Oktopus//20thOCT|2017

Any fellow Londoner will agree with me: Sometimes this city can be a bit too much.

I’m a relative recluse when you compare me to my journalistic colleagues.

Still – the exhausting, relentless tide of social engagements and meetings, when combined with the hectic travelling logistics of a city like London, can get the better of me. I suppose this is why people choose to have holidays…

When I need to ‘get away from it all’ or ‘let my hair down’, I don’t choose to sit on a crowded flight, to then continue a sardine-like existence in the confines of a sordid holiday resort, before squeezing myself into a cramped swimming pool – all to simulate ‘the good life’.

No.

Instead, I save all that money and jump on a train up North, where there’s room to breathe and people speak words, instead of vacantly exhuming a pungent blend of hot air and hollow farts.

I’d turned down my third telemarketing call this week, when my phone started buzzing, reminding me that I had a meeting across the other side of the city with an upcoming chef who was intent on ‘changing how we think about hare forever’. I imagined attempting to force down some kind of awful hare taco and decided to cancel immediately.

In fact, the overwhelming sense of nausea that the aforementioned taco inspired in me, led to my calling in sick immediately and booking a train to Liverpool.

Now I’ve already professed my love for this city’s down to earth nature when I looked back on my visit to the excellent Mowgli, but there’s really something to be said for a city where you can book a return train ticket and one night’s stay for less than £80. Simply put, the place is a budget-oasis, compared to the high-end, sickeningly expensive desert of London and, if it weren’t for work, I’d be seriously considering moving there.

[If I’m being completely honest, I had an ulterior motive for making the 150 minute train ride up, I had a meeting scheduled with a social media marketing agency in Liverpool – of course, I could have gone up and back in one day – but then I’d be missing out one of the great wonders of Great Britain: Liverpool’s Concert Square on a Friday night.]

After my meeting had wrapped and I’d managed to figure out my Instagrams from my Twitters, I thought I’d take on board some recommendations from the marketing agency and work my way down into town – stopping off along the way to enjoy a few pints and a bite to eat.

Although my patience has been well and truly tried by some recent attempts at brewing by certain London-based startups, it quickly became clear that the publicans of Liverpool have got infinitely better taste in beer than their counterparts in the capital. The Pen Factory offers a diverse selection of local and national ales, including some great specimens from the city. The small plates coming out of the kitchen tempted me, but I decided to forgo them in favour of an early dinner at recently opened Oktopus.

Word had travelled as far as London about this laid back tapas-style European eatery and it did not disappoint. Full from excellent food, I let myself drift through the raucous night life that Liverpool is famous for, before crashing out with a stupid grin on my face in the brand spanking new EasyHotel.

If only every city could be like this.

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Last Days of Shoreditch Riviera//22ndAUG|2017

Hipsters: this city is full of them.

With ill-fitting garments they crowd tunnels of the Underground hurrying to their DIY indie gigs, clutching moleskin notebooks filled with ideas for three-part political dramas in one hand and  decaffeinated chilled soy beverages in the other. It’s really hard for me to not dislike them.

Although they come in all shapes and sizes, they are predominantly made up of folks in their mid-late twenties. Young, fun and fashionable: they represent everything that I am not – for that reason I spurn their presence and recoil in shame when they tell me that they love my blog.

As much as I’d like to continue harbouring a lovely warm, bitter resentment against this enthusiastic demographic, the truth is that I have them to thank for much of the fantastic, vibrant food that is so readily available in London today. Thanks to the thousands of young people flocking to the city to work, more and more trendy establishments have been opening up, offering some truly alternative dinner options.

I follow a trail of excitable aforementioned young people into the elaborately named Last Days of Shoreditch on a balmy evening night.

I’m told by a bespectacled twenty-something that we’re lucky not to have to queue, there is a reason for this: I arrived unfashionably early, having heard about the high demand for this pop-up food market/boozer/karaoke bar. As trendy as my fellow early birds appear to be, it seems that there’s really nothing cool about spending up to an hour in a queue.

