Monday, 30 June 2014

Pop-Up London: Churchill's Port House

Now that we're properly settled back in London town after our travels, we've gone back to keeping abreast of the latest pop-up restaurants - a trendy specialty of our home city in the summer and, in our opinion, the places to go for some of the most interesting food and drink in town. When C spotted a pop-up that she knew would appeal, she decreed that we needed to go on a 'date night' - and that Churchill's Port House, a Soho pop-up specialising in, er, port, would be the venue.

Here's where we take the plunge and admit that we're big fans of port: yes, yes, we know it's traditionally not the 'trendiest' of drinks, but apparently it's going through somewhat of a renaissance - which we're certainly all for. Forget the reputation: it tastes great, and isn't that the main thing?



I've been drinking it since at least my undergraduate days as port was, bizarrely, one of the best ways to booze on a budget: my college bar sold its own branded port (pretty ridiculous, I know!) for something like £10 a bottle. I've been a fan ever since, and C, who discovered the stuff a couple of years ago, is also perfectly happy quaffing the stuff.

Churchill's Port House is located in a tiny unit on Greek Street, and while they do serve wine, the real stars of the show here are the fortified wines. They have a whole range of ports: white, tawny, LBV, crusted, and many others. For those of you who thought that port was just standard dark red stuff, this is the place for an education.


Each tastes quite different and comes with an explanation, in our case confidently delivered by Max, one of the two Churchill brothers who run the restaurant. Their spiels certainly worked on us: we went in with the intention of having one glass or maybe two, and ended up ploughing our way though eight glasses of port over the course of the evening. The ports are also paired with tapas, and although they were more than happy to give recommendations if we wanted, we picked out a few interesting bits from the menu ourselves. So, here's what we had...

First up was the white, at £6.50 a glass. White ports are served chilled and on a warm evening this was a great starting point - fruity and bright gold in colour. If you've never tried white port, do. We enjoyed this as an aperitif, which was recommended by Max, and it's a great way to drink it.



Next up was the 20 year old tawny (£10 a glass), which we tried on Max's recommendation as his favourite. It's quite pricey, as the 'second best' port they make (the best is the 40 year old tawny, which we're sure is brilliant, but the price of a glass made our eyes water a little) but was so good that it's worth every penny. A pale red colour, it's rich, savoury and has a touch of fruity, nutty flavours. We paired this with an Artisan cheeseboard (£12) - an obvious choice - which was great, with four different types of cheeses, some chutneys and grapes. As ever, the strong, blue and the creamy cheeses were our favourites.




We then tried the crusted. Also excellent, and nearly as good as the tawny, we also found out that this is available at Oddbins for the bargain (in our view) price of £20 a bottle. A note here on crusted, as we weren't very familiar with it and Max kindly enlightened us: it's typically a blend of port wine from several vintages, sourced from grapes from a single vintage. It's typically served younger than vintage ports and is aged in oak casks before being bottled and then matured in bottle for at least 3 years. Essentially, it's a poor man's port, but no less delicious: it's full, dark and has a complex, fruity flavour.



At this point, we ordered some more food: I went for the Pork Belly Confit (£8), which was succulent and flavoursome - although slightly on the fatty side - and C really indulged with Filo-Pastry Baskets with Morcilla Iberica, Roasted Chestnuts and a Mango & Chili Sauce (£7). Incredibly rich but incredibly tasty, the blood sausage was strong, dark and spiced and worked perfectly with the tangy sauce.



We finished with another glass of the 20 year old tawny - just amazing - and two Passionfruit Cheese Cakes (£5). Served in a trendy jam jar, it was rich, silky smooth and fresh: a brilliant dessert.



We rolled out of the port house rather the worse for wear, but extremely impressed with the offering. I rather think that 'date night' was a misnomer: read 'flimsy excuse to get trollied on excellent fortified wines' in its stead.

If you want to get your hands on the port, the boys are selling it from the port house by the crate, but sadly it's soon to be closed. Otherwise, Tanners and Oddbins stock it, and we understand that Churchill's will be beefing up its distribution in the UK in the near future, a development that can't come soon enough. Keep a lookout as well for Churchill's Port House to pop up again somewhere in London in the near future: it's a great night out.

Friday, 27 June 2014

South American Pisco Sours: A New Cocktail Addiction

Oh beautiful, lovely Chile. And your beautiful, delicious cocktails.

