Tuesday, 9 September 2014

The Bull and Last, Kentish Town


Despite taking a keen interest in geography when I was younger, I have to say that my sense of direction is notoriously bad. If you ever find yourself lost on the streets of London, don't ever ask me which way to head. Because I will almost certainly send you down the wrong street to the wrong side of town. Once, around lunchtime near my office, a poor soul anxiously approached me wishing to get to St Pauls and I sent them on their way with a series of left/right gesticulations, smiling confidently as I did so. However as I soon as I turned tail, I realised that I had actually sent them in the opposite direction so I hastily blended into the crowd and waltzed off myself. I spotted the same person about 10 minutes later and the look on his face suggested to me that he was very angry. And quite possibly late. But hey, he must got directions off the right person because as he surged down the street, I could see St Christopher's dome rising magnificently in the background. I was just glad that he didn't see me.

With that in mind, my inner GPS went all shonky again this weekend. For an anniversary treat I booked a table at The Bull and Last, an esteemed gastropub favoured by Chris Pople and some bloke called Coren. And when I say I booked it, I mean just that. "Hello? Can I have a table? Thank you. Goodbye." I didn't think much more of it afterwards. So when the time came around, after a night in Hammersmith, watching some strange witch-like woman wail and float around the stage, when Mrs FU asked me if I knew where we were going, I naturally said yes. 

When we got off the tube at Highgate Station she asked me the question again.

"Yes, the pub is around here somewhere," I replied as we trotted off down the hill. "It's on Highgate Road. This is Highgate Hill. Look see the road sign. Let's just keep walking, we'll find it soon enough."

Mrs FU gave it the magic 10 minutes before she asked me one more time.

"Are you sure it's around here?"

"Um, yes.....no....... I don't really know."

After a quick peruse on Google maps on the phone, it soon turned out we were quite a fair distance from the pub. In roughly the right area, I hastily tried to defend but oooh, it was still a bit of trek wasn't it. The silence was deafening as we started to sprint, apart from the occasional pant of breath and "Mind that dog shit" (the streets of North London are caked I tell you). Luckily we managed to get to the pub, bang on the nose for our reservation.

I don't think I have ever seen my wife down a pint so quickly before but as she wiped the sweat away from her brow and judging by the look in her eyes, I don't think I'll be in charge of booking restaurants for much longer.


The great thing about The Bull and Last, or where we were sat upstairs at least, is that the place is large and airy and when asked, the waiters will gladly open a window for you. So we managed to cool down and get nice and comfortable quite quickly. The decor of old paintings, stuffed animals wearing jaunty napkins, bashed up tables and chairs was fairly de rigueur for a gastropub; which does makes wonder whether everyone goes to the same taxidermist-come-antiques dealer (who must be making a fortune). But still, the ambiance was relaxed, with only the occasional "Rah!" to puncture the air and the aforementioned beer was very good. A pint of Five Points Pale Ale and a pint of Redemption..... something or the other. I think.


The menu was seasonal and British, leaning towards to the more gutsy side of proceedings, which suited me down the ground. I did ponder for a little while about some delicate sounding English beetroot with cow's curd and roasted walnuts, but I was starving after that walk so I ordered the braised pig cheek with watermelon pickle and sesame. Followed by the pork belly, black pudding, crackling and all the trimmings. Yes, double pork. Or triple in fact.

  

Now I love a pig cheek or two and the idea of pairing them with watermelon seemed very fanciful. It certainly looked exotic when the plate arrived at the table and as I pressed my fork into the teriyaki oyster of pork, it collapsed wonderfully under the weight. Coupled with chunks of pickled yet still crisp watermelon and peppery herbs, each mouthful was unusual, quirky and perhaps one of the best things I have eaten all year. My praises for this dish would have gone superlative if the waiter had put two cheeks in front of me. But alas, I only got one and half cheeks. Which seemed a touch stingy when you consider how cheap they are. Nevertheless, it got me first points on the score board which is oh so important when you eat out with your partner.

Not that Mrs FU's choice misfired. Her wild game terrine with damsons, pickles and toast also hit the spot and there is always something to admire in a well constructed slice. We played quite the guessing game as to what game was in the meat loaf and I am adamant that they stuck a prune into the mix. Not that my wife listened to me. She was too busy licking the damson jelly off the plate. Also, fantastic radishes but still, 1-0.


