Monday 28 June 2010

Riga - Part 1

I should know better at my age. I mean what would you do if you had just arrived in Riga for a wedding ? Of course the sensible thing would be to have a meal with a few gentle drinks before turning in for an early night. That's a bit boring though, much better to go mad and sample loads of turbocharged Belgian beer. Mercifully the groom was more sensible and knew when to stop drinking.

About the only wise decision I made was to share a metre of traditional Latvian sausage. This was top notch as was the accompanying salad, gherkins, and dips. Particularly worthy of mention was the potato salad.

I woke up the next day with a terrible hangover and the 50km coach trip to the wedding venue wasn't much fun although it was enlivened by some stunning scenery. The gods were on side for this big fat Greek-Latvian wedding as there wasn't a cloud in the sky for the outdoor ceremony.

As I'm not of the fairer sex, I lack the writing skills to describe the proceedings but needless to say El Greco and Mysterious Miss A's wedding went off really well. I particularly enjoyed the traditional games, customs, and challenges that the newlyweds had to go through.

I was still feeling a little tender so I was glad that there were nibbles with the champagne and I was double glad that these were substantial nibbles. None of that vol-au-vent nonsense – instead we had the Latvian take on the sausage roll as well as bread rolls with fillings such as bacon, egg, and mushrooms baked inside the roll. These were all excellent and strangely reminded me of Chinese bakery albeit with different fillings.

Onto the wedding breakfast and the speeches. These were expertly done with El Greco's newly acquired Russian language skills going down a storm with his in-laws. I also learnt some Russian that day, the word gorko. Whenever this was chanted, the bride and groom had to stop what they were doing and kiss until the chanting stopped. And by kiss, I mean properly kiss. I'm not sure the newlyweds finished their food as there were so many chants of gorko - even the usually repressed Brits eventually joined in (once the booze had kicked in).

For the meal itself, there was salad to start and tiramisu to finish but inbetween we had a selection of grilled meats, fish, and vegetables. These were passed along the long tables and I was very anxious as these platters were resting far from my grasp. I managed to bag my fair share and the accompanying sauces were tasty too. I particularly liked the tomato gravy thing but I didn't find out its name - give me a break, I was off the clock !

To drink, I kicked off with some white but switched to red for the main course. There were also bottles of Jameson whiskey and Russian Standard vodka. I wasn't going to touch the hard stuff but then Uncle Vodka came over. This guy was a force of nature, as he roamed from group to group to ensure we all toasted the newlyweds. When he came round to our group, I sipped my vodka. Whilst I didn't understand what he said, his look of bemusement tinged with disappointment said it all. There was only one way out and I quickly drained my glass. His mood immediately lightened and he seemed to take great pleasure that he had sent me on a one-way trip to oblivion.  

Consequently, the rest of the evening was a blur and I thought I'd dreamt some of the games and elaborate dance routines. At one point, it seemed like I'd gatecrashed a hallucinogenic drug fuelled fancy dress party, as the newlyweds were being driven on a pretend bus with dancers dressed up in costumes. The English commentary just made it seem more surreal and I was convinced the Village People were going to make a guest appearance.

Despite being a bit worse for wear, I still seemed to have the blog on my mind. Why else did I take a photo of the supper buffet ? I remember eating some fruit, as of course a few slices of melon and pineapple was going to save me from another hangover.  

Most of the other photos I took aren't really suitable for the blog but this one of the happy couple is. I should take more photos using the 'balloon' setting on my humble Casio.

All told it was a cracking wedding and everybody had a great time. So if you have a glass handy, please raise it to El Greco and his beautiful wife, the Mysterious Mrs A. Don't worry, I won't hold it against you if it isn't neat vodka and don't down it in one !

Friday 25 June 2010

World Cup - The Last 16

Compared to the real World Cup, there have been few real shocks in my parallel tournament. That said, there are a few teams that may rue their poor group stage form, in particular the USA and Brazil have tough ties against Australia and Spain respectively. There are no second chances with meals level after 90 minutes going to extra time, and possibly penalties.

