Thursday, April 24, 2014

Caboose, 11th April

Bloggers often lament that it is much easier to write a post about somewhere you loved, or somwhere you hated, but somewhere that's just middling is much more of a challenge.

And so it is with Caboose, a little shack in Dray Walk off Brick Lane serving up smoked meats either in buns or boxes.

They were already a little in my bad books; I've tried several times to get down there only to discover they're not open, and they aren't always great about keeping you informed on Twitter. Finally, I got there and the hatch was open. I took several minutes eyeing the short menu before deciding that, what the heck, I'd go for the Derailer - a combination of 10 hour pulled pork and 12 hour rib of beef, and gosh darn it, I'd have cheese on it as well.

The guy before me had a similar idea but was told they were all out of beef because they'd had an event earlier that day. I almost flounced off in a fit of pique, annoyed at being deprived even when they were finally there for once, but Mother Clucker had too long a queue and I didn't fancy Orange Buffalo again so I just settled for The Fat Controller – pork on its own. Actually, I did add the smoked cheese. I'm not normally a pork and cheese proponent but seeing them melt it with a blow torch decided me.

The sun was out and I hadn't yet eaten anything that day so I sat on the curb and had my breakfast. And yeah, I liked it. It was a touch too sweet for me – probably as a result of the pork being smoked over fruit wood chips, and being served in a sweet brioche bun, with quite a sweet BBQ sauce. It came with pickle but that was marooned in the very middle of the bun – I would have liked the vinegar tang with every bite. I craved some hot sauce on it. The cheese on it, however, was pretty good – I hadn't been sure I would like cheese with pork but I was converted.

It wasn't incredibly filling either, but then, it was only a fiver.

So yeah, I enjoyed it but it's not one of the big-hitters in the pulled meat and bun arena. Maybe the Derailer or the 3:10 to Yuma (beef on its own) would have set it apart from the crowd but I can only judge it on what I had. Pleasant enough. I'd go back if in the area (and if the Rib Man wasn't around), but I wouldn't make a trip for it all on its own.

Caboose on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 21, 2014

Smokehouse, 9th April

I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that the big draw of Smokehouse is Neil Rankin of Pitt Cue Co and John Salt fame. He is a maestro of barbecuing and smoking things and here that is what you get in abundance.

There was five of us but we all pretty much ordered the same things as they sounded so good. About half of us had decided to try the ham hock, pig's head and cuttlefish romescu 'sphere' until we were told by the waiter that they were out of that. It was fairly easy to decide to have the short rib bourguignon instead though, especially as we kept seeing them come out of the pass and they looked very good indeed.

To start I had the chopped brisket roll with gojuchang, an immense croquette of chunky meat. At first I was disappointed that it was a bit dry but as I worked my way through it, the meat and fattiness of the brisket came through, providing some juiciness, and of course there was the spicy gojuchang to smear on it. I'm not saying there wasn't enough of this vibrant orange sauce, but I am saying I wish there had been more.

Those of us who didn't have the brisket roll had the chicken liver, toast and duck hearts. I didn't try it but I was told it was 'lovely' - that the chicken had a prominent, almost sharp flavour and that the duck hearts rounded it out. There was uncertainty about the sauce that came on it, which was a cheese sauce** and that they thought clashed with the other flavours. 

On to the mains - ticking into my bourgignon and I all but forgot about the existence of the 'sphere'. I'm not a mushroom fan, but these were easily scooped out of the light broth that the meat came in. The meat was a star, a rightful contender to our favourite 'cue joints - BBQWhiskeyBeer and Pitt Cue. I loved the addition of pancetta and crispy onion strips as well. We didn't realise that this dish came with mashed potato, which made me feel a bit of a pogger as I also added a couple of roasted potatoes to my plate. 

Again, we were a two-dish table - those that didn't have the shortrib had the peppered ox cheek which came with cauliflower cheese. No real complaints there - the ox cheek was tender with a good smokey flavour but apparently some of the cauliflower could have done with a few more minutes to soften up. 

