Carnaby Street. Looking at it you might mistake it for carnivore street, with meat focussed places to eat dotting their way along it until you reach the end at Ganton Street and the Pitt Cue and Co.
Or, viewed another way, the Pitt Cue and Co is and was the beginning of carnivore street.
The somewhat curiously named Pitt Cue and Co sits on the corner of Ganton Street and Newburgh Street, curiously hidden. Hidden, that is, apart from the queues that used to travel round the corner – an easy way to identify it. When it opened a few years ago, the place was notoriously hard to get into unless you wanted to wait in the queue to get in the Cue (ho ho). But now, things are a bit easier, and this place is hitting its stride.
More than hitting its stride in fact. But onto that later.
So, the background is this place opened a few years ago after serving some delicious meats from a van under Hungerford Bridge – yes, this is another street vendor that has gone and established itself in a shop (in Soho). They also run a no reservations policy, so you can wear whatever you want and express unorthodox opinions – they won’t judge you. No, not really (well, maybe – I haven’t tried that yet), I mean you have to go and wait for a table or a space. And one of the reasons this place is so weirdly obscure is that it is actually quite small. Spread out over two floors the tables are close together and cosy. If you suffer from claustrophobia, probably best to distract yourself.
And you can distract yourself quite easily by thinking about what delicious flavours you are going to experience. Seriously. I am not quite getting the full effect of the food across here yet. It’s AMAZING.
So I looked on the brief menu and ordered a beef and stout bun, together with green chilli slaw. And a root beer. Dad’s Root Beer. And at this point, it was also my root beer.
Root beer. Weird. The TCP of soft drinks. And it is not even beer. Like Ginger Beer. Sham beer. But a good drink – worth getting used to the taste. Sharp, sweet and bitter at the same time.
But, beef and stout bun. What more can you say. I waited and worried. Was it going to be beef swimming in stout with a bun broken by booze? Fretfully, I looked on the wall at a very instructive mural which showed how one milks a pig. And also gave me the origin of the name the Pitt Cue and Co, which is from Pitt just outside Winchester, where they rear their pigs. And then kill them. Happy pigs=happy food. Obviously not applicable for me because I was eating beef, but I was strangely tickled by the idea of miking a pig, which was also illustrated (it involves a harness for those of you too lazy to go down to this place and seek out the instructions). Alternatively, please see the link here
if you are desperate to experience pig milk – I love the fact this has its own Ehow to page. And that pig milk is potable!
Anyway, the trumpets sound and it arrives. A brioche bun, charred in just the right places and the stout smell of the stout, with the added beefiness of beef. A neat package, to communicate the beef and stout to my mouth using my hands without getting them messy. And it continued in its perfect way, from smelling to picking up the sandwich, transmitting it to my mouth (via my hands), biting the tender beef and then tasting it. BAM. So many flavours, it’s like it was caressing my mouth, my head, my soul. Yes. I am getting excited here. But with good reason. It was a bit greasy, which you want from a sandwich. It had pickles, which saved it from being too rich and greasy. They stopped the flavour in just the right place and left me with a sloppy grin on my face. Then I tried the chilli slaw. Slaw, with its green capsicum joy sprinkled over the top – perfect, a sweet slaw with spiciness and the often overlooked delightful flavour of chillis. Side by side, this was the perfect meal, particularly for someone who needed a hug, which I did on that day. And I left fully cosseted and with a spring in my step.
So the main conclusion to draw is that you need to be in a specific mood to go here. If you want something quick and easy, don’t go here. Perhaps you should just go shopping in Pret and buy something bland. If you don’t like small spaces, consider how much you want food that will make you grin with a big sloppy grin. And then go to the Pitt Cue and Co.
Taste – 9.5
Change from a tenner – sometimes you need to push the boat out – a few quid from 20
Time out – with a walk, about 40 minutes
Cue tip and cop - 10
Cottage, Krunchie, KF,
Name something in common with all of these – Chicken Cottage, Krunchie Chicken, Kentucky Fried Chicken. Yes! Chicken, Chicken, Chicken. A strange kind of alliteration – consonance. And now, to the ranks of the chicken consonance, we can add Clockjack. Yes, Clockjack Chicken. But, sadly for the purposes of this blog, they have decided to call it Clockjack Oven
. There is a reason. And, on this blog, there is a competition – answers in the comments please. We are looking for two late 80s/early 90s bands and their hit songs – clues in the blog….
In SOHO, on 14 Denman Street, in a spacious restaurant with a front window that opens onto the street, they are busy spit roasting their birds, which is a little bit different for SOHO. And you can go and watch and if you pay them, even get a taste.
The chicken is the real reason for coming, not the explicit cooking methods, although they are fun to observe too. Clockjack uses special French chickens (or chickns if you read their website carefully). They sound like they may have been reared on some kind of commune for chickens in France, in Brittany. These hippy chickens have a great life, then they are killed and soaked in a special herb brine, shoved on a big pole and rotated around a flame. This is the clockjack and this is the point at which the chickns start to do things for other people.
