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

Daran, Stavanger

Me and a Ferry on a ferry in a fjord.

I have just realised this is my second blog in a row to feature Oldham’s finest export, but he is one of my best friends, MC’d my wedding, and frankly I can’t think of better company to travel in. I’ve been all over the world with Mick Ferry, including trips throughout the Middle East, Hong Kong, Cyprus and now Norway. I can also unequivocally say £28 is the most we have ever spent on two beers, but that’s Oslo airport for you.

We were in the wonderful, welcoming and not inexpensive country of Ibsen, A-Ha and Haaland for a couple of days to perform for what turned out to be quite the international crowd. Norwegian audiences have in my experience always been largely made up of those working in the Oil and Gas industry. They have now clearly made so much money then can employ a selection of musicians, therapists, graphic designers, carpenters and dental technicians from Germany, the UK, Eritrea, Australia and the US (and that was just the front row in Haugesund,) to improve their lives. There used to be far more Scots around, seemingly determined to negate their ill-deserved reputation for stinginess, but they seemed in short supply on this visit. Maybe £14 a beer really did get to them.

We enjoyed a lovely first gig at the Festiviteten Theatre in Haugesund whose lobby I have played many times, and one day hope to be allowed to perform in the actual auditorium. Afterwards we headed to a bar where the beer was being positively given away at around £8 a pint, while a local musician murdered some Bon Jovi, before repairing to another bar playing some of our favourite high energy disco pop. The night finished with a bloke seemingly having a fight with himself on the stairs which we stepped around just before the police arrived, providing us with a nostalgic throwback to that time we accidentally got involved in a punch up outside Oldham’s only gay bar after Mick’s 50th. Good times.

The next morning we took the absurdly scenic coach and ferry trip across the fjord to Stavanger and The Comedy Box, helmed by the marvellous Mr Kjetel Melkevik. Upon arrival at the Comfort Hotel (which did pretty much what it said on the side,) we fancied a bite to eat before the show. Unfortunately, the hotel didn’t do dinner, we were both hungry and there was a decent looking Thai across the street so we grabbed our credit cards and, with a certain amount of trepidation, crossed the road and the Rubicon of paying for our own meal in Norway.

Daran Thai isn’t going to win any awards for decor. It was functional, with a few of the minor flourishes one can expect from a regional Thai, like the small bowl of plastic flowers on the table – but the food was anything but.

My suspicions we might be up for something rather good came when our waitress offered us a choice between ‘Norwegian’ and ‘Thai’ spicing. I am genuinely sincere in my appreciation of Norway, but I think even they would admit they are not universally recognised as a culinary superpower, as evidenced by our hotel buffet the night before featuring a decent carrot soup, slightly weird potato fishcakes and more carrots and potatoes in an unspecified gravy. Big flavours are not really their thing, unless they’re pickled. There is not a lot of chilli in Norwegian cooking.

I love it, so, perhaps slight over confidently, went for ‘Thai but not insane’, while Mick went for a more measured ‘medium’. We got what we asked for, more or less. A bowl of breaded prawns with sweet chilli sauce were perfection, the very epitome of what the phrase ‘fat and juicy’ was invented for. My chicken fried rice was also exemplary – a wonderful example of an international staple cooked with real skill and perfect ingredients. Mick’s vegetable rice was a similar plate of complete comfort,. The fireworks were in the other dishes.

Som Tum is one of my favourite salads – a stunning combination of all that is best in Thai food. The four tastes of Thailand are meant to be salty, spicy, sour and sweet, to which I say prawn, chilli, lime and papaya and Som Tum says ‘bring it on’. The one caveat is that this particular example, whilst utterly delicious, and replete with the very welcome adition of some Thai pork scratchings, had really gone for the non-Norwegian spicing and Mick sat opposite watching in bemusement as I gently exploded. However , it would appear sitting opposite a snotty comedian with tears streaming down his face in no way detracted from his chicken massaman curry. This was a far less hysterical dish, but none the worse for it, with a depth of flavour that led Mick – a man whose own expertise in running up a banging curry I can personally vouch for – to proclaim it the finest he had ever had.

