Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Chorlton Coffee Festival

Since I quit a fairly safe graduate job at the end of last year, I've gone through stages of working a mere two days a week to not having two minutes to myself to think! In part, I can thank the wonderful Chorlton Coffee Festival for that. Get your tiny violins out, please, people: as well as working three jobs, I am somehow heading up the marketing for this innovative wee festival happening in the lovely south Manchester suburb.

So, despite being in charge of the marketing shenanigans for the festival, I didn't want to get too salesy and blabber on about how great the festival is going to be (which IT WILL BE). Rather, I wanted to talk about a little coffee experience that Jamie & I had when visiting Berlin last year. An experience that made me re-think the way we "do" coffee shops in the UK.

Described as something of a 'hole in the wall', Double Eye is a teeny coffee shop, situated on a beautiful street in Schöneberg. Well, I think it was beautiful... it was a gorgeous, sunny day when we visited, and I was in love with Berlin, so everything looked a bit like I'd taken some sort of herbal high. Even though it wasn't near where we were staying, Jamie and I made a rather long trip over to this caffeine provider, as it appears as one of the best places to get coffee on most review sites and city guides. The queue was out of the door, practically half-way down the street. Normally, this might put me off, but we'd come so far! 

We patiently queued, and by the time we entered the shop itself, what really struck me was the sense of calm in the building. No impatient individuals, impertiently tapping their fingertips on the counter, but calm, Sunday-morning people, looking forward to a damn good cup of coffee, however long it would take. I couldn't work out whether this behaviour was mirroring that of the staff, or vice versa. The baristas were serving cup after cup after cup of coffee, happily. There was no sense of stress, or annoyance at the busyness, just a humble dedication to perfecting their flat whites. 

What's funny is that it isn't really the coffee itself that I recall. I remember something soothing and milky, with a complimentary sweet biscuit perched on top. It's how relaxing the environment felt when I was waiting inside. It didn't matter to anyone that there were tens of people in need of a coffee: every customer was treated as if they were the first person to order a coffee that day.

In many coffee shops in the UK - and here, I'm talking about the huge, city centre chain ones - there's such an impatient and unfriendly attitude with regards to buying takeaway coffee. Yes, I know you're incredibly important and are in a terrible rush to get your caffeine fix, but really, must you be so surly? Of course, Starbucks is like totally changing the customer-barista interaction now baristas are being so personable and being forced to ask our first name when we order a drink.

If, you are in Berlin, by the way, and want a damn good cup of coffee - to be remembered for how amazing the coffee itself is - make sure you hit Bonanza: simarly relaxing, though professional to the point I thought I'd walked into some New York advertising agency when I saw the baristas.

So, drinking in coffee in Berlin is how I came to be involved with Chorlton Coffee Festival. When I met Lorelei, the festival producer, and heard her desire to promote cafe culture as it is on the continent, and internationally, in the UK, I was sold. Unlike other coffee festivals in the UK, it's not about getting huge sponsorships from industry suppliers (though some sponsorship would be nice if any kind benefactor is listening!), it's about celebrating the independent spirit of Chorlton's cafes, bars and restaurants.

Chorlton Coffee Festival takes place on the weekend of 28th - 30th June, across 30+ venues in the area. Establishments will be offering coffee related deals and hosting related (and not-so-related!) events across the three days. On Saturday 29th, Chorlton Central Church will transform into the festival 'hub', with tastings, demos and workshops from related businesses. As I - and all of the other volunteers involved - have given up many hours, days and weeks to get this festival together, please support us by coming along, drinking a cup of coffee (or tea!) and celebrating all that's great about cafe culture by relaaaaxing.

Double Eye 
Akazienstraße 22, 10823 Berlin
0179 456 6960

Oderberger Straße 35, 10435 Berlin
0176 6169 1496

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Beer vs. Wine: tell me what's your flava

Some beers

"That'll be six pounds please."

"What? Six pounds! For a bottle of beer? What's it made out of? Gold?"