France 3 Argentina 1
Argentina scores early to take a surprise lead. However steak and empanadas prove a tad one-dimensional and the superior French team reply twice in quick succession. In the second half, the French start taking the piss but they nearly pay for their impudence as dulce du leche nearly equalises before tarte tatin scores a third for the French.

S.Africa 1 S.Korea 2
The host nation bows out at this stage, as they were no match for the Koreans. Like the Argentines, the South Africans rely too much on meat but despite nicking an early goal the braai is marked out of the game by Korea’s bulgogi. In the end, the superior technique of the Koreans prevails.

England 3 Germany 0
I'll be honest the scoreline bears no reflection to the actual game – I just like the sound of it. In truth, this encounter was a bit turgid and many of the more sophisticated teams turned their noses up at this attritional stodge based affair. Goals by potted shrimp, fish & chips, and apple crumble settle this tie for the English. I'll be happy if the football follows this scoreline !

USA 3 Australia 4 (extra time)
This was the tie of the round and I doubt that there will be many better games in the whole tournament. Both sides have a similar approach as they feature barbecue, steaks, seafood, and ethnic influences mixed in with an arrogant swagger and a belief that they are the best. The Aussies win in extra time on the basis that their Chinese food is superior to that found in the States.

Japan 4 New Zealand 1
Japan was one of the pre-tournament favourites and New Zealand should feel no shame in being beaten by such a convincing scoreline. It could have been a lot worse as the best modern fusion chefs from New Zealand were obliterated by the traditional approach undertaken by specialist Japanese artists.

Denmark 0 Italy 1
In sporting parlance, Italy is a tournament team who peak in the latter stages. Before the business end of the tournament, they struggle and it's no exception against the foraging Danes. However, the Danish can find no way past the Italian back line of ciabatta, risotto, spaghetti and gnocchi. As we see all too often the desserts nick it at the end for the Italians.

Portugal 2 Switzerland 0
This is a battle between two differing food ideologies, the land locked Swiss against the seafaring Portuguese. For me, there's only one winner and the fish batter the Swiss into submission. The Portuguese should have won by a wider margin and pastel de nata squandered many chances before scoring late on in this game.

Brazil 0 Spain 3
This would be a worthy final in the real World Cup but in my eyes, the heavyweight Brazilian churrascria is outpaced by the lighter tapas and fish based dishes. Whilst at the other end, the jamon stop the Brazilians from launching attacks of their own. On this kind of form, we could well have seen the future champions.

Next Time
Next Friday sees the quarter-finals and there are four great ties. Can the underdogs, England overcome France ? Who will win the battle of the Med, Italy or Spain ? Will the Portuguese be able to upset the seemingly unstoppable Japanese ? And how will the Aussies cope with South Korea ?

Monday 21 June 2010

Why I Love Nando's

You're probably thinking I've gone mad but I was inspired to write this post after reading this article by Miranda Sawyer in the Observer Food Monthly and by Catty's challenge to find dinner for two in Central London for less than £14.

Whilst I'm a bit sniffy about many chain eateries, I've always had a soft spot for Nando's from when I first started going in the 1990's. This might be food blogger heresy but given the choice between their piri-piri chicken and a 'gourmet' burger from the likes of Byron or GBK, more often than not, I'd go for the chicken.

The Observer article articulates far better why Nando's is so popular and it raises some interesting points. In particular, its inclusive appeal, which I think society at large can learn from. Before you think I've gone totally stark raving bonkers, where else do you see teenagers, families with young kids, pensioners, and thirtysomething food bloggers eating in the same place ? Testament to its widespread appeal is that this is one of the few non-Chinese eateries where my Mum will eat.

My usual order ? It's half chicken w/chips & corn on the cob (£9.10). For a lighter meal, I used to go for chicken breast fillet pitta w/chips (£6.60) but recently I've fallen for their chicken breast fillet wrap w/chips (£7.60) as pictured. Going back to Catty's challenge, you could easily have dinner here for two for less than £14.

