Saturday, 31 December 2011

Review of the year

I love lists. Give me a Top Ten of Everything book and I'll be happily occupied for hours, or possibly even days. As I've reached the end of almost a full year's blogging I'm going to indulge myself with a review of the year starting off with a list of the best and worst meals I've eaten out, the best thing I've cooked and whatever other miscellaneous categories I happen to think of.

Firstly and in no particular order here's the list. What follows is a rambling and unwieldy commentary on the winners, those who came close and anything else I may choose to waffle on about. You may or more likely may not wish to read it.

Leaving aside the merits of my prose please do support the restaurants, cafés and pubs listed. They are all independents or part of very small chains, all of them are very good at what they do, and all of them deserve continued success in 2012.

The winners (and loser)

    Meal of the year

    Nothing else quite came close to the decadence and deliciousness of the breakfast at Hawksmoor. I'd never have guessed the best meal I'd eat all year would be breakfast, but what a breakfast. All the classic components were there, quality ingredients perfectly cooked. Add to that an introduction to the joys of bone marrow, plus two dishes illustrating how anything can be improved with the addition of meat, in the guise of short-rib bubble and squeak and trotter baked beans. I was worried the whole would overwhelm, but it didn't. It was amazing.

    Add to that excellent service and a complimentary doughnut that was the best I've ever eaten and I think we have a worthy champion.

    Coffee Shop of the year

    I only started drinking coffee again in 2011 after a gap of five years or so, so I'm not an aficionado by any stretch of the imagination. I'm hardly a lone voice shouting about Laynes Espresso though, plenty of others who probably know a lot more than me about coffee think it's great. The coffee is fantastic, the baked goods are excellent, service is always efficient and friendly, and apparently the tea is wonderful too though I've yet to try it.

    Lunch spot of the year

    I've never even been to the Sunshine Bakery. It's in Chapel Allerton and I rarely go there. Just about everything I've bought from them has been at The Source in Leeds market. For a few months earlier in the year they were regular fixtures in the market on a Thursday or Friday. Alas, this is no longer the case. Please come back. Pretty please.

    Their sausage rolls and sandwiches and massive buns (read cupcakes) are all lovely. I've not had better in Leeds. They also run a supper club at the Chapel Allerton base, which I'd love to go to in 2012. I just need a date. Form a queue ladies, you might get to see me spill gravy down my front.

    Fish and Chips of the year

    I'm not sure whether I've eaten more fish and chips in 2011 than usual, or whether writing it down has just made me realise how often I crave the classics. Whichever it is, I've eaten a lot of fish and chips.

    What I've also realised is that enjoying fish and chips is, perhaps more than any other food, about the time and the place as much as what you're actually eating. The food quality has to be there for starters, but the location, company, weather and time of year can all conspire to elevate it to the sublime.

    It is for these reasons that I enjoyed the best portion of fish and chips all year back in February, at the Chippie in Hawes. Every component of the food was great, a huge fillet of fish in crisp, dry batter, fried to order in beef dripping. Lovely chips and peas. Strong tea. And the occasion. An icy cold lunchtime, well below freezing, the stark beauty of the Dales in winter, a moderate hangover, a group of mates entering the warm fug of the café, taking a seat with a scalding brew and talking nonsense as we waited in anticipation of being fed. As I said, sublime.

    Second most memorable of the year, for completely different reasons, was my visit to Stein's in Padstow. I was very happy that the food didn't disappoint and I ate it in a classic fish and chip environment. A lovely summer evening, warm but not hot, sat alone leaning against a bollard aside the working harbour, gazing out across the estuary. A can of fizzy pop to accompany. Splendid.

    Honourable mentions also go to Fish& in Leeds and Frankie's Fish Bar in Manchester for serving very good fish and chips if not on such memorable occasions.

    Indian meal of the year

    As is usual I ate a lot of Indian food over the course of the year, but very little of it was particularly impressive. Strangely I haven't been to most of my stock 'good' curry houses this year, with no visits to either Akbar's or Mumtaz, and visits to Yorkshire's two highly regarded vegetarian Indian restaurants, Prashad and Hansa's will have to wait for another year.

    As a consequence neither of 2011's best Indian meals were eaten in Northern England. Best of the lot was this visit to the Wee Curry Shop in Glasgow which served to remind me that Indian vegetarian food is the best vegetarian food in the world. I really want to go to Prashad and Hansa's.

    Also very good was a trip to Delhi Grill in London, with their goat handi being the best meat curry I ate all year.

