Tuesday 24 March 2015

The City of London Distillery

Tucked away down a little alley off Fleet Street is the City of London's first gin distillery since to be opened since the last one shut up shop in 1825.

Now, the last time I went to The City of London Distillery, or "C.O.L.D." as they like to brand it, was some time ago and before it changed hands.  Back then it basically ran a fantastic concept of re-imagining the venerable gin and tonic: Umpteen different gins, as many matching tonics (yes, actually – multiple different iterations of a drink I had previously believed to come only in one, Schweppes-esque form) and varying garnishes – each G&T served either English style (highball) or Spanish style (big, balloon-like wine glass).  It worked really well – and gave you the opportunity to try a drink we all know like the back of our hand in a new format.

Since then the bar has been acquired, taken over and revamped.  I was expecting big changes.

Fortunately, there were few to be seen – the bar space is exactly the same as it was before, dark and cozy, low ceilinged but spacious, full of comfortable sofas and leather wingbacks, as well as a few more conventional tables.

The bar still stocks its mind blowing array of gins.

And in the corner are the two wonderful stills, there waiting to brew up the next batch of The City of London Distillery's award winning gin.

But the bar list, sadly, has changed.  Gone are the G&T creations, and in have come the cocktails.  Now, I love a good cocktail, but I loved the concept of the old joint even more – it was unique, special.  It seemed entirely right that the only gin distillery in the City should be encouraging its patrons to drink gins with tonic in a new and exciting way.  My worry was that the new management had simply swapped out the imagination of the old menu with a lazy cocktail menu serving solely their own brew.

I need not have worried.  Sure, it's a cocktail menu.  And sure, every single drink is punctuated by The City of London Distillery's own gins.  But none of that is a problem if you absolutely nail it.  Which I'm glad to say they have.

My friend, Ravi, kicked off proceedings with a COLD Distiller's Martini.  A very sound choice, I think there are few better ways of taste-testing a gin than drinking it as a martini, so uncompromising is it as a drink, with nowhere for the gin to hide.

The City of London Distillery's version contained a dash of bitters (I approve, for the avoidance of doubt) and was very dry (again, good) whilst still being light – as Ravi put it: "you feel like you could drink a lot more of them" (again, definitely, good – albeit risky).  A solid start from COLD.

Given Ravi's purist start, I had to explore a similar vein - a Martinez.  If you've not heard of the Martinez I wouldn’t let that bother you, it's not that well renown despite the resurgence of classic cocktails.  It's said to be the predecessor to the martini, although it's a lot more complex, first appearing in popular vernacular sometime between 1860 and 1880 and said to be the 'missing link' between sweet cocktails (e.g. the old fashioned, the Manhattan) and dry cocktails (e.g. the martini). It absolutely demands the sweeter notes of Old Tom gin – or even traditional genever (the Dutch predecessor of the gin we know and love) if you can get it - and is to be mixed with the red martini, not the drier white.

COLD's version combines two red vermouths – Cocchi's Vermoutb di Torino (red berries, menthol, herbs and spices) and Punt e Mes (bitter, quinine), as well as maraschino liqueur and bitters.  The effect was a slightly medicinal taste, albeit refreshing - although I can see why, at least as a pre-prandial – the martini outlived the Martinez.

Round two: Ravi went for the Sunflower – a cocktail I believe created by Sam Ross, mixologist at New York's Milk & Honey, Little Branch.

It's a curious mix – London dry gin (although ross originally uses Plymouth, I expect there's not too much to choose between them), lemon, St Germain (elderflower liqueur), Cointreau, absinthe.  Not a list of ingredients I would usually jump at, it was nevertheless marvellous.  A real zinger, both sharp and sweet, it was almost sherbet like, as if it were effervescent without actually having a single bubble in it.

My final drink was the COLD Fashioned.  Those who know me know I will always, whenever I can get my hands on one, order up an old fashioned.  I just love the things.  So I couldn’t really pass this up, being a mix of London dry gin, whiskey syrup (good innovation there, I like it), Angostura and house bitters and cucumber.

This was amazing.  I loved it.  It was hardly like an old fashioned at all (except the whiskey syrup did peek through) but was nevertheless fantastic.  It was strong but palatable, with the cucumber roaring through and complimenting the gin perfectly.  My only slight criticism is that it veered towards being too sweet – a slice of lemon might have balanced it more perfectly.  Otherwise, top marks.

