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Tuesday, 28 April 2015

BAO bun fight!

Is it a Japanese hirata bun, Chinese char siu bao or a Taiwanese gua bao?! Either way, this lip-smackingly good snack has long been my 'I've-missed-dinner-and-can't-be-bothered-to-cook' or 'I'm-too-wimpish-to-eat-dinner-alone' dish and dash solution. I may still need to weave through the hoards to get home, but no longer do I need to rely on a grubby hole in the wall off Chinatown to satisfy my gut-craving needs. Since the trend setting Yum Bun who have been gracing our streets and markets since 2010 (currently smashing it at Model Market in Lewisham, courtesy of Street Feast), Bone Daddies ramen shop has brought us Flesh & Buns, then Beer & Buns popped up and now BAO has opened up in Soho.

Fried Chicken Bao (soy milk marinated
chicken, sichuan mayo, golden kimchi,
sesame bao) £5.00
Backed by the Sethi family, who have coincidentally had huge success of the Michelin star calibre with Trishna in Marylebone, Kitchen Table in Fitzrovia (tucked neatly at the back of the hugely popular gourmet hotdog hotspot, Bubbledogs), and [most recently] Gymkhana in Mayfair, BAO have a appear to have a delectable powerhouse behind them. They may be the new kid on the block, but they are also destined be the revered love child of a restaurateur heavyweight and very successful street food trading (previous notoriety gathered from KERB, Netil Market and the aforementioned Street Feast). In a prime location on Lexington Street and next door to a pub (John Snow), BAO is a perfect addition to the Soho dining scene, not to mention an altogether irresistible pitstop for me Monday - Friday! Now I don't have to schlep eastward to clamber over hundreds of hapless hipsters to get my hands on a freshly steamed and pillowy milk bun...hip hip hooray for me!

On a whim, I dragged a colleague away from her desk promptly at 11:45 on day two of BAO's doors officially opening (by my obsessive calculations, that's a generous 10 minute amble from le office and a well-timed 5 minutes wait outside the door, undoubtedly in a queue of sorts). Now, queuing for food is a pet peeve of mine (it defies everything I cherish most about accessible dining options!), but I'll make allowances for (1) new openings that promise to satisfy my seemingly unbridled catalogue of culinary cravings, and (2) anything less than a 30 minute wait...everything over this and my sensibilities begin to unravel (fear not, I have a very effective inside voice at such times!). Thankfully for all concerned, we waited only a smidgen over 5 minutes and boy, did they deliver on the food front!

Pig Blood Cake (£3.50)
With a small but perfectly formed menu, I was hopeful that we would have the opportunity to sample almost everything on it (yes, I'm a gluttonous troll!) and while not completely managing this, we did come exceptionally close. The Pig Blood Cake (£3.50) tasted like a rich black pudding with the texture of a quality haggis that was then rounded off superbly with an oozing velvety cold egg yolk...mmm! Trotter Nuggets (£4.00) were tasty, light and well balanced, though had an interesting texture for my palate (not at all bad, but delicately course shall we say...hard to describe!), then the Sweet Potato Chips with Plum Pickle Salt (£3.00) offered a sensational side dish that would have only been improved by a condiment of sorts (I'm skewed by my need for sauce, you see). Then came the buns, oh the buns...we tried every one, with the exception of Daikon because if faced with meat, I am a one way street and must gorge on it (sorry to all the veggie / lacto-veggie / pescetarian / vegan / fruitarian / wheat free / gluten free [coeliacs] / lactose intolerant / yeast intolerant omnivores out there); the Fried Chicken Bao (£5.00) may be my favourite, but it's really hard to call it when pitched against the Confit Port Bao (£4.50), which was overflowing with crispy onions for both added texture and flavour; or the Classic Bao (£3.50), which was sweet, rich and sublime. Lamb Shoulder Bao (£5.00) was also tantalisingly good, so I'm left at a loss on what to recommend, aside from encouraging you to just order everything. You should expect a myriad of small plates here, oriental tapas style, and each one is very reasonably priced, so don't be afraid to get carried away eh!