    And finally an honourable mention for Azram's Sheesh Mahal, the other of my stock 'good' curry houses that I did visit a couple of times. I didn't blog the second trip but we ordered some of the more unusual menu items and were pleasantly surprised. Consistently worth a visit, I've been going there for over thirteen years now.

    Chinese meal of the year

    I was going to give this to my most recent meal at Red Chilli, but that seemed a little unfair on Hunan. I didn't take any photos of that meal and it was the second ever post on the blog, so all I can remember is what I actually wrote about it at the time. Lamb hotpot and green chilli stir-fried pork sound like wonderful dishes though, so let's assume the rating of nine was fair and they were.

    As for Red Chilli, it can be a little inconsistent particularly at the Leeds branch, but when it's on form as it was on this visit in October it rocks. Sichuan spicy salty numbing deliciousness.

    Middle Kingdom, BBQ Handmade Noodles King and Zen Delight were also all very good.

    Other Asian meal of the year

    Thai Aroy Dee has been a revelation. I've been there three times now, and I've been increasingly impressed with each visit. I wrote up the first two visits here and here, but went again the other day and had the best meal yet. To hammer home the point that it's really, really good here's a quick review of my third meal there.

    The first thing to note is that they've translated the Thai menu into English. It's still separate from the regular menu but is now bilingual and titled 'Thai Street Food menu'. We shared four dishes between two of us. Shrimp paste fried rice with all the trimmings was like the fried rice of my dreams. The trimmings comprised cashew nuts, sliced omelette, little chewy bits of what I think were pork and pork fat in a sweet soy sauce, dried shrimp, savagely hot birds-eye chillies and some other stuff I can't remember. All mixed up together it was a deeply savoury, fiercely hot, intensely satisfying melange of textures and tastes. Brilliant.

    Northeastern spicy beef salad was actually the least spicy dish of the meal, but beautifully seasoned. Mint, lime and shallots were to the fore, and the beef was full of flavour and very tender.

    Rice topped with spicy basil and pork stir-fry brought sweet anise notes of basil with lovely savoury little nuggets of meat.

    The final dish was the most adventurous of the lot. Raw prawns dressed in lime, fish sauce, chilli and garlic dressing. I'll admit to being slightly apprehensive about this one, having never eaten prawns completely raw before. It was simple but delicious, being little more than prawns doused in industrial quantities of the advertised ingredients, particularly garlic which was present in half-clove sized chunks. Sounds strange but it worked.

    Go to Thai Aroy Dee. Please. If this isn't the best Thai food in Leeds by a country mile I'll eat my hat. With a side order of raw prawns in fish sauce-lime-chilli-garlic dressing.

    Other standouts were Korean at Seoul Kimchi and Japanese at Fuji Hiro.

    Breakfast of the year

    See meal of the year.

    Given the overall winner is a special occasion breakfast, designed to impress and not to be eaten every day it seems a little unfair to compare it with the other contenders. Those that serve breakfasts that are cheap and filling, but that still do so in some style. Honourable mentions therefore go to the Koffee Pot in Manchester and to the Greedy Pig in Leeds. Excellent work people, you'd have both been victorious had I not visited Hawksmoor.

    Pub meal of the year

    I didn't think I'd eaten in many pubs this year until I started checking back through the blog to write this. As it turns out I've eaten in sixteen of them, and most were average at best. Where my pub meals differed from a lot of my dining out is that they were usually unplanned. If you're having a couple of beers with friends, if you're exploring a strange town or for a whole host of other reasons a pub remains the easiest and most obvious choice for a quick meal in this country.

    The trouble is unless you've planned ahead and sought out a good one, the majority are mediocre or worse. Standards have certainly improved in the UK, but we're still a long way from the day when you can walk into any old pub and expect a good meal.

    The Mark Addy was an exception to the general dross, it was a planned visit but everything we ate there lived up to expectations. The scallops and black pudding were particularly well rendered. They do get a black mark though for serving spam fritters that were made with something other than spam. Spam does NOT come in semi-circles, only in rectangles. We are not that easily fooled.

    Spanish meal of the year

    Did I mention that I like Spanish ham? The amazing stuff made from black leg pigs that spent their lives feasting on acorns which is possibly the best foodstuff on the planet. Oh yeah, sorry. I think I did.

    I've fallen in love with Spanish food. No other European cuisine has gripped me in this way, not Italian, not French. Unlike in 2010 I didn't visit Spain in 2011, but I did get the chance to eat in a few of the best tapas bars in this country.

    The Spanish food craze that's hit London in recent years doesn't really seem to have spread up North yet, with the notable exception of Liverpool. Go Liverpool. There are of course Tapas bars in Leeds and Manchester, but none has a menu that reads so well as the London and Liverpool places.

