Friday, 30 September 2011

Homemade Café, Nottingham

This week, for the first time since I started writing this blog, I really haven't been able to devote enough time to writing for it. I never imagined back in January that nine months later I'd still be churning it out at almost a post every other day.

The truth is I'm rather addicted, and the fact that I've not had time to write this week has been a bit frustrating. I have three or four half written posts on a variety of topics, but they're going to have to wait.

They're going to have to wait as I'm going to take a little break. I'm heading off to the Middle East for a fortnight of relaxing, exploring, and of course eating and drinking. I'm probably not going to post anything on here while I'm away, as two weeks away from the computer screen will do me good.

When I return I'll write up some of my holiday dining experiences, no doubt houmous, falafel and shawarma will feature strongly!

In the meantime, here's a salad. A late lunch at the Homemade Café in Nottingham on Tuesday.

Chicken caesar, simple but good. Soft, chicken flavoured chicken, hefty home-made croutons, crisp cos, the whole well dressed. Nothing particularly exciting but it hit the spot on a warm day.

The service was very friendly, but the food was perhaps a little expensive (just under £8 for the salad).


20 Pelham Street

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

David Street Café, Holbeck, Leeds

An old school caff in 'Holbeck Urban Village'. Who'd have thought it? If you want a sturdy fry-up or pie dinner in this part of town, this is the place to go.

Steak pie, mash, veg, Yorkshire pudding, gravy, a steaming mug of strong tea and friendly service will set you back £4.50. Bargain.

The food is good too. They clearly made the pie and the Yorkshires themselves, and made a much better job of them many pubs charging twice the price do. A properly risen pudding and a proper pie with a short crust and a generous meaty filling. The veg was a bit mushy but that's a minor quibble. If vegetables were the priority you'd have gone elsewhere.

Those of you lucky enough to work in the vicinity (rather than at the arse end of a distant industrial estate) are blessed with plenty of good places for lunch. As well as David Street I've been to the Pickled Pepper, Out of the Woods (sorry, not got round to reviewing it) and the Cross Keys. Where else should I try?


109 Water Lane
LS11 5WD

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Scholars Restaurant, Barcelo Stirling Highland Hotel, Stirling

Someone in Stirling has got a nasty case of cheffy-itis. Hotels seem to attract chefs with this particular ailment. The most obvious symptom is a tendency to favour ridiculous presentation at the expense of sound cooking skills, which in turn causes the secondary symptom of charging far too much money for mediocre food. Last week during a work trip to Scotland I encountered a particularly serious case.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you scallops with Parmesan risotto, ham hock and pea puree. Before we tackle the food itself, let's discuss the vessel upon which it rests. It was a polished black marble tile, reminiscent of what you might find on the toilet walls in a glammed up Indian restaurant. Personally I'd have preferred a plate. Polished tiles don't tend to hold sauces very well.

The food, to be fair, wasn't all actively bad. Both scallops and risotto were reasonably well cooked, but the whole thing was too salty. The chunks of ham hock were salty, the risotto was salty, the bacon antenna (maybe I wasn't supposed to eat it?) sticking out of the risotto was very salty, and the pea puree was very salty indeed. Fortunately there wasn't very much of the pea puree, which could be best described as a pea wet skid mark on the right hand side of the tile. I'm not sure what the sauce on the scallops was, perhaps it was supposed to be a foam. Whatever it was it had split, resulting in unappetising fatty globules and watery patches shimmering on the tile as if someone were mopping it down at the end of the night. All told a bit of a mess.

I should note at this point that not everyones dinner was being served on a tile. Other people were getting plates. I can only assume the tiles must have been reserved for the specials, from which list my scallops were ordered. Those lucky enough to receive their dinner on a plate, however, were also lucky enough to have their dinner brought to the table under a cloche! Yes that is one of those big silver domes, as if this were dinner with the Queen.

