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
This week, I was mainly eating chicken. The last day of the week needed something different, so I visited ICCO, which is an acronym.
I know this is meant to be a blog about food, lunch, in fact. But this is something that needs to be raised because it is bloody annoying. “Nym” is a suffix. It means “name” or “word” in Greek. That’s right “WORD”! So, you get something like BBC, or EU. Guess what – they are not words. They are initials. Identifying something with its initials is called “Initialism”. But when you get something you can say, like SCUBA or LASER or NASA, that is a word. And they are all acronyms. And so is ICCO
. It is a bit of a silly word, but anyway, it stands for Italian Coffee Company. And if you squint, Greece and Italy are basically in the same place on a globe, so there is the link.
Back to ICCO. It is not a chain restaurant. It is a single shop on Goodge Street, and it is establishment as it gets for Goodge Street. It is on the corner of Charlotte Street and you go past in the morning and it is full of people drinking coffee, eating pastries and hanging out (some of them smoking). Lots of couriers hang out there as well with their thick coats in the winter and bikes parked on the kerb. You go at lunchtime and you also see a whole load of people hanging out looking for pizza. And there are two reasons for this.
1. They are cheap. Prices go from 3.95 for a takeaway Margherita pizza
2. They are pretty tasty
So, I go for a Fiorentina pizza – tomato, mozzarella, spinach olives, egg, basil and some other herbs – simple but nice. And it is good. Not too much cheese, no cheesy rim, no weird barbeque sauce or some kind of cheese and garlic dip.
The bread is tasty. It is thin and cooked. There is cheese and tomato and the cheese is good. The egg is egg. Hang on, I’ve been here before. Basically, everything tastes like it should and it all goes together pretty well. No taste explosions, no amazing experiences of texture or flavour. Just chewing, cheese, tomato and taste (and egg and basil and herbs and olives - I can't be bothered to alliterate those). In summary, that sounds a little boring, but this is a place not pretending anything else. That’s what pizza is. You want to make it fancy and something that gives you mouthgasms? Put fancy toppings on it. You want to pay less than a tenner for a pizza that tastes pretty good? Come here.
And if you want fancy sauces, you can put olive oil on it, or shake some dried oregano on it, or put chilli oil on it (which I did). Simple, but good. Like the food.
And actually, there is another reason to come here as well, but this isn’t really a great one. They give you a little buzzer when you place your order and when you food is ready, the buzzer starts vibrating. And they have metal/functional tables all over the place and if your buzzer is resting on it, then it makes loads of noise. Which is kind of fun.
I have never actually had a coffee from here. They do other drinks, which I have had, like Snapple. And they are quite nice too.
Time out – 10 minutes
Change from a tenner – 4.5
Taste – 7.5
You get what you pay for - 10
Street food. Not picking stuff up from the gutter, not eating streets. It's the new thing. The word on the street perhaps. Or maybe it is the old thing and the new thing is somewhere else.
Whatever the case, the people at KERB have pulled together loads of cooks and people with interesting food related ideas and put them in the same place at a particular time. In this case, the South Quad at UCL (opposite Waterstone's on Gower Street's main entrance and up a road that looks private but isn't).
A panoply of pedlars pushing their goods, mainly to students, but there are a few suits walking around. Go to the KERB website to see what is on and when
. They move around.
So, if you are feeling in need of a bit of excitement, why not put on your deerstalker and see if you can detect a way of getting yourself to one of KERB's lunchtime orgies. If you find this tiresome, you probably shouldn't be putting yourself down for lunchtime adventures. Why not head down to Boots? They do a good lunchtime deal. You can get a prawn sandwich, an Oasis drink as well and, while you are at it, some painkillers to numb the tedium of your boring life while you do your 9-5 job and say yes to your boss and sorry and go home to your spouse who you only ever kiss on the cheek and then eat a microwaved meal and watch tv anthen go to sleep to give yourself enough energy to do your crap day all over again tomorrow.
OK, breathe. Back to these guys (and girls). Garlanded around the quad, they are all there, doing their lunchtime things. There are a lot of beards, and people dressed in clothes that look comfy rather than formal (although the guys from one of the stalls are dressed as Victorian gentleman, AKA What The Dickens - the food looks amazing, but I am not sure what all that tweed is doing to their sweetbreads).