With a sparkling water for me and a Singha for Mick, the whole meal came to £98, which is far from cheap, if not quite as eye-watering as my salad. After a lovely couple of shows we headed off for another drink in town, where we realised perhaps the extra portion of rice that came with the curry had been a mistake as it prevented a £11 pint of Guinness and a £12 Kwak having any discernible affect whatsoever. That was probably no bad thing as we had to be up early to get to the airport where I rejected my usual purchase of a snow globe for my wife on the perfectly reasonable grounds £20 is a hell of a lot of money to spend on something she already has.

Norway was, as always, a simply gorgeous place to visit, and one that makes you consider anew all those statistics about how high standards of living are in Scandinavia. I mean, it’s almost as good as the UK. All they really need now is a new Prime Minister to tank the Krone.

October 2022

The Shore Bar & Restaurant, Edinburgh

I have spent over a year of my life at The Edinburgh Festival. That is both a reflection of the number of times I have performed up here and how most perfomers feel as they enter the last week of another Fringe. There are far too many memories to unpack, good bad and indifferent. For me, the good will always outweigh the bad, which is quite possibly why I keep coming back, although why it is also becoming harder and harder to justify the experience to my wife.

One of my favourite years was 2013 as I had a successful show that I had not expended too much emotional energy on – not only did I come up with the stated intention of simply having fun, I made money and played to decent audiences, which was in stark contrast to 2012. I was also living with two of my best friends, Mick Ferry and Hal Cruttenden, who would go on to be MC and Best Man at my wedding a year later (the speeches were ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.)

Our original flat was an absolute disaster, with rat traps under a leaking sink and so unfit for purpose Mick took one look at it, (while Hal stood screaming on a kitchen chair,) and demanded we were rehoused immediately. I missed all this drama and arrived the next day to a perfectly acceptable alternative and Hal’s pulse rate heading back towards ‘resting,’ or as close as it ever gets. If you ever need an estate agent to be ‘spoken’ to, could I recommend alumni of Counthill Comprehensive, Oldham over St Paul’s every time.

As a result of our enforced relocation, we also received some money back and decided to spend it on a slap up dinner at Fisher’s, which remains one of my favourite meals of all time. I wrote about it here. So good was it that when my girlfriend came up, it was the first place I took her to. I am contractually obliged to point out that this was also one of my favourite meals of all time.

Fast forward almost ten years and that former girlfriend and I had booked a babysitter and determined to try and forge a date night out of the Edinburgh madness. Unfortunately, thanks to my own lack of organisational capabilities, Fishers couldn’t fit us in at a suitable time. So I asked Jo Caulfield, wonderful comic, friend and Leith resident if she had any other recommendations. She suggested The Shore Bar & Restaurant, which happens to be in the building next to Fishers and owned by them. So, a pretty reasonable alternative.

It is a beautiful space – wood panelled throughout, with a vast mirror at one end of the bar to create the illusion of a much bigger room, and slightly more formal seating in a dining room off to the right. The whole place has a vaguely Gallic feel – no bad thing in my book – and I found myself tempted by the advertised Jazz Sunday lunch, which is no mean feat for anyone who knows my opinions about eating to music. A relatively brisk menu of solid fish and meat dishes was presented and I prepared for some serious cooking.

I really wanted to love The Shore, so it’s a pity I think we caught them on a slightly Monday night. So much was perfect, and I know Ms Caulfield to have excellent taste in everything except husbands (I’m going for a drink with him later,) but there were a couple of issues. My wife’s scallops with a burnt apple puree were excellent, but the accompanying greens contained pancetta that could really have benefitted from crisping up. I realise this sounds picky, but as she pointed out, there were a couple of lumps of what was essentially unrendered fat in there, and they were not particularly pleasant to eat. My spiced calamari were thoroughly workmanlike, with a decent, if not overly punchy smoked chilli mayonnaise. There was absolutely nothing wrong with them, but actually, the star of the show was a beautifully dressed side salad, zinging with freshness and crunch.

