Pub Grub: The Hand and Trumpet

I was in Stoke for my birthday. People at work asked me why. Friends are more important than things, but for all they knew I could have been really into pottery.

Kate suggested that we go out to eat for my birthday. She didn’t really need to add the “for my birthday” as going out to eat is one of the only activities that we get up to when I go to visit. I would prefer walks in the countryside, but we managed to tack this onto the end so I should quit complaining.

All girls (that are me and my friends) enjoy looking at menus and taking too long to make decisions. The choices were;

  • Hector Garcia (or “Gracias” as Kate always writes), a Mexican (a Mexican, in Stoke? No)
  • An Italian place that we went to for Kate’s 21 (overpriced, underdelivers. No)
  • Miller and Carter, steak (steak in Stoke? No.)
  • The Orange Tree, a “fancy” bar and grill (maybe)
  • The Hand and Trumpet, a nice country pub (ding ding)

The Three Mariners has ruined pub food for me as it has set my expectations too high. I pondered between the Sunday roast and the pie. Again, the place in Plymouth has ruined pies for me due to its excellence, so Sunday roast it was. Rebecca ordered the pie and let me try a little – it didn’t even slightly compare, I made the right choice.

I had ordered a pie at a different pub in Stoke near Keele in October and was immediately dismayed at the disparity in quality between this and Plymouth. Take note: stop ordering pies.

Daisy ordered a seafood linguine which was very small. Seafood isn’t something I would order in Stoke, especially after reading Kitchen Confidential that morning. Kitchen Confidential showed me that I will believe many things that I read even though they are nigh on 16 years old.

The roast was perfectly nice, with the biggest Yorkshire pudding that has ever graced my plate without actually being the plate. The meat was medium rare, a sign of good meat. Daisy and Rebecca spoke about how they like their meat and steak well done, which I berated them for. I now have four opinions: two on the Kardashians, one on voting, and one of the evils of well done steak.

Daisy and I shared a sticky toffee pudding. Good sauce. It was overpriced, but in Stoke the good restaurants can get away with charging more as the choices are limited.

We sat by the open fire and the open door across the room which we had to keep closing. Eventually someone came to fix it. Total dining time: 3 hours. Quarter of a century old.

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A Vague Journey Through Burgers: Le Bun [Vivant]

Last Thursday, Le Bun returned for its second hotel residency following its successful stint at The Zetter at the end of last year. This time it comes to Leicester House – right at the heart of every Londoner’s favourite tourist zone of Leicester Square and Chinatown – living life Le Bun Vivant. Trudging through the crowds may not seem appealing, but my goodness is it worth it.

I visited Le Bun several times during its Zetter residency and was bursting with anticipation when I saw that it was returning, complete with a new menu which had been developed during a cross-American road trip at the beginning of the year. The 50% off food offer further added to this excitement, and frankly shame on Londoners for not forming a queue around the block (but also thank you Londoners for making it so that I didn’t have to queue around the block).

Once inside, Leicester House feels to be a perfect venue for Le Bun. It doesn’t quite fit as much of their Americana paraphernalia as The Zetter, but there are still a few odd board games and other knick knacks to punctuate the neon-bathed room as you watch tourists and angry Chinese shoppers bypass the window, all to a mesmerizingly well-curated soundtrack (I identified Wavves and Animal Collective, and was all too proud of myself for doing so).

“This feels so LA” my friend kept saying. I agreed. Neither of us has ever been to LA, but this should definitely be taken as a positive acclamation. He was slightly drunk.

We had the Super Skinny Bitch – vodka, soda, ginger, lime and mint – which we were told is zero calories but vodka has calories so this seems a dubious claim. It had a kick to it, and each sip came with different waves of flavour profiles. I like to be taken on a journey with my drinks, and this certainly does that, albeit not as much as their Cheeseburger Bloody Mary, a spicy throat-fuck of a drink which most definitely does not have zero calories.

