DUCK DUCK GOOSE

Modern Cantonese cuisine in a Brixton shipping container.

Shocking as it may sound, being welcomed with a performance fit for the Queen of Sheba (whilst wearing a baseball cap and tracksuit bottoms) by an eccentric, off-duty actor-come-waiter was NOT the most exciting thing that happened inside the Brixton shipping container currently inhabited by Duck Duck Goose, the evening I elected to try it. And though I appreciate a quintessentially London experience more than your average joe, the afore-mentioned waiter was in fact upstaged by a glistening breast of Cantonese BBQ duck. But I digress, for much theatre occurred at my  3' x 3' formica table before the arrival of the main act, and it must be discussed...

For those not in 'the know', Duck Duck Goose is the newest resident of Pop Brixton, founded by chef Oli Brown. Oli previously worked for the renowned Rowley's Steak House, coincidentally alongside Will Bowlby (co-founder of the immensely successful Kricket, which left its residency at Pop Brixton this year for a permanent bricks and mortar site in Soho). Its safe to say Oli knows a thing or two about how to cook a beautiful piece of meat, but there is so much more to his genius - and he is using it to completely reinvent Cantonese cuisine as we know it. Up until now, Cantonese food in London has very much remained within the vibrant streets connecting Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus, at the hit-or-miss restaurants of Chinatown. (The Hippodrome is not the only place you might take a gamble in China Town - the last time I dined there I let the waiter choose my meal and was consequently served a bowl of congealed pork fat with coarse hairs floating through it...) But Oli has taken all the best bits (namely BBQ meat and prawn toast) and presented them in a simplistic, small plates format - which, as we know, is the height of culinary fashion right now. 

I had attempted to visit Duck Duck Goose thrice (for various reasons it never quite worked out) before I eventually did. Each time, Oli would be sitting on a bench outside his shipping container sometimes working on his laptop, and ALWAYS looking exhausted. Ahh - the sign of a true chef. And when I finally ate at his restaurant, my suspicions were confirmed that his sweat, blood (and probably tears) had gone into the creating of it. But Oli, if you're reading - it was SO worth it.

Prawn toast...revisited. Prawn mousse on toast topped with Kewpie mayonnaise and bonito flakes.

Prawn toast...revisited. Prawn mousse on toast topped with Kewpie mayonnaise and bonito flakes.

Once seated by my prima-donna waiter, I ordered a craft beer (they offer a niche little selection) while I 'perused' a menu that I had already studied online 14 times. I chose the Prawn Toast, followed by a mixed platter of BBQ Duck Breast and Pig Neck, and I made sure to play out the facade of asking questions before making my final decision, so that the waiter was unaware of how much I had been fan-girling online prior to the meal. Who am I kidding - he was an actor. I'll bet he saw right through me. 

While I relentlessly photographed every inch of the shipping container, the Prawn Toast arrived. It was divine - and just plain exciting to eat. Oli has completely reinvented this once-bog-standard takeaway appetiser with a generous dollop of home-made prawn mousse and two other ingredients (which I had to look up): Kewpie mayonnaise and bonito flakes. The former being Japan's answer to the nation's favourite condiment, and the latter wafer thin, smokey strips of dried fish. The dish was an explosion of flavour and colour -  salty, smokey, tangy, with beautiful hues of pink. It was a little tricky to eat with my allocated utensils (chopsticks and a small spoon) but I improvised. By that I mean I used my fingers, and licked them clean with utter satisfaction (my mother's attempts at teaching me table manners were clearly futile). 

Next up, a giant metal platter was brought to the table (with a song and dance from my favourite waiter). I struggle to find words that will do justice to what was on that plate. Sweet, succulent pieces of meat, barbecued and glazed with meticulous care, and served with home-made pickles, plum sauce and mustard. The marriage of flavour was once again a delight to the tastebuds, and the tenderness of the meat was absolutely spot-on. I devoured the lot, and at approx. £30 it was the perfect amount at a refreshing price. 

