Review: Get Baked Presents The Joint

IMG_80841
 
I laughed when my friend suggested it as a brunch destination – not because it was a funny joke, but because I knew he was 80% serious.  “Dude imagine if it turns out to be ace: you’ll be that guy who surprises everybody and gives it a good review despite what everybody else says”
 
He had a point, I do like being “that guy”, and there’s been an eerie silence surrounding The Joint since it opened.  The only press I’ve seen it receive has been from “Everybody’s a winner just for taking part!” publications who would write a positive review of the influenza virus if it meant the subsequent social media shares bolstered the price they charge advertisers.  With Get Baked/The Joint boasting an impressive sixty thousand Facebook sycophants, a couple of shares of a glowing review could bring enough extra traffic to take down a site completely.
 
Spoiler alert!  You’re reading this on a screen rather than from a crumpled piece of paper in a dystopian future where CousCousBangBang.com lies in tatters; ransacked by the sudden rush of traffic from Get Baked’s Facebook page.  Obviously this isn’t the glowing review you’re looking for – but it’s not all bad.

Read more

Review: Ecco Pizza

 
 

Trying to review pizza seems like a pretty futile exercise; like Woody Allen says, “Pizza is a lot like sex – when it’s good it’s really good, when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good” (he stops short of mentioning the merits of “eating pizza” with your own step-daughter) and a lot of places seem happy to operate using that as their unspoken mantra.  

The fact that it’s pretty much delicious-by-design makes it harder to tell the difference between the pretty good and the really good – asking somebody whether they prefer one geometric lump of hot dough, cheese and sauce to another is like asking a Labrador to explain which of his ears he’d rather you scratched behind.
 

Read more

Review: My Thai, Leeds

IMG_74501

Rather than stifling my feelings towards My Thai until making a grand reveal, I’m going to say right off the bat that I love it.  Claiming “OMG I could eat there every day and not get bored” could probably be dismissed as hyperbole, but after my first visit I actually did just that.  Fair enough it was technically only every day for three days, but that’s enough to make it a statement rather than a coincidence.

 
 
Popping up at the end of last year with little fanfare, My Thai’s marketing strategy relied on little more than word of mouth, good faith carried over from the reputation of its’ Bradford restaurant, and photographs of its folksy interior popping up on Instagram – which they did in abundance.  
 
They could have flipped the Thai-restaurant-decor coin and gone for a) Post Office ambience and laminated menus or b) “Exotic Palace” room in a themed hotel and been done with it, but instead they went for a unique look which dictates the atmosphere well.  Wooden panelling covers the walls, decorated with campy, vintage Thai cinema posters and strewn with fairy lights – on a hunch I reckon this is what a Full Moon Party beach-hut looks like, but I can’t say for sure – My attention span lasts no longer than 3 seconds whenever anybody begins sharing their “litchrally unreal” travel anecdotes.
 
The kitchen is tiny, and the menu reflects the restraints on space a handful each of starters, stir fry dishes, curries and rice bowls are available, as well a couple of specials – everything is billed as “Thai Street Food” and the flavours haven’t been sacrificed to appeal to farang tastes – on my first visit I liberally made it rain chilli powder on my prawn crackers, only to leave them at the end when I realised the heat was unbearable. The owner berated me for wasting the seasoning when she came to clear the table, and rightfully so – she told me afterwards that she grinds it herself by hand, and detailed the suffering that her eyes and sinuses endure in her doing so.
 
Lesson learned, don’t ruin any more dishes for myself.  There’s enough going on in My Thai’s food without having to supplement it with daft heat (incidentally if anybody wants to start a disco revival band, I think I’ve just come up with the perfect name) – familiar flavours pummel away at the tastebuds on the back of your tongue while the unexpected ones add sense of interest; implausibly light steamed dumplings give way to a salty chunk of spam in place of minced pork, star anise adds an anaesthetic quality to fragrant green curry but, unusually, doesn’t overpower the 5-spice roast pork which comes with perfectly sticky rice.
 
