Helford Passage, Cornwall

CornwallGlastonbury was tremendous as usual this year, if possibly muddier than Michael Gove’s name in the Boris Johnson household(s.) Some people insist the mud makes no difference to their enjoyment, but they are usually lying, still on drugs or watching the television coverage. We had a brilliant time and I thoroughly enjoyed both watching and performing, but after three days of squodging around in ankle-deep gloop, we fancied putting our beautifully toned calves and (trench) feet up for a couple of days somewhere a little more restful. Happily, my wife had secured a job photographing (www.spinkreative.co.uk) a friend’s apartment a couple of hours down the road in the ridiculously picturesque Cornish village of Helford Passage, and presumably on the strength of her free Glastonbury ticket, allowed me to come with her. So, three days at the world’s best festival followed by three days in Cornwall and all tax deductible – wouldn’t it be nice if all business trips dovetailed so conveniently?

Mackerel & Chowder

Mackerel & Chowder

I defy anyone who comes to Cornwall not to love it and it has been far too long since I’ve spent any time there. Helford Passage might almost have been constructed as an advert for the Cornish Tourist Board, which is going to need all the help it can get now they are realising that if you vote to leave the EU, it is unlikely to continue sending you those nice subsidies you’ve been enjoying for the last forty years. Located at the estuary of the Helford River, like many of the villages in the area, visitors can’t drive right down to the shore as there simply isn’t space. A lot of this is occupied by the quite fantastic Ferryboat Inn, a mere stumble from our small but perfectly formed apartment, which was handy as they also have a small but perfectly formed selection of Cornish Ales on draught. If you were writing your spec for a perfect pub, it is entirely possible you might come up with The Ferryboat all by yourself, but luckily you don’t have to as someone else has done it for you, which might be as good a way of describing the tone of the place as any. Youth unemployment is a huge problem for the area, but one of the upsides is that everywhere we went was staffed by incredibly friendly yet terribly efficient twenty year olds, who probably had more qualifications than most of the people they were serving. Still, if I came from Cornwall I don’t imagine I’d want to leave either.

IMG_4987There is a pool table (but out the back so you won’t get annoyed if you get annoyed by that sort of thing,) plenty of seating at the front to appreciate the views across the estuary, and then casual restaurant style seating throughout the main bar to appreciate the views across the menu. My grilled mackerel was as perfect as taking a mackerel and grilling it could be – crispy skin, juicy flesh packed with flavour and a homemade tartare sauce for which the phrase lip-smacking was probably created. But the star turn was my wife’s chowder, a serious soup with a proper hunk of hake bobbing around in it. To describe flavours this deep as ‘comforting’ seems to be doing them a disservice, but this was so good it would probably have put you to bed and read you a story before doing the washing up. And they brought us chips because ‘they’d just made some’. I mean – come on. A lemon posset topped with a blueberry coulis and candied almonds was again perfectly executed, and two hours into our mini-break I was already considering making an offer on the apartment.

Hell yeah.

Hell yeah.

When I was a child, I hated going for walks. I never saw the point. I ruined multiple family outings sulking over some cliffs or stomping disconsolately round a monument. My principal objection was that any walk that started and ended at the same point was, logically, a complete waste of everyone’s time, and I still think I had a point, but surely one of the clearest signs of getting older is an enjoyment of walks for their own sake. This is very easily done in Cornwall, and the next day we walked along the coastal path, then doubled back and visited the beautifully maintained Trebah Gardens. There aren’t many sub-tropical gardens of the ooh and ah-ing variety located anywhere else in the UK that aren’t under glass, and it’s one of those places that makes you realize with horror you are considering joining the National Trust. There is also a lovely café doing a small selection of light lunches very well indeed – we both had quiche because it felt like a very quiche place, and they were excellent. There were also Bakewell and treacle tarts with clotted cream to die for. My mum would absolutely adore it, which is a much higher compliment than it sounds.