"No, sir. The bottle is made of recycled glass. Oh, you mean the beer? No, not gold, actually, I mean hypothetically if it were it'd be worth about seventeen thousand pounds and be guaranteed to cause your insides irreparable damage. This is, of course, assuming that you have such a large amount of disposable cash to hand."

"Do you know what, I'll have a bottle of Peroni."

Of course, I'd never be that condescending, never mind erudite. Though as a manager of a bar specialising in craft beer, the above response has certainly crossed my mind more than a few times. However, it serves to illustrate a relatively new phenomenon: the explosion of the beer scene and the subsequent flooding of the British market with 'craft' beer has meant consumers are being asked to cough up a lot of dough for their precious beer. Even if it's brewed up the road. However, charge someone £15 for a bottle of wine and they rarely bat an eyelid; charge them £6 for a bottle of beer and they look at you like you'd just claimed Margaret Thatcher was the best thing that ever happened to British politics (too soon?).

'It's all about the ABV!' some of you might cry. That's Alcohol By Volume, basically a measurement of how strong an alcoholic drink is. But surely it's more than that? After all, sink three pints of, say, Jaipur at 5.9%, we'd hope you've got change from 15 bob and you'll have just passed the 10 unit mark; conversely, shell out £15 on a bottle of wine at 13.5% and guess what? You've had just over 10 units. So if it's about booze for your buck, then that's put a logical bullet in the argument.

So, why do people baulk at paying £6 for a 500ml bottle of beer but don't fear £15 for 750ml of the most average mass-produced house wine? The existing preconception seems to be: beer should be cheap, yet wine is somehow worthy of the extra markup (those elusive extra units of alcohol aside). Perhaps it's due the cultural significance we attach to it and its colourful history - the great wine plague of the 1800s, the fact that bottles of Mouton Rothschild can sell for thousands, and it's not like you'd hose someone down with a can of Fosters to celebrate (well, they might do Down Under).

But to believe this is to be a traditionalist, which I am certainly not. Beer has been brewed for far longer than wine and some brave authors have even speculated that the advancement of civilization was due to our thirst for this most primitive of alcohols. Beer can also be a good deal more complex than most give it credit for. I won't go as far as Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn, who says that "wine has but one ingredient - grapes". But I know what he's getting at. With beer you have the malted barley (or other grain), the hops and the yeast, the varieties and quantities of which can be changed to make almost endless combinations. That's before we get to the roasting of the malts and the degrees of darkness. It certainly seems like, if anything, there's a lot more control over the flavour that can be achieved.

Wine, of course, has the elusive quality of 'terroir' - the idea that the land imparts a unique quality to wine, the special combination of soil, climate and geography. But when you take into account the story that some of the world's greatest wine critics thought that white wine dyed red was red wine (try saying that five times fast!) then you'd forgive me for being a bit skeptical about anyone's ability to identify something as esoteric as 'terroir'. To be honest, I'm a little prejudiced against wine because of the snobbery that exists about it and the absurd value some people attach to it. I can only hope beer doesn't go the same way.

So, like all great diplomats, I'm going to open a bottle of claret, pour a pint of ale, and go sit on the fence. Anyone who has tried a lot of beer and wine (I've also had the pleasure of working in a region specific wine shop in Paris) knows they are both extremely diverse and can conjure up all sorts of flavours and sensations. If you're drinking them on their own, then it's down to personal preference. When it comes to pairing with food, then beer can give wine a serious run for its money. But that's a story for another day. And I'm feeling rather sleepy from this beer and wine combination...

What do you think? Is the price of wine justified, where the cost of beer isn't? Or should we get rid of old habits, and swap our Burgundy for a Brooklyn?

Great places to pick up a bottle (of either!):
The Beer Moth, 70 Tib Street, Northern Quarter - the name says it all
Tiny's Tipple, Wilbraham Road, Chorlton - has a great selection of both sides of the fence
Reserve Wines, Burton Road, West Didsbury - great selection of wines & a carefully selected fridge of beers & ales

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Koya, Soho

Minimalist Japanese canteen interior at Koya

When Jamie and I recently visited London for our three year anniversary, we found ourselves disappointed by the restaurants we had been looking forward to the most. Koya, nestled in our dining itinerary between Michelin star dinners and over-hyped neighbourhood restaurants, ended up being our favourite meal. Having received recommendations from the foodie fountain of knowledge, Hoss, and the similarly wise chap whose blog writing I miss, FTTBYD, we were pretty confident it would be a winning lunch.

