Sticky Walnut, Chester

Bit small, innit?

To my wife’s intense irritation, I have recently been spending quite a number of weekends in the North West. For the most part, this is because, in an inversion of accepted economic norms, their comedy promoters generally pay their comedians better than their southern counterparts. Added to which, a bewildering array of motorways means it is feasible to double up gigs over a geographical range that would be unthinkable in London. Liverpool and Manchester is a doddle, but I have recently managed three gigs in Manchester and one in Leeds on the same night, and last Friday opened Bolton and closed Chester the same evening. I mean, as Rishi Sunak so winningly pointed out in his conference speech last week in Manchester telling Mancunians HS2 was no longer coming to Manchester, before tweeting about it from his private jet – who needs trains anyway? What that man doesn’t know about politics…

Another highlight of the northern circuit, to my wife’s even more intense annoyance, is I tend to find myself at a bit of a loose end on Saturdays with both a day, and a stomach to fill. My usual routine involves getting up and going for a run, entirely so I can justify the money I’m about to spaff on lunch. As I was in Chester, the brilliant comic Danny McLoughlin, who lives nearby, suggested I complete a hattrick of Elite Bistros (having recently eaten at both Hispi and Burnt Truffle) by giving Sticky Walnut a visit. As Danny had also booked me the night before for the very lovely Alexander’s Live, I felt it would have been rude to refuse. Well, that’s what I told my wife anyway.

A little tip for anyone visiting the pretty little terraced streets where Sticky Walnut nestles – all the street parking is for half an hour, which as far as I’m concerned is a disgracefully short amount of time for lunch. However, behind the street opposite is a car park which costs 50p for two hours, which I would very much like to take all other car parks to, in order to educate them in something known as ‘appropriate charging.’ I slipped through a small passageway and into Sticky Walnut. I have received a delightful welcome in every Elite bistro I have been to (especially as Claire welcomed me both times) and this was no different, but aesthetically I thought this was the most pleasing of the bunch. Still plenty of polished wood and tasteful lines, but somehow cosier, perhaps by dint of being in a terrace.

At this point I realised that a number of items across the chain do tend to replicate themselves, which is not really a criticism when they are as good as the Welsh rarebit I had a couple of weeks ago at Hispi, but I was determined to try something different. Obviously this was a completely selfless move made entirely for your benefit, dear reader. My lamb’s breast was a succulent sliver of meat, nestling on a garlic puree that achieved the notable feat of making me like butterbeans. Presumably because they were crushed into a paste and covered with smoked garlic honey and sesame dukkah spice. This was a wonderfully moreish taste combination, the smokiness combining beautifully with the fattiness of the meat, but I’m afraid this is where my criticism comes in. The meat was dwarfed by the amount of fat attached to it – beautifully rendered though it was, and as the breast often is – but overall, the whole thing was just a bit…small. I bow to no one in my admiration for the cookery skill on display, but for £9.50, I did expect a bit more of it. To give you an idea of my reaction, I can do little better than copy the note I made on my phone – ‘salty yummy acid onion small fatty’. Maybe I am being harsh in this time of tight margins, but as it was only a parking space away from a tenner, and I hadn’t had any breakfast, I licked the remaining puree from the bowl a little dolefully. To cheer me (and my stomach) up, I ordered some focaccia, at which point four pieces of the most delicious, moist rosemary cake/bread arrived and all was well with the world again.

This also put paid to any worries about the size of what appeared to be a relatively small coley fillet which arrived next. Luckily, three other things stood in the way of further complaints. Firstly, I am not that au fait with coley, but this was one of the most perfectly cooked pieces of fish I have ever eaten, crispy skin, moist, translucent flakes melting away from one another – all the clichés. Like cod that had been to finishing school. Secondly, I had (on the waitress’s sage advice) ordered a plate of perfect truffle chips that had clearly gone on from finishing school to some sort of potato university. And finally, the sauce. My god the sauce. I think I could happily drink jugs of it. Apparently, merely chicken stock, lemon, thyme, parsley, a touch of white wine vinegar and A LOT of butter, but it elevated an already excellent dish to the absolute heavenly. I gibbered at the waitress about it.

After this, a poached pear with walnut praline ice cream and an armangac prune puree could almost be seen as a mild disappointment, but the addition of individual caramelised walnuts added such a pleasing texture that it was, in fact, the perfect palate cleanser.

My bill arrived, and seeing as I hadn’t drunk anything stronger than water and a cup of coffee, I’m inclined to think almost £60 is quite a step up from Burnt Truffle (£42) and certainly Hispi (£36.) However, the bottom line is – did I have a good lunch? To which the answer is an unequivocal no, I had an excellent one, and I will remember that sauce in my dreams. Not only do Elite Bistros clearly know what they’re doing, they have an eye for the perfect location – providing absolutely top-end, imaginative bistro food at (mostly) affordable prices. If you have one nearby, count yourself lucky. And use it. Like all good franchises, their outposts are individually brilliant, but also as a group, much more than the sum of their parts. There is a clear philosophy behind them, and it is a deeply pleasing one.

As I left, my cheery waitress wrapped the two remaining pieces of focaccia for me before I jumped back in a car that had stretched to the full quota of my 50p outlay, and headed to Manchester to park for half the time and 12 times the money. Then it was on to Darwen before hot-footing it to South Yorkshire to close a show in Holmfirth. Luckily, I saved the focaccia for the journey home, which meant I was able to make the three hour journey without stopping. A better man might have saved it for his wife, but after the lunch I’d had, turning up after three days, at 1:30am, with a couple of bits of foil wrapped bread might quite rightly have been seen as somewhat taking the p*ss. And I do enough of that for a living.

