Monday, 5 December 2016

#PowerOfFrozen at Iceland Foods

Though I’ve never held any grand ambitions to make a living out of this food blogging lark, I can’t deny it’s nice to be occasionally asked to do bits and pieces of paid work. Usually these come in the form of a paragraph or two for a newspaper on whatever the latest food trend to catch the eye of the food editors, and other times it’s something more interesting like this little online project about Secrets of London (have a look in the East section for my bit) which gives me a chance to think about my city in new and interesting ways. And tell you where to have dinner too, obviously.

But generally these things are few and far between. Paid food writing is really not a growth business; newspapers seem to be looking for excuses to reduce their paid staff not add to them, and for that reason I feel increasingly fortunate as time goes on I have this blog, where I can write what I want, go where I want (sort of) and enjoy the occasional financial bonus even if most of the rest of the time my list of outgoings vs incomings would leave any freelance accountant running screaming for the hills.

It was with that in mind, then, that I eagerly accepted an invitation to Iceland. No, not the country, although I would eagerly accept an invitation there, too (if anyone from the Iceland Tourism Board is paying attention). Instead, the arguably less glamorous environs of Deeside Industrial Park, and the Iceland Foods HQ where myself and a group of other blogger types were hosted in their swanky new test kitchens and, as is the way with these things, learned how frozen foods were the best, Iceland in particular is the best at frozen foods, and that anyone still wasting their time making fresh mashed potato deserves to be laughed at by the Smash Aliens on that advert from the 80s.

I’m being disingenuous of course. Being a PR-led day at a supermarket chain HQ, yes there was an aspect of the hard sell to it, but it was still genuinely interesting to hear about which foods are generally previously frozen even if they’re sold as fresh, from prawns and deep-sea fish and seafood (e.g squid) to plenty of butchers cuts of meat. And pizza – usually that “fresh” ready-made pizza was just defrosted at some point before you saw it, and even if the base dough is fresh there’s every chance the toppings (salami, cheese and tomatoes) have all been frozen at some stage before being assembled. It was a good day for food conspiracy theorists. And it made me think about the amount of times I’d castigated a restaurant for using what tasted like “frozen” prawns to discover that nearly every other prawn I’d ever eaten out (aside from a very few expensive carabinero here and there) were previously frozen as well.

And speaking of prawns, as part of a multi-course lunch showcasing the best of Iceland’s premium foods offering (helped, it must be said, by the fact it was cooked by very experienced Iceland head chef Neil Nugent) we were introduced to these beautiful things – Argentinian Rosso prawns, plump and moist and certainly no worse off for having been previously frozen, the perfect showcase for the Iceland's skill set. Perhaps the lesson to be learned, as with most things, is to buy frozen food when the freezing process has no detrimental effect, and avoid it when it does. Lobster, for example, I always thing goes all chewy and horrible after being frozen, but weirdly King Crab tasted just as good defrosted from the freezer at Whole Foods on a recent trip to the US as they did fresh out of the tanks at Beast. Sorry, Beast, but ‘tis true.

Some things, though, Iceland were unable to change my mind on. I still maintain the only acceptable ingredient for chips and fries are never-frozen potatoes, ideally chipped that day, and the addition of some sticks of frozen mashed potato to an otherwise decent dish of lamb chops was very weird, like finishing off a fine aged sirloin steak with some Alphabet Bites. And the less said about the frozen broccoli and watery mini carrots the better; I can understand why I may not be able to source live prawns every day of the week, but I can’t find much of a pressing need to buy frozen broccoli. At least not before the nuclear holocaust really kicks in.

Still, an illuminating day, and one I’m quite happy to give up a rare advertising space for on this blog. Frozen food – and Iceland in particular – have suffered a bit of an image problem in these days of resurgent foodieism (the words “Kerry Katona” still don’t go down very well at the Iceland HQ, judging by the awkward silence that greeted my attempt at humour) but it’s true that whenever passionate, skilled people turn their attention to something, whether it’s the running of a multi-Michelin-starred restaurant in Mayfair or the logistics of getting Argentinian prawns from the deep sea to your dinner table, the results speak for themselves.

