Saturday, 4 January 2014

Tastes of 2013

Happy New Year everyone, I'm still here! The blog has gone down the pan for the last couple of months for one reason, and one reason only. Here she is:

I'll resist the temptation to start writing blog posts about my baby, this is a food blog after all, and she's a bit rubbish at eating (milk>vomit>milk>repeat being the general scheme of things), so I'll just say that I'm a very proud Dad and leave it at that.

I was going to write a review of last year in the same vein as the previous two years, but there were too few contenders in half of the categories to make it worthwhile bothering. So instead here are twenty things I ate in 2013, from January through to December.

1. Falafel wrap from Cafe Moor in Leeds market. Nice guys, breathing life into the market, and most importantly serving exemplary middle eastern snack food, the best I've eaten outside that region.

2. The cheeseburger toastie at Home Sweet Home in Manchester. Twee place, gimmicky food was what I suspected. I couldn't have been more wrong. Great place, very good coffee, and that toastie is a work of genius (it's the gherkins that make it).

3. The Iskender kebab at Zeugma in Sheffield. A divine mix of tender, charred lamb, spicy tomato sauce, buttery bread and thick, sharp super-creamy yoghurt. Everything else is excellent too at this proper Turkish grill house.

4. The perfect pint, at the Stag's Head in Sheffield. More unusual and exciting styles have their place but for ultimate beery satisfaction I keep returning to a pint of cask bitter (or did months ago the last time I spent any time in the pub). Maybe I'm getting old or maybe this sort of beer is criminally underrated by beery trendsetters. My favourite examples: Ilkley Brewery Best, Marble Pint, Thornbridge Lord Marples.

5. The Crich Square, from the Loaf Bakery (branches in Crich and Matlock). Like a denser, yeastier toasted teacake. Toasted buttery heaven.

6. 2013 brought two Red Chill feasts, both at the Leeds branch. Excellent food and excellent value as always. The highlight: the shallow fried pork dumplings. The aftermath of one of those feasts is pictured.

7. A Sunday roast with a difference, rather than serve up the usual dessicated topside in gravy or whatever, the Wig and Pen in Sheffield came up with this beef cheek offering. Dense moist strands of cowface, cooked for an eternity, reformed into a cricket ball sized lump of joy and served with the darkest most marmitey gravy known to man. Ace.

8. Our tapas crawl in Malaga back in April wasn't a gourmet affair, but these pintxos were simple perfection.

9. The only curry of any real interest that I ate all year was this chicken chettinad at a South Indian caff in Reading. Dark, roasted spice rich and very more-ish.

10. I can't think of a city that conforms to stereotype more than Munich. The locals really do love the whole giant beers, sausages and singing thing. Skip the overtouristed Hofbrauhaus and head to the Augustiner Keller where the beer is better and whopping great plates of bratwurst and sauerkraut mit senf go down a treat.

11. The flat white at Bold Street Coffee in Liverpool. Faultless.

12. Fools, lovely fools. Cold, smooth whipped cream and tart English fruit. Easy peasy puddings for a genuinely warm summer (at least the first half of it). Gooseberry was my favourite, closely followed by rhubarb.

13. Another summer addiction, bread salad. I'd never realised how good panzanella and the like could be. They know what they're doing those Italians.

14. The final of my home made summer successes: watermelon, mint and feta salad. Served chilled on the hottest day of the year.

15. Iberico presa at Bar 44 in South Wales. The high point of an excellent tapas dinner. Pig of dreams.

16. Roast belly pork in soup noodles at Noodle Inn in Sheffield. Decent broth and bouncy noodles in support of beautiful roast meat; tender flesh, rendered melting fat, snappy crackling.

17. Rillettes, cornichons, bread, a glass of local plonk. I loved it in France.

18. Sticky toffee baked apples. A successful alternative to mincemeat, I stuffed these apples with dates and a quick butter and demerara sugar caramel. They were lovely.

19. The most memorable thing I ate in Amsterdam? The Flemish style chips. Best eaten from a cone bigger than your head, after a few ales, with a ridiculous combination of sauces (cheese and chilli pictured).

20. Christmas dinner sandwich. Christmas dinner itself was really the memorable occasion, eaten at home with my new family, just the three of us.