Oct ‘23

Asakusa, Camden

‘This is not an exercise in nostalgia’ – Gerard Langley, The Blue Aeroplanes

Nostalgia is a complicated beast. On one hand, it allows you to luxuriate in the comforting embrace of well worn pleasures, and food is a particularly evocative way of scratching that particular itch. Think Anton Ego’s ratatouille in ‘Ratatouille’, Proust and his bloody madeleines or in my case, my mother’s Boodles pudding

Of course, nostalgia can also move in more pernicious directions – the dumpling that sticks to the roof of your mouth while simultaneously transporting you back to the school dining hall. Or a misplaced idealism which harks back to some glorious rose-tinted past, often at the expense of the future. Which, as we have seen so clearly in recent years can lead to the delusions epitomised by Brexit – effectively cutting your legs off to make yourself taller. It is deeply ironic something predicated so much on turning the clock back has proved to be such an enormous waste of everyone’s time. And far more unpleasant than anything my school kitchens ever inflicted upon me. Except possibly the custard.

But surely nothing brings memories and sensation flooding back quite like music. It was for this reason I met up with my oldest schoolfriend – Martin, who has appeared here before – to go and see one of our favourite bands – The Blue Aeroplanes, who haven’t – at The Electric Ballroom in Camden. I won’t go into too much detail here, but if you’ve never heard them, do yourself a favour and buy ‘Swagger; from 1990 and ‘Beatsongs’ from ’91. You’ll thank me. And if you don’t, we probably couldn’t have been friends anyway.

Having shared countless school dinners with Martin, I think it’s safe to say out palates (and our wallets) have moved on a little from the eighties, so I booked a table for two at  Asakusa – a little Japanese place tucked away behind Mornington Crescent station which I’d been taken to a few years ago by another friend with exceptional taste.

Walking in is an exciting experience in itself. Asakusa may not win any design awards, and there is a slightly scruffy feel to the place, as though no one has really had time to bother too much about the décor when there are more important things to be getting on with. This is not a criticism – it feels hugely welcoming – but it does have slight the feeling of a hobbit hole, where pretty much every available space has been taken up to accommodate the diners, of which there were many on a Friday night. I was extremely glad I’d booked, and was a little perturbed to realise there were no seats left, until I was taken downstairs to a lower level I hadn’t realised existed.

Martin arrived shortly after like exactly what he is – a middle-aged man in biking leathers – and we set about catching up and the menu in similarly enthusiastic fashion. Oftentimes, a large menu strikes one as slightly worrying – can ALL of this be good? But it is something one tends to forgive in Asian joints, especially when, as here, the answer appears to be a resounding YES. Rather than dip into the extensive, not to say slightly intimidating bound volumes, we simply ordered off the sheet of specials – with a bowl of rice and some edamame for good measure – and kept on ordering.

This was special, heady stuff. First to arrive were a couple of chunks of meaty, smoky mackerel, a fish I have a complicated relationship with. Sometimes I love it, occasionally I find it a bit much. A good piece of smoked mackerel almost oozes on to the tongue, a bad one feels like – well, back to the dining hall. These were simply salted mini-fillets, grilled, served with a little white radish and stunning. Martin even looked up at me and just said ‘Ooh,’ which is probably a better description than any adjective I can come up with. A chicken karage was, as it should be, like (very) posh KFC and that is in no way an insult. The best takeaway in Hertford – Mr Tanaka’s – does a superb version, and this was at least on a par, and punched up by a decent and nicely dressed salad alongside. Scallops were almost unadulterated but for a sheen of the cooking butter and all the better for it – I would say meltingly good, but that is a description I have saved for the grilled salted salmon belly which must rank as amongst the most exquisite, moist mouthfuls of that particular fish I have ever tasted.

More edamame were ordered alongside an enormous can of Sapporo black – Japanese Guinness I guess – which was another new discovery and only shared because we were fairly sure it didn’t go with motorbike. The only slight duff note was a plate of simmered fatty tuna with dashi stock – still delicious, but the texture felt a little overdone in comparison to everything else we had eaten. Luckily this very minor quibble was swiftly addressed by some prawns deep fried in crispy breadcrumbs for which I run out of superlatives and which may even match my favourite dish from Mr Tanaka’s, (albeit without the legendary wasabi mayonnaise.)

By now, it was almost the band’s stage time. £98 (incl service) between two might seem a little stiff, but for this quality of ingredients, not to mention the way they were treated, it (almost) felt like a bargain. We tootled happily up Camden High Street, which served perfectly to remind me why I’m usually very glad to be inside a comedy club on a Friday night, and into the gig.

They kicked off with the first song from the new album, whose refrain ‘It’s fucking Dickensian, man’ would seem to indicate they’re every bit as pissed off about the country as I am, just with better tunes. Despite a history stretching back forty years now, they are still determined to keep pushing forward, and not be, as singer Gerard says, ‘an exercise in nostalgia’. I’m not sure the same could be said for me and Martin, but if anything’s worth getting nostalgic about, it’s excellent company, dazzlingly good food and your favourite band. And even if we might have been guilty of looking back, one thing is for certain – I’m very much looking forward to my next visit to Anushka.

Sept ‘23

Hispi, Didsbury

Well that was quite the Saturday night. Having performed in Liverpool and Manchester on Friday, the next evening saw me closing a matinee at The Frog and Bucket and opening the Bierkeller for The Comedy Store, before jumping in the car to Leeds to open The Hifi Club, then returning to Manchester to close the late show at The Frog, after which I drove home. Just typing it now is exhausting, although it was better than being on TV – which is an unusual thing for a comedian to say, but it was also the night Channel 4 decided to broadcast their scandalous findings about Russell Brand, a mere twenty years after employing him.

Having checked out of my hotel on Saturday morning, but with no gig until later on, I was experiencing a far more mundane problem. Every circuit comic has spent hours traipsing around city centres, eking out eternal coffees, staring at films they didn’t want to see or rifling through kilometres of clothes rails at TK Maxx on the off chance they might find something they actually wanted. As a seasoned campaigner, I was ready for this, so met my friend George at Trafford Golf centre to crack a few balls into the distance (and some not quite so far) for an hour or so. By the time we were done, I had worked up a decent appetite. George was under strict instructions to return his children while I had escaped mine for the weekend, so I had a flick through Twitter and discovered a recommendation for Hispi from the ever reliable @frivoliteabakes. If Musk does start charging for Twitter, it is going to seriously impact on my dining options.

