Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Dukes Brew & Que

If you can resist the urge to step into one of the always pleasant Vietnamese places that line Kingsland Road, there is a new bar and restaurant waiting for you on the street opposite Haggerston Rail station. Dukes Brew & Que is not in the most modern or desirable part of town, but makes up for this by placing some of London’s biggest trends front and centre – barbeque & craft beer. From outside it is dark blue and unassuming, with a few scattered tables outside for the smokers. It doesn’t change inside – it’s woody and rough, solid and basic, almost like eating in a large crate used in airplane shipping. This rustic slice of the US Midwest reflects the causal, homely nature of the food they are serving out of the hot and smoky open kitchen.
          They have given about 3 quarters of the room to the diners and only a narrow, stingy space for those wanting to down a few beers. This seems to be a little misguided, as on our visits there were more patrons at the bar than at tables, and the bar is something to be shouted about. Across a couple of visits it was stocked with some high end craft beer, from local breweries like Redemption to more famous names – Thornbridge & Brewdog from the UK, Flying Dog & Sierra Nevada from the US. Particularly good on our visit was Steelmaker from Thornbridge, a heavily hopped lager, and Snake Oil, a pale ale brewed in full view opposite the kitchen. The other beer from the onsite brewery (Beavertown) was adequate but uneventful, suggesting that we can expect very good things further down the line. The (roughly 50/50) mixture of keg and cask beers is good, and there are plenty of decent wines and spirits to keep everyone else happy. The bottle list is also full of great stuff – Kernel and Redchurch for some local colour, and a few of the much rarer American goodies for the more adventurous. Generous platefuls of crispy pork scratching’s were plonked in front of us as we drank, and the barman was quick to offer help in selecting what we wanted.
             This contrasts somewhat with a restaurant that is still trying to find itself (the website describes this on-going state as a soft opening – although usually in this circumstance prices would be significantly reduced) which is clearly apparent in the food.
            The menu is short and pleasingly simple – four or five sides, and a selection of the BBQ usual suspects to arrange them around – pulled pork, beef & pork ribs, chicken wings, steak, burgers. At around £10-£12 for the mains and £3-4 for the sides, you couldn’t classify it as cheap, but certainly affordable. The food arrived swiftly via good looking, pleasant staff, and two excellent sauces were placed in between us, with the menu insisting that good barbecue needs none, but they humbly offer them anyway.
            The side dishes were a mixed bag of quality. Macaroni cheese was generous and addictive, but was served lukewarm, and I have had better from amateur cooks. On the other hand the spinach and leeks were delicious, buttery and rich. Both of the crowd pleasers of BBQ side lore were a slight disappointment – the beans were overly sweet and felt both undercooked and under portioned, while the chips were gigantic wedges of potato which had good flavour but lacked the crispy/crunchy texture that contrasts so well with soft, yielding meat. Oddly, a few of the dishes were listed as pints or half pints, yet everything arrived in bowls, suggesting the ideas are ahead of the execution.  
          From the big plates; a great example of pulled pork was given a disservice by being served in two overly firm, bland buns as ‘sliders’ (they definitely needed the sauce). Not helping proceedings were token-gesture pickles and coleslaw looking tired and dull.   Pork ribs were bang on the money though – 3 huge piggy bits arrived looking like small bridges from a Homer Simpson dream sequence. There was epic amounts of meat, most of it having melded with its nearest piece of fat to create an exhibition of texture – crisp and charred, firm and chewy, soft and squidgy; some of the meat peeling clean off the bone, some clinging to its former home as though it knew the fate that awaited.
           There are too many good things going on here for this place not to be a success. One look at the brunch menu is enough to have me booking a return visit, and once the kitchen is into its stride I’m sure the kinks can be ironed out sufficiently so that the quality of the food matches the warmth of the atmosphere and the quality of the bar. It is a pleasant place to drink and eat, and with a few corrections could be a real gem.