Cheeseburger Bloody Marie, Courtesy of Le Bun

Cheeseburger Bloody Marie, Courtesy of Le Bun

Onto the food. Firstly, and most importantly, Le Bun does the best burgers in London (that I have come across, I suppose I should add, but I have tried many). Le Duck Frites Bun is the standout for me, with the richness of the meat coupled with the sharp slaw and crunch of the frites creating a phenomenal flavour and texture profile, though Le Bourguignon Bun and Le Truffle Double Double also blow most other London burgers clear out of the water. So indulgent is the food that it leads to my main complaint about the restaurant: a startling number of diners eat their burgers with a knife and fork; savage food should be eaten savagely.

The Pigeon & Foie Gras Sliders, apparently the favourite of the friend and family tasting the day before, fit well within their existing oeuvre: a deep, decadent, messy bun that will surely make the animal rights people flinch. Plus a side of buttery, smooth pomme puree.

Pigeon & Foie Gras Sliders with a side of Pomme Puree, Courtesy of Le Bun

Pigeon & Foie Gras Sliders with a side of Pomme Puree, Courtesy of Le Bun

Any seafood lover (or actually anyone that doesn’t actively dislike seafood) should try the Shrimp & Scallop Po Bun. The scallops are damn near the best that I have ever tasted, and the bisque and the samphire which coat both Po and Frites seem to contain the very essence of the sea. This is one of their fresher (as opposed to ‘richer’) dishes, and I would say a welcome addition to the menu.

Shrimp & Scallop Po Bun, Courtesy of Le Bun

Shrimp & Scallop Po Bun, Courtesy of Le Bun

But the star of the new menu is undoubtedly the Hot Chicken. I’m generally reluctant to order chicken as it often comes too dry or too bland, but this has made me see it in a whole new light. The meat was tender and succulent, and the fried skin was crisp without being greasy, somehow melding with the brioche to almost seem part of it. And the sauce. The hot, smoky, Nashville Hot Butter sauce.  Simply astonishing. Like nothing else I have ever tasted. I ordered additional sauce on the side and would recommend that everyone (that can handle order as much of the sauce as possible. It is almost a shame that this dish was so good as, within two bites, it made the other perfectly tasty menu items all but forgotten. (I am now even more reluctant to order chicken as once you have seen heaven, the fall to earth is all the more crushing).

Hot Chicken, Courtesy of Le Bun

Hot Chicken, Courtesy of Le Bun

For dessert we had the (apparently) only tarte tatin that they sold that night. Again, London, get it together. It was a great tarte tatin, again showcasing that Le Bun is a restaurant that really understands the importance of both flavour and texture: crisp, rich and sweet. A waiter told us that the owner/head chef just spends his days at home trying out new recipes, which sounds like an ideal way to live and, as dinner proved, is a completely valid way for him to be living his life.

We loitered until close and were given free wine as they had “opened some bottles which need to be finished”. Indulgent, all of it is just so wonderfully indulgent.

Catch it while you can. Le Bun Vivant is at Leicester House until 22nd May.

Le Bun Vivant, Leicester House, 1 Leicester Street, WC2H 7BL

Pub Grub: Anchor & Hope

Oh the dismays of overcooked pigeon!

Paul was keen to visit here, and as was I having seen that it had a Bib Gourmand.

Paul went with work and raved about it, particularly the dessert tart.

I had my fastest cycle back from work and arrived looking wind ravaged, not ravishing.

We put our names down after seeing someone else saunter in and put their names down. Another pair had been waiting for half an hour before realising that they had to put their names down. “We should all endeavour to be bolder in future.” A drunk woman giddily told the host that she had been waiting for hours and was really excited about her meal.

Seating was quick. The internet lies about the busy-ness of the restaurant, or Mondays aren’t the busiest day. The Japanese lager was £5.50.

I decided between the pigeon and the fish. Kitchen Confidential said to not order fish on a Monday and I decided to believe that book, even though Bourdain has since rescinded this remark (a fact that I found out later). Paul and I both ordered the pigeon, which was tough. The sides were unremarkable.

The tart would make up for it, he told me. The tart was fine. He agreed that it had all been better the week before, but then again the whole menu had been different. I’m in two minds about whether I should be impressed or appalled about the vast daily menu changes.