Unfortunately the tiles made a return at dessert. A whisky cheesecake with bourbon soaked strawberries didn't contain any discernable whisky or bourbon, which was probably a good thing. I'm not sure what the strawberry (for there was only one, hiding at the back) had been soaked in, but it was so wizened it must have been soaked in it a long time ago. The cheesecake base was also past its best, being soft and mushy. No-one likes a soggy biscuit. The cheesecake filling was actually rather nice, being light and creamy.

Prices, as you might expect, were high. The two courses, a glass of crap wine and a small tip topped out at over thirty quid. The service was fine.

Why do so many hotels do this? It's as if there's a special checklist for rubbish hotel restaurants. Overpriced? Check. Overwrought, silly presentation? Check. Mediocre food? Check. Pointless service fripperies? Check.

Here's an alternative idea. How about: buy some good food, cook it properly, put it on a plate, bring it to me, charge me a fair price for it. Maybe one day it will catch on. Unfortunately I fear that's wishful thinking. Too many expense accounts, too many people are easily impressed, too captive an audience. I met two of those three criteria. I won't eat there again, but once is enough to keep the coffers ticking over.


Barcelo Stirling Highland Hotel
Spittal Street

p.s. for an even worse hotel meal see here.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Brio Pizza, Leeds


I rarely eat at Italian restaurants. I'm not really sure why, they just never seem to make it to the top of my list. It's not that I dislike Italian food (does anyone dislike Italian food?) so the offer of a good Italian meal for free wasn't one I was going to turn down.

Brio Pizza is a fairly small, unassuming Italian restaurant in The Light. It’s not a big showy place like some of Leeds’ other Italian restaurants, keeping things simple with plain wooden tables and a menu covering most of the Italian classics. I’d heard positive things about the cooking so was looking forward to giving it a try.

Things got off to a great start with a huge plateful of bresaola (cured beef), rocket and parmesan. All good quality ingredients, the meat served at room temperature as it should be. An accompanying garlic and basil pizza bread was spot on, light, crisp and well seasoned.

We didn’t try the pizzas, giving the specials list a work out instead. My veal (vitello a la romana), sautéed in a rich, buttery sauce with prosciutto and sage was generously proportioned and tender. My companion’s duck with cherry sauce was also well cooked, with a rosy pink centre. I wasn’t keen on the sauce though, finding it too sweet, but fruity sauces are not really my thing. Generous servings of vegetables (carrots and green beans) and decent home-made chips were also provided.

Desserts were excellent. A delicate panna cotta was just set and tasted of real vanilla, and a tiramisu across the table was smooth and light.

An espresso to finish was authentically Italian. Short, dark, rich and likely to keep you awake at night.

A really enjoyable meal, I’d definitely return to Brio Pizza. They’re probably doing themselves a disservice with the restaurant name, as there’s much more of interest here than just pizza. Service was efficient and prices top out at around fifteen pounds for the most expensive mains, which is fair given that vegetable sides are included. Pizzas are mostly under a tenner, and the quality of our garlic bread suggests they’d be very good. Well worth a visit.

Brio Pizza
The Light
The Headrow

Brio Pizza on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Mr Foley's Cask Ale House, Leeds

I've been a big fan of Mr Foley's ever since it opened. The winning combination of good beer, comfy sofas, central location and even football on the telly (often a big no-no in discerning pubs and bars, but it works here) have made it a constant fixture of my days and nights out in Leeds.

The one thing that used to be lacking was the food. I generally stuck to packets of Seabrooks because on the couple of occasions I tried the food it was, to put it bluntly, a bit crap. I'm not sure when things changed, but I'm happy to report that they have.

Trusted sources on Twitter have been praising the food for a while so I finally made a long overdue visit last Saturday. Burgers and other American themed dishes are the order of the day. Two of us chose the philly cheese steak (strips of rump with fried peppers, onions and cheese) and one the philly burger.

Both dishes were tasty and made with good quality meat. Cheese was of the orange American variety, perfect on burgers as far as I'm concerned. As an aside, see here for the science behind why this is the optimum burger cheese. The chips were rough hewn and brought crunchy/creamy deliciousness, and there was a bit of bite to the coleslaw. The only down-side was that the steak strips and burger were both overcooked.

