This is a quick update about poutine. Poutine? Poutine! It’s Canadian! Poutine! Why would you even do that? Poutine! Because it’s fucking delicious. Poutine! Get with the programme.
Growing up in the North of England, I’m no stranger to cheesy chips, or chips and gravy. But it took Quebec to really elevate this to something special. Oh, don’t worry – I’m not getting too misty-eyed. It’s still a big bucket full of grease, starch, and gravy (which is, let’s be honest, grease and starch suspended in water), but it’s definitely one of the tastier junk foods, and it’s only just breaking into the UK market.
Poutine is chips, gravy, and cheese curds. Think a more solid cottage cheese, though ideally we’re looking for something that tastes and squeaks like the awkward offspring of feta and halloumi.
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.
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.
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 Ibéricoham.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.