I was triumphant having FINALLY dined here - more so because it exceeded every one of my exceedingly high expectations. The hype for this place is real. 

10/10.

BLACKLOCK

It was key fam.

"All In" £20 per head | Parmesan kale, beef dripping chips, pork chop, lamb chop, and rare steak on top of a rosemary, meat-soaked flatbread.

"All In" £20 per head | Parmesan kale, beef dripping chips, pork chop, lamb chop, and rare steak on top of a rosemary, meat-soaked flatbread.

Unless specifically looking for an edgy Soho Chop House, you certainly wouldn't notice Blacklock amongst its neighbouring establishments. Finding it is like locating a sliver of unsullied glass between a brick-a-brack of neon and grime. In the heart of the theatre district and two doors down from the gaudy Windmill International strip club, Blacklock is neat as a pin, and screams Fika rather than flatiron steak. At first glance, it could be the entrance to a nordic spa: through the door and two windows one can see nothing but a dimly-lit hallway bearing a few stylish house plants, and a glimpse of a staircase - the architecture more residential than that of a hot London eatery. The only indicator that it is in fact a restaurant, is the gaggle of young Asians in Yeezy's who enter and then disappointedly walk back out a few moments later. (Two sure signs of hype in London: fresh-dressed Asians, and restaurants so edgy that they turn even fresh-dressed Asians away).

For those unaware, Blacklock (founded by three former employee's of the renowned Hawksmoor chain) is a restaurant dedicated entirely to chops and situated in an old Soho brothel. We arrived at 7pm, and weren't seated until 9:15pm - but this, we had prepared for. (Lewis had dined here a couple of times before and knew the drill). We left a phone number with the maître-d', and headed around the corner to Mr Fogg's Tavern for an aperitif. Mr Fogg's Soho is split into two floors: The Tavern and The Gin Parlour (which is a reservations-only private sitting room serving the finest G&Ts in London). We tanned* a few negroni's at the Tavern before bumping into the manager who found us a cosy sofa upstairs in the Parlour (Lewis is a designer at the head office of the brand that own this venue), where we were brought two iced goblets of VII Hills (his own brand of Italian gin) with tonic. It was beautifully crisp and herbal - perfect served over their signature hand-cut ice cubes, but I was getting hungry - so we polished them off and made our way back to Blacklock to dine.

roaring conversation and wafts of barbecued chops drift in and out of your ears and nostrils, creating an atmosphere in which you at once feel both safe and dangerous. 

Blacklock's basement (where the actual restaurant is situated) is a stark contrast to the hygge you encounter at the top of the stairs: as you descend the staircase you are immersed into a loud, dark pit of fantastic smells and electrifying ambience. The decor is simple: white brick walls, dark wood tables, and four central pillars which act as blackboards with the day's specials scrawled across them. There is no background music and minimal light; instead, roaring conversation and wafts of barbecued chops drift in and out of your ears and nostrils, creating an atmosphere in which you at once feel both safe and dangerous. 

We were seated right next to the open kitchen, where a brassy waitress appeared almost immediately at the table to explain the menu. We were recommended the 'All-In' deal which, at £20 per head, offered a selection of 'pre-chop' amuse-bouche to start, followed by Blacklock's signature skinny chops to share with sides. Instantly enticed, we ordered this with a carafe of Albariño. The appetisers arrived promptly and consisted of three delicious options: egg mayo + anchovy, stilton + pickle and pig's head + kimchee; the egg being my favourite. The bites were delicately put together, resulting in such harmonious flavours: amuse-bouche that does exactly as it says on the tin. We had a short wait before the main event was brought to the table (in three stages due to the volume of food). First came each of the sides we had selected: parmesan kale and beef dripping chips, which were swiftly followed by the skinny chops (a mountain of tender pork, lamb and beef chops emitting a scent that could turn a hardcore vegan carnivorous) - the waiter explained that underneath the chops was a piece of rosemary flatbread soaking up the juices, which was to be eaten at the end - that's if we could actually make a dent in the mass of meat atop.