For main course, my wife had the fish pie with more of the exemplary salad. Frankly, if a restaurant of this calibre can’t get their fish pie right, we would have been in real trouble, but they did and we weren’t. I always feel bouillabaisse, though, should be a slightly decadent delight, a murky sauce holding bags of flavour and all kinds of fishy morsels within. Don’t get me wrong, this had some very good things in it – some beautiful sea trout, a few mussels, three pleasingly plump king prawns and the absolute highlight, a delicious piece of creamy crab toast. But the sauce, which I always feel should have the not-quite-but-almost-gritty consistency of a good soup de poissons felt a little underpowered and thin. It was in no sense a bad dish, it just didn’t wow me like a bouillabaisse should. I was also still quite hungry after eating it, so ordered bread to mop up the rest of the sauce – it may not have been the best I’ve had, but I certainly wasn’t going to waste it.

What felt like a slightly off night for the kitchen was compounded by a tarte au citron packed with a powerfully, lemony filling, but on a pastry that was far too thick in places and a brownie that while tasty, felt more floury than squidgy, which, as we all know, is just not quite right.

It was a good date night. We were child free for a few hours for a start. We had eaten some nice things. But there were a coupe of bits we were not so keen on, and when the bill took ten minutes to arrive I must admit I started doing that face which meant my wife started doing that face. Service otherwise had been great, and I don’t think a bill of £90 for a decent meal for two was anything other than reasonable.

Look. I know we’re in the middle of a cost of living crisis. There are more important things than flabby pancetta, a thin sauce and a floury brownie. I am hugely lucky I can go for a meal at all, let alone to a great restaurant with the mother of my children during a break from a month’s professional showing off. I would go back to The Shore in a heartbeat, I just happen to think we hit a bit of an off night, and as someone who has been coming to the Fringe for longer than I care to remember, I know we can all have those. In fact, I had one yesterday, and my audience appeared far less impressed with me than I was with The Shore. But in a town of reviewers, unfortunately The Shore was  ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ the night we went when we really hoped for ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️. I look forward to another night, when I’m certain it will be every bit as good as the speeches at my wedding, Mick’s way with landlords and Hal’s impression of a fifties housewife.

August 2022

The Potted Pig, Cardiff

I first ate at The Potted Pig on 13 Dec 2019 on the recommendation of the UK’s foremost warm-up artiste and bon viveur Mark Olver. Some of you may recall that was the day after a deeply traumatic event which ushered in the worst administration in British political history. If you can’t remember, I admire your ability to forget, or disavow your refusal to accept. Having stayed up late with a bottle of wine that grew more miserable with every glass, a slight hangover was abated with a superb mushroom dashi and some of the best roast pork I had ever eaten, but the trauma was clearly still too much for me to sit down and write about it when Britain had just elected the most unsuitable candidate to the highest office in the land with a quite overwhelming majority.

It’s quite something to realise now how much more trauma was to come. Considerably less meals in restaurants for one thing, although some of you might quite reasonably consider that to be one of the less horrific consequences of a global pandemic. One constant has of course been the crashing awfulness of that unsuitable candidate who has, in the well worn phrase, set himself very low standards he consistently failed to achieve. So it was, if not with a spring in my step, certainly a palpable sense of relief that I walked into Cardiff town centre to reacquaint myself with The Potted Pig in late July 2022, even if I knew I had a long afternoon ahead of me, reworking the Edinburgh Fringe show whose entire line of attack had been fundamentally altered by the enforced resignation of the Potted Prig a couple of weeks earlier.

The restaurant is in an underground vault that could be deemed oppressive if it didn’t feel like you have been admitted to a rather exclusive and comfortable bunker. On the day I was there, possibly a little too exclusive, which was a shame as it is always good to see good places busy. Still, we are all struggling at the moment – a fact possibly not unconnected with those in charge of the country.

