Nose to Tail at St John…

The restaurant fairy paid me a visit last night and took me to St John, home of nose to tail eating, and the place I have most wanted to eat at in London for years. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a little bit wary of the knobbly bobbly wobbly bits of the beast as they require more cooking skill than I feel I have, so I have always wanted the chance to try the weird and wonderful, but well cooked. And I wasn’t disappointed!
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Sometimes only a sausage will do. And when that feeling overtakes you, there is nowhere better to go than Kipferl in Camden Passage, apparently London’s only Austrian cafe. Previously situated near Barbican tube, this Viennese coffee house expanded into larger premises off Upper Street earlier this year and is now open for dinner as well as lunch.
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Kaosarn, Brixton

Brixton Village (formerly known as Granville Arcade) has had a reversal of fortune recently. Once a dilapidated rundown covered area with empty shops and a slightly forlorn atmosphere, it has been revived to become a thriving community of shops, stalls, coffee joints and places to eat, opening late on certain nights and attracting a crowd who love good food. And nowhere more so than the new Thai restaurant Kaosarn.
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The Three Fishes, Mitton

Last week was Mister North’s birthday and an excellent excuse for both of us to eat and drink in style all weekend. After an excellent, but late Saturday night out enjoying Korean food at Baekdu and sampling just a few of the excellent beers on offer at Port Street Beer House in Manchester, we were just ready for a good pub lunch preferably in a location gorgeous enough to do this fabulous weather justice. We didn’t take long to decide on The Three Fishes.

Tucked away in Mitton the Ribble Valley not far from Clitheroe and Whalley, this pub prides itself on serving good Lancashire food and drink in a beautiful location and sounded just right for an afternoon out. We decided to err on the side of caution and book a table even though it was a Monday lunchtime and were glad we had when we got stuck behind every driver in the valley out going at 30 miles a hour to drink in the sunny scenery. It also made for the most genuine welcome when we arrived at the pub 10 minutes than planned. Our waitress greeted us like service had been waiting for us and showed us to our table with enthusiasm. Combined with the pint of local Thwaites Wainwright we chose, it was a good start.

The menu is extensive and tempting and we both struggled to narrow our choices down, staring at other tables to see what they were ordering. The platters looked sensational and Mister North was very tempted by the seafood platter until we discovered they were out of the oh-so alluring sounding treacle cured salmon. This almost pleased me as it removed my dilemma and allowed me to go for the Morecambe Bay shrimp as a starter without too much dithering. The fact Mister North chose my other temptation with the baked whitebait, smoked pig’s jowl and a soft hen’s egg was fortituous too.

We didn’t have to wait long before our cheery waitress arrived with the starters, but they were good enough that I’d have waited a while for them. I was served what felt like a pint of shrimp, all glossy and glorious after being kissed by a wave of mace scented butter in their dish. I loved that the waitress brought me a spoon so even after devouring the English muffin, I wouldn’t miss a drop of that beautiful shrimpy butter. I barely noticed Mister North’s reactions as I supped my shrimp, but the morsel I sampled made me briefly envious. Soft sparkling fresh whitebait, unencumbered by batter, married beautifully with the smoky salty chewy pig’s jowl and reminded me again that pork and seafood together can barely be bettered and this was a particularly good example of it.

Excited for the mains after the great starters, I was glad there was a little bit of a pause while I recovered from my buttering up, but I was still thrilled to see my Pie Top with caramelised onions, braised ox cheek and kidneys arrive, especially when I realised it was accompanied by the same dripping cooked chips that made Mister North’s fancy scampi and squid in a basket sound so alluring, preventing us from reverting to childhood squabbling in public…

In fact there was silence at the table as we got stuck in. My ox cheek was properly unctuous, melting in the mouth after the merest prod of the fork. The disc of gleaming puff pastry soaked up some serious good gravy and the onions really added a sweet base note that made the dish. The kidneys though, weren’t as good as the ones I cooked recently, and were a tad powdery for my still offal sensitive tendencies. I’m not sure if it was the texture of the kidneys lingering, but I also found the chips a little bit claggy as if the dripping hadn’t quite been hot enough, but considering how light and lovely the batter on Mister North’s squid and scampi was, I think the issue might have been with me.

