Friday, 25 October 2013

Plymouth, Massachusetts

A New England autumn road trip has been a long time in the planning. Combining the majority of my favourite things from great food and cool wildlife to beautiful landscapes (oh and tax free shopping), New England holds everything except top notch wine. You can kind of see where those pilgrims were coming from. The dark satanic mills of England versus a brave new world of whales, moose and cranberries. Or something like that. 

So where better to start than following in the pilgrim footsteps by starting the road trip in Plymouth. Although from the driving rain and stiff wind on our first day I wouldn't have blamed them if they had said "sod this we're better off in Burnley" and turned on their heel or perhaps the cold, damp breeze felt familiar, who knows.  We dutifully visited the Mayflower and Plymouth Rock whilst getting soaked to the skin and building up an appetite (the rock is pretty small but the Mayflower is interesting and the town is really lovely - I just wished I'd seen it in the sun).

Its practically against the law to come to Plymouth and not sample some clam chowder. Can't for the life of me remember its name rather unhelpfully but there is a rather downmarket looking equivalent of a fish and chip shop on the main road near the Mayflower. Don't be put off by their exterior and the offerings of fried dough, their chowder rocks. Creamy and rich, with just a hint of seafood, at around $3 a cup its a bargain. Despite the many subsequent varieties of chowder we sampled over the next fortnight this one remained in my top three. 

The rest of the morning was spent driving to a cranberry festival in Edaville, a rather disappointing event with a painfully twee train ride and a handful of fading fairground rides. You barely even saw a single cranberry. Singularly the best thing about it was a venue called Porky's barbecue which ironically, considering the name, only sold chicken. But it was excellent  moist, smoky chicken with a fantastic honeyed spicy crust served from a hut right alongside the outdoor 'cue. Served alongside it was a hulk of sweet, grainy cornbread and a buttered corn. Part of me can't believe that I'm about to publicly admit this but I had never eaten corn on the cob before. Yup, its true, I broke my corn cherry in Massachusetts. A bad experience with some tinned sweetcorn a few years back had seemingly put me off corn for life but when in Rome and all that. Well it was a taste revelation! Before you could say "corn y'all" I had butter dripping off my chin and was sucking the sweet juice from the husk of the cob. It was divine. 

On the way back into town we did finally manage to find one of the fabled cranberry bogs mid harvest having just been flooded. Look how pretty it is!

After an afternoon of listening to role playing 'pilgrims' with dubious English accents I had built up an appetite that only a gluttonous quantity of lobster could fix. 

Woods Seafood is located on the seafront where lots of the boat cruises depart from. Unsurprisingly there are multiple seafood options but this one is 100% locally owned and also has a fresh fish counter for cooking at home. Its pretty rough and ready, pine panelled walls and vinyl table tops but super cheap. Once you've found yourself a table you queue up at the hatch and order your food. A $1 dollar deposit gets you a lobster cracker to get the most out of those bony suckers. 

After a few minutes wait our number came up and it felt like winning the village fete raffle only with better prizes. In the UK crab cakes are usually at different stages along the spice scale from making your tongue tingle to blowing your taste buds away. It was pretty surprising therefore that these have no spice at all. That doesn't mean they are lacking in the flavour department, in fact they were perfect; rich flakes of seasoned crab meat encased in a delicate golden crumb completely devoid of grease. 

The lobsters were a good 1.5lb each and super juicy. So juicy in fact that they were still full of their poaching liquor. It made the dissection and eating a bit on the messy side but totally worth it. I understand that the New England tradition is to slurp that liquid right out of the carapace but I couldn't do it. Maybe next time. Oh and whilst I'm raving about lobster the lobster roll was pretty good too....

My only real regret was that at $3.75 each we didn't order a portion each of the clam chowder and the lobster bisque to keep us going whilst the lobsters cooked. Still you can't have it all. 

For a total of less than $50 we got through two lobsters, 2 crab cakes, a lobster roll, various side orders and 2 soft drinks. That can't be bad value by anyone's standards. 