My mains could on face value be described as regular Sunday lunch fare but it was head and shoulders above the usual offering from our local pub. Sweet belly that again melted at the touch of a fork, nuggets of blood pudding, soft baked pear and crunchy spuds all made for very happy eating indeed. The crackling snapped with delight and the sprouting broccoli offered virtue but the best part of this dish for me, surprisingly, was the celeriac. God, I've missed that ugly son of gun and this was a timely reminder that root veg is firmly back on the agenda. I think I might just buy a few gnarly boulders on the next shopping trip actually. In short, for me, this plate heralded the start of Autumn.


However, even though I thought my mains was really good, Mrs FU (in her humble opinion) decided that her fish platter evened up the scores, citing that her wooden board filled with gravalax, brown crab, mackerel pate, chipirones, haddock croquettes, fennel salad and *sharp intake of breath* treacle bread beat my Sunday standard well into submission. And sure, it looked pleasing but there was no way that it whipped my nutty celeriac mash. Apart from the potted crab. That did taste amazing and rich. And the fresh mackerel. The beetroot cured salmon wasn't bad either. But the rest was raaaahbish. Except for the croquette. The fennel, the fennel was shit. I am done with that aniseed claptrap. Until next week maybe. 

OK.

1-1

In hindsight, we should have left desserts well alone but as this was a special meal, we ploughed on regardless, deciding on a just light bite and digestif to finish things off. Namely cheese and port. From the small selection available we went for Stichelton, Keen's Cheddar and Reblochon, all of which were delightful. Although I felt the French cheese could have been just a touch more gooey. I am only nit-picking though, trying to proportion some element of blame. For by the time we'd finished, we felt thoroughly turgid. Joyful but definitely swollen.

2-2

A draw.

As far as the actual cost of Sunday lunch, a bill of just over a hundred squids did edge things towards the expensive end, especially since we didn't have that much to drink. Honest, we really didn't (a few more pints and half a carafe of Picpoul). And I have to been mulling it over in my head ever since as to whether The Bull and Last represented value for money. I think they just about pulled it off. Their menu wouldn't look out of place in most decent boozers up and down the land but in the cooking and presentation, I would say that they do deliver that extra bit of care and attention. That fish platter was certainly a labour of love with all its elements and the service was charming and friendly. We had quite a giggle with our waiter at the end, belying some reports that the staff can be po-faced. And I really did like those pig cheeks with the watermelon. All one and half of them. No, I was more than satisfied with the meal we had there and you only live once and all that. Next year we are going to IKEA for meatballs.

BUT! If I did have to complain about one thing, it would be the fish eye mirror that hangs in their toilet upstairs. Jesus, it very nearly knock me for six when I stared into it after conducting my ablutions. I was so disorientated by the thing that after leaving, I started to wonder back up towards Hampstead Heath. 

Thankfully Mrs FU was on hand to direct me down the hill, towards Kentish Town tube station. The stop that we should have gotten off at in the first place.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Lobster, Fish and Happy Shopper Camp Chowder

Bliss (kinda)
 Yes, that is me on the left, basking in the warm glow of a not-quite-Autumn-yet sun. As you can see, the soft grass beneath my feet dips downwards, masking primal granite underneath. And just beyond that tent in the middle, just beyond a hedge of bracken, jagged rocks pierce the Atlantic; like old man's teeth gnashing and foaming in the brine. The mysterious island of Lundy sits squat on the horizon and after that, well, who knows. This is Mortehoe in North Devon, an undeniably beautiful place. However, do not let this serene, wistful photo fool you. It may convey a sense of wonder, a frame of a man at peace with the world, soaking up the best that nature can offer. But the reality is, or was rather, when this photo was taken, I was getting smashed by winds of up to 90 miles an hour. Nature was farting in my face and laughing and giggling with glee and to be honest, it wasn't pleasant. The whole time we were there, it was like nature was bellowing:

"You've come camping? Here? On one of the most exposed parts of the British coast? HA! You fool! Can you feel my windy buttocks buffeting your face? Watch then, as I sit on your tent and squash it with them! Hahahahaha! Can you hear that snapping? That's your tent poles that is! That will learn you for using a cheap tent! Whoops, there goes your hat! AND YOUR EVENT SHELTER! Ha! Oh joy! Oh joy, joy, joy!"

