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Con Report – Eastercon

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My first Eastercon was in 2010, a time when I was feeling particularly anti-social, and was held at Heathrow, a particularly anti-social location. I didn’t have a great time but both those limiting factors had changed by this year’s Eastercon. I thoroughly enjoyed myself this year and must concede, once and for all, that I am part of fandom.

First order of the day – after registration and buying the 50th issue of Black Static for a quid – was lunch with what once upon a time would have been called Third Row fandom. Is that still a thing? We couldn’t make it over to dim sum and they wouldn’t let us in for tapas so we had Greek. There was meat and beer. It was good.

Back inside, my first panel of the con was Catastrophe And Salvage. It very nearly wasn’t my first panel since it was held in Room 7 which had capacity for about 30 and was fully twenty minutes before the panel started. I just got in, many others didn’t and this was a bit of a pattern for the weekend.

The panel itself was okay but I found that they just stopped short of making progress before switching onto the next thread. I’d not seen Mathew de Abaitua speak before and he was very interesting. Tricia Sullivan still seems to be (understandably) burnt out on SF which is a shame because she is so smart and had lots to contribute but I just didn’t feel she wanted to be there.

Due to a large number of interruptions from the floor, there wasn’t time for any questions. If there had been, I would have asked: “We’ve talked a lot about the lack of agency in the 21st Centure and disaster fiction as fantasies of agency. That is external change, what about internal change? Why are revolutions so under-represented in SF compared to disasters?”

I wanted to get into The Stars Are Your Canvas and The Female Gaze but they were both in Room 7 (all the best programming was) so I didn’t risk it. Elsewhere the BSFA Awards were announced. Things I didn’t want to win won – c’est la vie. However, my choice for Best Non-Fiction – Rave And Let Die by Adam Roberts – did win so that was nice. I think Nick Hubble’s review of the book is worth reading alongside this win:

There is something discordant, too, about the proximity of Roberts’s contention that “whatever else reviews are ‘for,’ they ought to be entertaining” (p. 14) to his discussion of why he doesn’t particularly value entertainment as a criterion of a book’s worth. One of the least entertaining reviews in his collection, of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, is one of the most incisive in critical terms. Roberts is, amongst his many other distinctions, a significant Tolkien scholar and his 2013 study, The Riddles of the Hobbit, is a model for how good an accessible academic book can be. In some ways, of course, it is the contradiction between being a top-level academic and an entertainer that can make Roberts such an interesting and unpredictable critic to read.

I made my dinner plans based on a quick Google of Time Out just as my phone was dying. It recommended Tattu, gave it five stars and two out of four for affordability so I took a punt. It turned out to be located in the huge new Spinningfields development with its diamond-like Armani building and Australiasia. Once this would have been described as noveau riche but it is more like credit riche or Premier League Aspiration and Tattu turned out to be a very hollow experience.

I ordered an Orchid Blush to drink which tasted of tequila and mouthwash and arrived after the starter. Said starter of scallop with Iberico xo sausage, brown shrimp and pumpkin was fine and for £14 I wanted more than “fine”. I could just about taste the pumpkin but nothing made the dish come alive. It was an example of expensive ingredients and pretty presentation being used as substitute for flavour. This was even more the case for the black pepper and honey ribs which had no heat, spice or really any flavour at all. I’ve never had a Chinese meal with so little seasoning. I ordered a side of rice with this which boasted of duck egg and Chinese sausage but again, you’d be hard pressed to actually find them.

This came to just over £50 for one which I’m not sure is two out of four for affordability and I’m definitely sure is very poor value for money. I ate a much better meal at Jitrada in Sale the night before for half the price.

Back at the con in the morning and I was working. Or, at least, I was on the Book Reviews in the Age of Amazon panel. This went well with a nicely balanced, interesting panel, a great moderator and an audience of a hundred odd people. Still, I couldn’t help reflecting that it was a bit of a well worn topic and I’d have liked to have seen some of the other panels having that much space.

For example, the 30 Years Of The Arthur C Clarke Award panel immediately afterwards in yes, Room 7. It was an interesting discussion of the history of the award but two particular things stood out for me. Firstly, the interest in the Award putting out a longlist. This is something I’d like to see too but isn’t a direction the award will be going in. Secondly, both Nina Allan and Nick Hubble mentioned Torque Control as the place that facillitated the best discussion of the award as well as being a hub for British science fiction in general.

Torque Control was established by Niall Harrison when he was editor of Vector, the magazine of the BSFA. Although the subsequent editor Shana Worthen continued the blog, it no longer functioned in the same way and for the last five years there hasn’t been a UK hub of the type Nina and Nick (and me) found so productive. Several times I’ve begged Niall to blog again (although he does a bit with a different hat on) and, indeed, I buttonholed him straight after the panel too. The age of blogging has passed and the age of Twitter has many benefits but still, you can dream.

