Smokestak enlightening

I love the idea of a smokehouse. It’s like a barbecue on steroids and, like barbecues, I’ve had some good and bad experiences. I’ve had some fabulous juicy and sticky ribs but also some horribly dry brisket which should have stayed in the expensive smoker and never seen the light of day.

I was really looking forward to a visit to Smokestak. Apparently the restaurant began as a streetfood provider and has now upscaled. There is a lovely progression from home cook to streetfood to restaurant in the same way that online retailer, to market trader to independent retailer works for me. I love seeing food entrepreneurship and talent being successful.

From the outside, during the daytime, Smokestak is very imposing. Continue reading

Posted in Review | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Modern Brick Lane: Modern Britain

I’ve read the eponymous Monica Ali novel and I had an impression of Brick Lane by reputation but I’d never actually visited. My recent visit was a real eye-opener of modern London and what a wonderfully vibrant and exciting place multicultural Britain can be.

The long road is dotted with independent boutiques, bars, restaurants, and tattooists. There are few cars which pass through and so people wander along just gawping at the sights. Part of the view is an impressive collection of graffiti – big, small, topical, funny and angry. There were tour guides going from wall to wall.

There are some famous places here too. The Cereal Killer Cafe offers over 100 breakfast cereals from around the world at exhorbitant prices but had diners queuing out of the door. There are a couple of Dark Sugars outlets selling handmade chocolates and fabulous thick hot chocolate with added chocolate shavings on top.

The side streets are fascinating too. Continue reading

Posted in Opinion, Review | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A double helping of Parsi cafe

Over a thousand years ago a small group of Persians made the journey to seek their fortune in India. Many settled in Southern India but a small group eventually made it to Hindustan in the prosperous city of Bombay. They established a Zoroastrian community amongst the hustle and bustle and maintained their old Persian way of life whilst, little by little, adopting elements of their new surroundings. Legend has it that while setting around enjoying their Chai tea a stranger passed and asked for a glass in return for money and the Parsi cafe idea was born.

In Mumbai today there are some very distinctive Parsi cafes which are a feature for anyone who visits. They serve a distinctive menu combining the curry with the fragrance of Persian cuisine.

Having never heard of the genre until very recently imagine my surprise to find out Leamington Spa has just opened its very own Parsi Cafe. Continue reading

Posted in Review | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In praise of lunch… and The Cross

On our recent lunchtime visit to Carters of Moseley my wife and I observed how refreshing it is to eat a lighter but tasty meal in the middle of the day compared to having a blowout in the evening.

Back in the 1980s I remember visiting the first TGI Fridays in the UK – the Hayley Road site in Birmingham. To this day, after a three course meal, its the fullest I can remember ever being. I also remember it as being a good thing – in the days before diet consciousness, heartburn, vegetables etc.

Since those heavy days it seems to me that the gap between the price of everyday pub food, everyday restaurant food and fine dining has narrowed. The average price of a pub main course is pushing up towards £10 where I live and a decent curry with rice averages at £12-£16 in most of the Indian restaurants. With a steady inflation in the cost of eating out and a growing interest in eating healthily its a good time to consider what we value. Continue reading

Posted in Review | Leave a comment

Fabulous modern British cuisine (and just right on the ‘ponciness’) – Carter’s of Moseley

 

img_3247

For my wife’s birthday I planned a surprise day of events beginning with lunch. She loves good food she also wants to eat healthily and doesn’t want to worship it in the process. The word she uses to describe what she dislikes is ‘ponciness’. Most restaurant reviews don’t feature this description but I think we all have an interpretation of what she means – excessive fawning, pretentious, patronising, cloches, way too many tools to do the job, and ‘installation’ food with all its smoke and mirrors.

I chose Carters of Moseley – a new Michelin star for a modern British restaurant. I’d heard a few good reviews and I thought it may just fit the bill. Continue reading

Posted in Review | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lessons from a thriving High Street in East Yorkshire

20140112-072346.jpg

Image courtesy http://www.localindieretailers.co.uk – championing independent retailers in Peterborough

I love infographics like this one which lays out well the economics of local vs national retailing.