Knowing that ramen is suddenly all the rage in central London, I was concerned we'd have to wait for hours to get a table. Fortunately, my usually reliable sense of direction meant we ended up further away from Koya than we were in our original starting point, so we arrived not long before the end of lunch service, when the hipsters had already been fed. We had a brief wait but managed to bag a table right by the door. A note on doors: if I am ever lucky/foolish enough to open my own drinking/eating establishment, I may abolish doors. Lately, I find myself always placed at the table nearest them (which obviously means the owners think I look like a trustworthy person, or are taking bets on whether I'll do a runner). I get cold easily and sometimes I don't wear enough layers when eating out, as I naively expect restaurants to be warm. Any suggestions as to how punters will enter my bar/restaurant would be greatly appreciated as I am quite adamant that doors are a no-no.

Moving away from my ramblings - which Jamie will surely edit out - and on to the more important matter of the food. This was a toughie: we would be dining again in around 6 hours but I wanted to eat everything on the menu. Bloody rational Jamie prevented this, which I still hold against him, as I now have to wait 'til my next trip to London to eat more of that beautiful Japanese food. We started with one of their specials: char sui pork with apple and fennel salad. This was sooo beautiful, I could have eaten this ten times over. The salad perfectly balanced the fattiness of the pork although the carparccio-like slicing stopped it from feeling too artery-cloying, perfect!

Next up: I managed to persuade Jamie to go for the fried tofu with spring onion udon. I succeeded in this by initially suggesting the udon with mushroom and walnut miso then downsizing to tofu. (Despite being the most knowledgable non-chef person I know when it comes to food, Jamie has a child-like approach to mushrooms: "ew!" he screams when I try and put them near him). I wanted to try one of their simpler dishes to see whether it was still delicious: it bloody was! Their noodles took noodle to a whole 'nother level. (I'm not talking Dane Bowers' first band).

Super pink and juicy - just how I like 'em!

We also opted for another of their specials: (our favourite!) Hanger steak with juniper berries and pickled wild garlic. This was perfectly cooked and really tasty. Eaten with plain white rice, it was delightful. As hanger steak has a gamier taste than most other cuts of steak, the juniper - a traditional accompaniment to venison - worked really well and the pickled garlic was... green. And pickly.

Unfortunately, there's no more food for me to talk about. Again, blame Jamie. Despite being half his size, my eyes are definitely twice as big as both of our bellies, so they left feeling disappointed that they hadn't been better fed, though my stomach was feeling pretty sated. The service was generally attentive and discrete, and I absolutely LOVED the host who continued to seat people with 30 seconds to go before the kitchen closed. I know this because he kept telling people, "yes, you can come in but you have to order within 3 minutes... 2 minutes... 1 minute... you can't even look at the menu, you just have to order now!". He was brilliant.

If you haven't been to Koya and you're planning on visiting central London some time soon, GO!! Jamie and I loved it so much we immediately went in search of the nearest Japanese supermarket (which, incidentally, is only about a five minute walk away), and bought ourselves a huge packet of bonito flakes just so we could make our own udon broths at home. (We did, and they were good, but not as good as Koya...)

Cute dog running to Koya to get his lunch.

49 Frith Steet, Soho
London W1D 4SG
020 7434 4463

Koya on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 7 April 2013

John Salt, Islington

John Salt, perhaps one of the most talked about restaurants of the last year. Notorious for the sudden departure of Ben Spalding, but quickly snapped up by Neil Rankin, former Pitt Cue Co. chef, turning that notoriety into excitoriety (is that a word? no?). Having read ample reviews by respected London bloggers and journalists singing its praises, we happily killed two hours in a nearby pub waiting for an appropriate time at which to eat dinner. I later realised that despite never having lived in London, I have managed to frequent said pub with every boyfriend I've had since I was 17. Irrelevant detail, but I'm not sure how this has happened: it's a pretty average pub. And therein, I think, lies the secret of what makes John Salt so revered, so talked about. Upper Street appears to be full of fairly average establishments.

