Monday, 9 December 2013

Aqua Shard - London

Christmas is coming up fast and for the MK Parkes' that only means one thing. It's time to don our posh frocks and head towards the big smoke for a weekend of fun and food.

Our annual pilgrimmage to London consists of several elements; firstly, the hotel. We don't have a favourite and try to look for a bargain every year, in fact this year was a particularly tedious trawl through the hundreds of offers clammering for our business. We've tried the mega posh (Verta - £350 per night) and the down and dirty (Holiday Inn - £100 per night) depending on how we felt our luck was faring that year, but you better believe that either way I've got to have me a bargain.

Phase two is the show. Mrs P and I love musicals but the Child takes it to a whole different level. When she realises that a musical is in the offing, she reaches some kind of fever pitch that is a true wonder of the modern world. Such is the truely astonishing level of enthusiasm for the stage, in all it's forms, that these days we tend to keep the news secret until the last minute in order to save our own sanity and eardrums. This year, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory got our (very) hard earned cash and while this isn't a musical review blog, I'll just leave you with one word: meh.

Third, is the Christmas Tree decoration which was really the origin of this whole tradition. When the Child was small(er), we found ourselves in Harrods (as you do) and a sudden urge came upon us to buy the only thing we could afford; a bauble as our luxury for that year. The following year, we were keen to re-create the Christmassy feeling we had enjoyed the year before and as such the event as you see it here was born.

Finally, we have the food and as you would expect this is usually where we start. Depending on if we go with a matinee (then dinner), or as we did this year, lunch then evening performance. And lunch, if you hadn't already guessed was on the 31st floor of the tallest building in the EU.
Mrs P and I visited the Aqua restaurant that had opened up in MK in preperation (I think I've lost those photo's). While that was a lovely dinner, Aqua Shard proved a more challenging experience.

The starters ordered between the three of us were: rose County beef, cured wild sea bass and octopus with mackerel.

Mine was the beef and a lovely tartare it was too. the sauce was marked as 'spicy mayonaise' and it delivered a punch that neither Mrs P or the Child could handle. The Scotch Egg was also lovely - gooey and with a crack of salt.

The octopus, and sea bass on the other hand didn't do any of us any favours. You will know that I've eaten my fair share of octopus and so this version, with it's sweet chili sauce and a few bits green just seemed a bit limp and flacid. And not in a good way.

The sea bass was presented to the Child and she had a fair go but she was inevitably defeated by the bland, souless plate of transparent fish slices. The Child is not interested in how nice a plate looks, she knows, and tells you pretty quickly, if it tastes nice and needless to say, this was not the best way to introduce her to sushi. The horseradish meringue was a bit weird though, I thought I wouldn't like it but after the first one I got into it; the sweet, heat, crunchy, chewy blobs really floated my boat. In fact we suspected that all the starters were probably cold/raw or both, a difficult sell we all concluded.

For mains we went for lamb and pigeon while the Child played it safe with chicken and mash.

Mine was the pigeon and while there could be no doubt that the portions could have done with a bit more, well more, the pigeon was cooked rare as per my request (although why anyone would want it any other way is beyond me), and was very pleasant. Nothing spectacular but both Mrs P and the Child signaled their approval and there was enough sauce to go around and the splodges, drips and other unnecesserily small nuggets of poncyness were pockets of flavour within every forkful. The lamb was, again, nice enough. Mrs P was happy with her choice of soft, yealding meat with crunchy fat, seasoned well with some proper veg. Point to note - the Child took her own picture.

We decided not to hit up puddings after words with the manager gave us a few customer service issues. Dirty floors, tables, cutlery and menus just left a very amateur taste in our mouths. I hope this is not their normal state of affairs, indeed, the manager was at pains to describe how he was at least five members of staff down on his usual level of service. At a charge of 150 quid for lunch for two and a half people and a couple of drinks, it is looking at some serious competition and after our 'discussion' the manager knocked off the starters and obligitory service charge which brought the whole thing in under a tonne. However, even then I would suggest Aqua Shard is attempting to cash in on a certain type of clientele; you know, the type that has more money than tastebuds and buys their Christmas decorations at Harrods...  