 - GrubsterBoy -

Thursday 19 March 2015

The Chinese Cricket Club

You don't get much Chinese food on this website, and I'm sorry about that.  You see, the thing is that, growing up, my folks never really enjoyed it and so I never really got used to eating it.  They were always put off by cheap Chinese takeaways – greasy, gloopy, overly sweetened and packed with monosodium glutamate.  Not ideal.

As with almost all things food related in London, we have moved on a long way since then.  I'm trying to ease my way back in to a cuisine I know virtually nothing about.  So when a friend offered to take me out for dinner and suggested Chinese, I readily agreed.

The Chinese Cricket Club is, I am happy to say, a relatively standard Chinese restaurant.  There's not anything about it that's fancy or over-the-top, like Hutong in the Shard, or the Michelin-ed types like Hakkasan or Yauatcha.  This is standard Chinese restraunteering – with the one exception to the places we'd visit when I was a kid in that it is actually good.

Ravi guided me through the meal, ordering for the pair of us.  We started with dim sum – which, I know, is not an evening dish in China, but then we're not in China, we're in Blackfriars.  

We started with a platter and they are as follows: scallop siu mai (centre, yellow cases topped with orange roe), har gau (white balls), chicken and spinach dumplings (green cases, white insides, top and bottom of basket) and duck dumplings (orange-brown cases, left and right of basket).

Would you believe that this was the first ever dim sum I have had?  It is, actual fact.  I went to Hong Kong a few years ago to visit a friend who had been posted there.  Whilst out there I resolved to go to a dim sum restaurant.  So booked one just before I left – not just any old joint either, a place that had been recommended to me as the best place for dim sum on the island.  My friend and I turned up only to find that they were not serving dim sum because it was night time.  That's how I came to know that dim sum is strictly not an evening thing.

Regardless of when you're meant to eat them, these were lovely.  Served with spicy and sweet sauces, I found they worked almost best on their own, allowing the fresh, clean, subtle flavours to come out properly.

Scallop siu mai.

Chicken and spinach dumpling.

We also had some special king crab steamed dumplings, which Ravi ordered knowing my love of crab.

These were awesome.  Also, one of the nice – and reassuring – things about the restaurant is that, when they came to the table, the waiter instantly recognised that they were overdone and whipped them away, only to come back with freshly made, perfectly cooked examples a little later.  Now, of course, I would rather they were done right the first time, sure – bit it's nice to know that even the wait staff know what they’re about.

For mains we shared five hour braised pork belly and steamed sea bass.  An eclectic mix, but good to have a range.

The pork was divine – soft, melt in the mouth, with a delicious sticky-sweet Chinese marinade.

The sea bass was equally excellent albeit completely different.  It was served with a sharp soy sauce, it was a delightfully balanced dish that felt fresh and light, without losing any of its flavour.

Ravi uses The Chinese Cricket Club as an everyman joint – it's as good for taking out a client as it is for popping out for a meal when working late.  With food this dependable, I can see why.

- GrubsterBoy -

Tuesday 17 March 2015

Fields, Clapham Common

In the middle of Clapham Common, effectively my hometown, is a skatepark.  I don’t really know why, but there's always seemed to be something edgy about it, even gritty.  When I was a little boy it felt like a spot where the cool kids might hang out, somewhere I should avoid or else face the consequences.  Not threatening exactly, more somewhere that you needed some kind of unspoken, informal membership to participate in.  And I definitely didn’t have that.  

As a 30 year old man I now know better.  The five year old zipping along on his scooter amongst the bigger kids with their decks belies that old stereotype (look carefully, centre of the picture).  But it remains, for me at least, a spot that still has a certain childhood allure of the gritty, trendy hangout.

So when I head that Fields, a new café / restaurant, was opening up in the hut next door, I knew that I finally had my way in and could visit unquestioned.

Fields is the second spot opened up by the people behind M1LKin Balham.  We've been down to Balham on a Saturday or Sunday morning quite a bit recently and have been shocked by what we've seen outside M1LK.  It's crazy.  Proper block-long queues.  Fields doesn’t quite suffer the same problem – perhaps because there is little passing trade, it being in the middle of the Common rather than off the high street.  But it still gets busy.  I've visited twice now, once at midday and once at 10am, and both times been able to get a seat immediately.  But on both occasions I have seen queues forming.