Written by Martin

29 March 2016 at 16:09

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The Windsor Castle

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A couple of years ago I made the mistake of ordering lamb with herring and nasturtium relish at Konstam. Earlier this year, I went into the Windsor Castle and was surprised to see lamb with sprat sauce on the menu. Turns out it is the same bloke in the kitchen, Oliver Rowe. He’s obviously proud of his creation but I’ve learnt my lesson.

The gist of the menu of the menu is well-cooked locally-sourced protein with intriguing vegetable accompaniment and not too much fuss. Between us we ordered pretty much everything on the menu except the lamb and there wasn’t a single duff note. Starters are £7 which is good value (my cuttlefish was particularly mountainous), mains are £13 – £15.50 which is slightly less so. My over-ridding impression, however, was not of the food but of the inordinate amount of time it took to produce it. I couldn’t quite see into the kitchen (it is open but thankfully not as intrusive as at Konstam) but it seemed like they needed another warm body in there. It is a big pub but they were streched by only a couple of covers.

It is also a new pub. The Windsor Castle is on Lower Clapton Road which, when I moved to the area, was colloquially known as Murder Mile. The idea seems ridiculous now. An ongoing wave of gentrification caused by people like me has seen old man pubs drop like flies over the last couple of years. They have then re-emerged as craft beer pubs or what we’d once have called gastropubs (a term that seems quaint and archaic these days) to meet the needs of a new, high-spending clientele. The Windsor Castle is a bit of both, the name in the kitchen balanced by the great selection of beers, including Five Points Pale which is brewed above the Tesco Metro opposite my flat.

Or rather my ex-flat. By the time I returned last weekend, I had become a victim of gentrification myself, forced over the physical and psychological boundary of the Lea by Hackney’s ludicrous house prices. Again, I got the impression the kitchen was hanging on by its fingernails. They start serving food realtively late at 1pm but the menus weren’t printed until after then. To mitigate against any further wait, despite being the first customer of the day, I made the mistake of ordering some pork scratchings. These turned out to be the single worst pub snack I’ve ever consumed. You know when you buy a bag of scratchings and there is always a fat, stale one at the bottom that squishes rather than crackles? These were all like that. This was half to do with execution – their fat to skin ration was too high – but I suspect they had also been sitting around for some time.

But my lamb arrived promptly – yes, I asked for it without the sprat sauce – and lived up to my last meal: simple, clever, excellent. I’m glad I got in early though.

Written by Martin

19 March 2014 at 11:48

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Out On The Wiley, Windy Moors

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The paradoxes of being a heavy reader is that you don’t really like to receive books as gifts. “Oh, a book! Wonderful! I’ll pencil that in for 2018…” But, of course, a book is never unwelcome. My wife got me The Breakfast Bible by Seb Emina and Malcolm Eggs (of the London Review Of Breakfasts) for Christmas and I’ve been reading it in bite-sized chunks since then. I have learnt many things along the say but the most important is that to make a perfect soft boiled egg, all you need to do is place a large room-temperature egg into simmering water and then put on ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Kate Bush:

When the song is finished so is the egg.

Written by Martin

2 March 2014 at 09:25

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Caravan King’s Cross

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I have never been to Caravan but several times I have stood on Exmouth Market looking plaintively through the window. It is always fucking rammed. They have now capitalised on this popularity by opening another branch in the Granary Building behind King’s Cross Station which houses the relocated Central Saint Martins. This is part of a huge regeneration project in the area and, whilst the transformation to date has been marked, there is obviously still a lot to do. The setting reminds me of my new favourite neighbourhood restaurant, Lardo and the menu is also similar: nibbles (breads, cheese, meat), lots of small plates, a couple of pizzas and couple of mains but with an added antipodean twist. I can’t think of anything better, to be honest, and I’ve no doubt Caravan King’s Cross will be a success.

It is always a good idea to start dinner with oysters if you can. Here, as well as well as trad raw, you can get half a dozen deep fried. My wife demurred from joining me when I proposed ordering them because she had imagined the scampiesque orange balls you usually get. However, they turned out to be a wonderfully delicate tempura and she was soon diving in. Similarly subtle was a salad of wood-smoked trout and peas. A perfect summer dish which made it seem a bit out of place in deepest, darkest January. I’m not complaining but not exactly seasonal. More in keeping with the season was jalepeno cornbread with chipotle butter was also lighter than it sounded: moist, the heat coming through gently but intensely and served with a helpful wedge of lime to stop it from being too buttery.

Careful offsetting was also on display in the next dish. I’ve forgotten the menu description for it but it was basically giant borek, the deep fried Turkish pastry of feta and spinach which is a Saturday morning staple round our way. The addition of bulgar wheat reduced the tang of the cheese (manouri, in this instance) whilst increasing the depth which was complemented by the refreshing, sweet and sour lake of yoghurt and honey underneath. The only duff dish was my quail which was spatch-cocked on the grill rather than whole and came bloody rather than pink. I ate it because I’m not particularly squeamish but I think most people wouldn’t have done. It was served with creamed corn and bacon caramelised in maple syrup, two individually pleasant tastes which were too rich and sweet together and overpowered the quail. This was a rare instance of the deftly delicate touch in the kitchen disappearing.