Megrim sole

Megrim sole

In the evening we repaired to The Old Red Lion in nearby Mawnan Smith – another proper pub, with a thatched roof, bar propping locals in the snug and the requisite helpful, youthful staff. I’m not sure I’ve had Megrim Sole before, and while it’s not going to win any beauty contests, it was nicely cooked with a simple lime and caper butter, as was a whole plaice with a garlic and herb version. Desserts were less inspiring – I don’t think I’ll be rushing back for the Triffle (sic) Torte – but it’s certainly not the pub’s fault the main thing I will remember it for is watching England lose to Iceland at Euro2016 in the worst performance I have ever seen. If there’s one thing that’s likely to push the Cornish towards independence, it’s probably the realisation that statistically, they probably now have a big enough population to beat the rest of the country at football.

IMG_4993

Crab

Crab

 

We were told one of the highlights of a trip to Helford Passage is taking the ferry across the water to Helford itself and The Shipwright’s Arms. Having decided that thanks to a spot of rain we would instead drive around the river, thus undergoing a forty five minute drive through tiny, winding, overgrown roads to arrive approximately half a mile from where we started, could I heartily recommend the ferry? It’s small, local, and runs on demand from a kiosk outside the Ferryboat Inn. If you get rained on a bit, you’ll live. You’ll still thank me. Helford is probably where they wanted to film Doc Martin but couldn’t because it is even more picturesque than Port Isaac, and The Shipwright has the confidence of a destination that knows what it’s doing and does it very well indeed. My crab starter came with a healthy portion of punchy white and brown meat, granary bread (from Vicky’s Bakery up the road,) and a salad of carrot ribbons, leaves, tomato, cucumber and apple that just seemed to show that whoever was in charge was a grown up who knew what they were doing. A deep fried Cornish brie oozed all over a homemade chutney and everyone was very

Brie

Brie

happy, even more so when two perfect portions of fish and chips arrived. They were also accompanied by genuinely pleasant mushy peas – something of a contradiction in terms as far as I’m concerned, but not one I’m likely to complain about.

IMG_5001A little tip if you visit the Tate at St Ives – do check if it’s open first. Sadly it is presently shut til March 2017, which must be handy for the summer trade, but we didn’t mind too much, and happily munched a rather good crayfish salad and a couple of pasties at the kiosk overlooking the beach. The restaurant just above it also looked good, but we wanted to wander off and look at art we couldn’t afford in some of the galleries in town. A stop in Falmouth at the National Maritime Museum on the way back was worthwhile, (if only to snigger at the spelling of Cnut in the Vikings exhibition,) before returning to The Ferryboat for a game of pool and a last meal before leaving the next morning. We shared the seafood platter I’d spotted on our first visit, and although I might have appreciated a couple more oysters for the £38 price tag, picking my way through a plate of crustacea remains one of my absolute favourite occupations, especially if someone has sensibly refused to put any whelks on it. We finished with the lemon posset again and a rather lovely sticky toffee pudding.

IMG_5010There was even a band playing that I quite enjoyed, which is a fairly remarkable achievement. I couldn’t be happier than when I’m dancing around to live music in a field, but if they started playing in a restaurant I’d tell them to sod off. Well, actually I wouldn’t, I’d just glower pointlessly in a corner while my wife tutted at me, but it is highly unlikely I’d consider they were enhancing the experience. These guys were playing a very proficient and unobtrusive brand of jazz, but it is as much a testament to the good taste on offer all over this part of the world that I liked them as much as I did. And we didn’t even have to walk through any mud to get away from them afterwards.

Sticky toffee pudding

Sticky toffee pudding

 

July 2016

 

If you’re interested in booking our friend’s one bed apartment, it’s 16b, Helford Passage at www.holidaycornwall.co.uk. And if you think this counts as advertorial rather than absolutely independent criticism, you’d be completely right. You even get 10% off at The Ferryboat if you tell them you’re staying there.

St. Ives

St. Ives

 

Taverne du Passage, Brussels & ‘tZilte, Antwerp

IMG_3661IMG_3669Last week saw me in Belgium for a couple of days for gigs in Brussels and Antwerp to rooms full of extraordinarily civilized people. While I remain undecided which way I will vote should the proposed in/out referendum on the EU materialize next year (in an unusual example of David Cameron actually keeping one of his promises,) my instinctive leaning towards inclusivity would seem to place me firmly in the ‘Yes’ camp. The behaviour of festive audiences in Belgium compared to the UK, on the other hand, would have me happily voting ‘No’ – on the proviso I can move to the continent and leave Britain and its leery obnoxious drunken Christmas parties to float off into the North Sea whilst gangs of pissed secretaries and Neanderthals with self-esteem issues throw up over the side.