I might get some stick for writing this post as Sawyer did for her Observer article but you'd have to be a fundamentalist foodie to have issues with Nando's. At the end of the day, it's a handy place to grab a quick, tasty, and relatively healthy meal.

Nando's on Urbanspoon

Friday 18 June 2010

World Cup - 1st Round

photo, courtesy Wikipedia

So here we go – let battle commence for the Foodie World Cup. From 32 teams, we are looking for 16 qualifiers for the knockout stages. The group stages are where the less fancied teams could spring a shock but the league format usually sees the big boys qualify.

Group A – 1st France 2nd S.Africa
It's a no-brainer that France storms this group but second place is wide open. In the end, South Africa prevail, as home advantage should never be underestimated especially as Mexican food doesn't travel well. A friend of mine did extol Uruguay's virtues but he didn't come up with enough specific details to convince me.

Group B – 1st S.Korea 2nd Argentina
The 'group of death' is a glib cliché often used by sports commentators but in this case, it's very apt. You've really got to feel for Greece, as it's more than likely that they would've qualified from any other group. As it is they fall at the first hurdle with South Korea emerging as group winners closely followed by Argentina's muscular steak based team. Nigeria finishes a distant last.

Group C – 1st England 2nd USA
This group was another close one with Algeria's brave team nearly edging out the USA (everyone raises their games against Uncle Sam). This group was so close that it was decided on goal difference (yes – I am making this up as I go along). And it was England that shocked the foodie world by topping this group following some magnificent performances, in particular a thrilling draw against the USA (last minute equaliser by Birmingham's Balti). Slovenia just couldn't quite handle the food at this level.

Group D – 1st Australia 2nd Germany
Australia run away with this group, their mix of surf and turf with multicultural influences was just too strong for the likes of Germany, Serbia, and Ghana. Second place was wide open and Germany emerged not because their food was any good but because it's a World Cup and they always qualify for the knockout stages.

Group E – 1st Japan 2nd Denmark
As one of the pre-tournament favourites, Japan saunter through this group. Denmark is said to have the best restaurant in the world but they would've qualified from this group anyway as I like Scandinavian grub. That said Holland and Cameroon didn't offer much resistance.

Group F – 1st Italy 2nd New Zealand
As is often the way in major tournaments, Italy start slowly and they claim top spot just ahead of an up and coming New Zealand. Slovakia can be discounted, not least because I was ripped off over a bottle of red wine in Bratislava last year and I don't know much about Paraguay (except that it isn't Uruguay).

Group G – 1st Portugal 2nd Brazil
Portugal and Brazil are the teams competing for first place with the former colonial masters edging it by an egg tart. It's sad that North Korea is closed off to the rest of the world, as this has hindered its culinary development. Ivory Coast's chefs aren't as renowned as their footballers and they bring up the rear.

Group H – 1st Spain 2nd Switzerland
This is one group where food follows football, as Spain would be one of the favourites in both fields and they cruise through this group (unlike their footballers). Second place goes to Switzerland as I've eaten in great restaurants in Zurich. Besides, I'm too busy watching football to research the respective cuisines of Honduras or Chile.

Next Time
No real shocks so far although some might raise an eyebrow at the failure of Mexico. The Greeks and Algerians can also consider themselves unlucky not to qualify when the likes of England, Germany and Switzerland have. For many the World Cup comes to life in the knockout stages. This tournament is no exception and there are some fascinating ties in next Friday's last 16 including France v Argentina, Australia v USA, and England v Germany.

Tuesday 15 June 2010

Tooting - I'm Not Worthy

Tooting is wasted on me. If I weren't such an armchair foodie then I'd probably do more of my food shopping in this part of town. There's so much vitality here and its infinitely more interesting than the sanitised homogeneity of the average British high street.

For example, when was the last time you saw such large watermelons at the your local Sainsbury's ? And where else, does every other shop seem to be selling Pakistani honey mangoes ? I was also well chuffed when I picked up a 5kg bag of basmati rice for £7.99 – half the price of what I'd usually pay.