£70 for two, including drinks and two desserts. In contrast to the food, drinks left a bit to be desired. Their own beer (everyone has there own beer these days), Good Oil Pale Ale, was off which left only one choice: the uninspiring Hell’s Lager (at least it is local, I guess). I’ve always thought prosecco on tap sounds like a good idea but the result here was akin to the last glass left at a budget drinks reception. If it isn’t crisp and effervescent, what is the point? My wife is currently off the booze so had a non-alcoholic cocktail which is a pretty grand way of describing elderflower cordial and fizzy water. Equally grand was the price: two of these cost a quid more than two pints of lager.

Written by Martin

14 January 2013 at 20:56

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Menuese And Proper Burgers

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Steven Poole is a non-fiction reviewer for the Guardian and author of Unspeak. His latest book, You Aren’t What You Eat: Fed Up With Gastroculture, was reviewed by Jonathan Meades in the Guardian at the weekend. Obviously Meades loves it – it is hard to imagine a more sympathetic reviewer since his own rants on the subject of ‘fine dining’ could easily have inspired Poole. I’ve not read the book but I have read the long extract the Guardian published a couple of weeks ago titled ‘Let’s Start The Foodie Backlash’. On that basis, it is wide-ranging, ill-focused and lacking in any central thesis beyond the idea that people are fools to be interested in food. The opening paragraph is nothing but substance-less hipster sneering with dashes of proud ignorance (arancini are hardly obscure) and irrelevant pet hates (oh no, social smokers!) and doesn’t make me want to read the whole book. But I do want to address some specific comments he makes about the language used to describe food later in the article.

The first takes the form of a strange experiment:

For some examples of the modern state of the art in gastrolinguistic engineering, let us consider L’Enclume, the Michelin-starred restaurant in the English Lake District, and its bill of fare as advertised on its website in November 2011. As a literary-gustatory experiment, I’m going simply to read the menu without investigating further, so attempting empathetically to recreate the literary experience of the diner who has just sat down and read the dish descriptions, and is thereby set off on a pleasurable trail of wondering what exactly it is that he might end up eating.

This reference caught my eye because, as it happens, I went to L’Enclume in November 2011 and had one of the best meals of my life there. So I have done for real what Poole is attempting to do “empathetically”. I do wonder if he read the menu with champagne cocktail, exquisite canapés and best beloved close to hand though. I doubt it and context is important. He complains that “there is no clue to how any of this was cooked” on the menu (as if this was of over-whelming importance) but, of course, the waiter will talk you through the detail of the dish as it is served (and later he quotes an example of a waiter doing just this). L’Enclume doesn’t have an a la carte menu, it isn’t there to help you decided between mains; instead, the tasting menu is meant to be a tease, to “set off on a pleasurable trail of wondering” as Poole puts it. But he has approached his task with pre-conceptions and hence pedantically rather than empathetically.

The first dish on the menu is “carrot sacks with brawn and juniper, fried cake and cress”. Poole complains he has no idea what a carrot sack is. Neither did I. I could have asked but I didn’t see any need since I could use my imagination. He continues: “This dish also features “fried cake”, which has me pondering the dubious desirability of frying a chocolate or sponge cake, but that cannot be it. Could it be a fishcake? Who knows?” Um, carrot cake, perhaps? He then describes the mention of brawn as an “example of menu euphemism” as if it wasn’t simply the brilliantly evocative name of the terrine. (Our American cousins, on the other hand, call it ‘head cheese’ – now that is a euphemism.) Presumably if you invited Poole round for dinner he wouldn’t be happy unless sausage and mash was described as pig skin stuffed with minced pork and served with mashed potato. And even then he’d be grumpy that you hadn’t said whether you were going to grill or fry the sausages.

The rest of the section then veers sharply away from his notional target of Michelin pretension. He takes issue with a couple of commonplace words: “resting” and “bed”. These aren’t high-falluting terms; you rest your Sunday roast to make it taste better, a bed is a pleasingly descriptive term whether it is on your plate or down the allotment. He spins a whole paragraph out of another commonplace word – “baby” – but in the end can’t find any reason to criticise this. He pretends not to understand what a “rare breed” is. It is tedious stuff and it is hard to see who – apart from Meades – is the audience for this gastrolinguistic masturbation. Bizarrely, Poole has written a book that exists to simultaneously allow him to indulge himself with the English language whilst censuring anyone else who has the temerity to do anything even slightly similar.