Before I went to South America, I'd be lying if I said that Chile was the country I wanted to visit the most. I was lured over there by four things exactly: the excellent poet Pablo Neruda, the excellent author Roberto Bolaño, A's insistence that I had to visit Santiago's excellent Museo del Arte Precolombiano sometime in my lifetime - and the fact that if I was going to be in Argentina, it seemed silly not to pop over to Chile at least for a bit.

I quickly fell in love with the country - the beaming, gesturing, talkative locals; the lilting Spanish; the colonial magnificence of Santiago; the colourful, vibrant port towns with funiculars creaking up steep Andean slopes and the other-worldly magnificence of Chilean Patagonia.



One of the things that I came to love most, though, was a Pisco Sour.



Pisco is a grape brandy (a caveat: I’m not a brandy fan, and I love it) and is a staple spirit in Chile, Peru and other regions of South America. In a pisco sour, pisco’s mixed with key lime juice, syrup, ice, egg white and Angostura bitters – and is often topped with grated nutmeg too.

Don’t be put off by this description – I would have been too, but it’s absolutely delicious, zesty and tangy and oh-so-sour. Basically: JUST TRY ONE.

There’s some discussion on the all-knowing internet that Chilean pisco sours don’t include the bitter and egg white, but from trying quite a few in Chile, I never found this to be the case. There was always a big frothy egg white topping, which was delicious.

I brought A back a big bottle of Pisco (shaped as an Easter Island statue – basically, the most ridiculous I could find) and we tried our hand at recreating a Pisco Sour the other day. Quite successful, all told!



A final note: be warned that Pisco Sours are strong. I may have learnt this the hard way the morning after I had many of them in a backpacker town in the stunning Chilean countryside…












Thursday, 26 June 2014

Why I Spend at the Greengrocer

It's been a while since I've written an opinion piece - something I do rarely as we rather like the pretty pictures, but I figured I'd write one again to mix things up a bit. Unlike my last opinion article, which was a bit of a rant, this one is a little more upbeat. It involves a recent change to our shopping habits (sounds exciting, I know, but bear with me). Essentially, we have stopped buying fruit and veg from Sainsbury's and have shifted to the greengrocer for everything except the real basics. It's turned out to be a huge plus for us.

To give some background, C and I finally (finally!!) have a place of our own after nearly two and a half years together. We now have a little flat on the not quite so chic fringe of West Hampstead. We are pretty well served for amenities locally, not least with two massive supermarkets a tube stop away. Happily, we also have access to delis, and we have two outstanding local butchers (one in Cricklewood and the other in Kilburn), a fishmonger and a couple of greengrocers too. Over the last few weeks, we've begun to stop by the greengrocer on West End Lane (the high street that runs through West Hampstead) for our weekly fruit and veg, and our shopping habits have transformed as a result. 

Because the quality of produce is so much better at the greengrocer than in the local supermarket, we've found we are eating a lot more fruit and vegetables than we did before. C and I used to have to think a little bit to ensure we ate our five a day, but this has stopped being a problem. The higher quality of the produce means that it's become a pleasure rather than a chore. Even everyday basics such as bell peppers or lettuce have become a different experience - something that I'd never see myself write down (and I'm aware it sounds a bit crazy). The variety in our local greengrocer is also amazing: not only can you get the usual stuff, but they sell three different types lemon (three!), rambutan (we had to look them up too), aubergines the likes of which we've never seen outside Asia and a whole load more stuff besides. This has enriched our diet no end, as you may imagine.

There is a cost attached, but I find that the cost isn't as great as I feared: I reckon we spend an average of £3-5 more a week on our fruit and veg shop than we did previously. Having said this, we offset the cost somewhat in our choice of desserts and snacks. Previously we may have bought in our desserts, now we find that we'll eat a bowl of cherries or a nectarine, or cut up some other fruit, dollop on some yoghurt and drizzle on some honey. It's better for us, its tastier, and it's cheaper too. Of course, this varies from week to week and I haven't been keeping a precise tally, but I reckon that we spend the same or even a little less on average on groceries now than we did before we shopped at the greengrocer and it's certainly costing less to buy fresh stuff now than it did when I used to shop only at Waitrose in St Katherine's Docks (I hasten to add because it was the only supermarket within walking distance, rathern than out of snobbery).

Finally, and I don't want to sound like Mary Portas, I like the idea that I am supporting a local business and keeping a thriving high street alive. West Hampstead has a strong community feel, which is centred on a busy high street stacked with successful independent businesses. As a resident of such an area, I think it's important to ensure it retains the characteristics that attracted me here. It's quite nice to see the owner every week and say hello when I get my basket of items. It beats staring at some anonymous check-out person in a uniform, glumly beeping items through a scanner. It's doubly nice to know that I'm helping keep the area special in doing so.

