Monday, 17 December 2012

Bodean's: made a pig's ear of it

Not my favourite mistake

I didn't mean to go to Bodean's. It's not the kind of thing you plan to do, especially when you know damn well that Pitt Cue is barely 3 minutes walk away. But it's where my friend had told me to meet him, and I understood why.

In case you hadn't noticed, London is a pretty big place. You can't even pretend to comprehend it, let alone know it. The friend I was meeting was from Exeter, where I lived for four happy years. We lived in a little village just outside the city, the kind of place where people only honk their horns because they just saw Jim from the Lamb and Flag popping to Costcutter for some Cutter's Choice.

My friend always asks me how I can stand to live in such a big place now, with no sense of community or where the night bus you just drunkenly got on might actually take you. The answer is that we visit the same pockets of London with the same people - the same pubs, cafes, nightclubs, restaurants. We all make our own little villages within London, and my friend, who visits about once a month, has already done the same. When we can't comprehend something, we change it into something we can understand. We go where we've already been. And that's why we always bloody end up at Bodean's.

In one way Bodean's is well ahead of its time. It's been around since 2002 - a full decade before Americana really hit London in the form of dirty burgers and pulled pork. It's also the only place in England (and I suspect the world) that manages to show ice hockey 24/7 on its screens. And I love that about Bodean's, as well as the awesome Americana/heavy rock playlist they have.

Sadly, like so many innovators, lots of people have taken their ideas and done it so much better that Bodean's is left looking rather stupid. Barbecue restaurants are everywhere now, and almost all of them will do better pulled pork and ribs, both of which were hugely overcooked, bone dry, chewy and almost marinade-less. The coleslaw was fresh and crunchy, but served warm (!?) and tragically under-seasoned, and the chips were cold before they were even brought out. The beer list (Samuel Adams and Moosehead lager) would have been exciting 10 years ago, but it now seems dated and faux-trendy. There are much, much better American beers out there, and there are far cleverer beers to serve with heavy duty pork than light lagers. After one mouthful of food, it tasted like I was drinking soda water.

It's fitting that the only part of Bodean's that did work was a supposed mistake - their burnt ends. If you don't know what they are, they are grizzly bits cut off the meat during cooking. They can vary from crispy and chewy to soft and gooey, and once coated in a decent barbecue sauce they're a joy. Bodean's, whether by design or accident, were brilliant, and much more moist than their signature meat cuts. However, they didn't save the generous £25 sharing platter that we had. There was just too many things wrong.

Bodean's has fallen into the trap of actually becoming fast food. The service was super and the food arrived in just a few minutes but, given how great the atmosphere of the place is, that was a bit of a shame. What was a brilliant idea in 2002 has been stretched across four sites now, and the food has obviously suffered to the point where even the human dustbin from Man vs. Food would wrinkle his nose up at it.

It's by no means a bad restaurant.  But just as my Moosehead tasted of soda water after a bite of burnt ends, so Bodean's tasted like luncheon meat after eating at Pitt Cue.

Bodean's on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Sunday, 9 December 2012

2012: when things got gloriously sloppy

"Don’t be fooled into thinking this fast food revolution is frivolous and doomed."

Sorry Made in Camden. It wasn't your year...
I read an interesting article today by my beloved Jay Rayner, who talks about 2012 as the year when "deepening recession sent skilled cooks heading towards the gutter, the better to look up at the stars."

And he's quite right. 2012 was the year of posh fast food, a cuisine I seem to have covered in great depth (see Chicken ShopDirty BurgerMEATliquorBig Apple Hot Dogs and so on). Essentially, if you didn't force people to queue and expected diners to use a knife and fork, you weren't going to get blogged about.

I have a hunch that 2013 will be similar - gourmet fish and chips are probably due another airing. As is always the case, it takes a little while for everyone to catch up with the curve. Like how after Oasis we had to cough up saltwater from the waves of Hard-Fi and Kasabian. Hopefully the best is yet to come, but bearing my example in mind I fear not.

But what really caught my interest was a comment below the article. Among all the very Observer-style trolling (“HOW DARE YOU WRITE ABOUT FOOD WHEN SUDAN IS STARVING?!”) was JahConvict, who believes that the artisanal fast food revival was “finished before it started, which was last year”. Mr Convict is dead wrong. For a start there was no start, unless you count it as lots of unconnected food vans that sprung up on gentrified markets, then started pop-ups and food festivals before finally making the move into restaurants permanent (pretty much all this year and still thriving) when a bank finally believed in them.

