a chance to take centre-stage. And what’s a delight about this dish is that it really gives chorizo (and presumably Brindisa is offering some of the best examples of this sausage in the country) a chance to shine. Some bitter rocket plays off the sharpness of the chorizo, and a slice of char-grilled red pepper complements the heavy paprika in the meat. The sausage itself starts bitter, and almost shocking in its sourness, before giving way to a mellower, warm, nutty flavour, that is indulgent but not too drip-down-your-front greasy.

It’s easy to see the reason for the long queues that are always present at peak times (and when isn’t peak time in Borough Market?). I’m sure there are people who find it hard to wait for the Fridays and Saturdays when the stall is there! The sandwich really does seem a perfect example of the form, and it’s hard to see any alterations that would improve it. It’s even less imaginable that anyone would be crazy enough to fiddle with the formula!

You can get the sandwiches in either a single or double, with one chorizo, simply cut lengthways, and a single pepper, or two of each. I’d advise getting the single. But only because, if you’re particularly greedy, or have someone to share it with, you’ll have space to manage a cheese toastie as well!

Meat Fruit at Dinner

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Dinner, or, to give it its full name – ‘Dinner by Heston’ – is Mr Blumenthal’s historical-themed restaurant. Though it isn’t exactly clear what involvement Heston actually has: Ashley Palmer-Watts, who worked previously at the Fat Duck and seems to be the head chef is much mentioned on the website which only says that he ‘developed the dishes with Heston’. So more Dinner by Palmer-Watts. I guess this is like ‘presented by Guillermo del Toro’ in terms of foreign horror fantasy films…

“So far, so vague”

So where exactly is history involved? Well, the menu gives every dish a year date, for one thing. Plus, on the back a reference to a contemporary cookbook. It plays a game with diners, with some dishes mysteriously named “Meat Fruit” or “Tipsy Cake” clearly intending to intrigue. Others spell out their constituent parts, but I’m more convinced by the historical heritage of those dishes which have a name, rather than just a list of ingredients. This is what I decide to ask when the waiter inquires if we have any questions: what exactly are these dates and cookery books? What’s their connection? The answer: the dishes are ‘inspired by’ those recipes, and updated with modern ingredients and techniques. So far, so vague.

We’re here to eat the Meat Fruit, which, from external research sounds like a magical dish featuring pâté with a mandarin jelly glaze, formed into the shape of a mandarin and with a (sadly inedible) stalk on top. When it arrives, the dish actually surpasses my expectations, with a perfect little clementine-alike on a board with toasted sourdough. The pâté is perfectly creamy and light, with only a hint of over-richness that you can happily expect. It has a depth of flavour the complete opposite of the frequently pungent, smack-you-in-the-face offaly flavour that you often get with liver terrines and which I frankly hate. The mandarin is like a coating of chutney, biting through the oaky taste of the meat and giving a tart balance to it. It doesn’t have a greasy consistency at all, but is clear and translucent, and so thin a layer we can’t quite understand how – or believe they did – cover the filling so perfectly.

They even bring a second round of toast for us to finish off the fruit. I’m in heaven.

Seseri Skewers at Bincho

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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.

Bacon Cheeseburger All-The-Way at Five Guys UK

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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.

Grilled Pork at Eyre Brothers

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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.