The execution wasn't quite there on this occasion, but it's really nice to see the effort going into making everything in-house; the burger patties, chips and coleslaw were all their own. I'll eat at Mr Foley's again for sure, and if the food ever takes a turn for the worse I'll be back for the beer. Guaranteed.


159 The Headrow

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Marie's Thai Café, Waterloo, London

Meal one of two on my brief visit to London last Friday was lunch near Waterloo. Meal two of two in case anyone is interested was of a largely liquid nature with porky interludes, see here for details.

I was in Waterloo for a reason. Firstly, I had a meeting just across the river on Millbank, and secondly I was searching for Buen Provecho, a Mexican street food stall that I was under the impression had a regular spot on Lower Marsh market. They weren't there last Friday, so I had to seek other sustenance. 

I wandered up and down the street a couple of times but none of the other stalls were really tickling my fancy and Marie's seemed to be doing a roaring trade. There was a table for one free just by the window so I went inside. What I found was half greasy spoon, half Thai café. A general bustle and liveliness from scruffy tables packed full of cabbies and office workers ploughing into stir-fries or egg, bacon, chips and beans. A pair of Thai women holding court behind the counter, grinning and noisily firing off orders to the kitchen. What a great place to be on a Friday lunchtime.

I ordered the Thai set lunch, £5.50 for any stir-fry, rice and a side. I plumped for Chicken and veg with home-made chilli sauce and chicken wings on the side. The stir-fry was ok. The veg was fresh with a nice bite to it and the chicken wasn't overcooked, but the sauce was a bit sweet and gloopy. The chicken wings were manky, wouldn't bother with those.

The food here was average at best, but very cheap. I still had a thoroughly enjoyable twenty minutes though, the general bonhomie in the place proving infectious. Builders tea and something with chips might be a better option next time.

p.s. If anyone knows where Buen Provecho can be found these days, please let me know? (particularly on a Saturday). Thanks.


90 Lower Marsh

Marie's Thai Cafe on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Bar Pepito, King's Cross, London

When it opened a year or two ago Bar Pepito was London's first dedicated sherry bar. Any regular readers may have noticed that I'm a big fan of sherry. Given that fact, and Bar Pepito's location only two minutes walk from King's Cross station I'm surprised I haven't been there before.

Last night's premise was a simple one. How much sherry can we drink in a couple of hours before my train departs? The answer, rather predictably, was lots. We got lucky as a table was vacated just as we arrived, so we grabbed it quickly and ordered a half bottle of Lustau Puerto Fino. An excellent choice, it was dry and tangy with an almost meaty, savoury flavour. I'm not sure that really makes sense, but I know what I mean (can you get umami flavours in a wine?).

In addition to the extensive list of sherries there's also a short tapas menu. There's no kitchen to speak of, just a small assembly area at the end of the bar so we're talking meats, cheeses and the like rather than more complex cooked dishes. For more of a restaurant meal, neighbouring Camino (run by the same people) across the courtyard would be a good bet.

Gordal olives were sublime. Huge, meaty and intensely savoury. The only down side being that I could easily eat about twenty quid's worth.

Plates of lomo iberico and morcilla with romesco sauce. The lomo was disappointing as it lacked the depth of flavour you expect from any iberico pig product, but the morcilla was fantastic. Rich and irony, and a great match with the nutty, garlicky sauce. I'd have preferred it served in chunks rather than thinly sliced though.

Tortilla was the star of the show. Completely different to what I was expecting it arrived in a little glass with two teaspoons. Inside was a layer of the smoothest, creamiest, almost liquid egg mixture imaginable covering an equally smooth, buttery potato layer. It was topped with what I think were caramelised onions that added both savour and sweetness. Wonderful. I wish I knew how to make something so delicious with such basic, everyday ingredients.