For some Last Days of Shoreditch will represent everything that is currently wrong with London. It is quite simply, gentrification incarnate: a scrub of land reinvented as an ‘urban beach’, crammed with cheap wooden furniture, pop-up food stalls, craft ale and young people with too much money.

As I gently part the tide of millennials with my uncouth, old-man shtick, I try and summon up the necessary energy to take a disliking to everything around me. I’m slowly working myself into a rage, using a classic internal monologue to really get my spite turning when I’m accosted by a casually dressed waitress who blindsides me with a complimentary cocktail.

She tells me that it’s a new take on a Tom Collins, using Sicilian lemons and Sipsmith gin, it’s delicious. It’s so delicious, in fact, that I lose my train of thought and start chatting to a group next to me. They’ve just taken part in a pop-up escape room (I don’t even wince at the unnecessary prefix) and are now happily chomping down on gourmet burgers from Nanny Bills. They offer me a ‘Pea & Feta’ Croquette and I surprise myself by taking it.

After taking my leave from this bubbly group, I’m sidetracked on the way to the bar by some raucous screams and cheers. There a number of private karaoke rooms for hire and whilst it’s clear that someone has skimped on sound-proofing, it sounds like all involved are having a good time. I stop for a second and take a look around me – it seems like everyone here is having fun, singing, drinking, generally having a good time. Perhaps I’d judged these hipsters all wrong.

Despite it’s inherently hip nature, Last Days of Shoreditch is a well put together venue, offering good drinks, quality food and enough good-natured fun to keep you busy for a whole night. 

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Abul’s Spice//18thMAR|2017

Following last week’s meal in the fashionably styled Mowgli, I had a hunger for curry that was quite insatiable.

I found myself, spending longer than usual, forlornly staring at the ready-meals in the supermarkets. I was transfixed for at least an hour by a rerun of Rick Stein’s India. I was pretty sure that I didn’t like Rick Stein. His travelogues have always felt a little too improvisational to be truly informative and I’ve always thought his cooking lacked a certain level of finesse. But, apparently, Indian food is the perfect cuisine for his oddly sleepy format of television.

As he slowly sweats through his shirt, he lazily stirs chopped onion with an effete hand, whilst his commentary runs wildly off on a tangent. Instead of wanting to turn the channel over, I find myself wishing to be next to him, on that river boat, with the smells of exotic spies floating along with the undulating waters. When I awaken on the sofa, some hours later, I swear I can taste that Goan Fish Curry in the back of my mouth.

Its been a rather strange few days. All the more reason to leave the hectic dust cloud of the city and visit North Wales, in search of the elusive curry that has been haunting my dreams for the past week.

Tucked away in the sleepy town of Corwen lies Abul’s Spice, a multi-award winning curry house run by self-taught chef Abul Hussain. Let’s get one thing out of the way first, Abul is a Bangladeshi man but he’s magnanimous enough to cater to British tastes, whilst retaining an authentic approach to his menu. You’ll find just about every dish on the menu, that you’d expect from a British curry house. What caught my eye first were the unfamiliar curries on the list.

Abul’s own recipe, ‘Shatkora Bhuna Chicken’, jumped out at me. Fresh spring onions, garlic and coriander, all fried together with tender lamb and served with a slice of shatkora (a kind of Bangladeshi citrus) – divine. Of course, you can’t just order one curry. With my interest piqued by the endless stream of exotic plates leaving the kitchen, I soon found myself enquiring with my fellow diners as to what they were eating.

Each dish, though traditional in flavour, came presented in a neat modern fashion. This is hardly innovative in the world of the curry house. For years now, ambitious chefs have been attempting to apply the delicate presentation standards of fine dining to Indian classics – with varying results. Abul strikes a good balance though, understanding the importance of colour and correct portion sizes. We’re not overwhelmed here by mountains of rice or huge pools of sauce with little meat – instead there’s a level of delicacy that has been applied to each dish, truly refreshing.