This post was sponsored by Iceland Foods. Obviously.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Smokestak, Shoreditch

It’s tempting to think of Smokestak, a new BBQ and smokehouse in Shoreditch, as being rather late to the game. Haven’t we seen this kind of thing before in London? Didn’t it all start with Pitt Cue all the way back in 2011, who were slow-smoking beef ribs and perfecting bone marrow mash in their little basement shop in Soho after taking the streetfood scene by storm? Or perhaps the real pioneers were Bodean’s, at the time (2002, astonishingly) really the only place you could enjoy such novelties as pulled pork or burnt ends, even if now they’re a sad shadow of their former selves?

Of course, good food is good food and it really shouldn’t matter who was “first”, but it’s an unfortunate fact that it does tend to be the pioneers we notice, and it's the latecomers – no matter how capable or otherwise interesting – that have to fight for their share of the limelight. The situation is hardly helped, either, by the sheer number of bandwagon-jumping copy-merchants that rushed into field as soon as they saw a trend happening, making the job of anyone trying to do this BBQ thing properly that much harder. You can get pulled pork more or less anywhere now, even EAT (don’t, by the way). How to tell the good from the bad?

Well, you could do worse than (ahem) follow a couple of food blogs, and now that you’re here I’d like to tell you that Smokestak is very definitely one of the good guys. A fortune has been spent on vast, scary smoking and grilling equipment from America, the Scandi-cool dining room (all rustic wood surfaces and industrial metal) is hung with clouds of atmospheric meat smoke, and the food produced from their kitchens speaks of expertise and attention to detail that is hardly bettered anywhere else in town.

Most will be ordering the brisket, and as well they should because it’s utterly perfect; soft and juicy with a delicate sweet, sticky crust, a complete brisket masterclass. Here it is in a bun, accompanied by zingy pickled chillies, but you can also order it as a main, a heaving pile of fat-soaked beefy loveliness.

It’s no surprise, either, that the pork rib – thick-cut, glazed with tangy house BBQ sauce and with that dense, solid texture of extremely high quality pig – is also tempting, presented with confident simplicity next to a neat pile of pickled cucumber.

But if you can’t get pork ribs or brisket right as a BBQ joint, you really would be in trouble. These things are excellent, but then you’d bloody well hope they would be. What’s more surprising about Smokestak are the bits and pieces in the rest of the menu, items that forego strict BBQ authenticity and show that their kitchen skills aren’t limited to slow-cooked protein. Above is girolles on beef dripping toast, the mushrooms smoked (of course) and soaked in a fabulously rich and herby meat stock sauce.

And this is a jacket potato, partially hollowed-out (I think) and stuffed with a fluffy sour cream filling before being blowtorched to golden brown on top. Lovely, and what it perhaps lacks in the finesse shown elsewhere on the menu it makes up for in sheer comforting pleasure. It’s also far less difficult to eat than first appearances would suggest, thanks to the lightened filling.

There’s also the matter of dessert, and possibly London’s finest Sticky Toffee Pudding. I’m trying not to sound too much like I’m damning with faint praise – London’s Best Sticky Toffee Pudding is a bit like saying London’s Finest Fish & Chips; it’s the best of a fairly undemanding bunch – but even so, this was very nice, a bit on the polite side compared to the rich, gooey examples up in Cartmel but with an excellent burnt butter ice cream and still very much worth your while.

I loved Smokestak, but then I was always very likely to. This is a restaurant that knows its audience, serves them well, and is unlikely to spend its days fretting about its vegetarian offering or whether there’s enough room for high chairs on the weekends. It’s a BBQ joint, and a very good one at that, and if you like things like brisket and ribs and beer served in frozen mugs then this will be your happy place. Judging by numbers filling up the place on a Monday lunchtime just after opening, Shoreditch has already made its verdict.

