Tag: Pub Food

| Uncategorised

The Special Relationship

I just spent a couple of minutes trying to find a picture to illustrate this post, because that’s what you’re supposed to do on blogs – make it more multimedia and all that. But as soon as I started scanning potential pics, I realised this was one of those posts that’s best appreciated if we let your imagination do the work, so here goes...

Had a fantastic afternoon today in a Euston pub with Mitch Steele and Steve Wagner from California’s legendary Stone brewery. They’re over in the UK researching a book on IPA, and having a once in a lifetime type of trip (note to self: pretend you only have ten days left in Britain, but three months to plan what you do in those ten days. What would you do?)
We had a good chat and traded notes, and even drank some IPA. After an hour or so, it emerged that Mitch and Steve hadn’t eaten lunch. It was Steve’s round, so he volunteered to order some food when he went up to the bar.
Ten minutes later, the food arrived. Both Steve and Mitch looked perturbed – the classic look we all get when we’re in a foreign country and we’re almost certain something is wrong, but we don’t want to kick up the same stink we would at home for fear of offending someone or being shown up as a clueless tourist who just doesn’t get it.
Eventually Steve said “Um… this is not what I ordered. I ordered a vegetable platter.”
I looked at the sharing platter between us, and felt the slow, cold-water-creeping embarrassment we all feel when we’re in our own country and we realise something is wrong, but only because we’re seeing it through a foreigner’s eyes, and we don’t want to kick up a stink because we don’t want our guests to think of us as some clueless hick who just doesn’t get it.
Eventually I said, “Um… yes, this is what you ordered. It is the vegetable platter. Look, these are deep-fried onion rings in batter. Onions are a vegetable. These triangular things are deep-fried vegetable samosas. They’ve got vegetables in. These nobbly things are… they’re deep-fried mushrooms in breadcrumbs. Mushrooms are a vegetable. And so is bread. These things here are curly fries. They’re made from potato, which is a vegetable. You recognise taco chips of course – made of corn, and corn is another vegetable. And this last one here, this grey cylindrical thing… I’m not sure…. hang on, I’ll taste it… oh. These are onion bhajis. Deep-fried onion and potato. So you see, it is a vegetable platter.”
Steve and Mitch were both silent for a while. Then, eventually, Steve said, “I keep forgetting we’re not in Southern California any more.”
“Look,” I replied, “If I turn the plate around there’s a bit of garnish on this side, and there’s a little bit of that that’s green.”
Gingerly, Steve reached for a deep-fried breaded mushroom.
But even though I’d already had lunch, I was the only one of the three of us who went anywhere near the bhajis or the curly fries.

| Uncategorised

Where not to go in Corfe Castle

I dunno… should the profusion of chalk boards have given it away?