Some time ago I described in a blog my vision for the perfect market town http://ashbournevoice.co.uk/2013/11/10/the-perfect-market-town-a-vision/.  As our daughter is at Hull University we have had the opportunity to regularly visit Beverley in East Yorkshire. On the first occasion, on a cold January Saturday, there were queues to get in and out of car parks at 3pm. Beverley is an attractive town centre with Georgian houses and a large, pretty market square. It is about twenty minutes drive from a large City but essentially it is in an agricultural area. It does have a large tourist attraction with the looming Minster and an occasional attraction with the racecourse on the outskirts. The countryside around is unspectacular though. There are some nice little villages but the landscape Is featureless. 

The centre of the town is largely pedestrianised. Once you are parked it is relatively easy to navigate. The town centre itself is very compact. What I was impressed with was the balance of the high street though. In a medium-sized town they were punching well above their weight with high street brands – M&S Food, Laura Ashley, Joules, White Stuff, Lakeland and Claire’s. But in amongst the high-end brands they had also managed to have The Works selling discounted books and other lower cost outlets. The units were all a similar size so the ranges were limited compared to a city centre store but they were still there. There’s even a small department store – Browns.

Importantly though there was a really good range of independent stores – boutiques, craft shops, vintage shops, innovative selling models, delicatessens. They were on the high street as well as in the fringe alleyways and lanes. There were the usual coffee outlets but also lots of independent cafes with their own niches and to suit all pockets.

On the Saturday we visited there were two markets and the through-road was closed to allow it to take place which added to the congestion. They sold fruit and vegetables but also some specialists selling rugs, e-cigarettes, books and bags.

It looked, on a cold Saturday in January, thriving. I don’t know the truth of the situation and so I did a little research. In 2009 the East Riding Council conducted a healthcheck Beverley Health Check. This confirmed my thoughts but had some interesting observations too. One of the biggest car parks in the town was provided by the development of a Tesco store. The car park is massive and is free for two hours. It serves the town centre and the Tesco store. We tried this car park but found we couldn’t find a single space free so we moved to a pay car park. This shows good town planning for me. The rise of supermarkets is inevitable but the local authority had ensured the stability of the town was protected and that a significant weakness was addressed (but not solved). Crucially, they clearly valued the economic engine of Beverley and were responsive to the traders’ concerns.

The conclusions are interesting too. The recommended plan in 2009’s report was clearly being implemented…there was a coach park clearly signposted and street entertainment was provided and of good quality. There were very few vacant units and if anything the centre seemed to be spreading outwards.

The visit showed the importance of an integrated plan and Beverley is a tribute to the East Riding and Town Councils. It also demonstrated that lack of parking is a red herring. If the offer is strong enough people will fight to get to it. We had to search for a good ten minutes and then had a 400m walk after paying for our parking (£5.40 all day in 2014). Our parting comments were that we must do it all again but for longer.

Of course, every town has its problems and Beverley is no exception. It is also astonishing the similarity across the country. This article points out the challenges that the need for new housing is facing and a big decision to be made about whether to build a bypass for the town. Their response has been either to expand the town or build a “new town” close by to accommodate the growth needed without affecting the character of Beverley. Simple decisions such as a bypass are irreversible and massively impactful on any town. Interestingly, one solution Beverley are looking at is a Neighbourhood Plan to crystallise the local opinion and control their destiny over the coming years. It would be a crying shame if short term economic pressures were allowed to destroy a success story. Only a clear local appreciation of what they have and concerted political pressure is needed to secure the next twenty years.

Posted in Review | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Difference as defined by meringue

sunflowersThere’s nothing like a holiday to make you think about where you live. I recently visited the Languedoc region of France stopping in a gite. I’ve realised that what I enjoy about France in general is the nothingness of it: the pace of life and the ‘retirement feel’. Apparently the Languedoc is the 4th most visited area of France after Paris, Provence and the Alps and yet I had no idea what to expect.

What I found was a region bounded by Perpignan to the East, Toulouse to the West, Carcassonne to the North and Spain to the South. In amongst it are two enormous tourist attractions: the phenomenal huge bastille of  Carcassonne and the landscape. The countryside is magnificent: mile after mile of gorges and plateaux. There are serious hills and splendid panoramas with miles of driving like a small child on a toy car outside a supermarket – left then right then left again as you hug the contours of a hillside. In amongst it all are vineyards and small villages. There are filmset-beautiful Mediaeval towns such as Mirepoix and Lagrasse and there are just pleasant, slightly hippy riverside towns such as Esperaza and Quillan. Continue reading

Posted in Opinion | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Never mind the pronunciation…cheese scone is king

img_0408

When I was growing up a scone was a rather large item (it was in Yorkshire) stuffed with currants and even a little cherry. I hadn’t even realised that scones could be fruitless until I visited Devon for the first time and had a cream tea. As someone with a savoury tooth I found it an abomination and to this day I can’t enjoy the clotted cream and jam. A beautiful fresh, slightly warm, plain scone is a wonderful thing however.

