Sunday, 30 June 2013

BBQ Dreams

Back in 2010, I attended a small festival in Bristol called Grillstock packed with meat, music, mojitos and Dr BBQ. Fast forward three years and Grillstock has firmly established itself into the heart of Bristol with the annual festival growing in size and reputation and the opening of a stand in St Nick's Market. But a little over two weeks ago, they set up a new home on the Triangle in the form of the Grillstock Smokehouse.

Sometimes when you go to a restaurant, you're not sure what to expect. Will you need to dress up? Is it gonna be fancy? Will there be three dozen pieces of cutlery to use in a strict protocol of etiquette? But sometimes what you hope for is exactly what you get. The name Grillstock promises music. It promises a good time. It promises BBQ sauce. Most of all, it promises lots and lots of meat. And boy does it deliver.

The first impression you get from the Smokehouse is the smell. The gorgeous, mouth watering aroma of BBQ wafting out of the door is enough to start you dribbling in anticipation before you even step foot inside. And once you do, you're greeted by an immense communal table constructed from railway sleepers and steel, and rock-a-billy music inspired by the festival. One of the walls is papered with pictures from the festivals and gleefully we could point out my brother who took part in the chicken wing eating contest this year.

The menu is very basic and split into BBQ plates where you can choose from various meats - pulled pork, beef brisket, chicken and ribs all served with a side of fries, slaw, cornbread and sausage. Yes, you heard that right. A side of sausage. It's the thing dreams are made of.

Next come the sandwich / hotdog / burger options including the awesome Lockjaw Burger - a beast of a thing consisting of burger patties, beef brisket, pickles and cheese which is so big it's held together with a knife (A KNIFE!) staked through the middle. Also available is the 'Grand Champion' - a gut busting dish of all four BBQ-ed meats with the usual sides plus BBQ beans (that also contain meat!) and burnt ends, the equivalent of BBQ gold in the form of the charred but flavoursome ends of the beef brisket. Finish it and you get a t-shirt and a bottle of sauce.

The four of us all went for a plate - two of us had the brisket, one had the pulled pork and the other opted for a half chicken. The food comes to you on a tray which adds to the no fuss charm of the place - our only complaint was that the paper the food rests on disintegrates after a while so you inevitably end up eating some of it but it's a small price to pay. All three meats were delectably soft - brisket was so meltingly soft, I could barely keep it on my fork without it falling apart and the pulled pork, unlike so many attempts at this dish by other restaurants, was flavoursome and very moist. I can't comment on the chicken as I didn't try any except for the fact that it too looked delicious.

The cornbread was sweet and dense and the sausage was smokey and moreish. The only thing I wasn't too keen on was the slaw  - it provided a good crunch and change in texture but was a bit blah though I'm certainly not going to say it stopped me from enjoying my meal. I loved the BBQ sauce available in gigantic  bottles spread across the table, especially the hot variety. It was piquant and vinegary and just the thing to cut through the sweet, sticky BBQ sauce. The portions were huge and I couldn't finish mine but nothing went to waste as Si & Jack cleaned my tray up for me.

The drinks ranged from bottled beer, hard liquor and American inspired floats as well as the novel option of beer served with shots of whiskey and pickle juice. Through research, the combination of Jamesons and picklejuice is called a Pickleback and is meant to be very tasty and peps up the taste of beer but no-one in our party fancied it on a Saturday lunchtime. However, we'll definitely be back. I want to get my hands on the ribs and I know that my brother would definitely want to attempt the Grand Champion.

There are a lot of restaurants in Bristol but I would say the Grillstock Smokehouse is in a world all of its own - one that embraces a no fuss, no nonsense atmosphere and concentrates on giving it's patrons the only thing a restaurant should concern itself with - a fully belly, a big smile and a good covering of BBQ sauce.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Watersky - they have knives and forks, don't you know?

I think it is incredibly difficult to find a good Chinese restaurant. I’m not talking about a local takeaway that serves questionable meat in fluorescent sauces and food served with bucketfuls of bean sprouts to flesh out portions or indeed a restaurant that serves a set menu of crispy duck, sweet and sour something and beef in black bean sauce. 

I’m talking about an authentic Chinese restaurant that serves clay hotpot dishes, dim sum and platters of Chinese roasted meat. Roasted meat, namely char siu (bbq-ed pork), duck and crispy belly pork on rice is one of the dishes of my childhood and is still one of my favourite meals. 

There are a few Chinese restaurants in Bristol, namely Dynasty, Hong Kong Diner, Mayflower, Wongs and WaterSky. I’ve visited all but Wongs and some definitely rank better than others but I won’t review all of them here today. 

I’ve visited WaterSky a couple of times, recently. Once with friends for dim sum and once on a mad mission for some crispy belly pork. WaterSky is easily one of the biggest Chinese restaurants I’ve ever been to. It easily seats 300 and is plush and opulent. The ceiling houses several gigantic chandeliers and the gold and scarlet carpet is grand and thick underfoot. And don’t even get me started on the toilets (seriously, if you visit WaterSky ladies, take a trip to the conveniences). 