Hispi is in Didsbury, probably best described as the Islington of Manchester, in that it’s quite nice and has a bit of a reputation as a wealthy liberal enclave. I don’t know if Labour Mayor Andy Burnham lives there, but I’m sure it would delight Manchester Conservatives if he did. Both of them. The restaurant is part of the same ‘Elite Bistros’ group that also runs ‘Burnt Truffle’ on The Wirral, which I visited recently. This fact was made abundantly clear when I walked in the door to see Claire, who had warmly welcomed me then and we both did double takes. She said ‘Comedian?’ and I said ‘Burnt Truffle?’ I mean, ‘Waitress!’ would have just been rude.

The room itself could appear in a brochure under ‘tastefully minimalist modern bistro’ plenty of polished wood, little clutter, and rather handsome in an understated way, which is more than you can say for the Pay and Display car park out the front. I would extend my compliments to the menu too, a reasonably sizeable a la carte, and a lunch menu that I was pleased to see featured enough of the same dishes that all the things I wanted to eat were on both. As the lack of clutter unfortunately extended to the number of clientele (things would pick up as I ate,) Claire was over again fairly rapidly and lunch was very much on its way from the open kitchen which ‘tastefully minimalist modern bistros’ demand.

The menu reminded me both of Burnt Truffle (unsurprisingly) and my favourite local restaurant, Lussmans, which operates at a similar level of tastefulness in all things – properly good produce treated well and generally not over-embellished. That is not to say Hispi did not provide some fireworks. Jerusalem artichoke Welsh rarebit was a proper lip smacking slap of umami, with a generously pungent hit of truffle, which would have been gorgeous as it was, but ramped up to 11 with the perfect, mildly acid tones of a pear and horseradish relish. My only criticism was I would have preferred a whole brioche rather than the relatively lonely disk it came on. I could literally have eaten eight. Every day. For weeks.

It is always slightly disappointing when your starter is the absolute highlight of a meal, but to be fair, that says far more about the rarebit than what followed. It seemed only right to order the cabbage stuffed with wild mushroom in a restaurant called Hispi. Perfect mashed potatoes were piped alongside on a slick of port jus, and the whole thing was very…pleasant. I hate to be sacrilegious having ordered a vegetarian option, but, in the words of Withnail, what I wanted was ‘something’s flesh’. I must apologise on his behalf (particularly to vegetarians) for the graphic nature of that line, but after the huge flavour hit of the rarebit, the wild mushrooms were just a little bland, and I don’t really think they should be. My cabbage was perfectly nice to eat. But when there were steaks and confit duck leg and halibut nestling next to it on the menu, I rather wished they had been doing so on my plate as well.

Dessert was a proper list of temptations with sticky toffee puddings and poached pears, not to mention a very decent looking cheeseboard. I nearly went for the honeycomb ice cream having noticed it glide past to another table, but in the end went for the vanilla crème brûlée I had decided against at Burnt Truffle. The correct choice. A perfect consistency, weighed down with plenty of vanilla seeds, and I was delighted to see it served in a shallow dish as opposed to a ramekin, thus providing a much wider surface area for the caramelised sugar to which I, like most of the Western world, am thoroughly addicted.

With a decent coffee (anything stronger seemed somewhat foolhardy given my impending schedule,) and delightful service, the whole thing came to a very reasonable £36. I do hope I have not damned Hispi with faint praise as it is exactly the sort of restaurant anyone would be thrilled to have on their doorstep, including Andy Burnham, or someone like me who is much more likely to happily embrace the mantle of champagne socialist. Indeed, if I have been unfair on Hispi, I realise I have been doubly unfair on Mr Burnham, whom a quick google tells me actually lives in Golborne, 14 miles away from Didsbury. You’ll have to forgive me, but having done nearly six hundred miles this weekend, that still feels like next door.

Sept ‘23

Coalition 10 at Kitchen W8, London

How it started

Last autumn, as the occupants of No 10 Downing St changed so frequently a revolving door was installed, many observers quoted Lenin’s famous aphorism,

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen,”

Less well known is the catchphrase of his fellow, more fun-loving revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who insisted “There are weekends and there are WEEKENDS!’ which so incensed Josef Stalin he had him assassinated on a Wednesday.

I have just had a WEEKEND.

Things started very well (not to mention early) on the Thursday night with that Holy Grail of comedians, the delightful corporate gig. Great crowd, lovely pay cheque AND I got to sleep in a steampunk themed bedroom in Alton Towers. Friday morning found me on the M6 in glorious sunshine, listening to Stanley Tucci’s Desert Island Discs (hard recommend) before Test Match Special came on and gave me something to worry about on the way to Bath.

A group of my oldest friends meet every year on the birthday of one who is no longer with us, at the beautiful natural meadow where he’s having his eternal lie in, then repair somewhere for lunch. This year, The Hare and Hounds, the first pub I was ever barred from in 1989, when I did not realise the barman I was flicking the V’s at was actually walking towards a mirror. Thankfully, I now appear to be forgiven and an excellent time was had by all, even if the company somewhat outshone the food and service. But before I got barred again, I was back down the M4 to allow my wife to avoid our children for the evening.

Not content with a Friday night off, we went for the double as we had tickets to Blur at Wembley on Saturday. Judging by social media, I have never been to a gig with so many people I knew without bumping into any of them, but that didn’t matter because Blur were superb. I have heard a lot of people object to our recently updated national anthem – personally, I’m not that keen on singing a song to someone I don’t believe in asking them to preserve an institution I don’t believe in. There have been many suggested alternatives – Jerusalem, Land of Hope and Glory etc, but none have stuck. I can now attest you haven’t felt truly English until you have stood in Wembley singing ‘all the people’ with all the people, and if you don’t agree ‘God Save the King’ should be replaced by ‘Parklife’ immediately I’m afraid we simply cannot be friends.

As if this wasn’t enough, on Sunday, we moved on to what can now be billed as the main event. Ten years ago I was lucky enough to be cast in the play ‘Coalition’ at the Edinburgh Festival. Not only was it a cracking play, it was a truly wonderful company and remains one of the happiest experiences of my career. (Added to which, I only had one scene, which was a doozy, but also meant I was able to nip out early to gigs when it transferred to London.)