He dispatched his fritto misto and chips in record time, commenting several times on how fresh the seafood was and how light it seemed considering that it was all deep fried. I found my dish much heavier and struggled to finish the chips, but refused to waste even a drop of that gravy! We both wanted to sample the famed length of Lancashire Cheese, but were simply too full to even remotely do it justice. I’d have been tempted to go for a long walk so I could come back for it afterwards, but instead we decided to finish up rather than linger and be tempted to drink more at lunchtime. If we’d had more time, I’d have enjoyed sampling the rather good gin list, including the Chase Gin I’m keen to try, especially since it was sunny enough to sit out with a G&T.

We settled the bill and despite the fact Mister North was paying for his own birthday treat, he seemed to find it reasonable at under £50 for the two of us with a drink. Service was genuinely friendly and very easy. We neither felt rushed for coming almost as lunch ended or forced to sit on waiting around for things because they were clearing up. The whole dining room was pleasantly busy with a few other birthday lunches, kids and people enjoying themselves over a drink and I liked the atmosphere immensely. In a valley crammed with pubs and places to eat, there’s a reason that the Three Fishes is so popular. They’ve cracked gastropub food while keeping the pub vibe and welcoming everyone. It’s a local gem. I only wish it were more local to me…

Gastroclub Pudding 5, Football Nil

I attended my first session of Gastroclub earlier this month. This particular session was at the Market Restaurant, and promised not one, not two, but five desserts with a historical bent. A wee bit excessive, you say? Not a bit of it, we thought as we headed off to the city centre on a Tuesday evening, intrigued and excited by promises of exotic heritage desserts. It’s not often you get to mix history and food on a school night…

I’d heard of the Market Restaurant over the years, a long-established restaurant in the Northern Quarter, but I’d had never visited before. It manages to combine a touch of the old-fashioned British restaurant, mixed up with a souçon of bodega and a dash of quirky kitsch charm (we liked the randomness of the mix-and-match crockery).

My companion and I were greeted at the door by Katie Brunt, the effervescent organiser and host of Gastroclub which she’d started after discovering there was a dinner-sized gap in the market for like-minded foodlovers in Manchester. Katie explained numbers were down because of the United vs. Chelsea match that night. I’ve come late to Gastroclub (perhaps due in part to not actually living in Manchester these days) so we couldn’t tell whether the 30-odd folk in the upstairs restaurant were representative of a normal turnout or not. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves and there was an obvious crowd of regulars.

We took our seats after being given a glass of fizz, met some fellow diners and ordered drinks. I was impressed by their beer selection, but somewhat less so by their prices: my opener of a bottle of Worthington’s classic White Shield was over £6, a significant ask even for a stunning IPA. Katie introduced the owner, Gary, a man whose passion for food and history was evident, who explained that the Market had run their pudding club ‘Sweet Meets’ for over 20 years. We would start the puddings with a recipe from the inimitable Elizabeth Raffald‘s book ‘The Experienced English Housekeeper’, one of Britain’s earliest best-selling cookbooks. This luminary of the literary food world settled and worked in Manchester, so it was an appropriate start to the pudding fest.

Before the pudding onslaught we had a simple light main course of Beef Stroganoff (very nice) and boiled potatoes. Despite this being good fare neither we nor anyone else seemed to overfill their plates: everyone was focused on the task ahead of the five desserts, and had no idea what to expect and how much room to leave.

Dessert 1: Elizabeth Raffald’s Orange Custard
This, it had to be said, was not a particularly attractive starting plate. A delicately-coloured shivering splodge was presented plainly on a plate, like a pale posset ectoplasm. I’m not sure, given the lighting in the venue, whether this was actually imbued with any colour from said oranges, but if it had been served in a porcelain tub I could’ve mistaken it for facecream at first glance. Perhaps the designer in me craves more ostentatious presentation. However the flavour was subtly pleasant : creamy, just sweet enough and delicately citrus-like. I rather enjoyed this, despite it not being much of a looker. Thumbs up for course one. 4/5