Kidneys and sweetbreads

Kidneys and sweetbreads

Pineapple carpaccio & apple tart

Pineapple carpaccio & apple tart

I have been a comedian for too long to put up with some of the idiocy we normally get at Christmas time, and something seems to have clicked in my psyche this year whereby I have properly lost my shit twice in the past ten days; once at a moronic heckler in Greenwich and secondly facing down an entire table of boorish builders in High Wycombe. I am not the aggressive type, so I can only blame a confidence that I wouldn’t have been doing this job all over the world for over fifteen years to rooms full of laughing people if I had never said ‘something funny’ (Greenwich.) Similarly I’m pretty sure I’ve got more jokes than Oscar Pistorius has limbs (High Wycombe) which, to be fair, would have been quite a good heckle if I hadn’t been having a very passable gig to the 95% of the room who had been paying attention up until that point. Even so, calling a builder a c**t and offering him out when he is a) drunk and b) surrounded by lots of other drunk builders, is the sort of idiotic behavior I am only likely to indulge in when I’m on stage and adrenaline has taken the place of intelligence. Still, he left, and I remain convinced that on this occasion, he was a c**t, so I’ll chalk that down as a festive win, thank you very much, especially as his boss came to find me afterwards to apologise for his entire company.

Clam, cucumber, kimchi

Clam, cucumber, kimchi

In Belgium on the other hand, I performed two hour long sets to not one heckle, and generous laughter and applause. That’s a whole hour of me. Twice. And no ‘participation’. Belgians are not just polite, they are clearly also amongst the most patient people on the earth – and all this in a country that thinks nothing of 12% proof beer. God alone knows what havoc that would wreak on the December streets of Leeds or London should it ever spread across the Channel.

Beetroot, capers, thyme

Beetroot, capers, thyme

We spent a day in Brussels first, where I had booked a table once again at the wonderful Taverne du Passage, the stunning brasserie where I had a run in with my nemesis in the form of tete de veau a couple of years ago. The resultant blog was the most popular I’ve ever written, but that positivity was somewhat undermined by the fact I had ruined my own meal to write it. This time I was under strict instructions from my wife to order stuff I knew I liked and we had a quite fantastic meal. Rather like Terminus by the Gare du Nord in Paris, this is simply everything a restaurant should be. The only off note was a misunderstanding that meant my wife had scallops instead of snails to start, but as they were ‘probably the best scallops I’ve ever eaten’ we were hardly likely to send them back. I had the best mushrooms I’ve ever eaten (again) on toast that clearly understood everything tastes better cooked in a lot of butter. I still went a little experimental on main course in that I opted for offal, but my veal sweetbreads and kidneys in a mustard sauce were cooked so beautifully I almost got a little teary. After finishing on a perfect apple tart with the most vanilla of ice creams and a delightfully zinging pineapple carpaccio, we paid the €150 bill happily and headed off to look at some Magritte paintings as we were, after all, in Belgium. This was the sort of meal you could have eaten at any decent continental brasserie at any point over the last couple of hundred years except we didn’t. We ate it at the Taverne du Passage, served by the most charming of waiters (even if he didn’t know his snails from his scallops,) and we loved it.

Poultry liver terrine

Poultry liver terrine

The next day in Antwerp, we had booked lunch at the two Michelin starred t’Zilte at the top of the magnificent MAS tower. This was one of those settings so imposing you almost felt like an intruder – all the way up to the 9th floor to a single door behind which lay some fabulous food and a lot of people considerably more wealthy than we are. Luckily the staff were very welcoming, if a little formal, but that was only to be expected given the extraordinary technique on display from the kitchen. I had had a glass of thoroughly smooth Bordeaux in Brussels, but here we stuck to mineral water just to help us appreciate what was put in front of us. I do like a set three-course menu (€68) when the chef clearly has no intention whatsoever of only serving you three courses.

