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Saturday 28 December 2013

Bar Chocolat with Blanch & Shock and Bompas & Parr

Monday September 16th - Midway through my first day back teaching at school over 4 months ago, I got an email from Barchick saying I had won two tickets to the last night of the Bar Chocolat popup that evening.  Luckily my plans had just been cancelled so I got hold of List Leader Natalie who was up for it.

We joined a queue of excited Londoners on Earlham Street, ready for a 3 course meal from experimental foodies Blanch & Shock and Bompas & Parr, inspired by an indulgent new liquid chocolate liqueur from Baileys called Chocolat Luxe.

On entering, we passed through three art installations before we reached the Chocolat Luxe bar.

Bompass & Parr installation
Chocolat Luxe bar & Microleaf Canapé
After a quick look around, the dining room was revealed and we sat down.  We found ourselves sitting next to knowledgeable Food & Drink-o-phile, Wilkes McDermid, whom I have met many times since.  

Our first course was a fascinating & tasty mix of seafood and vegetables, all served on ice with wooden pincers.  See the menu below for details!  Wine was smartly paired with the food throughout the evening.

The first course was impressive, but the second course was spectacular.  Food and theatre combined as an army of waiters created a unique work of edible art right in front of our eyes.  I had heard good things about Blanch & Shock and they lived up to the hype with this flashy feast.

It was a really fun and sociable way to eat, though you almost didn't want to move any of the food!  Several ingredients were in a "no-mans land" area which I fought over with a complete stranger.  I obviously didn't take on Natalie, you know what those northerners are like.

For the sweet course, Blanch & Shock passed the baton over to Bompas & Parr.  We started by coating our lips in gold leaf, before taking on a variety of miniature puddings that were spread around the bar area, whilst drinking a glass of Chocolat Luxe (served Rococo style with a raspberry).  

The Chocolat Luxe itself isn't really my thing, but it will appeal to a lot of people.  It could be used in a variety of ways but is probably best served as an after dinner treat, as it was by Bompas & Parr.

Thanks to Barchick for the tickets, and to B&S and B&P for the theatrical spread.  Keep an eye on all of their websites for exciting future projects, of which I'm sure there will be many in 2014.

What am I drinking this week?

Alcohol seemed to be the prevailing theme from my Christmas presents this year, and I am now the proud owner of some wonderful spirits, including Oriental-spiced Opihr Gin, a bottle of smoky Peat Monster Whisky and some incredible "El Carrizal" Anejo Tequila Ocho (which would convert any tequila absconder). I have also finally got some Fee Brothers Aztec Chocolate Bitters and Mozart Chocolate Bitters for my back bar, both very different and useful.  There were several more more mini gins, beers and liqueurs which Twitter followers have been busy trying to identify over the festive period.  

Christmas came early a couple of weeks ago in the form of a bottle of Ruby Blue Wild Blackcurrant liqueur, one of four new bottle-aged liqueurs from Northern Ireland.  They also produce Wild Blueberry, Cranberry and a Chilli Pepper liqueur.  In a nice touch, every bottle contains the berries which have been added to the distilled Irish grain spirit, and every bottle has been aged for at least three months.  My Wild Blackcurrant liqueur is very drinkable on its own, and is also a great substitute for Cassis in a Kir Royale.  Head over to Gerry's to get your hands on your own bottle.

Thursday 26 December 2013

Shake Shack - Five Guys - MEATmarket

Just as the Shake Shack & Five Guys burgerbuzz was starting to die down, some numpty wrote an article in The Sunday Times on 2013 food trends, thanking the two American chains for bringing great burgers to London.  I never got round to writing up my trips as I was pretty underwhelmed, but now seems the right time to put it up.

