25 July 2014

The Chicago Rib Shack

You could say The Chicago Rib Shack's the godfather. The came before. The one with history. Originally opened in 1982, it paved the way for the all-American restaurants that are a dime a dozen in the city at the moment. It's had its moments, though, with the original site in Knightsbridge gone but not forgotten, instead operating across three food courts and a new opening in Clapham.

The Try This For team were invited to come down and check it out. For the meat obsessives in the team, this was a total no-brainer. Me, I was intrigued - I'm not a big wings and ribs fan but wanted to see what men, women and children the world over write home about so made the trek to no man's land (read: Clapham) to sample some Stateside wares.

Tucked beneath the Overground, it's positively shiny with newness - it's only been open since Monday after all. A few lime green booths and some tall tables line one wall with a chrome fitted bar down the other. The kitchen pass and bathrooms are towards the back and the place buzzes with activity.

We kicked off with cocktails, naturally. On the recommendation of the loveliest waiter I've ever been served by (a serious accolade right there for you, Stef), I went for the watermelon and ginger martini - a syrupy smooth Skyy vodka delight with a fresh kick from the ginger. This was then swiftly followed by another recommendation - the Mr Martinez. A flirty little number, this was one cocktail that was not short on flavour; combining Opihr (an oriental spiced gin), Luxardo maraschino, Dubonnet and orange bitters.

Then onto the food. We started with deep fried mac and cheese bites which was total and utter gluttony but melt in the mouth good, especially accompanied by a classic tomato salsa. The rest of the team also shared chicken wings (both BBQ and spicy) with blue cheese sauce, and the pulled pork scotch egg which wasn't so great a choice - the moistness of the meat meant the egg had essentially boiled inside rather than having that rich, gooey yolk that Pieminister has perfected.

Then came serious meat. Two huge racks of ribs - one the Baby Back (all I could think about was that scene in Austin Powers) and the other the Beef. As someone who steers clear of ribs normally, I was admittedly impressed to see these enormous portions served up on a wooden board with meat that fell from the bone without being sticky. Chinese restaurants, take note. We also ordered the Spicy Kiss Burger; a towering behemoth of meat and bun that came speared with a steak knife, brimmed with pickles and cheese and was far too big to fit into one's mouth without some serious slippage consequences.  I chose the Po'Boy Sandwich purely because I'd burgered myself out at MeatMission on Tuesday so fancied something less heavy - served as an open sandwich, the breaded cod, calamari and prawn looked good on the menu but lacked any real flavour on the plate. You win some, you lose some.

Where The Chicago Rib Shack really came into its own was the sides: we chose the onion loaf which was essentially a deep fried heart attack and exactly how it sounds; manslaw - a beefed up version of coleslaw with the added bite from jalapenos that totally needs to be served everywhere as a much better alternative of its bland cousin; fries, naturally; and truffled mac and cheese that won the award for dish of the day. Cheesy staple, yes, but with truffle oil folded through, it was something that I would gladly eat every single day. Who cares about calories?

We finished with Twinkles (prosecco, vodka and elderflower) and espresso martinis over the vanilla cheesecake (bland), chocolate brownie (brilliantly chewy) and the key lime pie (warm). Having a pastry chef amongst the team, we were never going to be the most appreciative of pudding testers but there's definitely room for improvement here.

All in all, this place comes out on a positive. The atmosphere was good (the music was excellent), the staff were above and beyond brilliant and that mac and cheese... Would I go back? I'm not sure - but my uncertainty's only because I'm not completely sold on ribs. Yet.

17 July 2014

On turning 25

So almost a month ago I turned 25. The big 2-5, the quarter century, the- who cares? I was actually looking forward to it - whilst no-one needs to be reminded of their inevitable slow creep towards mortality, I wasn't clawing onto the final months, weeks, days of being 24. 25 sounded better than 24; almost how I imagine new brides feel about changing from 'Miss' to 'Mrs'. It just felt good. Who cares if I'm halfway to 50? And I'm a much better person than I was at 18.

I remember talking to a friend on the eve of his 25th and he was saying how, when he was younger, he'd imagined being married by now with a kid or at least one on the way. Having been a fully functioning adult (and musician) life got in the way and he said he couldn't imagine being that settled whilst still feeling so young. Five years later, he's still wife and child-free so I guess not much has changed.