On a practical note, ordering was simple from a shopping list style ticket, the service was friendly, precise and informative; and the decor was refined, minimalist and bright. Takeaway service supposedly starts soon, so brace yourselves, I'll no doubt be returning often enough for you to know my not just my name, but my inside leg measurements and pet preferences! What a triumph.

Foam Tea (£3.00)
Trotter Nuggets (£4.00)
Sweet Potato Chips, Plum Pickle Salt (£3.00)
Confit Pork (confit pork belly, pork sauce, hot
sauce, dried shallots) £4.50
Lamb Bao (lamb shoulder, coriander sauce,
garlic mayo, soy pickled chilli) £5.00
Classic Bao (braised pork, peanut powder, fermented greens, coriander) £3.75
Square Meal Bao on Urbanspoon

Monday, 20 April 2015

Creme de la it?!

My intention was to write and publish this in time for pancake day (or if we are to be proper: Shrove Tuesday), then I went to New Zealand and the humble glory of my crepe adventure in Covent Garden seemed to pale in comparison! I will will share my Kiwi experiences with you shortly, but today I find myself craving something I can't have: a novel feeling in a city that seemingly offers all variations of whatever foodstuff takes your fancy, however or whenever you might fancy it!

It was not too long ago, that I was taken to a crepe house in Cologne that aside from being filled to the rafters with folk apparently all in the know, it had a thriving atmosphere in a local neighbourhood of the city centre and [wait for it] produces possibly the most nauseatingly good savoury crepes I've ever had the pleasure of tasting! Oozing and stuffed full with whatever you could ever want, my favourite being Crepe Kerstin, bulging with bolognese, cheese, spinach, garlic & creme only €8.00, I had died and gone to crepe heaven! EngleBAET, you hold a special place in my gut and I will see you again this summer (July to be precise).

For those of us residing in London though, the quest is now on to find a comparable source of dinner crepe. I'm not talking about the street vendor who sells the traditional sweet sort designed to catch you on the, no, no...I'm talking about a sit-in restaurant where you can drink beer and stuff your face with both sweet and savoury crepes. If you can go to a cereal cafe or eat squirrel in this fair city, surely then, there should be a decent place to eat a crepe! I made a beeline for Creme de la Crepe, which has been based in Covent Garden Market since 2008 (who knew?!), evolved from food stalls in St Andrews (yes, that's Scotland!), Borough Market and Covent Garden Night Markets. It's in a really snazzy little spot, tucked in the arches at the bottom of the piazza, with a whitewashed brick interior, all very snug and large enough for perhaps 30 people seated indoors or 50 standing, at a push (don't quote me on that!). It's a fantastic example of the growth and success made possible by realising a passion and making a few savvy decisions to transform a dream into your life (or more accurately, your income!). Hats off to anyone who has the balls to do that...

I stopped in for lunch and had a Buffalo Bill (£6.25) because I can't turn down buffalo wings and ranch dressing. It was nice and I was left satisfied, but I must say, I was disappointed by two things: (1) the crepes all appeared to be pre-made, which I'm sure saves time in a busy lunch service (and the painful reality is that the public would complain more for a wait), but ultimately it makes the finished product taste a little less soft and fresh; and (2) where was all the meat?! Now, I love both spicy buffalo sauce and ranch dressing almost as much as I love cheese and plantain (they are the condiment equivalent!), but among all the wet stuff, I needed more meat to pad it out and fill me up - it was all rather flat, literally and figuratively. On a positive note though, the menu is amazing, the service was clean, friendly and efficient; the venue is novel and comfortable, it attracts prime passers by from a great location, and I would definitely recommend people give it a go. Unfortunately, it was always going to have a tough battle on its hands to beat my Cologne benchmark. The search continues...

Creme de la Crepe on Urbanspoon

Friday, 10 April 2015

Rethink at The Clink: Fine Dining in Prison!

It isn't all that often that your dining experience is muddled with social responsibility and penal reform, but last week I was fortunate enough to visit The Clink Restaurant Brixton where this particular brand of innovation was dished up in spades! I left feeling positively inspired and curiously determined to get involved; spending the remainder of my week focusing on whatever project management skills, academic background and/or network I may have to bring to this innovative know, those skills that somehow earn me just enough enough pennies to binge and guzzle my way through London, and scamper around the world...

