Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Beers I Love. No. 1 - Wychwood Hobgoblin

Not long after I started drinking beer – for legal reasons let’s say I was in my late teens – myself and a group of friends started drinking ale, purchased from the local supermarket. The reason we started doing this is simple; one of our mothers bought us 4 bottles of Wychwood Hobgoblin for a night in, and we were hooked.
          At the time, beers in supermarkets were rather limited, although not in our eyes. All we had seen previously were 3 or 4 different brands of mainstream lager, which to us all tasted the same (I will leave that chestnut for another time). So 30-odd different beers on the shelves of ASDA, in differing shapes, sizes and colours, was very exciting. We started regular beer nights where we would buy a dozen or so bottles and mark them out of ten, discussing why we liked them and why we didn’t. Early on, reactions were questionable; we greatly disliked Erdinger and many other decent beers, yet loved Innis & Gunn and Spitfire. We gave marks for presentation, which usually meant that clear bottles scored highly. We weren’t all bad though - everyone loved Summer Lightning and Old Peculiar, and our favourite was Hobgoblin.
       We did this for a while, and quickly exhausted the supermarket range, going further afield to find new beers to drink. Thanet, where we grew up, was not exactly a haven for high quality beer, with one particular unenlightened company owning almost every pub it seemed, so it was a while before we discovered the pleasures of cask beer. I tried various beers on tap, but nothing that sticks in the memory. But then on a trip to Canterbury, we found the Hobgoblin pub on the high street, serving its eponymous drink, for an incredibly low price. It was dark, grungy, and alternative – for all of us MTV2 crowd it was heaven, a respite from shots of aftershock, bottles of Fosters Twist and Craig David blaring from the speakers. The beer was awesome – my first was gone in a matter of minutes. Perfectly kept, cool, a big frothy head, dark reddy brown liquid smooth as an angel’s jazz, sweet, rich, bitter and grown up. It didn’t matter that I was one of about 7 people under 30 who felt this way, but I thought this was cool as fuck.
            One of the things we loved was the marketing – the slogans, artwork and general ethos, form the cool bottle shape to the aggressively anti-lager sentiments on t-shirts and posters. I know there are many critics of the ‘Lagerboy’ ethic they used heavily back then, but it was exactly what we needed to get us into beer. It put words to our quiet outrage that lager was so popular and it was difficult to get a decent pint of bitter anywhere. Plenty of people made fun of us for drinking ‘weird’ beer, and this gave us a comeback, a sense of identity and virtue. It gave us permission to be outspoken and opinionated on the subject, and take a love of beer to a new place, one where we actively encouraged and persuaded others to try new beers, a quest that has been extremely fruitful. One year our rugby 7’s team were called the Hobgblins. We sucked. We didn’t care.  
          To be honest, I don’t drink Hobgoblin much anymore. The two bottles I bought as a memory aid for this blog are the first I have purchased in a couple of years. My tastes are now more geared towards pale and hoppy beers, lagers and the esoteric. I am guilty of looking too much for the new and different, while forgetting the old and reliable. There are many beers I like but rarely drink, not because I stopped liking them, but because I started liking something else and got distracted. Of course there is only so much time and many, many beers, but I once heard we should make new friends and keep the old, because one is silver and the other gold. I intend to renew some old friendships soon, starting with another one of these.