As far as I can remember, I wasn't like that. I don't think I dreamed of frothy white wedding dresses, babies on my hip and a husband by 25 when I was growing up. I spent a lot of time writing stories about hamsters, chasing after my horse and feeling disbelief when a family friend was old enough to graduate university. Being 25, of course, felt like the dim and distant future.

Having said that, now that I am the age where friends and (whisper it) people on Facebook are getting married, I do catch myself thinking about said dresses, cakes and honeymoons. Which would be all well and good, of course, but seeing as there is no mister in the picture, I'm not going to get much further than mutating into Miss Havisham.

But I'm loving being 25. A little like New Year, I feel that people put a lot of stock in 'new starts' or fresh changes on or after their birthday so I tried not to hold out too much hope that I'd transform myself into this perfect being come the quarter century. But, unwittingly and perhaps subconsciously, I've changed nevertheless. For the first time in about seven years (other than a mad moment involving a box of Schrwarzkopf's brightest shade), I've changed my hair and I feel good about it, you know? I'd always stayed away from shorter locks citing how it made me feel less feminine but I'm loving having a choppy, cooler style that is a cinch to style in the mornings and which could be argued that looking like you've been dragged through a hedge backwards is part of its charm. I've also peeled myself way from tights and been baring my legs - no big deal, right? For someone who's as pale as porcelain, this is the first year ever (other than on holiday) that I've braved blinding people and flounced around au naturale.

What else? I bought trainers. I don't like trainers. I also don't wear flat shoes. But I joined the gym and one can't work out in wedges so a pair of Nikes have now entered my life and I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this. You won't catch me wearing them anywhere other than on the treadmill but it's a step in the right direction nonetheless.

Essentially, turning 25 was almost like flicking a switch. Almost overnight, I've become the type of person I used to envy - the one with the devil may care attitude, the one who says yes and the one whose self-consciousness doesn't cripple her. I'm not sure why it's taken quite so long but I'm not complaining, shedding the skin of 24 was pretty cathartic after all. Here's to the rest of the century.

16 July 2014

& other places: Duck & Waffle, The Lauriston and Stories

Duck & Waffle
It seems that everyone and their cat has been to Duck & Waffle, the bar and restaurant 40 feet high above the city that's open 24 hours. Everyone other than me. I'd been to the fantastic Sushi Samba the floor below on a date but had yet to head upstairs and sample the diurnal delights. Until now. After hitting up The Empress for a birthday meal, my friend Harry and I weren't quite ready to call it a night and a spontaneous decision based on it being 2am in the morning saw us haring over to the Heron Tower in a cab and being whisked upstairs in the blink of an eye. We were just after drinks and were happily ensconced by one of the many windows whilst we sipped on what has to be one of the best cocktails I've ever tasted. The Marmite Black Velvet is a silky little number - a Guinness and marmite reduction served with champagne - that was so inexplicably sumptuous and moreish, I had to order a second. Harry went for the Dark & Stormy twice that comes in a brown paper bag for all your prohibition needs. But two each at two in the morning was enough for both of us and so we called it a night, but not before vowing to return and sample the rest of the ingenious creations on the list.

The Lauriston
Sometimes seeing old friends calls for a pub. And pizza. And where better to go than a place that combines the two? The Lauriston in Victoria Park Village is an eye-catching black fronted building that you can barely miss. We soaked up the evening sun with one of their wood-fired pizzas (aubergine, courgette, peppers and mushroom with added chicken) and the meat deli board (parma ham, bresaola, cotta ham, Milano salami, olives, bresaola, toasted bread and oils and vinegar) before ending up inside and catching the first half of the football. With a shot of tequila for good measure. Naturally.

You're spoilt for choice on Broadway Market - from bars to delis, fishmongers to butcher shops, there's always somewhere worth checking out. Stories is one of the best brunch spots going - slap bang in the middle of the street, with prime people-watching real estate out front and a cool, airy eatery inside. We'd spent the crazily hot morning cleaning out the old house and getting ready to hand the keys back after two years there. In need of a breather and a beer, we grabbed a table inside and refuelled. The Bloody Marys are build your own (and not bad at £5 a pop) and the brunch menu's available til 4. Ash went for a quinoa and tahini salad with halloumi whilst I went for old favourite avocado on sourdough with chilli flakes, poached egg and cripsy bacon. Brunch of kings, for sure. And washed down with a bottle of ice cold Krusovice, you definitely can't go wrong at Stories.