But let’s not pretend any of this is easy. No, they may not have been the first BBQ joint in town but the fact there are so few of these kinds of places worth your time at all means it joins only a very select group of superbly accomplished restaurants (off the top of my head, Pitt Cue, Shotgun, and er, that’s it) that treat American BBQ with the effort and attention it deserves. And if nothing else it just proves that even after all this time, a new restaurant operating right at the top of its game still has the power to leave this jaded food blogger tripping happily away and grinning ear to ear. So thanks, Smokestak. I owe you one.


Smokestak Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Cheese and Biscuits on Tour - Baja California and the Valle de Guadelupe, Mexico (part 1)

The Valle de Guadalupe is a winemaking area in northern Mexico, about 45 minutes drive from the US border. No, I'd never heard about it either, but then that's hardly surprising given the miniscule profile Mexican wine has in the UK. When was the last time you saw anything from Mexico on a list? A quick CTRL+F of some of the largest lists in London (The Greenhouse, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, Le Gavroche, the Ledbury, Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester) unearths not a single bottle from that part of the world. Even Mestizo, London's most notable (and since the sad closure of Santo Remedio, best, though that's not saying much) Mexican restaurant has a grand total of one producer on its menu, L.A Cetto; from the Valle de Guadalupe, yes, but it's still hardly a ringing endorsement.

But then Mexican wine in London suffers from pretty much the same fate as its food - under-represented, under-appreciated, unloved. It's a near-impossible task to convince anyone from the UK brought up on Old El Paso fajitas (shudder), Las Iguanas chain restaurants (heave) and any number of high street burrito joints using those weirdly spunky boil-in-the-bag tortilla casings that Mexico has one of the most dynamic and sophisticated food cultures in the world, and that the dross sullying its fine name on our shores has about as much in common with real Mexican food as a bown of real Japanese ramen does to a Pot Noodle. But you'll have to take my word for it, Mexican food, and particularly the cuisine of Baja California, is endlessly rewarding and generous of spirit, with a style and personality all of its own.

Of course, like any part of the world making a good chunk of its living from tourism (and American tourism at that), there are certain traps - the Leicester and St Mark's Squares of Baja California - where generosity of spirit plays second fiddle to making a quick buck, and where touts roam the streets attempting to snare passing trade with outlandish offers. One of these places is Puerto Nuevo, our choice for a lunch stop on the way to the Valley, and home to Casa de Llangosta.

It wasn't that any of the food at Casa de Llangosta was bad, it just felt a bit polished and production-line, with none of the heart and soul of the food we were to experience for much of the rest of the trip (or indeed had been lucky enough to enjoy in the fabulous taco tour from last year). House clam chowder was decent, and the house salsa punchy and fresh (everywhere in Baja makes their own salsa for dipping tortilla chips, and each are as strikingly different to each other as you can imagine - some thick and earthy, some sharp and light, some mild, some painfully hot), but the main event, spiny lobsters, tasted suspiciously previously-frozen - bland and chewy - and the price per head of $40 for all of the above seemed pretty steep.

Still, no great harm done, and our next stop would soon put things right. We began our wineries tour at Liceaga, a medium-sized operation just off the main road near our AirBnB, whose rosado turned out to be the standout of the 4 or 5 wines that made up the $180 (that's $ for Mexican pesos, not American dollars - same symbol for both, confusingly). Charming service, full-bodied wines and beautiful surroundings would turn out to be a feature of more or less every vineyard in the Valley we visited, and Liceaga set the standard early on with all these things in abundance.

Next was El Cielo, a vast, multi-million-dollar eco-winery and vineyard in the north of the valley, whose 'tastings' began with a tour of the temperature-controlled cellars and a lavishly produced introductory video. Normally I'd shy away from anything so corporate, but it was certainly interesting to see how much money had been ploughed into the Valley in recent years, and you could see where it had all gone - the wines were refined and elegant. A chardonnay was our favourite.