Aqua Shard

Monday, 18 November 2013

The Greenman and French Horn - Leicester Square, London

Picture the scene; 

Mrs P: we're going out with my brother on Saturday. I need you to book a restaurant.

Me: umm OK. Any more details?

Mrs P: I need you to book a restaurant.

Me: right, I've done it. How do you fancy...

Mrs P: not that one.

So, as you can imagine, I was stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place. Fortunately, I had a secret weapon up my sleeve; the Timeout top 50. Unfortunately, they were all booked. Literally, all of them.

From what I read, the Greenman and French Horn is owned by a chef who also owns an entry in the aforementioned top 50 and I'm sure a fully paid up member of the tosseratti could tell you who that was. Well, if you want to know then you can bloody well look it up yourself.

On to the Food Porn!!

The menu was modern French Brazzerie style and I started with brown shrimp with celery. Mmm, it was lovely, I've had brown shrimp in France before but there the little buggers come shells, head and all. Here, after being 'chefed', they were still lovely and buttery. The celery had been lightly poached and the cheesey topping was nice and light but didn't take away from the small shrimp shaped stars.

Main was clams. Big, juicy, clams. Big, juicy, slippery, I should stop now. Needless to say, they really were delicious. Butter, wine, bacon and natural ozone made the sauce unmissable, however, what certainly was missed was a great hunk of bread. An almost criminal omission.

Mrs P had mussels, which were tasty but missed out on my slightly obsessive food photography habit. What was caught was my sister-in-law's partridge, claw and all. That was also pretty good, the step mushrooms were nice and earthy and I did push the interpersonal boundaries by inviting myself to her plate more than once, but that's allowed right? Right? In fact, the four of us couldn't find anything much wrong with the menu as a whole. Perhaps it was a little poncy but you can't blame them for that, posh Brazzerie is a concept that certainly has it's place.

My only gripe is that the wine menu is entirely and exclusively French. While I vaguely know my arse from my elbow when it comes to a bottle of vino, this list stumped me and when I asked the waiter for advice, what followed didn't fill me with confidence as he flicked through the pages to seemingly pick something at random. The end result was pleasant enough but I couldn't help but feel we could have done better.

£43 per person with three courses for four including drinks is pretty bloody good for just off Leicester Square. We were all well fed and had (almost) no complaint. This one is certainly going on the list for future return visits.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Eurostar - Premium Economy

Premium Economy. Sounds a bit like Scented Turd, doesn't it. A great excuse to charge an additional hundred quid for better seats and a decent snack. Well, I was tempted to pony up and I was glad I did. Travelling to Brussels has limited options and after several internet based comparisons, the Eurostar came out tops and I even managed to persuade the boss to spring for Not-quite-business class-but-a-bit-better-than-standard class.

While breakfast didn't get a picture as I wasn't really compos mentis until 8am, the evening snack got caught as below.

All in all, it wouldn't be anything to write home (or blog?) about, was it not for the contrast with non-scented turd, or the alternative; Easyjet, class. As it is though, the snack is adequate in size and contains some lovely details; the chocolate malteezer thing, the choice of beer (and) or wine, a little pud as well as an additional bread roll (with the choice of seeded or non, no less). The quality of the food is OK if not significantly better than UK public transportation standards and I shall look forward to measuring it up against any other examples I come across.

TCR Bar and Restaurant - London

On the look out for good places to eat as I all too often am, sometimes means that I become a little too indecisive when it comes to choosing a restaurant of an evening. Such it was recently when I had an over night stop in London before an early morning Eurostar train (perhaps the subject of the next post). Wandering down Tottenham Court Road on the search for some spare pants (I had forgotten to pack any for my trip the following day), I was gripped by the desire to find a bar wherein I could order a cold pint of European lager and read a newspaper without being bothered by loud music or the public at large.

A tragic error followed this decision because while incensed with the fervour I describe, I walked past several fabulous looking fronts and wandered, like any fool who doesn't have the advice of his wife on hand to stop him, into T&C's Bar and Restaurant. Seduced as I was with the promise of a nice cold pint of San Miguel, I looked at the menu only after informing the waitress in a strong and confident tone: 'can I open a tab please? I'm ordering food as well.'