After finishing my shopping, I decided to stop off for a quick bite before going home. Dosa 'N' Chutny seemed to be attracting loads of South Asian customers so I followed the crowds to this South Indian and Sri Lankan joint. I only intended to pop in for a dosa but seeing how cheap everything was, I went a bit mad and ordered two starters and a main. Oh come on, the samosas only cost £1 and they were homemade.

My second starter was the weekend special of tandoori quail (£2.95) and this was a superstar of a dish. Charred on the outside, juicy and succulent inside, and infused with spices throughout, this quail had been marinated properly and cooked to perfection. I'd forgotten that dishes from the tandoor could taste this good. I don't know why they gave me cutlery, as this was definitely a job for hands. Quite possibly, one of the best dishes I've eaten in my time as a blogger.

For my main, I decided against a dosa and instead went for kothu, a Tamil dish that isn't all that common in London. I went for the chicken kothu partotha (£4.25), which consists of chopped parotha (aka paratha) with chicken, egg, vegetables and spices cooked on a tawa, a kind of griddle.

When asked about the spice level, I mistook the question as a challenge to my masculinity so I demanded hot. With hindsight, this was a mistake as it was slightly too spicy for my liking. It was tasty though and I liked the contrasting textures but it did get samey after a while. This was probably due to the generous portion size and I couldn't finish it off. Next time, I think I'll go for the tandoori quail, followed by a dosa.

Well I'm going to make a mid-year resolution and that's to rely less on the supermarket. That means I'll be returning to Tooting to do more of my food shopping and it'd be remiss of me not to pop into Dosa 'N' Chutny although the vegetarian restaurant next door looks pretty good too......

Dosa n Chutney on Urbanspoon

Friday 11 June 2010

World Cup - The Excluded

The World Cup starts today and to celebrate, Eat Noodles Love Noodles will be hosting an alternative Foodie World Cup. This promises to be a hopelessly biased affair where only my opinions and prejudices count. I'm sure many of you will disagree with how the tournament will unfold so I’m looking forward to your comments.

To keep things simple, the same 32 teams from the real World Cup will compete in my parallel competition. However, strength in football doesn't always equate to strength in food. There is some crossover with countries such as France, Italy and Spain but the small Asian presence (just Japan and the two Koreas) means that whoever wins my Foodie World Cup can't really be considered true champions.

So in this post, I'll be running the rule over those countries that haven't made the real World Cup but would make the Foodie World Cup. As you've probably have worked out by now, most of these teams hail from Asia.

Dim Sum (China)
Greater China
Any discussion of the best food in the world has to include China. I'm not sure how FIFA rules work but this cuisine could be represented by as many as four teams if you include Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. In fact, there's a strong argument that Taiwan represents the best of Chinese cuisine given that there was a mass exodus of chefs to the island following the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949.

China has strength in depth and a varied playing style e.g. the subtle midfield promptings of the Cantonese combine well with the powerful Sichuan attack. Whilst they can keep it simple with steaming and stir-frying, there is also creativity in abundance with dim sum and banquet dishes giving the team that extra quality.

In fact the squad is so strong, there are entire regions that would struggle to get in the starting line-up and have to make do with a place on the subs bench. I'm thinking spicy Hunanese and exotic Yunnanese could prove handy if a late winner is required. Like Brazil in the real World Cup, China is the team to beat in any Foodie World Cup.

Masala Dosa (India)
Indian Sub-continent
India also benefits from a vast population and regional diversity. They would certainly be nailed-on semi-finalists and potential champions. I can see seafood and vegetarian dishes from the south combining with heavyweight dishes from the north to win most battles. Of course, this is a gross over-simplification and in common with China there will be many regional cuisines ready to come on as a sub to win vital games.

Of the other teams, I fear an overreliance on grills and breads may mean that Pakistan lack the subtlety and variety to reach the latter stages. On the other hand, Bangladesh may surprise a few with their fish dishes although of course their Bengali style is one that India are also very familiar with.

The dark horse is surely Sri Lanka, which being an island nation has resulted in it developing a more individual cuisine. Super spicy curries, a way with seafood and imaginative street snacks mark this team out as one that that could upset more fancied contenders. 