Pan con tomate was nice enough, but a bit boring. This time the simplest of ingredients didn't really gel to create something special. There wasn't a great deal of flavour to the tomatoes.

After the food and the first bottle, we inadvertently ordered another bottle of the same. In hindsight that may not have been such a good idea, we should at least have tried something different. Still, it was bloody lovely.

I really enjoyed Bar Pepito. The bar itself is tiny and cave-like, and feels authentically Iberian. The pig leg sat on the bar helps with this! The food is what I'd describe as contemporary Spanish, with small portions beautifully presented and novel takes on the classics (that splendid tortilla). All of it was high quality, but I think I prefer the more traditional, rustic sort of tapas. For me, it was a little overpriced and not everything hit the spot flavour-wise (the lomo, the pan con tomate). Our bill came to £75 for two half bottles of sherry, two beers, the food and 10% service.

I'll definitely return, but will probably dine elsewhere and stick to sherry, olives and perhaps a tortilla here.


Varnishers Yard
The Regent Quarter
King's Cross
N1 9FD

Bar Pepito on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Atlas Deli and Espresso Bar, Nottingham

Nottingham is not a city I know well. One brief visit for a night out years ago and that was about it until recently. For the foreseeable future I'll be visiting for work on a fairly regular basis, so hopefully I should have the chance to see the sights, and more importantly have something to eat.

I didn't get off the to the best start on Tuesday. A Twitter request gave me a couple of interesting suggestions (thanks!) including the Homemade Café, which is where I headed on account of it being two minutes walk from the car park. It's obviously a popular spot, as there was a lengthy queue. I was in a bit of a hurry so had to leave Homemade for another day and head further down the street.

Less than a minute away I found Atlas deli which looked interesting, but turned out disappointing. Prawn, guacamole and a squeeze of lemon on granary bread was much duller than the description. Bland prawns, bland guacamole and little evidence of lemon. Not very generously filled either, it was all front-loaded like you sometimes get with pre-packed sandwiches. Decent quality bread though, and the coffee was very good.

At £4.20 I thought the sandwich was overpriced. The place seems to have received a lot of praise though, so perhaps I just caught them on an off day.

I'll certainly be back to try the Homemade Café, and would love to hear your recommendations for Nottingham. Places to eat, things to see, all suggestions welcome.


9 Pelham Street

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Thai Mussels

I bought a big bag of Shetland mussels from the market last Friday. They're just coming back into season so I wasn't sure if they'd be up to much, but they looked good and were great value (about four pounds a kilo).

As it turned out they were fantastic; plump, sweet and juicy with very few dodgy ones to discard. Not too gritty or beardy either. I cooked them in a Thai style broth that sort of made them into a light Thai curry. Rice seemed like a more sensible accompaniment than bread or chips. Cheap, delicious and ready in less than half an hour.

I also managed a successful beer match with this dish. I've been attempting beer and food matches on and off for a while now with mixed success, so was really chuffed to get this one right. The tropical fruit notes from the hops worked really well with the coconut broth, and the moderately bitter finish cut through the richness of the dish.

If I'm honest the beer was bloody lovely anyway, I could drink a lot of this with or without food. You can buy the Magic Rock beers at Beer Ritz in Headingley

The Recipe

Serves 2

You will need:

1kg mussels
1 tin coconut milk
Basmati rice or Thai jasmine rice
thumb ginger (or galangal)
3-4 spring onions
1 stick lemongrass
4 cloves garlic
4 hot chillies
fish sauce
1/2 tsp fennel seeds
1 heaped tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground chilli powder
white pepper
2 limes
small bunch coriander
cooking oil

What to do:

1. Cook the rice first. Thai jasmine rice would probably be more authentic, but I love basmati and use it for pretty much everything. This is how I do it: For two people measure out one cup of rice, then put it in a pan with one and a third cups of boiling water. Bring it to the boil on the hob, then put the pan lid on and turn the hob down to the lowest setting.