There is absolutely nothing elegant or sophisticated about Woods but it hits the spot if you're looking for the freshest seafood straight off the boat at the best prices. 

Despite the crustacean overdose the notion of some award winning cupcakes couldn't be passed up. We stopped by Cupcake Charlies having heard lots of good things about it. We tried a few including a red velvet, a Twix caramel, and an M&M chocolate swirl. They weren't bad but the cake itself was not very flavoursome it was all about the topping which was just too sweet for me. This was disappointing considering the build up as was the fact that the small town little bakery image that they portray was blown out of the water by lists of their other branches and the fact they are looking for new franchisees. 


In summary Woods rocks and you should definitely hot foot it there pronto should you ever find yourself near Plymouth. Hell its so cheap you should drive 50 miles to get there. Cupcake Charlies? Give it a miss. Still, roll on the rest of New England, five more states to go.....

Woods Seafood            
15 Town Pier, Plymouth, MA 02360

Wood's Seafood on Urbanspoon

Cupcake Charlies
6 Town Wharf  Plymouth, MA 02360
(508) 747-9225

Cupcake Charlie's on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 6 October 2013

The Hind's Head, Bray

When you mention the name Heston Blumenthal to most people they tend to think of crazy scientific gastronomic experimentation. Neither the Fat Duck nor Dinner are exactly 'normal' restaurants are they? 

So what have we here? Heston doing posh pub grub? And being awarded a Michelin star for it....

After finding out earlier this year   when we visited Waterside Inn how comparatively simple it is to get to Bray and still have a drink, we got on the Windsor train from Clapham Junction and set off. Three quarters of an hour later you arrive splat in the centre of Windsor (worth a wander in itself) and then a 10 minute cab journey out to Bray). If you're more team North London then get a train from Paddington to Maidenhead - its quicker still in terms of both train and cab. 
Grapefruit tea

Despite the enduring Roux family presence in the small village of Bray, its fair to say that Heston is doing something of a "Stein" and building up a mini empire in a very small area. The stable that started with the Fat Duck now includes not only the Hind's Head just down the road but also The Crown which was purchased in 2010 serving more down to earth pub food.  There are parallels between Dinner and The Hinds's Head in that both play greatly on the use of little known old recipes and the history of food - if anything it feels more authentic in the tudor style surroundings of the Hind's Head than the more opulent London Mandarin Oriental.

After a hair raising cab journey (crawling at 20 miles/hr in a 60 mile area than 40-50 in a 30 zone causing a snake of angry traffic behind us) we needed a drink. The cocktail list at HH is small but perfectly formed. 

Strawberry concoction
Grapefruit tea was beyond beautiful. A delicate earl grey flavour was infused throughout by virtue of both earl grey syrup and gin.  My starter for ten was a strawberry confection which was nice but not mindblowing. Rhubarb fizz was a delicate aperitif with beautiful candied rhubarb soaked in the bottom of a glass of champagne.

It must be virtually obligatory to begin any meal at HH with a scotch egg (or three). A perfectly soft boiled quail's egg is encased in slightly peppery, soft pork sausage and a dark orange salty crumb crust. Heston very publicly spent a lot of time perfecting the scotch egg which has been copied from here to eternity since but this one rocks. 

Having already eaten a scotch egg I decided to stay away from meat for the starter and fixed on the jasmine smoked salmon with dill cream and pickled beets. The jasmine flavour was subtle but undoubtedly present and the beets gently pickled and soft. The salmon wasn't particularly smoky (and I do love a good dose of smoke) but had it been then the jasmine would have been overpowered I fear. 

