Thursday, February 26, 2015

Ragam, 7th February

It is a sad fact that Stephen and I have bad luck when it comes to opening hours. Many’s the time I’ve taken a special trip to a street food stall only to find it shut, or we’ve taken a random Monday off and everywhere we’ve wanted to eat was closed. So it was when we first tried to get into Ragam, in the limbo time between Christmas and New Year. As we advanced on the front it became clear they too had decided to shup up shop for the holidays, but it luckily provided us with an opportunity to go to Honey & Co.

It also made us determined to try again. The sole reason I know about Ragam is because I follow Ben Goldacre on Twitter and about 3 years ago he raved about it. He’s a pretty sensible, logical guy – always tweeting about evidence – and so I considered him trustworthy even on food. I was right to do so.

Stephen had been doing PescaJanuary (no meat, fish allowed) and we decided to celebrate him rejoining the carnivorous fold by going for a curry with a few friends. Having a few of us gave the perfect excuse to have a smorgasbord of starters before getting a main dish each. Some of these weren’t the easiest thing to share but we just about managed.

So, what did we have?

Stephen had a lamb vindaloo which, strangely, didn’t seem to have any potato in it. This was rather vinegary and, I thought, really, really hot. He begged to differ but I think he was just trying to be macho. I don’t know whether I liked the taste all that much and I know I couldn’t have eaten much of it. I just dipped some paratha in every now and again.

Paratha is all they serve on the bread front but that’s fine with me as I think they’re as good as, if not better, than nan breads. As with nans elsewhere, these came in lots of different flavours. I almost ordered the chilli but as I’d asked for extra heat in my curry I thought that may be foolish and instead had a garlic one. This was so garlicky it was verging on bitter. I think a plain one would have been best.

My butter chicken curry was delicious and there was plenty of it. It is not traditionally a particularly hot curry so I asked for extra spice and they got the heat level just perfect for me. Noses were running but the flavours weren’t masked. It was exactly what I want when i have a curry – good consistency, spicy, plenty of flavour and plenty of meat. 
Butter chicken and stack of paratha
My friends have a favourite curry house in London – Gopal’s. They’re almost regulars there. But after visiting here their allegiance was certainly wavering. While the curries were good (they also had the butter chicken) I think the starters were what was swaying their loyalties. So here’s a run through of them:

Cashew nut pakoda – cashews dipped in spicy batter and fried. Amazingly moreish, just takes a nut to a completely new level. They disappeared in seconds and I haven’t stopped thinking about them.

Sambar vada – doughnut in a lentil gravy – this was incredibly savoury and deeply flavoured, reminding us of the dipping curry at Roti king. Not the easiest dish to share, as it is one doughnut but we managed to cut it up so that everyone could have a bite.

Onion bhaji – these are easier to get wrong than you might think but we were really happy with the ones we had. They weren’t too greasy and heavy and came with a raita-style sauce to dip them in. 

We also had pappadums of course and even these were a little bit special as some of them were not just plain pappadums but seasoned.

And we’re not even done yet. We also ordered some poori masala – puffed bread stuffed with potato masala. These were a little dry and not our favourites but easily tasty enough, especially when dipped in the sambar vada gravy.

Finally we also had a side of bhindi which came with onions and tomatoes as we wouldn’t have felt healthy without a bit of veg!

Apologies for the quality of the photos, I was too excited to get stuck in to worry about being arty, or even in focus!

The food is ridiculously well priced even for Central London – curries were around the £7 mark, the other dishes ranged from £3 to £6. Book ahead if you can as the place is pretty popular and yet not that big so was all but full when we went on a Saturday night.  

Ragam on Urbanspoon

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Friday, February 20, 2015

Motown Desserts, 1st February

Cakes in the window and a glittery sign attracted me to Motown Desserts a very long while ago and one balmy winter’s day I decided to pop in, having walked back from the Annual Clown Service and feeling like I’d walked off some calories. It was bigger inside than I imagined meaning I could sit in the back and ‘take advantage’ of one of their house specials rather than nabbing a piece of cake to take home.