The view onto The Cut is nice at least. Thus continued my week of dud meals out.

A Hunch for Brunch: Knife and Tine

I was tired and not hungry and ready to cancel brunch, but Norah insisted on going. We had a minor gripe about her not giving me enough time to get ready, but an hour and a half was an exaggeration and not necessary at all.

It was a trek to Knife and Tine. This neighbourhood is not ideal to get to from Andersonville.

Michael had already been there for half an hour by the time we arrived and had a pleasant buzz on. The barman (who was also the manager) recommended the breakfast burrito to him as it was “the size of a football”.

I ordered the breakfast burrito. It was the size of a small football. They still congratulated me on finishing it. Delicious meals deserve better than being relegated to leftovers.

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Home fries are seemingly a big part of US brunches. Ketchup and sriracha were the sauces of choice. I am very into sriracha. Hans had a thai sweet chili sauce and had half the bottle with one meal. He checked the sugar levels – 53g per 100g – and threw the rest of the bottle away.

We were seated at the front “conservatory” side of the restaurant. It was light and airy, compared to the back/bar area which was darker and I expect better in the evening. “A country atmosphere with big city cooking” was what we decided to call it when we were pitching Yelp reviews to each other. We were seated at the “attractive people seat”, right by the window. My mother always asks where I am seated in restaurants and this is her preferred seat.

There was one main waitress, but we were also spoken to by three other staff members. All of them were genuinely (and mildly unnervingly, as I was to mention on paying) pleasant and friendly.

On bringing our meals I told the waitress that this was my first real American brunch (‘ave it, Athan’s) and had high expectations from Norah’s glowing reviews.

Norah and I shared some American pancakes ($5). She wanted to order a fancier version, but I (rightly) advised that we would probably have too much food.

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Never before have I been convinced by American pancakes. Knife and Tine do it right. Sweet, light and fluffy. Sugar doo doo doo doo doo doo.

The coffee was good. I may increasingly be becoming a coffee snob but I have a real soft spot for filter coffee.

“As it’s your first time having an American brunch, and you have been here a few times, here are some beignets.”

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Genuinely pleasant people. Genuinely glorious beignets, though my first and only foray into beignets – Norah, the seasons beignet eater, said they were the best she ever had. A light, crisp donut. Norah has been given freebies every time she has been to Knife and Tine, and pointed out that while the ingredients needed to whip this together would be  minimal, the thought speaks volumes. Brunch is very much the overpriced meal.

The freebies kept coming. Norah and Michael had a coffee cocktail. The waitress informed us that it was new on the menu and the manager was keen to know what they thought. The manager came over, asked what they thought, then said that it would go well with a whiskey cream which he proceeded to bring over on the house.

Food was reasonably priced, drinks were quite expensive. But Swish Saturday should be Swish AF.

I told Norah that this was my favourite meal in my Chi-Bos trip. All things considered (meal, ambiance, vibe, company, service) it certainly was. When expectations are low, something beautiful often comes out of it. Al’s, another reluctant visit, was the best food though.

We went to watch Norah dance, shop in Target, and visit the “Amer-I-Can” Macy’s and flower show.

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Search for the Perfect Pizza: Lou Malnati’s

My pizza journey finally took me Stateside. Some might say that I really went to visit a  friend that I hadn’t seen in two years, but those people have clearly never heard of killing two birds with one stone, and other idioms.

Straight in with the deep dish. Hans wanted me to send a picture of deep dish within 24 hours of landing, and what better way to start a trip and try and beat jetlag than with carbs on fat on sauce.

Norah and Jay, her roommate, recommended either Giordano’s, which was closer, or Lou Malnati’s, which was better. A twenty minute bus ride for better pizza was worth it, so the decision was quickly made.

