Sunday 28 September 2008

Holy Cow - best Indian take away ever!

Balham just keeps getting better! I had assumed I had already written about how awesome the Holy Cow is on the road from Clapham South to Balham. But I hadn't.

It's our regular haunt. Our rock to lean on in hard times. Their curries are fantastic. Made with actual meat. Shock horror. And with real spices. And by proper people.

Rather than wait for the deliveryman... I normally walk over a few minutes before my curry is ready so I can watch the kitchen at work. It's a very satisfying sight. Full of burly men from India and Pakistan adding ladlefulls of spices to frying pans of simmering chicken, lamb or fish. Everything is cooked to order by a small battalion of expert chefs. What's more Mr Achariat (not quite right) who appears as a line drawing in the menu can be seen bossing his kitchen... shouting at his comrades and expertly cooking my Lamb Achari in record time.

My regular choice is their spiciest lamb option - number 31 if I remember rightly. It falls apart with the touch of a fork like a good lamb shank should. This is by far the best take away curry business I have ever come across.

Rothko inspired meal at Magdalen

My parents are obsessed with Mark Rothko. A bit like how Peter Stringfellow is obsessed with girls in plastic high heels and bikinis. It's a sort of pseudo-sexual thing. All encompassing and fascinating. So it was with great excitement that we went on a Brown family outing to the Tate Modern for their hugely anticipated "Rothko - the late years" exhibition on Friday for a private viewing. It didn't disappoint. It just served to reconfirm, if that was needed at all, that Rothko's work is as moving and haunting as Bach and Mozart. It was more like an existential philosophy exhibition than a gallery of paintings.

We returned on Saturday to be in the audience for the all afternoon seminar connected to the exhibition. We were surrounded on all sides by people with even more emphatic Rothko fetishes than Mum and Dad! Not that I thought this was possible. I guess it's a bit like thinking your pretty good at football having scored a few goals for your school side and then going off to the regional trials - only to see all the other boys can kick the ball miles and have all the kit! But I am pleased to say that the Brown family held their own. Mum has vowed never to wash her right hand again having shaken hands with Mark Rothko's son, Christopher!

Still buzzing from 4 hours of in depth intercourse about the ins and outs of the world of Rothko, we strolled along Bankside up towards Tooley street where we were delighted to find Magdalen. It's from the Anchor and Hope school of cookery. Or if you are from Bristol, it's similar to The Albany. The deep maroon walls made us feel like we were eating with the Seagram Murals hanging around us!

The menu excited me more than the others. I loved the 3 part simplicity of it all. But on the downside it means that it reads less flamboyantly than menus tended to a few years ago. Beds, jus, tranches and so forth are gone. Now it's all about guess work and trust. It's the sign of a confident restaurant.

I was in two minds about what to have. The devil inside me was whispering in my ear... telling me to have the grouse... but at £26 I couldn't. Instead I was delighted with my choice of potted crab which was as silky as a silkworm's sleeping bag, followed by an unctuous combination of shoulder and leg of pork - served with a mustardy sauce and the lightest crackling I have ever had. This was top class cooking. And brilliantly British.

The others had a very good cauliflower soup with walnuts and other earthy autumnal bits and pieces... and Dad had a Rothko coloured maroon on black seared haunch venison. The fish soup, slow cooked shoulder of lamb and halibut that followed were equally memorable. All bore the hallmark of a kitchen that is at ease with itself. Don't get me wrong - it was all very good food. But I wonder what they are capable when they push things a bit further?

I shared a blindingly good lemon tart with a burn sugar crust which was top class The pastry was thin and crumbled at just the right moments when you showed it the spoon. And the lemon custard was still warm and silky.

Our only criticism concerns 3 embarrassments.

1. The step at the bottom of the stairs is not the same depth as the other stairs... I almost tripped over twice in the middle of the dinning room.

2. I had to queue to get into the gents in full view of the restaurant. It didn't really feel right.

3. Dad had an altercation with the manager about their policy of automatically adding a gratuity of 12.5%. Our waitress had been fantastic all evening - so we wanted to give her a tip... but we disagreed severely with their tipping policy. Surely if the gratuity is at the discretion of the person paying... it is not up to the restaurant to behave like this. It leaves a very sour taste in the mouth and we hope that Magdalen changes their policy.

Tremendous food. The perfect place for a Rothko inspired dinner.

Magdalen on Urbanspoon

The Stonhouse

My first house in London was a horrific ground floor flat with cracked lino floors, a terrifying gas oven and a serious mouse problem. Our moving in party on November 4th 2005 caused chaos. Someone hot boxed our landlord's car. Someone was sick over the fence into our lovely next door neighbour's sand-pit. Someone then fell through the same fence and propped it up with a super-market trolley. Then we let off enough fire-works to make our local community wish they were living in the Helmand Province. Then the police arrived to ask if any of us had witnessed the assault that had been committed in the pub opposite our house - in the Stonhouse.

