Sunday, 13 May 2012

A tribute to frozen yogurt

Pinkberry: a bit blurred, still spectacular.
I think I've been a bit slow to discover the joys of frozen yogurt, but I thought it was time to share my love.  Recently I was taken to Pinkberry, a frozen yogurt outlet from Los Angeles which enjoys a cult following - cemented by an appearance in Curb Your Enthusiasm - that opened its first UK branch at Selfridges in London last year.  This frozen yogurt is of a particular style: usually sold 'plain' and piped out from a machine into statuesque Mr Whippy-like blobs, it is then sprinkled and coated in as many wonderful toppings as you like such as granola, Oreo cookies, Heath bars (like Dime bars), chocolate curls, brownie bits, fresh mango, strawberry...

The staff at Pinkberry seem cheerfully content to conspire with you in your quest for maximum toppings - usually they're brilliantly adept at stuffing as much as they can into the tub. And all-American, the branding transforms frozen yogurt into a little pot of joy which is passed over to you else with a happy farewell from the staff member, "Enjoy your Pinkberry!"

There is something really addictive about eating frozen yogurt like this.  It might have something to do with the perfect balance between sour and sweet, which makes it really satisfying, never sickly, to the point where you almost feel you could graze on it all day.  It's a tangy and refreshing while still being comfortingly creamy and smooth, and the mixed in little sweet soft and crunchy accompaniments contrast nicely in a winning combination of texture and flavour.

Frozen yogurt sometimes markets itself on the 'healthy' card - at Pinkberry I witnessed a small group of slim and fresh-faced youthful females pointlessly questioning staff about the calorie count - and really, I'm not sure once you've caked on the layers of chocolate and sugar toppings it can be really that virtuous.  Either way, I go to Pinkberry for a treat and I don't care if it's good for me, but it is I suppose an added bonus that the delicious gunge holding together all those honeyed nuts, jelly bears and chocolate brownie chunks is fat free and also probiotic.

Lick: on a deckchair, Brighton-style
I also remembered that I can get frozen yogurt of this kind in Brighton, at Lick - apparently the UK's first frozen yogurt outlet.  It's worth mentioning too that along with its cult following frozen yogurt has bizarrely gained a kind of chic image - the Link website features videos of intimate gigs held at the shop while photos of cheerful fresh-faced folk with their frozen yogurts clearly appeal to the Hipstamatic generation.  Pushed on by my developing Pinkberry addiction, on Friday I tried their mango frozen yogurt - as well as plain they have a new flavour each day.  It was OK, but the mango flavour was a bit too subtle for my liking, and it really wasn't the same without any crunching toppings mixed in.  So today with visitors who are also Pinkberry addicts, we took advantage of the sun and went for a full on frozen yogurt experience.

Lick is a bit cheaper than Pinkberry, but their range of toppings is more limited, and their set price limits you to 3 different toppings only - any more costs extra.  I think this is a bit of a shame - part of Pinkberry's appeal is that you can go crazy and try everything, a kind of 'eat as much as you can cram on' type joyfulness which attests to its American origins.  Today I had strawberries, honeycomb and Oreo cookies.  I'd say Lick's yogurt is less sweet than Pinkberry's, and it's probably personal taste what you prefer, but for me I think Pinkberry just has the edge.  Still, I think Lick's slightly more tangy blend of yoghurt compliments well very sweet accompaniments like the honeycomb and Oreo's I opted for, and I'd probably stick to those in the future rather than fruit.  The strawberries also were quite sour.  I realise they aren't in season, but somehow all of Pinkberry's fruit is juicy and sweet all year round - and they state in proud posters that they always use the 'freshest fruit' not pre-prepared in syrup.  God knows how they do it - I guess it's probably evilly imported from halfway round the world.  Also Lick tend to chop their fruit and other bits larger than Pinkberry, so although it looks quite spectacular, you don't quite get that lovely 'mixing in' of flavours quite so easily.  One thing I did love more than Pinkberry, was the location - obviously being about 20 minutes walk from my house is a huge advantage, but mostly the setting in the North Laine is complimented by Lick deckchairs placed outside the shop for customers.  It was lovely to sit back in the sun with a frozen yogurt in the perfect location to people watch.  And I like to support local home grown businesses, so I'll definitely be going back to get my fix (once the warm weather returns).