This may all sound terribly yuppie and middle class, but I'm not sure it is. To me, this change in shopping habits just makes sense, and it's going back to the old way of shopping too - i.e. locally - which can't be a bad thing. It strikes me as a no-brainer  to shop locally, in particular when it comes to the fruit and vegetables. Our diets have improved, we enjoy the food we eat more, we contribute to our local community and none of this isn't really costing us anything significant. For all I don't want to sound like Mary Portas, she may well be onto something.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

OXO Tower Completion Lunch

From time to time as a thank you for putting in some pretty long hours, A gets taken out for a completion dinner. On one such occasion, A's former boss - Partner G - took a team of four more junior lawyers out to lunch to as a thank you for working several graveyard shifts on four recent deals. G was obviously feeling flush because he pulled out all the stops and took the team to the OXO Tower, a chic contemporary European restaurant on London's South Bank. A canvassed opinions at the end of the meal, and this post showcases the panel's findings.

People went for a variety of starters, with the one of the most popular being crab meat cannelloni. This was flavoursome and generally speaking very good, but there was some consensus that it was let down for being just a bit too sweet. The combination of crab meat, sweet potato, apple, chestnut and vanilla was very tasty, but we felt that that some acidity would have improved the dish. As you can see though, the presentation of the food was immaculate and our grumble was minor.

Canneloni

For mains, two of the party went for lamb, two for venison and one for fish. All five were extremely satisfied: A can certainly vouch for the venison, which was outstanding. Venison has a strong flavour and this was no exception, but the red cabbage and blue cheese beignets were flavoursome enough not to be overpowered by the game. A couldn't get enough.

Lamb

If there is one area that was controversial, it was the sides - particularly the chips. The general consensus was that they were excellent, and A tended to agree. They were clearly double, if not triple cooked, and were brilliantly crunchy. However, A differed from his colleagues in that he felt the chips were over-salted, which was a pity since the consistency was so good.

Venison

Partner G also went all out on the wine. Alongside a bottle of Moët, he also ordered a wonderful Margeaux: Château Siran (2007). This wine has an incredible nose, is packed with fresh berry flavours and is not too heavy on the tannins. Given that all bar one of us was eating red meat, the wine worked brilliantly. If you ever see this in a vintner or a supermarket, get some. It's excellent and can be obtained for quite reasonable prices given its quality.

Chocolate Fondant


Thanks to Partner G for a cracking lunch and well done to OXO Tower for stepping up and providing it.

Treacle Tart

Monday, 16 June 2014

Café 371 Taste Space

Well, hasn't life got in the way of blogging a little bit! In what feels like the blink of an eye, it's been months since I've set fingers to keys to write a post. A change of job (I'm now a fully fledged corporate lawyer at another City firm) and a flat hunt, as well as a jaunt to Asia, means that the first half of the year has really flown by. Anyway, C and I are back on the blogging horse and we're both tapping away producing some cracking content for all you lovely people.

For this one, I'm going to ask you to turn back the clock a little. Yes, I know we're enjoying a balmy June in the UK, but for this post, imagine you are on the snowy, sub-zero Baltic, whence this post comes. In the depths of winter, I was part of a 'team stag' for my good friend M (of M and J fame for those who read regularly). It was decided that a proper send-off was in order, and so we arranged a proper "lad stag" in Riga: go-karts, clubs, bars and all the rest were part of the package on the Friday and the Saturday, but by the Sunday, we were totally burned out.


Anticipating this, we booked a proper lunch at the wonderful Cafe 371 Taste Space. This is one of Riga's top places to eat, and 'team stag' sorted out a proper menu for the very hungry (and hung over) boys. To start, we arranged a taster plate of local smoked cheese and charcuterie, washed down with kvass (a form of black bread beer that's popular all over the Russian-speaking world - we've seen it sold out of wooden barrels in Georgia before) and morse (a kind of hot cranberry tea). The smoked meats weren't really my bag, they were a bit too pungent for my liking, but the cheeses, were creamy and really very flavoursome.


After this, we started with a mackerel salad,  which came with a lovely tangy vinaigrette. I'm not usually a fan of this overly salty fish, but this really hit the spot. I'm also not going to lie, it helped with the hangover too.


For the main, we had arranged for steaks to be served. These were cooked to perfection and butter soft, and came served atop a dollop of creamy mash and garnished with a cream of mushroom sauce: it provided a colossal hit of umami, and was just what the doctor ordered following the revelry the night before.