It would be pointless to criticise the decor or the strange folded napkins that always seem to appear on the tables at these kinds of places – that would be missing the point. The restaurant is a BYOB affair, but you do have the option of bringing a pint in from the pub next door.

Something I’m sure Rick would approve of very much.

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Mowgli//11thMAR|2017

There are few cuisines I look forward to eating more than Indian.

The significant tyre around my midriff is a testament to the copious amounts of biryanis that I’ve consumed over the years, mostly in my student days.

There’s something so seductive about the British takeaway curry. Far more moreish than its Chinese competitor, we’ve created our own versions of Indian staples that have now become emblematic of the cuisine for millions across the country. Just the names of these dishes cause my mouth to salivate: Chicken Korma, Lamb Biryani, Tikka Masala.

Of course these adaptations rarely hold a candle, gastronomically speaking, to their inspirations. Packed full of coconut cream, salt, sugar and dubious cuts of meat – these ultra-westernised representations are a far cry from their vibrant healthy source material. Wonderful comfort food, for sure, but hardly an option for the health conscious millennial or ethically minded vegan. We all know now, that where there’s a niche, there’s an opportunity.

Ex-Barrister, Nisha Katona saw that niche and has exploited it to the max in the Northern powerhouses. I passed her Manchester location on my previous trip up North, whilst drunkenly stumbling through the city’s exclusive Corn Exchange. Somehow my mental note survived the night’s drinking and so I found myself, a week later, back on a train exiting London – this time heading to Liverpool.

Liverpool is a town that is just beginning to get into its stride as a metropolitan centre. Its thriving population of over 450,000 is as big as its ever been and new money has now begun to flow in, bringing with it fresh business ideas and, more importantly, new restaurants. The first location of Mowgli opened its doors in 2014 to a warm reception. Within a year, a second location has opened in Manchester

Walking into their recently opened Castle Street restaurant, I was struck by the uniformity of the Mowgli brand. Although all locations are different in size, the owners have been intent on making them feel as if they were cut from the same cloth. Rough-worn driftwood benches, bare planks and exposed light-bulbs hang from delicate chains. The latter is usually enough alone to set alarm bells ringing in my head; the menu was enough to placate these doubts.

The menu is in two minds as to what it wants to be.

There is a great deference to traditional Indian curries, you can order a ‘tiffin box’ containing a selection of their vegetarian or meat curries – a nod to the millions of Indians who eat in this style every day. But, the first item on the menu is the rather odd ‘Yoghurt Chat Bombs’, a crisp bread puff filled with yoghurt, chickpeas and a blend of spices. Pleasant enough, but something tells me that the average Indian working man would be a little perplexed by this addition to his lunch box. He’d probably be similarly confused by the middle of the road selection of contemporary Pop music that is piped through the speakers, completely incongruous with the elegant decor and otherwise authentic menu.

I am, of course, nitpicking. The food here is excellent. The vibrant curries are served in gorgeous metal trays and tins, scattered with fresh chilli and garlic. Super sticky chicken wings are glazed in sweet marinades and I’m genuinely floored by their Treacle Tamarind Fries.

A meal that was worth the trip and a reminder that the Great British curry has certainly come along way.

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Alabama’s & Pieminister//4thMAR|2017

I’m always game for a trip up North – especially when it involves a day filled with eating.

I jump at any opportunity to escape London.

A long lost friend’s birthday? I’ll be there. Brother-in-law’s mate’s stag do? Sign me up – any excuse to hop on a train and leave the city for a day.

When an old University friend of mine (now residing in Manchester) announced on Facebook that he was quitting his job of 20 years to start an oven cleaning business, I saw a perfect reason to reconnect and celebrate a new beginning.

Thrilled by the prospect of heading up North, where the people are down-to-earth, fashionable and friendly, I planned a day of eating at a couple of small places that wouldn’t break the bank, giving me plenty of time to quiz my old friend over just why he’d decided to make such a drastic life decision.

After a dozy train ride up to Manchester, I splashed the sleep off my face in the train station loo and made a dash to Alabama’s, the (relatively new) self-proclaimed ‘All American’ brunch place in the city’s popular Northern Quarter. My friend was waiting outside and we stepped into the brightly lit dining room just as they were opening up.

Over a rather indulgent plate of Crab Cakes and Poached Eggs on Muffin, the intricacies of the company, that my excitable friend had just invested in, were laid bare to me. Between detailed descriptions of grill scrubbing techniques and profit margins, small exclamations were made pertaining to the ‘smashing’ Hollandaise that graced the plate. My Parmesan Omelette (I was playing conservative at the start of a long day) was ably cooked, soft in the middle and wonderfully cheesy. We paired our meals with a couple of Breakfast Martinis, which certainly made the oven cleaning stuff easier to listen to.

Settling the bill we happily tipped the capable chefs and made our way to the next venue on the menu.

The North of England is famous for its pies, so famous in fact that its easy to forget that London has a similar reputation for producing quality pastry. That’s where the founders of Pieminister hail from, although they took their inspiration for their own spin on the classic British food from pies eaten in Australia, of all places. After setting up the company in 2001, the two founders have served their food to the Queen, graced the fields of Glastonbury and opened restaurants – lots of them.

Their cafe location in Manchester was a little too close to comfort from our breakfast spot, so we took our time and hooked round through Piccadilly Park. My friend is such a good salesman that I’m starting to warm to the idea of cleaning ovens for a living. As the weather begins to warm up as well, I imagine a life spent driving around the country, getting paid to do the one domestic job that no one wants to do. Before I ask about the cost of investment, though, we arrive at our destination.

There are a baffling array of pies on the menu, thirteen in total, as well as a host of sides and toppings to choose from. I surprise myself by ordering the ‘Saag Pie-neer’ (I usually avoid dishes involving awful puns, but there’s no escape at this place), whilst my pal goes traditional with Steak and Stilton (‘Moo & Blue’). Both pies arrive in timely fashion and with a smile from a slightly dazed look waitress – a heavy night before, perhaps.

The vibe is relaxed, with a nice canteen style feeling, robbed from the Americana restaurants that have been popping up all over the country for the last 5 years. Its a nice fit, no wonder there are already over 10 locations spread across the UK. The pastry is buttery, the sides (mash, minty peas, thick gravy) are exuberant and the Elderflower Cider I pick on a whim makes for a surprisingly good pairing with the Indian flavours in my pie.

With my head swimming a little from the two drinks I’ve consumed before midday, we leave the cosy cafe only £12 lighter. If only I could find such hospitality and food for this price in London!

What then followed was a rather indulgent tour of Manchester’s fantastic pubs and many pints of ales – the less said, the better. Suffice to say, I won’t be leaving the critic business to scrub ovens any time soon, but I wish my friend all the best luck.

If only more of my old friends could make such brave decisions…

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Typing Room//25thFEB|2017

Tower Hamlets: an ongoing, modern soap opera of politics and conflict.

This isn’t a part of the city that I visit often.

I’m not superstitious or racist (were those the right words to choose?), it is simply an area that has yet to be sufficiently populated with friends that I like or restaurants worth seeing (coming off as a real card here, I know). In London, not a day goes by that I’m not assaulted by a sensational headline informing me of a new racially charged crime or outrage that has ‘rocked the Towers’. I know, its not wise to blindly believe everything that you read in the media, but what can I say?

Either subliminally or directly, I’ve been swerving E2 for years now.

Since my time away, the area has received something like a face lift. The blocks themselves are slowly becoming filled with their new, gentrified clientele and there are, of course, restaurants to cater for them.