He then moves from swinging and missing at the highbrow to swinging and missing at the middlebrow:

Lest all the artifice of breed descriptions, chemistry-set jargon and ingredient rebranding in the posher kind of restaurant make a certain kind of diner suspicious, a parallel recent trend is the reassuring adjective “proper”. It appears everywhere on gastropub menus (“proper pork pie”, “proper mash”), in one-up-from-McDonald’s burger joints (“proper hamburgers”, promises the London chain Byron), and in the mellifluously matey warbling of Jamie Oliver munching a Vietnamese banh minh in an East End market (“That is a proper, proper sandwich”), and his own dish names: “Proper Bloke’s Sausage Fusilli”, “Roast of Incredible Game Birds with Proper Polenta”. The use of “proper” anticipates and indulges (even implants) a suspicion of fanciness, whether it is owed to dubious foreign practices or modern industrial adulteration.

“Proper” is certainly a cliché but clichés are pretty low hanging fruit, a feeling reinforced by the mention of the ultimate soft target Jamie Oliver. But look at what passes for analysis: modern industrial adulteration is fanciness? This is barking. “Proper” certainly indulges a suspicion of processed food but that is the exact opposite of indulging a fear of fancy foreign muck. His description of Byron is equally eyebrow-raising and I would love Poole’s hierarchy of burgers where they are one rung from the bottom. It is impossible to escape the feeling he simply has no idea what he is talking about, that this is all one sustained blag.

Let me instead quote someone who does know what he is talking about. This is my favourite food blogger on his return to London and the changes he has seen since he has been away (“My impression is that London’s food scene at the moment is without parallel”):

London has always been a pretty desperate place when it came to Americana food but around three to four years ago restaurants like Hawksmoor and Goodman and mini-chains like Byron burgers started to change this. Finally, amazingly, you could get a halfway edible burger.

This is the idea that “proper” seeks to signal – that food can be better than the utter rubbish served up to paying punters in the recent past. Poole has it exactly backwards. A handy comparison can be made at this point to the opening paragraphs Grace Dent’s review of Honest Burger in Brixton:

Until last week, I firmly believed I was bored with the bespoke burger trend. All those hipster patty-purists, gangs of bearded Tarquins in their skinny-fit trousers with their pop-up burger truck/speakeasies, their ‘today’s burger’ Tweet updates, scribbled menus containing a fulsome biography of this week’s unlucky cow, their no reservation policy and their brash names like ‘Spank Slider’ and ‘Burger Bang-Bang’. Enough!

But then I returned to the North for a week and was reminded how spoiled we capital-dwellers are. I had good intentions to seek out fresh, fibrous, flavoursome dinners, but 30 miles past the Watford Gap and I was living on microwaved pub food, Wild Bean Café muffins and those mini-bar hotel chocolates worth £3.60 that wouldn’t keep Wee Jimmy Krankie going. Ordering a burger outside of the M25 will remind you why you crucify yourself rent-wise and sacrifice your sanity to live here.

Dent is exaggerating for effect too – that is, after all, what she is paid for – but this is much more acceptable in a comic columnist than a notionally serious essayist. There is also the question of the review’s length; Poole’s wit is already spread thin across 4,000 words, I can’t imagine what it would be like at over a dozen times that length. Most importantly though, Dent’s piece is lacking an agenda, something which strangles any decent point Poole might have. So although Dent takes a pop at the same targets that he disdains in his introduction, she isn’t ideologically blinded. The result is that her description rings more true than Poole’s; it is easy to sneer at gastropubs but, as I found when I walked the Cumbria Way, it is less easy to get a decent meal in pubs that have escaped such modernisation.

Immediately after mentioning Jamie Oliver talking about a banh minh, Poole shifts gear:

It is also one of the favourite epithets employed by David Cameron: “proper politics”, “proper punishment”, “proper immigration control”. “Proper” here works as a strategy to avoid seeming privileged, while at the same time tuning in cunningly to anti-intellectual prejudice (what is “proper” is not over-thought) – all as Cameron conducts, like some kind of over-moisturised Visigoth, his philistine economic campaign against the BBC, universities (“proper education”), and the National Health Service (“proper healthcare”). Just as one ought to be suspicious of the word “proper” when hoarsely brayed from the glistening lips of Cameron, one ought to be suspicious of it on a menu: is it anything more than a vatic invocation of old-school purity?

I think this passage finally tips his hand and reveals what I suspect is the fundamental problem with the book: that he has tried to apply the formula of Unspeak to an unsuitable subject. Unspeak “represents an attempt to say something without saying it, without getting into an argument and so having to justify itself. At the same time, it tries to unspeak – in the sense of erasing, or silencing – any possible opposing point of view, by laying a claim right at the start to only one way of looking at a problem.” But there is a category error here; the word “proper” is a cliche but it isn’t language abuse, it isn’t harmful or dangerous.