Luckily, those in charge of the restaurant were doing a considerably better job. Kat, my chatty and enthusiastic waitress was on hand to bring me a very reasonable martini and talk me through what was an extremely tempting, if not inexpensive menu. It was also one of those relatively rare examples of a menu from which I wanted to order more or less everything, which might have made my choice of main course all the more surprising. She also informed me the restaurant was on its third head chef since my last visit, but luckily, change of leadership has clearly not meant declining standards. I wish I could say the same about Liz Truss.

To start, I had the smoked chicken, pancetta and spinach risotto topped with a delightful chicken skin scratching, for which I have only one criticism – it was a bit titchy. Mainly because it tasted so very good. It was also served on of those wide bowl-like dishes whose only actual area to fit food into is a small indent in the middle of the plate the size of half a boiled egg. I don’t like them. I find them difficult to eat out of, and in this case, I would suggest there wasn’t quite enough space to fit in as much risotto perfection as I would have preferred.

But still, it was a starter and set me up very well for what was an outstanding main course. I don’t often go for the vegetarian option, although I do regularly feel sympathy for vegetarians that the word ‘option’ remains resolutely singular on the vast majority of menus. It’s less an ‘option’ than a stipulation if you don’t eat meat. However, in this case, a number of factors pushed me towards a quite superb beetroot and truffle terrine. Firstly, to be honest, the price. Wages everywhere are stagnant, but they have been positively comatose on the comedy circuit for over a decade, and, as we all know, the cost of everything else has rocketed. Justifying £30 on a main course when you’re away working has become not just hard, but practically impossible to justify. The second reason is that I have grown some beetroot in my garden this year, and my, er ‘invention’ of the butter addled confit beetroot means I am planning to grow little else next year. This was an absolute delight, a wonderful contrast of textures with the soft earthiness of the sliced beetroot within and the crisped without, all offset by deeply pungent and satisfying notes of truffle. A perfect fricassee of greens alongside meant that I felt my lunch had also done me as much good as my run round Cardiff Bay that morning (were it not for the martini,) and at £18 it represented pretty good value for money too.

Desserts looked very tempting, but also veering towards the more overtly sugary end of the market, and for some reason my sweet tooth had deserted me for the day. Instead, in what is again a relatively unusual move for me, I opted for a selection of Welsh cheeses that were not only delicious, they also had the benefit of making me feel like a proper grown up. Maybe Boris Johnson should try some.

All in, with impeccable service, the bill came to £56, which is a lot to spend on a working lunch, but I justified the expense by driving off to a thoroughly hilarious, tiny and charming festival in Herefordshire called ‘Rock the Barn’ before returning to the joys of The Glee Club in Cardiff for the evening.

I then had the pleasure of driving home without the doom of a Tory election victory hanging over proceedings, before heading off to Edinburgh to give Boris Johnson the roasting his calamitous Premiership so clearly deserves. I suppose it’s also a small consolation to reflect that The Potted Pig would probably have done an even better job of it than I ever could.

July 2022

The Blind Bull, Buxton

So here we are again on another weekend away, driving myself across the country and my long-suffering wife apoplectic as she wrangles two toddlers while I treat myself to a rather nice lunch. Sorry.

To be fair, I was in a similar state of incandescence last night, after the inability of Travelodge to provide a postcode on the correct carriageway of the M6 meant it took me an hour and ten minutes to get to a hotel three miles from my gig. The confirmation email also warned of imminent roadworks in April 2020, so god knows who’s going to break it to them about Covid, let alone monkey pox. Ideally, one of the advantages of a child-free evening should be a chance to get to bed reasonably early rather than furiously clutching a mug of whisky two hours after you intended to be asleep. Funnily enough, the single malt in question was a birthday gift from my good friend Nick Revell, an excellent little number named ‘Singleton’ which is I imagine what I may well be when my wife reads this.

