Texas Joe’s – SE1

Texas Joe’s – SE1

Originally published in City AM, Tuesday 16 August 2016

Anyone who has been to Levi Roots’ Caribbean Smokehouse will know that success on Dragons’ Den does not a restaurateur make. So it was with some trepidation that I approached Texas Joe’s, opened off the back of an appearance on Dragons’ Den (and, more recently, a number of London pop-ups) from jerky peddling Texan Joe Walters.

On-screen investment partner Peter Jones is no longer on the scene and Walters is now in partnership with local businessman Simon Lyon. They’ve chosen a canny spot, an old Chinese take away site on the route between Bermondsey Street and London Bridge.

Texas Joe’s has gone all out in bringing the Lone Star state to London. The front of the shop is clad with dark clapperboard and the interior filled with hand painted signs. The newsagent next door looks in dire need of a lick of paint next to the film set facade.

The eponymous Walters is a wonderful front man. Squeezed into a dusty blue suit, stetson on his head, mouth firmly stuck in a frown, like a child’s drawing of a bloodhound. He has the look of a man who has spent hours looking into a burning pit, willing everything to turn out right. Standing arms folded outside his new restaurant, he gives the impression this might be the most serious job in the world.

The seriousness continues inside. There’s real attention to detail here. The menu is delivered in a newspaper that features articles specially written for Texas Joe’s by some of the world’s foremost BBQ experts. No fluff or hoopla, just the good honest history of meat and fire.

Outside are trestle tables and benches, while inside is divided into two handfuls of tables, some in the main room and a few more in the next-door bar. On the night I visited they were fully booked and people were regularly turned away.

Yes, it is all on the edge of OTT, in danger of falling off a cliff into a clichéd cavern of kitsch, but it holds on, never quite feeling forced. The staff play a big part, a rag-tag bunch of wonky smiles and bright eyes who seem genuinely eager to please.

At dinner we order a number of dishes to share. Starting with the sides menu we hoover through brisket topped nachos, neatly arranged on a tray like canapés at a Texan wedding.

Bacon wrapped stuffed jalapeños make a plate of padron peppers between layers of salt and pork into a must-order dish; they’d be worth a second round if they weren’t £7.

There’s more beef brisket, this time in thick dark crusted slices that break apart with the press of a fork. Chicken breast is majestic in a way that a chicken breast never is – deep and moist and moreish. The first bite of a mutton rib is equally good. Hot, crisp and musky. But as the tray cools the fat starts to flab and some went uneaten. If you order these, eat them hot.

Mac and cheese is as gooey and yellow as you could hope but I get significant food envy watching lengths of bubbling bone marrow being carried to the table next door. Next time.

Everything from the pit is served with pickles and slaw and slices of white bread to mop up the juice. If there’s a better use for a piece of cheap sliced white, let me know.

They’ve got lunch sorted too: I went back for that bone marrow and a pork taco that’s so far removed from the ubiquitous slop often served at pubs that I wonder if it is from a different beast altogether.

Drinks are dispensed from the honky-tonk bar next door. There’s beer – from Texas, of course, as well as some South London breweries – and a selection of bourbon and tequila. The bar works in its own right too: a beat-up juke box is full of country classics and it has a converted-garage feel that will make a wait for a table fairly painless, even when the weather turns.

The food at Texas Joe’s doesn’t push the envelope in the way somewhere like Pitt Cue does. The real selling point here is tradition and respect for the craft. This is Texas BBQ with ‘Texas’ underlined, and it deserves to be taken seriously.


A tale of two Grasmere gingerbreads

In Jane Grigson’s English Food there are two recipes for Grasmere Gingerbread.  The imaginatively named Grasmere Gingerbread I, and the darker Grasmere Gingerbread II. Neither is the recipe used to create the celebrated Sarah Nelson’s Grasmere gingerbread, Grigson doesn’t appear to like Sarah Nelson very much. She introduces both her own recipes with this withering put down:

“If you have ever tasted the ‘celebrated Grasmere gingerbread’ you will see the following recipes produce a different, better result”

No love lost there.

I made a couple of versions of Grasmere gingerbread for the September edition of Band of Bakers. The theme of regional bakes brought forwards a table laden with all shades of muted browns (spare the odd dot of jam and cream). Britain’s regional bakes are not a colourful bunch.