2. Check to see how the rice is doing after about 6 or 7 minutes. When almost all of the water has been absorbed (usually between 6 & 10 minutes) pour in about a quarter of the coconut milk, then put the lid back on, move the pan off the heat and set aside.

3. While the rice is cooking give your mussels a good rinse under the tap, pulling off any beardy bits. Any that don't close up when you handle them are probably dead already, so you might want to throw them away. Leave them draining in the sink.

4. Finely chop the spring onions, garlic, chillies, lemongrass, ginger, and around a quarter of the stalks from the coriander.

5. Heat a large pan and add a good splash of oil (sunflower or whatever, not olive) then add each of the chopped ingredients one at a time in the same order as they're listed in number 4, stir-frying as you go. Stir-fry the whole lot for about a minute.

6. Add the fennel seeds to the pan and fry for a few seconds before adding the rest of the dry ingredients (ground coriander, chilli powder and good pinch of white pepper), then fry for another minute or so. If it starts to stick add a bit more oil.

7. Pour in the rest of the coconut milk, the juice of one of the limes and a splash of fish sauce (not too much as the mussels will release plenty of briny liquid). Bring to a simmer.

8. As soon as the curry sauce (which is what it is now with any luck) is simmering throw in the mussels and put the lid on immediately. Leave on a medium-high heat for about three minutes.

9. Roughly chop the coriander leaves and plate up your rice (which should be ever so slightly sticky from the coconut allowing you to serve it shaped from a mould Thai style). Be quick, you don't want chewy overdone mussels!

10. Check the mussels after three minutes. Most (if not quite all) of them should have opened up. As soon as the vast majority are open they are done. Pour over the rice with plenty of the sauce, garnish with coriander and wedges of lime and serve immediately.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Taste of Arabia, Wakefield

An unexpected treat for lunch on Saturday, and the discovery of another food based social enterprise.

After the thrill of Wilkinson's I thought I'd grab some lunch in town before heading home for an even more thrilling afternoon of DIY. There was a bowl of stew with my name on it at the Country Kitchen Bakery, but when I arrived a lengthy queue was forming and I couldn't be bothered waiting. Casting my eyes around the food hall I noticed Taste of Arabia next door, which enticed me in mainly because it was completely deserted.

One plate of shawarma in pitta with chips and salad for £3.99 later I was rather glad I'd been so easily swayed. It doesn't look all that great, but everything was spot on. Spicy shreds of slightly chewy but very tasty lamb, heavily spiced with salt, chilli and possibly sumac, stuffed into a perfectly toasted pitta and doused in yoghurt and chilli sauce (out of cheap catering pack bottles but what do you expect for 4 quid). Everything in the carefully arranged salad was very fresh and provided cooling contrast to the spicy meat. Even the chips were good. They were the budget freezer pack variety served by crappy chain pubs the nation over, but actually fried properly (they're nearly always underdone in pubs for some reason) they went down a treat.

I have no idea what the particular aims of this social enterprise are, but they do have the tagline 'bringing distant cultures closer'. In the half hour or so I was there they didn't have a single other customer, so it was more 'distant culture being completely ignored by the local culture'. The nice Turkish man doing the cooking said they were there permanently, so please do pay them a visit before someone pulls the plug. What better way to bring distant cultures closer than by selling good kebabs in Wakefield market?


Taste of Arabia
Wakefield Market Food Hall
Union Street

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Vnam Café, Manchester (revisited)

There's a new kid on the Manchester Vietnamese restaurant block. It goes by the name of Hanoi Quan and it's next door but one to Vnam Café. I was first alerted to its existence by Mancfoodian ages ago, and after it appeared to be open when I drove past a couple of weeks ago I'd planned a return visit.

It wasn't open on Wednesday night, and according to the guys in Vnam Café where I went instead it hasn't opened yet, and the owners are 'having some problems'. Oh well, that's put paid to my fantasies of Oldham Road developing into Manchester's answer to London's Pho mile. If they do ever open you can't miss the place, the sign is bright pink.