One can only assume this "expert" was living under a rock for most of the year, and somehow failed to notice the pre-existing London front-runners (Patty&Bun, BBQ Whiskey Beer, MEATliquor, Tommi's Burger Joint, Dirty Burger, Honest Burgers, BOOM Burger, Disco Bistro and more).  I appreciate that the average person may not have heard of many of them, but the average person isn't writing a foodie article for a national newspaper.  Surely Byron (who continue to do great things) and GBK deserve most of the credit for pushing burgers forward here a few years ago?  It was a lazy, ill-informed piece of journalism that hopefully won't influence too many Londoners looking to get on board the burger train in 2014. Anyway, here are my thoughts:

Wednesday 17th July -  Back in July, Team List needed to see what all the fuss was about, though not at the expense of 90 minutes of my life on the opening weekend when Murray was powering through his Wimbledon semi-final.  We went along a week or two later, and bravely decided to go to both burger joints in the same lunch time.

Photo from Barchick
First up was Shake Shack in Covent Garden Piazza.  Will and I were ushered into the fast moving queue and given some menus to peruse.  We discussed our eating tactic for the day ahead, and were joined by Taro just as we made it to the front (15 minutes queue at lunch time).  Shake Shack is a well oiled machine, and we were soon handed our food collection buzzers before going off in search of a table.

The collection system works fine until you order alcohol, which they have to serve to the table themselves.  I therefore had a fairly awkward walk to my seat carrying my burger on a tray whilst a waitress brought my pint of Shackmeister Ale, a tasty draught lager brewed for them by Brooklyn Brewery.  There are other interesting bottled beer options too.

The SmokeShack burger (cheese & bacon) was pretty tasty and disappeared within a few seconds. The meat was nicely cooked, the buns were pleasingly squishy and the mysterious ShackSauce held its own. The simpler Shackburger (cheeseburger) also got a thumbs up.  The Shack Stack sounds interesting with both a cheeseburger and a crisp-fried portobello mushroom stuffed with cheese inside. The burgers are fairly good value (£4.75-£9) though they are on the small side.  They also have a range of hot dogs, all under £5.  The crinkle cut fries are disappointing, but don't spoil the meal.

On the dessert front Shake Shack put in more effort than most, serving up a wide range of ice creams ("Frozen Custard") in milkshake and "concrete" formats with some tempting varieties such as the Union Jack - chocolate custard, St.John Bakery chocolate brownie, fudge sauce, Paul.A.Young chocolate chunks and sea salt.  We happily shared a large double (£6.50) between three.  Bizarrely, they also sell dog treats!

Shake Shack Concrete
We moved swiftly on to Five Guys, just round the corner near Leicester Square tube, where we were joined by a hungry Rosie who was sad to miss the first round.  They clearly have their eyes on world domination and have already planned to open a load more stores in the UK next year.  A second branch opened recently in Islington.

Their calling card is free toppings.  Once you have decided between regular, cheese, cheese and bacon etc, the rest (pickles, mushrooms, onions, peppers etc) is on the house.  Naturally, we ordered everything.

Sadly, it was hugely disappointing.  The bun was dry and overly crunchy, the meat was overcooked, and the toppings were average at best.  I can't for the life of me understand what all the fuss is about, there is nothing special going on here at all.  I'd like to see their burgers chucked into some blind taste testing against British fast food chains.  They certainly shouldn't be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Patty & Bun or even Shake Shack.

There are a few positives.  The chips are great, they have Brewdog beers, and there's also a fun soda machine, but they don't begin to make up for an average burger.

Why not instead go just round the corner to MEATmarket in Covent Garden?  Despite being the least impressive of this forward thinking British chain's sites (MEATliquor and MEATmission are both great fun), MEATmarket is still far more stylish than Shake Shack and Five Guys, and their signature burger, Dead Hippie, wipes the floor with them.

Overall then, we enjoyed our time at Shake Shack, and it probably gets both overhyped and overcriticised - it's fine.  Five Guys on the other hand is just not very good - save your money, and go to one of the many fantastic alternatives listed at the top of this post.

One of my favourite burgers in 2013 was from Jamaican-inspired Boom Burger who are finally getting a permanent restaurant on Portobello Road early in 2014.  Not only are their burgers awesome, they also serve up delicious chicken wings with spicy jerk mayo, and incredibly moreish plantain fries. 

