Friday, 2 December 2016

Friends of Ham - Leeds

How does the pub chain Yates still exist? Of everything that died a death in the last recession, that hideous home of the brown square-toed shoe and flesh-oozing boob tube, should surely have been next against the wall, after Woolworths.

They must have signed a pact with the devil though, because they're so alive and well in Leeds that the street outside is awash with faux leather and flab.

For those who prefer a different kind of meat market on a Saturday night, Friends of Ham is right next door.

A place I've wanted to visit for a long time, House of Ham (as I keep calling it, for some reason) has already been visited by everyone and anyone I can think of, reviewed within an inch of its life and always coming out smelling of pork scented roses.

I literally have nothing new to add, but when's that ever stopped me?

A restaurant-cum-bar, Friends of Ham has that Alpine feel, on a freezing Northern evening, of crisp, cold air on the outside and a room full of sweaty bodies, booze, ham, and cheese on the inside.

That's basically the review right there, in a nutshell.

Ham and cheese, served up on several platters. To not love that, you'd have to be dead inside. The sweaty bodies? That's just a strong indication that it's well loved. I guess, unfortunately, the same holds true for Yates, so it's not the greatest litmus test.

What we ate, I don't really know. Three platters, split six ways, with a salad on the side, and some extra bread - that's what. The specifics can go to hell. I don't pay to read menus (and I still haven't paid for that meal, actually 😬). I pay (when I do) to feel warm, fuzzy, full, and a lot happier than when I arrived.

That's what Friends of Ham delivers. Fulfilment. An excellent wine, washing down the lashings of thinly sliced porky deliciousness, in many shapes (mainly round, to be honest) and thinnesses, accompanied by wedges of great, full-flavoured cheese.

I wish I could say more, I really do. I wish I'd taken some photos, I really do. I wish I had the facility, capacity, or inclination to learn what I dined on, I really do. But, I don't, so you'll have to take my word for it's excellence, with this short, mainly ignorant summary:

Flipping good.

If you're ever in Leeds, visit.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Coco Di Mama - Margaret Street

My dream, if I have one, is to own my own restaurant. Not because it’ll make money (it won’t), not because I have a novel idea for one (I don’t), and not because I want to hang around with celebrity chefs, newspaper food critics, Instagram stars that overuse the word *that*, or Greg Wallace (who does?). I want to own my own restaurant - an Italian restaurant, incidentally - just so I can become that stereotypical old b*stard, who shuffles in every day, sits in the corner, grunts at the staff, and continues to pickle himself in red wine.

I don’t know why. We all have to have dreams, I guess; and, I suppose, if I can afford to do that with my life, I must have done something right.

Sitting there, pondering this dream, as I stared out of the window at Coco Di Mama, on Margaret Street, I suddenly realised I was pretty much there. I don’t own Coco Di Mama, I’m not *that* old, and they don’t serve wine; but, I have become someone who shuffles into the same place every days, sits in the corner, and grunts at the staff. It’s become such a consistent haunt, that the staff not only recognise me, they know my order before I say it and, once, they even asked me for thoughts on their pricing strategy. One day, I’ll walk in to find someone sat in my seat and, no doubt, they’ll kick him out of the chair on my behalf.


All-in-all, being well-known in a place it’s probably less risk than owning it, to both my bank balance and my waistline. But, why do I keep coming back here? Is it the stella food (it is good)? Is it the consistent experience (it is consistent)? Is it the proximity to the office (it is close)? Maybe it’s a yes to all of those; however, I think the real answer lies in the guarantee of escape.

Lunch is that time when, for just a single hour, you can shut your brain off, sit down, send some texts, read a book, and browse the internet. Sure, you might do all these things at work too; but, this is a legitimate time to unwind, when the boss isn’t going to roast you over a fire when you’re found idle.

To properly relax at lunch, escape is key - both mentally and physically. Pret can be too busy, Itsu too confusing, and in Wasabi they make you stand (what is that all about?). In Coco Di Mama, I can sit, quietly, away from people and noise - it’s just safer this way. Plus, they have a bar to rest your feet on under the stools, which means you can take the weight off (now I’m sounding old) and not have to swing your legs like some bubblegum-blowing ten year old.

