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

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Crafthouse, Leeds

The first thing I felt on arriving at Crafthouse was a slight pang of guilt. There are a good number of local, independent restaurants in Leeds at which I've been wanting to eat for years, and here I was rocking up at the sparkling new outpost of a thirty strong London based restaurant group.

The second thing I couldn't help but feel was a little bit impressed. They really have got the best location in town up there on top of the new Trinity development, and it's maximised to full effect as you rise up in the glass fronted lift and views of a compact, surprisingly complete looking urban skyline appear.

So it was with mixed feelings that I approached the meal. Good quality places to eat are always welcome, but would I have rather been somewhere else, maybe somewhere with a long standing commitment to the Leeds dining scene (although I should point out that the Head Chef here is from Yorkshire, even if the backing isn't)?

Things started on a positive note with some lovely mini loaves of warm, nutty wholemeal and too much butter. Then salad to start; chicory and Yorkshire blue, watercress, poached pear, roasted walnut. An assemblage of decent ingredients, though I'll stick my neck out and say that Yorkshire blue isn't my favourite cheese. I'm sure I should be praising the use of local products, but it's not got the depth of a good Stilton.

The best bit of my meal came next, a beautifully cooked sea bream fillet with uniformly crisp skin that split from the flesh like a delicate fish scratching. Generously proportioned too for a pre-theatre menu offering. Cauliflower puree, leek (or leak according to the menu) fondue and light shellfish sauce didn't really offer much in support other than being vaguely beige and creamy.

The set menu puddings were fancier in plating than starters and mains, caramelised white chocolate mousse and cherry sorbet looked and reportedly tasted fantastic. Iced lemon curd, blackberries, meringue and crispy pastry didn't quite work for me though, the intensely sharp and cold lemon rather drowning out the taste of the blackberries. Good pastry though, like what you'd find at the base of a well made vanilla slice.

I finished, as I'd started, with mixed feelings about Crafthouse. It's a very professional operation as you'd expect, service was good and there are obviously some talented people in the kitchen (that fish really was spot on, and the bread was great too), but I didn't love all of the food and the atmosphere, despite the views, feels a little corporate and calculated. I'd return, but not before making the effort to visit some of those other places on my list.

Almost forgot to mention prices (it was a work meal so I wasn't paying); the pre-theatre set menu is £22.50 for three courses, a la carte around £30-35. Wine? Not bad actually, plenty by the carafe at under twenty quid.


Level 5 Trinity Leeds
70 Boar Lane

Crafthouse (D&D) on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Northern Food on Tour: Self-catering in France

I really don't have a great deal to say about the things I ate and drank in France the other week. We kept it very, very simple.

Crusty bread

Peasant food, as Jamie Oliver might have it.... 'You see these rural types, dressed in rags, barely a centime to their names, and they'll have been down the marche and bought just three simple ingredients; bread, cheese and wine, from which they'll conjure up the most amazing meal. It's called bread, cheese and wine. Now why can't you do that, you fat English plebeians?' That's how I imagine he'd have it anyway.

Rillettes: food of the Gods

And that's what I ate and drank for most of the week (I say I rather than we, as my better half is pregnant. I tried not to gloat, really I did). Crusty bread, oozing cheese and the unexpectedly good local red. There were a few salads too, with plenty of tomatoes. And not much in the way of charcuterie but loads of rillettes. If you've not had rillettes before think very coarse, extra fatty potted meat. Eat slices of baguette smothered in the stuff and topped with cornichons for added bite. Ooh yeah.

Oozing Perail

The best two cheeses of the trip were both local-ish, being from neighbouring departements (we stayed in a gite in the Tarn region, an hour or so east of Toulouse). Both were of the typical French mouldy rind, oozy paste school of cheese. Perail a sheep's and Rocamadour a goat's, though neither were stridently sheepy or goaty, probably as I think they're eaten very young.