This was my third visit to Vnam Café over the last year (second visit blogged here), and all three have been good. Three meals is plenty enough to give the menu a good going over as it's brief and to the point. Various grilled things and rolls as appetisers, just six things on rice or noodles for mains, a few salads and pancakes, and of course noodle soups.

On Wednesday I had the summer rolls, then BBQ chicken with rice to follow. The summer rolls weren't freshly made (I don't think) but were pleasant enough, and two dipping sauces rather than one as a bonus. The thick peanutty one was excellent.

The chicken was simple but tasty. A chicken leg, de-boned then chargrilled so the skin was crisp and blackened but the flesh moist. Plain boiled rice and fresh salad. The whole lot doused in sweetened fish sauce with a little garlic and chilli.

I like this place a lot. The food is basic but reliable, served quickly and cheap. This meal cost me under a tenner. If the Manchester Pho mile doesn't quite come to fruition can we have a place like this in Leeds please. Just one will do. Pretty please.


140 Oldham Road
M4 6BG

Vnam Café on Urbanspoon

Friday, 9 September 2011

Syrian lentils

Lentils, lovely lentils. It's impossible to cock up a big pot of lentils. The worst that can happen is lentil soup. This thought is comforting me right now because I've just made a complete mess of my kitchen trying to make calamari. Deep-frying in a wok on an electric hob is not as straightforward as it might seem. Just try and maintain the oil at a steady temperature without ending up with greasy mush or a house fire. Go on, try it. Bet you can't.

Lentils pose no such dilemma. I was particularly pleased with a big dish of them I cooked on Monday (veggie night in anticipation of Tuesday evening's meat-fest), so I thought I'd share the recipe.

Little packets of pomegranate seeds were on offer in the supermarket. I was planning on cooking lentils anyway, and the pomegranate reminded me of a recipe for Syrian Lentils that calls for pomegranate molasses. I wondered if adding fresh pomegranate to the finished lentils would make an interesting alternative, and so it proved. Think of tender, earthy lentils with a hint of smoky cumin freshened up with coriander and little bursts of fruity pomegranate.

Serves 2-3 as a main meal with some bread, 5-6 as a side dish, or maybe more as part of a mixed mezze.

What you will need:

250g brown lentils
2 medium onions
4 fat cloves garlic
a small bunch of fresh coriander
2 heaped teaspoons cumin seeds
1 lemon
a large pinch of dried chilli flakes
1 tsp palm sugar (or demerara)
a handful of pomegranate seeds
salt and black pepper to taste
olive oil

What to do:

1. Finely chop the onions.

2. Warm a couple of tablespoons of oil in a pot over a low heat, then add the onions.

3. Cook the onions slowly so they soften without colouring. Give them a good 15-20 mins to allow them to sweeten.

4. In the meantime crush the garlic, and finely chop the stalks from about a third of the coriander bunch. Also prepare the lentils by giving them a good rinse in a couple of changes of water.

5. When the onions are soft and sweet make space in the pot, turn up the heat a notch and throw in the cumin seeds. Let them fry for a minute or so, making sure they don't burn.

6. Add the crushed garlic, chopped coriander stalks and pinch of chilli to the pot, and fry for a couple of minutes. Boil the kettle.

7. Add the lentils then pour over enough boiling water to just cover them. Bring to the boil then turn down to a gentle simmer.

8. Simmer until the lentils are soft and just starting to break up. The time this takes varies wildly from one batch of lentils to the next. These took ages, around 70 minutes in total. Check the pot every now and again and add a little more water if it looks a bit dry.

9. When the lentils are ready have a taste. They will need a generous grind of salt and pepper, then take them off the heat and add the juice of the lemon.

10. Roughly chop the coriander leaves, then add the pomegranate seeds and as much coriander as you like to the lentils. Serve immediately, ideally with some flat bread.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Cattle Grid, Leeds


That little disclaimer is a first for this blog. Last night I ate rather a lot of food and I didn't pay for any of it. Freebies are a contentious subject amongst bloggers. Some blog away with impunity, accepting anything offered to them and providing positive copy irrespective of quality, whereas at the opposite end of the scale others refuse point blank to countenance the idea, preferring not to risk compromising their independence.