It wasn't exactly a special occasion but the Smokehouse isn't a cheap place and so we doubted we'd be back for a while - we decided to make the most of it and get the Korean pulled pork as a side. What a dish. Between five of us, we basically had one mouthful which wasn't nearly enough, though the kimchi was potent enough for that one bite to knock your head off a bit. My favourite pulled pork specimen by far.

After all this we were easily full but I had seen a lot of love for the sticky toffee apple cobbler on reviews and knew I wanted to give that a try. Only, upon hearing what Vanilla Vanilla Vanilla consisted of, my convictions were swayed. Luckily Stephen had the apple dish so I was still able to try it, and it did trump my Triple V, although that was also very good. It was a bit like a tres leches - vanilla sponge soaked with vanilla liqueur with vanilla fudge and vanilla ice cream (really should be a Quadruple V). It was basically cake and ice cream for grown ups.

The cobbler though - sweet dense pudding, many, many more stewed apples than expected, and a light toffee sauce, with ice cream to top it off? Heavenly.

And we all rather enjoyed our character of a waiter who clearly had a little more than his fair share of the gift of the gab. It all made for a hugely enjoyable meal. What more can I say? Believe the hype. 

**I have been reliably informed (by Neil Rankin himself no less) that it was not a cheese sauce but Thai mayo which makes more sense.

Smokehouse on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Cock Tavern and Rita's (permanent place), 4th April

The Cock Tavern

Now that you've finished laughing at its silly name, I shall tell you that this is a rather good little pub, at the top of Mare Street, attracting the overflow of hipsters from Broadway Market. Actually, there was a mixed crowd – sure, there was a lot of the younger generation, but also some older, more traditional pub-going folk – you know, people with dogs and beards before they were cool.

We only had time for one but I'm sure when I'm in the area I'll be back. They serve the usual suspects of Kernel, Camden Hells etc, but they also apparently have an in-house brewery called Howling Hops, which we didn't try. And they served my large wine in a carafe which I always like. 

Square Meal


I'd already been to Rita's when it was just a little residency at Birthdays, serving fantastic 'down-home' southern cooking, so I have had their permanent place on my List ever since seeing they had finally got new premises.

The permanent place has given them a chance to flex their muscles and really show us the kind of sophisticated, 'all growed up' cooking they can do.

There was definitely an element of asian fusion in the dishes on the menu, but they haven't completely turned their backs on the southern influences that made them so successful during their pop-up. The green chili mac n cheese is still on the menu, and while the chicken burger wasn't, they have instead a half chicken with warm honey and gravy. As delicious as that sounded, we balked at paying £25 for half a chicken, no matter how good it might be. 

We had a couple of cocktails, which were nice enough, though next time I'd probably just go for wine as an accompaniment to my meal, noticing that they sold it in 500ml carafes as well as bottles and by the glass. 

I had really wanted to try the goat tacos, another nod to their 'dirtier' roots but by the time we got there (our reservation was for 8:15) they were already sold out!

So, instead we had quite a mature meal that ranged across the different styles on offer. There were several vegetable dishes that we were torn between, which is unusual for us; the asparagus special with duck egg yolk (cooked in a water bath) and miso butter, the tokyo turnips with soy butter, or, the one we did go for - poached calcots with szechuan minced pork.

The calcots were like mini leeks and came with dry-fried crumbled pork all over it, sitting on a delicious and subtly fiery red sauce. This was my favourite plate of the night!

Stephen then overcame his aversion to ordering a vegetarian dish to get the mushrooms with burnt onions, a ragout of grains, and parmesan cream. This dish would not have been out of place in a high-end restaurant – a fabulous blend of earthy flavours and rich, creamy cheese. I'm not a mushrom person but this dish came close to winning me over. Stephen was almost stunned by how good it was.

'My' dish was the rare tuna with radish, blood orange and pickled cucumber. It was the polar opposite of the mushroom dish - light and delicate, crisp and fresh. Another exquisite plate. 