This I regret. I think a piece of cake to take home would have been far more pleasurable than the mess I had. I wasn’t really sure what I fancied – mainly cake and ice cream but they didn’t have that exact combo so instead I had the Cloud Nine. This was lady fingers soaked in coffee with coffee and chocolate ice cream, whipped cream and a wafer. Sounded like a different take on tiramisu. But it was pretty horrible. The lady fingers seemed to have been soaked in warm coffee, and unevenly. Some of them were still rock hard, others had turned to complete mush which was an awful texture in the mouth, especially coupled with being warm. I didn’t expect the ice cream to reach Gelupo standards and it didn’t. It even had slightly chewy bits which I’m not really sure were intentional. I ate about three quarters of it until all that were left were the awful lady fingers and then I got out of there, paying £7 for the privilege.

The one thing I liked about the place was its main feature – a section of glass floor from where you can look down on sacks of coffee beans and records. Otherwise it was a swing and a miss for me. 

Motown Desserts on Urbanspoon

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Stokey Crawl, 30th January

Another Friday, another bar crawl. Quite an extended one this time – it was time for some list ticking in Stoke Newington/Dalston.

125 Church Street

I met Stephen at the relatively recently opened 125 Church Street where White Rabbit Cocktail bar was previously, and before that it was the Baby Bathhouse. I don’t know why but places that open on this spot don’t have much longevity. We shall see whether the folks behind the Blacksmith and the Toffeemaker have better luck.

The place looks very different from the last time I was there – it is clean and bright, and feels more like a café than a bar. We had just the one drink here and some food. Their food menu is short and simple – American-style sandwiches: The Cuban, The Reuben, a Grilled Cheese and a sandwich of the day. Being that reubens are somewhat proliferative in London now, I gave the Cuban a go. Stephen, still in his pescatarian month had the grilled cheese. They each came with crisps and some coleslaw that had a very light touch on the mayo and included mint; a simple twist that made a big difference.

The sandwiches were lovely. Mine had gherkins and American mustard giving it a nice tang, and had a decent amount of pulled pork in it along with the ham and cheese. Stephen’s sarni was so full of cheese it cascaded down the side of the basket. He was duly impressed with the taste – it had everything but the kitchen sink: mozzarella, swiss, cheddar and an American-style cheese. Pretty good value at £5 for his and £6.50 for mine. I also had a fruity but dry white wine at £5 for 175 ml. Would happily revisit but it’s a little out of the way for me, and I suspect many others, and this could lead to its downfall. I hope not though.

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Original Sin

Then off we went to Original Sin, the new cocktail bar from Happiness Forgets which just oozes American at you as you enter its subterranean sepia setting – it’s a bit like walking into an Instagram filter. A long bar down one side and booths down another plus a pool table (with brown felt) at one end create a sophisticated but fun ‘Mad Men’ atmosphere. And the pool table is free! I was surprised at how big the place was, especially compared to Happiness but it soon became quite full so the space is needed. 

We had two drinks in here but I would have happily stayed longer if I didn’t have other places to try. The cocktail list is not overwhelming and prices are a pleasing £7.00 for highballs and £8.00 for the rest. My Mr Sandman tasted strongly of the all spice it was flavoured with, which I liked, although it felt more appropriate for the Christmas season, to be drunk with a ginger biscuit. (Funny I should end up ordering a drink made with Remy Martin when it was Remy that got me to Happiness forgets in the first place.) Stephen’s Perfect Storm was fiery with ginger and sweet with plum brandy and I loved it. 

He liked his second one, the Kashmir, even more though it was a bit too heavy on the cardamom for me. Actually, my second drink was a misstep for me as well – the Sea City didn’t have enough of the smokiness I associate with mescal for my taste and was way too salty for me. It was a bit too much like drinking the sea, rather than the refreshing drink I’d imagined. 

We played a couple of games of pool while the place filled up before sitting down in our booth to finish our second drink. It was both cosy and lively once a few people were there, playing some easy-on-the-ears blues and soft rock (there was some song overlap with here and High Water so this must be the music to drink cocktails to) Overall though, this is a great bar to get comfy in but we had two more places on the list to cover so we moved on.