Scallop

Scallop

Cerviche

Cerviche

A basket of varied and beautiful breads was brought and slowly dispatched through the meal as the first appetizer was put in front of us – malt crackers with a hazelnut sour cream, dotted with a little caviar. The sort of thing Philadelphia and lumpfish roe wants to be when it grows up. This was swiftly followed by cucumber and kimchi clams – all creams and textures (including a little iced puck of cucumber that was a joy to eat.) My only criticism was one of the clams was still gritty, but luckily I am not a Michelin inspector, although, should they be reading, I am very much available, especially over the festive period. The plate was also one of the prettiest imaginable, a theme that continued throughout the meal. This was food as art, and even if I wondered if flavour was sometimes slightly sacrificed to the aesthetic, it was truly impressive stuff. And each dish kept on getting better. Our second appetizer was a delicious concoction of beetroot with capers and thyme, whilst our third (three appetizers! Now that is what I call three courses!) was a sublime disk of ‘poultry liver’ terrine topped with baby onions individually stuffed with langoustine tartar. As my wife said, someone has actually had to stuff each one of these tiny baby onions. This was astonishing attention to detail, and even if a little of you could not help but think ‘what is the point of this?’ you ate it, and realized in that very mouthful the answer to your own question.

Wild duck

Wild duck

Cod

Cod

There was no choice of starter, and a complex dish of thinly sliced pumpkin with its seeds, tuna flakes and diced scallop tartare arrived, followed swiftly by another plate with a beautifully cooked single scallop and a scallop foam, ceps and charred chicory. They complimented one another perfectly, especially the earthiness of the vegetables against the sweetness of the seafood, although we both agreed the fishiness of the tuna flakes was an acquired taste we weren’t quite sure we’d managed to acquire.

White chocolate, sea buckthorn

White chocolate, sea buckthorn

My wild duck main course was another object lesson in plate dressing, with tiny spheres of pear and boudin cutting through the gameiness of the meat and a quite wonderful sauce. My wife is not a duck fan for reasons I simply cannot fathom, but they very kindly brought her a perfectly cooked fillet of translucent cod, with another seafood foam and ceps. Not a million miles away from our starter, but that is hardly a criticism especially considering it was off menu.

Dessert was mind-blowingly good – indeed the only problem I had was that by eating it, it felt a little like destroying a work of art. One made up of white chocolate, textures of sea buckthorn, pistachio, lemongrass shards, wafer thin pastry waves to echo the perspex shapes of the building and a little ginger ale vinaigrette. So, frankly, this was a work of art that needed destroying and we thoroughly enjoyed doing so.

Petit Fours

Petit Fours

Excellent coffee was accompanied by two home made truffles and a plate of quite stunning petit fours including some of the best madeleines we have ever been lucky enough to put in our mouths. The bill came in at €200 including service, which may be quite a lot to spend on lunch, but this level of cooking costs money, and for me, it felt like genuine value for money. Especially as, by my reckoning, our three course meal had been nearer eight courses long, and one gritty clam apart, utterly faultless.

IMG_3663My waistline would not let me eat at Taverne du Passage every day, (although I could see myself putting that theory to the test if I did move to Belgium,) and t’Zilte must go down as one of those rare special treats one allows oneself from time to time, but every now and then you do think ‘Hell, it’s Christmas,’ and this is how I like to behave at my Christmas party. Especially if I have to go and do a gig afterwards, which I am delighted to report was awesome in Antwerp, and infinitely preferable to ghastly in Greenwich, or horrible in High Wycombe.

 

Dec 2015

Byron

 

IMG_3008Apologies if you’re wondering where July’s Food Ponce was, but I was busy writing and previewing my Edinburgh show. If you are following me on social media in any capacity, you may well be aware that I am in Edinburgh. In fact, if you still follow me on Twitter it’s unlikely you will do so much longer if I mention it again.

So. I’m in Edinburgh (‘No More Stage Three’ – Movement, Cowgate, 15:45. Sorry.) Time is at a bit of a premium, but I do have a review to write up that shouldn’t take long, which will be a relief to all of us.