Beef Rendang (Malaysia)
Straits Cuisine
Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia benefit from multiculturalism. On paper, teams that synergise elements of Chinese and Indian cuisines with their own indigenous food culture have to be genuine contenders. However, how well the various cuisines combine is open to question and there is a suspicion that the sum could well be less than its parts.

There's a healthy rivalry between Malaysia and Singapore. From my own experiences, the former probably has greater strength in depth although the latter may feel that their high-end dining scene gives them an edge. I don't know as much about Indonesia except that the Indian influence is less pronounced. However, this is more than compensated by the many regional cuisines from different islands like Bali and Java.

I think all three teams are capable of reaching the latter stages with my favourite being Malaysia. However, I have my doubts as to whether any of the three countries has quite enough class to lift the crown.

Goi Cuon (Vietnam)
South East Asia
I'm sure Burma, Cambodia and Laos have what it takes to qualify for the Foodie World Cup proper but I'm going to focus on the two regional behemoths, Thailand and Vietnam. Personally I prefer the latter but both are definite contenders for the title and on their day capable of beating any cuisine in the world.

To use a football analogy, I see these cuisines as being imbued with the spirit of teams like the contemporary Barcelona or the vintage Brazil i.e. aesthetically pleasing, technically superior and with an abundance of creativity. But as we all know by now, the best teams don't always win trophies.

And so I fear more robust teams may knock them about and rough up their mix of street food and traditional Imperial cuisines. But win, lose or draw I doubt whether any cuisine will give as much joy and pleasure to the tastebuds as these two during this World Cup.

Kebabs (Lebanon)
Eastern Mediterranean
I don't know much about the food from the Eastern Mediterranean but far too many foodies adore this cuisine for me to ignore it. This region is poorly represented in the real World Cup with only Greece making it to the finals.

In particular, the powerhouses of Lebanon and Turkey are conspicuous by their absence. Both have a winning mix of subtlety, grace and power – think hummus, baklava and kebab – to overcome most cuisines. I favour the Lebanese and whilst I may not have these teams at the top of the pile, I can appreciate why other pundits believe otherwise.

The Rest
Off the top of my head, I can think of a few other cuisines that should be in the tournament like Caribbean, Moroccan and Persian. I'd love to hear from you if you think there is a country worthy of inclusion in the Foodie World Cup that isn't in the real competition (see here for a list of the 32 actual World Cup teams).

Next Time
Every Friday is World Cup day on Eat Noodles Love Noodles. Next week sees the tournament proper commence and there'll either be heartache or joy as only 16 of the 32 teams will advance to the knockout stages.

Sunday 6 June 2010

Burgers 'N' Roasts @ Dog & Fox (Pub), London

My attempts at chronicling London's best pub burgers haven't been too successful. The thing is, whilst I've been down the boozer, I haven't been eating burgers. However, I rectified that one Sunday lunch and burger-ed up at the Dog & Fox in swanky Wimbledon Village. Hey, even Mr Noodles likes to go posh sometimes (oh crap I've written in the 3rd person but does using your alias count?).

As you can see, the burger was very thick with the beef being quite coarsely ground. This may not be to all tastes but I liked this homemade patty as it was juicy and not overcooked. I also liked the proper chips that came with it. There were some minuses like the mature cheddar, which I found a tad overpowering and the floury bap was clearly not fit for purpose. Overall though it was a decent burger and I could understand why they seemed to be selling as well as the Sunday roasts.

Being a traditionalist, my mate, Mr Pak Choi plumped for the tried and trusted Sunday roast. They gave it the big one about the beef being aged for 28 days but I'm not sure you could tell. There's not a lot you can write about this except they didn't balls it up. Looking at the photos, I think the presentation is a bit pretentious – come on guys, do you think we give a toss where you stick the Yorkshire pudding ?

When in this part of town you're paying for real estate and my burger cost £11.45, which is only marginally less expensive than somewhere like Goodman and the roast beef cost £12.95. Beer is also pricey here and I think some pints cost more than £4.