    José was the best of the bunch by virtue of its ham and a very fine black pudding dish, but only by a small margin from Barrica and Salt House Tapas.

    Pub of the year

    This is the prize for the best pub to drink in, rather than eat in. It's about the whole package bar the food. The drinks, the ambience, the location, the crisps.

    Photo credit: Bregante

    The Marble Arch is just fantastic. The excellent Marble Brewery beers are always well kept and the pub itself is a work of art. The lofty tiled ceiling and walls with their blandishments to drink. Ale! Porter! Gin! The way the floor slopes down toward the solid, crafted bar.

    Photo credit: Good Pub Guide

    The aspect, alone on its corner plot in a post-industrial proto-regenerated wasteland. The location, perfect for commencement of a crawl back into town. In every way a very worthy winner.

    Over in Leeds my favourites are Mr Foley's and the Adelphi. Mr Foley's has the finest selection and most reasonably priced beer in town, excellent chips and football on the telly. The Adelphi is not quite so hot on drinks but has a wonderful historic multi-roomed interior and a great atmosphere.

    Holiday meal of the year

    2011 brought trips to Croatia, Cornwall, and Jordan and Israel. It was my first time visiting all of these, and I really enjoyed all of them. If I'm honest Cornwall was probably the highlight in terms of the actual places. Looking purely at the food it has to be Israel though.

    On the evidence of one week Israel is one of those countries where dining out well is the norm. Planning ahead isn't necessary as chances are wherever you go will be good.

    Best of the lot was a meal of a multitude of excellent salads, grilled hanger steak and perfect chips at Fortuna in Jerusalem. The cheeseburger at Kanibar in Haifa was also a highlight.

    Worst meal of the year

    Nothing has come close to the Crown in Rochester. The best meal of the year may have been eaten down South, but so was the worst.

    Managing to combine serving a badly made version of a foodstuff that shouldn't be served in a pub or restaurant in any circumstances, even if made properly (instant mash), with completely offhand and indifferent service, and relatively high prices to boot, The Crown was truly atrocious.

    I gave the same rating, in slightly tongue in cheek fashion, to the Sainsbury's Café in Sale, but for a better comparison of complete rubbishness look no further than the restaurant at the Westerwood Hotel in Scotland. An absolute rotter of a steak, small, wan and gristly served with barely edible chips for twenty quid.

    Best thing I've cooked this year

    Let's not end on the worst meal of the year, so what about the best of my home cooking?

    The best thing I cooked in 2011 was a humble damson crumble. It was a thrown together affair, nothing more than fruit, sugar, flour and butter. Sometimes that's all you need. The star of the show was those wonderful damsons. They were divine. Intensely fruity, but also dark and tannin rich. Almost chocolatey. Complimented by a rich, buttery crumble and served piping hot with a dollop of cold, thick cream. Utterly delicious.

    I didn't post the recipe because I haven't a clue on the quantities involved. It was guesswork that got lucky. It was along the lines of throw damsons in pan with a load of sugar, then heat up until the juice starts to run. Transfer into a baking dish then top with a crumble made from butter rubbed into sugar and flour. Bake in a medium oven for about half an hour.

    That's all folks! See you in 2012.

    Wednesday, 28 December 2011

    Good things to eat (volume 8): A Christmas Special

    This is going to be mostly about cheese. I've written very little about cheese, not through a lack of love for the stuff, but rather because I don't actually eat it that often. The occasional block of mature cheddar for toasting purposes, the odd hunk of stilton with a glass of red, parmesan for pasta and that's about it.

    For reasons I'm not quite sure about cheese has turned into a special occasion food for me, a celebratory treat rather than an everyday fridge staple. Christmas is inevitably the big one. Time to hit the cheese.

    Continuing a recent theme of untraditional Christmases this year, for the second in succession (last year was curry) I avoided a roast dinner entirely, instead feasting on a sort of über-buffet at my Sister's house. My brother-in-law and I compiled a list of pretty much everything we like to eat and drink the most, and that were suitable for grazing and snacking, and made or bought the lot.

    We ate jamon iberico, gordal olives and sherry. There was paté, and wonderful sourdough bread, and cured salmon.

    We ate fat wedges of pork pie (my first ever pork pie - a success!) with cornichons. Fresh, sweet scallops were enjoyed au gratin and sautéed in herb butter, as were garlicky prawns. We ate buffalo wings and drank beer, rich, dark porter and also fragrant, fruity pale ale.