Before

Before

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I met up with our friends Jimmy and Aoife for a bit of dinner before we headed to Edinburgh. (I am there now – did I mention that?) We were in Holborn, and by clever use of smartphone, managed to narrow our options down to one of the hundreds of available eateries in the area. I liked the sound of Holborn Dining Room, so we marched down there, took one look at the very impressive menu and decided we’d all rather pay our mortgages this month instead. (Especially with rent being what it is in Edinburgh, where I am now.) A couple of noses around the outside of average looking brasseries later, one of us remembered we had walked past a branch of Byron’s about three minutes previously. Normally when you meet friends for dinner, you don’t tend to think ‘burger’, but this is a thought process the growth of the bespoke burger chain is working hard to challenge. Something about the suggestion chimed with all of us and off we trooped.

The sides

The sides

The Holborn branch of Byron stands somewhat incongruously next to a McDonald’s a bit like a single malt* stood by a Buckfast* – they’re both ostensibly offering the same thing, but you know which one you’d prefer.

Good company makes for a good dining experience as much as anything else, but so does getting down and dirty with a good burger menu. Another bonus is an efficient waiter taking a nicely dry attitude to our attempts to order most of the menu. He was also huge and impressively biceped. Jimmy is (as mentioned in a previous blog) a fireman, so I was not feeling like the most alpha male at this mealtime, but you will not be surprised when you see what we ordered to discover that my present lack of gym physique is fairly self-explanatory.

Health food

Health food

Between us we ordered two Byron’s – bacon cheese burgers essentially – a B-Rex, with BBQ sauce and jalapenos which Jimmy didn’t eat because he is, according to my wife, ‘a massive pussy.’ I had an excellent ‘Le Smokey’. My burger featured fried onions and BBQ sauce too – of which I am not normally a fan. I tend to find the act of barbecuing something confers enough flavor on it without adding a reduced brown sticky gunge with all the subtlety of cleaning your teeth with marmite. However, on this occasion I was wrong. Le Smokey turned out to be exactly that. A big bold burger that was, like all of the above, moist, perfectly cooked and just enough of a challenge to eat tidily to make the whole process worthwhile. We also ordered far too many side dishes because it seemed completely appropriate. French fries, home fries, mac and cheese, courgette fritters (vitamin fans,) onion rings and a nicely poky jalapeno coleslaw.

Oreo Milkshake

Oreo Milkshake

This was already excellent in just the spoiling oneself relatively unhealthily way a good burger should be, when I tried some of Jimmy’s Oreo milkshake. I had already ordered a root beer or a mineral water or something equally tedious, but having tried the milkshake, I grabbed another passing waiter and sorted out my drinks option pretty quickly. This elevated a really good, fun meal to something actually rather special. So special we didn’t even have room for dessert. Well, in the interests of full disclosure, we walked to the Magnum shop in Covent Garden afterwards to find an hour’s worth of bloody tourists in my way so we grabbed a gelato somewhere else while I had a cry, but that’s another story.

After

After

This was a genuinely brilliant dinner – good stuff, done simply and unfussily. I have thought about reviewing a Byron before – I often stop at the one in Manchester when I’m working up there – but that was before I discovered the Oreo option. I have spent a lot of money at fine dining establishments where nothing has tasted as good as that milkshake. Here, we had plenty of change from £100 – most of which we admittedly gave to our waiter so that he could go and buy some new dumbells as he’d clearly worn out the last pair, but it was money well spent. Then it was time to head home and drive to Scotland where, as we all know, absolutely everything is good for you and there is healthfood as far as the eye can see. Perhaps I’ll see you up here, and maybe you could come to my show which I have, in all fairness, hardly mentioned since the second paragraph.

 

July 2015

* Famous Scottish drinks. From Scotland. Where Edinburgh is. Where I am.

Casanis, Bath

 

Can it be soup?

Can it be soup?

If you haven’t been for lunch with an old friend in the sunshine recently you probably should. I first met Martin in 1982 with the awkward handshake reserved for 10-year-olds who can’t understand why they’ve been forced to leave home to live with strangers. It’s fair to say our friendship has been through many of the tribulations you would expect of 30 years but the fact we’re still meeting for lunch would seem to indicate it’s still intact. The last time we met was at Rowley Leigh’s estimable (and sadly now closed) Café Anglais in West London – a thoroughly delightful restaurant in a curiously characterless room. It was also in Whiteley’s shopping centre, which would have given me plenty of room to sneer, (always good for a blog,) but I didn’t write about it – perhaps because the food was excellent and I didn’t pay.