It's definitely trendy chic.  You can just feel the various staff and punters itching to beard-up and hipster-out.  The water bottles are labelled government juice.  But unlike so many other places, here it works, here it seems natural even sensible to be a bit hipster.  And for all its gritty surroundings (if, it is these days even that gritty any more) inside it's welcoming, warm, homely (in an admittedly utilitarian way).

We settled in and ordered up.  First out was the coffee, a delicious dark roast with only a slight twang of acidity (I like my coffee to taste like coffee, not citrus fruits, thank you).  

Coffee is ordered in a slightly unconventional way – essentially you order on the basis of how much milk you like with your espresso – 2.5 oz (macchiato / flat white), 6 oz (cappuccino) or 7.5 oz (large cappu / latte).  It’s a quirky idea and I'm cool with that.  The coffee is amazing, so no complaints whatsoever.

On the alternative-to-coffee front, this is my one disappointment.  GrubsterGirl ordered the nettle presse thinking it might be homemade.  It wasn't, which was a shame, albeit a delicious one.  My note to the restaurant is provide some juices.  Seriously.  Everyone's doing it these days.  And I really, really like juice to go with a cooked breakfast.  

Food (which needs to be ordered at the kitchen counter) came out rapidly.  First up was homemade crumpets, hay smoked goats' curd and Wandsworth honey.  

This was a treat and a half.  GrubsterGirl has not stopped going on about them – and she is a fierce critic of brunchfoods.  They were spectacularly done.  Light, fluffy crumpets twinned with tangy curds and sweet honey.  Triumphant.

At the other end of the brunch spectrum was Fields' twist on that most classic of brunchfoods, the eggs benedict.  

In this case, the only thing left resembling the humble benedict was the poached egg.  And rightly so, because holy moly these guys know what they’re doing.  You've got homemade sourdough toast subbing out the plain English muffin, coal-grilled drycure bacon kicks bland ham in to touch and, unbelievably, the hollandaise sauce is infused with – wait for it – espresso.  Yes, this is one pimped eggs benedict.

The outcome?  Marvellous.  Fantastic.  Hands down triumph, I could eat down every morsel without pausing for breath and happily order up a second round if my arteries didn’t stop me.  This is, quite simply, a ten out of ten dish.

I supplemented it with smoked field mushrooms.

These were delicious.  As a note, they like smoked stuff at fields.  Everything is cooked over coals and the menu even tells you what they are smoking with each day – on our visit it was Suffolk birch wood.  This seems a good time to drop in their laudable efforts to support the local economy as well – where possible they try to bring stuff in from nearby, be that the honey made (is honey made?) in Wandsworth, the bacon sourced from the local butchers, or salmon from a smoker on Stoke Newington.  Locally sourced produce is not always easy to achieve in the metropolis, but at least they are making an effort.

Last out, a croquet madam.

I had to look up the difference between a croquet madam and a croquet monsieur.  Basically the madam is the same as the monsieur except with a poached egg on top.  Or, in Fields' case, a smoked egg yolk – a perfectly oozy beautifully orange sphere.  This too met the standards that the other food had reached, except perhaps for the pickles which were a touch flaccid.  

Would I go to Fields again?  I already have.  It's fantastic.  I sat out in the sun the second time (they have a big terrace which is heated in colder weather) and it was almost more glorious than the first time around.  I'd go every week if I could – and I probably could, it's nowhere near as expensive as I had expected or as its rivals seem to charge.  

 - GrubsterBoy

Thursday 12 March 2015

Elly's Harissa Chicken

This is totally not my recipe at all, but one from the wonderful Nutmegs, Seven - a blog run by Elly McCausland.  It was designed to be cooked on a BBQ, and to be honest I think it would benefit from being so cooked (the yogurt marinade would work much, much better).  Nevertheless, not everyone has outside space and even if we did it's cold / wet most of the year, so there ought to be scope for doing this in the kitchen as I did.  Cooking this under the grill would probably be (a) nicer, (b) more sensible and (c) healthier.  My grill is shit so it went in a pan instead.

Also, whilst I have no doubt that this dish would be vastly improved by allowing the chicken to marinate overnight, I didn’t have that kind of time – it was a post-work supper.  Marinating time aside this is a remarkably quick and easy dish to make of an evening – so think of it as a simple supper.  There is that niggly hour between steps 1/2 and 3 – but if you could get them done in the morning before work you'd be good to go by the time you get home.

To the extent that I have departed from Elly's recipe – largely in terms of ingredients – it is due to not having stuff in.