14 July 2014

The Empress, Victoria Park

Trying to find somewhere that will cater for an estimated 10-12 people, all with different budgets, tastes and appetites on a Saturday night for a birthday was never going to be easy. I wanted somewhere that served a mixture of small plates and large, didn't take a credit card reservation and wouldn't squeeze us into a tiny room somewhere. I ran through some of my East London favourites such as Bistrotheque, 8 Hoxton Square, Dead Doll's Club, Raw Duck... but none of them quite worked. Suddenly I was struck with inspiration and booked in at The Empress in Victoria Park Village.

This place first stole my heart a couple of years back when I went to catch up with my friend Harry who was sous-chef under Rosette-winning Head Chef Elliot. A bright and airy restaurant, deep leather sofas, wooden board games, exposed brickwork and an open kitchen make this place somewhere that you instantly feel at home in. The first time I went I sat at the bar and chatted to the friendly barmaid while plate after plate of food was put in front of me - on the house. I gorged on the worth-writing-home-about crispy pigs ears and apple sauce, savoured a tangy mackerel fillet with bulgar wheat and pickled beetroot main course and lost myself in a fruity panna cotta. It was somewhere I vowed to go again.

Fast forward a couple of years and, despite Harry no longer working there, I couldn't resist popping in to celebrate turning 25 in with six of my pals. After a couple of much-needed Bloody Marys at The Crown on the way, we jumped straight on to our table and began the hugely arduous task of deciding what to eat.

The Empress' menu is perfect for those who like to try a bit of everything. They offer generous helpings of bar snacks as well as usual starters and mains and there's nothing wrong with jumping around a bit. Whilst we were deciding we ordered a couple of baskets of freshly baked bread from the E5 bakehouse that we then proceeded to smother with unsalted butter, topped with fresh salt flakes. Choices made, we asked for our food to be brought out all together so that we could all chow down at the same time. This we were promised, but in reality it definitely didn't happen.

I chose two dishes: the first, raw beef with avocado, lime and chilli. The citrus zing complemented the meat perfectly, adding a cool bite to the tender bit of steak. Presented prettily with pea shoots and other microherbs, this was a dish that I could eat over and over again without any semblance of guilt. And for my second, other guilt-free dish? I went for a perennial old favourite of whole baked camembert with homemade chutney and thin slices of sourdough toast. Coming long after everyone else had finished their onglets, polenta and courgette, whitebait and ham croquettes, it was a typically countrified affair presented on a beautiful wooden board with the crisp slivers for dunking. Warm, gooey and oozing I definitely polished off the entire lot but had to ask for another round of toast that only came just as I was scooping out the last of the cheese with a fork. Hmm, disappointing.

We decided to forgo dessert (although my friends did buy me a shot of tequila instead and proceeded to sing Happy Birthday whilst I buried my face in my hands) and finish off the second (or was it third) bottle of red we'd ordered. The food in The Empress is definitely something to write home about (told you those pigs ears were good) but the service let it down this time. But I'll definitely be going back and this favourite gets a four out of five, nonetheless.

2 July 2014

Currently #2

eating // Fairly hand to mouth. I've just moved into a new (beautiful) houseshare and the room in the fridge leaves a lot to be desired so it's all about buying little and often. Last night, I baked a sea bream fillet with lemon and garlic butter, and asparagus, and served it with crushed lemony and wholegrain new potatoes. 
drinking // Late night marmite and guinness martinis at Duck & Waffle. Divine!
practising // How quietly I can walk up and down the creaky wooden stairs in the aforementioned new houseshare.
learning // That I hate the majority of my wardrobe; it needs a total refresh.
reading // Hillary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bringing Up The Bodies. I finally decided to give them a go, following all the hype. 
enjoying // Escaping the city with old uni friends - and hitting up Leamington's finest destinations.
listening // To a lot of new music. Including thisthis and this. And also to Les Miserables live. 
needing // A whole new wardobe (see above).
wearing // Bare legs in London for the first time ever. Thanks to the little Italian break, I am no longer transparent and shock horror, don't blind anyone when they catch a glimpse.
working // On my fitness. I decided to join the gym and so early morning workouts are becoming a thing. 
watching // The new series of True Blood. Whilst not a fan of the reams of other vampire-based shows out there, I'm lapping up the final season of the show that has me screaming 'Why are you doing that stupid thing?' every episode. (Another show this applies to: The Walking Dead)

You can find other Currentlys here.

(Photo via)

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