It was good smoked salmon without any doubt but it was no competition for the chicken liver brûlée which was out of this world. I rarely suffer from dish envy but today was unfortunately to be one of those days. I become an irritant to all around me when this happens as I will just end up inadvertently mooning with puppy dog eyes at the better looking plate until a dollop of whatever has attracted me is handed over. Thank goodness then for the decent sized portions at HH. The lightest fluffiest liver parfait was concealed under the caramel crack of a sugar topping.  My only complaint would be that the sourdough bread was a little overcharred and the burnt flavour did permeate through the dish. A was also clearly taken with this dish as the following day a link to the recipe landed in my inbox and will be made very soon. You can find it on Red Magazine's website here

A opted for the Ham hock and foie gras terrine which was very prettily presented and tasted good but wasn't exceptional. The piccalilli was very zingy and rather too overpowering if you had it with the terrine (as is clearly intended). Nice but no rosette.

On the wine front, the list is reasonably extensive and varied if slightly on the high side (its definitely London prices). At £71 a bottle a Frank Phelan second wine from Saint Estephe estate Phelan Segur was a good claret, still young and purple on the eye but reasonably balanced in acidity and tannin for a non-optimal vintage. That said, it was far from cheap and I  found out later that it retails at around £20 making it well over a 200% increase. El Pajaro Rojo at £34 for a £10- £12 retail wine is slightly better value (and not vastly different to the £32 it is sold for at Tom's Kitchen) and a Chateauneuf du Pape, Domaine de Beaurenard, Rhone Valley 2007 is £37 at Sipp but £82 on the wine list (121% increase) so maybe I just got unlucky on the mark up. 

With bellies already rotund from scotch eggs and starters we moved towards main courses. I plumped for the veal sirloin on the bone with sauce 'reform' and soused cabbage and onion. I confess to not having been entirely sure that "Reform" sauce was but it had a quite sweet but piquant taste and viscous texture with a citrus lilt. Subsequent Googling confirmed that the recipe takes its name from the Reform Club in London where Victorian celebrity chef of the day, Alexis Soyer, created the recipe to accompany lamb cutlets as one of the club's signature dishes.  We all agreed that were we in a Masterchef-style palate test there was a significant chance that we would have mistaken the veal chop for gammon. It had the same sinuous texture and was smoky from its chargrill but still utterly delicious. Topped with strips of boiled egg white and sausage as well as a salty crumb it provided interesting textures to an otherwise standard chop. It was beautifully cooked and I came within a hair's breadth of picking up the bone and chewing but the surroundings ensured that I had some sense of decorum left (had I been in Soho I would doubtless have been a chewin').  

A ordered the Hereford rib eye with bone marrow sauce, cooked medium rare so the fat had melted beautifully into the pink flesh. The sauce was as rich as rich can be with blobs of bone marrow adding an extra gloss. Really good.

The french fries served as a side order were just that; fries. I had been looking forward to a portion of triple cooked chips a la Heston but was reliably informed by the waitress that they can't be served at the height of summer because the potatoes are too sweet for it to work (its a chemical thing apparently. Heston is good at the molecular stuff so we will just have to trust him on that one). Nonetheless I did feel a bit cheated out of my big fat chips despite the scientific reasoning. Annoyingly however, in referring back to their website to write this up I see they are back on the menu only a few days later. Hey ho, just means I have to go back I s'pose.

The oxtail and kidney pudding did look fabulous with the filling all glossy and soft encased in a lardy rich pastry. H adored it. I temporarily forgot that I really hate kidney which unfortunately I still do even after tasting it. If offal is your kind of thing though then the pudding comes highly recommended. 

Sides of green beans with shallot and coriander carrots were both tasty and naughtily buttery but you don't exactly come here expecting a waistline friendly meal.

Sitting in the Tudor surroundings and shovelling down the meaty dishes gives you a little bit of a feeling of what it must have been like to be Henry the VIIIth (less the murdered wives of course).

Cherry bakewell with yoghurt ice cream was light and crumbly with a lovely frangipane filling (the cherries were a particular triumph and not a million miles away from the gorgeous Luxardo Italian maraschinos) 

Chocolate wine slush with millionaire's shortbread was perhaps the most atypical dessert on the list. Two waitresses made clear that the two are best eaten together which proved to be true; the slush was not particularly inspiring or remarkable 

Lemon scented quaking pudding was not what I was expecting at all. The general consensus of people that I asked seemed to think it was a lemony flavoured pannacotta style dish which was accurate except for the fairly significant fact that its a hot dessert. Very hot. I liked it (especially playing with it making it wobble) but A & H were not sold at all. The sorbet was quite clearly frozen (a prerequisite for sorbet one would imagine) and had a very very tart flavour. I held my tongue until H had tried it but we both agreed the pervading flavour was one of cleaning product such as Vim or Flash. That makes it sound horrid which isn't my intention but it probably wasn't the best lemon sorbet I have ever tasted. There is an argument with various of these "forgotten recipes" that they may have died out for a reason. I'm sure noone in Tudor times turned round and announced a fatwa on warm blancmanges (if fatwas indeed existed) so perhaps, just maybe, people realised it wasn't so great and chose not to make it any more. 

Triple Rum Old Fashioned
We retired to the bar for a small post prandial, in my case making a bee line for the Triple Rum Old Fashioned. Consisting of three rums (spiced, white and Skipper demerera rums) it also promised theatrics in the form of "raisin scented rum smoke". Theatrical it was indeed served in a brandy glass with the raisin syrup dry ice smoke being poured at the table and inhaled (small tip, don't inhale too quickly it makes you look like a reverse dragon).  Much sweeter than a standard Old Fashioned, it was nonetheless very smooth indeed. At this point, however, the 'small post prandial' plan fell into disarray. 

Rum Punch
We had keen plans to return to London and find a good cocktail bar in which to languish until the early hours but at the risk of sounding lazy (ok, so we were lazy) we knew that once we had sat through the 45 minute train back we would have lost the edge and would probably slope home to the first episode of X Factor and a snooze. A decision was therefore taken to stay in the bar area and gradually work our way through the cocktail menu. 

The stand outs from the list were the Rum Punch which had a beautiful caramel buttery flavour to it and the grapefruit tea.
Chocolate Espresso Martini

The Chocolate Espresso Martini was good but perhaps little different from those served elsewhere. Combining sweet with the bitter edge of the freshly brewed coffee it fulfilled its purpose of giving me a second wind to carry on with the cocktail quest.

Nearing the end of the cocktail list (but in that obstinate slightly irrational mindset that it makes no sense to quit now when we are so close) we ordered the final four on the list; a Viola, a Manhattan, a Martini and a Pineapple champagne thing. 

The Martini (named '1891' after the year that the recipe was apparently written down) was a stonker. Made with crazily potent Plymouth Navy Gin - at 53% proof- it was enough to blow your socks off. The Grand Marnier and orange bitters flavour was so subtle as to be absent but that may well be because my taste buds had, by this point, been burnt away. 
1891 Dry Martini

The Viola was the one that noone had felt very inspired by but it turned out to be one the triumphs. A blend of cachaca, grenadine, lemon, egg yolk, lime, orange juice, and mint; it doesn't sound like a match made in heaven but it fell the perfect side of too sweet or too sour with a silky texture.

At this point the kitchen had reopened so it seemed churlish not to order a couple more scotch eggs and some devils on horseback for the road. 

Somewhere half way through the cocktail marathon Anna Friel and Rhys Ifans turned up providing Bray's celebrity spot of the day. Even the staff seemed quite excited at that one. 

At 7pm we finally threw the towel in and got a cab back to Windsor station. Boring but practical tip -  if you are coming from Windsor get the restaurant to book a cab to pick you up in advance, Surprisingly its cheaper than the rank outside the station and much better cars and drivers. One boozy train back to London, an accidental cheese purchase on the way home then snoring in front of Xfactor by 9pm. Excellent. 

Let's end on a gratuitous oozing yolk scotch egg photo shall we? Tummy rumbling?

Will I go back? I very much hope so.

The Hind's Head
High St, Bray, West Berkshire SL6 2AB
01628 626151

Square Meal Hinds Head on Urbanspoon
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