When Typing Room opened in the place of the hastily closed Viajante, in 2014, there was a general sigh and expectation that a by-the-books critic friendly eaterie would replace it. In some ways those expectations were well made. Lee Westcott, a man who has apparently been furiously attempting to work in every prominent restaurant around the world, since leaving Tom Aikens’ Elystan Street, returned to London in 2014 to create a five course tasting menu for new owner Jason Atherton. Although the restaurant decor remained more or less the same, bar the addition of some fashionable New Scandi furniture, the menu proved to cause quite the stir and for good reason.

Let’s get one thing straight: you need a certain ‘snooty hat’ on to enjoy restaurants like these. It might sound odd for a seasoned food critic, but I’ve never been completely at ease in high-end eating establishments. When you enter a dining room with a menu that essentially demands over a hundred pounds from each and every one of its customers, for the privilege of sitting down and eating a few fancy nibbles, you can always sense a certain level of smugness.

Middle-aged gents rub their contented port-soaked bellies and crisp shirted millennials lazily scan their Instagram feeds whilst quaffing sake. The service is polite and congenial, as expected, but I still hear grumblings from a disgruntled woman in her forties, after she finds a waitress’ skirt ‘sluttish’. Sometimes the clientele of these places is enough to put you off the entire experience. Thankfully, the food is divine.

I’m delighted by the crispy fish skin with cod and oyster. The IPA sourdough, which has been a staple on the menu since the restaurant’s opening night, is as good as I’ve heard tell and I’m pleasantly surprised by with the desert of Sheep’s yoghut (?!) served with the apple and dill.

By the time I’ve finished the five course, amiably paired with wine and sake, I’m almost unaware of the sea of fools that surrounds me…

…almost.

 

 …

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Baiwei//12thFEB|2017

It might surprise some readers to discover that there are nights when I’d much rather cook than eat out.

Living in the capital, I’m often spoiled for choice for places to eat.

I’ve got a raft of food critic friends constantly inviting me out to a new opening here or a tasting there and my inbox is always full of invitations from restaurants all over the country. You’ll notice that my tone is complaining and for good reason: it is, plain and simply, tiring.

Navigating the hectic streets of London on a daily basis is something that I do not relish. I’m not one of those inhabitants of the city who takes pride in his ability of knowing the best route from Soho to Camden at 7pm. I’m one of those Londoners who only feels the need to leave the relative peace of his minuscule flat in order to buy food or toothpaste (these are the only things I truly need to survive) and can’t stand the constant half-jogging pace that stuck up business men and twenty-something, startup geniuses insist on setting.

I’d managed to avoid leaving the house for almost 72 hours, feeling thoroughly exhausted after my two-day sojourn to Bristol, but unfortunately, something always has to give and it wasn’t the toothpaste.

Some time ago, on the suggestion of a chef friend, I had my ceramic hobs replaced with induction hobs. Once I’d bought the right pans, I was happy as Larry cooking on them. However, last night when I went to fire them up to cook a quick stir-fry (chilli, garlic, ginger, udon noodles and chicken breast – nothing fancy) – nothing happened.

I know what you’re thinking: induction hob faults – ‘First-world problems’.

Well, this was a problem, because by the time I’d gotten round to cooking, it was already 9:30pm. It was far too late to book a table at one of my usual haunts and I’d be damned if I was to descend to the depths of ‘Just Eat’. So at 10pm on a Sunday night I found myself in the absolute worst position possible, frantically pacing the streets of London for a place to eat.

Luckily for me, I live a stone’s throw from the shifting labyrinthine neighbourhood known as Chinatown. This haven of late-night eateries and fast food joints is a bewildering place for a tourist. Restaurants close and reopen every month or so, each time under a new guise. Baiwei (“100 flavours” in Mandarin) replaced the rather dire Great Leap Forward a number of years ago and made a small splash with its menu designed by Asian Food specialist Fuchsia Dunlop, featuring rare Sichuan oddities such as ‘pigs trotters’ and ‘fatty fish-heads’.