Unbeknownst to us, 2nd November was Mexican Day of the Dead, a day where the cemeteries of Ensenada (the regional capital of sorts) turn into giant carnivals and the whole population turns up to drink and be merry. Sadly, with the populace otherwise engaged there wasn't a huge number of people left to run the restaurants of the Valle de Guadalupe, and having decided against the rather expensive steakhouse attached to El Cielo, we soon realised that, well, there weren't a great deal of other options. Eventually after a rather fraught chase through closed restaurant after closed restaurant as the night closed in, we ended up by the side of the road eating hot dogs from a stall. And whether it was our sheer relief to have found anywhere open, or because the Mexicans generally know how to make the most out of any given foodstuff, or both, these hot dogs were pretty much the best any of us had eaten in our lives. I'm just sad I don't know what they guy selling them was called or even how to find him again. Still here is where he was that night in case you're ever in the area yourself and fancy trying the World's Best Hot Dogs.

Day Two began with a very traditional Mexican breakfast at the charming Casa Lupita, hidden (and I really do mean hidden) in the maze of dust roads surrounding the AirBnB. One of the more astonishing things about the Valle de Guadelupe is that aside from a few vineyards and restaurants positioned on the main strips, everything is tucked away down unlikely potholed backroads, vaguely signposted if you're lucky but more often than not just relying on word of mouth directions. More than once we'd given up on a particular recommendation because the increasingly tiny and cratered tracks couldn't possibly have led to anywhere with a water supply, only to give it another go later and realise that just a few bumpy minutes more we'd turn the corner to a huge, swanky vineyard with gravel drive and pretty outdoor furniture.

Anyway Lupita was great, from the sopes to start to the generous combination plates of chilaquiles rojos, machacha, frijoles and fried potatoes which I think I ate about 10% of before admitting defeat. Everything was fresh, vibrant and generous both in the sense of the spirit of generosity and the more tangible sense of the portion size, and served with an easy charm.

Ensenada is enough of a tourist attraction to have the odd strip of dive bars and shops full of jokey tat, but enough of a living, breathing coastal town to have proper, grown-up restaurants and some interesting parks and museums. The fish market was worth a quick look but seemed a bit depleted, possibly due to the dia de los muertos celebrations the day before, but was on the way to our lunch spot of Muelle 3, a bright seafood bar near the harbour where we ate an interesting ceviche spiked with either soy or Maggie's sauce (we couldn't decide; either way it was very nice) and octopus with huitlacoche.

Back in the Valley again after the Ensenada jaunt, and fortified by a dip in the icy cold AirBnB swimming pool (it's the night-time temperatures that dictate the habitability of the pool, apparently, and night-times in the Valley in November are chilly), we trotted next door to another fantastically swanky vineyard tucked on an unlikely backroad called Tres Valles. Tastings here are held in a kind of treehouse above a carpet of dried grapes, and the vineyard grounds are decorated by huge metal animal sculptures by a local artist. Their wines, again leaning towards powerful reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Petit Syrah, were silky smooth, and being the only people in the place (again) we had all the time in the world to enjoy them.

We were clearly getting the hang of things now, and in stark contrast to the tribulations of the night before, dinner on day two was booked, recommended, and about as far away from a roadside hot dog stall as you could possibly imagine. Drew Deckman is a decorated American chef who's settled in Baja after various positions in restaurants around the world, and in this exquisite spot overlooking the Mogor vineyard serves exciting modern cuisine using ingredients from their own kitchen gardens, and fish and meat from the wider Baja peninsula.

It's easy to be dazzled by the surroundings at Deckman's even before you get to the food; there is no finer way to end the day than to watch the sun go down over the Valley, watching chefs busy themselves in the open garden kitchen and enjoying wine made from grapes growing on vines literally yards away. But fortunately, the food more than lived up to the incredible setting, from sensitively dressed local oysters, through ox tongue and percebes, grilled valley quail and sweet pickled veg. Only a rather dry pork belly course and the strange compulsion of the staff to rush us through dinner as fast as humanly possible (the whole thing was over in about 20 minutes) took the sheen off slightly. Still, look at that bloody view.

And we were only halfway through. Watch this space for part two.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Kiln, Soho

They're like the buses, these 10/10 restaurants; you wait six months for one, and then two come along at once. And actually, Kiln probably has more in common with the previously reviewed Chick'n'Sours that you first might think. Both a based around an idiosyncratic Western-leaning vision of Asian food, sensitively adopting cooking techniques and flavour profiles for a local audience, keeping everything that makes the original cusine so special while making the most of available ingredients. Both keep turnover high and costs down, meaning you can eat plenty of food for not much money, even if at busy times you might have to wait for the privilege. And both, crucially, are about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on.