Dessert 2: Osbourne Pudding
Quite a contrast with dish two. This was warm and much heavier than the orange custard. It was lightly spiced, a bit like a bread & butter pudding with dried fruit. I love bread and butter pudding and have no qualms about eating it, although it felt odd to be doing so in the confines of a restaurant rather than at home in the depths of winter. Our table suffered from a momentary deficit of custard to offset the natural dryness of this pudding, hence lots of beer-drinking and muttering about inappropriate appropriation. Calm, and masticular moisture was rapidly re-established with the appearance of a replacement gravy boat of custard. Verdict: warm and hazy childhood memories stirred up, but perhaps not a foodie feast dish for a spring evening. 3/5

Dessert 3: The ‘Bees Knees’ Cheesecake
This looked the part for a posh pudding, and expectations were high. Cheesecake’s always welcome here, and I’d like to have known more about the provenance of this dish. Isn’t the bee’s knees one of the those expressions from the 1920’s which suggests superlative quality? Perhaps this self-confident title helped to raise expectations, however my companion and I were less overwhelmed than we’d expected. I found the filling more sweet and cloying (I’d suppose the name alludes to a high honey content?) than I like in a cheesecake, and the base was a touch too thin and soft compared to the benchmark cheesecakes of my youth. In the end the narrow slice was more than enough for my taste buds, and reminded me of that hoary old chestnut when being offered tea. “No ta, I’m sweet enough as it is”. 3.5/5

Dessert 4: Hannah Glasse’s Carrot Tart
This was definitely the course I was most intrigued by when the invite email went out. Carrot cake is wonderful. Carrots are orange and sweet and these features alone should make for a fantastically interesting dish. Even more so when it’s taken from Hannah Glasse‘s 18th century classic ‘ The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy’. Perhaps I should’ve more keenly observed the word ‘plain’ in that book’s title.

There was a touch of unintentional comedy as everyone bar myself and another unfortunate chap sat next to me tucked into their slices of carrot tart: we’d not been served and we watched as two lonesome plates sat unattended at the far end of the room. So by the time we’d managed to attract the attention of the waiting staff the rest of the table had tasted, and in some cases pushed away their portions, with ambiguous phrases such as ‘sausage roll’ and ‘odd’ being bandied around.

When I tasted the tardy tart there was a definite ring of truth to the above comments: the pastry was on the savoury side and felt a bit… well, lardy and the filling was inoffensive but slightly odd. Like a very mildly granular dessert quiche, which isn’t an appealing concept, I grant you. I’ll put this down to the gustatory tastes and trends from the eighteenth century translating poorly for us more modern folks. At least I finished mine, enjoying the small and rapidly melting dollop of vanilla ice cream on the side. However this was not something I’d willingly try again, when I know how much more enjoyable carrot cake can be. Shame. 2/5

Dessert 5: Pear and almond crumble
By now slight pudding fatigue was starting to set in. Ideally it would’ve been the time to end with something extraordinary, smooth and light, like a sorbet or the mysterious ‘dark chocolate pots’ which had been promised on the notifiying email. However the closing curtain was provided instead by a pear crumble and cream. This was perfectly okay in its own right, but was neither bold nor light like I’d been hoping for, and was indeed rather wan. It really needed a boozy double cream, or some bold flavours to riff off the almonds and pear. Cobblers. 3/5

The winner, as judged by the Gastronauts at the end of the evening, was the “Bees Knees” cheesecake. Although wasn’t my favourite, it was by far the most popular, perhaps because it was the most contemporary of the desserts on offer… or at least the one most people would grab off the sweet trolley.

All in all it was a rather fun and silly night… starting with a cab driver who couldn’t comprehend anyone would be more into food than football, and ending with (slightly delicate) hugs at the end of the evening. You have to be careful hugging anyone who’s just eaten five desserts. Thanks to all the staff at the Market Restaurant, and to Katie for organising the event. I’m looking forward to the next Gastroclub, but I’ve reminded myself how I prefer savoury to sweet these days. Let’s hope the next one is equally exciting and unpredictable, but with a more piquant menu! You can follow @TheGastroClub on Twitter.