And finally, lest we start taking ourselves too seriously with all these 'adult' plates, we had a side of the mac n cheese we'd loved so much the first time, and happily, it was just as good.

We rounded off dinner by sharing some 'beignets' without the fois gras. I was very tempted to try it, just to try the combination. I know they're famed for them. But I'm not even sure I would have liked it so much, adn it would have been a shame to not enjoy the dessert as much as I had the rest of the meal. The beignets came with a large puddle of dulce de leche, and it was all really tasty, although maybe just a tad too fried-tasting for me. The doughnuts had a lovely, almost gooey, doughy middle though, and the outside was crispy, almost caramelised in some places. And look at the size of them! Definitely a sharing dessert.

Stephen and I both came away in awe a little bit with what they are doing here. The restaurant is unassuming from the outside, but has a clean, yet warm interior - it might look like a typical new hipster joint but what Rita's doing here is that little bit extra special.

Rita's Bar & Dining on Urbanspoon

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Juno and Grimm Tales, 3rd April


Juno is such a great little bar, and one that for some reason gets overlooked, at least, compared to the others on the Shoreditch High Street strip.

I know the whole area has a laid back vibe compared with the glossy bars in the West End - Shoreditch is known for stripped back brick walls and purposefully shabby decor. But Juno really is relaxed, without even trying. It's just a nice place to hang out. But while you're there, don't just lounge around - make sure to grab a bite to eat, as they do some really good food too!

I had nachos - some of the best nachos I've ever had. They do not skimp - not on tortilla chips nor toppings. Plenty of cheese, sour cream, and most importantly for me - jalapenos. They plump their salsa on top of beans and corn and it makes a very filling meal, or ideal sharing plate if you want something else as well. My friends had some plantain chips with paprika - not just chunks of fried plantain like I had expected but thinly sliced, crunchy crisps, like potato chips. Sound odd? Well, it works.

One of them also had the beetroot salad with kale, goats' cheese and pumpkin seeds with a honey balsamic dressing. It looked fantastic for a salad - healthy but filling and I was assured it was as tasty as it looked.

They have a happy hour serving basic cocktails on a two for £10 basis until 7 pm, or you can get jugs of cocktails, or two wines for the price of one.

So we took advantage of that and then moved on to Philip Pullman's Grimm Tales...

Juno on Urbanspoon

Grimm Tales

I shall be keeping an eye on the people behind these grim and gruesome performances of the Tales of the Brothers Grimm, as reimagined by Philip Pullman, as the whole thing was brilliant.

It's a family show, so it never gets too disturbing, but they still manage to stay true to the dark warnings at the heart of the stories. They had a distinctive way of bringing these to life - recognising that these were passed down by word of mouth, and that they're the sort of stories read aloud, they kept all the narrative in, folding it into the speech of the characters.

It was billed as immersive but actually it isn't - you move around to watch each of the vignettes, but your movements are completely controlled by the performers, and then you are static to watch each story unfold. 

The actors were wonderful. There were two cast ensembles, each playing several different characters. They managed to strike the right balance between tongue in cheek humour appreciated by the adults, and hamming it up, appreciated by the kids. As children do when they play, they used everyday items as important props - Rapunzel's hair was a long length of sturdy rope, the bird in the Juniper Tree story was a cleverly transformed umbrella. And Hans My Hedgehogs costume was a creation out of broom brushes. It's as if they give you the outlines to set the scenes but it's up to your imagination to colour them in.  

Afterwards we were left to roam. As we travelled between sets we could get glimpses of other scenery but couldn't yet explore. Now was our chance to marvel at what they had done. Ok, it wasn't on the scale of The Drowned Man, but it had been given every bit as much attention to create a fantasy world full of hints at other stories (they had created the bedroom of the Seven Dwarfs for example). It was, fittingly, magical, but also slightly sinister - conjuring up feelings of wandering through the woods, not knowing what might befall you. 

I also appreciated that while they did a couple of the well-known stories - Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel, they also chose some lesser known ones, so you didn't feel like you'd seen it all before. Having said that, my favourite was probably the Red Riding Hood story. The wolf was a delicious villain.