A concept developed by Alberto Crisci MBE while working as Catering Manager for HMP High DownThe Clink has become a beacon of hope for numerous inmates and the likes of me who has always fervently believed in the need to educate, empower and entrust our people if we want to prosper and evolve into the next generation, with more security, success and safety. According to the Prison Population Statistics published by House of Commons in July 2013, the number of people incarcerated in the UK has been rising by an average of 3.6% every year since 1993, reducing only slightly for the first time in 2013. I'm sure that this latest slight decline can be attributed to a myriad of factors (sentencing reforms, a redress of mental healthcare, education and rehabilitation schemes for example), and obviously more needs to be done to reduce violence in our communities, remove drugs from our streets and encourage stability of families through work and education, but initiatives like The Clink have surely got to be nodding in the right direction for all the right reasons.

Co-founded with Kevin McGrath, by special permissions of Peter Dawson, former Governor of HMP High Down, with support from trustees Kate Quigley-Ruby and Finlay Scott, Alberto managed to open the first of the The Clink Restaurants in 2009, but it is now a collective of enterprises ranging from event catering and gardens (HMP Send for women and HMP High Down for men), to restaurants in HMP Cardiff, HMP High Down, and HMP Brixton. There is set to be a forth restaurant in Styal, Cheshire soon, and from what I understand, there are plans to have up to 10 restaurants by 2017 - a very exciting growth strategy as far as I'm concerned.

Inmates from a variety of these Category B - C prisons can apply for the opportunity to work during their sentence, earning a little money and gaining NVQ standard qualifications, with the hope that a little more knowledge, confidence and experience will break the cycle of offending by offering better chances of employment and a fresh start upon release. Obviously, noone expects for this to work for everyone, but so far, statistics are revealing that for those involved in the programme, reoffending rates have visibly reduced within the first year of release. I for one, couldn't wait to be a part of it, so I applied for permissions to write about it, therefore hopefully encouraging you all to do the same, to get involved. Spending £30 on a 3-course lunch will not only satisfy your hunger and give you an experience to remember, but it will help allow the charity and inmates alike to grow, improve and change.

Upon arrival to HMP Brixton, we swapped our photo ID for a security badge, then were collectively given a full and friendly briefing on the security protocols, restrictions of entry and what to expect. Waiting on the wrong side of the prison walls, for the heavy security doors to open felt strangely surreal, giving a tiny taster of what it must feel like to enter a secure environment (except we were choosing lunch, not a captive sentence, so my elevated sense of experience should not be interpreted as an understanding of what it must feel like to be imprisoned for real). A very short walk across the courtyard, we then entered through a double gated locked door into a pristine restaurant, with tables perfectly dressed and staff superbly presented!

Our waiter was the impeccable host throughout, offering to take our coats on arrival, prompt on service, attentive with drinks (all non-alcoholic for obvious reasons), and diligent with our orders. He had 3-8 months left on his sentence and while obviously hoping for the sooner of those options, this was his last day front of house - he was moving into the kitchen in an attempt to finish his qualification before being released. I couldn't help but to admire his determination and to root for his success, not just at this programme, but in life after the fact! I don't want to be naive here, but I never want to wake up without intrinsically or unfaltering believing that everyone should be given the opportunity to reach high. I believe that one must be given the confidence to take chances in life, as much as chances must be offered (rarely can one be achieved without the other), but that you must always take responsibility for your own fate.

Back to lunch though, our food was served in a timely fashion and it was all presented beautifully. I didn't know the backgrounds of our chefs, but assuming they were all working towards a foundation level NVQ in Hospitality and/or Catering (not at all dissimilar to the kitchen and restaurant you would have experienced at your local sixth form college on the outside), the standards were remarkable - there was room for improvement sure, but that's exactly what learning is all about isn't it?! The menu was well thought out and the ingredients were well used. I was in a group of six and we were all left full, happy and let's face it, enamoured and inspired by the entire experience.

