Monday 30 November 2009

Cheese and Biscuits On Tour - San Diego

Before I begin a rundown of the food highlights of my recent trip to San Diego, it's probably worth reminding myself to not get too carried away. Yes, I ate very well, in a number of places, most of which were on the "dirt" side of "cheap" and one or two meals (usually involving fried meat patties) rank up there with some of the best food I've ever eaten anywhere. But with the benefit of a glorious climate, some of the friendliest people on the planet and an attitude to service that was never anything less than bend-over-backwards perfect, you tend to come away with a warm happy glow from even the most modest snack. I'm sure after a few weeks of blazing sunshine smiles and fresh seafood sandwiches I'd be craving the London drizzle and a Tayyabs, so take much of the following gushing enthusiasm with a pinch of salt....

The first night, and heavily jetlagged, I found myself in Hodad's, a burger joint in an area of town called Ocean Beach. Nestled amongst the crumbling hippie hostels, cavernous strip-lit surf shops and dive bars, Hodad's has been serving what it modestly calls the best burgers in the world since the late 60s, appropriate as the area itself seems also to have changed very little during the last 40 odd years. Sat in a boisterous, eccentric room with walls plastered in car number plates and with locals queuing patiently outside serenaded by bearded buskers, we tucked into onion rings and bacon cheeseburgers, the former crispy and fresh and towered so high they blocked out the light, the latter, well, just about perfect. The bacon at Hodad's is stripped, boiled then pressed and fried into thin crispy patties which taste almost like ham confit - not just a fantastic concentrated flavour but a lovely range of textures, which sit very well with the soft beef soaked in slimy cheap Kraft cheese. This may seem like a criticism of the cheese - it isn't, as anyone who has ever had a Roquefort or mature cheddar monstrosity from any number of misguided "gourmet" burger joints in the UK will hopefully tell you. Burgers like this, flamboyantly unhealthy, planet-sized, groaning with cheese and salt and grease and beef, could not exist anywhere else in the world. And if they did, they certainly would not cost $6. I was in love.

At the Little Italy Farmer's Market I ate freshly scooped-out uni, bought some of the nicest (and most expensive) tomatoes I've ever known, and gorged on a beef brisket sandwich. It was a good day.

Since trying the USDA steaks at Goodman back in August, I had been understandably eager to try the famous grain-fed beef at what would hopefully be at slightly less of a premium than the examples flown over to Mayfair. However, it seems that good beef is expensive even this close to the source, and these two fine-looking dry-aged rib-eyes, from Iowa Meat Farms, cost nearly $60 - that's almost comparable (thanks to that bloody exchange rate) with that charged at places like Jack O'Shea's in London for their Black Angus. I wish I could tell you that they were worth the money, but I can't - not because they weren't, but because I completely cocked up the cooking procedure and managed to bake them to a uniform grey before I'd had a chance to sear. Blame an oven that falsely reported its own temperature, a steak-cooking method nicked from the Food Channel which was far too fiddly, and me. Mainly blame me. But all was not lost, because in this Land of the Free, Home of the Beef, you don't have to travel miles across town to an artisan butcher, nor pay a small fortune, for some excellent cow. Costco, the wholesalers (sort of a US equivalent of Macro but a thousand times better), sell a huge range of extremely fairly priced steaks and ribs, and not just the cheap cuts either - I bought two USDA prime New York Strips (what I think we would call sirloin) for little more than $20. And this time, ladies and gentlemen, I did those dry-aged beauties proud - cooked perfectly (even if I do say so myself) on a white-hot skillet and a brief spell in a warm oven to rest. They were amongst the very best that steak can be - beefy, metallic, gorgeously shot through with rich fat and with a satisfying thick crust.

Without going into too much detail, other eateries in San Diego and environs worth a mention are:

- Donovan's Steakhouse, which although not up to the standard of Luger's (or even Hawksmoor/Goodman in terms of the steak itself) was nevertheless a hugely enjoyable way to spend my birthday evening, and they can mix a fine martini.

- El Pescador Fish Market in La Jolla, where you point at the bit of fresh fish you like the look of and they stick it in a sandwich for you. Kind of like London's Fishworks, only not crap.

- Mariscos Godoy, in Chula Vista, a completely bonkers Mexican restaurant which served seafood dishes soaked in cheese and cream (what's not to like) while an enthusiastically voluble mariachi band bashed away in the background. In the interests of keeping this post to a vaguely readable length I can't go into everything we ate, but one of the dishes was called a 'crater', and was a kind of thick fish soup served inside a hollowed-out lump of volcanic rock so white-hot that the soup reduced itself over the course of the meal and was still too hot to touch after we'd paid the bill and left. It still wasn't the craziest thing on the menu.