The producer was the wonderful Jason Smith who is about as far from the stereotype as you could imagine, although that may be because he likes helping his friends out by investing in Fringe theatre rather than running a major Hollywood studio and being abusive while smoking a big cigar. To mark the tenth anniversary of Coalition (as well as his 60th birthday,) and with quite remarkable generosity, Jason had organised a lunch for the reassembled company at Kensington’s rather fabulous Kitchen W8, and even raided his own cellar for the wine(s). To say we were spoilt rotten is rather like saying Blur have a couple of decent tunes.

We were welcomed into the dining room with champagne and a competition between myself and writer/director Tom Salinsky for the best powder blue suit (Lib Dem leader Thom Tuck was disqualified for jeans.) I’m not going to list the wines here as I clearly know so much less about them than Jason, but suffice it to say they were uniformly excellent and I was introduced to a New World Chardonnay I liked, which is quite an achievement.

The menu was a choice of three starters, three mains and two desserts. Sorry, but if you’ve got a Michelin star, I’m not having a tomato salad. I plumped for the veal tartare, which I hope is not too controversial. If you eat lamb, I’m not sure why you can’t eat humanely reared veal although I’m sure there are many tomato salad fans who would disagree. It was sublime – achingly soft meat in a delectable truffle sauce punched up with some pickled girolles and the crunch of green beans. I was also able to try a little of the scorched Cornish mackerel thanks to the generosity of Jo Caulfield to my left and Simon Evans to my right. Delicious, but I won the starter. (I’m reliably informed the tomato salad was also excellent.)

Mains were a different story, My cod was as perfectly cooked as one would expect, sat amongst unctuous olive oil potato and sweet grezzina courgettes. Thoroughly enjoyable, but not quite as surprising as Jo’s caramelised gnocchi, which in turn was left standing by Simon’s Pork Pressa and the deep porkiness I had foregone on the foolish assumption I shouldn’t have another meat dish after the veal. I should really know myself well enough by now to realise I have to order anything that says Iberico on it. An absolutely stunning piece of cookery with ancient grains and a bacon choucroute and a depth of flavour that should probably be illegal. Having given me a morsel, I watched Simon hoover it up jealously. But hey! There was wine(s).

As a direct result of which – conversation, never in short supply in this company – was really beginning to flow. This is when the miracle occurred. Jason is a man of huge generosity and exquisite taste, but to actually organise an unlikely England cricket victory in the space between main course and dessert was a masterstroke even I didn’t see coming. Thom and I sneaked outside for a cigarette I’m pretending I didn’t have and a blast of Test Match Special we definitely did. If anyone in Kensington is wondering who the two powder blue pillocks jumping around outside a restaurant at approximately three thirty on Sunday afternoon were – I was the one not wearing jeans. The last time Thom and I did this was outside the Grosvenor House Hotel at a Lord’s Taverner’s do with Jason bloody Isaacs, but even Yorkshire’s very own dark wizard couldn’t have conjured magic like this.

Back inside and thoroughly aglow, we had switched the seating to allow everyone to make sure they caught up with each other and I enjoyed a marvellous strawberry parfait because I wasn’t allowed the chocolate pavé as well, before some genius brought cheese which went down extremely well with a 1963 Fonseca port, but then what wouldn’t? Some toasts were made, a couple of mercifully short speeches and just the right level of sincerity, humour and sentimentality.

I am beginning to run out of superlatives, which is handy, as everything starts to get a little blurry at this point, which seems in keeping. Luckily, the restaurant very gently encouraged us out of the door and having said my goodbyes, I weaved ecstatically up Kensington High St before taking the District Line in completely the wrong direction.

Much may have happened in the years since we all strutted our stuff in The Pleasance, much of which many of us might wish we could rewind, which was perhaps foreshadowed in the play. I look back on ‘Coalition’ with infinitely more fondness than I do upon the actual coalition, and I think it’s safe to say time has been far kinder to us than them. I suppose we should just be grateful Cameron and Clegg are not having a reunion.

Not ony that, but of course thanks to Jason, we got to spend a decade in one frankly magnificent afternoon.

How it’s going

July ’23

The Parkers Arms, nr Clitheroe

So, the Coronation.

Opinion is divided.

To many, a celebration of everything that is good about Britain. To me, a farcical waste of taxpayers’ money to place a shiny hat on the head of a multi-billionaire, emblematic of everything wrong with the entrenched privilege of an archaic and divisive class system which has inevitably led to this country’s terminal decline.

Yup. I’ll get off that fence.

My wife has warned me to keep politics away from here. Although as she has also just sent me a text message hoping I ‘don’t choke on a scallop’ it’s probably not the thing that makes her angriest.

Everyone alive at the time appears to remember where they were for the Queen’s coronation. It was our (happier) JFK moment. I don’t think you have to be a rabid republican to think Chas’s bash might be remembered slightly differently. Personally, I drove up to Manchester on the Thursday, meaning I missed my kids’ school Coronation concert, which I would probably only have spoilt by scowling.

As ever on my travels, I hit up the marvellous @frivoliteabakes (well worth a follow) for another NW lunch recommendation after the brilliance of Burnt Truffle last month. She came up with a number of options, but did suggest if I wanted to head slightly further afield, The Parkers Arms near Clitheroe was well worth a trip. Well, I had a whole day, a car and a national Game of Thrones re-enactment to avoid, so off I toddled.

Speaking of which, this is a ridiculously pretty, not to say magnificent location. You could easily see Penny Mordaunt in her cosplay Lannister costume, riding over a ridge of the Forest of Bowland on a mighty charger and causing all sorts of middle-aged men to make their excuses and retire surreptitiously to the gents.

Secondly, it would be harder to find a warmer welcome anywhere. Abundantly cheery host AJ greeted me like an old friend, called me Al (you do the bloody song) and ushered me straight to a delightful table by the open fire (#winning,) while enquiring if my wife would be joining me (sore point.) At which point I was brought a bowl of salted potato skins just because the chef felt like it. I tweeted @frivoliteabakes. This was going to be good.