What was your favourite burger of 2013?

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Monday 23 December 2013

Caravan - Blackfoot - House of Ho - Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels

Guest Post - Wednesday 11th December

Last week, whilst Matt was experiencing The Last Word, the opening of new pork restaurant Blackfoot took me to Exmouth Market.

As I arrived well ahead of my table booking I decided to stop off in Caravan for a coffee and a cheeky, pre-dinner beer. I was pleasantly surprised, the coffee was delicious and, sat at the bar watching the passing custom, whilst others sat down for a full blown meal down in the restaurant area, I whiled away an hour with no trouble at all. They had a Beavertown IPA on tap and Camden Hells Lager (which made the time go a little quicker...).  Caravan opened a larger second site in the old grain house in King's Cross in 2012.

Moving on to the main event, I popped down the street to Blackfoot. Initially I was unsure, the decor and layout is typical of many recent openings; tiled white walls, candles, booths and a basic bar. Nothing to note there. However, glancing at the menu, there is more to grab one's attention. There's pork of all varieties. Smoked, Burger-ed, Vietnamese, Spanish, Chopped and more. We went all out and filled up on pig.

From the Raw and Preserved options the Pork Rillettes were of distinction - succulent pork with toasted sourdough and gherkins. From the mains I would recommend The Long Smoke; smoked belly with pepper, treacle and star anise - sweet and peppery, full of flavour and terrifically well cooked. We also tried the Iberico Pressa, an unusual Spanish delicacy, a proper tender chunk of meat served pink. Delicious.

Not only are the offerings here unusual, I certainly don't know anywhere else that has such a piggy focus or range (apart from Wiggies), but the quality is fantastic as well. This place gets my recommendation for providing an interesting, unique menu and top notch cooking. Mention should also be made of the friendly and enthusiastic staff.  If you are passing by, pop to the counter to grab a takeaway £5 roll with pork loin & belly and salsa verde:

£5 takeaway pork loin & belly rolls with salsa verde at Blackfoot
From Blackfoot to Babyfoot, we finished off the evening with a visit to Café Kick, opposite. Matt mentioned it earlier in the year here, it remains a European style bar dedicated to football of the outdoor and table variety. Great for lovers of the sport(s).

Exmouth Market has plenty more for us to try out on future visits.  The Exmouth Arms and hidden 5CC, Moro & Morito, and the relatively new Paesan currently top the to-do list.

Tuesday 17th December

For my second soft opening of December (yes I fully intend to be two stone heavier by January) I visited Bobby Chin's House of Ho (no jokes) with TfL girls, Gemma and Amie.

Photo Credit - Ming Tang-Evans
The cheerful Bobby Chinn
Greeted with fervour, we were graciously removed of our coats, scarves, hats and umbrellas and I started to get concerned about the potential cost of the menu. However, on being seated I was happily surprised at the reasonable pricing - £4-14 for a dish.

Lighting was limited with arrays of candles, glimmers of glass and minimalist decor - all blacks, reds and oranges but as we were seated in front of window, I felt it created a good dining atmosphere. Understated, it allowed the food to take centre stage.

'Light and Raw' was the first section of the menu, which presented a range of delights. Duck 'a la banana' was a particular pleasure, light and crunchy with hints of sweetness and succulent marinaded duck breast. Also a hit was the mushrooms with sauce, flavoursome lemongrass chicken wings and pork ribs.

Seafood Ceviche & Smokey Aubergine
Sweet & Sour Vietnamese Bouillabaisse, Duck 'a la Banana', Crab Pomelo Salad, 72-hour Apple-Smoked Pork
Clockwise from Top Left - Photo credit - Ming Tang-Evans
We followed this with the monkfish, Vietnamese chicken curry, shaking beef and morning glory. My shaking beef was cooked to perfection and had a definite Vietnamese twist.

Finally, we couldn't leave without trying the full complement of desserts: the Molten Marou chocolate cake and the Crème Brûlée.