    And we ate cheese. Lots of lovely cheese. It's the cheese that I want to talk about, because I haven't said much about cheese, and these are some of the finest cheeses I know, and I really would recommend that you seek any of them out if you want to assemble the ultimate cheeseboard. Cheese heaven. Really.

    Montgomery's Cheddar

    Photo credit: Forman and Field

    The King of Cheddar as far as I'm concerned. It has a hard, craggy almost crystalline texture that breaks down into creaminess in the mouth. The flavour is almost parmesan-like in it's umami depth, intensely savoury but also with bursts of fruitiness. This is perfect on its own but when blended with Comté it makes the best Cheese on toast I think I've ever tasted. I had it for lunch two days running and now there is none left.


    One of the wonders of cheese is its infinite variety. Comté is a hard cheese made with unpasteurised cow's milk, just like Montgomery's Cheddar. They also share some flavour characteristics, fruitiness and depth. But in other ways they're completely different. Comté has a smooth dense texture, and tastes rich and buttery with a lingering sweetness. Wonderful alone, or as I said before, blended to make the cheese-on-toast-of-the-gods. I'm salivating obscenely just thinking about it. There is also none of this left. Boo hoo.


    Photo credit: Tasty Treats

    A sweaty-French English cheese, Tunworth is reminiscent of a good Brie or Camembert. Ours was quite a ripe specimen, and oozed a rather cabbagey stench that was slightly too much for my nose. I can't always handle the riper of French cheeses. On tasting any reservations were waylaid. It's wonderful. The stronger, funkier notes rapidly give way to a long lasting sweet, nutty, slightly tangy taste as the soft paste dissolves in your mouth. I like this one with oatcakes.


    Photo Credit: Cartmel Cheeses

    This was the curveball. The only cheese I'd never eaten before. It's a washed rind goats cheese. Deceptively subtle as the strong flavour of the rind gives way to quite a mild, herbal goaty interior. Really delicious and one I'd definitely try again. I think this would be best eaten entirely on its own to appreciate it fully.


    Last but certainly not least, Stichelton. This is quite possibly my favourite cheese of all time. It's essentially a Stilton, but Stilton has protected designation of origin status, and must be made with pasteurised milk. Stichelton is the unpasteurised gatecrasher at the party. A welcome gatecrasher though, replete with fine wine and witty repartee, not a four pack of Carling and a tendency to vomit.

    I still have some of this left, so I'm going to eat some now and write down the sensation immediately. I'll apologise now, it will probably be gibberish. Here goes: Smooth, sharp and salty. Saltiness rising into intensely savoury filling the whole mouth, metallic but with milkiness in the background. Slightly acidic. Fading into creamy, sweet, mellow as it dissolves and disappears.

    Er yes, told you it might be gibberish. Detailed description of taste is not my strong point, but you get the idea. It's complex and delicious and beautiful. Personally I think you should bin the crackers and chutney and just eat this on its own, maybe with a glass of red wine. But not port which I find too sweet, the sugar killing the flavour of the cheese. In short, it's amazing. Get some.

    Friday, 23 December 2011

    Zen Delight, Leeds

    I chanced upon an interesting new Chinese place the other night. It's a casual looking café style space, obviously aiming for the lunch market with set Chinese meal deals and a sandwich menu. There's also a list of more interesting meals and specialities, and these are what caught my attention as I stopped to glance at the menu in the window.

    There are a few Sichuan dishes, and also some from Dongbei and (I think) Beijing, both in Northern China. I had a chat with the friendly woman behind the counter who said they'd only been open a few days and were hoping to keep some 'real Chinese food' (her words) on the menu as well as the other stuff. She also mentioned that the chef was from Dongbei so any dishes from there might be worth investigating.

    I ordered Sichuan chilli chicken, Di San Xian (a vegetable dish of aubergine, potato and peppers) and some boiled rice.

    The chilli chicken was a completely dry dish, not exactly what I was expecting but bloody wonderful. Imagine KFC popcorn chicken but good. Deep fried chunks of chicken on the bone, crunchy and greaseless, smothered in garlic, sichuan pepper, chilli, spring onion and sesame seeds.

    I dived in with my fingers and polished the lot off in about five minutes. Salty, spicy, tongue tingling and highly addictive.

    The veg dish was much gentler, but also very good. Stewed or braised in a very garlicky sauce, the potatoes and aubergines were soft and savoury, and crispy bits of fried garlic provided textural contrast.

    All in all a very pleasant surprise and a welcome addition to Leeds' Asian dining scene which is starting to reveal some hidden depths. I'll be back here, the food is good, the staff friendly and prices are reasonable for the quality of the cooking (this meal cost just over £13).

    That's me done for the next few days, Merry Christmas everyone!