We’ve been here for dim sum on the weekend when it is absolutely packed and people are queuing to get in but I don’t get it. As a self-titled connoisseur of dim sum (seriously, I come from a family who will happily drive an hour and half each way to satisfy a craving), I found it to be one of the worst places to eat it. 

The cheung fun (think Chinese cannelloni – long flat sheets of rice noodles rolled up with various fillings) with char siu was thick and rubbery and the char siu was unappetisingly pale and fatty. The yam croquettes, instead of being light and fluffy were heavy and stodgy and very dry and the various  steamed dumplings seemed to be over-cooked and soggy. Our fried dishes such as won ton (minced pork and prawn wrapped in spring roll skin and deep fried) and lobster dumpling were very greasy – I guess typical of having been taken out of the fryer and not drained properly. But everything seemed to be tasteless.  It was almost as if the food had been bought from Wai Yee Hong, the supermarket downstairs, and reheated upstairs. There didn’t seem to be any love or care in the dishes.

 All in all, I was very disappointed and won’t be letting either of my parents near it for fear of the months of moaning that will follow - ‘Remember when you took us to that restaurant for dim sum and it was LOUSY?’ / ‘I can’t believe you took us there and we had to queue for such a LOUSY meal,’ etc. (They like the word ‘lousy’).

However, I was nearby the other day and in the mood for a dish of three roasties rice. I was seated in one corner of the vast restaurant away from a crowd of noisy, elderly Chinese folk who I was told were there on an annual ‘Chinese Elders Group’ lunch. Bless… there’s something for me to look forward to in my senior years. 

When my dish came, it looked utterly delicious. Most restaurants try and palm you off with a more generous helping of char siu but the duck and belly pork was in plentiful supply too. However, I was asked if I needed a knife and fork. Bemused, I told the waitress I was Chinese to which she told me that I didn’t look it and started to question me on my heritage. Ok, I know it happens a lot and I don’t look authentically Chinese but who’s to say that even if I wasn’t, I couldn’t eat with chopsticks? Thumbs down for customer service… 

But the char siu was sweet and tender, the belly pork salty and crunchy and the duck was soft and highly spiced with 5 spice powder with a lot of the fat rendered away so you weren’t getting mouthfuls of it under the crispy skin. Except for the service, it was the polar opposite to the food we were served for dim sum and I would certainly go there again for the more traditional menu based dishes. And next time, I’m going to tell them that I’m Swedish… 

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Goldbrick House Cafe Bar

I always find it so difficult to decide where to go out to eat in Bristol. There are so many amazing food havens spread across so many different places that when you decide to go on an impromptu night out, the choice is endless. Often we find ourselves in the car before deciding and hope that inspiration will strike us before we reach the end of the Portway.

Last night we debated between a few places but weary folk that we were settled on the less formal Cafe Bar at Goldbrick House.

There's no denying GH is a beautiful place from it's French bistro inspired Cafe Bar to the secretive Library rooms upstairs and it's sun trapped roof terrace. The restaurant upstairs is more of a fanciful affair but for a more casual occasion, the Cafe Bar offers small tapas type dishes amongst burgers, fish and chips and pasta dishes.

Si ordered a plate of linguine with meatballs and I plumped for the tuna nicoise salad with some chips on the side. I specified for the tuna to be served quite pink - the rarer the better for me. Pretty simple, right?

The dishes came and we were both somewhat underwhelmed. Si complained that his meatball linguine was more of a starter size than a main, you certainly didn't get a huge amount for your £9. I can't even give an opinion on how it tasted as it had disappeared within about three mouthfuls.

As for my salad...

When the waiter bought it over, he said that it didn't look too pink as the chef had flashed it under the grill to warm it. Um... no. Wrong. Why would you warm through a tuna steak after it had been seared? And as for the steak, I'm not sure why the chef chose to massacre what should have been a perfectly good piece of fish in such a way with something no sharper than a baseball bat leaving it strewn all over the salad like a piece of roadkill but he did.

Because of the ragged chunks, none of the pieces were cooked exactly the same and most were cooked through with none of that gloriously pink blushed centre a piece of tuna should have.

However, it was quite dark in the Cafe Bar (see the pic above) - perhaps it affected the chef's eyesight... But let me give you a quick lesson:

When we say pink we mean this:

If you cook tuna and serve it like this, it leads to a sad face:

If I was looking at the photo, I wouldn't think that was a piece of fish... and please note the rather small portion of linguine in the background.

The other components of the salad only added to the disappointment. The potatoes, were hard and had started to split down the middle which to my knowledge happens when boiled potatoes are kept in a fridge for a number of days. The boiled eggs didn't have the still slightly soft yolk which is what I expect when I order a Nicoise salad from an establishment such as Goldbrick House and the chef had appeared to empty an entire jar of capers into the dish. Mmmm... vinegary.

The waiter very kindly removed the chips from the bill but they weren't the issue. It's a shame that the same consideration isn't given to the food downstairs as upstairs. And for somewhere with such a lovely ambiance, it's a shame the food puts a dent in that experience and so when we next have our in-car debate about where to go for food, I think we'll know which side of the metaphorical road GH will fall on...

