Sunday, February 19, 2012

Tower Hill memorial, 14th February

Nothing says romance like reminding yourself of all the poor souls who gave their lives for the war effort.

Admittedly, it wasn't our first choice of plans. We were supposed to go to the Tower of London, but after an extended and slightly boozy lunch at the Bull and Last, we didn't get there until 4, which is exactly when they stop letting anyone in. What a ridiculous closing time! Fortunately, I remembered I had wanted to take a peek at this memorial, and it was just over the road.

The memorial is to commemorate those sailors of ships and fishing vessels that lost their lives at sea during the war, ending in a watery grave. It is actually two memorials- one for WW1 and another behind it for WW2.

The one for the First World War looks a bit like a crypt. It has a long corridor and all the walls and pillars are engraved with the names of the dead sailors.

The second one is more like a little garden, again the walls are inscribed with the names of those lost, but interspersed with reliefs of mythical sea dwelling creatures. It's very pretty, and quite a nice place to stop for a moment if you're that way inclined.

I had passed the memorial countless times, but its quite unobtrusive and you are naturally drawn to look at the Tower, which overshadows it. Next time you're in the area, give it some attention.

Now, I know the Bull and Last isn't on my List, but while I'm here I might as well say a few words about it. 

It is superb. A gastropub in the true sense of the word, in that it feels like a proper pub, and serves stupendous food. We outdid ourselves in our gluttony. We shared the best charcuterie board, ever. It consisted of: duck rillette, duck prosciutto, chicken liver pate, hamhock terrine, and pig's head. All this was accompanied by cornichons, pickled grapes, some lovely toasted bread, tartar sauce, onion chutney and kumquat chutney! We left nary a crumb.

For the main meal I had wagyu beef pie with the butteriest mashed potato you ever did see. Literally had a pool of butter on the top. Stephen had the ox cheek and lentils. The ox cheek required no more than the side of a fork to cut it.

And also, I'm almost ashamed to admit, we got a side of chips. We'd heard they rivalled those at the Fat Duck and as we're not going there any time soon thought we'd better try these. They're ridiculous. Each chip is about a quarter of a potato, but they've managed to make them both crispy and soft inside. Well, for the most part. We did find one that was a little undercooked.

We wanted to get dessert as well, but what with the alcohol (ringwood ale for him, deliciously cloying saam cabernet sauvignon for me) there just wasn't any room. Very sad.

Bull & Last on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Star of Kings, 9th February

If I was being generous, I would say, maybe Thursday just isn't the night to go to Star of King's. But this is quite damning really, because isn't Thursday the new Friday? So if a place isn't heaving on a Thursday, it's a little worrying. But it did also snow quite a bit so maybe that's what was putting people off...

I slightly inebriatedly asked the girl we'd befriended behind the bar if it gets busy at weekends. Her response was lukewarm so I suspect it doesn't really. It seems a shame. The Star of Kings is the sister pub of the Star of Bethnal Green, so I was expecting a fairly buzzy place go for my friend 'blind date'. Somewhere we could chat, but with a bit of an atmosphere. 

We could definitely chat, but the atmosphere was a little lacking. I liked the set up. The 'front room' was a big rectangle which had a hodge podge of different comfy chairs, including even a chaise longue, and the bar. Then there was a larger room at the back with normal tables and chairs, and even a downstairs where any dancing happens. Unfortunately only half the chairs in the front room were full, and none in the back. They played some good music - reminding me of their sister Star by playing retro 60s stuff but it wasn't enough.

The staff are also very friendly. They have happy hour from 5 - 9 in which they offer two for one cocktails. My friend turned up a little later than me, so we weren't in sync when it came to our rounds for a couple of drinks. She ordered a cocktail, but didn't really want them both at the same time. They let her order her one cocktail with other 'in the bank' as it were, so she could still capitalise on the deal. Not only that, but when she had finished her first cocktail, the guy came over and asked her if she was ready for her second one now. I could be mean and say with a dearth of customers they could afford to be so attentive, but let's pretend I didn't say that. They were fairly chatty - the bar girl even getting in on my drinkmate's attempts to coax me out longer, suggesting we go to Camden up the road where things were open longer. I was not drawn in though. 

So yeah, it was a nice pub, just not very lively. It's not exactly in the hub of things - it's all the way up York Road, past even King's place so people probably just don't really know it's there. Having said that, it is right next to the Guardian's offices, so there should be throngs of journos in there, not just the three I couldn't help but overheard when I first went in there. Disappointing.

Square Meal

Monday, February 6, 2012

Mestizo, 4th Feb

I love me some Mexican food. I am over the moon at the recent surge in popularity of it over here, though still sad that Taco Bell doesn't seem to have taken off. Yes, I know it's technically awful, but it is also delicious!

Anyway, so I am always on the lookout for new Mexican places, and I think I came across Mestizo through Secret London, although funnily enough, Stephen worked up the road from it before we got together and had already been once. But only for a burrito which barely counts.