To my unfamiliar eyes, Upper Street is by no means a dump or a dive, but rather row after row of perfectly pleasant seeming bars and restaurants, offering nothing in particular to catch the eye (perhaps apart from House of Wolf!) until you get to John Salt. (Particularly if you're walking down from Highbury and Islington, as opposed to up from Angel). It's early evening on a Monday but the sweet French waitress appears to struggle to squeeze us in, initially sitting us uncomfortably close to another couple, though eventually moving us a seat up to give us room to breathe (though still not enough room to take photos without essentially shouting "HEY LOOK I WRITE A FOOD BLOG" - hence the lack of in this post).

We begin proceedings with drinks. I take a so-so Albion Highball, and J opts for the Beer Glass Mary Snapper. I'm not sure what made them decide to put cheese and crackers with the latter, but it seemed a bit silly (and crumbly). I'm intrigued by the cod cheeks starter (mainly because we're cooking them for our supper club) which I learn is a new dish on the menu, and Jamie, rather unusually, goes all veggie and picks the 'burnt leeks, parmesan, egg yolk, truffle vinaigrette'. Mine arrives and the waiter seems genuinely interested to hear what I think of it, but has disappeared by the end of the course so am unable to impart my wise and wonderful critique of the minute starter to his otherwise-engaged ears. There's nothing much to say about it: cod cheeks, cooked well, seasoned with a light scattering of tasty heritage tomatoes. Jamie's starter is rich and unctuous.

My main was decided before I reached the restaurant. It was always going to be the Onglet steak with kimchi hollandaise. Recommended rare, it was slightly too rare in the middle for my tastes, though well seasoned and the accompanying sauce was a TASTE SENSATION. I rarely capitalise in posts but this calls for it. The sharp, spiciness of the kimchi married beautifully with the creamy, classic French sauce, leaving me wishing I'd requested to purchase a tub of this cheekily wonderful sauce on departure from the restaurant. Jamie's pork hash, with belly pork, black pudding and egg yolk, mixed together with sweetcorn and peas and massive roasties was inelegant to say the least - but that's okay, I won't denigrate them for that. The roast potatoes reminded me of the best kind I used to get on school, usually if you were served one of the last in the queue: huge beasts that the dinner ladies were obviously saving for themselves but a pesky child rolled up late waiting to be fed, with a beautifully crisp exterior (the potatoes, not the pesky child). Yummy is how I would describe this dish; something comforting to eat on a night when you can't really be bothered to cook... which, I guess, is what hash is. Whilst £12 is by no means steep for a main, I'm not sure I'd pay that again. We also had 'aged beef dripping fries'. For God's sake guys, if you're gonna call them that, then at least make sure they taste like it, and not fairly similar to a well-known burger chain.....

Slightly disappointed with some aspects of the meal so far, we were sure it could be salvaged by the bacon panna cotta (which we shared: Jamie suddenly decided he couldn't even finish his main for chrissakes!). The panna cotta itself - milk infused with bacon - was rather beautiful, and served in a glass, as Jamie constantly tells me they always should be (apparently if it can stand on its own it has too much gelatine, who knew?!). I liked the added crunch of crumbled biscuity bacon bits on top, but the saltiness really unbalanced the dessert and I finished unsatisifed. Fortunately, John Salt do a great range of beers, and the Left Hand Brewing Co.'s Milk Stout saw me leave with a smile on my face.

Overall, the meal was fine - which my counselling colleague says stands for "fucking incapable of normal expression". In fact, John Salt was exactly the opposite - capable of very normal expression. Disappointingly normal in fact. If I lived in Islington, perhaps I'd frequent it with friends once every few months. Visting London from the far away north that is Manchester, I'm confident that I shall never return. Oh shit, I just remembered the kimchi hollandaise. Okay, maybe for that... if I'm passing.