    Zen Delight
    Swinegate (not sure what number, but it's about halfway between Salt's Deli and Malmaison)

    Wednesday, 21 December 2011

    Bengal Spice, Holmfirth

    I was out for curry and beers with a group of friends who live in and around Huddersfield on Saturday night. We started out with a couple of pints in the Nook (a pleasant mild and a pale ale that tasted a bit farty, not great) then moved on to Bengal Spice for the curry.

    Essential equipment

    It's an old school curry house, one of those with a little bar area where they ply you with booze and bombay mix while the table is prepared. It took an age for us to be seated even though we'd booked, but we were kept well lubricated with pints of Cobra (some of which I'm sure never appeared on the bill).

    Classic curry house setting

    We stuck to poppadums and a serviceable pickle tray for starters, then moved on to assorted curries, most of us choosing lamb in one form or another. I shared a lamb jalfry balti, a lamb saag, pilau rice and a couple of chappatis.

    Lamb saag

    Everything was ok, nothing more really. The sauces were moderately spicy and were at least quite distinct from dish to dish, the garlicky saag being the better of the two. The balti dish suffered from the inclusion of great big slices of undercooked onion and was a bit greasy.

    The chapattis were good, quite thin and elastic, perfect for mopping and scooping. I didn't try the nan breads but they looked a bit rubbish.

    Service was good, friendly if a little slow and the final bill was insubstantial given the amount of booze we'd consumed (only around 15 pounds each). Not a bad place to go in a group on a weekend night, the atmosphere is lively, but I wouldn't make a special trip for the food.


    Unit 2/6 Victoria Arcade
    Dunford Road
    HD9 2DP

    Bengal Spice on Urbanspoon

    Monday, 19 December 2011

    Trying to cook the perfect steak (volume 3)

    My little mission to find the best way to cook a steak continues. It's been a while since I've had one so I thought I'd treat myself to a little early Christmas present.

    Here we have about 650g of T-bone from Farmer Copley's just outside Pontefract. Copley's is one of the new types of farm shop I tend to moan about; the prices are high and a lot of money has obviously been spent on the premises. The butchers counter was full of the usual ready trimmed, small not-very-exciting cuts but in this case they were happy to fetch a larger piece from out back and cut me something to order (unlike certain other farm shops where you have to order two weeks in advance in triplicate by fax just to get a decent sized steak on the bone).

    In this case they'd already boned out all the main sirloin and fillet portions but did have some T-bone ends on offer. I'd rather not have the fillet section at all, but at least at the end there's not much of it to be bothering about.

    On to the cooking method, so far this year I've tried the following:

    - slow in a pan with a constant basting of butter followed by a long rest.
    - fast over charcoal followed by a long rest.
    - fast in a hot dry pan followed by a long rest (I haven't blogged this but it used to be my stock method).

    ...all of which have pros and cons, but this one is my new favourite, at least in December it is when I have no intention of firing up the barbie. I found the method on the Serious Eats website and you can find it here and here. These guys really know their steak!

    Here is what I did.

    Get a thick steak. At least one and a half inches. Anything thinner you might as well flash fry and eat in a sandwich.

    Remove it from the fridge at least two hours before you plan to cook it, and salt it generously at least one hour before you plan to cook it. Salting early really does work. The Serious Eats link explains why, and if you look carefully at my photos (very carefully because they're rubbish) you can see the evidence. The photo above was taken about 15 minutes after salting. There are loads of tiny little pools of liquid on the surface of the steak where the salt has drawn out the moisture.

    The photo above was taken about 40 minutes after the previous one. The liquid pools have disappeared either entirely or have left a little solid salt deposit, like the crust from evaporated seawater. If you don't believe me and want to get all Blumenthal-obsessive about it then go check out the time lapse video. I waited a full hour after salting because it took longer for the moisture to re-absorb for me.

    When it was eventually good to go I heated up some neutral cooking oil (sunflower, groundnut or whatever) in a flat, thick bottomed frying pan until it was smoking. I don't use a ridged griddle anymore because although it makes your steak pretty it actually hinders development of the crust (because the surface of the meat between the ridges is actually kept away from the heat slightly).

    When the oil was smoking profusely I threw in the steak, then kept turning it every thirty seconds or so for a few minutes. The exact time will depend on the thickness of your steak, you'll have to guess if (like me) you don't have a meat thermometer.

    This is after the first minute.

    And here we are after three minutes.

    After 5 minutes I threw in a big knob of butter, then started turning it even more frequently.

    After about six and a half minutes the crust was looking good and it came out of the pan and on to a warmed plate. I then covered it with tented tin foil and left it for about seven minutes.

