Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Duke's Brew and Cue brunch

I love the food trend for Americana. Hell, I just love Americana generally. In fact I've just booked myself a West Coast roadtrip for September, with the aim being to squeeze as much American, Mexican and whatever-else-they've-got food into me in two and a half weeks. And see some amazing cities and stunning scenery, obviously.

So after delicious ribs from Ribman and delicious ribs at Pitt Cue Co, I was delighted to hear that Duke's Brew and Cue had moved into my erstwhile neighbourhood of De Beauvoir Town on the Hackney/Islington periphery. And better yet, it's home to a micro-brewery: Beavertown, the old Cockney name for De Beauvoir Town.

I've been a couple of times - one for dinner, another for brunch - and I highly recommend it for both.

For dinner we shared Duke's Greatest Hits BBQ platter, encompassing pulled pork, pork rib, beef rib, homemade slaw, onion rings and barbecue sauce. We added some mac and cheese to round it off.

The meat was incredible - deeply flavoured , succulent, smoky, plentiful. It was tender to eat and tough to share. But we managed, and we were full up on the platter.

Booking is pretty much essential in the evening - we were lucky to get a table right at the beginning of service, but had to be done in just under an hour.

When we tried Duke's for brunch it was fine just to rock up at about 11.30 and get a table. It was steady while we were there, but nobody waited long for a table.

The menu encompasses a range of classic brunch dishes with an American twist (home-fried potatoes often), and some all-American outriders. I had a BBQ omelette - stuffed with pulled pork, salsa style salad and Monterrey Jack cheese. The filling was fairly generous, and the pulled pork a real treat in the morning. It could have done with some more BBQ sauce inside, and maybe some more cheese. It came with tasty home fries.

Pete had Mister Frenchie's Ravioli: french toast sandwiches, filled (literally brimming) with cream cheese and bacon, and doused in syrup. Sounds bizarre, but really very incredible sweet-meets-savoury indulgent brunch at its best. A true heart attack on a plate, but utterly delicious.

Next time I'll be having a whole plate of that to myself. And I'll be back again for more ribs and smoky slow cooked meat too. Mostly, I'm just pleased to have such tasty American food so close to home, and with tasty craft beer to boot.

119 Lower Clapton

While Lower Clapton's Chatsworth Road has been described as the 'frontline of gentrification', little note has been made of the independent businesses cropping up on Lower Clapton Road - Riley of Clapton Social Club, the Clapton Hart, Blue Tit, Hunt and Darton, Dreyfus Cafe have all joined longer timers like Il Guscio, Biddle Bros and Palm 2 in the last year.

It's a pretty busy road, and it sometimes feels like every bus serving North East London passes through.  You get the feeling that most people in the hood traverse Lower Clapton Road and so you see all walks of life going about their business. The people watching is excellent.

Despite the traffic, I love Lower Clapton Road. It has amazingly preserved grand Victorian and Georgian buildings designed for a proper shopping street. I've seen some lovely old photos recently, and when I squint now I can imagine the road back in the early 19th century.

So it's really awesome that 119 Lower Clapton, a big windowed cafe has opened in the epicentre of it all. You can sit there for hours, drinking great coffee and watching the world go by. It's a beautiful big open bright space - shades of white and grey, utilitarian simple furniture, nice plants.And lots and lots of light.

119 Lower Clapton are keeping things simple: they really specialise in coffee, and you can tell. I think this is some of the best in Clapton (and that's saying something). They use Workshop for their espressos, and happy to chat coffee paraphernalia and technique with my partner (phew!).

They do nice cakes, croissants and sandwiches, and this weekend they moved in the Clapton Brunch Market. It's a simple but effective offer: coddled eggs. Somewhere between boiled, steamed and baked, the eggs are served in a tumbler, topped with lots of fresh herbs, with crusty, herby, salty toasted sourdough - effectively a crouton.

I opted for a red pepper and prosciutto coddled egg, and Pete ordered one with spinach, chestnut mushrooms and comte. The egg was nice and runny, but neatly contained within the beaker  - it was almost like a warm, flavoursome egg sauce, with lovely bits of salty, sweet prosciutto, crunchy pepper and toasted seeds. It was nice breaking up the crouton-like bread and immersing it in the egg, soaking up all the eggy flavours.

It was just their first day doing brunch, but I hope they stick to it - a tasty and different take on eggy brunch. There were a few other options too - granola with poaches pear, toasts, etc.

I've called Hackney the Brunch Capital of London elsewhere, and it's just got an interesting new addition. Check it out folks!