Needless to say our first camping holiday with the twins was a bit of a trial. Not an unmitigated disaster mind. In the company of very good friends and with the aid of copious alcohol, bags and bags of 2p coins for the arcade and stereotypically English stiff upper lips, we did manage to have a most excellent time. And the children certainly loved it. They even went into the sea, the nutters. Personally though, when we finally left Devon, I was just a little bit disappointed that I didn't get to do as much cooking in the Great Outdoors as I would have liked. I had plenty of ideas and I had even bought a copy of Josh Sutton's Guyrope Gourmet to try out some of his recipes. But trying to read the damn thing out in the open, with pages whipping from left to right was nigh on impossible. In the end, I just popped it back in tent and took to standing in the gale, whilst sipping stupidly strong scrumpy and flicking V's back at the sky.

We did have a couple of breakthroughs at breakfast time, which came in the shape of bacon and black pudding butties and some eggy bread. And we also managed to rustle up one meal in the evening, namely my mate John's infamous chowder. I was pretty insistent that we made this actually. Largely because John has been bleating on about this fabulous seafood stew he makes whenever he goes camping, for like, forever. And largely because I have always been intrigued by the juxtaposition of the ingredients within, which mainly consists of very expensive and luxurious lobster, coupled with dirt cheap tinned potatoes. By all accounts, this recipe was borne out of sourcing what is available in Mortehoe and as you might guess, there isn't much. A pretty well-stocked fishmonger, come fish and chip shop. And an efficiently stocked camp shop. Oh, plus three pubs. I did wonder if I should point out to John that the camp shop sold fresh spuds but after seeing him gamble up to the till with a silly grin on his face and an armful of Happy Shopper tinned new potatoes (59p), I felt it was a risk worth taking.

And it was. Given that in reality, we used very little to pep everything up - this meal basically consists of lobster, fish, water, wine, onion and cream - it tasted bloody amazing and was testimony to the simple approach when cooking. Served up in a mess-tin for authenticity, it was rich, indulgent and life-affirming; a cor-blimey smack on the lips to be mopped up with bread slathered with butter. My only addition when preparing and helping to finish at the end was to issue a small smattering of capers over the top, which gave just enough spike to help cut through the silky broth.

After licking the remains of the sauce out of the mess tin using my stubby digits, I threw the lightweight vessel into that ferocious wind, roared at the top of my lungs and turned my back to it victorious. Moments later, the mess-tin returned and hit me on top of my delicate head. So in the end, nature won. But if you do ever go like to camping yourself and have access to a decent fishmonger, and some Happy Shopper spuds, you really should try this recipe. It will blow you away....he he geddit? Ha ha ha.......ah fack it.....

Lobster, Fish and Happy Shopper Camp Chowder - serves 4 adults and 2 children

Chowder
Ingredients (fish is fairly approximate as we bought everything by pointing)

2 lobsters, cooked
750gms of cod fillet, sliced into goujons
250gms of gurnard fillet, sliced into goujons
2 tins of Happy Shopper New Potatoes, drained and cut in half
1 onion, finely chopped
300mls double cream
1 large glass of white wine, possibly 2
Olive oil
Black pepper
Water
Capers (optional)

Bread and butter to serve

Method

If cooking this outside, first make a perimeter around your cooking area to shield you from the wind. Use cars, trailers, windbreaks, jackets and chopping boards to ensure that your Campingaz single burning stoves work efficiently. Keep a flagon of strong Devonshire cider handy to keep you sane when everything blows off the table.

Now, break up your cooked lobster and remove as much meat as possible from the claws, legs and head. Crack the tail and peel and cut the flesh into chunky medallions. Reserve the meat in a pot of some description. Then place all the lobster shell into another pot and filled with approximately 2 litres of water. Bring to the boil on your gaz burner and simmer and reduce for about 45 minutes. This will form the main part of your stock.

When done, place a frying pan on the burner, add a splash of olive oil, then the onion and gently fry until translucent. Add the wine and reduce by half and then add some of the stock. John was the master of ceremonies at this point and carefully adding the shellfish stock by the ladle, taking his time. Whereas I would have dumped the lot in but I expect this was to gain maximum efficiency from the gaz or gas or whatever.

Then add your Happy Shopper spuds and the cream and begin to reduce further.  As the stock thickens, pop the lobster in to warm through and then add the fish. Cook for about another 5 minutes.

When ready, serve in mess-tins or bowls, add a crack of black pepper and a scattering of capers if you so wish. Add a slice or two or bread and butter and off you go.

Enjoy whilst the sun goes down and eat quickly. As the wind tends to turn things cold very soon.

Happy Shopper Spuds
Lobster and Cidre
Lobster Meat
Lobster Stock
Essential for camping