Update: I have reviewed the full range of Beavertown beers here

Friday, 16 March 2012

Krispy Kreme Bacon Cheeseburger with Maple Syrup & Bacon Chips

A few years ago I saw someone eat a burger on TV, using a donut instead of a bun. I thought it was funny and fairly ridiculous, probably a normal reaction. The sugar/salty combination is a familiar one though – maple syrup and bacon pancakes, cheese and honey, pork and apple sauce. This is just 1 step further - albeit quite a big, calorie fuelled step. I debated the inappropriateness of this endeavour with a colleague, asserting that with a large dollop of Tommy K and a normal bun the sugar levels would be similar – we conceded an honourable draw. So I thought bugger it, why not, and gave it a go.
          For the burger, I bought mince from the butchers, some streaky bacon, plastic cheese, and a couple of Krispy Kreme original donuts. For the chips, I roasted the bacon in the oven tray, and then added some parboiled potatoes. Seasoning and then a liberal drizzling with the syrup and chopped up bacon pieces followed. I heavily seasoned the beef patties and fried them in a touch of the bacon fat, with a slice of cheese going on at the end. I took the meat out to rest, warmed the bacon back up and chucked in the halved donuts to soak up any meat juices remaining in the pan. Assemble, add a squirt of American mustard and dig in. Serve with mayonnaise and pickles.
          To accompany this I needed to match it with some equally silly things. I had a black IPA in the fridge, which as a style makes no sense and hence was ideal. A big chocolate stout is as indulgent and extravagant as the meal itself. And finally an American lager – this just made sense for some reason.
               To say the burger and chips were sweet would be a slight understatement. It was a gluttonous mess of fat, salt and sugar which left me quite giddy afterwards. The combination is almost there, but a denser, less sweet donut would have worked better (otherwise known as a bap). The chips were immense – some crisp, some soft, with the occasional hit of bacon and sticky caramel. The Budweiser worked pretty well – it acts as a dose of sanity and cleanliness in amongst the carnage of flavour, refreshing the palate without adding anything or contributing to the experience. The Magic 8 Ball from Magic Rock is a very decent beer, but found itself in the wrong place at the wrong time. The floral, fruity notes are lost against the food, leaving the huge bitterness clashing violently with the big flavours in the burger and overwhelming the chips. A total mess. The final beer worked magically, Brooklyn’s Black Chocolate Stout giving as good as it got. The massive alcohol and body stands up to everything thrown at it, with the initial savouriness leading to sweeter chocolate and liquorice elements which was a great partner for the burger but also with the chips. I felt slightly drained after this but it was thoroughly worth it.    
            This is a time when fatty breakfasts and turkey twizzler discoveries can make national news, as high calorie food edges towards receiving the sort of disdain that cigarettes and cheap alcohol have endured for a while now. This only serves to make it more alluring, more taboo, and therefore far more enjoyable to attempt meals like this. If my fiancĂ© allowed smoking in the flat I would have lit up a fat cigar and wallowed in hedonistic disregard for my own health. It would have been fun. As it was I enjoyed the cooking, eating and drinking immensely. It was possibly the most fun meal I have ever prepared. I urge people to try it. Just, you know, eat a salad the next day or something.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Hells Yeah! - Camden Town Brewery

