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.

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?

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.

Duck Egg Tart at Medlar

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I can say this straight away and unequivocally: the meal I ate last week at Medlar was one of the best I’ve ever eaten. Every course was spot-on, with surprising, delicious and delighting combinations of elements that in every case amounted to more than the sum of their parts.

“There was a time when French was the undisputed king of cuisines”

The duck egg at the centre of the plate was fried perfectly. In fact, I hesitate to declare that, because there wasn’t the slightest hint of oil, so I’m not entirely convinced that it was fried, rather than cooked via some dark magic with all the flavour but none of the grease. Perhaps is was baked onto the tart, but if that’s so I’ve no idea how they managed to get a perfect shape and texture. Some other magic, perhaps? The yolk ran fluidly, but was still hot and silky.

The most obviously ‘does that really need to be there’ element was the turnip purée. And the answer is a clear ‘yes’. Rather than being that boring root vegetable that ends up hanging around at the bottom of the remains of an organic veg box, this creamy, subtle, lovely white addition adds an earthiness without competing.

A red wine jus is sweet and sour, with a tanniny-tang that cuts through any possibility of the egg being cloying. It would work perfectly inside the tart, and I’m amused by the thought that you could reconstruct this dish into a pie.

There’s meatiness provided by the lardons (can’t go wrong, but these add just the right crispy saltiness), and the duck heart. I can be a little squeamish when it comes to nose-to-tail cooking, but I’ve recently been converted to heart, which seems to be just a delicate, steak-flavoured ‘cut’, especially when served sliced thinly and rare. In this case it is red and surprisingly unbloody. It has a distinct duck flavour without the fattiness that can make duck too rich.

“Some other magic, perhaps?”

You’ll have to excuse me if I go off-piste and mention my other courses. A spectacular aged white pork steak for a main, matched with a Geman (veal?) sausage and wild mushrooms, again every element pulled more than its own weight and left me wanting to weep. My chocolate pavé found it hard to match up to the heady highs of the accompanying malt ice-cream (incroyable!) and barley brittle (exactly what it sounds like, but it really worked!).

There was a time when French was the undisputed king of cuisines, but I generally head for Italian, tapas, Japanese or oriental myself. But I can honestly say that Medlar may have shown me precisely what the French are on about, and why they’re just so proud about their cooking. Revelatory!

Confit of pork belly with rosemary-scented cannellini beans at Opera Tavern

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Opera Tavern is in the same group as Salt Yard and Dehesa, so we knew we were in for a treat. Sure enough, the tapas list (which shares a few highlights with Salt Yard, including the goat’s-cheese-stuffed courgette flowers on Time Out’s top one hundred list there) features many salivation-starters. But we were here to sample the pork belly with cannellini beans.

“An indulgent, piggy, crunch-ooze-bite affair”

The dish is served in a ramekin, with the confit of pork belly sat on a centimetre-deep bed of beans, glistening with a mushy-pea-like consistency. The smell is impressive, with the rosemary justifying its claim to be ‘scenting’ rather than just ‘infused into’ the beans.

In their review, Time Out notes the impossibility of sharing this tapas (which is surely against the Official Tapas Rules), but also the fact you wouldn’t want to. The first thing you taste is the beans, with a flavour that is fresh, but also comforting – again, the flavour I’m reminded of is mint cutting through the warming, wholesome softness of mushy peas.

“Opera Tavern is in the same group as Salt Yard and Dehesa, so we knew we were in for a treat”

How do I know the beans are the first thing you’ll taste? Simple – because it’s the part of the dish you can work out how to taste. The fact is, the pork belly, with its rock-hard crackling (just the way it should be, don’t get me wrong), topping a layer of fat above a layer of meat, cannot be cut. Short of stuffing the whole thing into your mouth at once (and it really is much too big for that), you’re left trying to cleave something hard without slipping in the pool of lubricant below and catapulting a lump of pig across the room. It’s not an obvious sign of a successful pairing to wish you had a plate to pop it on, cut it up, and put it back!