I don’t do that many pub reviews on this blog, but whenever I’m either amazed or appalled by a pub experience, I feel a duty to share it.
Sadly, the appalling experiences seem to be winning at the moment, though I do have an amazing one I’m way overdue writing up.
Was on the Isle of Purbeck around Swanage at the weekend for a friend’s 40th.  We visited Corfe Castle, actually an idyllic National Trust tourist trap village sitting in the shadow of said ruined castle. A brilliant model village was terrorised by Captain.  It was a model of the village we were in, and sure enough, on the model we could find our location and there was a tiny model village, and inside that, at the same spot, was a microscopic model village, and that made me wonder whether we were in fact inside a giant model village ourselves, with someone looking down on us…
So anyway, metaphysically confused, we skipped the (fantastic looking) cream tea and went straight to the pub for lunch.
Now, you’re going to get all wise on me and ask me what I expected, going to an old stone-built pub in the middle of a touristy village owned by the National Trust.  Well, I was expecting something roughly equivalent to what you get in, say, a Nicholson’s pub in the West End of London – indifferent, little atmosphere, nothing very inspiring, mildly overpriced, but perfectly OK quality and not that much you could actually complain about, and every now and again you get one that for some reason is actually quite brilliant.
The Bankes Arms Hotel, on the other hand, cynically takes the piss, knowing that only tourists drink there, so it doesn’t matter if you leave feeling angry, ripped off, and probably still hungry.
The beer was fine actually – a couple of brews from local brewery Ringwood, which were perfectly well-kept.  But alarm bells should have rung when the only wine available was in little 175ml bottles – one red, one white, one rose.  Mrs PBBB had the rose.  It tasted of petrol.  
Undaunted, we ordered food. 
You may think it’s impressive that three different meals could be served just five minutes after ordering, on a busy Sunday lunch time.  I don’t – you can’t cook three meals in five minutes.
BLTP’s crab sandwich cost £8.  The bread was stale.
Mrs PBBB had a Sunday roast for £9 which was quite clearly a packet/boil in the bag affair.  This meat had not been cooked or carved on the premises – and maybe not even that year – and the vegetables were a mushy mess.
But I made the biggest screw-up: as we were on the coast I went for one of the seafood specials.  The scallops were utterly tasteless and served up in so much butter I felt sick after eating.  The chips they came with were dry, hollow, oven chips.  And the salad was drenched in so much cheap, sweet, bottled French Dressing it was utterly inedible.  And what did I pay for this?  £17.  Seventeen.  Fucking.  Pounds.  That’s more expensive than half of the main courses at J Sheekey’s, one of the most famous fish restaurants in the world, in Covent Garden.
One of the most grimly satisfying aspects of being in the privileged position where people actually read this blog is having the chance to name and shame those who are an insult to the pub industry.  Do go to Corfe Castle, it’s lovely.  But don’t go to the Bankes Arms Hotel.  And do feel free to point to this blog as the reason why.
Oh yes, the other place to avoid – the Ginger Pop shop is an Enid Blyton themed shop that sounds just about perfect.  I desperately wanted to go in, until BLTP showed me the photos he’d taken of the window display… featuring golliwogs.  Even the Blyton estate have removed golliwogs from her books, recognising that they belonged to an earlier, less enlightened age.  The only other people I know still selling golliwogs are the racist BNP.  Go figure.

| Uncategorised

Bank Holiday Pub Fun Part two: Pub du Vin

Been meaning to try Brighton’s Pub du Vin since it opened, and I’m very glad I finally got the chance.