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The Gardener's Cottage, Edinburgh

There's been a bit of a foodie kick going on in Edinburgh, as elsewhere, with lots more celebrating of the Scottish cuisine and ingredients. Edinburgh has always been ahead of the curve in eating out, with a good selections of bistros and cafes for years, and 'fusion' was quite a big bit of it before - haggis incorporated into a French menu, typically. Good neighbourhood dining has always been part of the scene too, but the turnover of restaurants has been quite high compared to city centre restaurants.

TheGardener's Cottage - a highly celebrated new restaurant just north of the centre and neatly five minutes walk from my dad's flat - is a sign of exciting new possibilities in Edinburgh eating. Here, on my recent trip back home to visit family and friends, I had some of the most exciting Scottish food in the warmest, most convivial surroundings. 

It's located in, you guessed it, an old gardener's cottage (three rooms, effectively) on the northern slope of Calton Hill. A gravel path through growing beds leads you up to the cottage. The door is open, but you push through thick velvet curtains to get in. There are two dining rooms, with three ten seater communal dining tables between them, a record player sits in a chimney breast with a stack of blues records piled up, changed by the staff as the stylus lifts.

The menu changes daily, based on what's in season, what's available, what they've foraged that morning. A couple of brunch dishes are on offer at the weekend, a short lunch menu through the week, and every evening there's a single seven course taster menu, priced at a very, very, very reasonable £25 (or thereabouts).

I'm going to walk you through what we had, but given the menu changes daily, it's more a flavour of the kinds of tasty morsels you might expect from the Gardener's Cottage.

We started with freshly baked (still warm!) sourdough with an olive and anchovy tapenade, and venison and duck potted meat - like a Scottish, gamey rilettes. The bread was amazing, rivalling E5 bakehouse for tangy, bounciness, and the toppings were exceptional.

Next up was the soup course: leek, potato and wild garlic soup, topped with smoky, meaty bacon and winkles they'd foraged from the coast that morning. Cured pork and shellfish is a winning combination at the best of times and a favourite in Iberian cuisine, but I like the distinctively Scottish flavour here.

This was followed by treacle cured trout, served with a soft boiled egg, tart creme fraiche with toasted hazelnuts, a couple of thin wild leeks, fermented celariac, and a bit of the aniseedy and lesser-used herb Sweet Cicely.

Next up was a salt baked carrot, served with fermented cauliflower, smoked yoghurt, toasted seeds and some interesting leaves. Salt-baking is a technique I'm most familiar with being used for fish in a Mediterranean context, but it worked well here. The carrot was sweet, salty and full of flavour. 

Now for the 'main course' - hay smoked duck breast, on top of a gravy flavoured pearl barley risotto, served with braised january cabbage, with bits of fermented pak choi. The smokiness was quite subtle, and the barley added a lovely earthy nutty flavour.

The main was followed by a cheese course: a lovely smooth Rachel goat cheese, served with a long crispy thin cracker, apple and pickled walnuts. A perfect combination, and delicious even for those who don't always love goat's cheese (that's me!).

Finally, for dessert we were served sweet little bits of Alexander beetroot, lavender infused cream and beetroot and apple granita. It was a great combination of flavours and sensitations, crisp and sweet, cold and melt in your mouth, creamy and rich. Wow.

Booking is pretty much essential for the Gardener's Cottage, but they make sure it's a relaxed and well paced service. Our table (booked two days before and their last available) started at 5.15 and was ours til 8, meaning we had lots of time to enjoy the meal in a relaxed way. Tables started at different times, and the whole process was exceptionally managed.

I left thinking that the Gardener's Cottage is exactly the kind of restaurant I'd love to run in a parallel world where I didn't work in policy. Friendly, fun, unpretentious and good value. If you are planning a trip to Edinburgh any time soon, make sure you get a reservation in - this is an exceptional restaurant.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Buckle up, brunchers

Posh brunch; we don't really have that up in Clapton, yet. Well, maybe L'entrepot fits that category, but Mr Buckleys down Hackney Road is bringing a new level of culinary sophistication to brunching in the borough. I had been following them on twitter since before they opened late last year and only made it down this weekend. It was the perfect day for a leisurely cycle down through London Fields and Broadway Market.

Things do get a bit snazzier as you head south towards Shoreditch - a bit more money circulating, higher end markets attracting tourists, especially Columbia Road. The vibe down that way is definitely a bit more moneyed, a bit more fashionista, a bit more...annoying. But it also means you get brilliant places like Mr Buckleys able to thrive with a more adventurous foodie offering.

