Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Pitt Cue Co: Queue won't believe your eyes

The best barbecue restaurant in London. If you can wait.

"That was mighty meaty. How're the passages? Mine were hectic this morning."

So went a text from my dining companion at Pitt Cue the following day. Note how, despite enduring a difficult morning, there is not a hint of criticism in his tone. No implication of regret. It was all worth it.

And worth it is probably the best way to describe Pitt Cue. There are barriers a-plenty to you getting a meal there, and we came up against all of them when we bit the bullet and decided, once again, to queue for our dinner, like communists in war time.

We arrived at 6.11 on a sunny Thursday evening, expecting that not many people would want to chow down on pork in a meat dungeon on such a beautiful day. So we joined the HOUR LONG QUEUE and set about getting to know our neighbours, which was a good plan, as they came in handy a little later.

I will never understand the need to make people queue for food. Booking doesn't deprive anyone. It just means the organised people get the best dinners, which is a form of natural selection. Letting anyone turn up and wait for a table is ruining the theory of evolution. If this trend for queues continues, we might all end up with tiny upper bodies, massive legs, and an unhealthy patience for queues. Society would fall apart, even if the Post Office has a resurgence.

We'd been working up a sweat in the queue for about 15 minutes when we clocked that our fellow prospective diners were drinking beers from the pub opposite, a system that we thought was probably championed by both establishments. Sadly we were mistaken. Not only did the depressed bouncer, who looked a lot like Neil Warnock, take exception to us taking glasses off the premises, but he decided to accuse me of starting the trend. The whole queue moaned and stared as they were ushered into the pub by Neil. For what it's worth, I apologise to you all.

Luckily, the couple in front of us who we had got chatting to had paper cups, so we transferred our drinks and looked sheepish as the rest of our future co-diners scowled at us.

45 minutes in and the novelty of the beer, and the beer itself, had run out. We had been second in the queue for most of that time and made no progress, however chirpy and friendly our tireless future waiter was being (and she was VERY chirpy). Finally though, just as the sun threatened to dip below the buildings of Carnaby Street, we entered the restaurant.

Or at least the bar part, where you have to wait for another forty-five minutes. Luckily at this point you can start drinking their fun-looking cocktails and small but perfectly formed beer list (which includes London's own, glorious Kernel pale ale). You also get a tab in the form of a toy cow. I thought ours was called Steven. Sadly the system is less imaginative (see right).

One hour fifteen into queuing we were offered a seat in the upstairs bar. Our waitress assured us that, while it meant sitting in high chairs, with our feet dangling like bemused toddlers, we would jump the queue and avoid having to enter the sweat dungeon formed below by the sweltering heat. We took that option, and revelled in our position, overlooking those we had been queuing with just hours ago.

Sadly we were also in direct sun, protected only by some flimsy net curtains. It was only a matter of time before one of us passed out. To be fair, once we had ordered, the food came incredibly quickly. I guess because they can only seat 34 people at a time. I ordered the dish they are known for - pork ribs - while my friend went for the more adventurous deep-fried pig's head terrine burger, otherwise known as diabetes in bread. We were told the chefs were extremely excited about the latter dish. When there are only five dishes on offer I'd expect the chefs to be excited about every one. They need to justify their place on the menu.

The ribs did. I've tasted more succulent meat (and not had to queue for it) but the marinade was fantastic - smoky, tangy and dynamite with my BBQ beans. The terrine burger however, in a sweet Chinese-like sauce, had a limp texture and distinct Bird's Eye Sweet & Sour chicken sauce feel to it - all sugary and processed. The kind of late night ready-meal you buy from a suicidal moonlighter in an Esso Garage. My companion's chipotle slaw, however, was something else. Creamy but light, spicy but subtle and satisfyingly crunchy.

The flaws in the meal only made Pitt Cue feel more like a local secret - a fact these almost-pop-up restaurants all over London must feed off. That's no bad thing, the small, homegrown feel of these places makes me fall for all of them. You really get the sense of a business brought together by friends, family and couples. You feel that rewarding sense of small-time ambition; of one person's dream to open a restaurant coming true when they find one dish they can do better than anywhere else. The passion and excitement about the food is somehow clear in the ingredients, flavours, presentation, atmosphere and, most obviously, in the people themselves.