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High Water

Next we went to High Water which is where Bar 23 used to be. While I liked the bar itself, and the bar staff, the cocktails didn’t do much for us. They were rather plainly presented and the tastes weren’t as complex or as rich as I would have liked. And, especially compared to where we had just been, it seemed expensive for what you got (£9 or £9.50 standard). I couldn't resist the ridiculous-sounding Foo Foo Band Night but it didn't live up to its crazy name and flavours of peanut butter rum, lime and banana. It was incredibly subtle. Stephen's French Leave was the same - tasted alcoholic and faintly fruity but not enough of its ingredients to make a huge impression. We switched to beer and wine after, and while I’d be happy to come back here, I wouldn’t make a special effort for the cocktails again.

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Dalston Victoria

Final stop for the night was the Dalston Victoria, something of a Dalston institution I believe, and frequently a gig space, though not on the night we went. There was no getting away from the fact that it smelled awful when we arrived but our noses soon acquiesced to it and we rather liked the place. Definitely of the ‘dive’ variety, it was kind of bare and not even very busy when we were there on a Friday night. A round cost £10 on the nose (rare to find a place where two drinks is £10 or less) and the drinks were good. It had that typically east slightly shabby, eclectic thing going on with a lightbox of Victoria's head and a wall of books making it feel a bit like someone's house. I believe this has either just changed hands or is about to (a quick search reveals the Dreambags crew are taking it on), and that they might even have a street food residency in the kitchen soon. From this lot I wouldn’t expect it to lose too much of its ‘diveyness’ and should remain a proper boozer with a gig space out the back as it has been for so long. One to remember.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Listen Softly London, 26th January

If you are a lover of words then you’re spoilt for choice in London. There is a litany of spoken word, poetry, literary and storytelling nights out there (and many of them have been blogged about by me). A fairly new arrival to the scene is Listen Softly London, run by Dominic Stevenson, in a room at the top of the Crown in Southwark. Dom works in the charity sector but still felt like he wasn’t doing enough good in the world and so decided to put on a spoken word event to raise some money for a good cause. When it was a success and someone asked him when the next one would be, it became a regular occurrence.

Dom curates four people who deal in the currency of words, as well as performing some of his own works. These are not the same people at each event and so subjective taste as well as their own objective talent will determine how much you enjoy it, but to go by the event I attended this is another gem in the literary crown of London.

First up we had Dan Carpenter reading an excerpt from a story in the collection After the Fall. I am convinced I have seen Dan read elsewhere but cannot figure out where. Anyway, this story concerned a world where technology was no more, a world where technology was viewed with suspicion and fear, by those who could even remember it. We didn’t find out why, and nor did we hear the entire story so we were left with our own unsettling imaginings as to what had gone wrong. Quite clever.

After a short break, Sarah Sheldon treated us to some of her ‘comedic storytelling’. In short, she is a standup comic but she has her own very unique delivery and stage persona. I know I won’t do it justice by describing it here but she had a sort of Charlie Brown resignation about her, in relation to the struggle that is ordinary life, as she told us about her favourite childhood stories of Topsy and Tim, envying both their companionship and their lives where nothing whatsoever interesting happened. She shared with us her fear of change, and how this has lead to an almost debilitating obsession with whether or not her boss was going to leave for a new job. And finally, we were introduced to her Jewish grandmother’s fixation on chairs. It was really funny, and I was really pleased to see a female comic given some floor time.

The last two acts were your ‘typical’ spoken word complete with the pattern and cadence familiar to anyone who has seen much of this. But that doesn’t mean they were old hat. Megan was, perhaps a little predictably, quite feminist (it just abounds in these circles) and started off with a bit of a rant inspired by Jay Z’s 99 Problems (she had 99 problems and the male construct anti-women society was one etc). Not all her pieces were quite so political though – she had a good old rant about couples snogging on the tube and also covered her sincere desire to be Maria from The Sound of Music when she was a little girl, and her feelings about leaving her student life behind. Before, finally, finishing on another feminist note inspired by Mary Beard. Her work was clever and witty with vocabulary any word lover would appreciate.