All that's left to say then, is "wow", "great work", and "I can't wait for people to read this, read more and learn more about the charity." If you do nothing else this year, book in for breakfast or lunch (the restaurants are not open for dinner), tell your friends about it and try to get involved...

Square Meal

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Street Feast Hawker

I think we have already established that aside from my irrational love of cheese and plantain, I could never miss the jumble and calamity of a good market. Show me a food market, with beer and beats then, and it's as if all my loves are coming together in one sweet symphony and the stars are aligning to create an epic evening! I am a big fan of all things Street Feast and having already blogged about Model Market last year, I was super keen to get down to Hawker House before the doors closed this weekend.

Conveniently pitched up in a disused office building by Haggerston Overground Station (or rather inconveniently if you consider how unreliable the ginger line is during the weekend!), Hawker House is reminiscent of an illegal rave location! Its grotty urban staircase, crumbling and chipping its way up through three floors, each with bare concrete floors, raw festoon lighting, plastic classroom chairs, and make-shift banquet tables, all positively working together to give you a bite at the alternative dining scene that's oh so popular in London right now. Candles twinkle from gin bottles to offer ambiance, painted oil drums make for an inventive perch and old leather sofas allow you to sink into the spirit of it all. The building fills up quickly and the DJ's soon become muffled by the buzz of people all enjoying the spoils of this fantastically synchronised event...and I've not even mentioned the food & drink yet!

A hipster homage to a traditional Singaporean hawker centre, Hawker House hosts a taste sensational selection of food stalls, with my clear favourite still being Yum Bun - if only my belly could fit in whole basket of those deliciously soft steamed buns (the crispy shrimp buns are unquestionably to die for!). The sweet potato fries at Bleeker Burger were sublime, the tikka flat breads at Rola Wala were mouthwatering, and the sticky ribs at Smokestak were glazed sweet and meatalicious (though could've perhaps been a tiny bit more tender according to my dear South African friend whom we shall not question on her knowledge and love of all things meat!). I missed out on the supposedly legendary hot duck pastrami bagel from Duck 'n' Roll because my poor belly couldn't take it any more after all the aforementioned, but the mussel popcorn was certainly very interesting, especially with the black aioli, which I assume was created by squid ink. All in all, I was in culinary heaven and not down too much cash either, since every mini special came in at £3.50 - £4 per item!

A food binge wouldn't be complete without ample watering, so off we trot, buns in hand, to sample what all of the bars have to offer. Whiskey roulette was a hugely fun concept, with over 30 brands of fire water to choose from (suffice it to say, I didn't get involved here, but it looked great!), and Kamm's Spritz Bar sounded like an interesting blend of botanical's, but since I don't like Aperol, I thought I'd steer clear of that one too (truly fantastical vintage-kitsch minuscule bar set up the chap had though). We had an overpriced cocktail at the Rotary Bar (though I concede in retrospect, that maybe £10 for a whole pint is not that excessive!), but Milk & Honey was my shining beacon, with a great beer selection and more winning cocktails - Krombacher pilsner was a triumph at £4 per can, served in tumblers straight from the freezer!

Once again Street Feast, I applaud you for another fantastic show, I'm super happy to see a winter addition to the collective, and thank you for giving us more! I must say, I think prefer the open air summer venues because the buzz of people talking and frolicking gets soaked up in the air, but that's only really my incessant craving for fire pits on a balmy clear evening. I thoroughly enjoyed Hawker House and I'm over the moon that I was able to catch it, but I look forward to Dalston Yard and Model Market returning in May and April respectively. Watch this space for Shoreditch Yard too folks!

Keralan Dal (£3.50): Beetroot, coconut & channa dal

Yum Bun menu
Shrimp Bun (£4): Crisp prawns with green chilli sambal, lettuce and mayo
Yum Bun buns!
Cornetto of Mussel "Popcorn", Aioli (£4)
Scoopsy Daisy - ice cream parlour

Square Meal Yum Bun on Urbanspoon Yum Bun on Urbanspoon
Square Meal Bleecker St. Burger on Urbanspoon
Square Meal Milk & Honey on Urbanspoon