For the chicken:

300ml yoghurt
3 tsp rose harissa
½ tsp chilli flakes
1 tsp smoked paprika
3 cloves of garlic
2 tbsp olive oil
450g chicken breasts

For the tabbouleh:

200g bulgur wheat
½ cucumber
200g tomatoes
1 shallot
15g fresh mint
30g fresh parsley
1 lemon


2 peaches
1-2 tbsp Pomegranate molasses

 1. In a big bowl mix the yoghurt, harissa, chilli flakes, paprika, garlic (crushed) and olive oil.  I didn't have the lemon salt that Elly suggested so I used some smoked Maldon sea salt (a product I own simply as a result of not paying enough attention in Sainsbury's one time).  Slice the chicken breasts horizontally so that you end up with two 'steaks' of the same area but somewhat thinner – these will cook quicker and the surface area is increased so the marinade should mix better.  Douse the chicken in the marinade and stick this in the oven – ideally for an hour at least.  Pour yourself a drink and relax for an hour, you've earned it.

2. Actually, before pouring that drink, do one more thing: prep the bulgur wheat.  Place the wheat in a large heatproof bowl and pour boiling water over it to cover and then add about half a centimetre.  Set that aside for, again, about an hour.

3. To make the tabbouleh, peel, de-seed and chop the cucumber into little half centimetre cubes.  Chop the tomato into about the same size cubes.  Chop the shallot as finely as you possibly can.  Roughly chop the parsley and the mint.  Mix everything into the (now softened) bulgur wheat.  Season to taste with salt, a lug or two of olive oil and the juice from the lemon.  It needs to be quite sharp, so you'll probably need all the lemon juice, but start with half and add to suit your own tastes.

4. Slice the peaches around their equators and twist to separate them whole from the stone.  That knobbly bit inside, by the way, is what they make amaretto out of, not almonds.  Anyway, I digress.  Get the griddle pan on super-hot before brushing it with a little olive oil.  Don’t use an actual brush, the bristles will melt.  Instead, very, very carefully rub it lightly with a couple of pieces of kitchen towel that have been oil-dunked.  Places the peach halves cut-side down onto the griddle's ridges and cook for about 4-5 minutes before turning and doing the other side.  I had a spare fig in the fridge which joined out peachy friends quite happily.

5. At the same time, get a frying pan onto a medium heat as well.  This needs to be a non-stick pan.  Like really, really needs to be a non-stick pan.  It will get stuff stuck to it.  When it's hot, fish the chicken pieces out of the marinade and, leaving plenty of the marinade still in situ, place them carefully into the pan.  This will produce a lot of fizzing and spitting as the water in the yoghurt is separated out and the fat in the same melts out.  Cook this liquid off (to the extent that it's possible) and keep going until the meat browns on the bottom.  Then flip it over and give it the same treatment on the other side.

6. Allow the chicken to rest a while whilst you dish up.  Drizzle the pomegranate molasses over the peaches (and the meat, and the taboulleh, and really anything else you feel like – although bear in mind it's quite a strong, sharp taste).

 - GrubsterBoy -

Tuesday 10 March 2015

Berners Tavern

Mrs G and I have a long-standing tradition of going totally OTT for each other's birthdays.  This will include (at least a half) day off work, some kind of a light(ish) lunch, a daytime activity and will often devolve later into cocktails and a slap up steak supper.  Sadly, due to work activities, Mrs G's birthday bonanza had to somewhat curtailed last year, and we only just got round to reorganising it.  The venue of choice was Berners Tavern, a Jason Atherton joint recommended by a colleague.

Let's start with the room, shall we?  Because, I am sorry to say, these are the most disappointing pictures of the post (and I think that I have ever taken).  Because they simply do not capture the awesomeness of the space.  It's enormous – huge, high ceiling.  Every inch of the exquisitely plastered walls is filled with framed pictures.  It oozes opulence, style, luxury.  It's won awards, for heaven's sake. It is lovely.

We start up at the bar (who doesn't?).

Mrs Grubster orders up the Late British Shake Off – a combination of gin, elderflower liqueur, Kamm & Sons (ginseng liqueur), lemon, dandelion & burdoch bitters and 'Union Jack'.

It comes in an oh-so-twee little cocktail shaker, together with the advertised Union Flag (not a 'jack', please) and is lovely.  Very refreshing.