Plus de vin rouge (the finest wine known to humanity)

The best wine? A recycled plastic water bottle filled from a van sporting an assortment of hoses and pipes by a jolly, gesticulating Frenchman at the weekly market in the local town. It was a red from the Gaillac wine region just down the road, and proved an inspired purchase at two euros ten a litre. I'm crap at describing wine, so bear with me here, it was very fruity tasting, actually slightly grapey which is rare, but with none of that overbearing sense of Ribena you get with, say, a mass market Aussie Shiraz. Very fruity but still subtle, dry on the palate but not from a big whack of tannin. I'll stop now. It was very nice.

Need spring onions, honey, game, spices and melons? No problem.

The market in the local town, Realmont, was outstandingly good. There were stalls for literally everything. On the food front alone there were stalls devoted solely to things as wide ranging as salt cod, spring onions and vanilla, as well as the full complement of greengrocers, charcuterers, butchers, bakers and so on. If it hadn't been on the Wednesday morning with only three days of our holiday remaining I'd have gone wild.


It was just so splendidly French too. The sense of locality and terroir and the genuine importance of market day and the relaxed, good life and all that stuff the French are supposedly famous for. Groups of men standing around in berets smoking Gauloises and saying bof! a lot. That sort of thing.

Old and French

I might be gushing somewhat (and exaggerating), but there is something captivating about market day in an attractive country town in France. It seems daft to describe it as really French, it being in French France and all, but take England as a comparison. No town in England is quite so resolutely, so stereotypically English as a French town is French (except perhaps London, which is in the curious position of being by far the most and the least English place in England).

I haven't got a discernible photo of my steak and chips, so here's one of our lovely (French) garden

Enough musing on the nature of Frenchness, and a final word on the food, which I've realised as I write is going to turn into more of the same. We only ate out a few times all holiday, but I really enjoyed it when we did. Not because the food was special or amazing or even very interesting, but because it was done properly. Steak or a duck breast, chips and salad will make most people happy if the meat is singed on the outside, pink within, the chips are thin and crisp and the salad leaves are dressed.

That's all it takes to make me smile anyway, and on this trip it was perfect every time. We could still learn a thing or two about getting these basics right over on this side of the channel (meat somehow overcooked despite having little evidence of contact with anything very hot, mealy chips and undressed salad sound familiar to anyone?).

still French

In summary, having just re-read what I've written, I think France maybe regaining its crown from Spain as my favoured holiday eating destination. If you ever get the chance to visit the Tarn region or anywhere nearby, then I'd thoroughly recommend it. The countryside is all rolling hills and wooded valleys, and the towns are ancient, pretty and sport an interesting architectural style combining bricks with half timbering (imagine Castleford crossed with Stratford-upon-Avon. Or maybe don't).

Beans and sossidges

Finally, one last thing that I've just remembered. Tinned cassoulet is ace. I'm sure it's not quite up to the standards of a home made version, but I wasn't keen on spending my holiday soaking beans and confit-ing duck, so the tin had to suffice. If you liked tinned beans and sausages, you'll like tinned cassoulet. It's like a super premium version where the sausages have been upgraded and a duck leg thrown in for good measure. With bonus duck fat.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Noodle Inn, Sheffield (revisited)

I've eaten at two of the restaurants in Sheffield's Noodle Inn mini-empire before (see here and here), enjoying the meal on both occasions but finding it tricky to work out what they're actually best at, the almost novel sized menus proving a challenge.

A repeat visit to the original Noodle Inn on London Road enlightened me further in one regard: their roast meats are very good indeed, especially the belly pork.

Three roast meats and noodles in soup brought a competent broth, bouncy noodles, plenty of greens and a ridiculous quantity of meat for the £7.50 price tag. The belly pork was a dream, the thin layer of crackling fracturing on the bite to give way to melting fat and tender flesh. Spot on, and it didn't even lose the crunch after sitting in the soup for ages. Many a gastropub charging twice the price for the stuff could learn a thing or two from these lot.

The duck and char sui pork were also good, but it's the belly pork that's sticking in the memory, and that I'll definitely be back for.

Service was brisk and to the point, but that's fine by me. You come here to get fed not for someone to be all nice to you. £7.50 for a huge bowl of noodles, or £11 with a beer and service.