Kale is something I’ve never really gotten down with - it is a fad favoured by the millennial basic bitch, and is something I normally skim past on a menu...I stand corrected. Blacklock do millennial cabbage just as well as they do meat.

Prior to digging into this glutinous fare, I remained adamant that the best chop house in the UK was Linlithgow's Champany Inn - I now stand corrected.  The chops were cooked to perfection, the fat melting in one's mouth like butter. The beef-dripping chips need not an explanation - they were are as good as they sound - but the kale! It was citrusy, tangy and a welcome accompaniment to the rich flavour of the meat. Kale is something I've never really gotten down with - it is a fad favoured by the millennial basic bitch, and is something I normally skim past on a menu - for in my mind, it is chewy, scratchy and tasteless. I was surprised when Lewis (a man who rotates between chilli, burgers, and pizza for dinner) suggested it - but I'm glad he did, for again, I stand corrected. Blacklock do millennial cabbage just as well as they do meat. The true highlight for me, however, was the rosemary flatbread. Albeit forced into an already full stomach, it was the perfect conclusion to our dinner: a juicy reminder of every meaty, salty, garlicky note of flavour sampled in the meal. 

With my only gripe being the ruthless-yet-professional waitress (who turned her back and left the table mid-conversation once the bill was paid), I can safely vouch for not only the immersive experience Blacklock offers, but the reasonably-priced and incredibly high-quality food they have on their swanky little menu. 

10/10.

*Tan - a very Scottish way of saying one downed one's drink.

OTHER SIDE FRIED

The grass really is greener...

The Buffalo Fried Chicken Burger @ OSFC Pop Brixton | Photograph Titi Finlay 2017 | Man got dat WoodWood bomber. 

The Buffalo Fried Chicken Burger @ OSFC Pop Brixton | Photograph Titi Finlay 2017 | Man got dat WoodWood bomber. 

I remember the first time I fantasised about food. I had tried oysters for the first time at The Witchery in Edinburgh's Old Town - served on a bed of crushed ice with Tabasco, lemon and accompanied by champagne (obviously). For days after, all I could think about was swallowing those oysters - the flavour, the coldness, the sensation - I was salivating over the idea of the slimy f**kers like a half-starved sea witch. No wonder they are celebrated as the King of aphrodisiacs - I was thinking about them more than my own boyfriend... (If you've stopped reading for fear I may be a crazed shellfish-ophile - I swear I'm going somewhere with this.)

I can thankfully confirm that my sexualising-of-seafood days are behind me - and since then, nothing has roused one's salivary glands in quite the same manner. That is, until I took a walk on the wild side. And by 'wild side' I mean Station Road, Brixton. You'll have heard a plethora of my rantings and ravings about Pop Brixton by now - but they are not unwarranted. One of it's most recent tenants is Other Side Fried Chicken - twice fried buttermilk chicken, drenched in ranch, honey butter and hot sauce and sandwiched between two glossy halves of potato bun - as the guys at OSFC say, its "dirty done proper". OSFC is the lovechild of Brixton boys Matt and Tommy, who honed their craft by trading out of the back of a converted ambulance at renowned street food markets across London, before returning home to the borough that does fried chicken better than anywhere else - Brixton!

Albeit a little messy to eat, it was hands-down one of the best things I have ever shoved down my gullet...

I can't actually begin to describe how good this burger is. Man got a solid 4.9. (If you don't get the reference, click here.) A dreadlocked youth behind the counter recommended I try the Buffalo Chicken Burger, which I ordered with a side of 'dirty' fries and a beer. It was a rainy day, so rather than doing my usual rounds (I like to pop off to Make-Do-and-Mend Vintage while my food is being prepared), I elected to remain at the OSFC kiosk, and consequently witnessed the labour of love that goes into the making of one of these beautiful burgers. Disclaimer: they really do fry it twice!