So, following our newly initiated tradition of eating out and then drinking on a Friday, we decided to try out Mestizo. We bundled up and braved the snow that was just starting to fall. We'd had a look at the menu beforehand which had whetted our appetites but put off a final decision until we were immersed in the restaurant. 

The restaurant is warm and Mexican in decor - red walls and red hearts in the windows which I presume were for Valentine's Day. The staff are very friendly, though we realised throughout the evening that they seemed to be markedly clumsy. Especially our waitress who managed to practically throw a fork in Stephen's face, and dropped at least a couple of other things. She also almost took my food menu away from me before I'd ordered but she was very sweet which made up for it. And when we sat down there was already a bowl of homemade corn torilla chips and some tasty, zingy salsa verde waiting for us to polish off in no time. A good start. 

There's a lot to choose from on the menu and I thought it all sounded pretty good. I had originally been drawn to the long list of different tacos but we didn't go for those in the end. We decided to get a couple of antojitos, which are starters or small plates. We had a couple of jaladas (jalapeno poppers served with a nice minty sour cream dip) and two pescadillas (like deep fried corn fish tacos). They were both tasty but not exactly out of this world.

For our main we couldn't resist ordering the Molcajete Mestizo. This is like a fondue, but instead of cheese, you get meat. We had the mixed version which meant our bowl of meat contained chicken, beef and pork sausage which was chorizo but to me tasted more like Polish sausage (that's not a bad thing). On top of the meat you get some cheese, some spring onion, some avocado and it comes with tortillas - your choice of flour or corn. We chose flour. The massive bowl came spitting and bubbling to our table. The stone bowl keeps the food so hot that the serving spoons were almost too hot to use. We actually thought the food was getting hotter the more we ate. 

You get about four tortillas each and more than enough meat to fill them. I was quite stuffed by the third tortilla. It was tasty. The sauce it came in was quite a rich, dark, tomatoey sauce. But it was also heavy. And again, I wasn't blown away by it. It's definitely hearty and you can't fault the amount they give you. But I would have preferred more avocado and spring onion, less meat and perhaps a fresh salsa to go in the tortillas to lighten the dish up a bit. And some jalapenos wouldn't have gone amiss. 

Stephen wasn't enamoured of the place but I'm not quite decided on it. I think part of the fault lay in our choices - jalapeno poppers are never going to set anyone's tastebuds on fire (though they are pretty spicy). And having what amounts to a bowl of meat for dinner is just unnecessary. I'd like to go back, try out their guacamole (a good test of how good a place is) and go for the tacos like I had originally planned, or maybe one of their platos fuertes (main courses). The mixiote de cordero for example, a shank of lamb marinated in Mexican spices, wrapped in a banana leaf and slowly cooked until tender, accompanied with rice and corn tortillas sounds very appealing.

I also didn't get to have a dessert because I was so swollen by the meat, and I think the sound of their pastel tres leches sounds amazing. I had a donut tres leches in the states once and I still remember it vividly. Dessert is a good a reason as any to give a place another try. 

The place was no Wahaca, and not as easy to get to now Wahaca has opened a branch in Westfield Stratford, but I'm not writing it off yet. 

Mestizo on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Find the menu & restaurant information on Zomato

Star of Bethnal Green, 28th January

So, it was early Saturday night and we were feeling good after our Hunanese. It was time to get into the Saturday night swing of things and imbibe some alcohol. I even had some cash left from my last paycheck burning a hole in my pocket – we could drink like kings!

We warmed up in a pub we recently discovered on Brewer Street called the The Glasshouse Stores. It’s a Sam Smith pub and does wheat beers which Stephen particularly likes. It was only about 8 pm and the pub was fairly busy but we still had a seat. It didn’t quite have as much atmosphere as we were looking for, and we ended up sitting by a draughty window so we decided to move on after two. On to the Star of Kings – somewhere we could get home from easily when we were half cut.

I’ve heard about this place as a bit of a hipster beacon in Bethnal Green but this was my first time venturing in. Stephen had been himself and said it was small. He was right. You walk in, and there is a room and in about ten moderate paces you can get to the bar directly in front of you, which also doubles as the back of the room. But there is an upstairs. We perched on a small table right by the raised DJ area and consumed our drinks. As the night wore on, more and more tables were removed from around us, and taken up the stairs. The music got a bit louder, the hipsters got a bit drunker, and dancing began in fits and starts until people were around the DJ and on the floor in front of us. You couldn’t blame them – the music was fantastic. Earlier on they had been playing fairly standard, ear-pleasing house music. But by the time the night really got going, they had moved on to 60s soul and r’n’b. Sweet Soul Music, closely followed by Soul Man – well you just can’t go wrong. I actually didn’t venture upstairs but Stephen checked it out and said that it resembled the downstairs circa 9 pm in atmosphere – ie you went upstairs to sit, downstairs to dance.