- Encinitas Café (in Encinitas) which for sheer old-world Americana and character is hard to beat. I had bacon and pancakes and poached eggs, washed down with something called a 'malt', which tasted like Horlicks ice-cream.

Amazingly, it took until my final few hours before the flight back from LAX to make it to a branch of the legendary In 'N' Out burger. Not so much a fast food restaurant as a widely established cult, In 'N' Out are famous for two things - being the first drive-thru restaurant to make use of two-way speaker systems for ordering, and for having a 'secret' menu which isn't advertised in store. The 'secret' menu (not so secret really, as it's clearly listed on their official website) has probably helped create an extra frisson of exclusivity around the chain, but really there is no mystery to the overwhelming popularity of In 'N' Out - they are simply very, very good. From a refreshingly tiny 'non-secret' menu I ordered a Double Double (that's two patties, two slices of that lovely slimy Kraft cheese) and fries, while my sister ordered an 'animal style' (some sort of onion and cheese sauce) hamburger. Very much in the (correct) Hodad's style, this was a supremely accomplished burger, generous in portion and flavour. Crunch was provided, rather than the bacon slice at Hodad's, by a slightly extra toasted brioche bun lid, but what this burger did have going for it over Hodad's was the price - a paltry $2.99 for what must be up there with the best burgers in the world. And this from a chain! Quite a large chain too. Is it too much to hope that one day we'll see one of these in London? Of course it is - by the time the In 'N' Out Kings Road opened they'd be forced to add rocket salad and ciabatta buns and low-fat mayonnaise. You're more likely to see a Tayyabs on Manhattan Beach.

Which brings me nicely back to my first paragraph. Yes, San Diego was lovely, and it's hard not to be charmed by such a beautiful county and people as consistently pleasant as their weather, but on my second night back in London, my circadian rhythms still slightly off-kilter, I was invited to the christening of Tayyabs' new basement room. After piles of lamb chops and seekh kebabs, bowlfuls of dry meat and gorgeous chunks of spicy slow-roasted lamb, I was reminded that for the benefit of a better climate or a decent burger there will always be something else I'd have to give up. Cold, wet, noisy and dirty London may be, but there's no place like home. It's good to be back.

Hodad's 9/10
Hodad's on Urbanspoon

Donovan's Steakhouse 7/10
Donovan's Steak & Chop House on Urbanspoon

El Pescador Fish Market 7/10
El Pescador on Urbanspoon

Mariscos Godoy 8/10

Encinitas Café 7/10
Encinitas Cafe on Urbanspoon

In'N'Out 9/10

Monday 9 November 2009

Dragon Castle, Elephant and Castle

I've said it before and I'll say it again, dim sum is one of the genuine - and depressingly rare - gourmet bargains of London. Yesterday at Dragon Castle, a cavernous and clattering space on the otherwise bleak Walworth Road, six of us worked our way through 26 individual plates of dim sum, as well as three huge servings of roast pork, roast duck and stir-fry beef in black bean sauce, washed down with a beer or two. The bill came to about £20 a head. Even if the food hadn't been universally tasty and enjoyable (it was) or the service smart and timely (it was, aside from a strange reluctance to bring us water), you still wouldn't have much to complain about at just over £2 per exquisitely constructed plate of bitesize loveliness.

Sometimes I wonder how these dim sum joints make any money at all, considering the time and skill that must go into their creations. Steamed prawn and chive dumplings, ethereally translucent and containing crunchy fresh veg; delicately steamed siu mai, meticulously uniform, with more fresh prawn flavour; char sui buns, impossibly fluffy and containing a heady filling of smokey pig; there is someone in the kitchens at Dragon Castle with years and years of experience studiously checking each and every dish and making sure they all arrive at the table piping hot. And then they charge £2 each for them. It's madness.

Even the slightly more off-piste selections managed to impress. Chicken feet were carefully boned and served cold in a tomato-chilli sauce which brought to mind Spanish calamari tapas. Tripe, also served cold, matched the moreish texture of perfectly cooked meat with a fragrant dressing, and slices of turnip paste was ever so slightly crispy on the outside and gooey and flavoursome within.

By the time the larger plates of roasted protein arrived, we were reaching capacity, but the sight of the perfectly browned duck and colourful stack of beef and black bean was too good to resist. The duck in particular had an almost overwhelming intensity of flavour, and an unbeatable combination of crispy skin and moist flesh. I just about managed to stuff a single slice of char sui (pork) into my mouth before my stomach surrendered and I was forced to admit defeat. Others managed desserts of mango pudding and sago - I have no idea how.