And finally, we had Dean McCaffrey. I must admit, I got a little distracted by his face and tats when I was trying to listen to his words but the story he was weaving eventually grabbed my attention. He started with quite a long piece about befriending a homeless guy who turned out to be something of a muse for him when he was but a young lad, as well as providing an introduction to the realities of homelessness that we all know exist. I’ve not really heard such a long piece of spoken word before. One of my Meetup members said it was Shakespearean but it reminded me more of an epic Homerian poem. He then rather shyly performed a rap for us as he is a rapper as well, though I must say, without background music the difference between rap and spoken word is ‘subtle’.

People were encouraged to stick around afterwards and have a chat, which added to the friendly and welcoming atmosphere. These nights are monthly and if you like this sort of thing, or want to find out if you do, then you should pop along some time.  

Monday, February 16, 2015

Old School Indie, 24th January

What can I say about Old School Indie other than it does exactly what it says on the tin? These guys are devoted to bringing you a weekly dose of the finest indie around. And we all know what the finest indie is – Britpop and the stuff that was around in the golden era of the 90s. As my boyfriend said later – it was like listening to a Shine compilation CD and I can think of no finer praise.

By the way – for a perfect pub to meet up at beforehand, I highly recommend the Joker of Penton Street. While it wasn’t playing just indie, the music in there definitely put us in the mood for the club ahead, not to mention the big Be Here Now clock of course.

After a few drinks here, we went up the road to the O2 Islington and into the Indie Disco. It being a January weekend I suspected that the night would be pretty much just mine and the Indie meetups attending but I was wrong, it was pretty busy! Busy enough for there to be a full dancefloor, but not so busy you had to miss all the songs you like because you were queuing at the bar.

So, what did they play?

Well here’s just a taster:
Jet – Are you Gonna be My Girl
Oasis – Supersonic
Blur – Park Life
Pulp – Disco 2000 and Do you remember the first time?
Wonderstuff – Size of a Cow

And a few even older school tunes such as Iggy pop – Lust for life and Heroes by David Bowie.

They also have a cardboard cutout of Jarvis Cocker which is basically just an invite to get up on the stage and dance around with him. Plenty of people did.

It was a really fun night out and made me want to try one of their other nights – Feeling Gloomy all the more.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Lounge Bohemia, 23rd January

I knew Lounge Bohemia had been around for a good while and mused that I wouldn’t be as impressed with it as I might had been, had I not frequented so many ‘speakeasy’ style bars already. For this is what I assumed Lounge Bohemia would be – it has an unmarked entrance, you have to make a booking by phone etc, all very underground drinking den. But I was quite wrong. Underground it is, but not in the prohibition-style. Instead, you wander down into some kind of retro time warp. Funky and bright and full of Ikea-like furniture and paper lamps; tables and chairs were in the main area and little inset caverns along one edge. Water was provided in kitsch plastic jugs that you might take camping. They play light jazz in the background to complete the ‘lounge’ atmosphere. It made quite a change from everything else you can find in the area. It was also pretty busy – every table was occupied, which is no mean feat for a cold #DryJanuary. We had a little table in one of the cavern corners where we suffered a little for not being in anyone’s eyeline. We were forgotten about for ages before we could order, it took ages before anyone came to ask if we wanted another drink, and we finally had to go and chase down our bill when we wanted to leave as they’d clearly forgotten about it.

Despite all this, I did like the place. It truly had its own style compared to other illicit bars (although they did do the whole 'hidden' menu in a book thing) and the drinks were good. They do a few well-known cocktails with their own twists, plus their own house cocktails which are only £8.50. We stuck to this menu as there was plenty on there to keep us amused. But if you really want to push the boat out and get some drinks to impress then their menu of £14.50 cocktails is where it’s at. These ones come with bubbles and smoke, things like chocolate caviar and electricity and various different items of scenery and wizardry, reminding me of the show you get from your drinks at the Whistling Shop or Purl. The group next to us certainly delighted in them.

But our drinks without all the bells and whistles were great. Flavoured vodka was a main ingredient to most of these. I chose a Sgt Pepper which was black pepper vodka with elderflower and lime, served in a pepper-encrusted glass if you wanted an extra kick. I did. This was so good that Stephen ordered it for his second drink. It turns out this is one of Lounge Bohemia’s most popular and I can see why.

