Saturday, 22 December 2012

Downtown (formerly Top Chef) Berry St, Liverpool

April 2012

I'm currently having a break from Dubai desert life and am holidaying in my home town of Liverpool, a city famous for the Beatles, football and more importantly, home to numerous foodie hidden gems! Since I have left the city, old favourites have fallen victim of the recession, such as Buca di Bacco, some have hiked their prices and reduced their food quality like Zorba's but on a positive note, some delightful new eateries have opened, offering competitive prices, huge portions and eclectic menus. Step forward Top Chef.

Now, I've always been dubious about restaurants that have a self-important name like Number One and Best Kebab, but Top Chef is more than deserving of the title. Suffering from Dubai withdrawal symptoms, I ventured into Top Chef as its menu was packed to the brim with Arabic favourites like falafel and halloumi. Normally, I default to Kimos when craving Levantine cuisine, but after a recent disappointing visit (not to mention overpriced), I am currently 'on a break' with them to quote a line from Friends. Top Chef has a practically identical menu to Kimos, albeit cheaper with bigger portions and the added bonus of beer on the drinks menu. 'Kimos with booze', one of my Twitter pals affectionately called it. Despite its Mediterranean offerings, Top Chef is located on the fringes of Chinatown at the Bold St corner of Berry St, the crossroads of Liverpool foodie heaven in my humble opinion.

I ordered the falafel pitta (above) which was approx £4- sme price as Kimos but as you can see, this came with chips and a well dressed salad garnish. The falafels were amazing, as good as, if not better than any I have tried in Dubai. These fist sized balls of chickpea pleasure were fried but not greasy and served with a choice of houmous or tahini. Arabic fast food heaven. The Carnivore had a chicken kebab, another popular Dubai staple and this scored highly too. The chicken was fresh and not that nasty processed variety you encounter in the likes of Chicken Bazooka, served with a shovel-load of chips, salad, rice and pitta. Who needs Dubai when you have Top Chef? The meals were washed down with a couple of deliciously potent coffees at £1.30.

If Arabic grub isn't your thing, fear not as they also have a selection of pizzas, fry ups and paninis to fill your belly. Step aside Kimos, make way for Top Chef, Liverpool's new king of kebab.

December 2012

UPDATE- Top Chef has now been renamed Downtown and have changed their focus to have more chippy-style dishes. The Arabic food is still there and is just as good, my only complaint is that in the toilets, the soap dispenser is filled with washing up liquid. Classy.

Top Chef on Urbanspoon

Cafe de Pearl, Bold St, Liverpool

Finally, Bubble Tea has made it to the streets of Liverpool! After making a slow-burning impression on to the Manchester foodie scene, it was high time it tested the waters of the Mersey. Cafe de Pearl has replaced the modern Chinese eaterie Tea House (maybe it's the same owners? Who knows.) with the premise that it is a bubble tea joint. However, after visiting twice before I decided to blog about it, it left a sour taste in my mouth. Literally.

Cafe de Pearl reminds me a bit of Ryanair, ie lots of hidden costs. Although it advertises itself as a cafe, it sees itself as a restaurant, the staff shoving food menus in your face and asking about 3 times whether you want any food. And here's silly me thinking it's just a cafe. To be fair, the food looked lovely, but don't advertise yourself as Cafe de Pearl if you don't want people coming in just for a drink.

I ordered a bubble slush at a jaw-dropping £2.80 and I noticed no bubbles were actually in it. I was told it would be an extra 50p for bubbles. Ridiculous. It's like charging for sugar with a coffee. The slush was nothing special, it tasted like a poor quality version of a Blackpool seafront Slush Puppie. The staff here should really work for a budget airline. On my second visit some months later, I tried a mango bubble tea in the regions of £3. The mango taste wasn't evident and it tasted like one of those cold cappuccinos packed with Coffee Mate that you get on Easyjet. The tapioca balls were bland and didn't have the consistency of previous bubbles I have experienced around the world. This was disappointing as I was looking forward to trying this eaterie with so much potential, hopeful that Bubble Tea would catch on in my home city. This fun, quirky drink has won the hearts of many faddy foodies around the world, I definitely thought it would be a good gamble in Liverpool.

I am expecting some sort of catty, defensive commentary about this review, probably from someone called 'John Smith of Liverpool', saying I am a 'jealous rival'. I'm just speaking the truth. I've had bubble tea in Manchester, Toronto and Dubai so believe me, I know my way around a mouthful of tapioca balls.