Life is all about trade-offs, so these hippy chicks bound for SOHO spend their time on the commune in France growing their souls and then they come to England (after sacrificing their life) so they can start transforming their wholesome existence into delicious flavours. And I like to think that it works. Here, the hippy chicks have a profound flavour. And it is a profoundly good one.
As for the Jack, well, I’d rather do this than Fleetwood Mack. There are different types of Jack, all of which refer to ways of cooking things on a spit - and they all rotate. There is a steam jack (which rotates with, guess what?), there is a smoke jack (smoke) and, apparently, in Tudor times, even a dog Jack. The first ones were just powered by people, so I assume they were just called Jack Jack and you were chosen for the job by your name. A clockjack is one that is powered by weights or springs (clockwork). But anyway, back to the food.
The side dishes that come with it are simple and don’t detract from the flavour that has been developed, as many hippies do develop, with herbs. The fries are good, the coleslaw nicely shredded and not too sweet and a tomato and onion salad with capers is tasty on its own, but with the chicken the sides produce a simple acapella that is exciting and calming at the same time. Almost a religious experience. This is the kind of food that makes you think, done simply, there is no need for flourishes, garnishes or quantity. A small amount of well reared, quality food, is enough to satisfy the soul, even if only eaten occasionally. The chicken was still quite watery, which is probably an after effect of the brine, and it didn’t just come away from the bone. However, in the grand scheme of things, this is just another experience that one can get used to after a while, and with the food that is this good, I would be happy to invest the time.
So, there you have it. Clockjack Oven. It’s all about spit roasting birds, and in its own intensely avian tasting way, it is pretty good. Spacious, and the peach tea is delicious and served in jars. Also, they sell Camden Hells lager, which is refreshing and fizzy. This is the sort of place you could spend a whole afternoon working through the menu eating and drinking.
And, amusingly as a footnote for the girls, KFC was acquired by R.J. Reynolds Inc in 1981. Small world.
Time out – 45 minutes
Taste – 8.5
Change from a tenner – none
Novel cooking method – 7 (10 if they were using a dog)
Let’s think about that, while ignoring the euphemisms. What do they do?
Bone Daddies? No.
Bones and daddies?
They are the daddies of bones. Like the idea that daddies are the overlords and bones are what everyone wants.
So what do these guys do with their bones?
They stick them in a soup. And then they make the soup over a long period of time. And the magical bones give the soup loads of flavour.
So, now you know about Bone Daddies, you will be asking, what kind of soup do they do? Cream of tomato?
Not a Mortal Kombat lightning god. It’s a big noodle soup with loads of tasty ingredients in this case. Ramen means different things in different parts of Japan, but from here, it’s big bowls of soup thickly laden with bits of animal and things. And the soup….. is made of bones (and water)!
So, you get there, on 31 Peter Street and it is pure theatre. Shoulder length curtains hang in front of the door as you sweep in like it’s some kind of upside-down cowboy saloon bar. And then you get a seat if you are lucky (get there early). And then you take stock of the accoutrements on the table and there is so much. Plastic bibs. Chopsticks by the millions. Napkins. AND, garlic crushers. Not what you get on a restaurant table normally. YES. Garlic crushers. And pickled garlic. And then there is this other jar of something. Long and black. Could it be vanilla? Perhaps leeches for a bit of blood sucking while you eat. Nope. It’s hair bands. HAIR BANDS. I know. They are letting you know that lunch is going to be messy.
So don’t go there if you have an important meeting in the afternoon and you aren’t confident about your ability to eat messy soup.
But do go there if you want amazing.
After the theatre and the excitement, you have to choose some food. And the menu isn’t massive, but don’t miss the specials. I did.
But you know what? I didn’t care. The Spicy Miso Ramen was, well….it had pork neck! I didn’t even think pigs had necks. But they do! They are walking round all day sticking their necks out apparently. And, like my ultimately disappointing meal at Cay Tre, these guys know how to cook an egg. And there were big old peppers on there. And bone! Chicken bone broth.
And, deep-breath. Watermelon drink! Yep, say no more.
Wagamama came to mind and then I decided it was, euphemistically, boned. This was FOOD! It had flavour! And I could have crushed garlic all over it, but it tasted so good I didn’t want to upset the flavours that had been put together so carefully.
It was amazing. So many individual flavours that all went together well but at the same time all tasted amazing on their own. In a big soup bowl. All together. And the textures. All different. And all amazing. By the end I was licking the bowl, which was a bit embarrassing (but only for those people who aren’t bone daddies!)
Yes, there were a million staff and yes, you could tell that they knew their food was amazing, but hey, if the food’s that good, who cares?
So, Bone Daddies? Yes! Ossified!
Time out – 1 hour
Change from a tenner – none – 6.20 from £20
Obscure name - 0
British humour – you gotta love it.