So much to choose from but I go with the nose and eyes and see some guys literally throwing brightly coloured spices around (yes, I do mean literally). That has got to be worth a go. I see the name (Mike + Ollie) and know that these guys forage food where they can find it (yes, that is right, forage!) and change their menu accordingly. All the food comes from within the M25 and Mike, rides on a bike everywhere. Which I reckon is quite cool. Vive la difference, and all that. I don't know how Ollie gets about though.
So, they take my order, are all very friendly, and give me a lamb wrap in flatbread (by this point they have thrown around their brightly coloured spices, mainly on my food, which is what I expected). They also ripped up some figs in front of me and placed them on the flatbread as well, which was more surprising. At this point my mind wandered and I started thinking what would happen if they did a time and motion study of their efficiency in this stall. There would be lots of bad marks I expect. They should do all the preparation before so they can maximise the number of people they serve most efficiently. But that would be missing the point. Lunch is about all the senses and part of the enjoyment can be in the prep as well as the eating. And it wouldn't taste so fresh. So, I suspect that theoretical time and motion guy has now gone off to eat his theoretical lunch at theoretical Boots. And actually, they were very timely with the food. I didn't wait for very long at all.
But what about the flavour, I hear you ask? Actually, I don't - a literary device that doesn't really work in this case. Anyway, forget the flavour, the first thing that hit me like a soft pillow was the texture of the flatbread. It was soft, like a pillow, and bready, not doughy. Then the flavours come in. The shredded lamb, moist and flavoursome, the figs add sweetness and the raw spices give it all an edge. There is hummus, yoghurt, even toasted seeds. There are layers of flavours in here, all working together and jostling for position. If I stopped eating and lay my head on my flatbread and fell asleep, this could be a dream - loads of people around me are walking around, enjoying their food. There is nothing cynical here, no marketing techniques. Just good food, flavours and happy people.
Invigorated I walk back to the office, past a man in a suit looking glum with a pocket full of drugs.
Time out of the office - 20 minutes
Change from a tenner - 5.5
Taste - 8.5
Pillow - 10
They always come back to haunt you.
Gail’s. I see you so often and can still feel that bitter taste of disappointment when you stole my lunch time and gave me an empty wallet. Yet, I keep looking, hoping that there is something I missed, yearning for
I can’t resist.
Yes, I know there are other people who will give me lunch, but there is something mysterious, something exciting about that place that claims it sells artisanal bread. And everyone else seems to love you.
So I go back to you.
I take a bit more time, pondering. I am a bit earlier, and there are less people around. It is all less crowded and confusing. I can see your lovely artisanal cakes. I can see the variety. I can see the restaurant attached. I think of all the good things people have said about this artisanal place. I must have been wrong. I think I need something hot, something soupy.
So I ask for soup.
A delicious sounding sweet potato and crispy pancetta soup.
Oh yes! The lady starts speaking to me, hurriedly running through the different breads they will give me. I smile politely, lost in a haze of yeast and choices again. The bread choices fly over my head (not literally, that is a different story for a different type of blog). I catch a French sourdough, sounds good, and what sounds like cherry bread? With soup? So outlandish and wrong I decide I must have misheard the nice lady and ask for whatever she thinks. I give myself to her. She hastily says both types of bread go with my soup and stuffs it all in a bag. The man who takes my money points me to the cutlery corner to take away.
I grab a spoon and some napkins and leave.
As I pick up the spoon I look at the material – it’s made of wood! How artisanal! How quaint! How eco-friendly!
Maybe I was wrong about Gail’s. Maybe I am trying to draw too many conclusions from one unfortunate experience.
I get back to the office and sit down. I look at my bread and that is when the creeping feeling that I may have been
fooled again by that artisan baker. I dip some of that French sourdough in the sweet potato soup. Delicious. A bit more
sourdough and then I try a spoonful with my lovely artisanal spoon that looks like it is made of balsa wood. It gives me a strange sensation in my mouth.
I get a bit of soup, and the sweet potato absorbs the smoky, salty flavour of the pancetta nicely.