The beans were delicious. Really delicious. Like a creamy, herby, luscious thick soup.

The pork was perfectly cooked – an indulgent, piggy, crunch-ooze-bite affair.

Each part was just right, but I’m not convinced putting them together really worked – from a culinary engineering, rather than Flavour Thesaurus perspective. It certainly won’t put me off going back there, but I might ask for an extra plate!

Shredded Pork Summer Rolls at Café East

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Without Rachael’s watchful eye (she’d already eaten these rolls before we started the Chowdown Showdown), I broke the rules and ordered one portion of summer rolls between Tom and I. This turned out to be the right decision, since the size was extremely generous.

“Without Rachael’s watchful eye, I broke the rules”

For those who’ve only ever eaten Chinese spring rolls it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking Vietnamese summer rolls will be very similar. While they’re close in terms of approach – wrapping thinly sliced vegetables and/or meat or seafood into a sausage-shape, that’s where the proximity ends. Vietnamese rolls tend to be served cold (is that what makes them summer rolls?), with fresh, crisp ingredients, intended to be punchy with clear flavours embodying that country’s sweet, sour, salt culinary approach.

Café East’s are the perfect example of summer rolls. With a translucent skin of rice paper they are light and juicy – a far cry from the limp (or worse, greasy) versions you can end up suffering if unlucky. Shredded pork skin has a profile far nearer to beancurd skin than pork scratchings, and adds a smoky, salty hint to the various flavours of the rice and vegetables, rather than hogging the limelight.

Dipping in sweet chilli or tart vinegar only improves their palate-cleansing crispness. I’d happily make a meal of just these!

Charcuterie at Terroirs

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When we planned to have a spot of charcuterie at Terroirs ahead of a wiener schnitzel at The Delauney, I’d rather envisaged Rachael and I having a glass of wine and nibbling on a spot of cured meats as a perfect starter. I happened to bump into Paul, a good friend who runs my writers’ group, who had a glass of wine, but didn’t stay to help us eat. Which was a pity, not just to lose his company, but also because Terroirs don’t do things by halves – not by a long shot.

“Veritable plank-loads of meat”

With Time Out’s failure to specify exactly what we should be eating, we ordered a selection of charcuterie (including the selection of charcuterie!), and were brought veritable plank-loads of meat.

Everything we ordered was delicious, particularly the pork and pistachio terrine, and I also particular enjoyed the duck rillettes. These dishes could easily have been a meal in themselves, and a perfectly pleasant evening could be spent sipping nice wine and picking at seemingly bottomless plates of salami and paté, as clearly many of our fellow diners were doing.

“Terroirs don’t do things by halves”

Something about it didn’t come together, however, and I didn’t find myself feeling like I’d eaten a full meal, even though I was pretty full. Perhaps this is unfair, given we’re supposed to be reviewing dishes, not full meals. Even so, Time Out itself admits that there’s better charcuterie to be had in London, which rather invites the question of why they didn’t include those in the top 100 list. Maybe they wanted to include Terroirs for its (genuinely) comfortable ambiance and deft cooking in general, but again, the list is supposed to be identifying great dishes, not restaurants.

Enjoyable, tasty, but ultimately left me a little cold and unsatisfied.

Pulled Pork at Pitt Cue Co

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Was it worth waiting in line for 90 minutes to eat at Pitt Cue Co? In a word: yes. Yes. Yes yes yes. A thousand times: yes. I’m tempted to actually type ‘yes’ a thousand times. I don’t mean writing it once, copying and pasting until I have ten, then copying and pasting till I have a block of one hundred, then copying and pasting that till I’ve written it a thousand times. I mean actually typing it a thousand times. And probably with ‘Shift’ held down – nope, no Caps Lock.