Last weekend Camden Town Brewery officially launched their new beer, USA Hells, and while they were at it, opened their brewery bar to the public for the first time. They made an effort, with some basic furniture both indoors and out, some cool oversized foam hands and Big Apple Hot Dogs dishing out the food. Not too much effort though – it still looks, smells and feels like a brewery with a bar attached, not the other way around, which is too often a recipe for below par beer. The beers on sale (around 10) were all on keg at £3.50 a pint, with bottles and mini-kegs for taking away.
          Sunny throughout, the afternoon started lively and then went to busy, crowded, rammed, and then finally petered out a full hour after the proposed closing time. This meant there were queues aplenty, but the fully branded-up staff  were quick to take care of that, and in these surroundings, queuing is somewhat of a unspoken pleasure – dreaming of your next pint of lager with sun on the face and grilled meat in the nostrils. Those who have visited Kernel or London Fields brewery on a Saturday will have experienced the same vibe – Spartan surroundings, tucked away down alleys or underneath arches, born in Brooklyn and raised in Shoreditch. Camden Town perhaps lends itself best to this; the modern, consistent and drinkable beers are familiar enough to attract new craft drinkers, but have the occasional fanatic-friendly elements, like unfiltered this and American hopped that. It meant the crowd was mixed, young, and had some cash to spend, with a great mixture of excited craft newbies and seen it all before experts. They mingled and relayed between the two bars, eagerly awaiting their brewery tour and wondering whether they had time for a hot dog. Some will have gone home after the 5pm closing time – most went on to a full Saturday night of drinking and bar hopping.
         The new beer is very good. The Hells is clean, citrusy, and peppery with cereal/grain sweetness leading to a crisp, dry finish. The big American hops in the new version give the aroma more floral, herby notes and a bigger, more rounded, juicy finish with a little added grassy bitterness. It is dangerously drinkable and rumours of a permanent place in the line-up for this are pleasing. The unfiltered version of the standard hells was also great – more body and a touch sweeter, creamier and longer on the finish. The only detour from these I bothered with (it was Hells day!) was to have a goodbye pint of one of my favourite beers from last year, the Gentleman’s Wit. The last keg of this gentle, moreish, beery bucks fizz was not quite as good as I last had it, but still lovely. 

                I am greedy with breweries I like though, always wanting them to try and do everything, and Camden Town are no different. I would like to see some bigger beers in the future, a big US style IPA, something with the word imperial in it, and maybe some barrel-aged brutes. That’s just me though. As a recent Camden resident of 3 years I am both pleased that this has arrived and also annoyed that it happened so soon after I left. I’m sure it will become a destination drinking spot, and along with Brewdog and the Euston Tap down the road will form a little craft keg corner of North London. By the looks of Saturday, they will have plenty of loyal customers to fund the next few years, which means more great beer for us locals, but we might have to start sharing it with a bigger and bigger audience.

I was too busy drinking to take photos, so all images are shamelessly stolen from here https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.309982045731355.72722.140244476038447&type=3

Friday, 2 March 2012

The Session #61 - Local beer

2004. Ramsgate. Sitting in the brewery bar, across from huge shiny tanks of something. I can see people putting green stuff in the top. I can smell something biscuity and sweet. And I can see the fruits of their labour, in the form of 4 or 5 pump clips on the bar. I can drink my pint of Gadds No. 3 knowing it was created just yards from my seat, and just a 5 minute walk from my school. That is when I started getting in to beer, and that is what local beer means to me.
                I still hold Gadd’s beer in very high regard, and drink it whenever I can, although as I no longer live there I do not think of it as my local brewery. In beautiful North London, Camden Town now hold that position. I drink their beers all the time, not just because they are readily available and delicious, but because I have seen the brewery, met people there, and occasionally wear the t-shirt.  
        Hops, malt and various other ingredients can be sourced from all over the world, so there is often no physical reflection of the locality in beer. It may be fresher and more likely to be kept well (easier to keep track of quality with pubs down the road) but other than that is local beer a myth? I don’t think so. Millions of people cheer on their football or rugby team every week, despite the fact that the players, managers and owners will rarely be from the local area. The emotional connection still exists.   
           For me, I feel a sense of ownership over my local brewery. I want it to succeed, to be good, to grow. But its more than that - they owe me that success. I spend more hard earned money on my local beer than any other, and I tell friends and family they should drink it when they visit. So I feel invested, committed - I can’t go moving house because the local beer isn’t good enough, so don’t let me down. That’s the difference for me – if I buy an American beer and it’s great, I enjoy it in the moment. If its rubbish, I shrug and move on. I’m either pleased or annoyed. But only my local brewery is important enough to make me proud or disappointed. Anyone who insults London beer will get scorn, derision and maybe a pie thrown at them. Given the availability of quality beer online from all over the place, this makes little sense. But that’s how it is. My beer is better than your beer…