The first version I made was Grasmere gingerbread II, exactly as described in English Food. The second was an attempt at recreating the Sarah Nelson’s recipe by the team at Jamie Oliver.

Grasmere gingerbread II was a doddle. Things required: Ingredients, bowl and wooden spoon. Mix, press into tray, bake. The result? Dark and spicy. Gingerbread that crumbles apart rather than snaps. Rough, ready and not at all refined.

The Jamie Oliver version uses a few more ingredients – not all of which are easy to get your hands on – and one of which is a packet of shortbread biscuits. The method was more involved and required a food processor (a tool not commonly associated with kitchens in small 19th century cumbrian cottages).

Crystalised ginger is not an easy find in the supermarkets of Croydon, and I love the deep caramel flavours of softer sugars, so I made a few tweaks to the recipe. Subbing in soft brown sugar for half the demerara and using stem ginger in syrup rather than crystalised pieces. As with any recipe containing powdered ginger, I erred on the side of recklessness to guarantee some heat.

I removed the tray from the oven after 15 minutes, not 10, and then sprinkled it with the reserved crumbs as instructed. Once cooled, the cakes firm up to a beautiful bendy snap at once crisp and chewy.

Which of these gingerbreads would I make to revive a crowd after a long walk in the hills? The one with the bowl and the spoon or the one with the food processor and the syrups and the chopping up mixed peel?

Which of these gingerbreads, from start to finish, speaks of Grasmere and the Lakes and a history of British baking?

In this tale of two gingerbreads it is clear that there’s more to food than judging success by the criteria imposed by TV critics and Instagram prettiness. In a world where recipes, ingredients and technique have history and context there is great pleasure in following a tradition and its story. One gingerbread recipe here isn’t better than the other. One is a log fire and the other is central heating. Use them as required.

Grasmere Gingerbread II from Jane Grigson’s English Food

250g wholewheat flour
1/2 teaspoon each of bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar
3 generous teaspoons of ground ginger
175g butter
150g soft dark brown sugar
1 dessertspoon of golden syrup

1. Preheat oven to 160C/325F/Gas mark 3.
2. Line a cake/roasting tin
3. In a bowl mix flour, bicarbonate of soda, cream of tartar and ginger
4. Rub in the butter, then stir in sugar and golden syrup.
5. Press the mixture into the tin
6. Bake for 45-50 minutes, until golden brown.
7. Mark out the biscuits as soon as the tin comes out of the oven, then leave to cool.

Eat with a cup of tea.

Jamie Oliver’s Ultimate Gingerbread

As here, with tweaks mentioned above. If you are feeling committed then do make your own shortbread, although it does seem a faff just to blend them back to crumbs.








What I talk about when I talk about Boxpark

What I talk about when I talk about Boxpark

It’s coming. The rising containers tell us that. Here, next to the station, where nothing has been for so long.

These black boxes, stalled for an age by planning and signatures, are finally climbing and stacking their way into shape. In  just over a month’s time the plumbing, the electrics and the staff will be installed. BoxPark Croydon will be open for business.

Amidst the hoopla of slow cooked short rib, dead hippies and Craft IPA there will, no doubt, be an undercurrent of concern.

Hipsterification, gentrification, how long can we fetishise average food on paper plates?

Prices too high, diversity too low, where are the local businesses anyway?

Two booming weekends then a little bit of drizzle, how do we turn tables on a wet Wednesday in November?

All questions you can expect to hear, ask or be asked.

But across town, I fear, concern will be even greater.

The people that have built a food community that excited BoxPark enough to bring it here deserve to be recognised, remembered and celebrated.

South Croydon has a “Restaurant Quarter” that, on the face of it, seems to be struggling. Pizza Express – a good corporate bellwether of commercial viability – recently pulled its outlet from the area.

In South End we have tens of independents that could do with more support. Not once have I seen a queue outside the door of a restaurant here. Yet BoxPark will bring 20+ more food and drink options to a town that can’t quite keep its current crop alive.

Yes, BoxPark will attract its own crowd, and will hang on to some after workers who otherwise may have fled elsewhere. I hope it also, through support of local businesses, and the championing of good food at sensible prices, encourages people to go off site – to explore Croydon and the other modest selection of eats and drinks we have to offer.