Food-wise I'll opt for the leftovers sarnie though, as I really cracked that this year. Use crusty white bread (I used ciabatta), butttered, then heat up your fillings and add them in this order: Sliced turkey, crispy bacon, bubble and squeak made from all the leftover veg (ideally roast spuds, cabbage, sprouts and carrots), bread sauce and gravy.

Monday, 4 November 2013

La Tasca, Meadowhall, Sheffield

It's been a while since I've had a rant on here. I didn't go to La Tasca specifically with a whinge in mind, really I didn't. I went because I was hungry and it was convenient and I'd heard rumours of a revamped menu and attempts at doing things properly and I even got invited to a jamon carving shindig there a while back with the promise of genuine iberico de bellota.

So I went to La Tasca feeling vaguely optimistic that it would have morphed into one of those satisfactory-never-going-to-be-amazing-but-will-do-the-job-once-in-a-while sort of chains, instead of just being completely shit. Well I'm really glad I didn't go to the freebie ham carving night, because it's never much fun moaning about free stuff. If this meal was a fair representation of the place, it's still very much in the completely shit camp.

In photographic order rather than level of crapness I bring you: patatas bravas. Limp, mealy spuds in a sauce tasting exactly like tinned tomatoes with stale smoked paprika stirred through without the benefit of being cooked afterwards. The spanish omelette I couldn't fault as I like eating wodges of the supermarket bought ones (Lidl or Mercadona will do nicely) on my holidays and this was the same as those.

Croquettes were manchego and spinach, not a combo I've ever encountered before (what's wrong with ham or chicken?) but they were at least crisp and greaseless. It was just a shame they tasted of absolutely nothing.

We inadvertently overloaded ourselves with more of the same pappy potatoes by ordering a lamb and potato stew and a portion of octopus with potatoes. Given the headline billing you could reasonably expect lamb and octopus to have been the main ingredient in each dish though. Sadly not.

The lamb amounted to four gristly bits of disappointment in a weak broth with lots and lots of potatoes. The bread on the side was that clever sort of bread that looks like good bread until you eat it and realise it's slightlier crustier aerated Kingsmill in disguise (see also: speciality breads from Asda).

The octopus was predictably chewy (except for the occasional random tender bit) and bland, but at least it came with lots and lots of potatoes.

Last and pretty much equally least; the house green salad. A speciality of Navarra, the Spanish region famed for bull-running and manky mixed leaves in a cheap balsamic dressing.

I'd be a lot more forgiving of the general awfulness of the food if we'd had really great service and it was dirt cheap, but neither was the case. The service approach seemed to be grab whoever's nearest and try your luck. The beer I ordered never arrived and it took ages to get someone to fetch the bill. The dubious positive was the literally less than five minutes it took for all the food to arrive. Some sort of turbo microwave system?

The icing on the cake is that La Tasca is actually quite pricey. We paid about £30 for this load of rubbish. That might not be an expensive meal for two, but it's actually quite a bit more than you'd pay for a comparable meal at a proper tapas place.

In spirit of investigation I've checked the menus for a couple of places I like to make sure I'm not talking bollocks here, and an equivalent six dishes at either the splendid Bar 44 or the excellent Salt House Tapas would cost you slightly less, and would be about fifty times more appetising.

Awful in every way. Don't give them your money.

3/10 Sadly everywhere.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Northern Food on tour: a weekend in Amsterdam

So I went to Amsterdam. On a stag weekend. Not the best recipe for a weekend of fine dining obviously, but that's not to say we didn't sample a few Dutch specialities, of both the good quality and the utter filth variety. I was in charge of the whole shebang, being in the honourable position of best man, so I'd managed to sneak some interesting food and drink options into the itinerary.

They're quite partial to a deep-fried beer snack, the Dutch. Virtually every pub and bar offers an assortment of goodies for soaking up the booze. Filo pastry type things stuffed with mince or cheese, spring rolls, and bitterballen, little round croquettes with an unidentifiable meaty filling.

This platter of delights was a fairly typical example. It may look like an Iceland party pack, but who doesn't like fried stuff and beer.

And where might you get your fill of fried stuff after the pub kitchen's have closed? Why from the legendary FEBO of course, automated vending machines for croquettes and burgers and god knows what else.