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Weekend of Meat Part III: MEATmarket

coo coo...the pigeon's-eye view
Being that Saturday's meat adventure was a bit  of a cheat (albeit delicious, a bit of sausage on a pizza didn't really have that full-on artery-busting effect we were going for) for Sunday's sustenance we headed to MEATmarket in Covent Garden.  A sister restaurant of Meat Liquor, which is shut on Sundays, we decided to try it out as it only opened a few days before.  The restaurant is upstairs in the old-fashioned Jubilee Market in Covent Garden, and the roosting-pigeon's-eye view is good for people watching, and I gather a lot less dark and noisy than Meat Liquor's trendy nu-grunge interior.  Meat Liquor has been the subject of a lot of hype, and I read really great things about their 'Dead Hippie' burger from the excellent Burgerac, so I was excited to try this place out.  They pose themselves as a fast-food version of Meat Liquor, with a more limited menu, a wide counter a la your local kebab shop or McS**t, with stools and high tables which overlook the market.  As I said, you do get a great view over the market, but be warned that view comes at a price - the market has customary wide open entrances all day long, so things get a little chilly in the dining area.

The atmosphere was low key but funky, with illuminated signs over head and giant shelves filled with rows and rows of vividly coloured bottles of French's mustard and tomato ketchup.  On ordering, the first thing that occured to me, apart from the limited menu - I was disappointed they didn't have the renowned chili-cheese fries of Meat Liquor - was the cost.  The 'fast food' atmosphere (complete with chill) and minimalist menu - one milkshake flavour simply named 'white' and cocktails from a Slush Puppy style machine - is evidently ironic, and this 'no nonsense' style clearly doesn't apply to the prices.  The Dead Hippie on its own cost £7.50 but, feeling intrepid and swallowing my inner cheapskate, I went ahead and ordered, adding a fries and coke on the side.

Service was friendly, and fast.  We sucked our bottomless cokes (free refills - a nice authentic American touch) through straws, and a few minutes later our trays of food arrived in funky drive-thru style wrapping.  Still, even before I unwrapped it it looked disappointingly small.
The Dead Hippie is essentially a cheeseburger, featuring two beef burgers, cheese, lettuce, diced onion and 'dead hippie special sauce'.  When I unwrapped mine it sadly hadn't got any bigger, and as I pulled my scarf around me against the brisk air I again had that nagging feeling that £7.50 was quite a lot for a burger.  Taking a bite I would agree with Burgerac that there is a pleasant beefy taste to the burger, and a LOT of juice that spills out and runs off your chin when you sink your teeth in, very enjoyable.  But it's not really outstanding.  I wanted this burger to make me fall off my stool with flavours but it just didn't.  I commented to Jane it sort of tastes how I imagine a McS**t Big Mac SHOULD taste - if it looked like the pictures above the counter - but I'm not sure if this is really a compliment.  I really liked the fries, which were perfectly salted and stayed crisp (though not warm - again, the chill...) for the entire meal.  Jane ordered the MEATmarket exclusive (all the other burgers are all available at Meat Liquor), the Black Palace burger: double burger with cheese, pickles, grilled onions, ketchup and mustard.  I eyed hers with some envy, it seemed a bit bigger, but I'm not sure if this was due to the fact that it was overflowing with oodles of delicious looking grilled onions - so much so that it kind of disintegrated when she tried to eat it. 