I'm sure that most of us lie somewhere between those extremes. Personally I've never had any fundamental objections to accepting a free meal, but always thought I should set myself a few rules in the event that it ever happened. The rules are:

1) Be honest about it. I'll tell you if I didn't pay for it.
2) Don't give it marks out of ten. I usually rate meals out of ten, but a freebie isn't really a representative experience so I don't think it's fair to compare it directly with meals where I paid the bill.
3) Try to write a fair and balanced review. I try to do that anyway, and feel like I ought to try extra hard if I'm not paying.
4) Don't accept any old offer. The rule of thumb here is 'would I like to try the restaurant/product anyway, and would I be willing to part with my own cash to do so?'

Rules one and two speak for themselves. You'll have to read what follows and decide for yourself whether I've complied with rule three. As for number four, yes I'd have given Cattle Grid a try anyway, but on this occasion I had an ulterior motive. As it was a Blogger's event it was a great opportunity to finally meet some of the people I've been waffling at on Twitter in recent months.

Right, now that's out of the way, on to the review. After arrival, drinks, introductions and so forth we were seated and welcomed to the restaurant by Steve, one of the proprietors of Cattle Grid. Steve then proceeded to deliver a rather long and rambling, unexpectedly frank, seemingly drunken, very sweary, often funny and sometimes tedious speech about all things Cattle Grid. No stone was left unturned, from disparaging comments about other steakhouses (Hawksmoor, Goodman), to the restaurant businesses they would most like to emulate (Pizza Express, Nando's), to the provenance of their produce (mostly British beef, currently from Yorkshire, occasionally Uruguayan) and the difficulties of sourcing reliable, good value beef. By the end of it I was slightly drunk, very hungry and didn't quite know what to make of the place. Better to let the food do the talking.

Ribs to start were the highlight of the meal for me. They were large with plenty of tender meat and doused in sauces that weren't overly sweet. I particularly liked the piri piri variety which were nice and vinegary with a good chilli kick.

The steak was disappointing. I'd ordered the T-bone medium rare, exactly the same as Neil sitting next me, yet somehow they'd manage to cook mine considerably more. It was medium at best, but probably more medium-well. It was overseasoned too, the predominant flavour being salt. The chips were a bit limp and would have benefited from another minute or two in the fryer. The watercress was pointless but then it nearly always is (the proper fiery stuff being very hard to come by for some reason).

Of two sauces we tried the bearnaise was pleasant but the peppercorn was a bit dull (more salty than peppery). A side of onion strings would have made a great beer snack, being deep fried slices of onion, very slightly battered, with about a kilo of salt added. As it was they arrived after everything else was nearly finished (some sort of problem with the fryers) so were mostly left uneaten.

Of the other meals I saw or tried, Rachel's rib-eye was a miles better steak than mine (fair play to Steve, that was what he recommended). It was cooked as requested and had much more flavour. I didn't try Penny's chicken burger, but it was bloody enormous and seemed to contain one topping too many.

The ice-cream I had for pudding was decent quality stuff. Others declared the chocolate brownies to be lovely, the waffles to be boring, and creme brulee tasted nice but was a bit eggy.

All in all a very enjoyable evening, and it was lovely to meet everyone. Thanks to Emma from Culture Vultures for organising it. The food was a bit of a mixed bag though, and the main event, the steak wasn't really up to scratch. I probably wouldn't return to Cattle Grid, except maybe for a few of those ribs.

I haven't read anybody elses write-up of the evening yet, but will add links to them here when I've checked them out.

Edit: Here are some other reviews of the night:
Penny from Bronchia
Katie from Leeds Grub
Elly from The Magic Square Foundation

Waterloo House
Assembly Street

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Pork hock udon

I love noodle soups. I don't know why I'm writing this now because I'm craving noodle soup something rotten, but have no suitable ingredients in the house and no intention of leaving it to get some. I'm sort of torturing myself with temptation.