Come September we must remember the people that excite us now. The crushed-and-smooth-beaners, the Matthew’s Yarders, the old timers and the trying harders. We need to keep the scene alive beyond the temporary tin roofs of shipping containers. We must tell our friends over beer at BoxPark of great pizzas at 500degrees, and heady Pho at Viet2Go. The future of food in Croydon can’t be constrained to a container park by the station. If it is, the creative, bold and ambitious businesses that might just spark the next ‘big idea’ will be forced into a box of their own.

Follow @eatscroydon on instagram for more updates from Croydon’s restaurants, bars and food shops.

Grenada: Chocolate in the Caribbean

Grenada: Chocolate in the Caribbean

Originally published in CityAM on 3rd May 2016.

Sitting outside the front of the Spice Island Beach Resort I asked a young bellman where he would go to get the best food on the island of Grenada. He smiled, his eyes glazed over and he described how his mother makes the local porridge called tanya log. “She puts bay leaves and nutmeg into the porridge and stirs until the mixture thickens.”

He mimicked scooping it out of a bowl with his fingers. “Hmm, it is just simple food, you know, but it warms you.”

I had travelled to this island on the southern tip of the Grenadine Archipelago in search of an authentic taste of the Caribbean and I had found a man who might help me get the experience I was looking for.

Grenada is often referred to as the Island of Spice. Its main export crops have traditionally been nutmeg and mace. Historically Europeans believed that nutmeg had the power to ward off viruses like the common cold; they even thought that it could prevent the bubonic plague. As a result the spice has, at times, been worth more than its weight in gold.

More recently it is Grenada’s cocoa trees that have been sparkling. A boom in the trend for ‘bean to bar’ chocolate making has delivered entrepreneurs from the US and the UK to the Caribbean islands searching not for beaches and rum, but for world class cocoa, gilded by the chocolate tasters with awards and medals.

The craft chocolate industry is unlike other highly sought after delicacies. Imagine a world in which France made no wine, exporting all its grapes elsewhere to be bottled in huge steel vats. Imagine a wine producer marketing their product as ‘vine to bottle’, and that being unusual.

This is the reality for chocolate. Most cocoa growing countries don’t make any chocolate, and most chocolate you will buy in our shops will contain a mix of cocoa, bought for its low-price alone. The concept of terroir, so lauded amongst oenophiles, is lost in the mix.

Grenadian chocolate is different – The Grenada Chocolate Company, started by the late Mott Green in 1999, has been producing ‘tree to bar’ chocolate on the island since 1999 and has attracted significant acclaim. Remarkably, by keeping the processing and packaging of chocolate within Grenada, Green established the first and only chocolate-making company in a cocoa-producing country.

Working with small cocoa farmers and demanding that all his cocoa was certified organic, Green was able to control the quality of cocoa beans he bought, increase price paid to the farmer and crucially remove the best chocolate from the government supported cocoa cooperatives that still sell in bulk to the mass market chocolate producers. It was a simple idea that allowed the quality of Grenada’s cocoa to be recognised internationally.

The craft chocolate industry has taken note and among the cruise ship tourists visiting the factory’s outlet at the Belmont Estate are a steady stream of new wave ‘bean to bar’ chocolatiers, coming here as a sort of pilgrimage to the sustainable, ethical, quality driven operation that the Grenada Chocolate Company has come to represent.

I drove up to visit the factory from my base at the impeccable Spice Island Resort. The location ticks every magical desert island box; palm trees, white sand, clear blue seas – check. The hotel is both close to the airport and sits right on the quiet end of the spectacular Grand Anse beach.

The southern tip of the island is the ideal place to stay, and such short transfers to incredible beaches are increasingly rare. Any concern over an extra hour flight time from a stopover in St Lucia will evaporate when you realise you’ll be by the pool with cocktail in hand within half an hour of hitting the tarmac.

If the south is the place to relax, the north of the island, with its lush rainforests and rugged coastline is the place to explore.

I suggest heading up the winding roads above picturesque capital St George’s then heading east and inland to cut across the island. You’ll wind towards The Belmont Estate to see and buy that chocolate, and then carry on to the River Antoine Rum Distillery.

Here, the flavour takes a back seat because at 150 proof (75 per cent alcohol) the rum bottled at River Antoine is hard to enjoy. Like liquid bleach, lighter fluid and tear gas, it’s also illegal to carry on an aeroplane. The tour of the buildings (unchanged since 1785) is well worth doing even if the tasting session at the end is guaranteed to leave you speechless.

On another day I stuck to the coast road out of St George and passed colourful roadside rum shacks with knockout views (stop for a beer, a Ting, or a barbecued ear of corn at Charlie’s Bar) before coming into the seaside towns of Victoria and Gouyave.

If you’re on the island on the last Saturday of the month then Victoria hosts the Sunset City Food Festival. The food loving bellman at the Spice Island resort tells me is the best place to get the full flavour of the island. He insists you try the tanya log, fresh sour sop ice-cream and punches topped with grated nutmeg.

The Friday fish fry at Gouyave is also worth a visit. Starting around 6pm and ending late it’s slightly rougher around the edges than the more tourist focussed events of some of the bigger Caribbean islands but the locals will be there and the steel drums will be playing. Grenadians like their rum, so be prepared for a lively time and plenty of dancing. Have a good browse of the stands before diving in – don’t miss the jerked marlin, fry jacks, and of course some beers to wash it all down. (It’s probably worth hiring a driver for this one!)

If street food’s not your thing then most of the resorts and hotels on Grenada have more formal restaurants attached. The beach-side Oliver’s Restaurant at the Spice Island resort is widely touted as the pick of the bunch but the meals I ate there were slightly dumbed-down in a way that hotel food often is.

If you stick to island specialities – the headily spiced soft blood sausage with eggs at breakfast and homemade nutmeg ice cream in the heat of the afternoon stick in the memory – you should eat very well.

The restaurants and the roadside rum-shacks may not be attracting the accolades of the Michelin inspectors any time soon; but the chance to combine golden beaches, guaranteed sunshine and medal-winning chocolate makes Grenada well worth a culinary diversion.



Originally published in CityAM on 26th April 2016.

I have, over the years, learnt to read the restaurant warning signs. There is an inverse relationship between the height of a meal and its value. Has the restaurant got a view? Careful. Need to take a lift? Alarm bells. Cable car? ABORT, ABORT! Generally, hotels don’t fare much better, and art galleries are a certain dud.

Kojawan, a new venture by Bjorn Van Der (Greenhouse, La Noisette, Eastside Inn) and Omar Romero (Rhodes Twenty Four, Rosewood), is on the 23rd floor of the Hilton Metropole Hotel. It’s their version of an Izakaya. a Japanese gastro-pub in the West London sky. You get to the restaurant by wandering through the hotel lobby and taking a lift. They have art, specially made, on the walls.

Everything I had read about Kojawan confused me. The name itself – an awkward portmanteau of Korea, Japan and Taiwan – didn’t make much sense. Its location, on a roundabout at the end of the Edgware Road, didn’t make sense.

And the descriptions in the PR bumf: “A relaxed drinking and dining space-age art gallery with a zany futuristic vibe” that dishes up “imaginative Asian-fusion snacks and drinks served in a space-age hotel setting with panoramic views” were so nonsensical I wanted to go full Godzilla on London and all the ridiculous concept restaurants within it.

So, expecting something overpriced and underwhelming, I make sure we arrive early enough to see the sunset over London – at least there will be a view to enjoy. As the sun dips below the horizon, the sky fades from blue through pink, and the room seems to launch itself gently into the night. The atmosphere and the buzz of the city outside creeps in and I realise I’m enjoying myself.

Bar snacks include strips of Korean Fried Chicken served with ‘K-chup’ and a buttery hollandaise so thick I have to bypass my desire for a long life to finish it. Crispy sesame wafers come with a warm chilli pork dipping sauce that gently tickles the back of the throat.

Cocktails are carefully made and presented in a way that’s fun, without being gimmicky. We drink an Astro Pussy (a boozy rice milkshake) from a Maneki-Neko – a lucky, waving porcelain cat – and a Nikironi (a classy Japanese play on a negroni) cooled by an asteroid made of ice.

We move to the dining room for more of the same. From the raw bar the cobia blue sashimi served with wafer slices of breakfast radish and a citrus soy dressing is as bright and modern as the surroundings.

A generous pile of deeply charred octopus from the grill, smothered in smoky red pepper oil comes alive with a squeeze of lemon; its link to Asian-fusion is unclear, but the taste is irrefutable. Beef cheek with chilli, ginger and sesame, cooked long and slow, holds form just enough not to yield under the pressure from eager chopsticks. A plate of various styles of kimchi includes cabbage, pineapple and baby cucumber but will, I’m told, change with the seasons.

A fusion twist on spaghetti vongole sees fat udon noodles paired with clams, Parmesan and fish flakes that appear to dance under the hot pot lid. It’s delicious – as satisfying as any version of the Italian original.

We finish with PanTako – fluffy pancakes filled with white chocolate, berries and crispy coconut – which could be a meal on its own, but shared between two it rounds things off nicely. Our waiter’s invitation to get stuck in with our hands is fitting – this is a pudding to pick up and chomp.

There are a few dud moments. A stone bass poke feels clumsy, with too much rice, and falls flat against the brightness of everything else, and curling a frozen lime topping onto the only beer you serve seems a strange way to run a pub, Izakaya in-the sky or otherwise.

Service is excellent. Everyone seems genuinely happy to be involved, which they’ll claim, I think, is down to an end-to-end commitment to sustainability. If I remember rightly, the staff have been grown offshore in organic farms then shipped over on ice from Peru, the fish on the raw bar are paid a living wage, and there is, consequently, no service charge expected (unless you want to slap down some cash, in which case they’ll take it).

Kojawan is a confusing sky-high retro-futuristic art-gallery in a hotel with a view – but it’s fun and it’s fairly priced and that’s good for London. For the first time in my restaurant-going memory, I took the lift down and left on a high.

The Bermondsey Yard Cafe, SE1

The Bermondsey Yard Cafe, SE1

Originally published in CityAM on 17 November 2015

The times they are a changin’ down on Bermondsey Street. One of the finest Italian kitchens in London and a long-time standard bearer of transpontine dining, is set to close before Christmas. Rising rent prices have reportedly forced the closure. The arrival of Fulham Shore-owned Franco Manca further points to an area of London commanding increasingly high rents.

This has led to an inevitable land-grab. The latest reclaimed space to open its doors is The Bermondsey Yard Cafe. Occupying a former car park at the very north end of the street, the entrance is tucked round the back of a building and is, when I first tried to visit, not particularly welcoming.

I swung open the heavy iron gate and found the door. Behind it was someone looking at a laptop. I asked if I could eat.

“No, we’re closed,” she said.

“It’s just that your Facebook page, your sign outside and your website say you’re open.”

“Ah. Yeah, sorry, we’re closed.”

It’s a rough start, for sure, but everyone deserves a second chance. So I went back for lunch a week later and this time they were miraculously open. The menu is slightly different from what I expected – things arranged on toast, things arranged on boards – there’s little to order that requires more than a quick squizz under a salamander. It’s very much a cafe, rather than a dining, concept. There is no sign of the splashes of colour or the cosy booths described online. It’s a stark, cold, industrial space, all bare brick, painted concrete floor and a sweeping wooden bar.

The charcuterie board I ended up with beheld beautifully arranged meats served with lightly-grilled artichoke hearts and sharp, caper berries. A pistachio cookie, pomegranate and chopped date trifle sounds good, but failed to meet expectations. A biscuit topped with cream does not a trifle make.

But there remained enough hope for me to try again in the evening. The menu, now slightly closer to that advertised on the web and outside, is still a little disjointed and we find it difficult to put together a coherent meal. Apart from a soup of the day (red lentil, not ordered) little fits the bill as a starter.

We shared some padron peppers and an assembly of butternut squash, ricotta and hazelnuts. The peppers lack the blistered blackness that makes them sing, the three thick wedges of squash are blackened on the outside and raw within. The cooking of a pumpkin softens the flesh, caramelises the sugars and allows Americans to push it into a pie for pudding but we needed a knife to carve into it.

A minute steak was topped with a whole roasted shallot and lay over two Stilton croquettes; three good things that would have been more impressive had they not been clumsily piled on top of each other.

We also try a venison tagliata, perfectly-cooked and sliced thin, that is fanned across a king-size bed of red mustard frills and blanketed with Parmesan. It’s nice, in parts, but it doesn’t work as a main course.

A flourless chocolate rosewater cake with milk ice cream and blackberries starts to lift the spirits and a plate of cheeses from Neal’s Yard is generous, served French-style, with decent bread from Flour Station.

The Bermondsey Yard Cafe is an interesting space, with its outside space and DJ booth, has potential to be a great venue, especially when it simply assembles great local ingredients.

But it fails to shine next to other great Bermondsey restaurants like José, Village East, and Casse-Croûte, who continue to thrive, serving authentically dazzling food at reasonable prices.

The Bermondsey Yard Cafe is a curious, spacious, diversion from a host of more brilliant, intimate restaurants down the road, meaning it’s a sign of the times rather than the start of a trend.

Hoppers, W1

Hoppers, W1

Originally published in CityAM on 4 November 2015

Sometimes I want to sit down in a restaurant, eat and be gone. Sometimes I want to move in, stay for a while, invite friends, meet the restaurant’s parents, marry the place and have a baby.

If I were to marry a restaurant, though, a more sensible betrothal would be to one of Hoppers’ siblings Trishna or Gymkhana – also owned by real-life siblings Karam, Jyotin and Sunaina Sethi – which are both mature, classy establishments with Michelin stars.

Hoppers is young and a little more casual. Focusing on Sri Lankan and South Indian cooking, it sits back on Frith Street in the building formerly occupied by Koya. Staff wear maroon polo shirts, the sound system plays indian electro-pop, and cane backed office chairs complete the chuck-me-a-tinny clubhouse vibe that’s so different from Trishna you have to question its lineage.

The waiter introduced me to the menu, and a furtive glance at the soft drinks list had me come over all light headed. A black pepper cream soda was crisp and refreshing, delicately balanced with spice and vanilla. They zhuzh it up in a soda stream out back. The sweetness is dialled right down: it is grown up but nostalgic. The curry leaf buttermilk is just as good. At this point – just seven minutes in – my pulse was already raised and my pupils dilated. I turned over the menu to look at the food.

“Give me everything. All of it at once.” I gasped breathlessly at the waiter. I checked myself and took a moment. Jumping out at me from amongst the mutton rolls and duck roti was chicken heart chukka, a fragrant dry-fry of tender meat, onions and sweet cherry tomatoes. Perfect poppers to compliment those drinks.

For a long time the finest dish containing bone marrow was to be found at St John. A slice of its toasted sourdough, spread with blobs of marrow – such rich reward for all that digging – topped with parsley and shallots, and sprinkled with salt was the thing of legend. Much imitated, never bettered. Until now.

Bonemarrow varuval roti. Roll it around your mouth; just saying it prepares you for the fun to come. Three half bones, stacked, and smothered in a masala sauce. Unless you are with unusually polite company I recommend ditching the marrow spoon and diving in face first. Scoop up what you can from the hollow with your tongue and nibble any remaining meat from the ends. Dip your flakey, buttery dosa deep into the sauce, shut your eyes, lick your fingers, sigh. It is glorious, messy work. There’s a wet wipe for after.

If you don’t want to peak too early, order this dish at the end, and that’s not to belittle the rest of the menu.

The eponymous hoppers are the main event. Similar to the more common dosa (also served here), hoppers are a fermented rice and coconut pancake, shaped like a deep sided bowl. At the bottom of my egg hopper sits a fried egg, its yolk a deep, oozy orange. The accompanying sambals – coconutty fish, coriander and caramelised onion – are best scooped up with the bowl’s crispy edges.

You can spoon your curry in at the end, or just eat it the same way, picking it up with the hopper dough. Either way it’s delicious. The dark, caramelised meat of the black pork kari is rich and sweet and fiery.

The dessert menu is just as alluring. I had to avoid the love cake for fear of a broken heart and instead cooled down with roasted rice kulfi. Served in a sundae bowl with green pandan jelly, the juicy flesh of rambutan fruit and slippery balls of pink tapioca might not be everyone’s cup of chai.

Please, come here with friends. Try everything. You might not meet a restaurant this good again. For the record, I kept the menu. I’m going to take it home, hang it beside my bed and kiss it before I go to sleep at night.

I am struggling for negatives, can you tell? You can’t book. Does that matter? There are likely to be queues. Long ones. The length of a test match, not a one-day game. But with flavours as sublime as a Sangakkara cover drive, I can guarantee the food-baby you’ll have together will be worth waiting in line for.