    The finished article, looking pretty damn fine. How about the inside?

    Almost cracked it! I was looking for that dark, crusty almost charred but not burnt surface giving way to pink right the way through the centre. This was just very slightly overdone in the centre, but only just. The texture and flavour were excellent. The salt had permeated right through the meat leaving it perfectly seasoned, and it had a strong, minerally flavour. Really, really good. I also had the urge to eat all of the fat from the edges, as it was all lovely and creamy and more-ish, always a sign of a good steak.

    With a bit of tweaking, this is the method for me. I'd probably knock 30 seconds off the overall cooking time for a steak the same size, and add the butter 30 seconds earlier. Other than that it was wonderful, and the meat itself very good too. I'll go to Farmer Copley's again.

    Saturday, 17 December 2011

    An Arndale Odyssey (or Mexican in Manchester)

    Manchester's Arndale Centre, giant among Arndale Centres, now boasts two entirely distinct places to eat Mexican fast food. One of them has been around for a while, and the other is a brand new shiny American import, only the third to open on these shores. I thought I'd visit both for lunch on the same day, in spirit of serious culinary investigation.

    Taco Bell, Arndale Food Court

    The American import is Taco Bell, brought to you by those lovely people at Yum! Brands (their exclamation mark!), more commonly known in the UK as owners of KFC and Pizza Hut. With a track record like that you'd be expecting great things from Taco Bell, right?

    I should mention that I've been to Taco Bell before, in America, over eleven years ago. I'm a sucker for these places. Chain fast food restaurants always lure me in out of curiosity. The few weeks I spent travelling around the US that summer, high on Mountain Dew, were a happy daze of Wendy's, Taco Bell and Long John Silver's. They always promised so much, but inevitably ended in crashing disappointment. I actually remember Taco Bell as being particularly bad, so of course when I learned they had arrived in Manchester I was there like a shot.

    As you alight at the top of the escalator you can't miss Taco Bell. It's very purple. An army of youths in purple polo shirts and purple baseball caps toil away under a huge backlit purple sign. Just head for the purple. It's the usual fast food set up, order individual items or make them into a meal with chips and fizzy pop. As I was having two lunches I passed up on the meal and just ordered two tacos.

    They're cooking every order fresh at Taco Bell, which I suppose is to be praised, but it does mean your 'fast food' may not be particularly 'fast'. It some became apparent that most of the purple clad worker bees weren't really toiling away at all, rather stood around in the back staring at unseen screens with bemused expressions. After what seemed like an eternity my order eventually appeared. The anticipation was killing me.

    Taco number one. A Mexican chicken crunchy taco supreme (£1.29). The chicken was almost a pleasant surprise. Almost, but not quite. On the plus side, it was moist and tender. On the minus side the sauce seemed to be flavoured primarily with salt, msg and something else chemically. The lettuce, cheese, sour cream and tomatoes just sort of passed by in a refreshing nothingness. To sum up; inoffensive.

    Taco number two. A beef soft taco supreme (£1.19). The same deal, just with beef and a soft taco. This was worse. The beef really is quite unpleasant. You can see it smeared out the end on the photo there. It's completely ground to a mush, so has absolutely no texture to lend it resemblance to meat, and tastes extremely low grade. Have they invented chilli con carne dog food yet? If they have this is probably what it tastes like. To sum up; bad.

    A not entirely resounding success, but I'll probably go back at least once more. There are plenty of other things on the menu to investigate, and I'm a glutton for punishment (I once ate a McChicken Korma Nan and I can't get enough KFC hot wings). Thank you Yum! Brands, thank you so much. As an aside Yum! describe themselves as 'the defining global company that feeds the world'. Which is scary.


    Kiosk 5 The Food Court
    Arndale Centre
    M4 3QA

    Pancho's Burritos, Arndale Market food court

    And so to the other food court in the Arndale Centre, at the opposite end in the little market area. This is where you'll find the small, local businesses as opposed to the 'defining global company's that feed the world' up the other end.

    I've been to Pancho's before, and was happy to see that they've now expanded into a second stall just round the corner from the first. They don't sell tacos individually, only as three for £4.60 (70p-£1 more than three at Taco Bell). Five tacos is too many for lunch, but it had to be done.

    Or at least it would have been done if they'd had any of the little taco tortillas. They didn't, so I had to order a burrito instead (£4 plus 50p extra for nopales). The fillings are exactly the same as I'd have had on the tacos, so it's still a fair comparison.

    This was stuffed with rice, stewed pork, refried beans, sour cream, hot sauce and nopales. I've never had nopales before, they're slices cut from the leaves of a type of cactus. I think they were slightly pickled, as they added a juicy, tangy, refreshing note to the burrito which contrasted wonderfully with the creamy beans and spicy pork. 

    The pork was moist, tender and tasty with a slow burning, fruity heat. To sum up: spicy, satisfying, more-ish.


    Arndale Market
    Market Street
    M4 3AQ

    The Verdict

    With the exceptions of menu availability and extreme purpleness Pancho's wins hand down. Much better food and better service for a price that's only slightly higher. Taco Bell doesn't claim to be authentic (it's 'Mexican-style' and 'Mexican-inspired'), whereas Pancho's does. I know nothing about Mexican food, but if both are telling the truth authenticity wins hands down this time.

    Go to Pancho's Burritos and don't go to Taco Bell.

    Wednesday, 14 December 2011

    Cà ri gà (Vietnamese chicken curry)

    Vietnamese curries are often an altogether subtler affair than Thai ones. This is almost a curry and coconut flavoured chicken stew. It's mellow and soothing with only a gentle heat, but not at all bland. The chicken releases its goodness during cooking to create a lovely savoury-sweet coconutty broth, and the spices provide fragrance.

    Served with crusty french bread (baguettes made partially with rice flour are very popular in Vietnam) or steamed rice it's perfect when you're feeling jaded on a cold winter night.

    I'm not going to claim this as a wholly authentic Vietnamese dish, but it definitely bears some resemblance to what you'd find in that part of the world. I mention this as authenticity and whether it matters is something I've been thinking a lot about recently, there's a very interesting post and discussion about it here and it ties in to my experiences searching for good Thai food in Leeds.

    I'd love to hear any opinions on this. Does authenticity matter? Has the word become meaningless when used to describe food? Should restaurants describe their food as authentic when it isn't? How do you define what's authentic in the first place?

    Back to the recipe, which will serve 2 generously and takes around an hour and a quarter from start to finish.

    What you'll need:

    4 bone-in chicken thighs
    1 medium-sized onion
    1 large carrot
    a few potatoes
    1 tin coconut milk
    1 tbsp curry powder (I use Bolst's)
    1 tsp turmeric
    1 small cinnamon stick
    1 star anise
    1 tsp black peppercorns
    3-4 large cloves garlic
    1 large thumb-sized piece of ginger
    1 tsp palm sugar (optional)
    Fish sauce (I'm sure you can get Vietnamese fish sauce but I used Thai)
    steamed rice or a baguette to serve

    What to do:

    1. Brown the chicken over a medium heat in a deep frying pan or wok for 10-15 minutes, then remove it from the pan and set aside. While the chicken is browning chop the onion.

    2. Drain off most of the chicken fat from the pan, leaving just enough to fry the onions in then return the pan to the heat. Add the cinnamon, star anise and peppercorns to the pan and fry for a minute or so.

    3. Add the onions to the pan and sweat them for around 10 minutes.

    3. While the onions are sweating grate or finely chop the garlic and ginger and cut the carrot and potatoes into large pieces (keep them big otherwise they'll disintegrate too much). Open the coconut milk.

    4. Add the garlic and ginger to the pan and fry for a minute or so, then add the turmeric and curry powder. Continue frying, stirring constantly for another couple of minutes. If it starts to stick loosen with a splash of the coconut milk.

    5. Pour in the coconut milk then fill the empty can with water and pour that in too. Throw in the chicken, potatoes, carrot and palm sugar.

    6. Simmer for around 40-45 minutes, until the chicken is starting to fall from the bones and the potatoes and carrot are soft.

    7. Taste the sauce and season with as much fish sauce as you like.

    8. Serve with crusty bread or rice.

    Tuesday, 13 December 2011

    Qila Khyber, Bury New Road, Manchester

    I like this little bit of Manchester. Late on a Friday lunchtime it has a slightly raffish air, the streets are busy but not with your regular city centre suits. They're a more eclectic crowd, perhaps workers in the textile industry that still seems to exist in the back streets round here (at least in warehousing and wholesale if not manufacturing) and maybe dodgier characters fresh from a stint in Strangeways.  

    All good and lively I thought as I legged it through the drizzle to Qila Khyber. This was my first visit here, I usually go to Moghul's Taste just a bit further up the road but I fancied a change. A good dose of rice and three was in order, I'd had no breakfast and was going to be at a beer festival come tea time.

    I wasn't disappointed. Lamb karahi, lentils and keema peas were all spot on, distinctively flavoured and freshened up with a generous chilli and coriander garnish. Equally as good as at Moghul's taste and definitely among the best of Manchester's curry cafés.