They have a weird licence that mean s you can only order a drink if you have a seat, and this leads to a distinctly unpubby slew of ‘reserved’ signs on tables.  But we got there early – in fact we were the first customers.
Six hand pumps on the bar and a good range of bottles in the fridge.  Of the hand pumps, two were Harveys, two Dark Star and two guest micros.  I ordered a pint of Dark Star American Pale Ale and was very happy to see the barman carefully pull through the first pint and pour it away.  he talked knowledgeably about the beers when asked, and told me the range is constantly rotating, with local hero Harveys Best the only permanent fixture. 
To veer off the point a sec – the Dark Star pale ale was awesome, brimming with American hops but not too heady at a sessionable 4.7%.  And it was served in pewter tankards – a nice touch.
A chalkboard explains the concept – a pub from the award-winning Hotel du Vin chain – and that’s exactly what the vibe feels like – not a local, not a hotel bar, but a pub with its Sunday Best on.  “Beer is the new wine.  This is your new local.”  Finishes the manifesto.  So the only place they lose marks is when we ask to see the menu and are given a two page wine list, but no beer list.  This seems like such an easy own goal.  You wouldn’t expect to see a beer list if they hadn’t gone on about it, but with such a great range, and such a slogan, it’s mystifying that they don’t have one, and don’t make any beer matching recommendations on the menu – the food certainly begs for suggestions.
One thing I love about the menu is that it contains a range of bar food – single oysters, sausage rolls, pork pies, pickled eggs, cockles, bread and butter, all between £1 and £4.50.  It mystifies me that, as with wifi access, more pubs don’t offer this kind of thing.  We are seeing it a lot more now, but only in the poshest gastropubs, and yet it’s basic, down to earth, honest good pub snacks that were universal sixty or seventy years ago.  How many times have you been peckish in a pub, not wanted a full meal, but wanted more than yet another bag of crisps or nuts?  A higher spend and a longer dwell time guaranteed.
We had a full meal and it was beautifully served, excellent food.  It’s all locally sourced and while a bit fancier than average, it still feels like pub food rather than gastro – fish finger butties, bacon and egg baps, as well as stuff with chorizo and rocket – and you can hardly call a pub that serves cornish pasty and chips pretentious, though some would balk at the £8.50 price tag.
The toilets are worth a visit in their own right.  The tromp l’oeil mock-bare brick wallpaper is trying a little too hard.
We really were in there very early.  Half way though our meal, we were joined by a big family group at the ‘reserved’ table, who ordered a mixture of Pinot Grigio and pints of lager top to accompany their beer-battered fish and chips, smoked haddock fish cakes and steaks – aargh! That’s why you need a beer list!  And then a couple of elderly women sat down and started talking about the MPs’ expenses scandal. “When MPs were independently wealthy and did it part time we didn’t have to pay them. And back then we had the biggest empire the world has ever seen, and no expenses scandal.” Of course!  That’s it! Let’s simply roll back nearly two centuries of electoral reform and bring back colonialism!
So there you go – great food, great beer, pretty good surroundings, and moronic, ill-informed conversation conducted with great conviction.  Everything you could want from a pub.
And did I mention they stock one of my books in their little lounge? 

| Uncategorised

From the sublime to the Ridiculous: The Piss Poor Pub on the Park, Hackney

Nice facade. Shame about everything else.
Each of us who cares about beer and pubs has a duty to warn the rest against the potential of being ripped off. After waxing lyrical about the Cricket Inn, I’m therefore compelled to bring attention to the Pub on the Park on London Fields.

It’s a great building in a perfect location, with a beer garden and terrace looking out onto the park, across which lies Broadway Market – a lovely place to get your ricotta and sun-blushed tomatoes if Borough’s a bit too busy. It attracts the shaggy-haired, ironically t-shirted artisanal bread-shopping crowd who love reading their copy of the Guardian while keeping an eye on the football, and markets itself accordingly: a charming array of mismatched furniture, and an excellent selection of ales and speciality beers on the bar as well as the premier league of ‘world’ lagers (you know the brands I mean, and I think most of them are decent beers. But if these are ‘world’ lagers, where do the other lagers come from? Space? Anyway, different topic).

So far so good – the perfect pub – until you order something to eat or drink.

They had Grolsch Weizen on tap. In bottle this is a stunning wheat beer, all the moreso for the low expectations you probably have when you see the word ‘Grolsch’ on the label. That’ll teach you to be snobby about big brewers. So I ordered a pint of it. The barman had never heard of it before. I had to point it out to him on the bar. He gave it to me in a Stella glass. Nice touch there mate. I also ordered a half a Leffe for my wife, which was also served in a Stella half pint glass. And then the world turned upside down.

“Seven pound seventy please, mate.”

“I’m sorry? I thought you just said it was seven pounds seventy for a pint and a half of beer just then!”

“That’s right. These beers are a little expensive, just over five pounds a pint.”

Over five pounds a pint is not ‘a little expensive’. It’s taking the piss. Even the Rake , often criticised for its pricing, wouldn’t charge this much for these beers, and their staff warn you in advance if you’ve ordered something super-expensive. The only beers they charge this much for are those that are rarely available on draught, and beers that you shouldn’t be drinking in pints anyway becauise they’re above 7%ABV. By contrast, here were two premium, ‘speciality’ yet freely available commercial brands, served in the wrong fucking glassware by a man who wasn’t even aware that one of them was sitting on the bar he stood behind for six hours a day. I had been well and truly robbed.