The fact that the place is empty could be a worry for them. I doubt it. They seem to have a constant flow and, sometimes, a long queue of suited customers, who’ll immediately return to their desk, hunch over their screen, and spray partially chewed food across their keyboard as they laugh as ‘fat woman falls down hole’ on YouTube for the 78th time. Or whatever. Basically, I don’t understand why people eat at their desks. It’s disgusting, uncomfortable, and you don’t get paid for doing it.

So, where are we going with this laughable ‘review’? Oh yeah, the food. Coco Di Mama sell salads, sandwiches, and some other things that sit in the fridge. I’m sure they’ll all lovely; but, they're a totally needless distraction from the delicious, steaming hot pasta, that costs less than £6, and is served in less than 6 seconds, sat steaming away behind the counter. You’re an idiot if you order anything else. I’m sorry to say it, you just are.

The pasta comes with different toppings, which makes it sound like an ice cream, but I’m not quite sure what the correct word is. I always go off menu (I’m just *that* annoying). Half pomodoro, half bolognese. Sometimes, I mix it up with a half of sausage and sage or chicken and chorizo, instead of the bolognese - what can I say? I’m an unpredictable maverick. Always ask for olive oil and always ask for cheese. They come as standard, so why not? Take a seat and, if you’re a loyal customer like me, they even bring it to the table and don’t expect a tip. Boom.

Coco Di Mama have branches across London (mainly in the City).

Postscript: I just remembered that Mark came here and ate a sandwich. He’s not an idiot, so I blame myself for not writing this review sooner or advising him to choose pasta. Sorry Mark.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Annie's Burger Shack - Nottingham

Annie's Burger Shack Nottingham menu

An essential part of being a critic is to, occasionally, disagree with popular opinion; to play devil’s advocate; to suggest that things might not be a rosy as they seem. Otherwise, what’s the point?

If I tell you everything you already know, all three of you reading this will grow bored of me pretty quickly.

With that in mind, I turn to Annie’s Burger Shack in Nottingham. Annie’s is an institution, I’m told. A must visit ‘foodie’ hot-spot, nestled amongst an otherwise bleak culinary wasteland - not my words Nottingham, the words of someone who claims to know you well.

With endorsements as good as this ringing in my ears, I’d be a fool to pass up the chance, even if Annie’s does just do a burger - a food, which I’ve very recently said is frequently overhyped and really not worth its near blanket coverage in almost every issue of Timeout.

Annie's Burger Shack Nottingham burger and chips

As a restaurant, if you’re only going to offer one dish, you’d better do it well. Aside from a few odds and ends, tucked at the back of the menu, Annie’s does offer up a single dish; but, in a mindbogglingly large multitude of forms. This isn’t just one burger, three burgers, or four: it’s a bible of burgers, featuring every conceivable (and inconceivable) topping, plus a choice of a meat, veggie, or vegan patty. Take a look. The mere sight of the menu sends your eyes spinning; darting across the triptych that covers half the table in front of you, as you pick up words like, and jerk, Yorkshire pudding, peanut butter, and Johnny Vegas.

Yep, that’s right. This is a menu festooned with crazy, dripping with insanity, and oozing with the notion that someone started down a comedic road and never found a place for a u-turn. At the end of this monstrosity you’re just left asking, why?

Perhaps, I’m being unfair here. I didn’t try anything other than the bacon and cheddar burger, so how can I comment? Well, I’ll leave this with you: ‘The Elvis’ - a half-pound burger smothered with peanut butter and raspberry jam. Case closed.

Annie's Burger Shack Nottingham side salad

Having struggled to navigate this menu more than once, I stuck with my bacon and cheddar burger - with a meat patty. I asked the waitress what the same burger looked like with a vegan patty (as in, does it still come covered in meat and cheese?). She didn’t know the answer. Let’s just park that one there, shall we?

I also ordered onion rings and a side salad. I’m no Poirot, but I’d wager that the former came straight from the freezer, while the latter was a bowl of shredded lettuce, with a couple of insipid olive slices scattered on top and some tasteless cheese. I wouldn't normally mention side dishes; however, given the menu’s penchant for the bizarre, I hoped for something a little more lively. Anything would have lifted that salad - even some jam.

The burger itself? Well, let’s just say that I’d be impressed, only if this came from a roadside kebab van at 2.00am after I’d washed all taste from my mouth on a cocktail of cheap vodka and budget Red Bull.