To start, Stephen had an Old Gentleman which was basically an old fashioned but with oak syrup and was as good as that sounds. My last drink was an apple pie with vanilla and biscuit vodka, cinnamon and apple, and it didn’t reach the giddy heights of the Sgt Pepper though it was plenty tasty. I once had a similar drink at the long since-departed Dusk in Farringdon though I seem to recall that one was better.

Another downside to this place was that it was really cold. I didn’t want to keep my coat on so I had my scarf wrapped around me to try to drape myself in warmth. It didn’t really work.

For all that though, I would go back – it’s the ideal place to take visitors in order to show them London’s quirky, colourful side. 

Lounge Bohemia on Urbanspoon

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Thursday, February 5, 2015

Portside Parlour, 23rd January

There aren’t too many places left in Shoreditch that I feel I need to visit (though new places do keep opening, witness: The New Philosopher from the Manero’s crew). Friday night I crossed two of the remaining four (now five!) off my list – Portside Parlour, their relatively new permanent place, and Lounge Bohemia which has been there a while.

I went to Portside Parlour when they were but a pop-up on Broadway Market. Small and dark with a naval flavour, I really liked the place and was keen to see how they’d do with bigger permanent digs. They still have a lot of rum and a well-crafted cocktail list, and maritime overtones, but now they have a tapas menu of food which is worth visiting for on its own. In fact, due to their license, you have to have at least something to eat if you want to drink. But this is no hardship.

Stephen is off the meat for the month and so he had the two fish dishes – cod cheeks and octopus. I had the pork belly with caperberry vinaigrette and chicken pastries with a sweet and sour style dip.

Stephen was completely enamoured with his octopus. He even called it a revelation, and he does not bandy about hyperbole lightly. It was cut into chunks which rather disguised what it was, and it looked very meaty. I didn’t try it but Stephen said it had this fantastic crispy outside, a great texture and flavour. I wish I’d given it a go!

The cod cheeks were also really nice, Stephen joked about ordering some more once he had done. These I did try. They came with a salsa verde and were in croquette form, a good crunch on the outside with the lovely light flesh in the middle.

My dishes were less adventurous and p’raps because of this, a little less satisfying. The chicken pastries were a bit like thin spring rolls with not that much chicken in them, and the dip wasn’t very exciting. However, the pork belly was delicious (when is it not?) I enjoyed the sweet puree it came with in its own right, and the pig was not too fatty and crisp on the top. The vinaigrette was lovely but they really need to rethink how they serve this. As the plate was placed all the vinaigrette kept running off – onto Stephen’s shirt,  and onto our legs when we moved it. It needs a plate with a lip!

The lighting was low and we were sat at the bar which was uneven, meaning taking photos of the food was tricky. I apologise for the poor quality. They do not do the food justice.

All the cocktails sounded great, and we both really liked what we ordered. My favourite was the Micah 4:4 – cognac, fig, honey and sherry, it was heady, sweet and strong. Perfect. To follow I had the Emigre which was like an adult float, what with the fruity calvados and rum base and egg white adding the foam. It was really good but couldn’t match the Micah 4:4.

Stephen had wanted the calamartini which is flavoured with squid ink but that wasn’t available so he had to make do with an Into the Woods. Portside Parlour have a very cool gadget which I suspect they love to play with  - it got a lot of use when we were there – it infused smoke into alcohol. It was used to make this drink – a smoky take on a maple old fashioned, imbued with cedarwood bitters and the smoke from applewood. And now I have to confess I can’t remember what he had for his second drink – the Autopilot or the 5 o’Clock somewhere. Again, very good but perhaps not as much of a wow as the first drink.

Handy tip – be inquisitive, just because you see two pages of drinks, doesn’t mean there isn’t a third one lurking overleaf. Stephen was quite surprised when I started saying I might have the Émigré and he couldn’t spot it on the list anywhere. Crafty, these pages - you never know when there might be another one just the other side.