156 London Road
S2 4LT

Edit: The website has disappeared. Surely they haven't closed down in the last fortnight or so since I was there? and are still online...

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Bar 44, Cowbridge, Wales

Completely off-piste from my normal neck of the woods, and probably any of you who happen to be reading this too, but should you find yourself in the Vale of Glamorgan I'd strongly recommend you dine at Bar 44.

It's a tapas bar of rare quality. I dined alone there last week while working away in the area, and everything was bloody brilliant.

Catalan bread with tomatoes and serrano ham. Just very good bread, toasted and topped with a mush of tomatoes with actual flavour and a generous covering of glistening, gorgeous ham. This stuff reminded me how good serrano can be, how you can get something of the intense, lingering taste of the finest iberico de bellota without the scary price tag. Full marks for serving it at room temperature too, fridge coldness is the enemy of good ham but is often what you end up with early on a quiet weekday.

Crispy hake with alioli. Why isn't hake more popular? I rarely see it on menus and it's practically never sold in chip shops. I've no idea why as it has the right attributes; pearlescent, sweet tasting, flaky flesh in thick fillets that survive a good battering. The batter on these was spot on and the garlickiness of the mayo was judged just right too.

I think it might be the injudicious use of olive oil that makes veggie tapas dishes seem so luxurious. Chickpeas and spinach was a plate licking triumph of paprika laced deliciousness.

Finally, from the more ambitious dishes on the specials menu, iberico pork presa (shoulder) with apple puree and hazelnut crumble. I had to get something from an iberico pig in there somewhere didn't I? The apple brought a subtle hint of acidity, the hazelnuts variation in texture, but the meat was the star. Cooked blush pink, tender but not meltingly so, it had a sweet, lingering flavour not dissimilar to the ham but sort of milder, fresher. Marvellous.

The bill for this little lot came to around £25 including a glass of properly chilled Manzanilla. I couldn't fault the service, and didn't get any sense of my having 'outcast freak' status for dining alone (always a worry especially in smaller towns).

Excellent, and judging by the steady stream of punters arriving, the locals know it too. They also have another branch in Penarth, closer to Cardiff.


44c High Street
CF71 7AG

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Derby Pyclet Company, Derby

Resurrecting and reinventing great local food; - that's the tagline on the Derby Pyclet Company's website. The great local foods in question are pyclets and Derbyshire oatcakes, the latter essentially the same as the famous Staffordshire variety.

But what the hell is a pyclet you might ask? If I wrote pikelet instead perhaps that will help, as that's what I'd always known them as in Yorkshire. Think of a flatter, broader crumpet.

They have a stall in Derby's original market hall (the city has two, an enormous modern one and its Victorian predecessor which has somehow miraculously survived redevelopment as something other than a proper market) where you can buy the goods to take away, or sit at the counter and order them to eat there and then.

I did both, pyclets for lunch and a bag of six (£1.50) for breakfasts and snacks in the week. You can keep it simple with butter and jam or go all out with a more substantial topping. Two with stilton, walnuts and honey (£4) made for a hefty lunch, they're not small these pyclets, that's a large dinner plate they're sat on.

If I'm a honest a little too hefty. The cheese was excellent stuff, rich and creamy, but a bit overbearing with the sugar hit and the soft, doughy innards of the pyclets. Not that I didn't wolf down the lot. The pyclets are still great though, they just benefit from an age in the toaster. Toast the hell out of them (twice on a medium high setting should do the trick) until the edges are lovely and crisp, the insides chewy and yielding, and they're a delight. Spread with butter, butter and jam, or butter and cheese.

I'll be back to try the oatcakes.


Sunday, 25 August 2013

A summer round-up

I've been too lazy/busy (delete as appropriate) over this summer to blog about everything liked I used to. This is probably a good thing in many respects, fewer boring posts about nothing much of interest being the outcome, although it does mean that I've tended to focus only on the positive, lacking the enthusiasm to write about the mediocre or downright bad experiences.