Verdict: Wimbledon Village is kind of within walking distance for me – well the estate agents reckon it is so it must be true – so I sometimes lunch here. Mind you, I wouldn't bother traipsing halfway across town unless you want to buy me an overpriced pint of Kirin lager.

Dog & Fox on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 1 June 2010

A Couple of Places in Oslo

Oslo Opera House

When on business trips in Europe, I tend to spend three nights away. Colleagues usually entertain me on at least one night, which leaves a couple of dinners alone with a book. Dining solo, I like to go somewhere upmarket one night and somewhere more casual on the other.

Oslo was no exception and with the sun shining, I ventured down to Aker Brygge on the waterfront. There was a real buzz about town as this was the week leading up to Eurovision. Well OK, I made that last bit up but they were gearing up to the big night last Saturday.

There is almost too much choice on Aker Brygge with its vast array of bars and restaurants encompassing global chains like TGI Fridays as well as upmarket seafood joints. They all had one thing in common, prices to make your eyes pop out.

For my la-di-da choice, I was torn between going to Lofoten or the D/S Louise. The former seemed too buttoned-up for a solo diner so I plumped for the warmer D/S Louise. I kicked off with some seared scallops, which were fine but could've done with more caramelisation. The accompanying fennel and pomegranate salad was neither here nor there.

For my main, I chose steamed toothfish, vegetable lasagne and crab wonton. I was a taking a big risk as I usually hate dishes that are too 'busy' but hey what are expenses for, if you don't experiment ? Talk about karma, I was punished big time by a dish that would get you a massive bollocking on Masterchef.

The crappiest element of this dish was the wonton. Firstly, the seasoning was uneven and the sweet crabmeat was often overwhelmed by oversalting. Secondly, the wonton base had dried out with dry pastry stuck on the bamboo mini-steamer. Lastly and most catastrophically, there was coconut in the wonton mix. Coconut - WTF ?

The mini vegetable lasagne was almost as bad with dry roasted vegetables sandwiched between dry pasta. Thankfully, the 'melt in the mouth' steamed toothfish fillet – the only decent element – saved this dish from being a total car crash. Even then, they nearly ruined the delicate fish with an indelicate 'cognac' sauce that didn't actually taste of cognac.

At least dessert wasn't a disaster and I really enjoyed my warm chocolate brownie. Other positives include the decent service and the charming nautically themed dining room. When telling my Norwegian colleagues of my experience, they said I should've gone for classic seafood rather than the piss poor attempts at fusion. They also pointed out that whilst D/S Louise has the edge in atmosphere, the food is better (and more pricey) at Lofoten.

When I returned to Aker Brygge, a couple of days later, I was on the search for somewhere more relaxed to eat comfort food. I plumped for the trendy Jacob Aall Brasserie & Bar as their menu was just what I was looking for. 

I kicked off with some buffalo wings of which I can't remember much about except that I wolfed them down as I was starving. My inner-Homer Simpson was well and truly unleashed so the obvious order was the BBQ Burger topped with bacon, cheese, salad, and pickles that also came with potato wedges and aioli.

This burger had many things going for it as you can see from the trashy cheese and the filthy dollop of bbq sauce. In fairness it hit the spot but sadly the burger was overcooked. This was a shame – if the burger was cooked medium then the all round package would’ve been a winner.

You can overeat on business trips so I spurned dessert in favour of another exorbitantly priced lager (the equivalent of £7 for 400ml). Service was good and this is the kind of fun place that would be ideal for large groups that prefer a more sophisticated environment than the nearby TGI Fridays (yes – I am a snob).

As is often the case with business trips, my best meal was when my colleagues entertained me. Good manners dictate that I don't blog about this meal, suffice to say, I was touched by the warmth and generosity of my hosts in inviting me to their home.

I don't want to give you the wrong impression of Oslo as I've been here several times and eaten in restaurants that wouldn't be out of place in London or Paris. It's just that on this visit I was frustrated that my choices didn't hit those same heights.