Quail

Quail

I was working in Bath, our old stomping ground (where Martin still works,) and we’d arranged to meet; the only problem was where. Bath was never that good for restaurants – having claimed to have invented eating out when the legendary ‘Hole in the Wall’ opened in 1952 (and run by an old boy from our school,) it pretty much rested on its laurels for the next fifty years. You can spend a lot of money if you choose (I’m looking at you Royal Crescent,) and there are many of the usual options available to the generic shopping experience diner. I’m probably being slightly unfair – I’m very out of the loop in Bath terms, and it is 2015, where every dive you used to stagger out of in the early nineties now has a cider sommelier and its own range of bespoke Scotch Eggs. I have heard amazing things about Menu Gordon Jones, but could almost feel its answerphone laughing at me when I called hopefully the morning before. However, another friend had suggested Casanis, approximately thirty yards from Martin’s office, which, as these things tend to, had completely slipped his mind. Luckily, he was in full approval, and was waiting for me in the tight little suntrap of a courtyard at the back when I arrived fresh from the joys of parking half a mile away for the fun of it.

Gurnard and bream fillets

Gurnard and bream fillets

There was a pleasing bustle about the place that would probably have dissipated if we’d actually spread ourselves throughout the restaurant, and we got on with the serious business of chatting. It took us a while to get round to looking at the menus, indeed long enough that certain London eateries would probably have tried to reset the table by the time our very patient waiter took our order. Luckily this didn’t take long as it was a smart and confidently short selection of French classics with a couple of specials, all hovering around the reasonable side of pricey.

Iced nougat

Iced nougat

My asparagus and pea soup was green. Very green. Indeed I’d go as far as to say purest green, and see which of you knew which 80s comedy I was quoting to see whether or not we could be friends. It was also somewhat insipid. There were certainly a few peas floating around and I could definitely taste asparagus, but it was easily the most unremarkable thing we ate, which, considering it was perfectly ok and mopped up with some rather nice bread, is the closest to praise it’s likely to get. Martin’s soupe de poissons was much more like it, dark, serious and tasty – a proper classic with all the classic bits arranged classically – and a much better indication of what Casanis is all about. Annoyingly for Martin, I’d also manoeuvred him into ordering the gurnard and sea bream fillets with basil and tomato gnocchi and crab sauce, as I wanted to try it. This was another fine example of what happens when you put good things that work together, er…together, but was also not a million miles away from his starter in taste terms. I did this mainly so I could order the quite fantastic ballotine of quail, stuffed with julienned vegetables and served with one of those shinily reduced sauces that can be called a jus without anyone needing to be punched. Placed alongside this was a square of pommes dauphinoise so French it would have slept with the kitchen sink if it had put on a tutu, and reminded me exactly why this is my favourite way to eat potatoes.

IMG_2861Dessert was a prettily arranged iced nougat, saved from terrible over-sweetness by a sharp red berry coulis, and a proper cheeseboard with comté, stilton, reblochon, camembert and a fine chèvre. This was the sort of food that forced British people in the seventies to admit that France was not all bad, and when done properly, as here, it’s simply very hard to beat. An expertly arranged wine list had led me to an excellent dry white, which I enjoyed so much I’ve completely forgotten what it was, but the bill reliably informs me was a Perrins white at £26.50. All I can say is that the Perrins family know what they’re doing, even if I don’t.

A cafetière and a bill of £100 left us feeling utterly replete, which is not a word I use lightly, but if eating out was invented on George Street sixty years ago, the tradition is alive and very well five minutes up the road. I just wish it had been there thirty years ago as it would have saved my parents any number of mediocre pub meals where they tried to buy my forgiveness for essentially outsourcing me for my entire adolescence. Not that I’d change a thing – for a start, I’d have been eating this meal on my own. Good company in a good restaurant in good weather is where you’ll find me at my happiest, and Casanis more than held up their end of that particular trinity, while Martin and I took care of the company. Of course the sun was shining. It would have been rude not to.