Satay skewers come complete with skin so crisp, caramelised and tense that you could be eating the wings of a bird engineered just for your eating convenience – The satisfying bite in the Tod Man Pla is enough to raise suspicion that there might actually be fish in them.  Tamarind Duck is a little greasy but manages to salvage some variety of texture with a good crunch of palm sugar, all while managing to not be cloyingly sweet.  The only downer I’ve encountered is Sweet & Sour, where the only thing setting it aside from your local takeaway’s version is an astringent taste of white vinegar – the Crispy Chilli Chicken is a much better version of the dish.
 
After she was done berating me for not being able to handle the chili powder that she routinely rubs into her tear ducts without flinching, the owner joked (I think) that she doesn’t care about cooking and just wants to make money – at less than £10 for two courses and a drink I’m not quite sure how she’s planning to do that, but I’ll happily do my bit to help.

Trinity Kitchen – 10 Highlights from the First Year

bc2f93fc-194f-45fc-9a76-ef2c0a8e48651

It’s a common pop-cultural phenomenon for near-identical movies to come out at around the same time – I don’t just mean copycats which wear their plagiarism on their sleeve, but actual massive coincidences like Deep Impact and Armageddon, The Prestige and The Illusionist, Mean Girls and NOTHING, because Mean Girls is one of a damn kind.  But what about Sharks Tale and Antz coming out so close to Finding Nemo and Bugs Life?

It’s not just films – the current UK Top 40 contains no less than 39 songs that are about bums; or have videos with a tracking shot of somebody’s bum for 4 minutes; or come on a bum-shaped picture-disc which looks like the artists’ bum, and has an anus in the middle where you put the spindle.  Admittedly those 39 songs are more tasteful than the other charting record though, which has the misfortune of carrying Ed Sheeran’s face on the cover.

In October 2013 this phenomenon spread to food, and it was a good month for Leeds city centre.   Before you had chance to wipe the Dough Boys sauce off your face at the newly-opened Belgrave, Trinity Kitchen was opening just down the road – a new kind of food court which snubbed the typical “Fast Food-Fast Food-Harry Ramsdens-Spud U Like-Fast Food” roulette, ingrained in the DNA of shopping centres across the country.

Headed by Richard Johnson from British Street Food, TK hosts a changing line-up of street food vendors from around the country, lifting their Ambulances and Citroes vans in through the ceiling with a great big crane, and putting a roof over their head for a month at a time.  There are a few permanent residents as well, including Chicago Rib Shack, Burrito, Chip & Fish which give a bit of consistency to the place, and provide more familiar food to bring in big groups of people and make sure nobody goes hungry, regardless of how fussy an eater they are.
It isn’t completely without fault – there’s often a lot of overlap with several similar vendors on the same or consecutive months; line-ups can sometimes seem regimented and formulaic, I’ve worked out it’s usually 1 Meat, 1 Pan-Asian, 2 Spicy and a token Dessert; and I’m yet to meet the person who wants to be interrupted by a loud DJ set when they’re eating dinner, but the good far outweighs the bad.  Vendors are queuing up months in advance to reserve a pitch, the quietest I’ve ever seen it is “Contently buzzing”, and it’s given local businesses a lot of valuable exposure while bringing in new things that a local audience wouldn’t have discovered on their own – it’s a credit to the City, and Leeds is lucky we didn’t have to settle for a Subway and a sit-down Greggs.
Here are my highlights from the first 12 months, in no particular order:

1. Pho

Confession: For the first 3ish months of Trinity Kitchen, I didn’t bother any of the vans with my custom, and that’s because Pho was (and is) so good.  The freshest Vietnamese dishes of noodles, soups and salads served quicker than you’d imagine possible for around £20 for 2 people, including sides like fried squid and summer rolls.

Cafe Moor has been toiling away in Leeds for years, serving authentic and cheap Middle Eastern and North African food without any gimmicks or pretence from its 10am-5pm plot in Kirkgate Market.  It was wildly popular among a new audience in Trinity Kitchen and benefitted hugely form the exposure – they’re now in plans to expand on their market stall and open a restaurant in the City Centre.