My enjoyment of, and gratitude towards the generosity of places like Dragon Castle is tempered only with the memory of hideous, sloppily presented meals I've suffered elsewhere for far more money. It's baffling how restaurants with such a different concept of value can exist side by side in the same city. Compare, for example, the array of superbly constructed treats shown above with this plate of tasteless grey gunge masquerading as 'Duck in tomato sauce' at Polpo:

Yes, it's a terrible photo but it really did taste as bad as it looks. From Dragon Castle we wobbled home uncomfortably distended and not much worse off financially, sated and happy. At Polpo we spent more money per head and left so hungry we had to stop for ribs and chicken wings at Bodean's on the way home - I'm not kidding.

So I hope it's not too dull to leave yet another near-perfect score to yet another Asian restaurant, but that's just the way things seem to be working out these days. As much as I like a solid British gastropub or French bistro, the fact is that in terms of sheer value for money it's always the Asian places (well, at least Chinese, Pakistani, Indian and Vietnamese) that consistently offer the best deals. At Dragon Castle you will find a large menu of exquisitely prepared dim sum, served in pleasant surroundings, and costing a pittance. What's not to like?


Dragon Castle on Urbanspoon

Friday 6 November 2009

Gourmet San, Bethnal Green

If you are a vegetarian in London you really don't often have cause to complain about dining options. Of course that's the kind of presumptuous, blanket statement that's very easy to make as a carnivore, but really - even aside from the 100% vegetarian places (of which there are a healthy smattering), the vast majority of other restaurants could be considered vegetarian-friendly, where non meat-eaters could happily consume a good proportion of the menu and the dishes containing animal protein are clearly marked. There are, of course, plenty of restaurants that could be accused of being vegetarian-unfriendly, where the veggie options are meagre and uninteresting, and where animal fats lurk in the most unlikely corners (I'm thinking here particularly of St. John and its gastropubby disciples). And then, right at extreme end of the scale, where vegetarians are not so much discouraged as shown a metaphorical middle finger in the form of a menu that contains animal product in almost every single dish, there is Gourmet San.

I'm not complaining of course - I had a quite wonderful meal here and can't wait to go back - but this is a restaurant that lists a dish as 'Dry-fried French beans with olive oil' and serves it scattered in pork fat. Their attitude seems to be that there are very few plates of food that can't be improved by the addition of pig, and it's a philosophy I also happen to hold very close to my heart. The beans, by the way, were extraordinarily good, the little black slivers of olive both seasoning and spicing up the crunchy beans, and the pork fat adding a mouthwatering silky richness.

Rather than attempting to construct any kind of balanced meal (I think the staff would have laughed in my face if I'd have asked for a salad), we surrendered to the temptations of the Pork Page (37 pork dishes on one page of the menu) and ordered first a plate of fried pork intestines. Liberally scattered with Szechuan peppers and dried red chilli, this was a challenging plate of food even before you got your head round the fact you were eating pig's colon. But once you become accustomed to the initial startling heat and numbness of the peppercorns, this was great fun - the sliced loops of intestine had been breaded and fried like calamari, and had a lovely texture and piggy flavour.

Next to arrive was my favourite dish of the evening - ox tongue and tripe in chilli sauce. The textures were fantastic - especially from the tripe, which was just firm enough and with that unique honeycomb structure - but the flavours were even more impressive, deep and meaty and perfectly balanced with just enough chilli. I really can't fault this dish at all - even the fact it was served cold seemed to enhance rather than subdue the overall effect. Beautiful.

A portion of pigs trotters in brown sauce initially seemed incredibly generous until you realised that most of it was gristle and cartilage. But what meat there was fell off the bone easily, and the flavours of the rich brown sauce shone. Not my favourite dish, but certainly unusual, and there's something satisfyingly primal about tearing pig skin off huge, chunky bones with your teeth.

A massive bowl of chilli beef had another startling dose of Szechuan peppers and the rich, red broth fizzed and burned in the mouth. All sorts of cuts of cow had been used in this dish, and diving into it was like pulling out prizes from a tombola. It was very soon drained dry.

BBQ lamb skewers were another candidate for best dish. Perfectly tender, superbly spiced and with just enough juicy fat to add flavour without being overwhelming, the fact they were being favourably compared with those sold at Tayyabs should tell you how good these tasted.

Oh, and @hollowlegs ordered plate of aubergine too. I'm sure she enjoyed it.

What's important to remember about Gourmet San is that although some plates of food disappeared faster than others, there was simply nothing that was less than very good - an extraordinary achievement considering the size of the menu and range of dishes on offer. And although the final bill wasn't exactly what you could call super-budget, at little more than £20 a head for extremely generous portions and service that was way more friendly and efficient than it had any right to be, I'll call it a bargain. Szechuan cuisine, at its best, always has the potential for sheer visceral, seat-of-your-pants, sweating, screaming, burning, hilarious, joyous dining. And Gourmet San does Szechuan cuisine better than most.


Gourmet San on Urbanspoon