As I’m gigging in Glossop and Saddleworth tonight, I once again asked on Twitter for lunch recommendations, and just like last month, @frivoliteabakes came to my rescue. In fact, she could be said to have excelled herself. Well worth a foodie follow. So I jumped in the car and headed off through the Peak District to Buxton, or to be more accurate, Little Hucklow. Or, to be really picky, The Blind Bull – a Twelfth Century Inn nestling down the bottom of the sort of left turn which makes you think they cannot be serious. When you get here, however, it quickly becomes very clear they are.

The drive itself was stunning, and the glorious countryside provides the perfect backdrop to what I’m delighted to report was an equally stunning lunch. Look away now, Emily. I was placed in a cosy little corner table in thoroughly tastefully refurbished surroundings – all stone floors and wood, open fireplaces and good prints on the wall – exactly how you imagine a medieval publican might redecorate his place if he’d had access to a decent interior designer. As my gig is still five hours away, I’m still sat here, but considering a walk through the beer garden and out on to the rolling hills in a while to shift a little of the treacle tart I’ve just polished off, of which more later.

As it is genuinely hard to think of a more picturesque destination for lunch, I’m also at a loss to think of a menu I’ve had more trouble choosing from. I wanted almost all of it. Bless my waitress who patiently took me through most of it twice while I ummed and ahhed and was generally useless. I was sorely tempted by the raw roast beef with fermented chilli and shrimp dressing – indeed I’m actually salivating writing this and cursing myself for not having it, but that would have meant foregoing the asparagus with crispy egg and pickled shallot I had instead. This came in a vivid green lovage sauce and may well be the nicest thing I’ve put in my mouth since lockdown. Breaking open the egg to allow the yolk to ooze out into it provided a masterstroke of creamy richness, and I genuinely failed to display any shame whatsoever in using the teaspoon from the (excellent) coffee I’d ordered on arrival to spoon up all the sauce that remained. Leaving anything on the plate would have been a greater sin. 

I was a bit more prosaic with my main course, much as I wanted the stone bass with clams and sea herbs, but as it’s a Sunday I decided to go for a roast – pork belly with black pudding. Everything on the plate was served piping hot and almost entirely to perfection. Deeply satisfying green shards of cabbage, definitive roasties, parsnips, and meltingly delicious pork with a slick homemade apple sauce. By this point I was actively looking for problems, as if I wasn’t sure anything should be this good. So here goes with my damming critique – of the six inches of crackling around the pork, three hadn’t crisped up. Take THAT Blind Bull. I even found myself wondering if the Yorkshire pudding might have been left a minute or two too long in the oven, but then decided that was actually the ideal treatment for retaining its structure when mopping up a faultless gravy. When you’re clutching at straws like this you know you might as well surrender yourself to the fact you’re in exceptionally good hands.

I needed a bit of a break after this, to the extent I put the exceptionally patient waitress through her paces once more because I wanted everything on the dessert menu too. Eventually I settled on a treacle tart, as much to compare with the one I had at The Pig & Whistle last month as anything else. That had been more than serviceable, but this, with all due respect, rather blew it out of the water. The addition of a quenelle of orange and vanilla ice cream was a masterful floral counterpoint to the deeply sugary hit of the tart and showed exactly the same lightens of touch with flavours as the lovage sauce had with my starter. Added to which, while the Pig & Whistle’s tart was a fairly solid item, once you broke this open, the filling oozed out on to the plate, mixing deliciously with the ice cream. They really know how to give good ooze at The Blind Bull.

I would tell you how much this all came to but I can’t, partly because I haven’t asked for the bill yet, but mainly because my wife will be reading. Put it like this, I don’t expect to have much change from the forty guineas I am probably expected to pay with once Boris Johnson has pursued his monstrously stupid project of taking us back to Imperial measures and presumably the 1950s in a(nother) failed bid to distract from his own crapulence. Personally, on this evidence, I am very happy to go back to the Twelfth century. I really cannot fault my lunch and service was exemplary too – including welcome little touches like the unbidden pint glass of water when I sat down that would be regarded as normality in Europe, but which are therefore generally regarded as a sign of weakness in England by those who will never be happy until the glass has a crown on it. But let’s be honest; those people are never going to be happy.