3. Original Fry Up Material

So universally well received that they’ve found a second-home in Leeds, seemingly popping up at every other event, so keep an eye out for them.  Some nice dudes with a funny name, serving consistently good food – including the best version of a Blue Cheese burger I’ve eaten – and many would say the best burger there’s ever been at Trinity Kitchen, which might upset…

4. Meatwagon

One of the best things about Trinity Kitchen is discovering new businesses that you wouldn’t have usually crossed paths with.  Meatwagon’s arrival was a whole other game, everybody’s heard of them and the rumours that TK had got such a huge name created a lot of hype and genuine excitement.  As PR goes they didn’t get off to the best of starts (see the review), but it was handled well, and the visit turned out to be a successful preview of the new, very welcome MEATliquor restaurant just downstairs.

5. Dorshi

Meatwagon was good, but it wasn’t the main event in March, that title belongs to Dorshi – probably the best thing there’s ever been at Trinity.  They might be all-conquering award winners now, but I was gushing over their West Country, Southside UK take on Sushi before they were cool.  A certain fondness will always be reserved for them, for introducing me to Kewpie mayo.

6. Pembermans

If Ice Cube was at Trinity Kitchen on the first day that May’s traders opened up, he’d say “Fuck the Goodyear blimp, this is a good day”.  Pembermans might have looked like any other pulled-meat van, but their breakfast and lunch Bento boxes were something special.  There’s no round-up, or even any pictures from May because I was just too busy eating for the whole month.

7. Cheese Truck

This is what it’s all about.  Looking at all the previous Kitchen lineups I don’t think anybody would have anticipated something as original as a gourmet cheese toastie van, but anybody who heard about it, saw it, or ate anything from there lost their minds.  I’d love to see more risky choices like this in the future.

8. MeiMei’s Street Cart

The final pick from TK’s finest month, MeiMei’s brought Chinese street food like you’ve only heard about in blogs from places like London.  Comfort-dishes like sticky ribs and wings (the sauce from which relegated several top-tier t-shirts to the “stained loungewear” drawer), and their amazing signature Jian Bing; a savoury crepe filled with umami sauces, fresh salad, Pork, Duck and crispy wonton.

9. Rolawala

Another heartwarming success story:  Turning up in April and selling naan wraps filled with flame-grilled meat or vegetarian curries, Rolawala became one of the most popular visitors ever.  Fast forward to this week, and they’re preparing to open a permanent spot where Notes Cafe used to be.

10. Madeleine Express

Considering the insistence on having a token cake van every month, I had to include one sweet highlight.  Madeleine Express is far from a token choice though; also known as Noisette Bakehouse, Leeds’ local Sarah consistently comes up with incredible recipes combining non-conventional flavours and classic formats, as well as the very best versions of traditional favourites like Salted Caramel Brownies and (naturally) Cinnamon Madeleines.  All without a glob of buttercream icing or a twee sprinkle of edible-glitter in sight.

Leeds Indie Food unveils bid for a crowdfunded food festival

photo-main1

Leeds is hardly lacking food festivals, every weekend we’re presented with the opportunity to attend a particular venue’s “Food” “Street” “Feast” “Market” and “Festival” (circle as applicable) to the point where unique combinations of the words are running desperately low.

A new collective of Leeds restauranteurs, food bloggers and general pie-fingerers are setting themselves apart by throwing in a new adjective – Independent.



Leeds Indie Food will champion the city’s crafty, artisanal underbelly which people like you (cool, handsome influencers who click lots of adverts and share my posts on social media) knew about before it was cool, but gets underrepresented at corporate-sponsored festivals like Leeds Loves Food, because Bulmers have a new limited edition flavour to market and they can afford to pay more for a pitch.

Events will take place over the course of two weeks next Spring, with tasting menus, brewery takeovers, film screenings and workshops as well as the obligatory street food event(s).  They’ll be individually ticketed, but if you’re really eager or you just love itchy fabric brushing against your delicate arms then wristbands will be available to grant access for the whole fortnight.  All money from these tickets will be distributed back to the independent traders and venues, making sure it’s not only open to businesses that can afford to sacrifice an evening’s takings to take part in the event.