Picture from here

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Meat Liquor

One of the newest (and most rudely named) additions to London’s constantly growing collection of hip and trendy burger joints is Meat Liquor, tucked away behind Debenhams just north of Oxford Street.
 The reason I know it is hip and trendy (not being those things myself) is that I had to queue for just over an hour to get a seat, which is not at all unusual for the people who own this place. The previous outlet was MeatEasy in South London, and still in action is the revered MeatWagon, both of which have attracted praise and adulation for their meaty creations.
       The likes of Byron, GBK and other such chains, along with higher end places like Maze and Hawksmoor, have been at the forefront of an attitude shift which places the humble burger on a pedestal, something to be celebrated and respected, talked about, much as they are in places like New York. This seemed to occur in London pretty organically, a gradual rise in popularity and a trend towards pared back, casual eateries, with places like Byron becoming barometers for cool. Nothing here at Meat Liquor feels organic or natural; every ‘cool burger place’ g-spot is hit with purpose and planning. No bookings, so the line winds around the corner. Loud but considered rock music, and good looking, shouty, aloof waiters. No napkins, no cutlery, food on metal trays, cocktails in jam jars, dark lighting, craft beers, short menu. None of this is new, but it is all put together to create a little piece of New York – you could be in Brooklyn or the Lower East Side. Yet a few hundred yards from Selfridges and the Bond Street boutiques, it doesn’t quite ring true – a point made by the 20-35 year old, fashionable, affluent, tweet-while-they-eat crowd that are queuing at the door. A hidden gem this is not – but it does have kick-ass food.

Get in my way and I will do this to you.
           A properly sexy menu delivers very decent sticky Buffalo wings, with a life threateningly good blue cheese sauce, and a pork slider was big and tasty. The fries and onion rings were faultless, but the burgers are the real home run. Great burgers should make you feel dirty, sticky, slightly ashamed, like you got laid 12 hours ago and haven’t showered yet. The ‘Dead Hippie’ at Meat Liquor makes you feel like you just had sex with the entire staff of the Camden branch of McDonalds and then bathed in hog fat. Juicy, salty, yielding meat inside a sweet, soft, pillowy bun, with various bits and pieces to lift the flavour to more than itself. Satisfying on a primitive level, but also exquisitely judged textures and seasoning.
             40 quid for 2 people to reach a level of extreme, not even another waffer-thin-mint level of fullness, and have plenty of fun doing it, is a bargain in this town. The food makes up for any affectations, any my only real complaint is the drinks menu. For somewhere with an actual bar, serving American classics, only 2 bottled craft beers, and no draught beer or bourbons of any kind is criminal. I won’t be dragged into the ‘best burger in London’ debate, as it is too subjective for me to offer anything valid, and I simply haven’t tried them all. I will say that this is the most I have enjoyed a burger this side of the Atlantic, and even the thought of queuing in the blistering cold probably won’t stop me going back for more after some Christmas shopping in John Lewis next month.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

North Road

Farringdon is cool. Clerkenwell, Midtown, whatever you want to call it, is one of the best places in London to work, hang out, eat and drink. For my money it’s the best place in London to drink beer, and pretty high up on the list for everything else. It has buckets of history, side streets with hidden gems, big fancy bars and casual lunch spots, and serious drinking and eating destinations. An ideal place to take the other half for a post payday evening, which is what I did.
           Before dinner we stopped in at The Larder on St John Street, which anyone in the EC1 area should consider doing if you have an hour or four to spare. This is a proper restaurant, but skipping straight to the spirit menu at the bar, especially the gins, is the thing to do. Do let the barman upsell you; the good stuff is pricey but totally worth it, and the knowledge behind the bar is good enough to get you where you want to be. Their ‘Gin of the Month’, Bulldog, and Purity vodka, both with tonic, were excellent, although I will probably revert back to my favourites next time, like Sipsmiths or Chase.

Then on to the point of the evening, basically next door; North Road, a newish restaurant with an even newer Michelin star. This was motive enough to come and eat here, but the real reason was the frequent comparisons between this place and Noma, a super-restaurant in Copenhagen that should need no introduction, but usually gets a lengthy and reverential one. I have wanted to go for a while, but it would basically be a choice between lunch there or a place to live for a month – besides which they don’t let commoners like me book a table. So we went to what is apparently the closest thing to it in London.
           We opted for the restaurant equivalent of the cheap seats – ‘may have a restricted view’, with the 6-7pm pre-theatre menu, an absolute steal for £22, especially as this includes a glass of very decent Australian wine. Many acclaimed places offer a time-limited menu like this in town, but I haven’t been to one that does it better - most of the dishes appear word for word the same on the main menu, just for double the price.