A silly error. A silly schoolboy error. A silly schoolboy error compounded by the fact that Mrs. P wasn't there to tell me what a silly schoolboy error it was.

I was committed then as only an Englishman who has said something they regret but cannot possibly be seen to change his mind can be committed. The waitress asked what I wanted to eat and I paused to read the menu again but it was no use; I tried the only option I had left; 'I can't decide, what's good here?' She looked at me blankly as well she might, the menu had clearly indicated that nothing was good here. She glanced around, perhaps hoping to gain inspiration from any nearby diners to convince me of an apparently popular dish. But alas, all other diners were clearly too savvy to order food and they had all stuck solidly to simply drinking their troubles into oblivion.

'The burgers are Ok.' She ventured, 'You should try one of the specials.' The poor girl indicated to the two options in the burger section that were their alledged 'premium' offer. One had the addition of a fried egg, the other bacon. I panicked. 'I'll just have the meaty nachos please.' Why did I say that? WHY? I could have simply made my excuses and left. I could have made no excuses and still left, but instead I ordered nachos. A sharing platter of nachos. For two people. Two. People.

I sat there hating myself until the nachos arrived, then I smiled and thanked the waitress politely before turning with an all consuming bitterness to the manifestation of my English stereotype. They were everything I had dreaded them to be; not enough cheese, not enough chilli beef, not enough jalapeños, not enough guacamole, not enough bloody nachos. This was supposed to be for two people goddammit!! I ate, paid and left quickly in order to be alone with my disappointment. I had filled my belly, but couldn't satify my soul.

If you find yourself in London and the mood takes you, please take this review as a ringing indorsement to visit T&C's, but only for a drink. Unless you fancy some self-flagellation, in which case order the nachos.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The Castle Hotel - Taunton

Remember this?

Well, I finally did it. I broke free of the shackles of late arrival and the cut loose from the ties of apathy. I went out for dinner. Admitedly, I did have a considerable motivation; I had picked up a colleague from the airport before travelling down and quite frankly couldn't suffer apologising for two nights in the hotel bar because I am usually too lazy to drive 20 minutes.

So, this time I did my research, I booked ahead and my foreign companion and I found ourselves wandering into The Castle Hotel on a very barmy late Summer evening. The restaurant in The Castle is called BRAZZ (please note the capitals which sounds like they are trying a little too hard if you ask me) and we were suprised when after walking through the lovely Norman Castle frontage, we entered a very modern, stark, dinning hall complete with fish wall at one end and wierd paintings-that-are-really-just-splodges, which every modernist affectionardo must 'absolutely love dhaaarling'.

As the small talk continued, I kept a wary eye on the menu, it seemed suspiciously tasty and nothing like the previous night. As you know, I try to keep well clear of chips when out on business as too much deep frying is bad for the marriage. However, on this occasion  I decided that if I played safe with my first course I could indulge on the second. Therefore a tomato and basil soup was served up to me with haste. I have to say, this was delicious, deep tomato flavour was drizzled with the perfect basil oil accompaniment. A great success.

It was with a light heart then that I received the board which carried a whole grouse for my main course. I love game, and I don't just mean in the American street sense. Word.

Look at it. I'm remembering eating it right now. The grouse was lovely; strong with game flavour and with plenty of meat on the bird. I suspect it was deep fried, or roasted in lots of terribly unhealthy fat at the very least and the chips were crispy, salted and quite delicious. The toasty bit to the right was like a sloppy pate, I'm sure there is a proper name for it but I just know it as quite nice. The salad was, well, a salad. A salad that was thankfully totally unlike this salad.

So, a solid recommendation for BRAZZ, despite the over-enthusastic capitalisation. If you are in the area, there will be plenty for you to enjoy; the good food, the Norman Castle, the modernist decoration within the Norman Castle (if that's your thing) and the unexpectedly naked ladies in the first floor mens toilet. As I said, plenty to enjoy.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Dairy Milk with added Daim

I recently found myself buried deep in the isles of Tesco at 11:30pm hunting for a loaf of bread that wasn't stuffed with more additives than Lance Armstrongs urine sample. The funny thing about a supermarket at such an antisocial hour is the antisocial people you find there.