The meal was finished up with a dessert, which tasted a lot better than it sounds: dried fruit bread, with cinnamon 'curd' and wild forest honey. Bread in fact may have been a mistranslation, it was more like malt bread - a fancy soreen if you will - and the tang of the curd and the sweetness of the honey was absolutely fantastic.


The decidedly groggy stag boys left the cafe delighted with lunch and properly revitalised. I say properly, not one person except M's former boss, a sturdy Mancunian also called M, could really face another drink...

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Mâu Dich 37, or Sharing Lunch with a Rat

South East Asia, mostly a land of culinary dreams, can turn out to be a land of culinary nightmares from time to time. This post, the first of a fair few from Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, comes from towards the end of our stay, where a supposedly fun lunch went a bit awry. Happily it's all up hill from here!

Before we landed in Hanoi, we'd done our research, checking out some other food bloggers and guide books to find out some cool places to eat. One promising place was Mâu Dich 37. The place is styled like a government-run canteen from the 1970's. A was particularly intrigued. As an undergraduate student of German, A was all too aware of Germans' "Ostalgie" - a nostalgia for the old East Germany and its products such as Spreewaldgurken and Trabis and A's interest was piqued by the fact that in Vietnam, where the communists actually won, people get nostalgic for the old ways. We had to go.

Rice: it appeared to have spices in it, couldn't taste them

Obviously we don't know what these canteens were actually like, but this was easily the worst meal we ate in Vietnam. We ordered a couple of salads, some meat dishes and the like, all of which was memorable, for all the wrong reasons. In a country where pungent spices such chili, coriander, keffir lime and lemongrass abound in the food, the dishes here was bland. I would write more, but this is the overwhelming memory of the food: flavourless, tepid, overcooked. 

Bland Food
The atmosphere in the place was also dead: we were the only folks in there, which was a good way out of town and away from the action (such as action exists in Hanoi - it's quite a staid place), and while the décor - old radios, propaganda posters and the like - was pretty cool, it didn't make up for the lack of patrons.

This beef was about as manky as the crockery

The mediocre food was crowned by our fellow diner. As mentioned, the restaurant was empty, with one notable exception: a rather large rat, which was clearly fairly used to people and spent most of lunch nibbling on peanut shells under the table next to us.

A plate of, er, gristle?

Our verdict: damning. Don't go anywhere near this place. It's a little bit too authentic for its own good.

Our fellow diner

Monday, 9 June 2014

Ajiichiban

After all our time spent in Asia lately, you might think we'd be sick of Asian food. Quite the contrary: we've found that the more we have Asian fare, the more we develop a real thing for it. We just can't get enough of the stuff.


A little while after we'd returned from our travels and we found ourselves in lovely maritime Greenwich, in need of some nourishment and with the familiar Asian food craving. There are a few options in this part of London - mainly low-end Chinese affairs - and we were umming and ahhing over whether we liked the sound of any when we spotted Aji-Ichiban. Looking a little inconspicuous from the front, it'd be easy enough to walk past it, but a closer look at the menu suggested decent prices and tasty Japanese fare. Oh, and the smell wafting through the door - that enticing smell of Japanese cooking. Mmm...

I could spend a bit of time at this point talking about the smart decor, the friendly service and the relaxed atmosphere, with tables set plenty far enough apart that you have a pleasing amount of space between you and the next table, even in a small restaurant. Many restaurants could claim this, though: but not many could serve you up Japanese food as good as Aji Ichiban.



We ordered pretty simple this time, starting with two hot brown rice teas (£2.50) which had an earthy, full flavour and a tendency to be very moreish - luckily, though, there are free refills aplenty here. Our appetisers came in the form of wonderfully warm, salted, soft, luscious green edamame beans (£3.50) and pork gyoza (£4.00 for 4 pieces), which were hot, warm, soft and tender and absolutely packed with umami flavour. They were - hands down - some of the best gyoza we've ever had.




We followed all of this with a pretty generous portion of Tonkotsu Ramen (£8.50) which had A cooing and slurping and nodding muffled approvals. I went for a Tofu Curry (£6.90) - simple, but my favourite Japanese meal. How good was the curry here? Almost as good at the curry at the legendary Tokyo Diner, which makes it just about as good as I've ever tasted. It was hoovered up in no time.

At under £30 between us, Aji-Ichiban represented brilliant value, and had brilliant food to match. The true testament to this place is that we've been back several times for a visit - even venturing down from our new home in north London to sate our craving for Japanese food. Aji-Ichiban, you're great.