After all that, the beer was deeply average. It tasted like Hoegaarden, not Grolsch Weizen, and these are two quite distinctly different wheat beers.

I then made the mistake of ordering food. All the main courses were basic pub fare and every dish came with chips. In this situation, with nothing better to choose from, I usually order fish and chips. I’ve been lucky recently, getting fish in pubs how it should be: crisp, golden, light batter, soft flaky fish inside.

In Pub on the Park, my luck ran out. My fillet of fish – if indeed that’s what it truly was – had clearly spent much, much longer in a cardboard box in a deep freezer somewhere than it ever had in its native aquatic environment. The batter was thick and wooden, the deep, shit-brown colour of the last thing in the bottom of a deep fat fryer that hasn’t been cleaned for a long time. There was a thin layer of something white and runny inside it. The chips were carboardy oven chips.

I would have complained if I thought this was in any way below the standard they aimed for, but as our plates were wordlessly plonked in front of us by a scowling woman who answered our query about salt and vinegar by pointing to a table on the other side of the pub, where we had to go and fetch our own knives and forks and salt, vinegar and sauce, all in those unbranded, cheap, nasty little plastic sachets you only ever see in dives and dirty motorway service stations, I knew there was little point.

The whole meal was inedible. Given that I left it, any server who cared one shred about what their customers thought would have asked me if the meal was OK. As the scowling woman came back to collect our still-full plates, she didn’t say a word.

Pub on the Park is a down-at-heel, no-strings, back street boozer pretending to be a well-run, modern food and drink pub. Judging by how busy it was yesterday, it’s getting away with this deception. Don’t go there. Tell everyone you know not to go there. If this blog post changes one person’s mind about visiting this pub, and deprives it of the twenty quid I wasted in there, I’ll be happy.

| Uncategorised

Food of the Gods: the Cricket Inn, Totley, South Yorkshire

Times are tough for pubs, no-one’s disagreeing about that. On Wakefield Road, between Barnsley and the village of Mapplewell, where I grew up, there are about seven pubs over four miles. When I was up there in July, five of them were boarded up.

Running a pub was never the post-retirement, easy option many people see it to be. But even today, if you put the work in, and you know what you’re doing, you tend to do OK. I’ve never, ever seen a pub that does great food and a fine and interesting selection of well-kept ales on its uppers. Never. Just a few miles from those ghost pubs outside Barnsley, when the Acorn lads took me round Sheffield we found pubs like the Hillsbrough Hotel and Kelham Island Tavern were packed to the rafters. We literally couldn’t squeeze through the door at the Fat Cat. These were clearly destination pubs that knowledgable drinkers had travelled to. The lesson for the local is that it needs to cast its net further afield.

While I was up north, Thornbridge took me to a pub I’d happily travel two hundred miles to for dinner – their latest aqcuisition, the Cricket Inn.

The pub is just outside Dore. Every northern town these days seems to have a village or suburb they proudly boast is home to the biggest concentration of twats – sorry, that should have said ‘millionaires’ – outside Knightsbridge. This usually means it’s where the local footy team and their WAGS park their sports cars and it-bags. Dore is Sheffield’s version, and the old animosity between Barnsley fans and Sheff Wednesday fans in no way influences my belief that local residents Chris Waddle and Carlton Palmer don’t exactly compete in the glamour stakes with Wilmslow, where there is a profusion of far bigger twats.

But we don’t really do that kind of glamour in South Yorkshire. The Cricket stands at the foot of a low range of Pennine foothills, dry-stone-walled fields rising gently to the bruise-coloured ridge. Even when the drizzle is siling down – and you have to assume it will be – the view is diverting.

Inside, the pub is a warren or rooms with stone floors, oak beams and muted, earthy Farrow & Ball-style paints. A mixed collection of solid tables, chairs, benches and old school pews create an informal, relaxed ambience, and the clincher is that you can’t book a table anywhere. This isn’t a gastropub, just a pub that does really good food. And how.