Benny Hill chasing the ladies around. Allo, Allo with Herr Flick and pretty much every other European stereotype you can imagine, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Dame Edna and Sir Les Patterson with their antipodean clichés. Charlie Chaplin as the Great Dictator. Sid James and that laugh in the Carry On Films. Ok, so we are stretching it a bit. Let’s call it Commonwealth. We have an Australian, a guy who lived in Switzerland and a South African, but you get the idea. It’s all about cultural stereotypes. And Benny Hill.
And we all love those cultural clichés. LIHOL has categories based on which countries food comes from. The image of efficient Germans running round with their sausages, passionate Italians chowing down on their pasta, relaxed Hawaiians with their, erm – weird rice-like dishes, Australians with their barbies and lager and brash Americans sitting down with their burgers.
So, back to London. Old Compton Street. A mecca for those people loving a good sausage.
And among them, apparently, is Herman Ze German with his shop at number 33. Of course, I say he, but Herman only exists in our minds. It is two marvellous people who have toured the country selling delicious sausages from pillar to post and, who, setting the path for numerous food travellers since, have set up a shop in Soho.
Regardless of the background, what you get is a clean, well-attended restaurant, with functional tables on the ground floor and slightly more space downstairs. And, on a hot, hungover day, quite a lot of sweat below. Service is enthusiastic and friendly.
But enough of that, onto the sausages – a phallic symbol made for comedy. They had run out of meatballs on the day I went there so feeling like I was lacking some bits, I went for a bierwurst with a curry sauce and some fries. Germans and their curry sauce. OK, so apparently we should all be aware of this – that curry sauce gets around. And part of the fun of this place is the puns. As you walk in, it tells you the Wurst is the Best. I get it. And all the menu is written in what I assume if faux German, which with a bit of concentration, is easy to understand.
But the thing is, clever marketing or not, bad puns designed to make us chuckle or not, with a hungry tummy this is a good place to go. Sauerkraut and special German soft drinks mean that you will be having something not only interesting, but satisfying. Big, bold flavours, processed pork and a rather nice bread all go together for a satisfyingly gutsy lunch with mayonnaise and other sauces sprayed willy nilly. As for those Germanic drinks – none of the normal stuff here. You can get soft drinks made by Fritz – cola, lemon, cherry, melon and other stuff. I went for the melon, which was refreshing, but a bit watery. Or you could have beer.
Good for curing a hangover and with the fine selection of alcoholic beverages, possibly good for creating one.
I probably could have stayed there all afternoon and my dining companions all loved it. We observed a lot of other happy eaters.
Herman ze German, we were quite impressed. For a meal that is quick, tasty and satisfying, this ticks all the bochs. Quite efficient really….
Taste – 8.0
Change from a tenner - £1.20
Time out – 30 minutes
German efficiency - 8
I’m sure someone once told me that life was a roller coaster and you just gotta ride it. Or maybe I just heard it somewhere.
I can’t deny I was pretty excited the other day. A friend had sent me the menu for some Vietnamese place he had heard of, and it sounded very, very good. I dribbled about the dishes and my levels of anticipation rose and rose. We all read the menu and discussed it in so much detail that we completely forgot what the place was called. For metaphorical purposes, that would be me on the slow rise as I am cranked up the track on a roller coaster.
On the day we agreed to go I was levelling out because I knew that expecting a good thing often leads to disappointment. So I was focussing on thoughts of bran flakes and doing my 9 times tables. My friends were dripping with excitement though.
Lots of work in the morning, but by lunchtime I had weakened and was looking at the menu. Descriptions, the odd picture and the name (Cay Tre
). It sounded a bit like cater, so I remembered it, thinking they would be catering for my hungry tummy. Sticky chicken with anchovies sounded right up my street, with pork belly to follow (similar to Chairman Mao’s red braised pork perhaps).
Bit more of a climb.
It was down Dean Street and we found it without too much fuss. There was even a handily empty table outside (we went at 12 on the dot to make sure we didn’t get crowded out by the rush). It was fairly empty.
Almost at the Apex in my metaphor. So we sat at the table, which was plastic, but big enough for three of us and looked around. It was a lovely day and we observed the street life passing us by. Some lovely things (friends embracing), some not so lovely (the recurrent van alarm going off). But that's what you get on the street. Rough and smooth. I would say at this point we were going along a steady bit of track with some anticipation.
The menus came and we sat down to some serious decisions. I wanted lots of things on the menu, but stuck with my sticky chicken and pork belly. My comrades (role-playing) had dumplings and lemongrass tofu and in an egalitarian way we shared everything. At this stage my analogy falls down. When the food arrived we were really excited (which would be the bit when you are plunging on a roller coaster so we were at our lower point, but we were all quite high with excitement so the analogy stops working here) and we ate the food and were even more excited by the flavours (except the tofu, which is a bit like Russian roulette – every so often you get lucky and it tastes amazing but usually it is just spongy, like bits of brain). But we are all equal here and we shared for the greater food.