There are branches of FEBO all over Amsterdam, but it turns out the one up the street (FErdinand BOlstraat) from our hotel is the original. I couldn't tell you quite how rank the average vending machine takeaway is, because I only went near the place after a few (too many) ales. All I can say is that there's photographic evidence of me filling my face with one of their treats and looking like I'm really bloody enjoying it. My money's on the satekroket. De lekkerste!

Er right, I did say we ate some quality stuff too. There seemed to be a fairly good supply of eat-in bakeries and casual brunch type places dotted about the city. We ate breakfast at Omelegg two days in a row, so successful were they at easing our hangovers. Good coffee, freshly squeezed juice and damn fine omelettes with that lovely light, fluffy texture I always fail to recreate at home.

Interest on the booze front (not that lager and Jagermeister are uninteresting of course) took the form of a beer tasting at t'Arendsnest, a bar serving only Dutch beer. Did you know there are more than 50 breweries in the Netherlands? Me neither.

There's certainly a whole lot more to Dutch beer than mass market piss (yes Heineken and friends, I am talking about you), but I can't say I fell in love with any of the beers we tasted. The first, a crisp, dry lager in a blue bottle was a classy session drinking option, but after that there were a couple I wasn't keen on at all.

Things progressed with increasing strength, so my memory is a little sketchy, but I'm fairly confident the final beer, pictured below, was the best. It was a big beast, a Belgian tripel (or quadrupel?) in style, dark red in colour with a big hit of fruit and booze. 

The big meal of the trip was a visit to restaurant Djago for a rijsttafel, an Indonesian Dutch colonial meal basically comprising a set buffet of everything on the menu with your rice.

Giant prawn crackers to start, with two types of sambal. These were ace, like the sturdier Thai style prawn crackers but enormous.

And then the dishes started to arrive. Little pots of salads and relishes first; cucumber and onion; carrot and cabbage; roasted peanuts and roasted, shredded coconut. All probably designed with textural contrast in mind as much as taste.

There were stewed meat dishes, a beef rendang and something porky....

and chicken, curried beansprouts and curried eggs.

...and dense, clove spiked meatballs, and cold gado gado, and platters of chicken satay and some things I can't remember. There was a lot of food.

I enjoyed the experience more than the food if I'm honest. The meatballs aside (which I wasn't keen on anyway) everything else tasted a bit same-y, each dish a minor variation on the very sweet/salty/a little bit spicy/a lot of peanuts theme. After a while I was willing for a less sugary dish to appear.

I'm glad we went though, rijsttafel is a uniquely Dutch invention so not something you'll encounter much elsewhere, and it was good to try some Indonesian food for the first time I can remember. 

Anything else I should tell you about Amsterdam? 

The chips are good. Flemish style chip stands are plentiful and never less than satisfying. The pre-fried chips are always given their second dunk in the fat to order, before being served in cones with a choice from dozens of sauces ranging from classic mayo to satay or chilli cheese.

It's very flat. Attractive but flat. The complete absence of aspect, the lack of a view beyond the next street corner was giving me fen fever by day three. Or maybe my brain was just stag-do-frazzled by that point. Either way I like hills, but I'll certainly return for a more cultural visit as Amsterdam packs a hell of a lot in to what's actually quite a small place. A weekend of culture and chips beckons. 

It's a good place for a stag weekend. But you knew that already right? Happily we all made it home in one piece and now, a few weeks later the wedding has passed off with great success too!

The Info Dutch beer bar on Herengracht. Very informative beer tasting sessions. 20 euros for six beers. FEBO. All over the place. Don't do it. Unless you're very pissed. If this is the case 10/10. Cheap. on Ferdinand Bolstraat in the De Pijp area. 8/10 for omelettes (about 6-7 euros), coffee and OJ, but avoid the shit English style breakfasts. south of De Pijp. 6/10 for rijsttafel (24 euros for the option we had). Lovely service though. nothing to do with food, but these guys do good bike tours for a fair price.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Penelope's Kitchen, MediaCity, Salford

It's about time Media City got some decent lunch options. If you work in the vicinity you might not want a dirty great burger every day of the week, but for the occasional treat or a Friday blow-out I'd recommend a visit to Penelope's Kitchen.

It's a new indoor offering from the same people that ran the Dock Grill out on the square over the summer months. I never ate there, but I assume they'll be back outdoors next year serving up a similar mix of breakfasts, burgers and dogs.