I too struggle with happiness between my bouts of rage at this government and the vagaries of the Travelodge booking system, but some things really are a pleasure to be savoured, and The Blind Bull is very much one of them. To describe it as exactly ‘en route’ between my gigs is probably pushing things a little geographically, but it is most definitely worth a detour all of its own if you are ever in the area. I certainly plan to come back, to try the rest of the menu, if nothing else. I cannot wait. Just don’t tell my wife.

May 2022

The Pig & Whistle, Beverley

I do not wish to be unkind to a town that has always had more than its fair share of detractors, but when you’ve had one good lunch in Hull, it’s probably best not to push your luck searching for a better one the next day, even if I’m sure the £10 special at Viet Memories I had promised to return for would have been excellent. Luckily, I was armed with a Twitter recommendation and a car so I took the Highway out of Hull and headed for Beverley and The Pig and Whistle.

One of the great joys of Britain (and there really are some left,) is how quickly one can slip from urban sprawl to the sort of verdant fields, rolling countryside and harmonising birds that quickly bring out your inner William Blake. I highly recommend the Fall’s version of ‘Jerusalem’ if you fancy hearing that dichotomy in musical form, unless you are my wife and refuse to accept The Fall are, or were, in any way musical. It was on her behalf I took a detour to nearby Skirlaugh to pick up some photography equipment she had bought online, a place whose main achievement appears to be a name whose pronunciation bears little resemblance to its spelling. ‘Sker-La’ apparently, which must perplex any visiting Americans, but then it was on to Beverley, a delightful market town which I’m sure would live up to all their expectations of both the English language and Olde Worlde charm.

Of course one the great drawbacks of Britain (and there are really some of those left too,) is parking, or the lack thereof, which was why my initial pass through the town centre left me trapped in a one way system involving a craned neck, sat nav rage, ludicrously late turning decisions and danger to other road users. It is for this reason I must say, to even my own surprise, thank god for Tesco, whose decision not to charge people to use their carparks does, in the world of modern capitalism, begin to resemble a gesture of almost secular saintliness, were it not for the fact it is still Tescos. It would be nice if the NHS tried to do the same but of course that would be communism, comrades.

I was now a little late for my booking, and slightly concerned by the fact I had not spotted my destination as I drove past it. I was beginning to wonder if my cross words with the sat nav had led it to withhold vital information from me when I arrived to discover the real reason. The front of the The Pig and Whistle is a very modest, some would say unprepossessing, window with a couple of chairs and tables outside which could very easily be taken for any old coffee shop. But as I was about to find out, it was anything but (even if they do do excellent coffee.)

Once inside, I discovered there was, if not quite a Tardis effect, certainly a very comfortable and tastefully decorated restaurant at the back of the room away from the main bar and kitchen area. Only one of the twelve or so tables was occupied which seemed a little strange on a Saturday lunchtime, so I took a seat to find out what everyone was missing.

Quite a lot as it turned out. The menu is mostly tapas, with a couple of hot dishes, charcuterie and a very tempting blackboard of daily specials and another of deeply advanced (and highly tempting) bar snacks. It is a place to graze or to blow out. Your choice. I think I got it just about right. I was sorely tempted by a plate of Lindisfarne oysters, but resisted, and went down the simple tapas route. What I eventually ordered was the absolute definition of that wonderful phrase ‘an elegant sufficiency’.

As has been noted before, I am yet to meet the plate of Jamón Ibérico I haven’t ordered, so deep dark pink slices of melting porkfection were soon delivered to the table, with the addition of picot, those little Spanish breadsticks I can take or leave, frankly. Luckily I ordered some extra sourdough which was excellent, especially with the addition of artisan Netherland Farm butter, all salt crystal crunch.