We really enjoyed the place and were tempted to stay longer but we had an appointment at Lounge Bohemia we had to keep…

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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Kouzu, 21st January

I’d noticed that this Kouzu restaurant kept popping up in my Twitter and Instagram feed and lots of lovely things were being said about.  So I was more than delighted when I got an email inviting me to come and review the place. Invites are still very much a novelty for me, and they do help me keep the blog going without ending up too much out of pocket.

And, like I said, everything I’d seen so far had been positive, though I didn’t want to read too much in case I formed a view before I went there.

As much as I enjoy the privilege, I do find these things a little awkward. I’ve never been one for much one-on-one attention so I made sure to enquire in advance what the deal was. We were told we could have three courses each plus a drink but in the end we had so much more than that! Much more than we probably would have ordered for ourselves if left to our own devices, but I could see they were keen for us to see what they could do in all areas.

I don’t know what I can say that hasn’t already been said but wow. This place is the business. And they also have quite savvy business sense. January is such a slow month for restaurants and bars as everyone decides to make up for all the money and calories they spent in December. Perfect time to invite a bunch of bloggers in and create a bit of hype then. And they deserve it. They’ve chosen a rather odd location in London to set up – a few minutes’ walk from Victoria station. While this is in fact a nice part of town (as soon as you escape the immediate environs of the station), it’s not really known as a destination for food. But if you’ve got a bit of dosh in your pocket then it is worth coming over to St James to try this place out.

To start we had some sashimi. I had the sea bass with salsa and green pepper sauce, Stephen had the yellowtail with truffle dressing but of course we shared. The truffle in the seabass more like a fragrance than a taste, very delicately done so as not to overpower the fish, giving way to a sweeter taste. I don’t know whethe to attribute that to the shiso, myoga or ponzu! While this dish was perhaps the more exotic I was drawn more to the flavours in mine of lime, micro herbs and pink peppercorns. Both were faultless though.

Next up was a choice of sushi roll (we went with crab) and a Nigiri each. We’d been told the Aburi were their speciality, particularly the toro and the sea bass. We had one each. The difference with the aburi compared to nigiri is that the fish on top is seared with a blow torch. It makes all the difference. Our fantastic waitress explained how we should try to eat it ‘upside down’ so that the garnish and fish touched our tongues first. I’ve never had anything quite like it and I shall never forget the way the smokiness filled my mouth. Amazing.

For our mains, Stephen had the miso cod, and I had the duck breast with sansho (though very tempted by the lamp chops). We weren’t sharing but I did have some of Stephen’s fish. It was exquisite. They marinate in miso for three days resulting in a firm, sweet, almost candied fish with the sharper fennel and celery salad setting this off nicely. My duck was a pretty pink covered with a sticky sweet but peppercorn studded sauce. By the end of this I was stuffed but of course I was going to take advantage of trying their desserts. After savoury food this good, I had to see what they’d do with the sweet stuff.

I had their special which was a celebration of sesame. I love sesame’s sweet and nutty taste and it was put to good use here in ice cream, sesame tuiles and tiny madeira-like cakes. It ticked all the boxes without being too heavy.  Likewise Stephen’s chocolate mousse with an amazing hazelnut ice cream. Indulgent but not heavy and with a slice of chewy, candied orange adding a bit of flair. 

We had a couple of nicely balanced cocktails to accompany our dinner, and we ordered another with our dessert as well. 

The only bad thing I’d have to say about the place is that they say it’s a ‘sharing’ ethos, which basically means they can bring you the food whenever it’s ready rather than together because it is presumed everyone will tuck in at the same time. Normally this doesn’t bother me too much but Stephen was doing a pescetarian month and I had ordered duck. So his miso cod arrived way before mine and apart from having a couple of bites I had to just sit there and watch him eat. Mine literally didn’t come out until he’d finished and then our roles were reversed. So, just something to bear in mind.

The food was not cheap (the miso cod was £28), but they use quality ingredients and, more  importantly, have some inventive and utterly delicious food. Put this on your list for your next special occasion. Or go along and have a few bites of sushi and sashimi as a light dinner without it breaking the bank. 

Kouzu on Urbanspoon

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