Review: Get Baked Presents The Joint

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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.

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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.
 

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Review: My Thai, Leeds

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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.

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.

Review: Almost Famous, Leeds

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I like to think I’ve got my finger on the pulse when it comes to Leeds, so imagine my surprise earlier this week when Almost Famous opened up in the plot which previously housed Escobar – not only was I unaware that Almost Famous was coming over from Manchester; I also had no idea Escobar had closed.
 

If you’re unfamiliar with the place, Escobar wasn’t awful – you could get a pint of Heineken and a Tuaca for exactly five pounds – but thanks to its 7am license its default role was a last-chance saloon for staff from other bars and post-club stragglers, as well as being Disneyland for opportunistic middle-aged guys trying their luck for a one early-morning stand.  In hindsight, it was quite a sad place.

With all of its gorilla statues and pick & mix sweets on tables and walls covered in affable, jovial slogans straight off of Innocent Smoothie: the teenage years labels, Almost Famous yearns to be seen as anything but sad;  it’s totally cool!  Not like those boffin restaurants with their booking policies and table service and menus that contain punctuation!  The name above the door might have changed, but the sense of desperation still lingers.  From the American Psycho monologue repeated on the walls of the Men’s bathroom to the sub-Banksy “political satire” on the walls which would have been frowned upon by Nathan Barley (Cigarette packet warnings with cleverly subverted slogans like “Government Kills”, “Poverty can seriously damage your wealth”) – just looking around the place made me cringe so hard I almost shit out a diamond. Read more

Belgrave Street Feast 4 Round-Up

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If both of the people who read my blog were paying special attention last month, they would have noticed that I neglected to review Belgrave’s March Street Feast.  This wasn’t because I forgot about it, or due to a lack of dedication to the cause – rather I had become a victim of its success.

When I got there at 4pm, it was the busiest I’ve ever seen the venue; a 20-foot blockade of people queueing up for the last morsels from Papa Ganoush gave the game away as soon as I arrived, so after penetrating their forcefield and realising that all of the visitors had sold out of everything, I got a few tinnies from the bar; a burger from Patty Smiths (which in the month since first trying them had come on leaps and bounds, and is now probably the best burger you can get in town), and watched Matilda with some kids.
As enjoyable as it was, I can’t run a moderately successful food blog by drinking lager and trying to contact OFSTED to perform an emergency inspection on Miss Trunchbull, so this time I made sure I’d have something to write about.
Initial research had suggested that Arepa!Arepa!Arepa! were my priority – Jules and Bailey run one of my favourite food blogs Good Gobble as well as this Arepa stall, and I respect that they get their hands dirty and create something as well – it adds a kind of legitimacy and credibility to their criticism that you just don’t get at other blogs such as this one.
I went for a Sobrebarriga (£4), which is a Steak and Beer Arepa, which is actually what I chickened out and asked for.  And I’m pretty sure I even pronounced that wrong.  I was given a big handful of beery, spicy, tender, stringy beef and vegetables inside a fresh grilled maize Arepa – essentially a portable stew inside a dumpling – and it was awesome.  
I stood around for a few minutes waiting for a friend before I started eating it, and by the time I’d finished extracting all the beef with my fork (I wasn’t going to risk gravy-beard by eating it with my hands and face) the arepa underneath was saturated with beery gravy, so I was able to relive the former glory again.  The parts of the dough which hadn’t been imbued with juice were surprisingly light and had a satisfying crust where it had just been fried.
Also from A!A!A! was the Plantano Y Queso (£3) which was a dish of fried plantain with cheese, and a choice of Guava jam or a savoury option – which escapes my memory at the minute – on top.  I went for the Guava jam, which was almost unbearably sweet, but balanced against the sharpness of the cheddar worked perfectly.  I have to commend the choice of cheddar – it would have been easy to try and truss the dish up with some kind of posh cheese, but keeping it simple really benefits the dish.  I remember by Mum telling me that my uncle used to eat cheese and jam sandwiches when he was a kid and I would grimace – in the days before chicken and waffles and donut burgers, I thought this mixture of sweet and savoury was an abomination – but having eaten pretty much that, slathered on plantain, I now see that I was a narrow-minded idiot, and he was somewhat of a visionary.  So well done Uncle Clive.
Top marks to Arepa!Arepa!Arepa! as well, can’t wait to try them again.
Regulars Fish& were upstairs in the snug with their ever-adapting menu this time offering Beach Burgers (£5) – pan-seared cod, caper and parsley patties, then cooked in a spicy tomato sauce.  This had a lot of flavour for something with such a simple list of ingredients.  I usually find cod kind of bland, but in this case it complimented the rest of the flavours, as well as contributing its own distinct – almost smoked – fishy hint (I’m pretty sure I’ve seen “Fishy Hint” on a gig listing).
I’m a self-confessed seafood novice – when I look at a menu in a restaurant, I pay such little notice to the fish options that they might as well have been blacked out by the Ministry of Truth – but I find myself going back to Fish& again and again whenever I see them at an event, excited to see what they’ve managed to come up with each time.
Next door to Fish& was Taco Wall, the first installment of Belgrave’s Street Food Lab, pressing fresh corn tortillas, and serving them up as Fish Tacos (£3.5).  I thought it could do with a little tweaking – I thought there was a too much batter on the fish, considering the size of the taco – but everything else about it; the presentation; the pineapple salsa; the scotch bonnet and grapefruit sauce, proves that they know what they’re doing.  This was only the first time serving to the public, I’m confident they’ll have nailed it by the time I try it again.
The Street Food Lab itself seems like a brilliant idea, I’m a little unclear on the specifics of how it’ll work, but if it means more in-house vendors are going to join Dough Boys, Patty Smiths, Fu-Schnickens and now Taco Wall, then I’m massively in favour of it.
A few weeks ago I went to the Briggate World Food Fair and intended to eat loads and write a round-up of the day.  I didn’t manage to get an article out of it though, as after I tried Street Fodder‘s Thai Food, it started raining so I just grabbed a bag full of cakes from Madeleine Express and went home.  Both traders were at the Street Feast on Saturday (Madeleine Express going by the alias Noisette Bakehouse), and while I didn’t get anything from them then, I’ll quickly mention that Street Fodder’s Summer Rolls and Chicken Satay are some of the best I’ve had in Leeds, and the fact anything as wildly imaginative as Noisette’s creations taste as amazing as Noisette’s creations is a miracle – and there’s not a lame cupcake or lazy buttercream in sight.
BONUS PARAGRAPHS!
The day after Street Feast 4, Belgrave hosted a Game of Thrones quiz, which I took part in – not because I wanted to win, because I didn’t even want to win, I’m glad I didn’t win and I’m not even bitter so shut up – so I had a reason to try the Game of Thrones-themed food tie-ins.  Dough Boys Slice and Fire (£1.4 before 7pm, THAT OFFER IS STILL CRAZY TO ME) featured black pudding and pork belly with chilli apple jam and fresh sage leaves, and tasted like a £22.95 Gastropub meal wrapped inside dough.
Patty Smiths avenged Bobby Baratheon by topping their Valar Morghulis burger with Wild Boar sausage, then dialling-up the exuberance by piling on braised oxtail, bearnaise sauce, and a big pile of crispy shredded leeks.  I hope you’re sitting down for this, because it’s a big statement:  It was the best speciality burger I’ve ever had.  Ok joint-best with Patty & Bun‘s pork-belly and teriyaki smothered Mr Miyagi, but that’s still super-high praise, especially as they’ve only been in the game for two months.