Dead Hippie...tasty, juicy and sadly over in about 2 minutes
I'm glad I tried MEATmarket but I can't help but feel that it's a little over-rated.  I don't think I would have felt this if it was better value for money.  Its position in Jubilee Market is unique, but draughty and I felt like I was paying restaurant prices for a cafe experience and one which is (dare I say it) trading on its quirky hipster following.  In Brighton, I know from the brilliant Grubbs burgers that fast food can be good AND cheap.  I know from the rather lovely Coal Shed (a bit of a Hawksmoor imitator) that burgers can be lovingly presented, and a little more expensive.  Still, my Coal Shed burger the other week cost £9.50, included dripping-cooked chips, its one 250g steak mince beef burger equalling the combined thickness of the two burger Dead Hippie.  In the end I spent £13 at MEATmarket on what was really fast food, very nice fast food, but fast food nonetheless, dressed up with a little dash of irony and punky styling.  The cult of burger doesn't seem to be loosening its grip on London anytime soon, but as a Brighton-to-London interloper I'd say that we've got a few examples down on the South coast that could knock MEATmarket into a cocked (and if necessary, very hip) hat.

All gone...parting is such sweet sorrow. Sniff.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Weekend of Meat Part II: Franco Manca

Saturday was meant to be a burger day, but there was the suggestion of a trip to the amazing cheap-and-chic trinketmonger Tiger in Stratford that I couldn't resist.  A Danish import, Tiger is kind of like a mini-Ikea selling cute little household items you never knew you needed, and in truth probably don't really need.  The intention was to go to Meat Liquor, but when Jane mentioned there was also branch of Franco Manca at Stratford Westfield, the excitement of trying out this pizza place I'd heard so much about just about outweighed the repulsion at visiting a shopping mall on a Saturday.  Franco Manca started in Brixton market and is renowned for cheap, authentic and delicious Italian sourdough pizzas.  As my London friends are North London dwellers I've never made it there to sample their apparently delicious wares. 

Being closer to North London we found ourselves Stratford-bound.  To say that Westfield was busy is an understatement.  We knew that things were going to be intense from the moment we took the Overground from Highbury and Islington - standing room only - and then arrived at Stratford to find Olympic volunteers out in force directing crowds with giant foam pointy fingers printed with 'Olympic Park This Way'.  'Is it always like this?' we asked ourselves, 'God help us during the Olympics'.  Unbeknownst to us, there was a concert going on at the Olympic Park where approximately 75,000 people were due to attend.  Not a great day to plan a shopping/eating trip right next door.  But fortune favours the brave, and we steeled ourselves to the crowds, buoyed up by the thought of the ultimate reward in the form of flat baked bread and cheese.

After some ill-advised shopping, queuing and shuffling behind other peoples' B.O, we gave up and headed for the food area.  I really want to dislike Westfield shopping centres with their Americanised, generic shopping experience, but the shinyness (and warmth on another freezing early Spring day) is undeniably inticing.  The sheer scale of this palace of consumerism is incredible, including the area tailored to my favourite kind of consumption - the World Food Court.  At first I thought it unusual that a small, rustic and well-loved pizza kiosk (Franco Manca now have 3 branches) would be the sort of place that would fit in the potentially dull, mass produced chain store-food of the shopping mall.  But the extent of Westfield's food offerings is surprisingly impressive.  A shopping mall isn't the most atmospheric place to eat but while jostling the crowds and spying on their plates everything I saw - racks of BBQ ribs, lebanese mezze, hot dogs, Vietnamese soups, Indian street food - looked surprisingly fresh, well portioned, and good quality.