Mr Buckleys is all about good food at all times of day - it's open right through from commuter coffee run through to 2am cocktails at the weekend. It's an inviting space across two mezzanine levels, so it's either up or downstairs from the entrance. Inside it's exposed brick yadda yadda, but nicely done.

We kicked off with some really nice juices - mine was cucumber, apple and aloe vera, while Pete had an orange, carrot and ginger mix. Not thick and heavy like a smoothie, but fresh, light and equally flavoursome.

I had crab cakes benedict - combining some of my favourite elements. Poached eggs, sourdough, holandaise, and crab! Mmmm. The crab cake was packed with tasty fresh meat, and was coated with crispy bread crumbs, and perfectly formed. Nice served on sourdough, and all round good combinations.

Pete had pancakes with goat milk yoghurt, honey and cinnamon poached pears. The pears were delicious - slightly caramelly, nicely spiced and still delicate. The goat milk yoghurt just had an extra punch, but wasn't too pungent. I felt the portion of pear could have been slightly more generous, but that's a small niggle.

We really liked Mr Buckleys - really friendly, attentive service, imaginative and really well done food, and a buzzy atmosphere. I'll be back to try their small plates menu and cocktails soon. Word of advice: Mr Buckleys is popular, so arrive early or book (online, very easy).

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

An old favourite: Kokeb Ethiopian restaurant

This is my 100th post, would you believe. And for it I return to an old neighbourhood, Holloway, in the backstreets of which lies a fantastic Ethiopian restaurant called Kokeb. It's on a sleepy little stretch of Roman Way, which curves round from Caledonian Road tube behind Pentonville Prison. There's not much else there - it's what you'd call a neighbourhood secret. I only found out about it because a very foodie friend from the area told me about it.

It shouldn't be a secret though - it's one of the warmest, loveliest and tastiest restaurants I know. It's one lady who owns it, cooks the food, welcomes you in, coaches you through the menu (especially if it's your first time eating Ethiopian food) and serves it to you. Extra help at weekends though, I'm told!

Ethiopian eating often involves eating from a big round injera bread - like a big pancake, made from fermented flour, with a spongy texture and served cold.

It is served with a selection of meat and vegetable dishes. These are served separately and diners spoon them in piles onto the injera, which soaks up all the aromatic juices. You use additional injera pieces to pick up the food, and then, when that's gone, you gradually pick away at the injera bread with the remaining food on it.

The dishes it comes with are really delicious. There are a good number of vegetable dishes - some pulses based (we had a particularly yummy split pea one), more substantial vegetable dishes with green beans, peppers, etc. Particularly delicious are the beef and lamb stews - minced or in pieces, these are full of interesting spices - cardamom, ginger, things you've never heard of.

We had a lamb and rosemary dish, an aromatic mince beef and cardamon stew, green beans, and a medley of pulse stews. Four dishes and two injera breads between two was perfect for three people.

All this, and two Ethiopian beers, came to £38. Very affordable when divided by three. It's worth making the trip if you don't live in the area - you will be well rewarded. Interestingly, Camden, Kings Cross, Caledonian Road and Kentish Town has a bit of a concentration of Ethiopian restaurants - you won't find many elsewhere. I was hoping that the new Ethiopian church opening on Lower Clapton Road would bring some food with it - but until then I'll keep going back to Kokeb for my fix.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Finger lickin' good

Sometimes you might get the impression that there's only hipster stuff to do in Hackney; that if a place doesn't have some industrial d├ęcor or a review from Time Out, it doesn't exist. This afternoon I took my visiting mum through Clapton, headed towards to the Pacific Social Club on Clarence Road, but stopped instead at Finger Licking, a Caribbean take-away just up the road at Number 40.

We were nosing in the window and were beckoned in by the owner, saying "come in, you can't see anything from out there". She showed us the curried goat she'd made that morning and we were sold. It's mostly a take away, but there are a few tables through the back and they were very encouraging of us to come in out the cold and sit down.

The goat was delicious, amazingly tender and aromatic, and came with good rice and peas and sweet steamed vegetables. I added a bit of homemade hot sauce, which packed a punch. Apply with caution.

We also tried the peanut punch - a carton of smooth, sweet peanut milkshake. I love this kind of stuff and remember having some on a childhood holiday in Barbados. I asked the owner where I could get hold of more, and she sold us a stash for my mum to take back up to Scotland.

For a mere £6, this may be the best value lunch in Hackney (it's 8pm as I type this and I'm still full!). And sure it's not the snazziest surrounds, but it's lovely warm hosting you'll get.

Do you have any favourite haunts in Hackney/north east London generally for getting whisked away to another world, authentically and affordably? I'd love to hear them.