John Salt
131 Upper Street
Islington, N1 1PQ
020 7704 8955

John Salt on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Duped by Dinner

Dinner by Heston. It was probably the most anticipated restaurant opening of 2011; it was definitely our most anticipated meal of 2013. Were our expectations too high? Did the allure of Michelin stars and San Pellegrino Top 50 lists cloud our judgement? Whatever the case, we left thinking: ‘How on earth has this restaurant earned such a great reputation?’

It’s not the food that's the problem. It’s still ‘fearsomely expensive’ and, dare I say, over-rated. It’s rather the service that caused the whole evening to feel off kilter. Now, I’m no veteran of Michelin-starred establishments but, having been to a fair few, the service, at its worst, has always been discreet if a little formal. At its best it has elevated the evening and the dining experience. At Dinner, we often felt uncomfortable and at times downright harassed.

Imagine it’s the anniversary of a special occasion and as you raise your glasses for that celebratory toast, your waiter clumsily chimes in like a pissed wedding guest in the middle of the best man’s speech. Your gauche, French sommelier asks if you’d like to see the wine list and proceeds to hold on to it, so much so that you are forced to peer at it until he graciously hands it over. Why do that? This wine list caused the waiting staff much vexation. Surely they had more than one? Yet, each member of staff seemed intent on retrieving it from our grasp despite many protestations.

Add to this a dining room devoid of intimacy, the overwhelming feeling that every other table is more important than yours, the realisation that most people are here on business, staying in the Mandarin Oriental and have charged a steak and chips to their room – and the entire experience quickly lost its charm. Perhaps my account is a little revisionist, tainted by some not so rose-tinted glasses? Maybe we were just naive? But I expected more: the glowing reviews; the high standing; the endless superlatives.

I wish these were the only caveats and I could now utter as Jay Rayner did ‘Oh, but the cooking!’ It was very nice in parts but that obsessive compulsive attention to detail that Heston is always bragging about didn't materialise.

As per usual, we’d agonised over what to choose beforehand (this was after all a very expensive meal and we didn’t want to make any costly mistakes) so the choice of starters was already a foregone conclusion.

Ever since I saw Ashley Palmer-Watts cook the scallops and cucumber dish, it had made my shortlist. It was as I expected and no more: refreshingly clean with a lovely minerality from the scallops and seared cucumber and great acidity from the cucumber ketchup. This is really more about the cucumber than the scallops, treating the ingredient in ways that many will not have seen before. The best dish of the meal. The salamugundy was full of wonderful textural contrasts – slippery marrow studded with crispy chicken skin, crisp chicory, juicy chicken oyster.

The special of Royale of Beef (which brought to mind Pulp Fiction) with ox tongue, smoked anchovy and onion puree was a delicious exercise in savouriness with a great depth of flavour. The Turbot with cockle ketchup was expertly cooked and balanced. To be honest, I'm struggling for things to say. Whether it was a side effect of the service and ambiance or not, everything rang a bit hollow. Come to think of it, Jay Rayner's review must have also exerted some subconscious sorcery on us as we unwittingly chose exactly the same menu. Great minds...or maybe fools never differ.

If you happened to be staying at the Mandarin Oriental, it would however definitely be worth popping down for a dessert. The tipsy cake brought a smile to my face and the buttery, syrupy brioche pudding actually recalled of all things a krispy-creme pudding I'd had some weeks ago at a FireandSalt supper club. Bearing in mind the accompanying pineapple is roasted on what must be one of the world's most expensive spits, it has that air of overindulgence. The brown bread ice cream with salted butter caramel was malty, salty, sweet goodness that actually might have salvaged the meal.

So, an evening of highs and lows. The food might have disappointed less had we not been to Simon Rogan's new opening at The French in the same week. And I doubt we would have been so critical if the service were up to scratch. I'm wouldn't write the place off on the back of this one meal but at these prices I'm not hurrying to return. Frankly, there are better places in London to spend your hard-earned cash.

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal on Urbanspoon