I enter the restaurant in a ‘hangry’ haze of rain water and confused sweat. A charming waitress takes me by the arm, an overly familiar gesture but a brief glance in the mirror clues me into why. I look like an overweight Harrison Ford type, desperately in search for his children – that’s putting it kindly. After being tucked away in a cosy corner of the restaurant (out of sight from other customers), I’m served a series of dishes that serve to revitalise both my soul and body.

Sichuan comfort food might well have its quirks (Duck tongue is one such peculiarity that I might never grow accustomed to) but to a wet, starving man in his forties, the glorious blend of fresh chillies, gooey batter and meaty broth is something akin to heaven. The freshly served delights will make you forget that the chairs are as hard as planks and ignore the, bizarrely off-putting, Maoist paintings.

As the same waitress helped me on with my coat, I felt a reassuring pat on the shoulders, as if to say: “Take it easy, you’re alright now”.

She was absolutely right.

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The GlassBoat//7thFEB|2017

Superlative Steak That Matches Up To Its Own Hype

When I was tipped off about The GlassBoat – a floating restaurant in Bristol – I was initially sceptical.

Bristol is a town that has been constantly juggling with identities for decades now. First it wants to be a historically rich port town, capable of drawing in international tourists. Then it wants to be a rough’n’ready student village, that can hold its own with the likes of Manchester and Liverpool. Now, with rent prices looking to join the upper echelon’s of the English landscape, its hoping to appease the masses of Londoners, keen to leave the Big Smoke for a slightly smaller Smoke.

Sitting in line with my expectations of this mixed up city is The GlassBoat. With its kooky setup and water location, alarm bells were ringing in my head long before I made the trip down South.

Those bells were ringing loud and clear until I discovered that not only has the restaurant been open for the past 30 years, but that its also had the guiding hand of Freddy Bird, the acclaimed chef behind the inviting Lido (also in Bristol). After a quick check online, my suspicions were allayed and I quite happily booked a table in the 100-cover restaurant, hoping to taste, what the website boldly claims is, ‘the best steaks in Bristol’.

Although the prices in Bristol’s top tier restaurants have been inching up for the last few years (we’re looking at you, Nettle & Rye) you’ll be pleased to hear that The GlassBoat’s prices are reasonable, with the lunch Prix Fixe costing only £15 for 3 courses. With such a bold claim on their website, though, I was only ever going to be eating their steak. From good stock (Herefordshire, Shorthorn, Aberdeen Angus) and raised on local farms, I ordered the 250g Rump at £19.50.

Whilst I waited for my food, I admired the efforts that the owners had made to keep this decades old business afloat. From the exterior, the boat’s traditional design makes one think of twee postcards and chocolate box villages. Once inside, though, this disconcerting quaintness gives way to modern aesthetics and the smells of roasting meat assuage any remaining doubts. Seated by a pleasantly mannered young man, the service is relaxed – without the faux-friendly cloying attitude that seems to be slowly invading our country’s restaurant industry.

The meat arrived, after a brief interlude, gloriously pink in the middle, with decent colouring on the outside. Whilst I may have tasted better Bearnaise sauces, the plate as a whole, arriving with golden fries and a hearty salad, was more than worth the money. With the sun setting into the river, I took my time finishing the excellent Chateau Pineraie and considered how poorly I’d judged the city of Bristol.

Yes – its suffered from the same kind of gentrification that has left the, once vibrant, neighbourhoods of Shore Ditch and Camden a culturally vapid playground, of exposed brickwork and bare bulbs; but does it really deserve the ire of this writer?

Buoyed somewhat by the excellent wine, I left a handsome tip for the deserving staff at The GlassBoat and almost left Bristol with nothing but positive impressions. That was until I lost my footing on a curb and stumbled into a group of smartly turned out, bespectacled millennials, who referred to me as a ‘Tory bastard’ and told me to ‘clear off’ (expletives omitted).

You were so close Bristol – maybe next time.

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