I was already very happy.

Alongside this, a plate of patron peppers were everything they should have been, generous, simple, delicious. A remoulade of celeriac and kohlrabi in a punchy mustard and caper dressing was a thing of beauty, perfectly cutting through the richness of the ham, but the real revelation was a plate of spinach with chickpeas. I have never got chickpeas. They always seem to be a sort of vegetarian makeweight, and for anyone saying yeah, but houmous, I would say, exactly. I could happily go to my grave never having bothered my tastebuds with that particular brand of wallpaper paste again, no matter how organic your olive oil. But served with spinach and perfectly seasoned with paprika, garlic and cumin this was genuinely one of the best tapas dishes I have ever eaten. Anywhere. LIke complimenting Tesco, I can’t believe I am saying this either, but well worth the trip on their own.

I really didn’t need the treacle tart with creme fraiche and raspberries, but I had to have it, just to keep you informed. A delightful sugary hit after quite a salt heavy main, it disappeared from my plate almost before it arrived, alongside an espresso, the quality of which I have already vouched for.

The bill came to just over £50 including service, which is rather an expensive lunch for an itinerant clown who was performing in Hull for the weekend, where the wages are hardly beyond the dreams of avarice, but it was in no way expensive for what it was. I would go as far as to say it was the perfect lunch.

I wouldn’t normally mention a trip to the loo at the end of a meal – why would you? But in this case I must make an exception. Allow me to explain. It’s quite a big loo – indeed, with a little careful restructuring one imagines it could be downsized to provide room for more tables, but then it wouldn’t leave space for all the evidence of the kitchen’s provenance. The chef at The Pig and Whistle, James Alcock, has a serious pedigree, as proven by the huge variety of menus and memorabilia from some of London’s finest establishments on the walls – a Pollen Street Social menu, a Ducasse signature, a job offer from Marcus Wareing. I could have stayed for hours, but as there were still bafflingly few customers, I thought the friendly and attentive waiting staff might worry I’d passed out in there from a surfeit of pork. And contentment.

Any restaurant where you realise you are on hallowed ground simply by reading the toilet walls must surely be a good thing. But of course, the best way to find out is by simply eating there, and thanks to @frivoliteabakes I’m so very glad I did. Get yourself to Beverley, sisters.

May 2022

Viet Memories, Hull

Now, where was I? Well, not Hull for a start.

If you want to hear my thoughts on life for the last two years, could I gently suggest you might like to attend my new show, ‘Alistaircratic’ at the Edinburgh Festival in August? We’ve all had to deal with varying levels of hardship and abstinence, but the absence of a minor comedian’s food blog on your timelines has not been anyone’s most pressing inconvenience. I have not so much missed writing them as I have missed going to restaurants, but now we have come blinking out of the bunker, paler and fattier than we went in, hopefully the hospitality industry is getting back on its feet – just in time for World War Three.

The comedy circuit has certainly staged some sort of recovery, and I have been back on the road for a number of months. There have been plentiful opportunities to start blogging again, but I also have a living to earn/replenish, a new show to write and two toddlers to wrangle. There have certainly been a couple of culinary highlights – a superb tasting menu at Thompsons in St Albans for my fiftieth birthday, and a thoroughly debauched lunch at Rules with my oldest friend which I fully intended to write up, but unfortunately can no longer remember. Clearly, an excuse for another visit.

What finally nudged me into action was the combination of a weekend in Hull, playing the excellent Comedy Lounge and a Facebook post by my friend Paul Tonkinson. Paul had been stopping at Fiori’s, a sandwich shop in Leicester Square, for over two decades, and on the latest of innumerable visits had discovered it was closing down. He wrote a rather lovely piece about his last tuna salad on toasted poppy seed bagel, and the strange nature of comedians’ relationships with the people and places they come into regular contact with as part of this strangely itinerant but often repetitive existence we enjoy.