It was the grottiest pub you can imagine. The most hostile atmosphere that makes being a Liverpool fan in Istanbul seem like a romantic holiday. My housemate at the time and I went to have our inaugural pint in our local and couldn't have felt more uncomfortable... the pool table had no baize, the walls had no paint, the toilets had no toilets and the walls were riddled with bizarre holes. It was horrific. Then mysteriously one night it conveniently caught fire and almost over night transformed into a very smart gastro-pub.

So it was with great fondness and no less curiosity that I returned to Stonhouse Street for a pre-cinema meal on Friday. I arrived feeling very warm and fairly full having been treated to some fantastic prawns and white wine at Wright's in Borough Market on the way back from the brilliant Rothko exhibition.

The transformation from ugly duckling to sauve, urbane swan is really hard for me to cope with. But in a good way. Somebody has done a fabulous job of resurrecting this phoenix from the flames.

The £12 fixed menu was tight but generous... whilst my crab cakes could generously be described as poor, the steak was as good as you'll get for the price. It came with a very commendable basil and lemon mayonnaise and enough chips to put a smile on Mr McCain's face.

The girls probably did better than me. Victoria's chicken liver and mushrooms on toast was delicious and extremely plentiful. I'm not one to take off marks for large portions... but it did dent her appetite for a few minutes! Cowie junior's smoked salmon pate was very smokey and beautifully coarse. Good honest food. Really tasty. Far tastier than my lump of crispy edged deep fried mashed potato with ghost of crab.

They both couldn't resist having fish pie on a Friday being the good Catholic school girls that they are. I didn't even get a sniff of it so it must have been good.

Our Chilean red was robust and good value. I certainly left with a good ready brek glow... ready to battle through 2 hours of Keira Knightly plodding her way through another period drama.

Hats off to the Stonhouse. It was completely packed when we left. We will definitely be back next time we go to the cinema - especially if they keep their Top Table offer going.

The Stonhouse on Urbanspoon

Saturday 27 September 2008

Mouldy Chopsticks at Beach Blanket Babylon

Beach Blanket Babylon is one of London's trendiest bars and has a buzzing restaurant. It is beloved by the Notting Hill set and typifices the idea of style over substance. Which is why we went there in the first place!

Your senses are blown away by the over the top decorations - it couldn't be more rococo if it tried.

No matter how trendy or posh you think your restaurant is... there are some basic catering rules that you can't break. Such as don't swear at the customers. Don't serve unhygenic food. Make sure there aren't any mouse-traps on show... etc. Common sense basically.

3 plates of perfectly good sushi arrived at our table along with some sets of chopsticks. The light wasn't great... but it was bright enough to detect a luminous green glow. On closer inspection we realised that the chopsticks were covered in a furry green mould. Gross! The elegant waitress simply took them back and didn't even consider apologising for it!

Our next course was very tasty... but sadly undermined by such a major lapse.

Cattle Grid, Balham

Balham is going from strength to strength. Whilst claims that Balham is the new Notting Hill might be a little bit premature... the area is definitely on the rise.

Aside from Gazette and at a push the Devonshire, you will struggle to find a decent steak in Balham. Until now.

It has filled the slightly awkward boots left by Raviolo - which didn't last very long. When you walk out of Balham station you are greeted with the sight of a large statue of a cow which makes you think you are in Milton Keynes... hardly the centre of the bovine universe.

Cattle Grid is essentially a steak version of the Gourmet Burget Kitchen. No table service. Utilitarian look and feel. Short new world wine list packed with bold reds. You get a choice of steaks - rib eye, sirloin or T bone, supplemented by two variations on piggy ribs or a burger. I admire the fact that the menu is so bare. I hate the way that some restaurants offer a billion options - Starbuck's is currently boasting that they have 80,000 different combinations of coffee. Fuck off and just give me a good espresso. Oh hang on... you can't.

... but I think I'd like to see some different cuts on the menu. Maybe a feather steak, or a hanger steak... or possibly a little bit of rump. Maybe, they'll do this once they've established themselves.

We ordered 2 rib eye steaks - medium rare. One arrived perfectly cooked but the other one was grey through the middle. Possibly we should have sent it back. The chips were good and we were delighted with the watercress salad. My bernaise sauce was a bit stingy - but then again I do regard steak eating as an excuse to eat bernaise sauce!

One of us had a very substantial burger which looked good. But strangely we weren't permitted to request how it was cooked. They insist on serving it medium well which is a bit odd. I love a juicy burger... but a meaty, cloying burger is less fun.

Our bottle of Argie Malbec was good value and was a perfect match for the steak... as it always is. And at well under £20 it was good value.

But the star of the show was without question the onion rings. Soft, sweet onions hid beneath a crisp, light batter. Stunning... if a little bit naughty.