Albeit a little messy to eat, it was hands-down one of the best things I have ever shoved down my gullet, and for days - no, WEEKS after, all I could think of was that hot sauce and ranch running down my chin as I tore into the succulent chicken breast.....and as things are getting alarmingly sexual again, I will bring this article to a close! 

If it is comfort food which you seek (or, like me, food porn) then hit up Other Side Fried and try one of these bangin' burgers! There is a quote I love from Kathryn Stockett's 'The Help', which is as simple and mighty as the food it alludes to: "Fried chicken just tend to make you feel better about life." It sure as hell does!

Pengest munch in London.

WHAT'S THE CHAAT?

The story of how I came to manage an Indian street food restaurant...

Street Chaat selection at Chit Chaat Chai, Wandsworth Town | Photo by Titi Finlay 2016

Street Chaat selection at Chit Chaat Chai, Wandsworth Town | Photo by Titi Finlay 2016

It was never my ambition to be the manager of an Indian Street Food restaurant. In fact, when I moved to London 2 years ago, I had intended to pursue a career in the arts, using the street culture of London as a source of inspiration (my artwork is predominantly based on subcultures, protest and rebellion). And though that may still be the case one day, London's street culture has lead me down a very different path - one where I have been able to sculpt a career that encompasses each of my interests.

It was during my employment at a Taqueria & Tequila bar in South-west London (my first job in the Big Smoke) when I noticed the rising popularity of Street Food. Fresh off the boat from a small city in Scotland where Gastropubs were still the 'in' thing (N.B. these went out of fashion circa. 2010), I had never heard of the concept of 'Street Eats' - except, perhaps, for crepe stands at Christmas markets. And I can remember so vividly the first time I experienced this approach to dining. It was mid-July: that dusty, hot smell hung about the air while Latino hip-hop blasted from a nearby speaker. My then-boss handed me a Tommy's margarita and a tray of Salpicon de Res corn tacos topped with mountains of fresh pico de gallo which I devoured in the midday sun. It was such a defining moment for me, as the juice from the slow-cooked beef ran down my hands and the smell of cigarette smoke and dust drifted through my nostrils I was, for a moment, transported to a Mexican mercado. It was a dining experience unlike anything I had known.

I was hooked. Thereafter, a substantial amount of my spare time was spent seeking out other variations of street food and learning about the cultures behind each type of cuisine. I spent my Sundays with Mexican friends, drinking Mezcal and barbecuing ribs and whole red snappers on open coals. I shopped at authentic (and not to mention dirt-cheap) food markets like North End Road and Tooting, where I would haggle over the price of fish (pun intended) with the vendors. And whenever I could, I visited food markets like Pop Brixton, Kerb, and the ever-changing Putney Market which sits right on my doorstep (and is rapidly growing in popularity). But more than anything, I loved engaging with the vendors: empanadas taste so much better when they are sold to you by a patriotic Columbian!

Me and Ma at Tooting Market 2016

Me and Ma at Tooting Market 2016

Although it was the taqueria that introduced me to one of my greatest passions, it soon came time to hang up my sombrero and move onto greener pastures. And while this was largely due to the fact that I was fed up of working for London's answer to El Chapo (LOL), I had truly exhausted every avenue of Mexican food and street culture. I needed a new cuisine with which to hone my knowledge and satisfy my taste buds, and when I took a temporary job with a small family-run Indian restaurant, I knew I had found just that. 

The job itself wasn't really my vibe, and I knew fairly early on that I wasn't going to stick around for very long. But until I found my next street food outlet, I made the most of my time with the owner's family, discovering there was a lot more to Indian food than curry and rice. I developed an unlikely friendship with my boss's mother - a 78-year-old Indian woman whom everyone referred to as 'Ma'. Originally from Bombay (Mumbai), she was a vision of old-world beauty and class, always clad in vibrant colours and incredibly kind. She introduced me to dosas, dhai puri and jalebi, and each day at 4pm we would share a tiffin of bhindi okra and lamb kodi while she spoke of the colours and smells of her home country. The way she spoke about her food and her culture ignited a new love within me, and so I embarked on a brand-new foodie journey into the world of chaat.