I was not disappointed. This wasn’t just good, it was about as close to perfection as lunch could be. It is no surprise they have won Estrella’s ‘Best Gastropub’ Award and I was about to find out why. A three course menu at £50 is not cheap, but then neither is it expensive for food this brilliant.

I started with a couple of oysters just because they were there, even though there’s no ’r’ in the month. They made a beautiful amuse bouche, with a fine mignonette sauce of punchy pickled shallots. And then to the starter. Six beautiful, juicy scallops, cooked to perfection (and just the right size to avoid choking on,) the garlic butter sauce mopped up with a homemade sourdough so good it was like cake. I often find the roe on a scallop off-putting, a little fishy and unpleasant, but here they were an integral part of an exceptional whole.

Speaking of magnificent, my main course of grilled Morecambe Bay brill may well be the best piece of fish I have ever eaten. I’ve run out of superlatives. Served on the bone, with a wedge of lemon, it was simply perfection. Alongside this were gorgeous crushed smoked jersey royals and asparagus cooked with a few wild garlic leaves – a little touch of genius from a chef who clearly knows when and when not to gild the lily (royalists take note.)

I thought I wanted the dark chocolate pot for pudding, but was persuaded to try the iced rhubarb parfait with white chocolate and roasted rhubarb because it was local and ‘simply the best’. I’m not going to say what I thought of this pudding. I’m just going to let you know that at one point I let out such an audible moan of pleasure, the table next to me turned round. And then grinned, knowingly.

A properly ballsy coffee rounded things off nicely alongside the remnants of the sparkling rhubarb cordial I’d enjoyed throughout. By this point the lunchtime rush had subsided (pretty sure booking is essential,) and I asked AJ if he minded me sitting by the fire a little longer to do some work. I’m still here, and I’m not going anywhere til he kicks me out. Which I’m sure he will do with almighty charm.

If you really want to know what’s best about Britain, personally I would suggest making the trip to Clitheroe for lunch is a far preferable option to camping out on the Mall for three days, just to catch sight of a man in stolen jewellery waving at you from a gold coach. Everything good about our country can be found here – stunning countryside, genuine warmth and simply breathtaking food.

Next time, I will definitely be bringing my wife, if only because after reading this, I imagine the divorce courts will quite rightly beckon if I don’t. And speaking of courts, at least from now on I will definitely be able to remember where I was for King Charles III’s Coronation.

May ‘23

Burnt Truffle, The Wirral

Liverpool is great. No need to list its massively outsized contribution to popular culture here, but it is worth saying at this moment it definitely has one of the most exciting comedy clubs in the UK, if not the world, in the shape of Hot Water. For good or ill I find myself here for Grand National weekend, at the same time as a quite ludicrous amount of drunk people in suits, frocks and fascinators. Having checked out of my Air BnB bright and early this morning, a mere ten hours before showtime, I was in need of something to fill the day. Frankly, I wasn’t sure I wanted to stick the car in a multi-storey and spend all day traipsing round the city centre avoiding well-refreshed race-goers in the sort of weather you pray for in April – bright sunshine masquerading as an optimistic prelude to the Great British Summer™️. Let’s face it, we could all do with a little optimism at the moment. I did have a horse running in the National, thanks to a sweepstake at the club last night, but having read in the paper this morning that ‘A Wave of the Sea’ was ‘as unlikely winner as there was in the whole field’ I decided I needed to find my positivity elsewhere.

So, after a smuggery inducing trip to the gym, I took myself off to the beach. Well, the Wirral, to be exact, where I had been alerted to the presence of a bistro called ‘Burnt Truffle’ which is just the sort of name that wants to make you eat somewhere and I’m very glad I did. After a quick trip under the Mersey and a drive through Birkenhead, I presented myself at the restaurant at the appointed time only to find they didn’t have my reservation. They did, however, have a table, and I chanced my arm on sitting outside on one of those afternoons when every time you think it might get a little chilly, the cloud clears and all is well with the world.

Sitting down with a nice, punchy coffee, I was rather taken by the three course bistro menu for £25. This was mainly because it contained good things to eat, but also to defy the predictions of my less than sympathetic wife, whose eyes audibly rolled as we spoke on the phone (between childrens’ screams,) and I insisted I wasn’t going to go à la carte. Despite the temptations of a whole plaice with new potato salad and caper butter, I plumped for the crispy pork fritters to start which turned out to be an excellent idea, even if it was just the one fritter, which wasn’t. A deliciously crisp crumb surrounding fatty, unctuous porkiness, pumped up with mustard seeds, a delicate celeriac remoulade and a caramelized apple sauce that gave it just the perfect hint of Sunday lunch. I ate it in abut thirty seconds flat, but they were thirty particularly enjoyable seconds.

Main course was a toss-up between tagliatelle with venison ragu and crispy seitan – a kind of all-gluten concoction that when explained by the lovely Claire, my charming waitress, sounded a lot more tempting than the words ‘meat-substitute’ ever could. However, I’d already gone crispy and there was just something deeply enticing about the pasta, which really was comfort in a bowl when it arrived, with a side order of perfectly charred broccoli in lemon, olive oil and sea salt which I obviously had to order to ward off scurvy

For dessert I would normally go a brûlée but that felt a bit uninspiring today for some reason and upon hearing the mint-choc sundae was made with homemade ice cream, I opted in that direction. This proved to be another great decision as the ice cream had a broken up chocolate brownie and piped whipping cream on top of it and was a thoroughly acceptable way to polish off a really rather smashing lunch. A smashing lunch with impeccable service which I would add was something of a snip at £42 all in.

As I still had another five hours til showtime and the sun appeared to be gaining in confidence, I was further delighted to discover I was a mere five minutes from Thurstaston beach, where, from a little grassy knoll, I am presently sat tapping this out surrounded by nature, sand, happy, but luckily mostly distant voices and an enormously self-satisfied feeling of contentment. On days like this, I really do have the best job in the world. Bring on the summer I say.

