Butch Annie’s and The Alex, Cambridge – more burgers

Lagging as it does 2-3 years behind Soho, Cambridge has started to accrete gussied-up burger joints at some speed. I went to two last weekend. I wasn’t even trying to have dinner. It just kind of happened. In fact, you’re probably in one now – slices of structurally-unsound brioche passing through you like crumbly, stylized, cosmic rays.

Seriously though, it’s getting daft. There’s the two here, something in Cherry Hinton, and apparently a Greene King “concept pub” in a similar vein on the horizon.

Here’s a quick look at two new-ish ones. Butch Annie’s, which opened a week or two ago in the dead centre of town, and the latest incarnation of The Alex(andra Arms) out Mill Rd way. Spoilers: they’re both reasonably credible alternatives to Byron.

Extra spoilers: STOP WITH THE FUCKING BRIOCHE.

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Ember Yard, London – pork and fire

Ember Yard - Iberico presa
Shitty phone picture, because restaurant at night

Ember Yard is the most recent venue (2013) from the Salt Yard Group – a small chain of tapas-inspired charcuterie bars founded by a couple of bored ad execs who thought it might be a laugh to open a restaurant. Now, that doesn’t necessarily end well, and if I’d known in advance, I might not have gone. But I didn’t do my homework.

Instead, I looked at the menu, then spent the rest of the day idly dreaming about Ibérico ham.

That was the right decision, and it wasn’t actually full of assholes, but, well, they list the species of wood used on the charcoal grill, for fuck’s sake. It’s a damn good thing the food tastes amazing.

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Where to eat and drink in Cambridge

Periodically, I get asked where’s good to eat or have a pint in the fair – but slightly dull – city of Cambridge. For convenience, here’s my (occasionally sarcastic) list.

I’ll try to keep it up to date.

(Halibut with peanut and squash, at Alimentum)

These aren’t detailed, and I’ve not include anywhere I haven’t been yet, so there’s probably a few good places missing. They aren’t in any order.

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Flesh and Buns, London – overcrowded, infra-dig

Flesh and Buns is the latest venture from the folks behind Bone Daddies, the Soho ramen bar that sounds a bit like an inter-generational fetish night, and narrowly escapes style-over-substance by serving extraordinarily tasty food.

Bone Daddies' ramen
Bone Daddies’ ramen

It’s another Japanese-ish concept joint; this time a kind of elevation of Tokyo drinking hole bar snacks. It’s a repackaged Izakaya with an inexplicable hentai twist, and a name that should really be warning enough.  Like Bone Daddies, the food is tasty, but Flesh and Buns pings a good seven or eight milli-Polanskis on the Good-But-Problematic scale.

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Guerrilla Kitchen at Cambridge Food Park

“Pop-ups” and street food are big news at the moment, and like any food fashion, some of it’s the grossly overrated shibboleth of the beard-stroking poseurs, and some of it’s genuinely fantastic. Cambridge Food Park is happily by and large composed of the latter. It’s a kind of meta pop-up, a pop-up of pop-ups, if you will. If you won’t, it’s a rotating selection of local food vans and vendors, serving lunch on Thursdays and Fridays.

I nipped down for lunch today, and had some fantastic char siu bao from Guerrilla Kitchen.

FoodPark (6)

 

These were freshly-steamed, and served with a simple selection of fillings: pork belly, chicken, tofu, or tongue.

I opted for pork belly and chicken, and I need to go back for the other two. The chicken had some spice to it, and was served with edamame beans and peanuts, plus a sprinkle of shredded leaves and spring onions.

FoodPark (1)The pork belly was gently flavoured with the char siu marinade, then cooked super tender with gooey skin, and finished on a hot griddle for a rich sticky finish. The cucumber is a nice fresh contrast. The buns themselves are soft and ever so slightly sweet. I’m not a bao connoisseur, but they make great fast food, and these seem to be well-executed and very tasty indeed.

It’s good, and if you’re looking for lunch you should definitely nip down to Food Park. It’s a rotating selection, and you can sign up for a newsletter or follow them on Twitter for notifications of which food vendors will be there when. Steak and Honour is a regular, as is Fired Up Pizza.

Other offerings include fancy hot dogs, Afro-Caribbean, cupcakes, coffee, and of course the splendid Inder’s Kitchen.

There’s some seating, though not masses, but it frees up pretty quickly. Some of the vans can have a bit of a queue, so you may need to be patient if it’s busy, but I didn’t see anybody waiting all that long. No, it’s a pretty slick setup, and a really good use of what’s basically a vacant lot on a construction site.

