Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Edinburgh Restaurant Review: El Cartel - Mexican flavours with definite street cred


Luxurious guacamole with plantain chips.
Luxurious guacamole with plantain chips.
If you consider yourself as a bit of a ‘foodie’ you almost certainly like to keep up with what’s currently ‘on trend’ in terms of eating and drinking.  Yet food fashions can quickly ebb and flow, like waves crashing on the white sands of a Baja Californian beach.  A particular dish or cuisine can be all the rage one day, only to disappear up the extractor fan of fickleness the next.  Anyone out there still hysterically searching for a cronut? No, thought not...

I do, however, like a food trend that makes an appearance on the scene and exhibits some staying power courtesy of the fact that it has something genuinely interesting and engaging to offer.  A case in point is the ascendancy of the street food scene in the UK over recent years. And by street food I'm not talking about a dilapidated burger van in a lay-by off the A1. Instead I refer to the diverse and flavoursome morsels of the sort that can be purchased from street vendors from Bangkok to Berlin, and Delhi to Durban. So enamoured have Brits become with this culturally diverse and convenient dining style that it now even has its own trade association and award scheme.

Frozen margarita.
Fabulous frozen margarita.
It's probably true to say that practically every culture or country will have its own particular take on food that is prepared and served on the street.  Yet it would appear that Mexican street food in particular has captured the imagination and appetite of Edinburghers of late, with a gaggle of restaurants - including Wahaca and Topolabamba -  purveying this cuisine having opened branches in the Scottish capital in the last few months. But stealing a march on these new arrivals - having been set up in 2014 by the people behind Le Bon Vivant - is Thistle Street's El Cartel.  Being only an (avocado) stone's throw from JML's work, it was apparent that we had put off for too long sampling El Cartel's "own take on freshly-made, authentic Mexican street food", so the other week these two hungry hombres dropped by this particular cantina Mexicana.

I'm glad to say that we had decided to dine early, as the interior of El Cartel is relatively compact, meaning you can be on fairly intimate terms with your fellow diners, and the restaurant doesn't take reservations, so if the place is full, front of house will take your mobile number and call when a table becomes available.  Having bagged a spot for two with no trouble, we took in the trendy, charcoal-hued interior bedecked in Dia de los Muertos paraphernalia, as our server arrived with a jug of water and the food and drinks menus.  And whilst on the subject of drinks, although modest in size El Cartel serves over 80 types of tequilas, mescals and agaves as well as some enticing cocktails.  The house frozen Margarita is a thing of both deliciousness and beauty, to the point that my over-enthusiastic supping resulted in a moment of brain freeze...

Baja fish tacos - El Cartel.
Baja fish tacos.
This being a venue focused on street food, as our server explained, the dishes are not huge so it's recommend each diner choose two or three plates of what they fancy, scoff, then see if they are ready for more.  The culinary offering basically falls into two categories: soft tacos - hand pressed in house from Masa Harina maize flour, and filled with a range of alluring ingredients; and antojitos - literally "little cravings" in Mexican Spanish, referring to street food such as quesadillas, barbecued corn on the cob, and other such delights. Six dishes were duly ordered between us.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Recipe: Hearty spring eating - Spanish-inspired stew with lamb heart, chickpeas, peppers and olives

Spanish-inspired stew with lamb hearts, peppers, chickpeas and olives.
Spanish-inspired stew with lamb heart and chickpeas.
The transition from late winter to early spring can be a bit of a disorientating time of year.  In terms of weather - and I speak here as a Scot - one minute clear blue skies and bright sunshine hint of a glorious summer that is, hopefully, to come. Yet within an hour or two the wind changes direction, leaving the populace shivering in horizontal sleet.

Cooking and eating at this time of year can be equally hit and miss, especially when trying to use seasonal ingredients. On one hand there can be a longing to dine on fresh, green produce, but it's usually still too early in the season in late February or early March for many spring crops to be making any sort of meaningful appearance. On the other hand, days are still quite short and nights can sometimes be frosty, perpetuating winter-time yearnings for hearty meals.

At a time when fresh, local ingredients can be limited, it's sensible to make best use of what is available. And if you are a meat eater one thing that is synonymous with spring is lamb. Make mention of cooking with this delicious meat and most people automatically think of a roast leg, slow cooked shoulder, or grilled chops. Smashing as all these joints may be, my northern English heritage possibly makes me a wee bit more adventurous.  After all, as a child I was no stranger to the delights of cheap, cheerful and flavoursome cuts such as tripe, chitterlings and trotters.

I remain an adventurous omnivore to this day, even though JML and I are attempting to cut down on our meat consumption for a number of ethical and environmental reasons.  And I heartily agree with the ethos of Fergus Henderson - chef, restaurateur, and author of Nose to Tail Eating - that if we are going to kill an animal for food, we should make use of as much of it as possible. Basically, as Fergus maintains, "You should be nice to your offal".  All of which leads me to this recipe for a Spanish-inspired stew featuring chickpeas, olives, peppers, and lamb hearts.

I actually can't remember how the original recipe for this Hispanic-influenced casserole came to my attention, but it's a dish I have been regularly cooking, and refining, for years. It's straightforward, economical, and - most importantly - very tasty, combining the earthy flavours of chickpeas and cumin, sweetness of red peppers, fried onions and tomato, umami notes provided by mushrooms and olives, and subtle spiciness originating from smoked pimentón (paprika), thyme and a pinch of dried chilli.  Left to feature just the above ingredients it's a hearty vegan dish.  Sometimes however I like to add chunks of chicken thigh or pork shoulder to give things a meatier twist. So why not lamb hearts as well?