It is absurd that we move directly from political ad hominems to an unsupported direction that we “ought” to be equally as suspicious of the words on pub menus as we are of those that issue from the mouths of our elected representatives. There are a lot of missing steps here. How on Earth has he dragged Visigoths into a discussion of the percentage meat content of a pork pie? I mean, I’m not sure it is even linguistically possible to have a vatic invocation of the past but that is by the by when the old school purity is abundantly clear to the palette.

In his review, Meades describes Poole’s targets thus: “They are nonetheless bound together by their extremism and their hyperbole. There is no place in these milieux for balance, for doubt, for self-questioning – let alone for the self-knowledge that might provide a bulwark against loopy mendacity.” The irony is that this description could equally be applied to Poole himself. It is, after all, entirely possible to want to eat a proper burger or dine from an minimalist tasting menu just because you like good food and not, as he would have it, because you are an insufferable twat.

Written by Martin

24 October 2012 at 14:35

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Hackney – UK Epicentre For Craft Beer

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When I moved to Hackney ten years ago my local was a Carlsberg/Strongbow/John Smiths/Guiness emphysema pit called the Cock Tavern. Since I wasn’t an old man waiting desperately to die I never went there. Instead I walked down to the only nice pub in the area: the George. To be honest, you were just as likely to die of lung cancer – after the pub quiz your eyes would be red raw – but it had Flowers and Litovel on tap and a brilliant jukebox. As the years went on, it became a bit of a victim of its own success and was usually uncomfortably rammed. When the Pembury Tavern re-opened on my doorstep, I quickly changed my allegiances.

The Pembury is a pub that has gone from strength to strength. It has no music license and when it opened it looked and felt a bit like a youth hostel but if you beer it, they will come. Nothing could compete with its range of Milton and guest beers and over a couple of years it quickly developed from being virtually empty all the time to being full day in day out. The first attempt at the kitchen (modern English) was a bit hit and miss but the second (pizza and basic Italian) is much better. I increasingly have cause to drink elsewhere though.

The Cock has recently re-opened and now offers even more pumps than the Pembury: 15! 21! Essentially this is five cider, five eight bitter, five eight lager but not quite since obviously all the beers are wonderful craft brews from places like my current favourite, Magic Rock Brewery in Huddersfield, and local breweries like Kernel. Again, the bar is the star and the rest is a bit of an after thought. If the Pembury was too big and too white when it opened, the Cock’s problem is that it is too small and two dark. The toilets are also tiny. This obviously means that there is no kitchen but they can do you a pie or similar bar snacks including a vegetarian scotch egg.

Meanwhile, over at the George, Flowers is off the pumps but fresh flowers are on the tables and (under new management) have bowed to the inevitable and put in a kitchen (their nearest rival is now the Prince Arthur). The blackboard is fairly safe but, whilst it clearly doesn’t aspire to be a gastropub like the Arthur, the food I had was very good. Duck is a tricky one to cook and it is the meat that I’ve had the most bad experiences with when eating out but here it was pink, moist and well seasoned. Perhaps more exciting than the main menu was the bar snacks. £2.50 buys you a huge black pudding sausage roll in its own little roasting tin – all the calories of a pint, only two thirds the cost! Nom.

The George has also added London Pale Ale from Meantime (virtually the granddaddy of the UK movement) to their repertoire, as has the relatively new Waterline Bar on the canal. Me and N battled through the torrential rain to get there last weekend and then stood dripping at the bar and waited to get a drink. And waited. And waited. Despite being virtually empty, the man behind the bar completely ignored us and continued collecting glasses to set up for an event. Eventual a woman said she would be with us in a minute. She wasn’t so we left and went round the corner to Duke’s Brew & Que. This is one of the hottest tickets in town but we were told we could have a table if we could wait 45 minutes. To be honest, I can’t imagine anywhere better to spend 45 minutes. In addition to a dozen interesting taps (including several carrying their own Beavertown beers), they had a wonderful fridge from which I sampled a seasonal Sierra Nevada (Tumbler) and the weissen version of Schlenkerla. I actually prefer the standard beers from each brewer but it is good to experiment. I also had a pint of Darkstar’s American Pale Ale which is the best Darkstar I’ve tasted by a mile. I’m so glad everyone has started making APAs!

As for the food, well, it is barbeque and therefore the most dangerous food in existence. Market fish of the day has disappeared offer their menu so if you are a vegetarian, you only have the option of halloumi and portobello burger but for normal people it is meat ahoy. Last time I went out for barbeque (at Bodean’s) I accidentally on purpose ordered a two person platter for myself. This time I stupidly ordered sides of chips, mac & cheese and a pulled pork slider to go with my beef ribs. I know. I’m sure you will be pleased to know I suffered for it. My favourite of the sides was a little dish of battered okra and pickles – absolutely brilliant (though you need to eat them quick whilst they are hot) and deserves to catch on as a bar snack everywhere.

We walked home past the Fox which has also re-invented itself as a craft beer house. And now it turns out Brewdog want to build the Hackney Beer Academy! Talk about spoilt for choice.