Around this time, I was slowly becoming aware that Indian food was being 're-done', having discovered Kricket @ Pop Brixton. Their tapas-style take on Indian cookery was refreshing and fun to eat, and reminded me of the novelty of that first food-gasmic bite of beef taco a year previous. Soon after, I was introduced to establishments like Dishoom, Babu Ji's and of course Chit Chaat Chai (where, ironically, I met the founder, Tania while dining with my previous employer). I knew immediately after dining at Chit Chaat Chai that Indian street food was blowing up, and much like gastropubs had gone out of fashion years before, taquerias too were becoming mainstream - people were ready for a new type of cuisine to be reinvented.

So when Tania asked me to be her Restaurant Manager it was a no-brainer. Chit Chaat Chai had the same laid-back, edgy appeal as the taqueria that initially sparked my love for street food, and I could see in Tania the same creative drive which I possessed myself. The walls of CCC are covered in vibrant graffiti, and the atmosphere is loud, fun and just plain cool. The tables are dressed down: stripped back wood with buckets of cutlery and traditional stainless steel cups. Old Limca bottles are used as candle holders, the bathrooms are plastered with 70s Indian travel posters, and the floor is covered in old Bombay Gazettes. Every detail of the interior is as colourful as Ma once described Bombay, creating the perfect atmosphere for faux-fresco (al-fresco indoors?) Indian dining. And the chaat! Not even those tacos can compare to the explosive sensation I felt when trying my first C.C.C. pani puri. There is so much vibrancy and colour in the food - and not the fake kind you find in curries at most Indian restaurants. No, this food is fresh to death, spicy and wholesome without leaving you too full. Served on stainless steel thalis, it is no-frills, authentic Indian chaat - and I'm obsessed.

So here I am! Co-running one of London's hottest street food restaurants with one of the most tenacious and inspiring individuals I have ever met (see Tania's story here) - and I haven't looked back! At Chit Chaat Chai I'm a photographer, a graphic designer, a mixologist and a manager (to mention just a few of the hats I wear on a daily basis). And although it can be incredibly challenging at times, it is a job that allows me to work creatively in an environment I love. 

A 9-5 just ain't an option!

BRIXTON: IT MAY BE BROKE BUT IT DON'T NEED FIXIN'!

Talking gentrification, Pop Brixton and the sexiest salt beef bagels south of the river…

"The King" Salt Beef Bagel @ Bell & Brisket

"The King" Salt Beef Bagel @ Bell & Brisket

What is it about Brixton that excites me so? Is it the people: the immigrant-rich community who have formed a vibrant fusion of cultures within the South London suburb? Maybe it's the abundance of Jerk chicken, procurable from every street corner – or something in the air: gusts of wind infused with marijuana smoke and hot sugar, reminiscent of the French Quarter in New Orleans. Or perhaps it's the sentiment: Brixton is where, as a freshman to London culture, I felt I had my first London-esque experience - I visited my Cockney friend Josh who lived on Electric Avenue, and we ate crawfish po-boys in a dodgy caf, drank pints at The Beehive, then spent the evening hanging out with his 50-year-old flatmate “Mad Jackie” (who collected leopard print coats and took a lot of speed.)

Either way, Brixton is, and always will be, where I dream to live out the rest of my London days. It is the Isreal Zangwill of cultural melting pots when it comes to London, and to me, a trip to the once infamous Brixton is more appealing than a trip to the Private Members’ rooftop pool at Soho House; with more to do than in Piccadilly Circus, and more to see than at the top of The Shard…

Its Sunday morning and we’re walking through the urine-soaked streets of Lambeth’s liveliest district, in search of hangover-curing street food - a fair cinch in this densely populated, culinary haven. Under the railway arches, steam rises from the underground, an elderly woman passes on a mobility scooter chauffeuring a pair of costumed Chihuahuas, and to our right, an Asian man is sweeping fag butts off the pavement outside an emporium named “Home ‘n’ Fashion”: a gaudy Shangri-La of tawny carpets and, ironically, not-so-fashionable garments.