Harsh? Yeah, I know. And, if by some freak of the internet, the chef ever reads this, they’ll no doubt be sharpening their knife for my neck - their peanut butter and jam splatted knife, that is.

Annie's Burger Shack Nottingham burger

I stand by what I say, though. This burger was awful and, not only that, it cost £10.20, without the sides. The bun was a cheap, pappy sesame seed bun, bought from a local discount supermarket - it had to be. The bacon, again cheap, tough, tasteless, adding nothing other than a stringy bit of fat that pulled the rest of the innards out after it caught in my teeth. You know the sort. The cheese, passed me by. The iceberg lettuce, just added more water to the bacon. And then we have the meat. I just didn’t know what was going on here. There was a hit of paprika (as stated on the menu), fine; but, as Mondale said, where’s the beef? Where’s the hit of meaty-meaty goodness that slaps you around the chops and screams ‘I came from a cow!’. Wherever it was, it wasn’t here. Paprika aside, this was a flavourless burger, with a grainy texture that decomposed between the bun and reminded me only of a £3.00 offering at a deserted dog track. All-in-all, a rank disappointed.

And, I’m sorry Nottingham. I really am. I wanted Annie’s to be everything and more. An American-style diner throwing out classic US grub that rivals anything that we get down in London. It just wasn’t anywhere close. A branch of Byron or Honest would wipe the floor with them.

This review might have a touch of the ‘Flaming Moe’s’ about it, as I scream “you just lost yourself a customer” over the sound of the packed tables, as they order yet more jam slathered meat. As I said at the start, though, I’m not here to agree with everyone. I say it entirely as I taste it - and Annie’s tasted bad.

Let’s just hope the chef can put down the knife - before my blood is added on the menu as another topping - and concentrate on the essentials of what sits between the bun.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Bar Boulud - Knightsbridge

Bar Boulud burger

Sometimes, you just have to treat yourself, don’t you? Lording it up in the smarter parts of town: brogues polished, trousers pressed, shirt ironed, notes spill like rain from your solid gold crocodile clip, while the largest, pimpinest cubic zirconia, sparkles atop your walking cane.

Or, you can lord it up in a slightly different way. A clean-ish pair of trainers on your feet and a £19 shirt hidden beneath your least stained sweater, you jump from the bus, sweeping through the doors before anyone can turn you away, passing a host of mid-ranking celebrities, before talking a table for two and pretending you might consider ordering something other than the cheapest item on the menu - the burger.

This isn't any burger though: it's the burger at Bar Boulud in Knightsbridge. A burger that many/some have named the best in London.

Now, I've ranted with the rest of them about how good a burger can realistically be. Mashed mince, seasoned, grilled, and slapped in a bread bun will only ever attain a certain level of excellence and is never going to be the sort of food that reduces all others to ash.

Disagree? Okay, answer this: steak or burger? Yeah, thought so. Argument over.

My, this is a tasty burger, though. Not cheap at £17; but, when the next cheapest main course on the menu is almost twice the price, you can't complain. Seriously, you can't. You're eating in Knightsbridge, in a restaurant where they offer you a £24 glass of wine on arrival - which, you obviously say no to - where the service is impeccable, the toilets clean enough to eat off, and the napkins more luxurious than your own bed sheets. Around the corner, about ten doors down, President Obama is dining with the royals. Crane your neck and you might see him through a window. Yes, all this for just £17!

For those who still have their eyebrows raised at the price; drop them, immediately. Think about it, a fantastic burger, splendid service, and two hours renting a square metre of Knightsbridge real estate, all for just £17. You can’t - legitimately - park your arse in such an exclusive part of London for less £. It's the deal of the century.

The Yankee is the only £17 burger on the menu (£18 with cheese). It's a tall stack of a burger, with a serious slice of pickle and thick rounds of tomato, perched upon a solid inch of beef that sits on the rare side of 'medium-rare'. The bun, perfectly toasted. No hint of stale bread, no touch of a burnt edge. Slice it in half, squeeze, lift, and eat with your fingers, watching as the ooze of meat juice and ketchup dribbles dangerously close to the cuffs of your white shirt.

Again, do I need to spell it out? You're eating in Knightsbridge with your fingers, surrounded by people wealthy enough to drink wine at £24 a glass and there’s juice dribbling down your chin, all for just £17. This is the culinary equivalent of manning the barricades - a big meaty middle-finger to the establishment. All for just £17.