“A sauce that was no doubt bad for you, but had such a wholesome, homely taste that you couldn’t really believe it”

This place is just fun. I admit that I’m a bit behind the curve. I’ve wanted to go for ages, but this was my first visit. Yes, on plenty of occasions the mammoth wait has put me off. And whilst a lot of that is down to the (justified) buzz about the place, it’s also a lot to do with the fact they really don’t have many covers.

To be fair, we only waited about 45 minutes outside, and once inside we started on the Picklebacks – PCC’s signature ‘cocktails’, which is, in fact, a shot of bourbon chased by a shot of pickle juice. Yes, you read that right – the juices they use to pickle their gherkins. I know you’ll roll your eyes and not believe it but, honestly, it’s surprisingly good. We got through nine. Outrageously good and horribly messy rib tips kept us going, until, finally, we got a table.

And it was worth it. Boy was it worth it. The pulled pork was look-no-teeth tender, with a sauce that was no doubt bad for you, but had such a wholesome, homely taste that you couldn’t really believe it. And you know what? It actually tasted of meat. There was actually animal, rather than blasted-out-of-existence mush, in spite of the best efforts of cooking for no doubt hours and hours. Perfect.

“Virgin Picklebacks all round!”

I’m glad there were a few of us, because we got a chance to share sides, every one of which was delivered exactly right. Bone marrow mash had a richness that ended forever debate about how to make a proper mash. Baked beans proved that, yup, Beanz don’t (necessarily) Meanz Heinz. Chilli Slaw was spicy and crunchy, rather than limp and wet. And sprout tops were green but tasted naughty while definitely one of our five-a-day.

And yes, those pickles – brined in that juice – crunchy, sweet, sharp. Virgin Picklebacks all round!

5/10 of Time Out’s top 100 dishes

Spicy pork and fennel meatballs at Polpo

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There’s something deeply comforting and homely about meatballs. But I wasn’t sure whether they could be truly gourmet food. One of the criteria we’re using to judge is the ‘daydream test’. I.e. do we find ourselves dreaming about eating the dish again, in that deeply evocative way that tastes and smells can be. I was, quite simply, wrong. I’ve daydreamed about these several times.

“Whatever it is, I’m in heaven”

These meatballs were a cut above. In fact, they were several cuts above. These are effectively skinless spicy Italian sausages – but you can tell immediately that no horror pig-parts feature here. They managed to be light, and almost fluffy, not leaden lumps of gristle or solid meat. But they achieved this whilst also managing to avoid floury stodginess – these were no pork dumplings.

Presented in their threes simply in a bowl of the freshest, like-your-Italian-momma-used-to-make tomato sauce, this dish is intended to be shared (as the waitress was at pains to point out when we ordered three portions). But the dish, remarkably, stands up well on its own – not just in terms of portion size, which was just right (at least, after a day of remorseless eating), but also in terms of mix of flavours. Not one bite became boring.

“I’ll be back for these again. And again”

Perhaps it’s the chilli-warmth, that’s like sitting in front of a wood-burning stove. Or maybe the hint of aniseedy fennel. The pairing with the crisp, tart sauce. Or maybe it’s the sheer comforting indulgence of eating what feels a little like it belong on the kids menu, or out of a can. Whatever it is, I’m in heaven. I’ll be back for these again. And again.

12/100 best dishes in London

Bacon naan at Dishoom

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Could this be the perfect way to start the day? Especially for those who’d been out the night before.

“But boy what a bacon butty…”

Grilled bacon meets sweet, tangy tomato chutney (it would be unfair to call this fresh, well-spiced sauce “ketchup”), yoghurt and a handful of coriander. This is all wrapped in a freshly-baked naan, which surprised us all by being fluffy, light and soft rather than dense, heavy and hard as we’d incorrectly imagined it might be.

Later in the day someone remarked that they just wanted some normal food rather than kidneys or bubble tea. This dish is definitely ‘normal food’, fused with Indian tastes and taken to an extreme. It’s just a bacon butty, but boy what a bacon butty! Along with sweet chai this is breakfast to get out of bed for. And yes, the perfect hangover cure.

53/100 best eats in London