The old bag lady picking up tinned tomatos and cat food, the drunken man looking for a post pub saturated fat fix or the young couple with baby hoisted between them. They all paled into insignificance however, when I turned the corner to see what reductions I could pick through at the end of the day and came face to face with.... a six year old child. Now, my daughter is six but at 11:30, she has already been in bed for (quickly counting on my fingers), four and a half hours. I do NOT think to myself, 'I know, I need to pop out so I'll wake up my child, get her dressed, put her in the car, drive her to the shops and let her run through the store while I saunter along picking up the totally random item that I simply couldn't wait until morning for.'

Cheese and rice, there are some crazy, crazy people out there.

Aaanyway. The point is, that before I left, I thought to myself, I'll bring Mrs P. back a little something and there is no little something that she appreciates more than a bar of Dairy Milk. Every now and then I scour the shelves for a new treat that will get me in the good books. Since the Kraft introduction, we're getting a few new flavours as they try to find their feet and so it was with the mix of Daim with the original.

Now, I do like a good bit of Daim but here in lies the issue. By chopping up the crunchy, nutty caramelly bar they lose a bit of what I liked best about it. I wanted a good bit of Daim to melt in the mouth and crunch on the crunchy bits but what I got was more like Daim dust. It just stuck in the teeth and felt too granular. Not one to make it to the regular shopping list. Sorry Cadbury, C+, OK but should try harder.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

The Great Recipe Book Challenge of 2013 - July

You have got to be kidding me. Why on earth do I have two cupcake recipe books? Seriously? Two?? Oh well, take it like a man and move on.

The recipe was actually really tasty with plenty to recommend it. the proportions were much better than the last lot but I don't have any mini cupcake tins (who has mini cupcake tins? [who has two frigging cupcake recipe books?? I don't even like cupcakes very much!]).

Anyway, cook them - they're lovely.

Once again we have the pain of American measurements. Have fun.

1/3 cup butter
1/2 cup caster sugar
1 egg
1 cup self raising flour, sifted
1/3 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup fresh raspberries, crushed

1/3 cup butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup icing sugar
Fresh raspberries

Preheat the oven to 160. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.

Add the egg and mix.

Add the flour, milk and vanilla mix again - stir through the raspberries.

Bake for 10/15 minutes.

Mix the topping and add with a raspberry to complete.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Bank - Birmingham

I try to avoid Birmingham as much as possible, while there is nothing inherently wrong with the people or the place itself, we usually tend to keep a mutual and respectful distance from each other. It's best that way.

On occasion, however, our paths cross and so it was that I found myself having left the Sealife centre with Mrs P. and the Child looking for lunch. My heart sank. Would I have to settle for a limp 'Pret-a-Manger', or perhaps I would be forced into a dirty burger? Thankfully no, after a cursive reposte or two, Mrs P. agreed to try Bank instead.

Standing opposit the Sealife centre, it was a large place, on the ground floor of a bigger building. Mostly white, minimalist walls and decor allowed the tosseratti of Birmingham to show off their fake tan at it's most violent and we certainly got some side-long glances as Mrs P. and I confidently led the Child to a table on the veranda. Usually, we have no issues with the Child and so it was here, despite the obvious distrust and expectation that we would have a wobbler at some point during the meal (clearly a regular occurance for the children who usually frequent the establishment). We disapointed all those watching as the Child ate her meal with her usual decorum, pausing only to point out that her crab cake was a touch dry. That's my girl.

The offending cake, it looked pretty but didn't have much punch to it. With the coconut, I would have liked a more powerful flavour combo.

Mrs P.'s steak 'n' frites. Plain but tasty - the gloupy sauce was pushed uncerimoniously to one side, but I thought it wasn't too bad.

My mackerel with tomato. Tasty without a hint of chalky, personally I wouldn't have put the tomato in the frame and I probably still have my reservations but to be fair it was quite refreshing.