I treated myself to a Blood & Smoke.  Having been warned that it is very smoky (OK, mix me one then) it's served up as a medley of mezcal (a smokier version of tequila), dry spiced vermouth, cherry amaro (a sort of drier, more bitter vermouth-like drink), pink grapefruit and black walnut bitters.

It's also lovely, although the walnut is nowhere to be found in the palate profile.  Quite dry and punchy.

Then we're off to our table for the main event.  Of course, more cocktails have to be ordered whilst we peruse the menu.  Mine = An Aging Hipster.  Bourbon, run, spiced vermouth, maraschino and bitters.  It's been aged in a barrel too.  And comes in a hipflask.  Trendy.

It's complex, definitely, as one would expect from the barrel aging.  It's perhaps more of an after dinner drink, as it's not very cold and it's one to be sipped gently.  The rum is nicely apparent, without choking out the bourbon.

Mrs G = Are You Trying Tequila? Tequila, Aperol, prosecco, lime, agave, mezcal and grapefruit bitters.  

It's similarly lovely, and well presented, which is always a nice touch.  Like a margarita with an added layer of interest in there too.  Good work.

For starters we shared two dishes, the crispy pigs head and the lobster and prawn cocktail.

The pig's head was a bit disappointing.  It was sold as contailing black pudding and foie gras, but I regret that I couldn’t taste either – odd, given the strength of their relative flavours.  But it was nevertheless nice, and the sauce gribiche well put together – it's just that I'm looking for something a bit more impressive than 'nice' right now, given the venue (and the price).

The prawn and lobster cocktail was wonderful.  The sauce was, unlike so many other 'cocktail' starters, light enough not to kill off the taste of the shellfish, whilst still heavy enough to taste.  Only gripe is this: why include the prawns at all?  It can’t be just cost – Hawksmoor used to do a very fine equivalent that was 100% lobster and no more expensive.  All that mixing the two does is to serve as a timely reminder of the ways in which lobster is infinitely superior to prawn.

For the main course we shared the chateaubriand.

Apparently, this is for two.  I would say it could work for four, honestly.  It is ridiculous (in a thoroughly good way, for the avoidance of doubt).

First up, the cut of meat is huge.  And it's beautiful.  It's lake district cattle, so well grass-fed.  It’s been grilled perfectly – a touch of charring around the edges, cooked all the way through yet still perfectly pink, moist and juicy inside.  A triumph.

Then there's the side dish.  This is the killer.  It's a mac & cheese with ox cheek and truffles.  I mean, can you imagine anything richer, more OTT than that?  Nope.

It's also mind-blowingly good.  I want to eat it all – and I try to.  It comes to the table so hot it's still bubbling and spewing melted cheese delight.  The cheese is stinkingly rich and strong, the macaroni is actually paccheri - a kind of short rigatoni pasta, so bigger and more sumptuous than your usual macaroni - and somehow still just al dente.  The truffles are not too strong (thankfully) and are just there enough to excite.  It's crispy on the top AND the bottom, thanks to the cast iron dish.  It's amazing.

We also got chips.

Do not get chips – they were great but so, so unnecessary what with the mac & cheese.  Most of them went back untouched.  If you insist on another side, for the love of God go for something green.

We washed the beef down with a glass each of the house's standard malbec (Tinto Negro, from Mendoza Argentina, in case you're wondering) which was very, very delicious.

Then on to pudding.  Rhubarb trifle with meringue topping and lemon thyme ice cream.

Frankly, we didn’t really need this after all the cow and carbs we'd just scoffed.  But I'm glad we did, because it was very lovely – even GrubsterGirl agreed, and she's not normally one for trifles.  We shared it (Lord knows, it would have been way too much for one person to eat alone).

Berners Tavern is an absolute treat.  It has to stay that way, sadly – a treat only.  I dread to think how bad all that red meat and cheese and carbs is, or indeed the cocktails and the wine, for the body.  But it's also ruinously expensive.  And if I add just one more grumble it's that one feels a bit rushed, as if there's a desire to get the table back and turned around ASAP – for example, our drinks for menu browsing arrived with the starters, so quick was the food to come out of the kitchen.  I know that Jason Atherton is a big name, and that the restaurant is super popular, but still.  It was a shame and, at the price, not really on.

But that aside, it was fantastic.  We loved it, we really did.  A real temple to proper, British food done well and done modern.  Huzzah.

 - GrubsterBoy -