We couldn't resist baked cheese cake which was served with very vanillery ice cream. Tremendous. We were really impressed.

Cattle Grid isn't the finished article. But it is an improvement on Raviolo... and will we're very pleased to have a steak restaurant in Balham. But the key question is... will we go back? I won't actively avoid it... but I reckon the steak is better at Gazette and Bodeans... plus they offer dishes that Cowie would like to tuck into too. So I have a feeling that I will return at some point... but it won't be a regular occurence. If you are going to concentrate just on serving steak... it has to knock your socks off.

Cattle Grid on Urbanspoon

Monday 22 September 2008

Ly Ly Canteen

For some reason they have changed Ly Bar which was good into Ly Ly Canteen which is bad. Don't ask me why. Gone are the steamed sea bass, pork in a clay pot and dark mood lighting. In are imitation Wagamamma dishes, benches and bright lights.

We shared a bland salmon ramen which we doused in chiili... and were slightly more impressed by the salmon kichup manis with rice which was perfectly cooked but lacking in flavour.

The couple on the table next to us complained that their food had arrived too quickly... the implication being that the food is just popped in a micro-wave.

Our starters were actually quite decent. The sticky ribs were really good. The meat fell away from the bone. But the sauce was so hot that Cowie burnt her mouth with her first bite! Microwaved perhaps? It's actually dangerous to serve food, especially sugary sauces this hot. I remember McDonald's were once sued for serving coffee so hot it burnt a woman's lap. Maybe Cowie could sue for having her taste buds nailed! The dip should at the very least come with a government health warning.

We're disappointed Ly Bar has gone... and now looking forward to exploring the rest of Balham's restaurants. Cattle Grid and Dish Dash to be precise.

Ly Bar and on Urbanspoon

Rick Stein at Harrisons

It's not every school night you get to meet Rick Stein! We whizzed down to Balham in a nick of time to find Rick sat at a low round table, slightly awkwardly making small talk and signing books. After a brief chat with the publicist about Rick's forthcoming TV series and book called Coast to Coast Victoria and I siddled over for a chat.

Our chat was derailed pretty quickly when both pieces of infomration the publicist had told us turned out to be emphatically wrong! There is no TV series. And the book is about his travels around the world and not just the UK.

Perturbed by the sudden end to our conversation... I grabbed a conversational topic from nowhere and landed up asking Rick Stein whether he had ever cooked a fish meringue!!! As it turned out he was really interested in the idea and I explained that it's like baking fish in salt. Essentially you stuff a whole fish such as a sea bass with fennel, lemon and other goodies... and then pour over 6 or 7 whipped egg whites. Pop it in the oven for enough time to cook it and then serve your gobsmacked guests the most moist fish you'll come across. I first read about it a really cool book called "The Daily Italian" by one of Jamie Oliver's proteges.

So look out for this badger featuring on Rick's menu sometime soon!

We broke off from the book signing and settled in for dinner. Ignoring the special offer that had drawn us in the first place... we loved our raw salmon with soy, ginger and chillie. Although it may have been a bit feisty for some. But the star of the show was the liver and bacon... Having never had liver and bacon before I was twitching with excitement when it arrived and became increasingly anxious as I saw it drying out on the pass. But I needn't have worried because it was blissfully awesome. Soft and moist. Meaty and slightly charred. The mash was brilliant and the pancetta and onion rings didn't let it down either. I feel like a smack addict. I'm now gagging for the next hit.

Having had a few OK experiences at Harrison's we are now big fans - keen to pop in for dinner more often.

Sunday 14 September 2008

River Cottage Autumn Festival

River Cottage sign

Last year we fell head over heels for River Cottage when we were taken on a mushrooming tour de force by John Wright - Hugh's brilliant mushroom expert. It's taken us a nearly a year to return - but we did so eagerly.

The River Cottage Autumn Festival attracted 2,000 visitors over 2 days - each paying £15. Which means that over the course of a year Hugh's seasonal festivals take £120,000 on the gate. Impressive stuff. Even more impressive when you look at the itinerary for the rest of the year. It's great to see someone's rustic dream become a lucrative success.

The festival itself was a jolly affair. Swarming with families and kids in wellies running around without a care in the world.

Boy running

All the stalls were manned by slightly hippyish people - utterly dedicated to making things by hand, just like the good old days. This is the part that really excites me at the moment. I am dead keen both on smoking my own food and also have a burning desire to build a clay pizza oven.

By sheer coincidence, Cowie and I watched the episode of River Cottage where Hugh builds a smoker on the train down to Somerset. Having learnt how easy it is to do and now armed with a photograph I am planning to convert Cowie's spare stable into a rustic smoker.