At a shade over £100 for four (one child) with drinks, it was quite pricey in central Birmingham. But we liked Bank and if necessary, we would enjoy going back. If necessary.

The Great Recipe Book Challenge of 2013 - June

Firstly, bad news. I've not posted here for a long time. This was because:

Secondly: I'm back now.

Baking. It has certainly captured the public imagination at the moment. Of all cookery shows on TV, there seems to be no better way to ensure rating success than to mix flour, sugar and presenters (Mary Berry may be getting on a bit but we all know she's still got it).

And yet. I just can't get to grips with baking, it's one of the very few skills of the kitchen that simultainiously elludes me and yet remains as unexciting as a slap in the face with a wet haddock. Mind you, I love watching all the shows. Oh yes, you cant move me from the sofa now The Great British Bake Off has started, it's essential viewing. But, doing it myself? Nah, I'll leave it to Mrs P. thanks very much.

I know that the majority of professionals are a savory rather than a sweet, which is what makes pastry chefs so sought after, and I would love to buck the trend but my life does not depend on it and I have the ability to choose what I cook. That means I limit the amount of sugar that enters my diet and instead concentrate on salt and fat, much better.

To this end I was relatively happy to be given cupcakes as the next challenge. About as easy as could be achieved and still be classed as baking, it wasn't too stressful. Plus, I could get my always able and willing assistant to help.

In fact, as cupcakes are so difficult to cock-up, I'm not going to bother talking about the recipe too much. The only comments I'm going to make are; the recipe called for an obscene amount of butter, in the interest of keeping my child heart disease free over the age of 9, I reduced the amount by half. Also it claims to make 12 cupcakes. This is a lie, we made 19 and were being generous with our spoonage. Thirdly, they tasted lovely. A little heavy and dense perhaps but nice all the same.

Happy Days.

Marshmallow Vanilla Buttercups

3 eggs
1 cup butter
1 cup caster sugar
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 cup self raising flour - sifted
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

100g icing sugar
1 cup butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
marshmallow dots

Preheat the oven to 160 - line a cupcake tin.

Beat the eggs, add butter and sugar and mix until light and fluffy.

Add buttermilk, flour and vanilla, stir to combine. beat with an electric mixer until light and creamy.

Bake for 20 minutes.

While cooling, combine half the icing sugar and butter and mix with a wooden spoon. Add the remaining nicing sugar, butter and vanilla abd beat with a spoon.

Dollop on the cakes then add marshmallows.

I'll leave you the joys of converting American cups to something more useful...

Friday, 24 May 2013

The Great Recipe Book Challenge of 2013 - May

Hands up who likes pies? Me! I like pies! Pies, in all their varied forms and iterations. I have delved into the Hairy Bikers Perfect Pies before now and I have to say I owe them a great debt. In the past, they furnished me with a killer top crust receipy which gained me a mute nod of respect from the GIL (Grandmother-In-Law) and is still talked about to this day.

I was keen then to see what other gems could be uncovered and this month the eye of the great random generator beast fell on Cheese and Onion Pasties. A reasonable challenge I thought, and even though Mrs. P. voiced her exasperation over another dull receipe, I decided to ignore her pitiful cries and gorge on the pasty fest regardless, after all, no-one said this was going to be easy did they!

I hadn't made pasty pastry before and it was slightly different to my usual type.Not as flakey and certainly containing more weight than I usually like in a pastry, but certainly necessary to keep the melted cheeseyness within.

I was quite proud of my crimping. it was my first real go and while sufficient it certainly got better the more I did. In this picture you can also see the various sizes of pasty that were achieved. Rolling the pastry didn't get them thing enough before I cut them into circles - perhaps a result of not having enough space but I think that might just be a bad excuse!!

The end results actually made me rather proud, in a strange pasty inspired kind of a way. Mrs. P. liked them but I felt that they needed more cheese, or at least they needed some way of bringing the cheese through the pastry more. Next time, I would add more parmesan to the pastry and then grate on top too.

Tasty Tasty!