We're headed to Pop Brixton, a thriving food market within an assembly of shipping containers just off Pope’s Road. Although the concept has received some negative reviews from the locals since it’s opening in 2015 (word on the street is the ethnic majority are unhappy about the unwelcome influx of Caucasian Hipsters), it has created over 200 jobs and opened up a wealth opportunities for young Food & Retail businesses by offering cheap rent and pop-up schemes, and providing a pretty edgy environment for like-minded entrepreneurs, foodies and artists. With everything from vinyl shops and vintage clothes to micro-bars, crepes, gyozas and tacos, it truly is Al Fresco dining at its best.

First up, we grab a bottle of Chang from Viet-Box and order a couple of Bao’s while we wait for our friends Elle & Aidan to arrive. Viet-Box is one of my favourite pop-ups in circulation at Pop – they do an amazing “Popcorn Chicken” which is literally Satay Chicken on a bed of Coconut Popcorn. It’s so good y’all. I hadn’t tried their Bao’s until now, but can now safely vouch for their being delicious, authentic - and dare I say better than BAO’s bao’s(?) (N.B. So can my hair, which enjoyed a healthy drizzling of Viet’s homemade hot sauce – an accessory to the coffee I spilled down the front of my white t-shirt earlier in the day).

Next – what with it being Rosh Hashanah and all - we pick up some Salt Beef Bagels and Fries from The Bell & Brisket. Gherkins, yellow-ass mustard, maple-cured bacon (not very kosher of us) and some of the most tender brisket my lips ever did taste. Its insanely good – or as the Jews would say – Geshmack as fuck! (Would they, though?)

We wander around the market a little more before heading through Brixton Village and onto Electric Avenue. The streets are alive with people, traders and revellers powering through from Saturday night. On a street corner, we look up to see a flashing window, loudly distributing house music – a ‘sesh’ which is very much still in session. (It’s now 4pm.)

At Bookmongers on Coldharbour Lane, I find a half-done crossword puzzle and a bookie receipt from ’98 in the worn pages of a psychedelic motorcycle manual lost in an organised chaos of second-hand books. I purchase a street art book aptly named ‘The Art of Rebellion’ featuring work very much reminiscent of Brixton’s Railway Arches presently; run-down archways plastered with protest graffiti revolting against the upcoming evictions of over 150 tenants from the arches, courtesy of Lambeth Council and Network Rail.

In 2017, traders and residents of the arches will be forced to leave their digs for one year, while the council undergo renovations. Thereafter, they may return to business-as-usual, although this time around, the rent will triple in price. Alongside the obvious concerns that jobs will be lost, and fixtures like Catwalk Wig Utopia and Café Rio could be no more, their corrugated shutters forever replaced with state-of-the-art, glinting windows, residents fear that the redevelopment will create a “dead-zone” in what is currently the busiest part of the area.

For the locals, gentrification is an aggravating problem, and many argue it started with Pop Brixton. And we get it – London is ever in flux and rapidly growing. Areas like Brixton, once considered ‘The Sticks’, are now being classed as ‘central’, as a tidal wave of millennial start-ups search for cheaper terrain with undestroyed character. But there are certain areas of this morphing metropolis that simply are, and should remain, the embodiment of Old London. The smog, the street art, the crime, the food and most importantly the culture, which is so unique – so quintessentially Brixton – are elements we should strive to preserve.

Imagine a future Brixton – perhaps we’ll rename it ‘Brex-ton’… Home ‘n’ Fashion has closed and been replaced with a Veggie Pret, the Fish Wings & Tings owners have been evicted to make way for an Oliver Bonas, the streets are clean, there’s no sign of the Afghan banana salesman and you now have to travel out to Tooting to get some proper fried plantain…

Even if it means no more Brixton Pop, I’m with the locals. #savebrixtonarches

Sign the petition to stop the evictions at Brixton Arches here.