We, however, stubbornly bucked this trend, continuing to sit and drink while people danced around us. I was tempted on more than once occasion to get up, but we just weren’t drunk enough to ‘be out dancing’ as a couple. It was enough fun to drunkenly chat and hipster-watch. I can't be too scathing about hipsters - I am practically one myself except for the way I dress and act. But I do draw the line at ordering double Baileys as my drink of choice when I'm out on the piss (yes, I witnessed one floppy haired gentleman order just this. Two hours later and he was still on the same drink.). We left at around 11:30 to get a cheeky McDonald’s and the last tube home. 

Square Meal

Friday, February 3, 2012

Ba Shan, 29th January

Similarly to the rest of the world, Stephen and I wanted to get back in shape after our Christmas indulgence. We also wanted to go to Ba Shan. We made a deal with ourselves – if we were good for two weeks, we would reward ourselves with dinner out.

Two weeks passed and I didn’t lose any weight, and Stephen didn’t even bother to measure whether he did or not. But I had been going to the gym regularly, and that had to count for something. To further our own argument, we decided to walk from our house into town, a good two hours’ journey on foot.

We wanted to go to Ba Shan because we have been to both of its sister restaurants – the Baozi Inn, and Bar Shu (which is situated diagonally opposite Ba Shan). The Baozi Inn has become Stephen’s favourite go-to place for a cheap bite ever since he first sampled their dan dan noodles. Both places specialise in Sichuan food, which is a cuisine that favours lots of chillies, on everything, though you temper this by starting with a cold appetizer. They’re also quite partial to dishes involving offal.

Ba Shan is a little pricier than the Baozi, but not as expensive as Bar Shu. It is also influenced by the Hunanese region as opposed to just Sichuan. After two hours of walking we were pretty excited to be eating and could have fallen into the trap of our eyes being bigger than our bellies. The menu labels some starters and then lists the rest under whether they’re pork, beef, veggie etc and when the price of a pork dish is the same price as one of the starters, it’s a bit of a guess as to whether it’s of main dish size or starter size. But having experienced the portion sizes of similar places, we erred on the side of caution and only ordered three dishes between us.

Those three dishes were – Chairman Mao’s braised pork belly, lamb stir fried with hot chillies and sliced pig’s ears with hot chillies. At Stephen’s behest we had decided to be a bit more ‘adventurous’ and not stick to the safe things we always choose. I was fine with this – I thought they might turn out to be similar to other odd-sounding things I’d eaten lately (boar jowl and lamb’s neck to name a couple) that really turn out to just be normal-looking cuts of meat (though the lamb neck did freak me out a bit when I’d eaten all the meat off it and could discern the vertebrae). And of course some steamed rice to make us look a little less like total carnivores.

First to arrive was the lamb and rice. Absolutely delicious, we gobbled down half of the dish before realising quite how hot it was. There was quite a lot of ginger in the dish, as well as a Christmas colour scheme of chillies – fat chunks of red and green chillies confetti all over the meet, with a few of those dried red chillies that actually aren’t too pleasant to eat dotted among them. 

Utterly delicious lamb
Then came the pigs’ ears slices and as soon as it was set down we realised we had made a mistake. They looked slimy.  And then, when you ate them, they tasted slimy. Worse, in the middle of each bit was a thin strip of what must have been cartilage. No amount of spices and herbs could disguise that texture which reminds you that you are eating something which you would normally discard. We were very dismayed. Stephen became chivalrous – he said he would eat a spoonful to make it look like we’d had some, and then fished out some of the meatier strips that were more like real pork (although still strangely soft) to give to me. Eating those gristley pigs ears just proved to me what I have thought all along – such foods as these may have had their place in a time when food was scarce (and you can apply this to snails, insects, tripe) but in the modern day there is no need to include it on menus. 

It looks better than it tasted
Thankfully we had saved some of the lamb, and the pork belly was still to come. Now, the highlight for me was the lamb, but the pork belly was indeed very delicious. It came as eight large cubes of almost crimson-coloured meat, sitting on some pak choi (or bok choy, not sure – are they even different things?) and with sauce collecting at the bottom. The Chinese/Sichuanese/Hunanese know how to braise meat. My theory is that this is because they don’t have knives and therefore need it soft enough to cut with a chopstick. Which this was. This dish wasn’t hot at all – it isn’t meant to be – but we had lots of chillies left over from the uneaten ears so I added a few to mine. And then we polished off the lamb, almost erasing all that unpleasant ear business and leaving the meal on a high note.

Like a lot of chinese places, the most applicable compliment you could pay to the service was that it was 'efficient'. We didn't have a reservation and were told when we arrived at six that we'd have to be out by half seven. As we hadn't planned on making an evening of it, this was no problem at all to us, and we were actually in and out within an hour. The atmosphere isn't too bad and the background music is a little out of the ordinary for a Chinese restaurant - contemporary pop music, and none too bad either.

One last thing – Stephen had a lychee drink as his beverage and it was lovely!

And on that note, remember:

Ba Shan on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Find the menu & restaurant information on Zomato