The burger (can't remember its name. The classic maybe?) was the best I've had in a long while. Two pleasingly beefy patties (from Frost's butcher's in Chorlton apparently) cooked medium, plastic cheese, grilled onions and sauce. Messy but lovely. Only the brioche bun didn't quite do it for me, it couldn't handle all the slop and goo and ended up flattened out like some sort of baggy hat.

Fries were an unexpected bonus, they weren't advertised and I didn't order them, so they're either included as standard or I got lucky. Whichever it was they were good, similar to those from a fast food chain whose name I won't mention, and I mean that as a compliment.

An absolute steal at £5.50, and still great value even if that shouldn't have included the fries. It's not often I get enthused about this sort of thing ('ooh look another filthy burger place, how novel' style cynicism tends to kick in), but I'll definitely be back here. Recommended.


The Pie Factory
101 Broadway
M50 2EQ


Thursday, 17 October 2013

The Mexican Pilgrim, Leeds

The street food revolution has reached critical mass.

What's that you're thinking? Here comes another Trinity Kitchen puff piece. Nope. The street food revolution has reached critical mass and cannot be stopped because there is now a Mexican street food van with a permanent pitch on Cross Green Industrial Estate. CROSS GREEN INDUSTRIAL ESTATE.

Those of you who have never ventured into the dark underbelly of Leeds may not have heard of this place, but I promise it really is in Leeds. It's actually quite close to the city centre, and is where you'll find all manner of old school industries, essential utilities and such-like. Proper industry, cast products and tarmac and sewage and stuff.

It's also where I've had an office base on and off for over a decade, and where the most exciting ever development food-wise was the arrival of the Wilson's pie van a couple of years back. It's the kind of place where mucky fat sandwich vans are the order of the day, and anything else, other than the pies, is pretty unlikely.

So the people who've suddenly appeared on the scene selling Mexican tortas, are either mad or very clever, or perhaps a bit of both. Whatever they are it's a bold move, not only are they selling Mexican food, but that Mexican food does not include burritos. No burritos! Can you imagine? I thought they were compulsory.

I'm not averse to a burrito once in a while, but I'm baffled by their ubiquity. Their boundless popularity seems out of step with the reality, which in many cases amounts to a great big damp stodgy wrap the size of your head stuffed mostly with Uncle Ben's savoury rice. And why do I have to pay extra for a smear of mashed avocado you bastards?

Anyhow, these boys are selling Mexican tortas, which are a sandwich on a bolillo (oval shaped) roll, filled with all of the same stuff as a burrito, except for all of that rice. This actually works pretty well, a more open textured bread does a better job of soaking up the juices than the flat stuff, and it's a much more manageable proposition without the surfeit of stodge.

Spicy beef with the works (refried beans, sour cream, cheese, lettuce, jalapenos, FREE guacamole) really went down a treat. The whole sort of melded into that tangy, spicy, messy mix you get with this sort of thing. Not subtle but very satisfying, although I think a crustier roll would be an improvement.

£3.50 for the beef torta. They also do a chicken version, and that's it except for the sensible addition of a standard breakfast butty menu served until 11. Mad or clever, I salute the Mexican Pilgrim. If you're ever in the vicinity of Cross Green pay them a visit.


Lay-by on Cross Green Approach
Cross Green Industrial Estate

Twitter: @mexicanpilgrim

p.s. I will be paying a visit to Trinity Kitchen soon enough, after which I'll almost certainly be writing my own puff piece. The monthly rotation plans for the street food vans are a genuinely exciting new departure for a shopping centre, so well done to the corporate types for giving it a go. And the first round of vendors look ace.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Devonshire Arms, Pilsley, Derbyshire

It can get very confusing round these parts if someone suggests dining at the Devonshire Arms. On the night we completed the sale of my house in Wakefield I wanted to celebrate with dinner at this Devonshire, it being game season and this being a speciality of theirs, but sadly they were full. So we tried to call this Devonshire instead, I'd enjoyed a meal there before so it seemed like a good alternative, but they weren't answering the phone. Maybe we got the wrong number and tried to call this Devonshire, or maybe this one. Who knows?

All was not lost, as we ended up at this Devonshire instead. Panic over. The Devonshire Arms in Pilsley is the pubbier sister to the Devonshire Arms in Beeley, just a few miles across the Chatsworth estate. Both are run by the mini-empire controlled by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire themselves (which in case you were wondering also includes Yorkshire's Devonshire Arms at Bolton Abbey, and the Devonshire Fell at nearby Burnsall. Must have had a crisis of confidence with that last one. What's wrong with Arms all of a sudden?).