But then I also get the texture of the spoon. Rough, a bit like sucking balsa wood (if you haven’t done it, don’t
bother). And as I continue to spoon in the soup, I notice the spoon is also absorbing the smoky, salty pancetta and sweet potato soup and I observe the concave of the spoon slowly reducing until eventually I am balancing a spatula of soup into my mouth. Amazing – such a simple concept yet they have given me a spoon that doesn’t work!
Is this artisanal? No, it’s balsa wood (perhaps).
Useless! I throw away the spoon/spatula and decide to focus on the bread.
The sourdough is good, which I would expect from a bakers, especially an artisanal one. Then I move onto the next slice of bread. That lady who had told me such outlandish and wrong things hadn’t been lying to me - sweet cherry bread! With a slightly sweet and savoury soup? What is going on here? This is revolting. I have been fooled again by that artisanal baker.
Like a jilted lover I leap up and run out of the room, a tear in my eye.
And return with a proper spoon. I am not going to let this soup get the better of me. With figuratively gritted teeth I chew my way through the cherry bread, which I am sure would be delicious mid-afternoon with some butter on it and a nice cup of tea. BUT NOT WITH SWEET POTATO AND CRISPY PANCETTA SOUP!
I then attack the soup and discover the pancetta, which is not, and the more I think about it, is unlikely to have ever been, crispy.
Fooled again. A promising but only mildly interesting soup, with bit of damp bacon floating about in it, with a spoon that doesn’t work and a slice of bread that seems just plain wrong. Having said that it was only £3.50.
Gail’s - I want to love you, I really do. But there seems to be something missing. Maybe it is love for the food. But like some kind of yeast infection, the memory keeps lurking - what could have been.
Change from a tenner - 6.50
Time out - 25 minutes
Taste - 6.5
Bad itch - 8
What can you say about this place? Everyone seems to have had a go.
It's the place to be - now why is that? Let's look at some of the reasons.
It might be because they do things a bit differently here. There are no reservations.
It might be because YOU HAVE TO STAND ON THE STREET TO GET A PLACE.
It might be because your name gets written on a scrap of paper and hung on the back of a door until there is a space available.
It might be because the staff wear knitted things and cotton. They look like they could finish work and not bother getting changed.
It might be because they don't call you sir or madam.
It might be because you get a really short menu without many options.
It might be because then you don't get a plate.
Even one of these things could be incredibly annoying - put them all together and what have you got? Actually, none of this matters.... because... and you may have heard this before on the blog. The food is amazing - that's why we are here folks. Not for some kind of lunchtime hug. We are here to eat.
And actually there is something fun about the relaxed approach to dealing with customers. And actually, the customer service is good.
Once you are in and sitting down the food is served quickly. If they make a mistake, they sort it out.
Then they serve the main part of the menu - a burger.
They are served in a brioche, which is a bit different (unless you are a hip burger place, in which case it is almost standard). None of that "How do you like your burger done sir?" stuff. You get what you are given. Which is fine in my book. They are the experts on cooking their beef, and they know where it comes from and they do it well.
I had a "Jose Jose" Chilli Burger
with chips, which is served with lovely cheese dripping all over it and chorizo, and it gave me a big greasy smile (both literal and figurative). The chips came with rosemary salt, although it tasted of salt. And mysteriously, although my memory may be escaping me, coleslaw. Didn't remember ordering that. And also some chicken wings, titled amusingly "Winger" Winger Chicken Dinner. Which I thought was a bit stream of consciousness really. There is no way that the chicken could count as a dinner, unless you were tiny, or perhaps a cat. But then, if you were a cat you wouldn't want the barbeque sauce. But I digress.
I'll summarise the food in a bit, but let me remember the chicken wings with their silly name. They tasted delicious. And eating food isn't just about flavours, it is about textures too. How they do what they do to the chicken wings is a bit of a mystery to me, but they are crispy on the outside and melt in your mouth delicious on the inside. I spent a few happy minutes trying to work out what the flavours were that made them taste different. They were less vinegary than a lot of chicken wings with hot sauce that you get in burger places and there was something else - harissa. But I might have been wrong.
Burger - great. Chips - alright. Coleslaw - a little bit too sweet, but refreshing. Chicken - amazing.
In summary - a good place to have lunch. Yeah, you will see how much change I got from a tenner, but it is worth it from time to time.
Change from a tenner: -9.00
Time out: 58 minutes
Self referential hipness: 9