It’s just a pity there’s nowhere to get a glass of wine or a beer. Someone should add that.

SmokeWorks, Cambridge

As Cambridge slowly gives up even pretending not to be a London suburb, the accretion of restaurants you might actually want to eat in goes hand in hand with the complete inability to afford houses you might actually want to live in. A mixed bag, to put it mildly. But when I heard that we were getting a BBQ joint in that Bodeans/Pitt Cue style, I was excited.

The horrifyingly distorted economics of my hometown are somewhat beyond the scope of a paean to pulled pork. You could mutter darkly about gentrification or something, but in the centre of Cambridge that’s taking the piss. Plus, I suspect the tears shed for the demise of the Eraina actually fall more from nostalgia for greasy 1970s moussaka than any understanding of how food is meant to work.

No, the vaguely-Greek-if-you-squint trip around the Med in a deep fat fryer has been replaced with SmokeWorks, and I could not be happier about it.

Smokeworks (2)

(There’s a great set of photos here from the opening night, by Karohemd)

The food, of course, is the important part. And the short version is: it’s great.

Let’s get a bit more detailed.

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Eating my way around the Cambridge Beer Festival (part 1)

The Cambridge Beer Festival is an institution. Forty-one years old this year, it’s the longest-running CAMRA festival, and the second or third largest, depending on how you count. It is also fantastic fun, which is why since 2007 I’ve been taking a week off to volunteer at it every year.

Volunteering has a number of benefits, not least getting to try a heck of a lot of beer for relatively little money. But one of the nicer perks is getting fed a couple of times a day, from a pretty decent range of food concessions.This year, Adam, a fellow foodie and member of the cellar crew, challenged me to eat at and review them all.

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Here goes.

(there are beer recommendations at the bottom)

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Giggling Squid, Brighton – offbeat Thai

When I walked past Giggling Squid, I had a funny feeling I’d been there before, half-cut, about ten years ago, with a friend and his mother. That was quite an evening, and not conducive to long-term recall. Looking at their website, I’m not so sure. It had all the feel of a funky local independent, and appears to be a funky local chain.

Fuck it. The definition of “independent” is stretched paper-thin across music, shops, restaurants, publishing, and who knows what else. And chains aren’t axiomatically evil, whatever the strong correlations. Certainly, Giggling Squid didn’t feel like sitting down to dinner with The Man.

Duck spring rolls, at Giggling Squid

What it did feel like was a good Thai restaurant with an interestingly offbeat menu. There was plenty on there I’m not used to seeing, including a decent selection of fish, some standard curries with a twist, and some fun sounding bin ends from Quaff (a local wine merchant I’ve still not managed to get to, but heard great things about).

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Alla Stella, Desenzano (Lake Garda, Italy)

We were looking for somewhere to eat on our last night in Lake Garda, and had a couple of places in mind. Some of the TripAdvisor reviews of Alla Stella were a little mixed, so we weren’t initially sure, but after sticking our heads round the door, we didn’t even bother looking at the rest of the places on our list. It smelled fantastic, and the ambience was spot on.

Crushed potatoes with anchovies and tomatoes

Alla Stella is jammed into a side street, a narrow building with a couple of rooms and a little covered courtyard. Embracing the bare-stone vaulted ceilings, but steering clearly away from twee stucco tourist tat, there’s a modern bar vibe with eclectic furniture. There’s glass and metal, and a really nifty fireplace. Basically, it’s what my living room would look like if I had money; right down to the giant hams hanging in a niche near the bar.

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Boopshi’s, London – schnitzel & spritz

Set on Windmill st, just off Tottenham Court rd, Boopshi’s was relatively quiet on a Saturday afternoon, and a thoroughly pleasant place for a late lunch. It’s bright and airy in a way that “modernized Austrian schnitzel joint” just does not suggest. It’s more style bar than beer cellar, and I absolutely do mean that in the good way. It’s tasty.

Boopshi's exterior

Eating in London, I seem to wind up at these mildly-ridiculous monoconcept noshing houses. As a grotesque self-parody, I’m ok with this, and Boopshi’s is another good one. So was Bubbledogs, who only serve champagne and hot dogs, and you can probably guess what Garlic and Shots do. They’re on the list for next time.

Boopshi’s serve schnitzel and spritz. Schnitzel and spritz are good, and we had plenty of both on our trip round central Europe last year. Oh, they have other things too, things I’d like to go back and try, but the stars are the schnitzel and spritz.

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