Tickets are still available and they're doing shows until the 26th so if you have kids, or even if not (I went with a bunch of adults) I think this is a piece of theatre worth seeing. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Central & Co whiskey tasting and Churchill's Port House, 2nd April


I was invited down to one of my favourite bars in London - Central & Co to take part in a whiskey cocktail masterclass hosted by Monkey Shoulder. I must admit, I had already made the acquaintance of Monkey Shoulder when I went to one of their amazing For One Night Only events way back in 2012 I think. So I knew I liked their whisky and that as a brand they're a lot of fun. The night I'd been to was called 'Popcorn Flip' and they basically filled a room with popcorn while plying you with cocktails. That's my kinda night!

This event was a little more sophisticated, although we all managed to have a laugh as well. First we had a snifter of the whisky in its pure, neat form. It describes itself as 'rich and smooth' and the only tasting note our impeccable host, Grant, gave us was that it has vanilla elements. My friend Alison and I had only moments before been discussing where the sweetness of it came from. Apart from that, Grant said that palates are so individual it is pointless trying to point out any other flavours as you might not get the same taste sensations.

Grant walked us through the history of Monkey Shoulder, the ethos of the company and its origins, as well as the thinking behind the label design. 

And then came the cocktail making. To celebrate spring sort of arriving, the first we were shown how to make was a refreshing, mint and apple long drink. Apple and whiskey are a perfect pairing and the mint really gave it a clean, light taste.

Next, we had to do an Old Fashioned, a drink I often have when I'm out but not one I've ever made at home. I love them as they're basically just whiskey but sweetened to make it go down easier. We learned why an Old Fashioned is so-called (because it existed before a new wave of cocktails were invented, basically) and I also discovered that bitters are actually alcoholic! I had always assumed they were flavouring only.

Finally, at the end of the night, a little healthy competiton was introduced. We all had to make a Bobby Burns (no relation to Robbie Burns, despite the use of scotch) and we were judged on it. The prize - a bottle of Monkey Shoulder! So a lot was at stake.

Unfortunately, I scuppered my chances by confusing two of the ingredients and at first not putting in enough sweet vermouth, and then overcompensating by putting in too much. It was incredibly sweet. I added more whiskey to compensate and it did improve but I knew I hadn't got the balance right. I did not win.

I really enjoyed the night - they run these sessions fortnightly with different whiskeys so do go on down and discover a new drink, or more about one you already love! Contact Central & Co for details. 

Churchill's Port House

After finishing these we were a bit squiffy and decided to head off for food. We stumbled upon a place I'd heard about on Twitter - Churchill's Port House, who offers up small sharing plates alongside an extensive port menu. They also have a nice red and a nice white wine as well.

We started with some deliciously dense and dark rye bread and butter and then shared the salmon tartare and pork belly with watermelon, and a cheese plate, after the two dishes we'd been contemplating - the chilli and garlic prawns and the Iberico pork burger were sold out!

The salmon was fantastic - plenty of tart gherkin and some black olive formed a base on top of very thinly sliced avocado and a bit of salt. Our only complaint was the the avocado was very underripe.

The pork belly was two strips served with wedges of watermelon. I'd had pork with watermelon before at Trinity and it was just as good here. The sweet melon and salty pork made a knock-out combination.

And the cheese - well two versions of cheeses similar to manchego (a favourite of mine) plus a crumbly blue cheese. Excellent partners to the lovely, deep red wine we were by now drinking, having started off with a white port for me, and a white wine for Alison.

We chatted to the guys that run the place, and they told us all about where the port comes from and what got them started in the place, and then we went downstairs to finish our drink, where we were given a nightcap of red port. It was all lovely, but I paid for it the next day!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Dum Dum Donutterie, 1st April

After our filling (at least physically if not in terms of contentment) lunch/dinner at On the Bab it was time for dessert – a wander down to Boxpark to nab a doughnut. It was nearing 4 pm and I was under no illusion that we would have the pick of the bunch. Most of the doughnuts had sold out but they still had three flavours to choose from - an almond pistachio cronut, a creme brulee, and a morello cherry ring doughnut. I felt compelled to opt for the creme brulee while Stephen was enticed by the promise of cherry.