Among some of the 20 names currently involved are Fish&, Bundobust, Laynes Espresso, Belgrave and its impeccable food lineup, Trestle, and The Greedy Pig.  They’re looking for £6,750 as start-up capital to cover costs of advertising, design, videography and the launch parties – judging by the pedigree of businesses involved and fact they’ve raised over £1,000 in less than a day, it seems safe to assume they’re going to smash it.  If you want to get in on the ground-floor you can donate to their Kickstarter HERE.

As well as the usual stuff like “gratitude” (you can keep it, hippy) and an invitations to the launch party, rewards for pledging include totes, tea towels and prints designed by Passport and Hungry Sandwich club (who have done the current stylish-as-all-hell branding), and a personal pop-up dining experience from Trestle if you’re a true baller.

Review: Casa Colombiana

Until fairly recently The Grand Arcade wasn’t much more than empty lots and curiosities; a shortcut between Vicar Lane and North Street if it was a bit drizzly; a place where you could smoke cigarettes indoors, having spent about £12 at Santiago’s Whiskey Wednesdays and feeling like the fourth Beastie Boy, circa 1988.  It had its attractions; beloved vegan restaurant Roots and Fruits, a vintage clothes shop that sold actual vintage clothes – rather than dirty Kappa sweatshirts and ill-fitting Wrangler jeans – but it was for the most part a very big, very beautiful, very under-utilised area of town.

Last year it received a bit of a spruce-up and a good portion of empty space began to fulfil its potential as Handpicked Hall – an indoor market where local independents traded on a monthly rotation.  Among the usual shabby chic wall-hangings reminding you to “Live, Laugh, Love” and soap that looks like macaroons there was some great food, and while Handpicked Hall ultimately came to an end, its legacy continues through the food which a lot of people first encountered there – Indie Ices, That Old Chestnut vegan bakery, and Casa Colombiana.
Just across the arcade from Handpicked Hall’s hollow remains, Colombiana has expanded from a humble coffee cart to a restaurant which they’ve decked out to look like the “South America” leg of Disney’s Small World After All ride.  The collage of terracotta paint, burlap coffee sacks and Papyrus typeface is a step up from cantina-style decor, but still casual enough that people at other tables are comfortable sharing notes on their meal if they notice you staring at their plates (Speaking from experience, there).  This atmosphere’s a product of not just the decor, but the owner who works the room like a restauranteur in a Scorcese film, indulging each table in enthusiastic, charming conversation.  The trade-off for getting this level of attention is that service isn’t lightning-fast – it took about fifteen minutes from getting in the door to having a (reassuringly strong) mojito in my hand, but the wait never feels like a chore.

For starters we had chorizo – plump little oval sausages, like bullies’ fingers in a Roald Dahl story – which are made in-house.  They’re warmly spiced, with a texture more similar black pudding than the overgrown pepperami version from supermarkets, present in around 90% of my home-cooking.  The plantain fritters would have worked for me as a dessert; thick ribbons of the stuff wrapped around chunks of Queso Fresco, skewered, and deep-fried; salty-sweet little mouthfuls tasting equally of halloumi, sweet potato and slightly underripe mango.

The Albondigas were great – well seasoned balls of coarse-ground beef, roughly the size of an angry toddler’s clenched fist, covered (not swimming) in a thick, picante tomato sauce.  They’re served with white rice and potato wedges – just in case starch is going out of fashion – but neither of them add anything to the dish, the rice just sits there, being rice, and the big daft potato wedges would benefit from a couple more minutes in the deep frier, to avoid comparison with oven chips.

That’s not to say they can’t get carbs right.  I ate the Llapingacho special – the eponymous focus of the dish was potato cakes, stuffed with cheese that was just the right side of stringy without turning into cartoon bubblegum.  The meal as a whole resembled a Food Pyramid poster hung upside down; flank steak cooked enough to make it tender, one of those fat little chorizos (I was thrilled to have one all to myself), fried egg, avocado, a moreish Aji salsa and a token salad – a hearty combination which captures Casa Colombiana’s ethos perfectly – casual, home-style comfort cooking done really well.

Two starters, two mains, a cocktails, Desperados and service came to around £50.  I wish I’d had longer so I could try the Ceviche and Arroz con Pollo, but I humbly admitted defeat – those strong mojitos put us in the mood to go a few doors down to Santiagos, and the food had given us plenty of reason to come back again.