Pitt Cue isn't so much a meat lover's paradise. The portions aren't huge, even if they are presented on beautiful Shawshank Redemption-style iron trays, and the food isn't as decadent or indulgent as expected. It's more of a meat-geek convention. You could get great ribs for less money without queueing in several places in London. But you wouldn't get the beer list, the stunning sides, the invention, the crude texts the next day, or the wonderful sense that this queueing malarky is so. often. worth. it.
1 Newburgh Street

Pitt Cue Co on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Monday, 21 May 2012

Food Revolution Day: lettuce look back

So Food Rev Day was a resounding success. It may have started at midnight with a terrible kebab, but from then on it was fresh cooking and word-spread all day. Oh and lettuce chopping. So much lettuce. Hopefully you all took part in some way, even unwittingly.

I spent the morning at Malou Herkes' bake sale at Hackney Homemade in Hackney, selling beautiful cakes to lucky passers by. I then helped the delightful Danny, Jamie's communities editor, with his pub lunch supper club which, despite the arrival of three surprise veggies went exceptionally well. Ed, who runs the blog Rocket&Squash cooked up some amazing dishes, including a delicious roast pork and peach with some of the best crackling I have ever had the pleasure of breaking my teeth on. His lamb tartare was also something else. It came from a Jamie book - I'll find out which one asap.

I then spent the evening in the office. Chopping lettuce. Then making a curry. Then booing Chelsea while chopping lettuce. Anyway, a picture speaks a thousand words, so I need to learn draw. In the meantime, here are the pictures!

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Food Revolution Day: TIME TO SAVE THE WORLD

Did you know that diet-related diseases kill more people than smoking, alcohol abuse and drugs combined? Did you know that 43 million kids around the world are obese? Did you know that some states in America class pizza as a vegetable?

Awareness of just how bad some foods can be for us is well behind the curve. We ban smoking adds, make drugs illegal and offer help to alcoholics. We teach children not to smoke in school, warn them against drugs and very rarely give them beer as a reward for good marks.

And yet when it comes to food, we do nothing. We don't even teach them how to cook any more. How is it 1 in 10 kids regularly smoke by the age of 15, but have never cooked a meal from scratch?

That's what Food Revolution Day wants to change. We need to get food education back in schools, families cooking healthy meals from scratch again, and governments supporting those with bad eating habits to change. How do we do that? We start at home - we do those things. We teach our sons, daughters, nephews, nieces, friends, family and sworn enemies to cook. Then we ask schools to do more - we write letters, we complain, we enthuse the kids, we sign up to initiatives such as the Kitchen Garden Project. Then we kick Gove out of office at the next possible opportunity and get and party and MP in who recognises not just the importance of school food, but the importance of recognising when your predecessor has done something good - such as introducing standards for school food (thank you Labour).

For more advice, go to Food Revolution Day's website and get involved in one of the events happening in 500 cities around the world. I'll be blogging and tweeting about it all weekend. So either block me or get involved.

Viet Grill: All thrills, few grills

Unpretentious, authentic and delicious

So the Viet Grill. Another terrible name for a restaurant. It reads like it should be a pun. But it's not. Whether they even have a grill I can't be completely sure, because I had a noodle dish, and my other companions had soup, so at the very least it's not the principle cooking method (I'll explain Bruce later (as if he needs an explanation).

Looking at the menu it's hard to tell where the grill might be used. It's a big-old selection they have here and it's full of very confusing descriptors too. I was particularly struck by the "Chou Chou Buddha Hand Melon, with crushed garlic & touch of rice wine". I don't care what it is or what it's served with, I want a Chou Chou Buddha Hand Melon.

In fact, the menu is so cryptic I'd probably have to eat my way through it to discover the grills. But given that the food is truly delicious and felt perfectly authentic, I'd do it in a heartbeat. Our seafood platter had some of the best fish rolls I've ever tasted, in particular the sushi-like prawn and lemongrass ones, which were addictive with the sweet chilli dipping sauce. My Cassava Vermicelli (prawns and crab stir-fried with knotweed) was wonderful. With every mouth was a different but complementary flavour, in particular the hit of raw chillies they threw in just before serving which gave what could have been a heavy dish a fresh, floral touch. It was like being kicked in the mouth by daffodils.