So we were all happy. The chicken was very sticky and tasty and there was lots of it, enough to go around, the dumplings were amazing and the tofu was definitely tofu.
And we had a fruity salad to share which was also delicious. Not too mushy, not too liquid. Sweet and a bit savoury at the same time.
And we had mango lassi as well. Mine was nice, not too edgy (unlike my experience of the Kati Roll Company, which I have since been back to to verify the age of the yoghurt and they are consistent with their flavour). But here, my lassi came with ice cubes, which was a bit different for me). It was nice, but ultimately a bit aqueous.
Then the main courses came – a bit of a mixed dish. I had my Saigon Stewed Pork Belly with boiled eggs and my comrades both had beef pho. Pho sho.
And we sat and munched. This was the part where our roller coaster had decided to begin to slow down. The boiled eggs were really nice. Eggy (not a surprise) and salty and cooked just a bit more than runny, which was good. The sauce for the pork was interesting, but the pork itself was dry and sucked all the moisture out of my meal. My comrades started pho with relish, but ultimately gave way to needing chilli relish to finish the dish. This is the bit of rollercoaster where we are slowing down and thinking “well, there were some exciting bits but it was not as much fun as we thought it would be.”
Then the bill came, and it wasn’t too bad. We paid a tenner for the set lunch, and then together with the mango lassis and the salad, another tenner, so not bad for a considerable feast in the sun. The only feeling of sorrow as we walked away was that the meal just couldn’t sustain the excitement.
Taste – 7.5 – up and down
Time out – 1 hour
Change from a tenner – it cost about £20
The rollercoaster ride of life - 6
Mooli on Frith Street left a large and slightly rude shaped hole when it closed up and didn’t deliver any more. People wept (with a little bit of sniggering of course).
So, no more delicious curried wraps filled with delicious things. We had to find other things for lunch, new cuisines to explore and leave the curry to the curry houses. But aside from a slight flirtation with bacon sandwiches at Dishoom (amazing, since you ask), there has been a certain amount of spice missing.
Walking up Poland Street feeling a little bit lost, I stumbled into Kati Roll. I saw it out of the corner of my eye, hidden behind some other sign, and had imagined it would be more generic wraps served by a nice but slightly crazed lady called Kati (who spells her name with an i, perhaps with a heart instead of a dot), with blond hair in a crazy ponytail on top of her head and brightly coloured clothes. And the food would have been a bit bland and the shop would probably close down after a while. But maybe, just maybe, Kati would offer something different.
When I walked in to the curiously decorated place, with its long queues, I thought I might be onto something. And no sign of a lady called Kati. I looked on the menu and could feel the excitement in the air. People were genuinely looking pleased about where they were. The little tables were packed with people who all looked like they were relishing their food.
And the menu looked pretty special. It wasn’t one of those menus that goes into detail. The best you get is a description of what meat and vegetables are in it, perhaps with a little bit more information on a particular extra ingredient. So I got the impression these people were pretty confident about what they were offering.
And so I looked at the menu and decided that, although it was grey and rainy outside, it was spring and I should go for a bit of lamb with lentils. A shami kebab roll. So I ordered that and an Alphonso mango lassi (a yoghurt drink rather than a border collie called Alphonso that will take me to rescue people). It was freshly made apparently. And while I waited I looked around.
The surroundings were interesting. The Indian film posters, the faded images and writing on the walls, the peeling wallpaper. The counter which was made of bits of wood and bricks. The kitchen, which I could see, was lots of steel and was all quite functional. It looked like the kind of place someone with not much money had pieced together. But behind it all I could see that someone had spent a bit of time (and money) on the design of this place. It hadn’t just come together, evolving in a corner of Soho.
Even the corrugated tin ceiling had the holes carefully cut out to allow the lights to poke through perfectly. And the mango lassi was in ready sealed bottles, suggesting to me, suspicious mind, more careful organisation.
But I decided to withhold my judgement. This place was filled with people who were happy to be there. People who looked like they knew what they were about to get and who wanted it. So I waited.
It was busy, and I waited a bit longer. Then I got my roll and lassi led the way back to the office.
Now I am a bit ashamed to admit it but I ate that first Kati roll incredibly quickly. Almost inhaled it. When I unwrapped the greaseproof paper from the roll and sunk my teeth in, I was excited. It was dense, meaty, delicious, easy to eat, not dripping with grease, not dry. It was almost perfect. Slightly spicy, but not too spicy, hints of other flavours, was there orange in there? And the mango lassi was perhaps a bit fruity. The lady might not be for turning, but I think the yoghurt was. Is that how lassi is meant to be?
I ate it all very quickly. It was a small package, not quite the amount you would get at Moolis were it still around, but satisfyingly dense and actually I noticed on the menu that you can get two for less than double the price. The lassi was good too. I finished and licked my fingers, considering a good meal that I had and how I would be going back to try some more flavours, combinations. I felt full, but not too full.