You can tell when you're in a proper Devonshire with aristocratic proprietors, as within five minutes or so of arriving you're bound to see the Duke and Duchess posing on some piece of literature or other, looking all patrician yet welcoming, like a sort of friendlier local royal family. I imagine this is what the Queen's descendants will be doing a century hence, when we've finally gone Republican and you can't travel 50 yards in Berkshire or Norfolk without stumbling upon another Windsor Arms.

I digress. Whatever your views on the future of the monarchy (for some reason the debate never seems to run to whether or not they'd make a killing in the hospitality business) and the aristocracy the Devonshires generally oversee a pretty good quality operation.

The Pilsley outpost was a case in point. Solid, very accomplished pub grub, not at the gastro end of the spectrum, but very much in the traditional sense.

I considered leaving the photos off this post, as everything looks weirdly rubbish, more wacky warehouse two-for-one in appearance than the enjoyable, well cooked meal it actually was. We shared a bowl of garlic mushrooms to start. A big bowl of sauteed mushrooms swimming in loads of creamy, garlicky goodness. The work of five minutes by a ten year old (theoretically, I'm not suggesting they're exploiting children) in the kitchen, but if it ain't broke.... Just one minor quibble though, the bread could have been fresher.

For reasons I can't quite fathom I ordered the mixed grill. I can't recall ever having done this before, ever (maybe in a Wetherspoon's about fifteen years ago?). I love meat but have limits, and the mixed grill always seems the preserve of men with a death wish. I can remember watching a particularly portly fellow working his way through a humongous one in a pub in Lancashire once, increasingly clammy and red-faced, washing it down with pints of bitter. I'm convinced he didn't make it through the night, dead within hours to a massive coronary on the can, Elvis style.

Anyway that's the mental picture I associate with the mixed grill, so you can imagine my surprise when I accidentally ordered the bugger. You know what? I'm glad I did. Every piece of meat was cooked just right, with a nice bit of char on the outside and deep blush pink, where warranted, on the inside. There was a sausage, a well hung beefsteak, a lamb chop, and gammon and pork steaks. Only the latter, the boring one of the bunch, defeated me.

Chips and salad were proper, in that the chips had crunch (don't trust the pasty appearance on the pic) and were their own, and that the salad was lots of stuff mixed up together with a lively mustard dressing. A completely unnecessary side order of onion rings (it was A's fault, she's pregnant. Don't blame me) were the kind that you could happily eat all evening.

Not wanting to push my luck with that death wish, we retreated, thoroughly satisfied, without pudding. It hadn't been Plan A, but the Pilsley Devonshire came up with the goods. Prices are probably on the high side for normal pub food, but fine when you consider the quality. I'd rather pay £12-16 for an enjoyable plateful than the £8-12 dross that so many of the places round here offer. Orders are taken at the bar, so there wasn't really much in the way of service to speak of. They fetched the food and cleared the tables.

Would I go again? Yes, definitely. Another mixed grill? Probably not.


On the Chatsworth Estate
DE45 1UL

Devonshire Arms Pilsley on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Caffeine and Co, Manchester

I'd heard nothing but praise for Caffeine and Co, so I was looking forward to stopping in for a coffee and sandwich. A flying visit to Manchester the week before last gave me the opportunity.

Service was chatty and efficient, but a flat white and a sandwich were just slightly off-kilter on this visit. The coffee itself was an excellent blend, toasty and fruity all at once. The execution wasn't quite there though, the milk being just a little thin.

The reuben sandwich, despite not being a reuben, would have been a perfectly serviceable lunch option (generously filled, decent quality beef) had it not been toasted to buggery in the sandwich press. I've probably got myself to blame for that though, my default response to the question 'do you want it toasted?' being yes, when some sarnies are clearly better left alone.

Gripes aside I'm sure this is a quality place, and if I'd turned up on another day everything could have been perfect. The coffee is definitely worth a second glance and the cakes and other sandwiches all looked good. £2.40 for the flat white and £3.50 for the sandwich.


11 St James Square
M2 6WH

Caffeine & Co on Urbanspoon
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