We called to try and make a reservation, but apparently they don’t take reservations because restaurants don’t do that now apparently in the anarchy that is the mid-2010s. We could apparently order ahead, but I always like to look around a restaurant to see what others are having and to feel the menu in my hand. Simple pleasures. Norah asked the woman on the phone if the restaurant was busy. The callee then went “to check” which, upon entering the restaurant later, seemed wholly unnecessary as it clearly was neither busy nor big enough to warrant leaving the phone for 20 seconds to check. The callee tried to upsell the pre-order more but we declined and got the bus.

The rain poured and the bus came. The bus driver wasn’t particularly happy, which is quite in contrast to pretty much every other American that I came across.

We went to the Lincoln Square Lou Malnati’s, a fact that I didn’t know until I googled it just now so that I could get this exterior image:

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Image courtesy of https://www.dnainfo.com

The interior was mildly shopping mall-y but spacious. We were quickly seated even though our whole party wasn’t there, which is something that I wouldn’t consider as being odd but apparently everything is bigger and rules are stricter in America.

Water was brought to the table within moments of being seated. If America taught me nothing else, it’s that the UK really don’t care about its citizen’s hydration nearly enough. I suppose I also learned that waiting is a way of life in America, and that tipping is mandatory.

A glance at the menu and for once I made a quick decision. When in a pinch, go with the special. In this case, it is the Malnati’s Chicago Classic: made with lean sausage, extra cheese, vine ripened tomatoes and served on a butter crust. I’ve just seen that they have a low carb/gluten free option. If you are on a low carb or gluten free diet, you have no business being in a deep dish establishment. The butter crust is a must. I once saw a gluten-free vegan pizza which I suppose is sadness in food form.

PRO TIP: deep dish pizzas take between 45 and 60 minutes to come out after ordering.

Norah gets hangry, a fact that I had previously heard from her ex-boyfriend and was experiencing personally for the first time here. She couldn’t concentrate on the conversation, or really anything.

“Should we get apps?”

Apps mean appetisers in America. I hope that this was asked in an ironic fashion. Or maybe not. You do you.

As with most pizza places, the appetisers are mostly different configurations of the pizzas. Carbs and sauce. And some wings. I could have gone with wings, but Norah suggested the garlic bread as it was cheap ($4.25).

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Image from Flickr/Ken Greene

It was a good call. You get a lot of carbs for your buck, and it also gives you the first taste of that masterful tomato sauce.

“If this sauce is what they use on their pizzas, I am super looking forward to this.”

“Girl, you better believe it.”

The hanger dissipated and the three of us could again converse as a triangle, though Jay and I were doing a good job of getting to know each other. It’s nice when people talk to you post-flight and without a stitch of make-up.

Our triangle quickly squared up with the arrival of Metal Man Bun, her friend who I would say I least liked though he was still on the whole quite agreeable (Norah would later say that he didn’t make enough effort to ask about me, but he had other friends there and on the whole people like to talk about themselves and their lives, which is fine).

Our water was refilled and  Brett arrived, thus completing the pentagon. There managed to be enough bread for the five of us, but the rule was to make room for the main course.

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Courtesy of Lou Malnati’s

This is the first pizza place that I’ve ever been to where the server has to cut you a slice. He gave me the smallest slice of everyone, obviously fooled by my small frame.

We ordered the large, which apparently serves four. The five of us couldn’t finish it. That is to say, if there were five of me, we would have needed to order three, but the three guys had one slice apiece, Norah had one and a half slices, and I had three slices (after this trip, I would genuinely recommend eating heartily and exercising to acclimitise quickly).

There is nothing quite like deep dish pizza. The richness of the flavours, the size of each slice, the fact that you could kill someone with that pan. This was the first time that I had ever experienced real deep dish, and happiness flooded over me. I was to later have Giordano’s, but I’d say that I was glad to start with a Malnati’s. The crust had a better consistency and taste, and I would say that they were more generous with their fillings (although the pizzas are configured slightly differently so it’s not quite a like-for-like comparison).

The Chicago classic is a solid choice. Metal Man Bun and Brett only reluctantly agreed to the order because I was a visitor and “should try the special”, but both they and Norah said that they would usually go for the plain cheese. I’m always pro-meat, and this was one tasty sausage. And cheese. And sauce. My goodness: yes.