                                                                             As with its Norwegian inspiration, North Road has a sincere dedication to all things local, fresh and wild, with a penchant for unusual ingredients and flavours. The ethos is simplicity and elegance, with as many foraged, raw elements as possible and handsomely presented. On this front it excels on almost every level. We were first given some canap├ęs – something falafel-esque made with dock leaves and dandelion, pickled quails eggs and some damn fine pork scratchings. Fresh bread was perhaps even better, served toasty warm in its own little sack with homemade butter – I was quickly approving of this place.
         Starters brought raw scallop slices decorated with herbs and rye, and a beef tartare with a quail’s yolk hidden amongst sorrel leaves. Minimal cooking, but everything tasting of itself and marrying perfectly, and presented with affection and care. A main course of sea bass and celeriac was arguably the highlight, with a burnt hay sauce lifting the flavour of both fish and vegetable to a different level. A slight misstep in overly firm artichokes was   overcome by a slick puree of the same root and a rich, flavourful mutton loin.

A quince and apple stack with toasted oat ice cream tasted of exactly that, and was pleasant enough. A carrot and sweet cicely desert was a symphony of colour and texture, crisp, refreshing raw carrots giving way to sugary, aniseedy ice cream and a sponge lighter than a Greek pension fund. Everything a dish at this calibre of restaurant should be – fun, memorable and different.
     After a very decent coffee and more service that suggested we were big spending regulars, it felt almost embarrassing to be parting with just 55 quid. Cooking of this quality is, thankfully, quite common in London – just across the street St. John prepares slightly more rustic dishes with the same accuracy and flavour. But cooking this precise, full of imagination and also restraint, and more importantly at this price, is very rare. I will certainly be returning for the front row seat that is the tasting menu (yours for £65), but as long as the pre-theatre is still on I will be coming early and often. Just follow the North Star.

Friday, 4 November 2011

The Session #57: Guilty Pleasures & Beery Confessions

This is my first ‘Session’, and apparently I am required to talk about my guilty pleasures and beer confessions. Am I blogging or in rehab? Anyway, I will give it a go.
I would be happy to name my beer-related guilty pleasures, but they are too many to mention - I am both guilty and pleased most of the time. To be honest, my guiltiest please is beer itself. It is bad for me (in the quantity I drink), it costs a fortune, and it regularly makes me behave rather silly, not to mention leading me astray to beer trips on different continents, frequent nights out and regular hangovers, all of which do not please my other half. So to take a slightly different approach, I will confess some of my beery confessions – opinions that at some point or another (or perhaps still) I have firmly held. It is not pretty.

  • Desperados is awesome. Maybe the best beer ever.
  • I can drink 15 pints of Gadd’s No. 3 without being sick and pissing all over my parent’s hallway.
  • The Hobgoblin ‘lager boy’ slogan is the cleverest thing I have ever heard – I will say it to anyone I see drinking lager.
  • Brewdog only make good beer, and only have cool marketing.
  • Everyone who drinks beer should be a CAMRA member; they are an immutable force of good in the world.
  • Wetherspoon’s is the pinnacle of pub drinking, and they should be sought out wherever you go.
  • Beer is better than wine.
  • American craft beer is too sweet and all tastes of pine.
  • Clear glass bottles are cool.
  • Cask beer and bottled beer is the only way to drink beer.
  • Budweiser is terrible.
  • Budweiser is incredible.
  • Beer and food matching is nonsense.
  • Sour beer is god’s way of punishing us for past sins.
  • Beer never goes off, it just ages.
  • Dogs can’t look up.
I have many more of these, but I think revealing them would open me to ridicule. Thankfully I am now enlightened. I’m going to have a whisky now because it’s basically just beer that’s been aged longer.

This month's Session is hosted by Steve at Beers I've Known.