2 medium potatoes (approx 300g), peeled and chopped into cubes
50g butter
2 medium onions, finely sliced
150g Cheddar cheese, grated
1tsp English mustard
flaked sea salt
ground black pepper

450g plain flour
2tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
125g cold butter
2 large egg yolks
50g Parmesan cheese, grated
150ml water
egg to glaze

Bring a Saucepan of salted water to boil and add the potato cubes. Bring back to the boil for 5 minutes. Drain and cool.

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan and gently fry the onions for 10 minutes or until softened but not coloured, stirring repeatedly. Remove from the heat and leave to cool.

Scatter the potato onto the onions and add the grated cheese and mustard. Season with salt and pepper and mix together. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C/180 for fan ovens, gas mark 6.

Pulse the flour, baking powder , salt, butter and egg yolks in a processor (or if you are like me, in a big bowl and stir with your hands). slowly pour in the water until the mixture becomes a dough (you might not need all the water). Roll the dough into a ball.

Roll out the pasty on a lightly floured surface until it is about 5mm thick. Using a side plate, cut out 6 or 7 pastry rounds (about 15cm across), re-rolling as necessary. Divide the filling between the pastry rounds, placing it across the centre. Brush the sides with beaten egg, bring up the sides and crimp to seal firmly. Repeat until they are all beautifully rustic.

Place on a baking tray lined with baking paper and brush with more egg to glaze (i added a sprinkle of salt too). Bake for 25/30mins until browned and the filling is hot!

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Working Lunch - Taiko Vietnamese Prawn Crystal Rolls from Waitrose

'Ooh', I said. 'Mmm, that looks nice. I fancy me a bit of that, oh yes.'

On first presentation, how could you say no to a lovely bit of Vietnamese roll? You would surely be a fool to do such a thing! Well, having tasted this particular example and been suitably underwhelmed by the watery, bland, distinctly non-prawn nature of this prawn roll, I can be the one to tell you that in all honestly, you shouldn't have bothered.

 The carrot to noodle ratio (an all important measurement in such things) seemed totally out of kilter in favor of the carrot which was disappointing enough but then with no punchy dressing or shellfish whack to give each bite even some kind of impact, it just dissolves into an unpleasant, vaguely crunchy mush.

Steer clear.

Monday, 6 May 2013

The Woolpack Inn - Thrapston

Gastropub. What does that word mean to you? Does it conjure up images of real ales, menus printed daily and 'specials' that actually justify the term?

If it does then how often do you find such a beast? About as often as you find a tenner down the back of the sofa, in my experience; rarely and with some considerable joy when you do.

Well, fret not because The Woolpack Inn certainly doesn't buck the trend. Mrs P. and I visited the place recently on the hunt for a decent Sunday lunch but were treated, if treated is the right word, to a litany of Schoolboy errors, such that any self-respecting chef should cry themselves to sleep over.

Starters - Mine was Chicken Pate, Mrs P. went with the deep fried Brie. First impressions were not great; bloody chefy tiles. How many more times do I have to shout it out? THEY DON"T MAKE THE FOOD TASTE NICER!! Secondly, Mrs P's was frozen in the middle. That had to go back to the kitchen but also started us on the road to suspicion. Frozen? That said pre-prepared, and it's only a small step from there to pre-supplied... hmm, not looking good. The pate, by the way, was fairly good if a little grainy. Personally, I like a good coarse terrine to a smooth pate but it was well seasoned and the toast was thin and crisp.

Mains - Mrs P was the Hunters Chicken (trust me, it wasn't worth the picture) and I got the Roast Pork Sunday lunch. Oh dear. It is pictured here only due to the complete shambles that it represented. The veg was cold and under seasoned, the meat; cold and in tiny proportions. The gravy, you guessed it; cold and the potatoes? Piping hot!  The whole dish would have gone back again had we not been eating with relatives who, after the brie incident, were set about convincing themselves and us how delicious the meal was. Embarrassing them would have served no purpose and so we soldiered on. I attempted to warm as much of the dish as possible by mushing up the potatoes with the broccoli but in all honesty, I just ended up pushing it all around the plate.

Mrs P. couldn't finish her chicken either - the rich cheese and sweet, heavy bottled BBQ sauce combo defeated her only half way through.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that the puddings were actually lovely. The fudge cake was OK but the Chocolate Bread and Butter pudding was a delight. Beautiful with custard, it was by far and away the start of the show. Which is unfortunate because for an establishment which not only looks the part but also tries to pride itself on decent, modern pub grub, it simply doesn't deliver.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Tai Pan - Milton Keynes

Mrs P. and I recently had a Very Good Day and, as a celebration, we decided to visit our favourite, local Chinese restaurant.

The Tai Pan is usually reserved for birthdays or new job celebrations because it isn't the cheapest of restaurants in the local area but it has never disappointed yet. Some time ago, we happen to meet the owner sitting on a nearby table and while, I'm sure he wouldn't recognise us these days but this chance encounter has certainly underlined to us the authenticity of the place. 

Menu items that are simply descriptions of what you get on the plate and a restaurant full of Chinese people are always good signs, particularly when there isn't what you could call huge indigenous Chinese population despite the many Chinese restaurants in the city. 

When we go, we never hold back. What's the point of going to somewhere that you can't really afford anyway if you are going to just limit yourself to a mildly intimidating bill? And besides which, we were celebrating our Very Good Day and money didn't seem much of a problem... as opposed to the  following morning when we tried to balance the dinner out with the rest of the monthly shop. But enough of that, on with the food porn!*

Vermicelli noodles were silky, moorish and I couldn't fit as many in mouth as was demanded by my belly. Although I have been known to Udon on occassion, Ramen and even Soba (don't really like those), I simply can't get enough of the long, thin soy laden delight of Vermicelli.  These were slippery but not wet and laced with spring oinion and beansprouts. This is the dish of the Takeaway taken to heady and delicious heights.

Other dishes to look out for here are the Crispy Garlic Chicken. This was apparently a half portion (half a chicken that is), but it seemed much more. Huge portions make me happy because it equals another re-run for lunch the next day and this kept very well.

Mrs. P. has taken her time to work her way around the menu and recomends Sautêed King Prawns with Garlic and Hot Chilli, which was recommended to her by the aforementioned owner who offered to choose her a dish when she failed to manage to do so herself. Despite the name, it is not hot at all and she manages it with ease, it usually gets ordered alongside anything else that we might choose just because, she claims, Mrs. P needs to remember what it's called.

We usually drop about £70/£80 with a couple of beers and tip for the two of us but we think it's worth it. It's highly regarded in the Good Food guide and for great reason. For a celebration or those times that the local takeaway just won't cut it, you won't regret it.

*Admittedly, it isn't my best work in terms of photographic perfection, but as with most porn, it gets the job done quickly and effectively before leaving you feeling slightly dissatisfied and wanting the real thing.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

The Great Recipe Book Challenge of 2013 - April

What is constructive criticism? Is it like getting a slap to the face with a velvet glove? Or perhaps a very helpful push when already jumping from a train? It is only in these very private pages that I can suggest that perhaps I don't take criticism very well. It is only here that I can admit that while totally necessary, I can't always see that people are trying to help. However, as you can see from these previous pages, I don't seem to have the same reservations when offering my own opinions!!

With that self deprecating vision firmly in mind I come to Aprils Great Recipe Challenge. What happens when you follow a recipe and you don't really like the result? Do you blame yourself? Did you do everything right? Perhaps you didn't follow the instructions correctly? Let's find out.

I've had Ken Hom's principle foray into the British kitchen for donkeys years. His Hot Wok has mocked me with it's talk of instant deliciousness and authentic Chinese flavours. Now, Ken the joke is on you, we get to see what you're really made of!

The random number generator gave me Savoury Beef with Asparagus, or in the words of any Chinese Takeaway: Beef in black bean sauce (and added asparagus). And this, I thought, looked pretty tasty. I've already been put off dodgy takeaway Sweet and Sour sauce by experiencing how easy and tasty the home made version can be. This, I thought would be another classic I could add to that stable.

There were a few new ingredients, the black beans were bought as was the rice wine and oyster sauce. While we have Thai food regularly at home, we usually leave Chinese for dinners out which meant I now have enough of the above to make dinners for the next week and little chance of fulfilling that promise. I also splashed out and bought some nice expensive beef. I don't normally buy beef because I'm too much of a tight arse to get the good stuff and the bad stuff is, well, bad.

I soaked the beans as directed that morning and, as is my want when following recipes, prepped everything so we are ready to go. It all started so well; the marinade smelled lovely, the ginger was supermarket fresh and the glass of wine I had on the go was already making life that little bit easier to suffer. Then something went wrong - the recipe stopped making sense, why would you put the beef back in to the wok? Hang-on, one and a half tablespoons of garlic? Even when serving four that is a hell of a lot.

The end result suffered from a few problems, the black beans needed a much more soaking than the back of the packet would have you believe, they were in there for 11 hours but they were still crunchy.  The beef was also ruined. By returning the beef to the wok to add the sauce, it tipped over the edge from meltingly beautiful to chewy and unpleasant. Finally the salt level was off the scale, I know that authentic Chinese cooking often suffers from serious saltiness (I'll tell you my "Hot Pot' story one day), but in this case, 'savoury' clearly meant 'salty'. The soy in the veg alongside the added salt and the salt in the marinade and the final oyster sauce was just too much.

So, the question is. Are these problems resultant from the execution (i.e. me) or does the recipe have a fundamental flaw (i.e. Ken)? I'm going to hedge my bets and say a bit of both. I'm sure that if Ken whipped this up in my kitchen he would be able to balance the sweet rice wine togeather with the salty soy and oyster sauce like the master he undoubtedly is, but I'd be prepared to bet that he wouldn't do it by following the quantities and instructions in this recipe.

Serves 4

Savoury Beef with Asparagus

450g lean beef steak
450g fresh asparagus sliced on the diagonal
3 tablespoons groundnut oil
100g thinly sliced onions
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped black beans
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped garlic
2 teaspoons chopped root ginger
3 tablespoons chicken stock
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoons  black pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons oyster sauce

2 teaspoons light soy sauce
2 teaspoons Shaoxing rice wine
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoons  black pepper
2 teaspoons corn flour

Cut the beef into thin slices, put in a bowl and add the marinade. Mix well and leave to steep.

Heat the oil in the wok until slightly smoking, add the beef and stir fry for 2 minutes. Remove the meat and drain. Pour off all but 1 and a half tablespoons of the oil and re heat. When very hot, add the onions, black beans, garlic and ginger. Stir-fry for 1 minute then add the asparagus and continue to cook for 1 minute the add the stock, rice wine, salt, pepper and sugar. Fry for a further 3 minutes and add water if it goes dry. Quickly returnt he meat to the wok, add the oyster sauce and stir well. Turn the mixture onto a platter and serve at once.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

What's this? Grape flavoured Fanta? Do I look American to you?

Mrs P. and I recently needed a quick protein fix and wandered through the doors of a well known example of disgraceful Capitalist consumption. And boy was I glad we did. We'll ignore the food on this occasion (you know what a mass produced apparently 'flame grilled' frozen burger tastes like) and move swiftly on to the exciting bit.

Take a look. Interesting right? We took our empty cups and wandered over. Self service drink machines are nothing new but this... this looks like the bloody replicator on the 'effing Starship Enterprise!!

Choose from one of the major names in the Coca Cola stable but that's where the fun really starts. Lime Coke anyone? Raspberry Lemonade? Yes frickin' please!

Look at those options! Until now, there is very little that could get me excited about a glass of Coke but I can only hope that this gets rolled out across the land because this is the future folks, believe it.

I battled through the sugar rush to try as many as possible but even I was beaten in the end. Some of the combinations were great, Peach Sprite or Vanilla Coke. However, I'm on the look out for one closer to home so I can get some serious testing in. 

If anyone of you can get to Guildford while the test is running, I recommend that you check it out. it's a whole lot of fun!


It seems I'll probably not uncover another one, but I did find this...