And then we have the chips. Sure, some people don’t put much stock in fries; a carbohydrate filler, playing second fiddle to the main act. But, honestly, how disproportionately disappointing are rubbish chips? Or, worse still, rubbish chips served in a miniature frying basket or fake newspaper cone? There’s many a chef and/or restaurant manager out there, who thinks the sophistication of a chip can be increased by the receptacle it’s served in. These people need to leave the business, now.

The chips at Bar Boulud aren’t served on a plate. Instead, they’re served in a small metal bucket. But, wait! Here it makes sense. Here the bucket is hot, so the chips stay warm well into the second half of the burger. Genius! Take a bow. This is what a novel receptacle is for - function, not an awfully misplaced attempt at ‘style’.

So, finally, this is what you get for your £17 - perfection. A perfect burger, in a perfect bun, served with perfect chips, in a perfectly warm bucket, by perfect staff, alongside a scattering of celebrities, piped piano music, and Obama eating next door. Did I mention, all for just £17?!

Go on, find a better meal in London, for the money, and I’ll eat those clean-ish trainers of mine.

Friday, 29 April 2016

British Pie Awards 2016

I’m a broken record when it comes to leaving London for the day. The feeling is always the same: the early start, the taste of sleep and bitter coffee, the gentle rock of the carriage, the warm, stale air, and the rain racing across the window. The train, ploughing that same furrow, yet again, twists from the grip of its suburban shackles, breaking into a straight run through seas of green and the occasional burst of grey. With each passing minute, the line narrows and the passengers thin. London becomes the distant past; that great, glowing centre of the universe, eclipsed by drystone walls, corrugated distribution centres, an inability to make good coffee, and sofas left in the rain.

And out here, beneath the dark, leaking sky, lies Melton Mowbray. A town sat on the thinnest of thin railway lines, where the rails merge seamlessly with the land on either side, nibbled by sheep, scratched by the hardiest of shrubs, and tickled by branches. It’s a town synonymous with a different time and a different existence. A chocolate box of memories, with the picture-perfect trinity of church, park, and tumbledown mews engraved on the lid. A town to excite every tourist and inspire every Englander; a place to meet the butcher, baker, and candlestick maker; and the home - both spiritually and literally - of pies.

Melton has it’s own pie shops; Melton has it’s own pie; Melton hosts, each and every year, the British Pie Awards. This is a town that eats, sleeps, and breathes pie. To some, this might seem a terrible curse. Pie is the food of fun, ridicule, and the perfect portrayal of an awful diet. Who ate all the pies? We all did and we all do. England is a country that has, does, and will forever love pies. Obesity be damned; the magic sparkle of bright, golden glazed pastry that delivers a satisfyingly crisp crunch beneath a knife, and the ooze of a sweet, salty, stewed filling, more than compensates for a bloodstream laden with cholesterol.

But, just how satisfying is that crunch? How golden the glaze? How sweet, salty, or otherwise, the bubbling ooze? At the British Pie Awards, we - the judges - gather to answer these questions (and more) in our search for the best pie. Gathered beneath the high, vaulted ceiling of St. Mary’s church, the wheat is removed from the chaff. Looking, cutting, prodding, poking, and tasting, the glaze, the pastry, the filling, all placed beneath the microscope. Look, touch, slice, taste, and repeat. Always repeat.

For many entries, pie is clearly a labour of love; care, craft, and thought neatly brought together and encased within a perfect pastry. For others, pie is a chore; a weak, wet millimetre of pastry, collapsing before the knife's touch, revealing a thin paste of filling not fit for a fork. These are surprisingly frequent and the bins overflow with a mound of disappointingly bad entries. It’s fine though, competition breeds creativity, innovation, and an attempt at betterment. The best pies rise to the top, scoring ever higher than the failures consigned to the skip outside.

Eventually, there’s a winner - or three, to be precise. Three fruit pies, stacked on the podium, from beautiful gold, so-so silver, and shameful bronze. Each demonstrated an almost edible visual appeal, with minimal flaws; each served up a perfectly even, firm, cooked pastry; each managed to deliver a balanced flavour, that met their description; each was so stuffed with filling, that a single slice was a meal in itself. Each was a pie worthy of its place and a reassurance, once again, that Britain knows how to cook the best pies, as well as eat them.