    I'd like to expand on the flavours, but to be honest I shovelled it down, in part due to hunger and in part due to nerves brought on by the angry faced man in a bobble hat who stared at me relentlessly in a slightly unhinged fashion, all the while inhaling bhajis at an impressive rate. The warm fuzzy feelings towards the local characters and recently released inmates were rapidly waning as I imagined the inevitable 'what are you looking at?' followed by upturned tables and general mayhem.

    As it happened he continued to glare at me until his plates were emptied, then left without so much as a backward glance.

    Madmen or otherwise I still like Bury New Road. It's got some of the best curry cafés in town and is handily positioned only a minor detour off my route home from Salford. Rice, three curries and a can of pop will set you back £5.20 at Qila Khyber.

    There's also free on-street parking, it's handy for the prison and the show-offs even have a website. What more do you need?


    19 Bury New Road
    M8 8FW

    Monday, 12 December 2011

    Bryan's, Headingley, Leeds

    I've been very lazy of late. If something isn't reviewed within a few days of eating it I tend not to bother. I ate the meal in this review about a fortnight ago. As I said, lazy. The main reason for not reviewing stuff retrospectively is that the memory tends to fade and things can end up a bit revisionist.

    Anyhow I'm ignoring my usual rules for three reasons. One, it's fish and chips which really isn't that difficult to remember. Two, it's fish and chips and I'm keeping up with the mission to review every single portion of fish and chips I've eaten this year (for the record this is portion thirteen. Oops that's quite a lot of fish and chips). Three, it was from a very well known chip shop and it wasn't particularly good.

    Fish, chips and peas from Bryan's in Headingley. I couldn't fault the chips (well executed crunch/grease combo) or the peas but there were issues with the fish. It looks the part; - freshly fried and generously proportioned, but the batter was horribly soggy beneath the outer layer (as if the fish had been wet when dipped in it) and the skin had been left on. I had to scrape the flesh from the slimy, damp residual mess of skin and batter leaving that untouched in the tray like something picked from the plughole.

    Lazy. Lazier than me not bothering to write it up for ages, lazier than any other Yorkshire chip shop worthy of the name. At around six quid the prices are hardly extortionate, but you can get better for less elsewhere in Leeds.

    Has anyone been to Brett's recently? That was crap last time I went as well. The best chip shop in Headingley is almost certainly the little takeaway only place just down the little side street past the church.


    9 Weetwood Lane
    LS16 5LT

    Bryan's on Urbanspoon

    Thursday, 8 December 2011

    Herby cheese scones, vegetable stew

    It took me a good couple of hours to work out what I wanted to eat on Sunday. It had to be warming winter food, the weather was foul and I was hiding under cover on the sofa. None of the obvious things were appealing. Not lamb hotpot, not cottage pie, not toad in the hole, not roast meat and gravy, not even a curry which is rare for me.

    Eventually it came to me, I wasn't in the mood for meat. I wanted a hearty meal that was hot and nourishing, but not rich, fatty or stodgy. My default setting in such circumstances is to reach for the lentils and get a pot of dal on the go, but that didn't appeal either. Instead I made some herb and cheese scones to serve with a simple vegetable casserole. The casserole was ok, but the scones turned out really well so I thought I'd write up the recipe.

    It's a basic scone recipe, so hardly original, but the addition of fresh herbs and some sharp cheese makes them a fantastic accompaniment to a stew or casserole, vegetarian or otherwise. They are light, savoury and gently fragrant. Best served when they're fresh, warm and slathered with butter.

    What you'll need to make 6 good sized scones (I made 8 but a couple were rolled too thin):

    8oz self raising flour
    pinch of salt
    scant tsp of baking powder
    2oz butter
    1oz grated cheese (use something sharp and fairly strong, mature Lancashire would be good)
    150ml milk, plus extra for brushing
    1 dessertspoon mixed finely chopped rosemary and thyme

    What to do:

    1. Set the oven to 220 deg C and grease a baking sheet.

    2. Finely chop the herbs and grate the cheese.

    3. Put the flour, salt and baking powder into a mixing bowl.

    4. Rub the butter into the flour.

    5. Make a well in the middle of the flour/butter mix and pour in the cheese, milk and herbs.

    6. Mix the whole lot together into a soft dough. Handle it as little as possible.

    7. Roll out the dough to about 2cm thickness, cut out the scones and place them on a baking sheet.

    8. Brush the tops with a little milk then bake in the oven for 12-15 mins.

    9. When they're done they should be golden topped and will sound hollow if tapped on the base. Leave them to cool for a few minutes then eat warm.

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