So how was Franco Manca... A little bit of queuing but brilliant, fast service once we got to the counter - the pizzas are prepared and tossed into a brick oven for a few minutes in the open kitchen behind.  One thing that's noticeable - and good - about Italian pizza is that there are frequently fewers topping combinations than we Brits are used to - often the best pizza has only two or three toppings.  In Italy, where they obviously have access to the best ingredients this results in an amazing clarity of flavour, and one of my favourite combinations is simply tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and olive oil - resulting in a delicious juicy pizza.  The menu for Franco Manca is quite limited, and this being the Weekend of Meat I eschewed tradition and went for the £7.50 'Meat Special' which included a wide array of toppings including garlic, capers, peppers, pecorino, rocket and Gloucester Old-Spot sausage.  I actually appreciated this local British touch; the sausages may have used British rare breed pork but were prepared in a delicious Italian-style way with spices and fennel.  One thing to remember is that at Franco Manca if 'tomato' isn't listed, there's no tomato sauce on the pizza base, and while to some tastes the 'meat special' may not have needed it, I thought that a little tomato would have complimented the other flavours.  Franco Manca prides itself on its sourdough which uses a slow rising process and results in a very soft and floppy result, no crusty edges or base here, but fluffy and delicious.  I found myself folding over the pliable slices into a kind of 'wrap' which seemed like a good way to tackle it.  When I got to the edge I was glad of the drizzle of olive oil I'd opted for, though sort of wished I'd chosen chilli oil as I think it would have been nice to have a little more flavour when finishing off the bready goodness of the edge pieces... I actually would have loved a bowl of oil and balsamic vinegar.  A 175ml glass of Italian red wine on the side was a perfect accompaniment, fruity and drinkable, and priced at a very reasonable £3.45.  All in all it was worth fighting the crowds of Stratford to visit this little gem of a fast-food outlet, which still maintains a unique little taste of Italy (with a twist) amongst the rampant consumerism and corporate polish of Westfield.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Weekend of Meat Part I: Duke's Brew and Que

This weekend I went up to London to spend the weekend catching up and eating with my lovely friend Jane.  As I've been eating mostly vegetarian for the past fortnight - not for any particular reason, but having once been a vegetarian for about 9 years, I tend to eat meatless meals more often than not - we decided to have a decadent weekend of meat eating.  I really appreciate those years of being a vegetarian, as they taught me to appreciate meat as a bit of a luxury and really enjoy it when I have it.

So, pigs and cows, thank you for providing the deliciousness of our Friday culinary escapade to Duke's Brew and Que in East London.  A cosy and inviting barbeque restaurant/bar adding to the long list of funky American-style meat hangouts in London (eg. Meat Liquor, Bodeans, Pitt Cue, etc) it has a simple menu of ribs, burgers and sliders (sort of mini burgers/meaty sandwiches) with a not-so-simple (in a good way) beer list and lengthy cocktail menu.  A refreshing thing about Duke's is that they take advance bookings.  I have no idea why many of these places have a 'no reservations' policy, the cynic in my says that a hefty queue outside your establishments somehow adds to the legend, status and anticipation.  But to me it's just a massive hassle, a bit of a cheek and leads to leg and brain ache.  Or maybe they want you to get paraletic before you dine.  Jane mentioned that she waited in the queue for almost 2 hours to get into Pitt Cue, getting rapidly drunker from drinks bought at the pub across the road.  Once she got inside she and her companion had a further wait at the bar where more drinks were consumed.  Needless to say, by the time they sat down to eat the food didn't really matter any more.  Anyway, back to Duke's...

Beef ribs and a sunshine-coloured mac n' cheese
The meat was really moist but didn't quite fall off the bone quite as softly as Bodean's or Brighton's BBQ Shack.  Still the smokey aroma lingered with me long afterwards (in a good way).  We shared pork ribs and beef ribs, the pork ribs benefitting from a slightly spicy marinade and crispy fat - these probably had the edge flavour-wise for us, but the beef ribs' sheer size and juicyness was irresistably seductive.  Also the bottles of homemade BBQ sauce were excellent, particularly the sublime mustard and horseradish one which we wanted to steal.  The aforementioned cheap beer was also brilliant.  Mac n' cheese had a lovely tangy cheese flavour but for me was a tad dry.  I appreciate this is a matter of opinion though as I like mine unctuous and saucy with a crusty top, whereas Jane likes hers pretty much 'set' all through.  Each to their own!  Also, they brew their own beer at Dukes, and kudos to them for serving it by the pint.  One of my pet gripes at a lot of these new meaty diner-ish haunts is that because they often only serve imported (eg. American) beers it's frequently only sold in over-priced tiny bottles.  With a sigh of relief I found that Dukes' cheapest homebrew sets you back just over £3, and I cheerfully imbibed a pint of their amusingly named 'Neck Oil' out of an old-fashioned glass tankard.  Note to other restaurants - some of us like drink a lot but save money for extra food.  Save the glass and let us have some draft beer, hey?