Written by Martin

27 September 2012 at 10:55

Market Cafe

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Monday afternoon and once again I find myself in Homerton. Usually this would mean crepes but the missus fancies a proper dinner so we head down to Railroad. It is shut on a Monday. However, as luck would have it, just a couple of hours I had been reading Jay Rayner’s review of Market Cafe, the latest opening on Broadway Market.

If these days the hipster corridor runs straight up Kingsland Road from Shoreditch to Dalston then Broadway Market marks the top of the hipster bypass. Not bypassing the hipsters alas but curving eastwards along Columbia Road to London Fields. Market Cafe sits at the bottom of the market by the canal in the old corner pub that until recently was La Vie En Rose and before that was Little Georgia, now relocated just down the road.

They describe themselves as “a London Italian cafe, bar and dining room serving breakfast, lunch and supper, punches, cups and fizzes, and other quality drinks” which is a bit wanky but is pretty much the only wanky thing about the place. The split is pretty much Italian food with British atmosphere and attitude. The menu is simple but well formed: hot and cold starters, a pair of pasta dishes (veg and non-veg) and then meat and fish mains, including fish of the day. This looks like antipasto, primo and secondo but it isn’t – the pastas are definitely mains.

To start we had a pair of dishes that were reflections of each other. N had the classic of asparagus, poached hen’s egg (slightly overdone) and shaved pecorrino and I had agretti with a fired duck egg. I hadn’t know what agretti was but our lovely, lovely Scottish waiter explained that it was a succulent somewhere between samphire and asparagus. Ooh, yes, please. It came in a sort of tomato and rosemary sauce when I would have preferred to have tried it naked for the first time but the samphire flavour came through nicely and I’d like to see it used more widely.

The reason I know the pastas were mains is because we both had them and they were big, firmly at the hearty and rustic end of the spectrum. N had ravioli filled with subtly salty ricotta, heavily drizzled in olive olive and scattered with peas and broad beans (good use of seasonal veg throughout the meal). I, on the other hand, wallowed in the lamb ragu. Rayner had this dish and I can’t improve on his description: “The menu makes much of the hand cutting of the tagliatelle. To be honest they may want to go back to getting a machine to do it. It was not the most glorious moment in the history of pasta, but the sauce made up for it. £12 brought a portion so big you could camp in it.” Having camped in it, I ended up feeling like I’d swallowed a sleeping bag. To be honest, my mood and the weather meant that this was pretty much the sensation I was looking for but it could stand to be refined a little and the idea of having pudding afterwards was laughable.

We didn’t look at the wine list because rather than the ubiquitous Peroni they offer a good selection of local craft beers. I am so happy this trend has come to pass and older restaurants could stand to learn a thing or two from new starters on this front. N had a bottle of Hackney Hopster from London Fields Brewery (very hoppy, natch) and I traitorously ordered a pint of Camden Town Pale Ale. We also had a bowl of alarming green and glossy olives which were a bit too redolent of a rockpool for my liking.

£28.50 a head including that lovely, lovely, service.

Written by Martin

15 May 2012 at 12:43

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The Most Horrible Breakfast In Science Fiction

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I intended to review The Lathe Of Heaven by Ursula K LeGuin but I am going to have to resign myself to the fact this isn’t happening. Before I throw my notes away, however, here is the source of a reference to page 78 which just says “horrible breakfast”:

He was not the thin, sharp-boned man he had been in the world of the seven billion; he was quite solid, in fact. But he ate a starving man’s meal, an enormous meal – hard-boiled eggs, buttered toast, anchovies, jerky, celery, cheese, walnuts, a piece of cold halibut spread with mayonnaise, lettuce, pickled beets, chocolate cookies – anything he found on his shelves. After this orgy he felt physically a great deal better.

Written by Martin

8 May 2012 at 19:11

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Michelin Stars And Science Fiction

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Sad-faced iconoclast and retired restaurant critic Jonathan Meades reckons Michelin stars are over-rated:

Whatever claims it may make to the contrary, these awards are based on Michelin’s idea of probity, which has less to do with an establishment’s standard of cooking than with its cutlery, glassware and the dimensions of the vats of starch in which its napkins have been steeped. The guide’s ill-paid inspectors, callow graduates of hotel schools, are at an even greater loss when faced with casual, informal restaurants which audaciously allow customers to pour their own wine and which serve excellent cooking without “fine dining’s” presentational fuss, where a dozen spotty sous-chefs have touched the multipartite components as they sought to create a Mondrian on the plate.