At which point I drew my conclusion. This was all a bit too easy. There was a hint of edge in the Kati Roll Company, but throughout the meal, which I cannot deny was delicious, I felt that perhaps, maybe, perhaps, and I might be too harsh, but perhaps, it was a bit too easy. There was no challenge. It was easy food, sanitised. Someone had spent time making sure that this was a bit edgy, but not too edgy. A bit different, but not too different. Like the restaurant, which looked a bit thrown together, but the details showed that it had been carefully put together to look like it had been thrown together.
And I don’t like that. It seems dishonest.
It turns out that the Kati Roll Company is from America (Greenwich Village) and there are only two branches (one in Greenwich Village and one in London). So it is definitely a bit special and we are lucky to have this right on our doorstep. And a kati roll is a popular type of streetfood in India, referring to pretty much anything that is rolled up in a paratha.
I will go back there. I will enjoy more food from there. But I will be taking scepticism with me. Crazy Kati wasn’t there with her dayglo hairbands suggesting the chance of something a bit different, but the Kati Roll Company suggested something a bit crazy and different and it was good and it was spicy, but actually I came away with something that was a bit more, erm, Catherine.
Time out – 15 minutes
Taste – 8.5
Change from a tenner –2.75
Nagging feeling that Kati is not who she says she is - 5
I have so much love for KERB (follow this link)
. Like some food based travelling minstrel, not only do they do you a favour and find amazing street vendors, but they put all that food in one place for you to drool over. And they find amazing vendors who all seem to be happy selling food (except the guy with the cakes, but the cakes were so good we can overlook that).
This isn’t my first KERB experience, I have had a few. But this is the first premeditated one that I successfully carried out. I usually go with an empty mind, but today I was on a mission. Capish? had tempted me with its online menu and I was set on the braciole – I didn’t understand why.
Perhaps it is because I wasn’t raised in an Italian American family. But I did listen to Frank Sinatra.
The Granary is an amazing venue. Tales of Kings X you generally hear focus on the X nature of the area, but like an oasis of calm behind the bustle and business (prostitutes allegedly, but train travel more apparently) in front of the station is The Granary. The Regents Canal oozes slowly along behind the station, with canal boats and rubbish bobbing by. And there is building going on. So much building. Amongst all this there is a big square with some solid looking buildings, excited fountains that sometimes hide and sometimes erupt from the ground and today there is KERB. And some music/noise. And beers. And a party atmosphere.
So much fun. Children running around the fountains being sprayed by water. People dribbling food down themselves. But mostly people being happy, chatting, laughing. And food.
So, after a circuit of the foods on offer, I buy myself a root beer from Square Root and wander over to Capish?, which I missed the first time. I didn’t understand why.
Perhaps it was because they weren’t wearing capes. Or even a hint of them.
Weirdly, the queues here weren’t as extensive as they were on the next stand (Crabbieshack, which also looked like it served lovely food). I observed the menu as I walked and noticed there was no Braciole. But they did have Italian Beef. Which is what I ordered. And while I was waiting I chatted to the people behind the counter. And they were lovely and seemed as happy to be there as I was, which, given that they were standing surrounded by hot beef, pickles and burning gas, was more of a feat for them than me (surrounded by erupting waterfalls, laughing people and an indulgent lunch). They also gave me some delicious chilli pickle with my sandwich, which they told me wasn’t really allowed, but they wanted to do it because they thought it made the sandwiches taste better.
Efficiently dealt with at Capish?, I went back to Square Root (my root beer lasted about ten seconds squared) and, rather than replacing the deliciously quenching TCP resembling drink, I went for a rhubarb soda (I don’t know why).
Perhaps because it is the very beginning of the season for natural rhubarb. And it makes me happy that Square Root know this.
And, sipping to make it last a bit longer than the last one, I walked over to the steps by the canal and found a step. You can see it in the backdrop to the picture. While I was walking and watching the people playing in the fountain, out of the corner of my eye I observed a veritable stream of juiciness gushing forth from my askew sandwich. A matter which I quickly remedied, leaving me only with a slightly beefy smelling bicycle helmet (which was under the rivulet of juice at the time of said accident).
So I sat on my step, positively relishing the Capish? originated lunch. And I watched people bobbing past on a canal boat. It was all so serene following the mayhem of the fountains and I was in a good place. Why that was a good place, I am not too sure.
Perhaps it was a good middle ground after the noises up in the square.
And then I ate the sandwich and what did I experience? Beef. Beefy beef and a fairly solid baguette with sesame on it. I can’t lie, I was a little disappointed. After the build-up and the constant questioning, I had expected a little more. But I kept masticating and reflecting and decided that this was a pretty good, if not firm, beefy sub (American lingo, it was beginning to have an effect).