Although first of course, it’s time to entertain a town that have just been at the races. Moods can change very quickly in my business, much like the weather. Some things, however, remain a constant, and having eaten at Burnt Truffle, I imagine it is one of them. It certainly represents a far more reliable wave of the sea than the one running in the 5:15 at Aintree.

April ‘23

The Woodsman, Stratford-Upon-Avon

John Lennon was wrong. ‘Life’ isn’t what happens while you’re busy making other plans. Kids are. It was ok for him – Julian and Sean were 12 years apart. If they’d been five and three he’d never have got round to writing ‘Imagine,’ and if he had it would just have been a plea for silence.

I’m not asking for sympathy. My wife and are in the same boat as most parents of little ones, now looking with bemused awe at those who have decided to extend their brood from two to three because there’s no way we would. Indeed, to that end, I spent last Monday having a gentlemen rearrange my nether piping to prevent such an occurence in a manner which could best be described as impertinent, at worst as f**king agony.

All you can expect/fervently hope/pray for is the odd bout of respite. Of course they are the most wonderful things in our world, but as any parent will tell you, they’re also the most demanding, exasperating and exhausting. You dream of a break. And so we had planned one. A few weeks back, my brother and sister-in-law had agreed to come to the house for the weekend, while we had booked a couple of nights at a hotel in Stratford-upon-Avon, tickets to the RSC and a restaurant reservation.

Of course, on the Tuesday night, my daughter presented herself in our bedroom, told us she had ‘an itchy spot’ and sure enough, the hotel was unbooked, the restaurant cancelled and the tickets refunded. She was home from school with chicken pox for a week, before half term kicked in. Eventually they both went back to school. Then my son got it. If this was a text I would be putting a scream emoji right here.

Fast forward a month or two, the in-laws can spare us one night, as can the hotel, there’s no play at the theatre and any idea of a romantic getaway has been somewhat undermined by the fact a very bad man has cauterised both my testicles. That didn’t matter. We had to go.

Apart from the chance to spend a glorious seventeen hour break with my better half, the one real advantage of all this was that the restaurant I had originally failed to book for our aborted first trip was now available. And the lack of anything else to do in Stratford-upon-Avon that night meant we had time to do the tasting menu. Such stuff as dreams are made on.

The Woodsman is part of the Hotel Indigo in the middle of town, set inside one of those wooden-beamed Tudor buildings one feels almost certain you could sell to the right sort of American. All kinds of twisty boughs, open fires and a kind of olde-worlde real ale vibe that would be oppressive if it wasn’t so comforting. I even thought the stuffed deer in the dog basket by the fire was alive for goodness sake. But the restaurant itself was a genuinely handsome affair which felt both modern and in keeping with its surroundings. Not only was it pleasingly spacious, I think it may have won an award before we started for the comfiest restaurant chairs I have ever had the pleasure of sitting in.

The website describes it as a ‘truly British restaurant’ and what only a few short years ago might have been seen as the apotheosis of rudeness is in fact a ringing endorsement of a really lovely place to have dinner. My only criticism is not really a criticism – a tasting menu often feels more like a chance for a chef to show off, almost a ‘concept’ in itself. Here, it seemed more like a good way to try all the dishes on the menu we quite liked the look of.

Two really superb breads with a creamy saltless and nuttier caramelised butter got us off to a winning start, before an amuse bouche of chicken parfait in a small choux bun which, to be honest felt it was there more because there should be an amused bouche on a tasting menu than because it needed to be. It was fine. But what The Woodsman does really well are good flavours and top ingredients neatly presented with a simplicity that belies the skill on display.

Dishes came thick and fast, as you would hope – a nicely dressed and crunchy Jerusalem artichoke salad spiked with pickled mushroom, endive followed by a delightful little square of porkbelly punched up with crackling, apple celeriac and smoked eel.

I’d polished off my Cornish skate wing with roast cauliflower, romanescu and brown shrimp while my wife was still struggling with hers as it rather fell apart – possibly due to some mysterious mistake in the fish butchery – but both tasted marvellous. My highlight was the next dish – fallow deer with hazelnut, pear and roast parsnip with a bolognaise of its own neck and grated dark chocolate. Not only was this exactly the sort of venison dish that makes you want to head into the woods to grapple your own dinner to the ground, it also seemed designed to match the rather lovely Los Haroldas Malbec I’d just ordered.

A delightfully light white chocolate tartlette with blood orange granita and a little spike of tarragon was exactly the sort of palate cleanser the little choux bun probably didn’t get on with at school, and a perfect prelude to a superb disc of vanilla rice pudding with rhubarb and ginger beer – my wife’s favourite dish and a close second for me. I’d moved on to a glass of white Rioja by this point, which they didn’t charge me for as I’d asked for a small and they bought a large, which makes it pretty hard to think of a better way to describe just how much I liked the service. It’s worth giving a shout out here for how seamlessly they handled my wife’s request to avoid alcohol in her food. Some restaurants seem to view this as an imposition, here it was clearly just viewed as a preference.

All told, the bill came in just shy of £200 which is certainly not cheap, until you consider we hadn’t had to pay for babysitters, theatre tickets or one more night at the hotel. We toddled happily back to our hotel (OK, I limped,) for a filthy night of pure, unbridled sleep. I’m sure I could find some appropriate Shakespearean quote to sign off with, but as we didn’t get to the theatre that somehow feels inappropriate. Perhaps I should end where I began by misquoting another great English bard. I thought I might go with ‘Whatever Gets You Through The Night’, but in the end, as we all know, happiness is a warm…meal.

March ‘23

Giovanni’s, Cardiff

I bloody love a good Italian. This was the reason I tried to get into Giovanni’s yesterday, slap bang in the middle of Cardiff with an awning proclaiming itself ‘The Longest Established Family Run Restaurant in Wales’. 1983 still seems relatively recent to me, but that is simply showing my age. Unfortunately they were incredibly busy, but happily that led to two further events – a truly superb lunch round the corner at Asador 44, and the chance to try again today.