He thinks the only people interested in Michelin stars are chefs, journalists and devotees of fine dining, “a branch of restauration characterised by smarmily sycophantic service, grotesquely over-elaborate cooking, fussiness, pretension, absurdly high prices and moron chefs who appear to think they are philosophers.” I guess I fall into that last category. Well, it is balls; I take an interest in Michelin-starred restaurants because they tend to serve bloody good food. As I’ve mentioned in passing, the best meal I’ve ever had was at Pied A Terre which had two stars at the time. The reason it was the best meal I’ve ever had was not because I’m a pretentious twat (that is unrelated) but because Shane Osborn’s cooking was simply breathtaking. None of Meades’s criticisms even register. The only place I’ve been to that has even approached his fine dining stereotype was Le Manoir – where the bogs are nicer than any hotel room I’ve ever stayed in – but then Raymond Blanc is deliberately working in a classic French tradition. Elsewhere, modernity prevails.

The week before Christmas I went up to Morecambe for a short break with my wife to open our stockings and spend a bit of time together before the onslaught of family festivities. Whilst up there I had the second best meal I’ve ever had at the one star L’Enclume. Tucked away in the little village of Cartmel (birthplace of sticky toffee pudding), it is about as far from the London restaurant scene as you can get; we had to drive down windy roads round Morecambe Bay for an hour to reach it. There are two menus, nine or thirteen courses, and once safely ensconced with a kir royale we opted for the latter. It was appropriate for the season since the tasting menu is like a culinary stocking: lots of little delicious surprises to be unwrapped one at a time. One of the early courses that has lodged in my mind was a sort of deconstructed fish and chips, a cod ‘yolk’ with salt and vinegar rice. The concept is exciting, it looks exciting and it tastes exciting. For me, this balance of skill, innovation and flavour is what Michelin-starred cooking is all about. Even better and the stand out of a very good meal was deceptively simple sounding dish of Jerusalem artichokes, Ragstone cream, tarragon and malt. The presentation is very a clever, a sort of terrarium in a bowl with the vegetable and herb rising plant-like from the malt soil which conceals the cheese that binds it all together, and the beauty to eye is matched on the tongue. Hats off to Simon Rogan.

Nuno Mendes gained a Michelin star last year for attempting something similar in the much more conviently located Bethnal Green. Viajante specialises in innovative cooking but on our visit in February innovative pushed over into challenging. As it happened, Jay Rayner had visited the week before and his review a similar experience:

Modern techniques are great. They’re brilliant. If you want to cook my steak by banging it round the Large Hadron Collider, be my guest. Dehydrate my pig cheeks. Spherify my nuts. But only do so if the result tastes nicer. At Viajante deliciousness is too often forced to give way to cleverness.

It was not a bad meal but it over-promised and under-delivered and that isn’t something you want to say when the bill for two was a shade over £400. None of the courses stayed with me in the same way Rogan’s did. Sometimes by palatte was utterly confused, sometimes textures were actively unpleasant and, as we discovered previously at Corner Room (Mendes’s casual restaurant at the back of the building), sous vide is not a magic spell that you can simply cast over a carrot. A wonderful, simple dish of roasted snow crown, parsley and English cultivated mushrooms at L’Enclume knocked this faffery into a cocked hat. So the Michelin guide isn’t infallible. To hammer this home, a couple of days latter we had a far better and much more fun meal at Morito. This is exactly the sort of informal restaurant that Meades talks about stealing a march on the dinosaurs of fine dining. But it isn’t all or nothing and I’m very glad both exist.

Elsewhere Patrick Wolohan proposes a Michelin star system for SF. The driver for this is his disatisfaction with demarcation within numerical ratings and the fact that “with such a wide range of subgenres and styles in the genre, I found it increasingly impossible to compare books on a numeric basis.” The Michelin-style ratings he intends to use instead are:

No stars: bad or nothing special. (“No longer do I need to worry about slotting a mediocre high fantasy above or below a fun, if flawed steampunk adventure.”)

One star: a great example of its subgenre and one that is highly recommended for those who enjoy that specific subgenre or are looking to break into the subgenre.

Two star: a standout novel that demonstrates a unique approach or exceptional execution, likely to be one of the year’s best and definitely worth reading, regardless of subgenre or preference. Strengths outweigh the weakness by a large margin.

Three stars: an instant classic in my mind, a soul crushing work of such brilliance that it annihilates any hope of every writing a novel as good, and an absolute must read. Virtually flawless.

Now, I have never given a review a grade or a score. When others have attempted to apply a numerical rating to my reviews, I’ve found the whole thing a bit baffling. So perhaps I’m not the best person to comment on such a system but, whilst I think the concept is sound, I do wonder about the application. The criteria Wolohan is using are already watered down from the actual Michelin descriptions and it is hard not to see him succumbing to grade inflation in the same way he complains happens with other systems. For example, there are currently only 106 three-star restaurants in the whole world of which only ten in US (there are 4 in the UK). It is a tiny, tiny proportion and that is through active searching rather than lone happenstance. Wolohan does set out his likely limits – “I could see myself giving out 10-15 starred reviews a year (if the books are good enough), 5 or fewer two star reviews, and no more than 2 (probably 0) three star reviews.” – but, although these seem like modest numbers, I still think they are too high. Even leaving aside our radically different ideas about what consitutes good literature, the vast majority of books will fall under the no star category. I’d have thought having a ratings system without being able to actually use would be too strong a temptation.