Cafe de Pearl on Urbanspoon

Monday, 17 December 2012

Villa Madina, 5955 Latimer Drive, Mississauga, Canada

Eagle-eyed followers of Vindaloo Queen on Twitter and my Facebook friends will have noticed that I am visiting Canada! I'm just outside Toronto in a city called Mississauga- it may not be on the tourist trail, but they have some fabulous multicultural treats readily available here including the rare (in the UK) Bubble Tea. This time last year, I was braving the intense heat and desert sandstorms of Dubai and was feeling strangely nostalgic. What better way to indulge nostalgia than eating food that stirs up memories? Thankfully, I was pleased to discover that Middle Eastern food is popular in this neck of the woods; time to track down tabouleh and feast on falafel!

Villa Madina is a chain not dissimilar to Dubai's Karam Beirut- a food-court based setup offering meal deals, platters and an extensive choice in salads. They serve familiar Lebanese staples like Shish Taouk, Falafel and Tabbouleh that are ubiquitous in Dubai so it was a format I was used to. I opted for their vegetarian platter at approx $7 which included either falafel or vine leaves plus as much delicious salad and dip you could cram on! I chose Tabouleh, hummus, spicy potatoes, Greek salad, olives, okra stew (bamia)and that beautiful illuminous pink turnip that brightens up every Middle Eastern feast. My only bugbear was that bread was charged extra, something that all Middle Eastern countries offer for free with the meal.

The potatoes were as good as, if not better, to some of the similar ones I experienced in Dubai- roasted without being greasy, a hint of spice similar to Spanish Patatas Bravas. The Tabbouleh and the other salads came in generous portions and I had no complaints, other than the price/portion ratio was not as bargainous as Dubai. The Carnivore ate Shish Taouk with a similar verdict to me- tasty by all means, but a tad pricey for the food court setting.

Villa Madina on Urbanspoon

Gulshan, 50 Wicker, Sheffield

So far, my South Yorkshire curry adventures have been a bit oily and distinctly average. In a part of the country that is saturated with chippies and pub grub, I found myself here again desperately seeking spice. Wanting to give Sahib another chance after a heartburn-enhanced incident a few years ago, I discovered it had now become a Kebabish- bad move. Kebabish is synonymous with bad service for me, after being greeted with hostility in both their Manchester and Edinburgh branches. Spice Lounge wasn't going to be given a second chance either as my local mole tells me that despite its glowing reviews on TripAdvisor, seasoned curryholics have reported several Imodium Moments after consuming their greasy bhunas.

After circumnavigating the region on a discovery of spice, I finally found a street known simply as Wicker which seemed to be the nearest thing Sheffield has to Manchester's Curry Mile. Bright lights, a smell of spice in the air and rotating kebabs- hopefully I'd be on to a winner here. Enter Gulshan, the curry house whose USP is simply affordable curries.

Gulshan is not posh, nor kebab-shop style plastic tables, but a small yet modern curry house suitable for sole diners, stags or couples, depending what time of night you go. Its blue lighting gave it a great moody feel not too stark on the eyes, plus you could peek in the kitchen. It's a BYO with no corkage charge, plus they do soft drinks at only £1.50, not to mention mango lassi. The service was friendly without being intrusive and overbearing- a pet hate of mine when I'm in an empty restaurant and the staff are earwigging on my conversation!

Due to the absence of Vindaloo and Madras on the menu, I ordered this chili-hot Veggie Rezala:

At only £4.80 , it was a bargain, probably the cheapest restaurant curry I've had in the UK for years. Packed to the gills with potatoes, chickpeas and the vital ingredient chillies, this was a more than sufficient substitute for vindaloo. The Carnivore, set in his ways, ordered Chicken Dhansak, also £4.80 which was met with much 'mmmms' and 'yums'. We ate our curries with brown pilau and peshwari naan, £2 and £2.20 respectively. The peshwari was infused with sesame seeds, a take on Pesh I'd never seen before but was ever so moreish.

My only two minus points about Gulshan were the absence of Kulfi on the dessert menu (a staple requirement for me!) and the toilet facilities. There is only one toilet and it's a bit cramped and smelly, plus it's a bit of a Krypton Factor challenge to get to. It's bang next to the bar and kitchen but the hand-dryer and an additional sink are outside the toilet cubicle right by where the staff are passing by. However, our bill only came to around £16 for the two of us, so I shan't be complaining too much!

Gulshah Balti House on Urbanspoon