Given the abundance of Vietnamese cuisine on Kingsland Road I'm amazed this place hasn't ruined the competition. Perhaps it's the tacky sign outside that looks more like an American diner than anything. But this place has real soul and fantastic food. Authentic doesn't really cover it. Who knows what that means these days, because all dishes and cuisines have evolved so much. Authenticity is a feeling you get, where you can trace a dish's lineage. It's inherent in certain flavours, in dishes, in chefs. It's natural and loyal to its cuisine.

Authentic food doesn't need to be told what it is. You don't tell Bruce Willis he's authentic. He's just Bruce Willis.

How he came into this I have no idea, but I think the simile works. Just.

 Viet Grill The Vietnamese Kitchen on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Chelsea Ram: goat to it

Out of the way, but worth the trip.

Happiness was a warm fire and a bottle of red. This was the starting point of my time at the lovely Chelsea Ram is Fulham. We came in from a dark and stormy May (!) night to find a wooden, warmly lit pub that could be straight out of the home counties.

On a dark and stormy May (!) evening, the Chelsea Ram makes a perfect refuge. Its roaring fire, selection of board games and friendly staff implies they expect you to stay for the long haul. And there's no reason that you shouldn't. It's a long way from the tube, and its country-pub feel makes it so welcoming that you never want to leave. As I dried my gilet (!) by the fire and warmed up with a bottle of Cotes de Rhone, I took in all the lovely touches the Chelsea ram has - board games; the pickled onion Monster Munch in their crisp selection; the papers; a door disguised as a book case (!). It all feels a little forced, but almost all the more charming for trying so hard. And surely all pubs start off clean, tidy, varnished and bright, become dingy, dirty and depraved, and then come back out the other side as shabby chic. Having just been bought off Young's by the original owners, the Chelsea Ram is back at the very start of its journey, but already a little eccentric.

A lot of effort has been put into the food too. It feels like a labour of love, and there are some additions to classic pub dishes that feel less like culinary expertise and more like the guilty pleasures of a rather foolish home cook. Would I ever stew half a kilo of wild mushrooms with garlic, drizzle it with pesto and put on some bread with a poached duck egg? Hell no. Would I enjoy it if it were put in front of me? Hell yes. The same went for the fresh cherry tomatoes in my hotpot, which were unexpected and initially shocking - but you came to love it by the end. I'd never do it at home, but I'd order it again in a restaurant.

There was nothing, nothing at all wrong with the Eton mess though, which after such a wintery meal was a gust of summery air far removed from the storm that raged outside.

It's a little out of the way but, if you find yourself in Fulham and really fancy some excellent pub grub, you'll be delighted with the Chelsea Ram - good food, good wine, good prices, friendly staff and, if it starts raining, Scrabble to pass the time. Who knew happiness was within two miles of Fulham Broadway?

Chelsea Ram on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

MADD: gave me a mangover

Hey man, go!

Some of the most successsful niche markets are carved out by things we didn't even know we were missing. It's essentially how JML operates - who knew the world needed Ped Egg?

MADD in Soho falls firmly into this category. A year ago I'd have been lying if I said I thought that Soho needed an exclusively mango-based pudding and cocktail bar. But it turns out that did. London's pudding stomach has truly opened.

MADD follows on the back of those trendy, clinical-looking yoghurt shops that sprung up in London a few years ago. The idea of pudding cafes is Far Eastern in origin. In Japan, they play the role of the coffee shop: a place where you meet for a half hour to chat or seek shelter in cold weather. And that's enough to make them almost omnipresent. But MADD, being in Soho and more importantly in England, has to do make money in the evenings too, so it's also got a (mango) cocktail menu and music that is occasionally too loud.