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

The Old Bookshop

I started going to the Old Bookshop back when in opened in 2011 with a girlfriend of mine who, when I asked for directions, told me to drive past the Spotted Cow and it would be 'somewhere on the right'. I was incredulous - was there life beyond the Spotted Cow? Surely driving past would just take you towards East Street and it's cacophony of kebab shops. But no, I was very wrong and thus my love affair with the Old Bookshop began and 20 months on, it has become a deeply rooted favourite amongst my friends and I.

As you walk in through the door you're struck by the quirky exterior - the trumpets hanging above the bar, the vintage typewriters lining the wall, the piano that's been turned into a bar and the mad taxidermied animals perched around the place but there's no air of 'try-to-hard' or pretentiousness. It all seems to feel very lived in, established and dare I say it, natural which seems strange considering the bleak surrounding environment of sandwich shops and take aways. The tiny stage has seen bands such as the locally loved, Ten Pound Suit Band and when not in use houses a few more tables.

Their chef has changed in the last few months, previously headed up by Scott Raynal Hislop who now works in Hermanos on the Triangle, it seems he has left the Old Bookshop in safe hands and their food is as good as ever.Their take on tapas is served in mismatched crockery that would not feel unwelcome in your granny's kitchen cupboard and the menu changes from week to week. Previous visits have seen seafood heavy menus with garlic prawns, sardines and deep fried calamari but our visit last night featured quite a few beef dishes - meatballs, lasagne, chilli, mini burgers. We opted for the meatballs, chilli, deep fried chicken drumsticks and macaroni cheese with a side of cheesy fries (I AM pleased they've stopped calling it Frites Fromage - you don't need to try to be cool guys, you already are!).

The meatballs were heady and fragrant with marjoram, and were soft, salty and delicious served in a stew with beans and potatoes. The chilli again was fairly heavy on the herbs but not in an overpowering way and was served with rice and a big dollop of soured cream. I was a bit disappointed by the drumsticks, from the description I was expecting fried chicken with a Caribbean spiced batter but they seemed to have been slow roasted - they were still delicious, the meat almost fell away from the bone - but not what I expected. The macaroni cheese was the big highlight with the most moreish sauce and the welcome additives of spinach and cherry tomatoes. I could have eaten a big plateful on my own.

The ingredients seem to be locally sourced with Mark's Bread an almost constant resident, seafood from Brixham etc and seasonal  but they don't bang on about either issue of locality or seasonality, they just focus on what they do best, serving tasty food.

I've yet to try their Sunday roasts or partake in American Night (soon to be Caribbean Night) on a Monday but I'm sure there will be many more opportunities for that. We were told last night that they have secured the premises next door so they can extend which is great in some respects but I'm going to miss the feeling of the tiny, cocoon-like interior but knowing how well they have managed with such a small space, I'm confident that they will be able to keep the intimate and cozy ambience. I do hope they stick to their no reservations policy - feeling that you can pop in anytime to get a couple of bowls of something yummy adds to the relaxed feeling of locality and the friendly neighbourhood cafe and I hope to be popping by for many more years to come...

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Salt and pepper squid

I gave this a bash over the weekend - very easy recipe and very quick to prepare and cook although my squid hadn't been gutted or cleaned so I spent a rather messy half hour doing that. I do quite enjoy it, though - it's quite satisfying!

I lifted the recipe from the Guardian but omitted the coriander - BLEURGH and used cornflour in place of potato flour as I didn't have any. I would also say that it needs more salt in the seasoned flour mix but I guess it's personal taste.

Serves 2

350g small squid, cleaned
1/2tsp black peppercorns
1/2tsp Sichuan peppercorns
1tsp sea salt flakes
5tbsp potato flour
1 egg, beaten
Groundnut or vegetable oil, to fry
1 red chilli, deseeded and finely sliced
2 spring onions, sliced
1 garlic clove, sliced
Fresh coriander and lime wedges, to serve

Separate the bodies of the squid from the tentacles, and cut them into triangles. Score the inside with a diamond pattern, making sure not to cut right the way through the flesh. Add to the tentacles, pat dry and set aside.

Heat a dry frying pan and add both varieties of peppercorn. Toast for a minute or so until fragrant, then tip into a pestle and mortar, along with the salt, and crush to a powder. Mix two-thirds of this with the potato flour in a shallow bowl and set the rest aside. Put the beaten egg into a second bowl.Half fill a large pan or wok with oil, or use a deep fat fryer, and heat it to 180C, or until a small piece of bread browns in 15 seconds.

Meanwhile, dip the squid pieces in the egg, then in seasoned flour until well coated. Fry – in batches if necessary – until pale golden, stirring once to make sure they don't stick to the bottom.

As they're cooking, heat a further tablespoon of oil in a frying pan over a high heat. Use a slotted spoon to lift the cooked squid on to kitchen towel and tip the chilli, spring onion and garlic into the frying pan. Fry very briefly until it all starts to caramelise, then add the squid to the pan and toss together.

Tip on to a serving plate, sprinkle with a little more seasoning and serve with a little coriander and some wedges of lime.