I’ll be interested in the experiment though, because he is surely right that there is much too much over-inflated angels-on-a-pinhead rating of books within the SF community. I still think that words matter more than number (and I wish people took a bit more care over their words) but focussing on the truly exceptional, whether literature or food, is a positive thing and encourages both producers and consumers to want the best. And wanting the best is never pretentious.

Written by Martin

23 March 2012 at 17:05

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Visiting Sabor with a wife recovering from a dicky tummy and a mother who disdains all spice was possibly not ideal but I can’t shake the feeling this is an unfortunately liminal restaurant. Take the location: it is just a bit too far from Angel, just a bit too far from Upper Street, just a bit too far from Highbury & Islington. Of course, the same could be said of the excellent Akari a couple of doors up the road. Then there is the design. Lovely colourful tables and designer chairs are crammed into a narrow space made even narrower by an unneccessary bar. The result is that you feel hemmed in, even when the restaurant is pretty empty. A huge picture window lets in light during the day but makes you feel uncomfortably exposed at night. The view out onto Essex Road isn’t exactly stellar either.

The service is friendly but diffident to the point of being insecure, not to mention slightly deaf. On arriving I said there was a booking for Lewis at 7pm and was then asked if I had booking. When the spare fourth place was cleared away they accidently took my side plate (and there was no knife for the side plate). The drinks order turned slightly comical when the waiter seemed to assume the bottle of wine I’d ordered was just for me. It was pleasant but all a bit ineffectual. Food, on the other hand, was pleasant but nothing more.

The menu is South American, covering the whole continent rather than been Argentine or Peruvian as is more typical. It suggests a lively interest in fusion and unusual ingredients but the results are more pedestrian. This was perfectly demonstrated by the three starters. We ordered corn fritters, carimanolas and quesadillas and they were all served in exactly the same way: two examples of each not exactly pretty savoury, a miniscule dab of salsa and a couple of superfluous lettuce leaves on the side. Now, I know South Americans don’t really do vegetables but this is just embarrasingly unimaginative plating. The food was better than it looked – the carimanolas (cassava fritters stuffed with mushrooms, cheese and red peppers) in particular – but, at £6 each, portion size was pretty weedy. I did at least get some guacamole with my quesadillas but this was offset by an almost total lack of filling.

Despite my remarks about vegetables above, the mains did offer chargrilled aubergine stuffed with quinoa, butternut squash, yellow courgettes, peas and cherry tomatoes which N felt was the safest option for her. This was supposedly served with a chilled coriander cream but it was simply cream that was the dominant flavour of the dish. It proved too much for her. My mum also made little headway with her duck which she found over-seasoned. She doesn’t have a huge appetite though and her palatte tends to err on the side of caution. Our waiter was very solicitous and wrapped both mains for us to take home. I ordered the Argentinian rib-eye because I was in a meat mood and South American beef is justified renowned. It came medium-rare rather than rare and, whilst it decent flavour and fat, there are many better places in London to get such a steak (Buen Ayres, for example). Sides of papas criollas were nice but over-cooked and stingy on the salsa and fried plantain was fried plantain. At £2.50 each they provided better value than much of the rest of the meal.

By this stage we were down to one person for pudding. My mum ordered banana bread which was advertised on the menu as being “light and fluffy”. Well, yes, it certainly should be but I’m afraid I’ll be the judge of that and in this case it wasn’t. My glass of Gewürztraminer turned out to be complementary because my mum hadn’t liked the duck and despite the fact they’d wrapped the leftovers for us (although bizarrely they removed the rice before parcelling it up). We were also offered complimentary coffess which we declined because it was bed time. So the attitude is spot on, far more accommodating than is usual for London, but perhaps reflects the fact they are used to people thinking they’ve fallen just short of the mark.

This is the second time I’ve eaten at Sabor and the experience was much the same last time. My brief notes from the previous meal are: “We both started with scallops but I wasn’t convinced about the quality of the scallops themselves and there was too much going on on the plate. I followed this with the shredded brisket. It is was a generous portion and the meat was tender but it was just a load of brisket in thick, bland gravy with equally bland rice and beans. N said her seafood stew was very flavoursome though. Overall a mediocre experience and I am surprised they are staying afloat.”

£36 a head, including service, a non-alcoholic cocktail of maracuya, apple juice, mint and raspberries and a quite nice bottle of Malbec. On the bus home we went passed Tierra Peru, another visually slick but notably empty South American restaurant. It is new and finding its feet though, so perhaps it needs testing out because I certainly won’t be going back to Sabor.

Written by Martin

12 March 2012 at 12:02

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