Anyhow I love noodle soups because they are the comfort food of the gods, because they are infinitely variable, and because they can be utterly, utterly delicious. There's rarely an occasion when a great big bowl of steaming goodness won't hit the spot. From the simple, almost ascetic pleasure of a clear broth spiked with nothing but a scattering of herbs and a few shards of ginger, to the dense, rich pungence of a good laksa.

I make noodle soups all the time, rarely bothering with a recipe and mixing and matching ingredients from across East and South-East Asia as the fancy takes me. They're always satisfying, and sometimes memorably delicious too.

This was a particularly good effort, so I thought I'd put it on the blog. The flavours are quite clear and bright, with added richness from the fatty pork and crackling. I'm sure it's not in the least bit authentic, but if it's close to the cuisine of any country I'd guess it's Japanese with a bit of Vietnam thrown in.

it's a leftovers recipe really, so you need to have the pork prepared in advance. I had it left over from a different meal. If you do it from scratch a whole hock should do about 3 people.

What you'll need per person:

handful shredded pork meat
about 1 pint pork stock
shards of crunchy crackling
fish sauce
sriracha chilli sauce
2 spring onions
1 hot chilli
1 clove garlic
small lump ginger
1 sheet udon noodles
some greens or other veg (I used runner beans)

To make the pork, stock and crackling
1. Simmer the hock with onion, celery and peppercorns for a couple of hours, skimming off any scum from the surface. 
2. After a couple of hours remove the pork and veg from the stock. Chuck away the veg. 
3. Pull the skin/fat off the hock, then pull off the meat and shred it. 
4. Put the remaining bones back in the stock and simmer for another hour. 
5. Dry the fat, salt it and roast in a hot oven 'til you get crackling.

To make the noodle dish
1. Finely slice the spring onions and chilli.
2. Shred or grate the ginger and garlic.
3. Chop some mint and/or coriander leaves.
4. Heat the stock in a large pan or wok.
5. Add the noodles, greens/veg and pork and heat until the noodles are just done.
6. Squirt in some fish sauce and sriracha to taste.
7. Garnish with the garlic/ginger, the spring onions/chilli, the mint/coriander, the crackling and a wedge of lemon/lime.
8. Serve immediately, stirring in all of the garnishes with your chopsticks.

For blogs providing more expert coverage of all things noodles I can wholeheartedly recommend Eat Noodles Love Noodles and Hollow Legs.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

The Cross Keys, Holbeck, Leeds

I've been meaning to check out The Cross Keys for ages, and finally ended up in there twice in one weekend. Friday night was beers only, then I returned on Monday for a bank holiday lunch. The lunch menu comprises sandwiches and a handful of mains, less ambitious than the evening menu but still sounding a cut above your average pub grub.

A rare skirt steak sandwich with caramelised onions for me, and a Gloucester Old Spot bacon and brie sandwich for my dining companion. Chips to share.

The steak in my sandwich was spot on, rare as described with a rich, almost gamey taste. It was a bit chewy but I like that sometimes and it's exactly what you'd expect with skirt. The only problem with this was that the bread wasn't really up to the task . It was very soft, cut thickly from a good quality white sandwich loaf, and disintegrated rapidly. Something a bit sturdier to stand up to the steak would have been better. I wasn't keen on the caramelised onions, as they were far too sweet for my taste. Good sides though, both coleslaw and salad being nicely dressed.

The chips were excellent, probably the best pub chips I've eaten this year. At a guess they'd been at least double, or possibly even triple fried given the perfect texture (outer crunch and inner creaminess). The bacon and brie sandwich was declared satisfactory, but warm bacon would have been preferred.

As with Friday's visit table service was provided for drinks as well as food. The guy serving was friendly and efficient. The bill was just over twenty quid including a drink each and a tip. A return visit to sample the evening menu is definitely on the cards.


107 Water Lane
LS11 5WD

The Cross Keys on Urbanspoon

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