Cocktails, wines, beers and all the trimmings filled the drinks menu. We paired our dinner with wine, which was perfect, but I'll be heading back to try the cocktails another time.

Overall, this restaurant is a well-received addition to the Soho dining scene. It offers a classy, affordable and tangy addition, standing in stark contrast to the plethora of burger, pizza and 'quick eats' in the area (N.B. The List is very partial to the likes of Honest Burgers, Pizza Pilgrims and Herman Ze German - there's room for everyone!).

Wednesday 18th December

Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels is a cosy wine bar with a Parisian sense of style from the clever French folk behind Experimental Cocktail Club. They already have a Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels in Paris, along with 3 fantastic cocktail bars. The London branch feels like a stylish living room with sofas and armchairs in bold greens and swirls, and a wooden panelled staircase in one corner but also manages to maintain the atmosphere of the best cocktail bars in London; think Zetter Townhouse and 69 Colebrooke Row.

Wines are sold by the bottle and the glass (from what looks like the latest in wine-technology fridges). The wines themselves are pretty interesting, focusing on little known, smaller vineyards. There are up and coming whites from Spain and reds from Georgia, not your average findings. There was also sherry, port and champagne on offer but for those who aren't fans of the grape there's nothing else on offer except some overpriced water - don't be tempted to say yes when offered still or sparkling. I fell into that trap far too easily.

They also do food, a selection of cheeses, cold meats and appetisers. I didn't try any on my visit as I'd just finished a large meal at Yauatcha but the sight and smell of it all was hugely tempting, even on a full stomach.

They have also just opened a "gourmet delicatessen" of sorts, a few of doors down from the bar - see below for some sneak preview shots.

Guest post written by @JaneSlocombe

CVS have opened a "gourmet delicatessen" a couple of doors down

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Friday 20 December 2013

The Ape & Bird - London Brewers' Market - Fourpure - Brewdog Shepherd's Bush

Friday 29th November - I vaguely remember starting a blog about quirky bars back in February.  10 months later, and I seem to have become a "foodie" of sorts.  My trip to The Ape & Bird was my 5th meal out in 6 days after Kitchenette, Boopshi's, Source and a forgettable Italian restaurant.  Speaking of Italian food, The Ape & Bird is run by Russell Norman and Richard Beatty, the masterminds behind the successful Venetian Polpo chain (as well as Mishkin's and Spuntino). They are also reopening their popular plosive Polpetto joint in Berwick Street early next year after a successful pop-up run above the French House.

The Ape & Bird has boldly opened up in the heart of touristy London, round the corner from a giant Pizza Hut and opposite the bright lights of the Palace Theatre.  Ostensibly it is a pub, but actually there are two dining rooms, a pub and a cocktail bar inside spread over 3 floors (and 5000 square feet!).

Jane, Lee and I started off in the attractive ground floor pub area where there was a solid but unadventurous range of beers including Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted and Camden Pale Ale.  A recent Twitter post showed that they have had some interesting guest ales in from the likes of Hackney Brewery since our visit.

Space was at a premium so before too long we took our drinks into the adjacent, beautifully lit dining room.  After a bit of people watching (Russell Norman was patrolling), we got down to the tricky business of choosing our food from a very tempting preview menu.

Balham tube inspired Chandeliers

For starters we went for Blood Pudding Hash (with fried sprouts & soft poached egg), Crab on Toast (with sea vegetables) and a Pig Trotter Scotch Egg (with celeriac fries).  We had serious food envy of next door's Penny Buns (with squash, salsify & roasted garlic).  Starters range from £6-9, and you will want to order all of them.

We splashed out (wait for it) on mains going for a trio of fish (there's the pun) - Roast Cod, Charred Beets, Kale & Walnut Pesto for £16, Winter Chowder, Scottish Mussels & Black Cabbage for £14 and Brown Trout, Shrimp & Tarragon Butter, Watercress for £18.  There are some very affordable options considering the location, including a £9 Cheeseburger, £11 Chicken, Leek & Mushroom Pie, and a £12 Cumberland, Sausage & Mash, that are all bound to be very good examples of the classic pub food genre.  Also worth a mention was our small but perfectly formed side of Oak Leaf & Pumpkin Seeds.