But then I took my second bite, and suddenly everything was different. Lubed by the juices of the beef and the Provolone cheese, which was starting to melt amazingly, and the cured tomatoes and the caper mayo (and the pickles), the sandwich took on a whole new dimension. And it was a good one.
After three bites I was looking at the end of all of my fingertips and then I was licking them. The juices tasted amazing and, like I was having some Roman Catholic revelation, I knew this was how food should taste. And, like I was having some Buddhist revelation, I felt like I was at one with the food. A few more bites and it was over and I was happy.
So, I would say a fairly religious experience. Capish? You may be asking why, but obviously the food is the answer.
Time out - 20 minutes (including a reconnoitre)
Change from a tenner - 0 (including 2 x £1.50 for the drinks)
Taste - 9
New understanding - 10
China. Big place.
I love regional cooking. I love the way each different county in England has its own little dishes. And all the names - Lancashire hot pot, Yorkshire puddings, Eccles cakes, Stilton, Bakewell tart, Melton Mowbray pork pies, Newcastle Brown Ale. And the list goes on. Such diversity across our small little country. And each part does things their own way.
But everywhere you go in England, there is nearly always a takeaway. Indian or Chinese. And everywhere you go in England, the menu on these Chinese takeaways looks pretty much the same - Cantonese. True, there is a bit of variation. Sometimes you get Szechuan dishes on the menu. And sometimes you get a little notice saying no MSG is used in cooking these dishes. But it is pretty much the same.
Anyway, where were we? Oh yes - China. Big place. You would think that there would be a bit of variation in cooking across China. It gets cold in the north and hot in the south. Judging by Chinese takeaways in England, most Chinese people live in a constant state of feeling slightly queasy after eating too many pork balls with sweet and sour sauce in a polystyrene cup. But it turns out that all across China there are regions (like we do it over here). And each of those regions is slightly different (like we do it over here) and eat slightly different food.
It’s fair to say that Chairman Mao caused a bit of a ruckus. His glorious people’s revolution wasn’t entirely glorious for all involved. And it caused a few problems with food supplies as well. This isn’t a blog about politics (ostensibly), so we shall focus on the food, which we all eat and where politics has an effect on this, it should be mentioned.
In a corner of Chinatown in London, on the corner of SOHO there has been another revolution. A bit more quiet and with less marching. In fact, no marching.
Ba Shan opened a few years ago to a few good reviews. Some people confused it with Ba Shu over the road (which serves Szechuan food). But it’s actually called Ba Shan and Ba Shan serves Hunanese food. The Hunan province is near the south of China and is meant to be a nice place to go. It is also where Chairman Mao was born and raised. Hunanese food is a bit like neighbouring Szechuan food. Lots of chillies and very hot. But unlike their hard to pronounce neighbours, Hunanese food has a lot more flavour and a lot less heat.
On to Ba Shan.
Surrounded by pictures of the Chairman and with a bit of Chinese music wailing in the background, the menu at this Chinese is unlike anything you will have seen or heard of before. Pockmarked old woman’s bean curd, fire-exploded squid, bandit's pork liver with green chillies, bitter melon, an amazing chilli and aubergine mush and the delectable signature dish, Chairman Mao’s Red Braised Pork, which I could eat till the pigs come home and then, after a bit of slaughter, butchery and cooking, eat all over again....
I love this place. You might be able to squeeze lunch in in under an hour, but it’s not worth doing that. Spend some time here. It’s not as cheap as most places you might want to spend lunch, but it’s worth spending more and decidedly less than other places you might want to spend lunch. What an experience.
Set out like a Chinese Tea Room, the décor is dark (and I love the fact that the plaster is chipped in places) and you will be surrounded by beaming pictures of the Chairman. After looking through a menu that is a bit short on descriptions, you might feel a little perplexed. But look around you. This is about the food baby! Go wild. However, you could make your choice with the help of 1990's kebab shop style food photography. I cannot recommend highly enough Chairman Mao's Red Braised Pork, which may be my favourite Chinese dish ever, but have an adventure.While you are there, pick up a copy of Fuchsia Dunlop's book, Revolutionary Chinese Cooking, which tells you the excellent stories behind the dishes and how to cook them at home. Fully worth the £25 (cash), especially considering Dunlop helped put the menu together for Ba Shan.
You might be left wondering how much food you should order. Like a teapot, my guidelines are one for each diner and one for the table. Then rice. Or noodles. And you can tell how hot it is going to be by the number of chilli symbols next to the name. The more the hotter - easy.
After ordering your food you are going to have to wait for a bit, but then it will arrive in with the typically “efficient” service (i.e. not much banter and a quick delivery). And it won’t arrive all at the same time. These guys will bring it when it is ready. You might need to learn to cope with that approach to customer service. But when it does arrive, every experience I have had in the place and every person I have been there with has had to dive right in and taste the food – there is no point in waiting for it all to arrive. It's all about the food. You just want to wash your mouth in new flavours. You are unlikely to be tasting stuff you have tasted before (unless you have been here before and are having the same dish again, and even then.... sorry, the memories....) and the chances are that you will experience a whole load of new flavours here, which is worth paying money for on its own. But the food is all good, and every time I think about it, I want to go back there.