The true king of scones though is the Cheese Scone. As long as it tastes clearly of cheese I am happy but I’ve tasted a few bad ones along the way. The common mistake is to underdo the cheese or go with some really tasteless cheddar. I’ve had some which could easily pass for plain scones!   Continue reading

Posted in Recipe | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Luuurvvv at The Beeches Bar and Grill

Restaurants seem to lose their minds at some times of year. At Christmas perfectly decent kitchens seem to ditch their standards and serve “what the people want”. All innovation disappears and, like it or not, the only fayre is turkey and trimmings and the ghastly Christmas pudding. Don’t argue with me – Christmas lunch is heinous so why serve it more than the compulsory once?

Valentines Day has a little more scope. Some restaurants go all out with the full oysters, asparagus, aphrodisiac routine. Others just serve the usual dishes but change the names to add some luuuurvvvv! The weekday steak and kidney becomes Sweetie Pie for one night only.

For Valentines I took my wife on a mystery tour to The Beeches Bar and Grill in Hampton in Arden. Continue reading

Posted in Review | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Marrakech… and the wonders of adventure

I believe the best holidays are based on experiences rather than sights and I can really see that. I’m probably a little odd but my own favourite moments have been the holidays where I’ve felt challenged and maybe seen something that most other package tourists wouldn’t. Its always better in a memory and at the time it can even feel threatening. 

I think the journey from an airport is a real insight into any city – before you get to the manicured bit – and in Marrakech it is certainly true. It’s only about 20 minutes to the Medina but within a few hundred yards a scooter goes the wrong way around a roundabout, a drunk tries to get in the taxi with us and cyclists perform a display-team interleaving trick at a crossroads.

ImagePrejudices and values are put to the test. The transport stops by the roadside in a shabby commercial street and the driver struggles to find the phone number of the hotel. We are persuaded to put our luggage in a handcart and we are then led down increasingly narrow alleyways and into a doorway. 50 yards along a dimly lit passageway we come to another big doorway and inside that… a beautiful palace that was our accommodation. Incidentally I watched a couple of British tourists arrive just as we were going out for the evening. They had been persuaded to follow a “guide” to an excellent place to eat and were clearly nervous about going through the door until we gave reassurances.

The markets are Dickensian with beggars, performers, stallholders touting for your business and lots of people trying to make a quick Dirham by being your guide. We took a while to adjust to a world where we were surrounded by people wanting to provide us with services without us realising it and then expecting payment. We’re just not used to it – hundreds of people wanting your money and willing to work for it. There is many a retailer in the UK who would love to have staff as keen and as knowledgeable.

From a food perspective we plenty of pigeon pastilla and some wonderfully fragrant and deep flavoured tagines. The mint tea was everywhere and there always seemed to be a man with a teapot on a tray taking it somewhere urgently. The French tea houses were a fascinating interpretation with flies and currants trading resting places in the heat. The almonds were fabulous.

Talking to people subsequently I have had it described as “threatening” and “dangerous”. Statistically it is actually a very safe place to be but its full of images which we associate with risk; we routinely treat smiling helpful faces as suspicious. Walking along narrow dimly lit alleyways at night is normally to be avoided. We are also constrained by language. There’s that awkward situation where you wish you had a neat Arabic or French phrase to get you out of trouble but there’s not time.

Months later and I’m still thinking over some of the sights and situations. Yes, we sat in the sun on a roof terrace but we also had a freshly made avocado and almond juice with a fabulous cheese and vermicelli “scone”, honed our French day by day, and deliberately got lost in the souks just to see what we would stumble upon. The main souk was extraordinary -a place where I genuinely got lost on a number of occasions and stumbled across meetings and stalls selling some very strange items. To get the best from a holiday always eat the local specialities, visit places which don’t speak English, have a look down the side streets and stay patient with a smile on your face.

Posted in Articles, Review | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment