Thursday, 22 June 2017

Plaquemine Lock

Plaquemine Lock is the new incarnation of the refurbished Prince of Wales pub, appropriately situated near the lock on Regent's Canal at Angel Islington. It serves mainly London craft beers, a carefully curated selection of wines, a few potent cocktails — and an exciting seasonal menu of Cajun and Creole food.

There is a wonderful story behind the pub's name, menu and entire ethos; settle down and bear with, reader, you'll like this. Plaquemine, Louisiana is a city in Baton Rouge where — you guessed it — a lock was built in 1909 to connect the trade routes of the Mississippi to the Louisiana Bayou. The project brought together two young people — civil engineer Jacob Hortenstein and Carrie Beth Schwing. Carrie was Louisiana gentry, the daughter of successful local businessman Dr Samuel Schwing; she officially opened the new lock by smashing a bottle of champagne against it as the first boat passed through, which happened to be a steamboat named after her.

Carrie and Jacob married and had a daughter, Virginia, who became an artist, actress and socialite. Virginia married and had a daughter, Haidee, who is now a successful London-based artist and the creator of the murals inside the pub. Haidee married and had a daughter and a son, Jacob - Chef Jacob Kenedy, chef patron/owner of Bocca di Lupo, Gelupo, Vico - and Plaquemine Lock. How cool is that? (See, I told you you'd like it.)

So back to the present day and, with a new appreciation of my surroundings, I turned to the menu.

Whilst deciding we had a bag of cracklins, little spiced crispy nuggets of pork belly, and an elegant sharpener from the cocktail menu, a Pear 75 - Plaquemine Lock's take on the French 75 but with Miclo Poire William instead of gin. I'm not sure this was the most obvious choice of pairing on my part (I think the punchy snacks would be an excellent accompaniment to a cold beer) but I wasn't about to miss the snacks and these Luisian-inspired cocktails made me feel very southern belle; after all, a girl has to get in character.

We started with the mini crab cakes. There is no world in which crab cakes are on the menu and I won't order them. These were the home-made kind of delicious, which I mean as a great compliment. Allow me to explain. Some foods you want to be delicate, precise and refined: souffl├ęs, mille feuilles, sandwiches at afternoon tea. Crab cakes, for me, are not that kind of food. I want them to look like they've been deftly squished together between capable palms, possibly rolled in a coating of some kind (that's optional) and thrown into a pan. These delivered: crispy, golden exterior, beautifully seasoned, packed with flavour and served with a spicy mayo.

We then dived straight in to the mains with a plate of boiled crawfish; a huge, heaped platter of spectacular creatures that are basically mini lobsters. Instagrammers, this is your #nofilter moment.

Plaquemine Lock's menu very helpfully not only contains a glossary of culinary terms so that you can tell your grits from your gumbo, but also a step-by-step guide to disassembling a crawfish: basically, twist the tail to remove, peel a segment of shell off to reveal the meat and then squeeze to release. I confess I have a weakness for interactive food; I love eating with my fingers, dipping, peeling, scooping and sharing. This was lots of fun — but be prepared to get messy.

You can't really go to a Cajun/Creole restaurant and not try the gumbo. This was one of my favourite dishes — a delicious hearty, spicy, thickened soup with okra, chicken, shrimp and andouille sausage served over rice. I'm writing this in the middle of a London heatwave but I can imagine an autumnal walk along the canal ending with a huge bowl of this and a craft beer.

My companion had a fried shrimp po'boy, a soft white roll with shrimp, lettuce, tomato and pickles; I was pacing myself but did have a tiny taste (obvs).

This I felt was good, if unexceptional; but to be fair it is, by definition, a relatively plain dish. It originated as a large sandwich given free to the 'poor boys', striking streetcar conductors, as a gesture of support and solidarity from a New Orleans coffee shop which was owned by two brothers who were both ex-streetcar conductors. Nowadays, I can see it as a great pitstop option with a beer if you don't want a full meal, or you don't like things too spicy.

I opted for shrimp 'n' grits with bacon and butter. For those who aren't yet familiar with traditional southern fare (though get ready guys, I have a feeling we'll be seeing more as the year unfolds), grits refers to corn porridge a little like soft polenta, used as a base for those big Louisiana flavours. I liked this a lot — creamy, soothing and spiked with bacon, spring onion and shrimp.

We then ordered six Oysters Rockafella. The original Oysters Rockefeller recipe is a secret; on my next visit (for there absolutely will be a next visit) I will try and corner the chef and tease his version out, as these were delicious and indulgently rich. I can only tell you that the famous green colour comes here from spinach creamed with absinthe. Hell, yeah.

As you can see, we had gamely eaten our way through pretty much the whole menu (you're welcome, dear reader) and were seriously flagging by the time it came to dessert. The most we could manage was a shared beignets and coffee but I'm so glad we did. Whatever you do, don't miss these — they are light, fresh and utterly divine.

Yours, puttin' some South in my mouth,
London Girl About Town xx

Monday, 19 June 2017

Small Plate Sessions at the Last Days of Shoreditch

You know summer is really here when London's rooftop bars, terraces and outdoor spaces start opening up - including the Last Days of Shoreditch, East London's iconic food and music venue. For those who missed my last blog post (What?? No excuses - go back and read it now!) and in the interests of full disclosure and transparency,  I have been to a couple of Chef Ben Spalding dinners recently as a guest - although this particular visit was as a normal ticket-buying foodie. I mention this only because he has a restaurant residency in the heart of the site and, as a self-confessed fan, I was queueing up to check it out.

The restaurant is the raised, mezzanine part of Last Days of Shoreditch; I visited on the first weekend of opening and the signage wasn't immediately obvious but then you can't really miss it -  in a wonderfully fun and quirky touch, you take stairs up . . . and a slide on the way down!

The restaurant itself is only about 45 covers so there is a fabulous view of the kitchen, where you can watch Ben and his head chef Josh work their magic.

If there is ever a chance of a seat where you get to see the chefs work I am absolutely there. I am endlessly fascinated by the process and the sheer skill involved and I find it humbling to see the energy, passion and focus that goes into every plate.

I had to have the now-famous chicken skin sandwich; literally a sandwich made with thin crispy chicken skin instead of bread - step right up, low-carb Lean in Fifteeners!

Reading the description, I wasn't completely sure about the chicken skin element but actually it is delicious - very light and not at all oily (in other words, not remotely dense and pork scratchings-esque, which was my fear) but still full of that lovely roast flavour. I'm such a convert that I am definitely trying this at home; I'm thinking of mini versions as drinks/pre-BBQ nibbles? 

This was one of the stand-out dishes of the day for me; mackerel cured in Hythe seawater and served with mint, aromatic mango and a Marmite and sourdough mayonnaise. Fear not, haters; you can't actually taste Marmite as such, there's just a light umami tang that beautifully balances out the natural delicacy of the mackerel, paired with the freshness of mango. This is a gorgeous and beautifully plated, summery dish that lets the ingredients shine.

Those of you who have read my Meat Lust BBQ bus tour blog from February (Aw thanks guys! Love you too!) will know how excited I was to finally get to try this Ben Spalding signature dish for the first time.

Ben has changed it up for the restaurant with a duck version and I was not about to miss it in its new incarnation. It didn't disappoint; the creamy richness of the duck set off by the dark caramel notes . . . and that's without the inevitably wonderful people-watching opportunities, as the way you get both together is to lick the parfait off the brick - no cutlery allowed! (Is this the perfect ice-breaker dish for a first date?)

Next up was the beef shortrib. I am not sure how Ben manages to coax such intensity of flavour out of beef but this is fabulous - yielding, rich, intensely meaty. This was a dish from the terrace and so had been cooked on a Mibrasa charcoal oven to give it that delicious barbecue hit. 

The terrace is hands down the best vantage point at Last Days of Shoreditch. This picture was taken as it had just opened - an hour later it was at capacity and people were being turned away at the door (which is good, as they never let it get uncomfortably, heavingly busy - just full and buzzy). The restaurant is bookable on Chef Ben Spalding's website but the terrace is no-reservation; I found that, if you arrive early enough, you can nab a pretty good spot, grab a drink, order your food and  sit back to watch London at play. 

I had a cocktail from the restaurant bar and my companion went for a craft beer from the Gipsy Hill Brewery. My only small gripe would be that, on my visit, wine was only available by the bottle and, with a beer-drinking companion, I would have liked the option of a glass (or two). 
So, on to desserts. Lemongrass Vs Ginger is a light, airy lemongrass cream with a lemongrass puree, zingy, crispy ginger and iced lemon thyme. I'm not normally a sweet person, (yep, not in that way either) but this was good - cool, creamy and refreshing at the same time.

Silky charcoal fudge is given a kick with the inclusion of the Ribman's famous (or perhaps infamous) Holy Fuck sauce, made from scotch bonnet peppers and naga jolokia chillies. It sounds odd, but it really, really works; there is the sweetness of the fudge and then a gentle tingle of warmth from the sauce, which seems to wake up your tastebuds and intensify the depth of chocolate taste. Again, I don't have a sweet tooth but I would say this could be a sharing dish, it's a generous portion. Oh - did I mention it's splashed with rum and SET ON FIRE? Yep.  Welcome to Small Plate Sessions.

The live DJ sets happen immediately beneath the restaurant and terrace, so there is a seriously cool soundtrack to your evening. We stopped by here after dinner and chilled out with a drink to sets (Ben also curates the music on certain nights, under his PuzzleProjects banner) by Ray Mang and Chuggin Edits; it's not often that you get both food and music by such respected names in one place. For those, like me, who love the quality and imagination of seriously good food but don't like the stuffiness, formality, self-importance and price tag that normally goes with, then this is your spot.

We also had a wander around the rest of the site; we had stuffed ourselves so much that we didn't have room for anything from the food stalls but somehow managed a cheeky jug of Pimms and a longing look at the deckchairs. All in all, a pretty fabulous Friday night. Well hello summer . . .  I've missed you. 

Yours, loving the summer evening one-stop shop, 
London Girl About Town xx