So, we went for winter lamb - deliciously fatty with the ubiquitous chilli peppers cutting through the haze, the bamboo fragrant chicken and the dried yard long beans with pork - the beans just dry enough to absorb the flavour of the pork, and then those chillies again, cutting through the flavours with their heat while adding their own delicious taste to the mix. And rice. And some beers. And it was amazing. The chicken was a stand-out for me (pictured), not just because of the number of chillies involved but actually because of the flavour. It wasn’t impossible to eat like many chilli dishes are and I didn't start sweating and losing sensations in my extremities. It tasted of chilli, and salt, and other spices I wasn’t even aware existed. And umami, which is a taste so unusual to the West that we have to steal a word from the Japanese to describe it.
So much more could be said about the menu, and the restaurant, but I am not going to. Ba Shan. Go there if you want something more than pork balls and a slightly sick feeling.
Taste - A sustained 9
Time out – more than an hour
Change from a tenner - minus £30
Chop suey - 0
To the flaneur and observer of the lunchtime/restaurant scene around Bloomsbury, some places capture the imagination,often for the wrong reasons.
Halfway down Windmill Street, Pun Kum was one of these places. A gaudy Thai restaurant, I could never bring myself to go there just in case the name was a bit too literal (albeit badly spelled) and their fish sauce was perhaps a little too, erm, unique. Anyway, this was one place I was kind of sad to watch kum and go. The diners inside eating their special Thai sauce infused foods were replaced by bailiff’s notices and then emptiness. Sorry.
So imagine the delight when it was replaced by somewhere with an equally silly name. And no risqué connotations.
The Austrian empire spread massively and then shrank over the centuries. But what is not really reflected in any map of empires I’ve seen is the extent of the culinary influence. In England the countries of India, Italy and France stamp their imprint on our eating habits. Austria, for all the size of their ancient empire, does not.
And I have been flirting with the wurst over the past few months in Soho, finding myself frustrated at every turn – The Bratwurst on Berwick Street seems to be closed every time I try there and Herman Ze German on Old Compton Street seems to be just a bit too far. So when Boopshi’s opened on the 26th November 2013, I saw a vista of Austrian sausage based lunches opening in front of me.
Yes, I am playing fast and loose with my geography here, but so did Austria, and being exact, this place should be known for its Austrian themed food.
When I walked in it had been open for a day. I was excited. It all smelled new. Even the functional wooden tables with their gifts of little splinters in your jumper smelled new, like they had just been chopped down by a burly Austrian with an incredibly stylish moustache yesterday (or the day before).
It was pretty empty when I walked in early lunchtime. There were a couple of guys and a girl hanging round (I assumed they were staff) and they chatted to me, eager to please like puppies who had just opened a new restaurant. I was touched and hoped well for these guys. And they offered me a beer, locally brewed in Camden, which seemed a bit strange seeing as we were in an Austrian food themed pub.
Slowly, as awkward turn staggered on from awkward turn, I saw the menu, which I would also say was “functional”. I like a functional menu - some of the things on the menu I could recognise, but after reading the menu the only thing I had learned was that frittaten means pancake in German. There were some lovely combinations on it – duck eggs, anchovies, sauerkraut and a main course. But oh dear – the prices! Still, I thought, this place is new and I could finally sate my Austrian desires here so I may as well spend a bit extra. I figured I would go for the top of the list – a wiener schnitzel (thinking if that was what the place was called, they would do it well). And fries. And a coke (perhaps I should have also gone for spritz, but by this point my sense of adventure was leaving me). And while I waited I thought of the heritage of wiener (veal), how it will be deliciously flavoursome and, uninterrupted by that pesky muscle building process of living and walking about, how tender it would be.
My coke was delivered nicely in a bottle, with ice cubes, a glass and some lemon.
Then my fries arrived in an enamel bowl and the schnitzel was presented to me with a flourish on an enamel plate. I like enamel. It is, dare I say, functional. But it is also everywhere at the moment, usually being served by someone who has a stylishly trimmed beard and skinny jeans.
And I have to say the lump of breadcrumbed meat sat there in a way that didn’t entice me, more said “Yeah? What?” and then steamed at me. Confrontation – I see how this is going, my schnitzel friend. I wasted no time in doing some damage to this lump of meat with my knife and fork, expecting it to yield and surrender its delicious wienerness to me.
But it didn’t. It was resolute in defiance like Francis II, the Doppelkaiser against Napoleon, and the schnitzel fought back, all the while steaming at me. I finally won a corner of the territory from it and put it in my mouth, which was burned by the heat of this very chewy bit of meat that tasted of breadcrumbs and not much else. Slightly scorched, I retired to the mess tent to douse the flames in my mouth with a cold coke and ruminate with a fry or two. And they were bland. I added Heinz ketchup and Hellman's mayonnaise. And squeezed the lemon for good measure.