Pig Trotter Scotch Egg
A tempting dessert menu led us to share Blackberry & Apple Crumble, Sticky Date Pudding with Ice Cream, and Bannoffeebocker Glory.  The Sticky Date Pudding was the clear winner - rich, moreish, comforting, everything we hoped for.  Goat Curd Doughnuts & Rhubarb were sadly not available on our night - I thought I spied Russell taking a plate over to some VIPs but these turned out to be devilled kidneys - shows how much I know!

The friendly Mr.Norman took us upstairs after our meal for a sneak peek at the first floor bar and dining room, which wasn't quite finished during the soft opening.  Here we got a closer look at the Ape & Bird - the charming bar sign based on a sketch Russell made of Kifu the Gorilla at Howletts Wild Animal Park in Kent.  The previous pub on this site was called Marquis of Granby, which they decided was far too commonly used to keep.  Ape & Bird was used as a temporary working title until the staff convinced Russell and Richard to stick with it.

One wall of the upstairs dining room is taken up by a mad piece of art which, according to the artist, "should suck you into the vortex of Soho on a Thursday night".

Beware - it might suck you into the vortex of Soho
View of ground floor from the stairs
For a sense of completion, we made our way through the heaving pub to reach the low-lit basement dive bar.  It is a shame that punters walk through the bar to reach the toilets, as it takes a bit of the atmosphere away, but it is a fun place to drink nevertheless.  A short boozy list of 4 classics, 4 originals, 4 juleps and 4 martinis are competitively priced at £8 - Old Fashioned, Jerry Thomas Manhattan and Seventh Earl all impressed.

I normally go to several places in one evening for The List, but there's no need to when the pub, restaurant and bar are all in the same place.  Each section has its own character so you really do get the full experience of a varied night out.  The Ape & Bird is a fantastic addition to London's drinking & dining scene - another success for the dynamic duo of Norman & Beatty.

Saturday 30th November - WARNING: The rest of this post concerns beer.  After a relatively quiet Friday night, the three of us met up again the next day to sample some beers at the inaugural London Brewers' Market at Old Spitalfields Market.  Over 20 breweries and brewpubs turned up to dish out draught beers and sell bottles to hundreds of thirsty shoppers.  It was a great chance to meet a lot of the brewers themselves - much more interesting and sociable than your average beer festival.

The Independent Label Market was running at the same time, which fitted nicely with our first stop. Signature Brew hate drinking bad beer at gigs. To combat this, they collaborate with various artists (e.g. Frank Turner, Professor Green) to brew exciting beers to sell either inside or near music venues. I had a superb bottle of Mammoth - a double-IPA brewed with London Fields Brewery and Dry the River.

We moved on to Late Knights and Hop Stuff.  Late Knights Brewery was created by Northerner Steve Keegan - it was originally something he did in his spare time (lots of Late Nights...) whilst working at Fullers.  Late Knights now own their own Beer Rebellion bar in Gipsy Hill, and plan to open other branches with Brockley & Peckham rumoured to be the next locations.

Hop Stuff Brewery are very new, but have an impressive range available already.  They are based in Woolwich, and often open their doors for fresh beer and off sales.  The bottles would make a very attractive Christmas gift!

We ploughed on (it's a tough life) taking in lots of tasty beers from old favourites - Fullers, Hackney Brewery, Crate, By the Horns, Beavertown, Brixton, East London, Windsor & Eton, London Fields, Sambrooks, Redchurch, Meantime and Camden Town.  Brewpubs were well represented by London Brewing Co (Bull Highgate) and Tap East (based in Stratford - from the team behind Utobeer and The Rake in London Bridge).

Two of my favourites were new kids on the Bermondsey block Fourpure (read more below) and Hackney based Five Points who do a mean Pale Ale.