There are many door staff, technicians, bar staff etc we will have worked with for many years and, to our eternal shame, still don’t know by name, the moment of opportunity to ask having vanished in a shuddering cloud of insurmountable embarrassment many moons ago. There are cafes, coffee shops, sandwich bars, restaurants, running routes, cinemas, galleries, museums all of which we have come to know and love, and many of which have ceased to be and which we mourn a little each time we go in search of a new favourite.

What it also means is there are less and less new experiences open to those of us who have been round that circuit more than once or twice. Hull, however, was one of them. I have played there a couple of times, but never stayed. As I fixed an orange towel over the skylight to make up for the lack of blind in my hotel room I thought there might be a reason for that. I woke the next morning feeling like I’d slept in a can of warm Tango.

Far more importantly, it meant I had no idea where to go for lunch. Hull does not have a great reputation as a destination of class and grandeur, and as I walked into town I reflected that this did not seem entirely unfair. It is a classic case of a town that has been left behind, a destination for a lot of the same identikit high street outlets, a feeling less of soullessness than neglect. It reminded me of Southampton in the late seventies, which is hardly a ringing endorsement.

I had appealed for suggestions on Twitter and drawn a blank. In this situation I have one inevitable tactic. I googled Nandos – in times like these, the devil you know is a fine and noble option. So imagine my surprise when I rounded a corner to stumble across Viet Memories, and naturally, stumbled inside.

I have written quite a lot about my obsession with pho, the famous Vietnamese noodle soup, to the extent there is a section in this blog called Pholympics, partly as a comparison between the various ones I’ve tried but mostly because I was childishly pleased with the pun. Sat inside this rather welcoming room with Vietnamese telly on in the corner, what I assumed were Vietnamese chefs in the kitchen, some goldfish I felt were a little too big for their bowl on the counter, and a lady who was most definitely not Vietnamese behind it, I decided I need to try something different.

My asparagus and king prawn dish was absolutely excellent – a great choice in a menu that appeared to be straining with an abundance of them. Fat, juicy prawns with perfectly cooked asparagus spears, spring onion and carrots resting on a sauce of the cooking liquid heavy with umami. I ordered a side dish of perfect egg fried rice and just chucked them on top with a generous couple of spoonfuls of a punchy chilli oil. It was bloody marvellous.

It wasn’t cheap. My meal with a tip and a sparkling water came to £25, but neither was it expensive for what it was. They also do a lunch option of one course and a drink for a tenner, which I told the waitress I would be coming back for the next day to try the pho.

Sadly, I lied. In the meantime, I had received a tweet telling me about The Pig and Whistle in nearby Beverley which I visited for lunch today and which is highly deserving of a blog in its own right. Now that I’m back into the swing of things, I shall attempt to make sure it gets one. I shall also attempt to make good on my promise to return to Viet Memories, because from very unpromising beginnings, they managed to provide me with a very memorable lunch.

Hull is typical of those towns that have been left behind, where people like the owner of my hotel explained to me that he was a Brexiteer the day after Jacob Rees-Mogg announced a fourth delay on import checks to the UK because it would be an act of ‘self-harm’ – a full admission the UK cannot afford the deal this government has imposed on it, and which will do further untold damage to places like Hull. I do not believe the mythical levelling up agenda be anything more than empty sloganeering either, but somethings do give you hope. 

I took a run around the football stadium this morning which looked in fine fettle. I was touched by a number of murals reflecting the city’s proud maritime history which indicate a desperate sense of community beating away under the surface. The existence of a fantastic purpose built comedy club in The Comedy Lounge is a development to be treasured. And being served delicious Vietnamese by a woman who insists on calling you “luv” at the end of every sentence is another.

There is always hope for the future, my friends, especially when the recent past has been so harsh. And I know what I say is true, because I’m writing about yesterday’s lunch and I already know tomorrow’s is epic.

My Viet Memories are awesome too. Well worth the trip to Hull. And back.

April 2022