I regrouped and attacked again before giving up. There was nothing to be won in this battle. For a bit more flavour, I asked the waiter for a duck egg to put on top, fresh from the frying pan, before the second offensive. And I succeeded only in reducing the lump of breadcrumby meat and in burning my mouth again, this time with the duck egg. I can't blame the duck egg for that, and it was a nicely fried egg. I soldiered on and worked my through it all, chipping away until I had finished the meat and felt a bit sick after a meal that was greasy and chewy. And lacking in flavour (except for the ketchup and mayonnaise) Sorry guys - I read the story of your genesis online, and it is heart warming
, but your food was expensive and bland. I am sure it can be done well, but to date my experiences leave me to think there is a reason the Austrian menu hasn't made its presence felt in the UK (my surreal experience of Bodo’s Schloss a few weeks later reinforced this view) - Austrian food lacks fizz, or spritz if you will. Judging by the crowds in there as I walk past these days, perhaps it was just an unfortunate starting period, but it will take me a while (and possibly a second mortgage) before I come back to try Boopshi’s Schnitzel and Spritz.
Time out - 50 mins
Change from a tenner - no way
Taste - 4
Were you happy after your lunch - nein
So, it’s all change at Store Street. Gone are the glum shops - it’s gained some glam. All the shops have quaint little signs hanging outside, like some dictat from the landowner. Some of the shops are the same as the ones that were there when it was glum. But obviously, now they do a more glam service than they used to. And they have glam signs.
One of the new émigrés on Store Street is The Life Goddess
. She has squatted in the middle, next to a posh offie and Caffe Paradiso, which isn’t paradise and is stretching the word cafe (literally and metaphorically). And she does food – Greek stuff.
London is full of little Greek tavernas, where they throw plates on the floor (intentionally) and serve lots of little dishes of houmous, taramasalata, halloumi and quail, but this bucks the trend. It’s not about those lots of little dishes, this is about coffee and sandwiches and hearty Greek meals. For lunch (and possible dinner). And they sell lots of other stuff. It’s a bit like a Polski Sklep, but Greek. And they tell you it is all high quality, rather than “just” food for expats - I have no reason to doubt this.
So, there she squats, the life goddess suckling her customers in a shop off Tottenham Court Road. I decide on a whim to go in there and grab a sandwich. And what an array of nice looking foods is presented before me. Spread out, legs akimbo. And then there is more hot stuff. Okay, life goddess, this is getting a bit much. I’m not sure I can cope with this choice.
Behind the bar a veritable bevy of goddesses dance between one another, dripping honey and nectar amongst the sated masses who clamour for more. I order a Greek salad sandwich, avoiding the hot and hearty meals which would surely keep me here for longer than I can cope. Takeaway. And the goddesses dance behind the counter while I look around in rapt amazement. Apples surround me, and this immediately puts me on my guard. Not the round, fruity variety that Eve got Adam with, but the computer that is a symbol of the smug people tapping away while they drink their lattes.
Lattes? Hang on, I thought this was Greek. Lattes in Greece might be a lovely new idea, but I thought Greek coffee is thick and grabs you by the short and curlies. I blink and shake my head looking again around me. There are no goddesses here. Plenty of hairy men and people serving, but there is a kind of grim determination as they manoeuvre around each other.
And they don’t have what I asked for down to an unfortunate conflict of desires within the life goddess. So they give me a croissant with Greek Salad in it.
Awakening from a dream, I rub my eyes and look around afresh. This isn’t a life goddess, they are trying to sell a lifestyle. All the foods they sell are branded with The Life Goddess labels and their funny little goat symbol. They are so polished, they have seemingly lost the patina of authenticity and honesty.
Anyway, back to my croissant….
How thoroughly continental. Greek and French together. I take it away and it feels quite weighty, which is reassuring. And it tastes amazing. Some kind of Greek hard yellow waxy cheese, salad (including tomato which actually tastes of something) and olive oil. Oh! The oil. It lubes it up, it helps it slip down and it combines the flavours amidst a beautiful, unbitter flavour. Then, at the end of the rapture, a smoky aubergine paste lets itself be known.
And to top it all off, I get a stylishy brown paper bag to keep it all in, and black napkins to mop my heavenly lips.
So, it tasted absolutely great, but I can’t bring myself to love it. It just seems a bit too contrived. Maybe I am being a bit harsh, but the Life Goddess seems to be trying too hard, studiously ticking every box and nicking the best things from around it rather than relying on the honesty and flavours of the food, slowly building up a loyal local gathering through staff who understand what they are selling. I mean, it’s called The Life Goddess after all - that’s setting the bar a bit high isn’t it? And who understands what she is about?
Time out – 10 minutes
Change from a tenner – 5.5
Taste – 8
Divinity – 2