I was already having, it has to be said, a very good weekend. Christmas shows at The Glee Club in Cardiff have been excellent – by which I mean not too Christmassy. I have taken in a couple of decent runs around the picturesque Bute Park, done some light shopping, written a little blog and watched quite a lot of World Cup football. Obviously I miss my children and my wife hates me, but that is a cross I will have to bear. Especially as she is really going to hate the next bit.

If any country in the world was put in charge of food for everyone else, I would always vote for Italy (although America can do the sandwiches.) There is a something about the Italian joy in feeding, and eating, and a reverence for ingredients bordering on the quasi-religious. Having popped my head in yesterday, I knew that was exactly what I was going to get at Giovanni’s. The photos on the wall reminded me of Corelli’s in Battersea (now sadly under new management,) the menu of a pared down Bar Napoli in Edinburgh, (which anyone who has ever done the Edinburgh Festival knows is high praise indeed,) and the seating of a rush hour tube. If only I could get a table.

Luckily, they squeezed me in. And when I say squeezed, I really mean like a sardine, or should that be Sardinian? I was squashed into a corner by the kitchen entrance, on a table that had to be physically moved away from the wall so I could get into it, with my head in the dessert fridge and my elbows neatly placed in my neighbour’s lasagne. And you know what? I minded not a jot (although she may have.)

As a creature of habit, I often have set meals I go for to establish the credentials of a certain type of restaurant – the pho in a Vietnamese or tom yum in a Thai – and my go to Italian order is very simple: minestrone soup and a carbonara. In the immortal words of The Breakfast Club ‘all the food groups are represented’.

My soup was excellent. I could almost feel myself glowing from vegetable heartiness. A couple of slices of warm bread were perfect for mopping up the dregs. I have two criticisms. I would have like more of it. For £7.95 a half full bowl felt a little parsimonious. I liked it, and I wanted more of it. My second criticism is almost criminal for an Italian restaurant. They had no carbonara.

You will be unsurprised to learn that a food tedium receptacle like myself has an almost fascistic approach to certain menu items (hey, when in Rome…) Carbonara is one of them. Garlic, pancetta, egg, parmesan, black pepper, pasta (and a little of the water.) THERE WILL BE NO CREAM. OR MUSHROOMS. Giovanni’s however, had no carbonara. So what I went for instead was Specialita’ di Giovanni – a completely different pasta dish containing ham and mushrooms in a creamy wine sauce. As it was not carbonara, this was acceptable. My god it was good. Piping hot pasta in a perfectly reduced sauce almost, but not quite over seasoned. Just quintessential Italian comfort food, washed down with one of those perfectly sized bottles of Pellegrino that is not so small you have to order two or so big you waterlog yourself.

The speed with which I finished this off attracted the attention of the couple sitting next to me, which is unsurprising as I was sitting in one of their laps. This is where Giovanni’s really came into its own. They were a mother and daughter from Mumbles treating themselves to a day out in Cardiff. The mum had been rhapsodising about her lamb shank since I had sat down. We had already gone through the bingo card of descriptions – “cut through it like butter,” “falls off the bone” etc when she said something I thought was just wonderful – “I love it here. It’s always SO good. Every time I come to Cardiff I just want to eat here.” Any place that can warm the heart as much as the stomach is to be treasured. We had a lovely chat about her Labrador, her daughter’s work as a consultant rheumatologist, the parlous state of the NHS and the perils of winter golf. We only paused for me to hoover up a tiramisu which I had to have as it had been sat in the fridge next to me looking needy for the past half hour. It was excellent – even if I was by now very glad I’d managed to fit in a run before lunch as, like all the best tiramisu, it was basically a slab of cream in search of a disguise.

And that was that. Both our bills arrived at the same time, and although Giovanni’s is not cheap – £36 including service – neither should it be for an experience like that. I said a happy goodbye to my new friends as they toddled off for a spa and I rolled back to my hotel to watch a bit more football before heading off for my last gig of the weekend.

So, in terms of the great Spanish Italian Cardiff match up previewed in my last blog, it was very much a one all draw. Of course, Wales and Spain were both knocked out of the World Cup early and Italy didn’t even qualify. England quarter final was that evening. Given the luck I had had over the last three days, I knew something had to change and I wasn’t in the least surprised to see us dumped unceremoniously out of the competition by the French. But hey, it was a hell of a weekend until then.

Dec 2022

Asador 44, Cardiff

Rhubarb parfait

I know bad reviews are much more interesting to read so I’m afraid I’m going to have to disappoint you in advance by saying I have just had a properly magnificent lunch. From venue to service to food to value for money I would be reaching for word ‘perfection’ were it not for one mildly disappointing glass of Rioja.

I find myself in Cardiff again, and asked my resident expert on the West Country, (yes I know it is A Country, west,) Mark Olver for tips. Last time he pointed me back to the reliably excellent Potted Pig, and this time he sent me to Asador 44 and as I arrived outside, I realised he’d sent me here before as well. I seemed to remember an excellent lunch which I hadn’t written about, which is, as far as I’m concerned, a winning combination.

And so it proved. Despite having no reservation, I was pointed to a bar table in the corner of a happily buzzing restaurant. This is as good an indication of the ambience as anything else – bad busy restaurants can feel hectic and edgy. Here, everything was conducted with a calm, friendly efficiency that only enhanced the experience.

In the interests of my wallet I decided to go for the set lunch, (mains on the à la carte generally hovering around the lower twentiest) as two courses seemed a relative snip at £19. Only a choice of two starters, but when the spicy Iberian pork rilette with pepinillo are as good as this, that really doesn’t matter. This was just an epic starter, even if it wasn’t going to win any aesthetic awards. A slab of beautifully smoky, slightly spiky rillette was slapped on the plate next to the almost mellow-yet-acidic kick of pepinillo – chopped gherkins to you and me, but with a comforting warmth that set off the lightly spiced meat to perfection. It was advertised with sourdough, which I would normally appreciate, but today came with a seeded cracker whose brittle shards added a hugely pleasing textural element. I don’t always love rillette. These disappeared in seconds.