The attention to detail is, at first, overwhelming. If you're lucky enough to grab a spot near the roaring heat of the charcoal-fired kitchens (no gas or electricity here) you can see first-hand the complex series of techniques that goes into every dish at Kiln, whether it's the seasoning and re-seasoning of pork belly and short rib before they're carefully sliced and handed further up the line for saucing and plating, or the timing required to get the exquisitely delicate lamb cumin skewers so that the cubes of flesh are bouncy and just-pink, and the fat just hot enough to bind them together.

Perhaps it's best to ignore the somersaults going on in the kitchens best you can and just enjoy the food, because there's more than enough circus on the plate to keep anyone entertained. This was an early favourite of mine, langoustines (3 of them for £8.80, take that River CafĂ©), blanched and cured in citrus in such a way as to keep the flesh plump and plentiful while avoiding the gloopy translucence of completely raw shellfish. Fragrant, fresh and colourful, there's barely a better langoustine dish in London.

Also from the seafood section (the menu reads with the stark beauty of a haiku) is "Mackerel dry red curry", tender fillets of fresh Cornish fish dressed in a complex series of herbs (dill and lemongrass, and probably much else), chillies and with a dense, rich spice mix clinging to it all like a winter blanket.

Dishes come and go based on availability of ingredients, as they very much should, but this welcome unpredictability understandably affects the seafood dishes more than the red meat. On an early preview I enjoyed steamed hake, its bright white flesh gleaming under a coating of lime leaves, sat in a clear, precise fish broth that could have been the highlight of any meal by itself. A week or so later it had been replaced by a stunning gurnard curry, crisp skin binding a thick tranch of moist flesh, cooked to perfection, in a sauce of ginger stems, lemongrass and dill.

Kiln would be the first to admit they're not aiming for strict authenticity, but dishes such as Tamworth pork belly with long pepper taste very much like the kind of thing you'd be served roadside in Northern Thailand, in terms both of its sinus-blasting heat and deeply satisfying flavour profile. Those are the pork belly pieces you see being chargrilled to order in the open kitchens; nothing hangs around for more than a few seconds. The immediacy of it all is impressive, and the results are breathtaking.

Clay pot baked glass noodles has the winning combination of pork and brown crab meat, a theatrical presentation (guests are required to 'mix up' the ingredients themselves), and that same exhausting attention to detail that informs everything else Kiln do - the little dip on the side (sharp and herby and shocking green) is made every twenty minutes throughout service. Also, this huge pot of noodles, top quality pork and seafood comes in at £4.75, which seems almost unfairly cheap.

Look, the point is, everything is good. Everything. Even the sides, where something coyly described as a "mushroom salad" turned out to have a heady, meaty flavour so bafflingly rich and complex you'd swear it contained at least some animal protein. But no, just oyster mushrooms and girolles, bound with lime juice and soy and fresh herbs. I'd call it a must-order, but that wouldn't really help distinguish it from the rest of the food, so what's the point.

I'm not the first to fall head-over-heels in love with Kiln, and I certainly won't be the last. On Friday the wait for a table at about 6:15 was 1 1/2 hours, and I fear this is where I may lose a few of you. But like any of even the most super-popular no-reservations places, if you time your arrival well enough (midday or 5pm Mon-Sat or a weird "shoulder hour" like 4pm on a Sunday) you won't have to wait too long, and you won't even have to stand in line; they'll take your number and call you when your table's ready as you enjoy a pint in a nearby pub. And anyway, I'm not about to apologise for one of the best restaurants in the entire city being popular, and for that matter, neither should they. Kiln is a marvel - a true one-off - and deserves every last man, woman and child of the vast crowds that are already flocking its way.


Kiln will be in the next version of the app. Most of the photos above were taken on the preview night, but I have been back since on my own dollar hence the bill.