We took them home and Stephen finished his in about four bites and proclaimed he wasn't too impressed. He felt like he was eating an iced bun rather than a doughnut. I had mine and was also underwhelmed. I knew already that they were baked not fried and so expected a 'healthier' taste, but the dough to mine seemed very dry. I know they'd been sat there a while but still. The shell on top which mimicked the top of a creme brulee I actually thought was too sticky – it got all stuck in my teeth in an unpleasant way. It was filled with a vanilla cream though and this was its saving grace. Sadly, even making allowances for the lack of fat, they weren't a patch on Glazed and Confused's inventions. 

Not wanting ot give up on the place, I wanted to go back and try the thing I'd been seeing so much praise for on Twitter – the zebra cronut. And I ended up doing so when I got a hot dog from Coffee Dogs - they stock Dum Dum's wares.

This was definitely better than the doughnut I'd had - with chocolate cream piped through it. Had I not had a crodough from Rinkoff's I might have forgiven Dum Dums the creme brulee. But I had and Rinkoff's were a work of art. These ones were more akin to their bread brethren than their doughnut cousins and just lacked that indulgence I want from a doughnut. I wouldn't be so rash as to say I wouldn't bother with another but, for me, they're not hitting the spot.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Coffee Dogs, 1st April

I don't really like burgers. While the rest of my family embraced them, I grew up eating hot dogs. And not the weird, slimy kind you get in cans over here, nor the banger in a bun that used to double as a hot dog. No, the real kind. The American kind. And I love 'em.

So even though there are more than a handful of places in London serving pretty good dogs, I will never say another one is a band one. If we had a hot dog cart on each corner, like they do in NYC, I'd be happy.

So it was with an open heart that I wanted to embrace CoffeeDogs to the scene. I had half a mind to get there over the weekend to enjoy a 10% discount but was too busy. Instead I made a pit stop there after work. They've just got a shack outside King's Cross station with a few stools to perch on - already feeling closer to your average hot dog in the States than the gourmet hot dogs a lot of places are serving. And there ain't nothin' wrong with that.

I ordered the Chicago beef pulled through the garden - beef frankfurter, chopped onion, jalapeno sport peppers, strip of gherkin, green relish and then the weird bits - cucumber, tomato and celery salt. All served in a poppy seed bun.

They also do burgers and frozen custards and concretes (oh - and coffee) but I spied a zebra cronut from Dum Dum Donutterie and had one of them for dessert instead.

So, the hot dog. Priced at £5.00 I thought it was just a touch more expensive than it should have been given the toppings. The other hot dogs were all cheaper than this, and I don't think the toppings you're given warrant the extra. Yes, the toppings - most were great - classic toppings for hot dogs that work well with the slightly smokey, briney flavour. Relish - check. Onions - check. Dill pickle - check ('tis what relish is made of after all). Jalapeno sport peppers - double check - they were great. And the celery salt - delicious. The cucumber and tomato? For me, a big no. I don't really want my hot dog to seem like a salad. The tomato was just about ok, but the cucumber? Just weird.

The bread was pretty good - soft like a hot dog bun should be and the poppy seeds were nice. It was just the wrong side of soft (or perhaps not quite wide enough) and tore a little in the middle as I was eating, making the last few bites a bit more awkward. Also, why have buns that aren't as long as the frank? Or, conversely, why make sausages too long for the bun?

Anyway, after having picked it apart, my final verdict is that actually, this was pretty good, capturing the essence of what a hot dog is all about - some simple but ever so satisfying fast food. I'll be back and I'll be giving the Concretes a go next time too. 

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I work as an editor in educational publishing by day, and then spend most of my spare time discovering interesting things to do in London, and taking people there with my own Meetup.