Most people can only manage one slice on their first try I was told. As I said before, I had three, and could have easily finished the final slice were I not concerned about looking overly greedy as my first impression. Plus having to ask for a new slice each time while everyone else sat there seemed like an imposition on the wait staff and my fellow diners.

The first slice is a sloppy knife and fork job, the subsequent two became easier to eat hands-only.

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An unimpressive photo on my part. Taste and looks don’t have to align. And the size isn’t properly conveyed.

Metal man bun stopped at one slice because he couldn’t resist the tiramisu. I have often been let down by tiramisu and now tend to only order it at whatever I deem worthy as a ‘truly authentic Italian restaurant’. Norah is a ‘dessert goddess’ (by the admission of her Twitter handle) so insisted that we got a dessert. Everyone was getting a dessert, I love dessert, so who was I to argue?

Aside from tiramisu, the options were tre dolci (three desserts) or chocolate chip pizza (a chocolate chip cookie prepared in a deep dish pan served with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream).

The cookie was for two or three to share, so Norah and I, and Jay and Brett shared two cookies. Norah and I finished ours easily, but the guy clearly didn’t have our sweet tooth. How they resisted finishing I will never know. Though a rudimentary dessert (compared to, say, croquembouche) it was damn near one of the best desserts I’ve had. Maybe it was the tiredness, maybe I just have no class, but it was wonderful. Texture, taste and temperature ticked all the taste tundras (or other word that makes sense). I have previously had a Nutella calzone which, while not quite as good as this, still far exceeded my expectations. Pizza desserts are the way to go. Take note pizza restaurant owners.

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Chocolate chip pizza, courtesy of https://www.menuism.com

As it was my first night, the group generously split the cheque four ways, and even though there were appetisers, a main, dessert and drinks ordered, it still came to just over $20 per person including tax and tip.

While they were getting the bill I learned that to split it and only pay what you ordered is quite the rigmarole Stateside and you should declare your intention to do so early on. As Norah and I didn’t order drinks, it pretty much ended up about right for everyone in the end anyway. Jay lost out the most.

Bus home and early night before a 7am flight to Boston. From waking up at 4am GMT on Tuesday and waking up at 4am CST the following day to then have a full day in Boston, I was surely grateful for my Lou Malnati’s binge.

 

Azzurro

The end of the road with Sommelier. Plans kept going awry when we tried to meet, and with my second flat tyre of the week repaired I was becoming increasingly frustrated at having to cycle around the river to try and finalise a meeting place. I said I was going home. Sommelier said we should grab food at Azzurro.

It is located in an arch between Waterloo Station and the Hungerford Bridges, along a particularly touristy strip that I wouldn’t normally visit. It was moderately full, comfortably so for a diner like myself. The railway arch is the best thing about the decor, and that is more of an architectural detail than the decor.

Sommelier and I were both tired, but the wine perked us up. He complained that they had non-Italian wines on a menu. Italian restaurants should show confidence in themselves by only featuring Italian wines. I am inclined to somewhat agree.

He had a bruschetta to start, I had arancini. The arancini was a lacklustre tribute to genuine arancini, stodgy and bland. Bruschetta was bruschetta.

For mains, he ordered the seafood risotto with linguine instead of rice, and I had a meat parpadelle. He said that I ordered better than him, as I always do. Both mains were fine. I am still yet to find a really good Italian in London (Fabrizio closed, and I should have ordered pasta there).

I had a dessert that was recommended by a waitress who was clearly just pulling a dessert out of thin air, Sommelier had dessert too. Both were mediocre, hold the plus. Lent was not going well. We stayed beyond closing much to the waitresses annoyance, though we weren’t the final customers to leave. Waiting for the last customers to leave was one of my biggest gripes when I worked in service, but here I am being a hypocrite. We tipped them well.

Azzurro is apparently a chain. Of course it is, in this strip of land. But a “London chain”, so more acceptable than Prezzo or, heaven forbid, Ask.

Goodbye forever like the messes of people that we are.