But Mr Convict does go on to make an interesting point: “The real food news is that more people are more aware of what really matters with food; understanding and taking ownership of where it comes from, how it is prepared and how it is best eaten.”

In my head, that boils down to the same thing as the fast foodie argument – the idea that great, fresh ingredients have flavour enough. Diners don't want towers of soup and French words. They want to know their chicken had child tax credits and that their broccoli was grown on a farm that's name begins with an S. They want traceability, which inevitably means simplicity.

Knowledge of great flavours and where to find them is what matters now. So, my favourite meal of the year? It’s actually a toss-up between Made in Camden, an adventurous and exciting meal with some truly astounding dishes, and the Chicken Shop – the most basic meal I’ve eaten all year. Chicken; chips; buttermilk salad; beer; home. Or, put another way – 24-hour marinated and spit roasted; deep fried; well seasoned; locally brewed; just around the corner from my house.

That’s why so-called “fast food” is on the rise: it’s cheaper, heartier, simpler and more accessible, surely what people are looking for at this point in the economic cycle. Pies, burgers, roasts, sausages, pork baps, Scotch eggs – all these classic British meals are back, and any imbecile could knock out a decent version at home with the good ingredients. But that’s what’s brilliant about the whole thing. That very fact means best new restaurants in the capital are keeping prices low, menus small, ingredients traceable, and flavours big. They're telling people to do things simply, and do them well.

Don’t be fooled into thinking this fast food revolution is frivolous and doomed. It’s just the beginning.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Counter Cafe: a taste of east London

Bizarre but kind of brilliant

Such was the sudden acceleration of the Olympic Park that the rest of east London hasn't even left the starting blocks. I loved the Olympics, but it's a little disturbing that elite sport gets a bigger development budget than some of the most deprived areas of the UK.

Politicians will argue that the Park filled a black hole in central(ish) London. But anyone who has been to the Park will tell you that, since the multinational crowd have left, it's had less atmosphere than a boarded-up boozer in Hull.

Meanwhile, the circle of east London around the Park has developed a bizarre new charm - like a desperate show of the old ways in the shadow of the spaceship-like Olympic Stadium. And the Counter Cafe is quite literally in its shadow.

From one side it's in what would be a trendy converted warehouse if it were in Hoxton. On this side of the A12 it feels like somewhere between that and the Hovis advert. The cafe is in the back of an interesting looking art gallery. It's got a huge glass façade  running cross the cafe's two floors that looks like it was built in expectation of the new Olympic view. Sadly there's a good deal of wasteland, and canal/refuse channel and an unsightly fence between it and stadium, which all but spoils the view.

To get a bit closer to the action we braved the cold and sat on the floating astro-covered platform on the canal behind the cafe. We sat gently bobbing every time we moved, ignoring the slight seasickness, and soaked up the bizarre atmosphere. It was very pleasant, but sadly things had already gone slightly wrong food wise. My planned order of hot chocolate and eggs Benedict was impossible because they had neither. Nor did they have peppermint tea. In fact, all they had in the decaf department was green, the tetanus jab of teas.

Now, how you run out of tea in a cafe is one question, how you run out of Benedict is quite another, especially when you definitely have eggs (I could see them in the kitchen). It means you lack two basic staples of even a home kitchen, and given that there was supermarket not one minute's walk away, their refusal to serve it seemed almost personal. However, I took it as graciously as a hungover, hungry man could on a Sunday morning and ordered the poached eggs, salmon and potato cakes.

Just the sound of it eased the pain in my head, and the sight of it next to my translucent tetanus tea calmed the shakes. The salmon was bright and fresh, the yolk almost as orange as the salmon, and in deep contrast the gloriously charred potato cakes. The textures were all perfect: soft potato with crunchy burnt edges, runny yolks, and plump salmon. The lime they came with was a surprising but zesty twist, although sadly the dish was badly under seasoned. I'd love to tell you how the hot chocolate was - as a man intolerant to caffeine it's a problem close to my heart that so few hot chocolates are either hot or made with real chocolate - but the only adjective I can use is "absent".

Still, for the sheer experience and view it's worth a visit to the Counter Cafe. The fact you walk past art installations to get to it; the classroom feel it has with rows of wooden tables; its complete lack of tea despite being a cafe; that bizarre almost apocalyptic view - it all makes the cafe unique. The fact they run out of stuff, despite being out in no-man's land, is a testament to much this place is loved. I can totally understand it - understated in east London, defiant in the face of modernity, and happy in its skin. I really, really hope east London changes. But I also really hope the Counter Cafe never does.

The Counter Cafe on Urbanspoon   Square Meal