We finished off with the very drinkable Hackney Best Bitter as they started selling it at a £1 a pint - cheapest round I have ever bought!  It was a brilliant event, though a little too crowded.  If it was more regular or held over a few days, we would have been able to spend more time chatting to the passionate brewers about their beers which wasn't really possible until the very end.  Apparently it is going to be an annual event, but hopefully we won't have to wait that long.  In the meantime, go and hang out in Bermondsey on a Saturday, most of them are there anyway!

Saturday 7th November - Guest Post - We only lasted a week before visiting the guys at Fourpure (Bermondsey brewery No.4) after enjoying their beers at London Brewers' Market (which sadly coincided with their launch).

Although I claim to be a Bermondsey local, I never knew Bermondsey covered quite such a large area. If you think Kernel to Partizan is a long way to walk for a second pint, Kernel to Fourpure will test your resolve. Finding Fourpure is the next test - it lies on an unexpected trading estate behind Screwfix and what looks like a disused lorry depot. 

However, find it and you will be rewarded. Of all the Bermondsey breweries it has the largest space and some great brewing equipment (a second hand bargain apparently). This will be a great location for the summer. They've got garden benches, sacks of hops and a ping-pong table to keep the young American vibe strong and five beers on tap as well as bottles to take away. We tried a flight of five beers for £7.50 and explored the world map on the wall which shows the locations from where the beers are inspired. All beers were pleasing, they had two IPAs, a Pale Ale, an Amber and a Stout. The Session IPA won my vote but I brought one of each home to confirm the verdict at a later date.

N.B. Bermondsey brewery No.5, Anspach & Hobday will open soon on Druid Street - read about Matt's trip to their brewery commissioning here.  Have you completed the Bermondsey Beer Mile yet?

Fourpure was visited by @JaneSlocombe

Whilst Jane was off at Fourpure, I was over in Notting Hill stage managing a concert.  Never one to waste an opportunity, as soon as it was finished, I jumped on the Central Line to meet a few friends at Brewdog's latest beer bar in Shepherd's Bush.

Whilst I'm sad that they still haven't set up shop in SW London (Camden & Shoreditch are the other two branches so far, surely Brixton / Clapham / Battersea will get a look in), I can't argue with the clever location opposite Shepherd's Bush Empire.  With 40 (!) beers on tap (Euston Tap can only muster 28), this is a craft beer lover's dream. though don't come if you are only in the market for real ales.  There are also sumptuous slow-cooked meats from Texas Joe's to soak up the booze.

I was fully expecting to have to fight my way to the bar on a Saturday night (as is often the case in the Shoreditch and Edinburgh branches), but it was pleasantly chilled.  I much prefer the atmosphere in here than in Brewdog Shoreditch where it is too loud to speak to anyone (although the downstairs Underdog speakeasy there is comfortably one of London's best bars). They have done a great job with the décor, particularly on the lighting front, and the stylish pinball machines seemed to be a hit.

I joined friends Tom, Phil and Lauren who were already plotting their return for a Reel Big Fish / Less than Jake gig over the road next year. West London locals Louise & Coral also popped in for a quick pint.

We started with some Brewdog beers - the consistently brilliant mango-tastic Punk IPA, easy drinking Dead Pony Club and Fake Lager, and a festive Santa Paws - before moving on to a fantastic Corne du Diable (Horn of the Devil) from Canadian microbrewery Dieu Du Ciel and a round of delicious Mikeller Hoppy Lovin' Christmas brews, which slipped down very quickly considering their 7.8% ABV.  

If you have a spare £500 lying around, see if they've saved any bottles of limited edition (and supposedly sold out) The End of History, their bonkers 55% bottled beer that comes stuffed inside a stoat / weasel.

"This 55% beer should be drank in small servings whilst exuding an endearing pseudo vigilance and reverence for Mr Stoat. This is to be enjoyed with a weather eye on the horizon for inflatable alcohol industry Nazis, judgemental washed up neo-prohibitionists or any grandiloquent, ostentatious foxes."


Brewdog - End of History - 55%

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