THE BAD (but not that bad):
Accompanying coleslaw could have been creamier - there didn't seem to be much dressing and it almost ressembled mass-produced stuff.  Also felt that the restaurant is a little chilly and on a (granted, unseasonably) cold early May night we felt a bit of a draft at our window-side table.  The only really bad thing was the pickle on the side - not sure if these were homemade or not but it was bland, watery, more like a cucumber than a lovely crunchy sweet pickle.  This is hopefully a small touch they can improve on.

Pork ribs, disappointing pickle.

Overall I reckon I'd give it an 8/10.  Worth taking the Overground out to East London for and sampling pretty good barbecue and a brilliant beer menu.  And their unisex bathroom with communal tin tub for handwashing and its own piped-in music is also a highlight...

Friday, 4 May 2012

Come Dine With Me...

Some friends and I have committed to do a Come Dine With Me style series of dinner parties - without the sarcastic commentary and rifling through each other's knicker drawer.  The idea being that it's not that often you get the excuse to make a 3-course (or more) meal and we wanted to give 'proper entertaining' a go.  So, roughly once a month, we're going round to each other's home to, in the words of Lloyd Grossman before Masterchef's more aggressive resurrection, 'cogitate, deliberate and digest'.

I went first with an 'Italian feast', keeping true to the programme in that frequently the cooks on there try and be inspired by even the most tenuous link to a foreign heritage.  My grandad was Italian and in good Italian style, one of the main things he passed on was a love of Italian food and it's always inspirational to me.  Also we have one vegetarian in our party and rather than relegate her to a special menu of rabbit food like some Come Diners on the show (and having once been a vegetarian for about 9 years myself) I thought that for a truly enjoyable convivial meal what is is good for one should be good for us all.  And despite a love for carnivorous Italian delights like parma ham, salami or a meaty ragu, arguably what defines just as much classic Italian food is fantastic vegetables, herbs, breads and cheeses.

What I thought would be a simple menu actually turned into quite a time-consuming process, involving a couple of bread-type procedures as well as homemade pasta that not only required assembly of the dough but then a further fashioning into pretty little ravioli.  Despite preparations over 2 - 3 days I still found myself with an hour before my guests arrived, both myself and a sink full of utensils needing washing, mirroring the right-to-the-wire position of many Come Dine With Me contestants who I'd normally scoff at for their lack of preparation.  Somehow I managed to clean myself and the kitchen up and prepare the Campari and snacks before my first guest arrived promptly at 7pm...

The one good thing about going first is that I now have 3 more dinner parties to enjoy where I can just put my feet up, relax, and slag off their home decor... mwa ha ha.

Stella's Italian Feast

Campari cocktails and aperitivo: homemade tarallucci, polenta with gorgonzola and broccoli, olives and pecorino

Lemon and goats cheese ravioli

Melanzane parmagiana with green salad and homemade bread

Baked luccan fruit salad with mascarpone and amaretti

There wasn't much time for photos amongst the wine, strange Italian liqueurs, and chat, but here are a few....

Table - flowers, napkins, and even a water jug!

Tarallucci - first had these in Milan, little savoury biscuits with fennel, great with drinks!

Assembling the melanzane.... Anna Del Conte's is the best recipe EVER.
Melanzane parmigiana and polenta with broccoli and gorgonzola

Homemade sourdough bread

Lemon pasta - determined to be soggy, I managed to save it in the end....

Homemade lemon and goats cheese ravioli - after many hours faffing.