The cocktails are decent, although they could do with a little variation and a few less sweet ingredients. But they are a side show, and with former-Yuatcha pastry chef on board some of them are exceptional. The owner was most keen for me to try the white-chocolate and mango mousse, which is coated in red semolina and looks like the miniature sandcastle - of course it tastes a little better too. It's delicious in fact.

So it turns out to be quite an indulgent place. You can get a jug of mango mojito, a ginger and mango cheese cake (my favourite) and settle in for a good long game of Uno or, better still, Jenga.

For those with a sweet tooth this is the ideal alternative to coffee and, let's face it, getting a good one can be rather trying in Soho. But I have to say, the best time I see a place like Mango working is as the next stop after dinner, when the pudding selection didn't quite tickle your fancy. Because believe me, mango fan or not, you'll love the desserts here. It could be the mojito talking, but it gave me a sugar rush.

Madd on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Barbecoa butchery: making the cut

Christopher Hitchens once listed the four most overrated things in the world. I'm not going to list them, because I'm pretty sure my mother reads this blog, but Champagne was among them. If Hitchens were still alive I'd challenge him on why picnics are so rubbish, and also ask him what he thought of fillet steak.

To me, fillet is the Champagne of meat. Everyone aspires to it, everyone pays through the nose for it, and everyone is disappointed by it. There's so little flavour to it, and so little bite. You have to add sauce just to make it palatable beyond 6oz. A good steak doesn't need a dressing, just salt, pepper and a griddle as hot as the sun.

The butchers at Barbecoa would agree with me. Though they will still happily sell you a fillet, they'd much rather sell you their truly, bogglingly wonderful Apl rib-eye - aged for so long, and so perfectly that the rind produces an almost stilton-esque tang better than any steak sauce.

I should declare here that I work for the man who owns Barbecoa, which is why I will never review the restaurant. However, the things I learnt at a demonstration at the attached butchery was so eye opening that to not spread the good news to my mother and some spammers would be remiss of me. Their courses are instructional, entertaining, and educational. You also get to walk away with a truckload of free meat, and a much clearer idea of how to cook it.

So - next time you are in a restaurant, or picking a steak off the shelf in your local butchers or supermarket, remember these five key lessons, all courtesy of Barbecoa.

The flavour is in the fat
Fillet is great - its texture is to die for, but if you want flavour you need rind, you need marbling. In short, you need a bit of white in the red. The steaks Barbecoa stocks would be rejected by supermarkets, because they want as low a fat content as possible. But they lose flavour this way, and if you're buying good-quality beef from an animal that led a happy, stress-free life, the steak with still be tender and moist.

A good steak needs nothing but seasoning
If you try Barbecoa's Apl rib-eye you'll see that the flavour of well-aged, well-reared beef renders peppercorn sauce entirely redundant. Season heavily, whip it with a rosemary brush if you must, but if you've spent the money, let the meaty flavours breath.

Cooking with flames changes everything
Through writing the new Barbecoa website I have learnt that modern cooking methods are a convenience. The more natural your method, the more natural flavours you'll get. Cook it on the barbecue, in a screaming hot, smoking saucepan or griddle - if you have one, try roasting a 1kg rib-eye for 15-20mins.

All cuts are delicious if you know how to cook it
If you read the Italian (May) edition of Jamie Magazine you'll find a piece by Dario Cecchini, one of the most famous butchers in the world. While he doesn't goes as far as nose to tail eating, he believes that every piece of meat thrown away is a game lost. All cuts can be made into delicious meals if you know how to cook them. If you threw a shin of beef onto a griddle, or even straight in the oven you'd get a tough, stringy piece of meat no one wants to tackle. Stuff it full of marrow, garlic and rosemary, then roast it in a casserole dish with some wine, balsamic and shallots and in a few hours you will have one of the most beautiful roast meats nature can provide.

Butchery is an art
We watched in awe as three butchers took razor sharp knives to what was, effectively, still a cow. Within two hours was an entire butchers counter of red meat, cut, trimmed and ready to be sold. They cut through it like they were reading a map - picking the easiest roots, avoiding pitfalls and bumps in the road. They made it look so easy. Commercial butchery must feed the masses, but for a special piece of meat, your local butcher should always be your first port of call.