To redress the balance a bit, here's a round up of some recent eating and drinking. Some of it good, most of it not very. A theme if there is one: why put something on the menu if you don't know what it is or can't be bothered making it properly.

Stay tuned for the next thrilling instalment, in which I dine at Noma, go on a pintxo crawl around the backstreets of assorted small Basque towns, cook barbecue in Kentucky, hang out in Dalston's latest dens of vice/burgers, and buy a sausage roll from Gregg's in Stockport on the way home. Only some of this is true.

Baked, Derby

A bakery with café in Derby city centre. The bread is certainly worth another look....

..but the coffee was just ok. The flat white wasn't a flat white.

Soup, half a sandwich and slaw for about six quid. Half a sandwich isn't an unreasonable idea, but it seems a bit stingy to stick to it rigidly when it's cut from a very small loaf. a lovely nutty wholemeal loaf by the way, but nothing to write home about otherwise.


The Swan, West Malling, Kent

Hi friends from work, this one's for you! The Swan was the dinner venue for our team meeting at the end of June. As with the previous dinner back in April we chose from the early bird set menu, but unlike on that occasion it was evident throughout that we'd gone for the budget option.

An asparagus starter was notable only for having hardly any asparagus in it. Three spears or thereabouts. Of the mains neither cooked to grey burgers nor a dry pork dish impressed much.

And Eton Mess for pudding was fine but had blueberries in it. Why put the only non-native berry in a dish that's supposed to show off the best of the English summer?

On a more positive note they have Curious Brew lager on draft, which is a wonderful beer. Beautifully clean, crisp and balanced. A glance at the website suggests the people in charge of the Swan and the people brewing Curious are one and the same; their core business being the Chapel Down Winery that arguably produces Britain's finest wines.

Maybe we were just unlucky at the Swan, the undoubted booze pedigree of the business might suggest they know a thing or two about food as well.


Smythson's Deli, Nottingham

A load of old rubbish.

The espresso in the coffee was good, potent yet smooth. Shame the milk was a mess. And it wasn't a flat white either (it was supposed to be, I'm not laying into a latte for not being a flat white).

A poor excuse for a sandwich. One word sums it up: meagre. I can't be arsed elaborating.


Queen's Park Gelateria and Café, Chesterfield

This place is run by Frederick's, the dominant force in the ice cream world around these parts. Their vans are all over the place, which is no bad thing as their ice cream is good stuff.

They run the park caff in Chesterfield, which is also no bad thing. Instead of the tea and cakes set up you might expect in a park it's more of a pizza and ice cream and beer arrangement.

Pizza and ice cream and beer in the park? Don't mind if I do. A shared ham, pepperoni and mushroom (good chewy crust, surprisingly good pepperoni) and a double scoop pistachio sugar cone makes a very fine lunch. Pizzas 6-7 quid, ice creams 2-3.


Harvest Moon Espresso Bar, Chester

A coffee that meets its description! About bloody time.

The flat white here was properly made and properly proportioned, so I'll excuse them serving it in a glass (maybe they've been to Manchester, they do that there).

I'm not really sure what to say about the food though. I can't work out what they were thinking. A not really a Reuben sandwich was still quite nice in spite of not really being a Reuben. The bread was top notch and it was as stacked as you could reasonably expect for the modest price tag.

Why smearing the inside of very good bread with cheap sunflower spread seemed like a good plan is beyond me, and why serving it with stale tortilla chips and a completely undressed salad of lollo rosso, bits of cucumber and carrot and some damp cous cous seemed like a good plan is even further beyond me.


Cool River Cafe, Matlock

A recent opening in Matlock, could this be the local coffee shop of my dreams?

In a word, no. A moist, walnut-packed wodge of carrot cake with a pleasingly cheesy icing was spot on, but the coffee was crap, the advertised flat white turning out to be an oversized bucket of weak latte. 

They're still finding their feet so I'll give this one another try. The savouries looked on a par with the cakes, but the coffee needs some serious work.

6/10 (8 for the cake, 4 for the coffee)

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