The Thornbridge lads – Simon the CEO, Alex, Paul – had mentioned that we might be popping in. Chef Jack, had replied, “Oh, I’ll put a few snacks on for you then.” So we didn’t need to look at the menu, but I did anyway. It’s a big A3 sheet. One side manages to give a brief history of the pub before going on to explain the principles of beer and food matching and supply a few recommendations, all in less than about 200 words. The other side boasted big wooden sharing platters, British Isles seafood, home-made pies, Sunday roasts and sandwiches, many with suggested pairings of Thornbridge ales and other beers.

And then Jack appeared with a piece of slate about a foot and a half square. “A few snacks” were piled upon it: pork crackling, sausages, gravy, fries, olives, anchovies, prawn skewers… there was far too much here for one table. And then another, identically-sized slate arrived, groaning under ribs, potato wedges, monkfish cheeks, steak & kidney & cow-heel pie, home-made black pudding.

Simon leaned over to me. “You’ve got to watch Jack. He’s a feeder. I come in here to catch up with some work and at half nine in the morning he’s sidling up going, here, see what you think of this, or try a plate of this.”

The ribs were marinated in a sticky, viscous mix of Thornbridge’s strong, inky St Petersburg porter, orange juice, Demerara sugar, brown sauce, garlic, ginger and Tabasco. The meat slid form the bone.

I ate the first nice Scotch egg I’ve ever had. Jack spends an hour making them. It’s his ambition to make a Scotch egg that’s still soft in the middle. Given that you have to boil the egg first, then shell it and cook it again inside its meat casing, this would require a considerable degree of skill. He’d almost managed it with this one.

And then, the food of the Gods. Simon, who is right about most things, made a colossal mistake when he described the piece de resistance as a Sheffield fishcake. As any fule kno, it’s called a Barnsley fishcake. We were both in a good mood, so we compromised and christened it a Yorkshire fishcake. (It’s listed on the menu, diplomatically but a little boastfully, as the ‘Cricket Inn fishcake’.) If you think a fishcake is a small disc deep-fried in radioactive orange bread crumbs, you had a cruelly deprived childhood. If you think a fishcake is all salmon and herbs mixed up and pan-fried, you’ve been spending too long in middle-class gastroworld. A Yorkshire fishcake – a true fishcake – is a collection of fish offcuts sandwiched between two large scallops of potato, covered in crispy golden batter, served with mushy peas – like it was here – or curry sauce. It was the taste of my youth. Here it was matched with Thornbridge’s Lord Marples, a delicious caramel colour and a deep, sweet flavour. Together in the mouth, this sweet maltiness combined with the fish to invent new flavours and textures, spiralling off into heaven.

This was good, honest pub food, the kind of dishes that have been served for generations, but treated with the same degree of dedicated perfectionism you’d expect in a top restaurant. What better template could there be for today’s pub? The Cricket is not the first pub I’ve encountered with this philosophy – the Marquess in Islington springs to mind very quickly – and every time I find a pub like this business is booming, and the walls are filling up with awards and adulatory press clippings. This is how you do it. It’s not the only way to beat the crunch, but it’s a very joyous one.

We did as much damage as we could to the slates before begging for them to be taken away. I heaved a sigh of relief, which turned into a whimper of fear as chef Jack reappeared with a big apple pie in a traditional 1940s white tine dish with blue piping, nine different ice creams, a Bakewell pudding, crème brulee, a chocolate sponge and a treacle tart, and a cheese plate. And lots of custard, “Cos everyone loves custard,” he said, as he covered the last available inch of the large table top.

Thornbridge were already the most exciting and innovative young brewery in England. As they continue to seek out pubs they can do this to (the pub company, BrewKitchen, is a joint venture with Richard Smith, Sheffield’s most celebrated cook), they look like raising the bar on what a pub should deliver too.

You could almost forgive them all for being Wednesday fans.