Monday, 27 February 2017

Edinburgh Restaurant Review: Dishoom – Refreshingly remixing Indian dining

Dishoom Edinburgh interior.
Dishoom Edinburgh - 5 minutes before being totally full.
Excitedly getting ready to see one of the groups that provided the soundtrack to my youth - in the form of the always inventive and enduring Pet Shop Boys - play live in Edinburgh the other day got me thinking about cooking and eating. Bear with me on this one! As for me, food and music have a lot in common. My tastes are really quite broad and varied with regard to both - I'm not a huge fan of 'death metal' however, either as a musical genre or a cuisine.  I'm always looking out for something new and interesting in terms of a dish, tune, restaurant or artist. But I also regularly hanker after the familiar, be it in terms of food or music, although it's always refreshing to encounter an updated take on an old favourite from my younger days.

Vada pau Dishoom Edinburgh.
Vada Pau - spicy chip butty, anyone?
How appropriate then that prior to trotting off to see the PSBs lift the roof on the Edinburgh Playhouse, JML, our friend Tina, and I chose to dine at a relatively new kid on the city's culinary block in the form of Dishoom.  Appropriate, because as someone born and raised in the environs of Birmingham, Indian - or more accurately, Punjabi, Pakistani and Bangladeshi - cuisine was something my younger self was delighted to be constantly familiar with. Yet, like a stunning remix of a favourite tune, Dishoom brings a new perspective on the food of the subcontinent, a world away from the Balti houses of my formative years.

Apparently taking its name from a Hindi term referring to the noise made by a ricocheting bullet or landing punch in Bollywood action films - think "kerpow" in the original 60s Batman TV series - Dishoom is majorly inspired by Bombay's (Mumbai's) Irani cafés.  These were opened by Zoroastrian devotees emigrating from Persia (modern day Iran) from 19th Century onwards.  Now dwindling in number, such venues are about all-day dining, where the well-to-do and those not quite so financially fortunate all rub shoulders together, and food that draws influence from the middle-east and across India arrives fast and fulsome.

Chilli cheese toast - Dishoom, Edinburgh.
Chilli cheese toast - sort of Indian rarebit.
The Edinburgh branch of Dishoom (there are already four, highly regarded, sister venues in central and east London) threw open its doors in the redeveloped southern edge of St Andrew's Square at the end of 2016, and has already had folk, quite literally, queuing out the door as reservations are only taken for parties of six or more. The venue is spread over three floors of a stylish, Victorian former office building, and consists of a buzzing, speakeasy-esque cocktail bar and dining area in the basement, a modest reception area and truly enormous open kitchen at ground level, with stairs to rival Jacob's Ladder leading to the colonial-inspired main dining area above.  Taken in the round, it exhibits all the credentials of a well put together and welcoming dining and supping venue.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Edinburgh Restaurant Review: Barrelhouse Bar and Grill - A most welcome east-end rollout



Barrelhouse Bar and Grill, Edinburgh - interior.
The Barrelhouse's "smoking" interior.
As someone whose day job is in communications, I’m well aware of the adage “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”, and this is often true. After all, had it not been for some wannabe local politician moaning on about the look of the Barrelhouse Bar and Grill – located in my old stomping ground of Willowbrae, Edinburgh – which draws its inspiration from New Orleans-style, blues-playing watering holes, I might not have heard about it. Because according to the prospective Edinburgh Councillor, the deep-south themed exterior of this newly opened establishment "does nothing to improve the area”. Unlike the hostelry’s former incarnation as the infamous Jock’s Lodge pub, which laid semi-derelict for years having been closed following it being the scene of a drugs-related assassination attempt? Aye, that really screamed “up and coming neighbourhood” – NOT! But I digress…

Chilli chicken wings - Barrelhouse, Edinburgh.
Finger-lickin' chicken wings.
Approaching the Barrelhouse, it's apparent that the corrugated iron that used to adorn the windows of the old Jock's Lodge has been niftily repurposed to form the place's new signage. I semi-jest, as set against the stylish charcoal grey rendered exterior, emblazoning the bar's name on purposely distressed metal sheeting trendily hints at the venue's southern U-S-of-A theme. Pass through the doors and it's surprising at how TARDIS-like the expanse of the interior is compared to the relatively diminutive frontage. I must confess that given its reputation I never stepped foot in the old Jock's Lodge during the decade I lived in the area, as I am not exactly a fan of a chibbing or ricocheting bullet accompanying a nice glass of Rioja, so I can't compare the new bar's look with its predecessor. But I liked what I encountered; faux-distressed wall and ceiling décor, mix and match vintage furniture, a well presented horseshoe bar adorned with more corrugated iron and stylish neon lighting, and - most importantly - a semi-open grill/kitchen, which contains the "god of hellfire", according to the signage adjacent the pass. The place even houses a modest stage area in order to host live music - smouldering delta blues I would imagine.

Chilli beef taco shell - Barrelhouse, Edinburgh.
Big and bold chilli beef taco shell.
Service was uniformly excellent right from the off, with the extremely welcoming and efficient staff immediately showing me to a table and furnishing me with a smashing pint of American-style rye beer, whilst I perused the Barrelhouse's menu and awaited the arrival of dining partner, JML.  Given the venue's Southern USA theme and the appearance of "grill" in its name, it's unsurprising that American classics and "BBQ" dishes are prominent in its food offering, but the range of starters and mains is more nuanced than standard diner-esque fare, and a squint at the Barrelhouse's Facebook page suggests the menu gets regularly updated.  JML having now arrived, and been speedily supplied with a refreshing pint of continental lager, we dived into placing our order.