I decided to go for simplicity in the main course. A lot of the beef they use at Asador is ex-dairy cow, which sacrifices a little tenderness for flavour. Apparently the rump steak I had for lunch is the only exception to this, but its hard to think of a better description. If the other steaks can beat this perfectly charred piece of meat for depth of flavour I may well have to drop in tomorrow to try them out. Olive oil chips were excellent, and a bowl of hispi cabbage with shards of (more) iberico were so deeply satisfying I would have been perfectly happy if I’d just eaten a large bowl of them. I don’t normally drink at lunchtime when I’m working, but when in Spain…and I ordered a small glass of a 2019 Rioja which was perfectly pleasant, but with a slight tannin aftertaste I wasn’t wholly on board with.

After all this it would have been rude not to have pudding and frankly, thank god I did. Everything so far had been perfect, but relatively unshowy, just beautifully put together ingredients treated lovingly. My rhubarb parfait was something else. Proper fireworks. Everything about this dessert was precise and complimentary, including little dabs of raspberry curd on the parfait and a white chocolate ganache so toffilly (is that a word? It is now,) delicious I suspect it should be illegal. The perfect combination of tart and sweet, it even perked up the last of the Rioja which, very unhappily for an Englishman, left me absolutely nothing to complain about.

With a glass of sparkling water, and a 10% service charge that I would probably have increased if it hadn’t already been included, lunch came to £41. This was, frankly, a steal. I cannot recommend this place any more. I really do want to go back tomorrow. But they also have a sister restaurant that does tapas. There is also Cardiff’s oldest Italian which I couldn’t get a table at earlier and looks like the sort of throwback trattoria I thoroughly enjoy getting myself around. Mark tells me it’s excellent. I’m sure it is, but it is really going to have to go some to beat its Spanish mate up the road.

Dec 2022

Viet Shack, Manchester

Nâm Xào

In a word, phwoaar.

I’ve stayed in Manchester so many times over the years it often feels like a second home comedically. The city itself is always pulsing with life and possibilities, and it’s no wonder it holds such a central role in British culture and sport, not to mention what I will quaintly refer to as my record collection. Inevitably you gather a collection of favourite haunts and, in my case, eateries.

Manchester has often been singled out as lacking in the culinary department when you consider how much of a renaissance it has had in other areas over the thirty years since, funnily enough, ‘I Am The Resurrection’. This feels as though it has genuinely changed over the past decade as every kind of pop up, niche cuisine hostelry, fine dining establishment and bespoke burger joint has opened up, especially around the Northern Quarter which is where I usually stay when I’m in town.

Personally, I have a special affection for Vietnamese food in general, and the national dish, pho, in particular. There is a blog on here called Pholympics which I initially intended to be an updated list of all the phos I had, but it somehow became abandoned, possibly after a rather good one in Hamburg which I failed to write up and, like so many projects, it dwindled to a quiet halt. One of the few great joys of the last few years in the UK is you can now guarantee you’re within spitting distance of a decent noodle soup almost everywhere, and Manchester really seems to have taken off in this regard. A firm favourite is I am Pho just behind Piccadilly Gardens which is a very functional underground room seemly run by teenagers who do an excellent version (as you would hope from the name) and I went down there for my fix only yesterday.

Slightly nearer my hotel is the rather more jazzy Nam, which I visited on a previous stay and found mildly disappointing – a bit mouth and no trousers and a little dear for what it offered. None of these problems affected Viet Shack, which is literally so close to the hotel it might as well be part of it, but, with all due respect to the Travelodge franchise, is literally on another continent when it comes to food.

I had been once before and had a perfect pho and summer rolls (my default order when no morning glory is available,) but this time resolved to be a little more adventurous. It was more than worth it. Famished from a morning run and no breakfast I was warmly welcomed through the doors at 12pm to a fairly quiet restaurant, all a bit funky hipster and wooden tables and metal chairs. There’s a lot of that about in Manchester.

Somewhat surprisingly for a girl of Asian ethnicity working in a Vietnamese restaurant, my delightfully friendly waitress said she didn’t like spicy food, and warned me the charred cauliflower was a bit pokey. Apparently the crispy aubergine was a little easier on the palate, especially if you had it with the peanut sauce, so we decided to meet in the middle and I ordered both, alongside a plate of Nâm Xào – mixed mushrooms on steamed rice. If that sounds a little prosaic it was anything but. The cauliflower, with a good colour but still a perfect al denté texture, was dotted with chillis on a bed of crushed avocado. It was stunning – a little spicy, but nothing for a man who has braved a Norwegian Som Tum. This was staggeringly good cooking – a perfect blend of tastes, textures and temperatures, and actually beautifully offset by the aubergine. This came in crispy chunks, again with the odd chilli, but more importantly a perfect, smooth, unctuous peanut sauce, so good I ordered another small dish of it as the original portion was a little parsimonious.

The Nâm Xáo contained slightly less fireworks but was no less enjoyable. Thick slices of various Asian mushrooms, like a slippery but deeply satisfying veggie fillet steak in an oyster mushroom glaze, packing some serious umami on a bed of steamed rice with a crunchy salad alongside. Delicious.  At this point another waitress tried to take the remnants of my peanut sauce away, but I held on to it like a small child with a favourite toy as I wanted to use some of my remaining rice to mop up the last few slicks. As I did so, I actually heard myself audibly whispering the word ‘Magnificent!’

God I’m getting old.

By this time, what had been a fairly quiet restaurant was suddenly packed to the seams, and I heard my waitress apologise to another table that their food might e half an hour. They didn’t complain, and having just finished mine, I could rather smugly agree they were right. I paid the outstandingly good value £22 bill (including impeccable service) and walked out past an ever expanding queue of punters clearly keen to enjoy the good times as much as I just had.

There is a well known phrase, often employed by Mancunians, that on a certain day, god created Manchester. A quick google leads me to conclude there is some confusion over whether this was on the sixth, seventh, or maybe even eighth day. What is perfectly clear however, is that it may have taken a little time, but she has now also created an absolutely outstanding Vietnamese restaurant.

October 2022