Hughs smoker

Perhaps more excitingly, I also had a chance to inspect Hugh's collection of clay ovens. Whilst I can't afford to go on his "Build a clay oven in a day" course, I have now got the seminal book on the subject. I've also found a brilliant website that explains exactly how to make them. All I need is a load of clay, another load of sand, some sleepers and a few spare weekends. Then I'll be feasting on pizzas...

Pizza oven

The folk music band was in full swing as we pottered into the farmers' market tent. It was full of brilliant local foodie producers.

Music stage

My favourite was the South Devon Chilli Farm.

South Devon Chilli Farm

Their chipotle sauce is now on my desk at work and has inspired me to smoke my next batch of chillies... Why not combine two of my favourite things. I guess I'll have to then scatter them all over my innaugrual pizza!

Chilies 3

Their chillies ranged from the mellow to the fierce. I've invested in 4 new types of chilli... with one weighing in at 450,000 Scoville units... frankly, I'm a bit scared!

We left the skwelchy car park full of beans, but starving! It was a great event that I am very hesitant about critcising... but not being able to provide enough food for a ticketed event is pretty poor... especially when you're a chef at home on your own farm!

River Cottage food queue

So we went to Lyme Regis and had some sensational fish and chips instead!

Monday 1 September 2008

Smoked Trout

Cowie is such a hero. She puts up with a lot from me. She very kindly gave me a smoker for Christmas and it has taken me the best part of 9 months to let it loose! But it was seriously worth the wait and effort.

First of all I carried it back over Christmas to Bedford on the train along with loads of other things. Then I brought it back to London. Then I moved house and took it to Cowie's house. Then I took it to work so I could then take it on the train to Somerset. On each occasion the trains couldn't have been busier.

So it was quite a momentous moment to fire up the badger and smoke the living daylights out of two unsuspecting rainbow trout whilst camping in North Devon.

Although we found it nearly impossible to get the burners alight we somehow managed to generate enough smoke to transform these two beauties...

Trout to be smoked

into gorgeous, warm, smokey fish...

2 Smoked Trout

The flesh was so delicious and a lot more subtle than the smoked salmon and mackerel you get in supermarkets. It's also a real treat to eat it greedily with your fingers straight from the smoker. There's something very back to basics about the whole thing. Next weekend we are going to smoke some mackerel form Lyme Regis. And I can't wait!

Crab-apple and Chilli Jelly

Close up crab apple and chilli jelly

I’ve got bored of waiting for Summer to arrive. Personally I much prefer Autumn anyway. In Summer you get pissed off when it’s not sunny. Whereas in Autumn if the sun’s out your happy and if it’s not then it means the mushrooms are busy proliferating!

Our orchard is laden with fruit. Bright red crab-apples. Gnarly green pears with brown spots. Lobster coloured apples. Deep purple plums. And one singular mulberry!

Mum’s Apache Chillies are doing well too. They are the Joey Barton of the chilli world. You know from the moment you set eyes on them that they will cause trouble, yet you give them an ill fated second chance.

My Grandfather was at home this weekend – so it gave me great pleasure to go foraging together. He very carefully picked the crab-apples – gently placing them in the bucket to avoid damaging their crimson skin. Meanwhile I was up a ladder stripping them off and lobbing them into the bucket below! I am guessing I may be the culprit for all the bruised skin and not him!

I vaguely followed a recipe from The Cottage Smallholder. I topped and tailed 1.5 kilos of crab-apples before throwing them in my Grandmother’s old jam sauce pan which is big enough to have a bath in! I poured in enough water to make them float and then went to work on the chillies. I cut up around 150 grams of a variety of chillies including, Pinocchio’s Nose, Prairie Fire, Jalepenos from the office and Mum’s Apaches. On contact with the now rather hot water the acrid fumes hit me in the face and almost stopped me from breathing! At this point I was worried that I was in the process of making the world’s hottest and least edible jelly!

As the pot bubbled the fruit yielded and became tender and the juice took on a heat that made a vindaloo seem mild. I strained the mixture through a series of tea towels before Mum emerged and handed me her jamming sieve! I put the solid back in the pan and added more water to get a second batch.

After a lot of straining and many hours later I was the proud owner of some very spicy pink, sour liquid. All 2 litres went into the pan and was accompanied by 2 kilos of granulated sugar which dissolved very quickly. 20 minutes of aggressive boiling and plenty of scum skimming later and our thermometer said we had jam!

I very carefully poured my liquid jelly into 10 sterilised jars and quickly sealed the lids. By the time I had finished pouring the left over liquid that had cooled in the pan had become wibbly wobbly jelly! Success!

Since making it on Saturday I have eaten some with every meal since! It was great with chicken chasseur followed by cheese and biscuits, awesome on toast for breakfast and magnificent with roast lamb for Sunday lunch! The heat from the chilli has become far more subtle, mellowing with the addition of sugar, but you still know it’s there.

Crab apple and chilli jelly on windowsill


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