 

June 2015

Athens

IMG_2807Like everyone, comedians have a tendency to complain about their job. Bad gigs, chasing payments, terrible journeys, the crowd that didn’t get you or the TV opportunity someone else did. You cannot blame us for this – moaning about work is so central to the human condition there are cave paintings of people bad-mouthing the boss by the water cooler. With comedians, the ones you should really feel sorry for are the partners who care not one jot that the new Leeds Jongleurs is in a Tiger Tiger, or that Channel 4 have decided topical comedy doesn’t work simply because they made an unholy pig’s ear of The Ten O’Clock Show.

Beetroot meringues

Beetroot meringues

However, in a phrase that I have repeated far too many times on my travels, it still beats working for a living, and there are moments when you really need to thank your lucky stars above you have the best job on the planet below. Sometimes even your partner has reason to be grateful.

I have just returned from a thoroughly delightful trip to Athens to perform at three fundraisers for UNICEF organized by my good friend and fellow comedian Giorgos Xatzipavlou. Frankly, if that’s what it takes to help the children you can count me in. Holidays are a frivolous waste of time, and if you’re prepared to fly me and the wife to Greece to put us in a hotel just for the pleasure of hearing me address a very understanding audience in their second language I’m your man. The shows were fantastic, as was the hospitality, and while Grexit remains a very serious possibility, we boldly ignored it for the week and may well have contributed to a serious upturn in the local economy. Lovely people, wonderful weather, breathtaking surroundings, excellent food, a socialist government and the show was on TV. I was a Europhile before the trip. Now I want to move there.

Cheese pillow

Cheese pillow

Knowing about this blog, George (as he shall henceforth be known as Giorgos sounds a bit over formal and Giorg looks wrong,) was very keen to show us a little of the local restaurant culture, or, to put it another way, he completely spoiled us rotten. After three nights of shows we had a weekend off (I know – where is that timesheet?) before heading to Thessaloniki for the final performance and George took us to Botrini’s. We were joined by his girlfriend Katerina and his friend Steve, who was kindly driving us around and who isn’t really called Steve but whose real name is so Greek not even Facebook can cope with it.

A dreadful picture of a shrimp Frazzle

A dreadful picture of a shrimp Frazzle

I think I’ve been to enough restaurants by now to recognize that slightly tingly feeling you get when you realize you’re about to have an experience rather than just a meal. That sensation was heightened by the arrival of beetroot meringues and was in no way dampened by a light drizzle that took us from our slightly oversized table to a perfectly cosy one under an awning across the courtyard. We had opted for the tasting menu and I always find these rather hard to write about as it inevitably becomes just a list of dishes. Which is a shame because I have just discovered that thanks to the awning, the photos I took of them are truly appalling. Perhaps I would do the meal more service by simply listing the noises we made with each course although that would run the risk of making this blog somewhat pornographic, and there’s quite enough of that on the internet already.

There was some fiendishly clever cookery at work here. You know things are going to get interesting when the waitress comes over to apologise that tonight,

“There will be no octopus in its natural environment.”

Tzatsik-ish

Tzatsik-ish

There was a lot of deconstruction going on, but what was also very clear apart from the superb technique on display was there was a great deal of fun being had, both in the kitchen, on the plate and around the table. After a lighter than air cheese pillow (one of four amuse bouches,) highlights kept coming thick and fast. My notes are a scribbled selection of ingredients that perhaps don’t do the dishes justice, but are probably worth repeating here as the best way to give you a sense of them:

Yoghurt sorbet, goat’s cheese snow.

Lardo wrapped prawn with hazelnuts. Oh my. Like a shrimp Frazzle.

Squid sea urchin truffle carbonara (truly amazing this one, with the squid replacing the pasta)

Veal tongue carpaccio tuna mayo tomato water.

False doughnut

False doughnut

And so on. Many of these were re-imaginings of Greek classics – an octopus stifado arrived on a bed of perfect risotto with a herb snow, (almost definitely not its natural environment,) one of my absolute favourites was a deconstructed tsatziki with a cucumber granita and garlic cream hidden in a white chocolate clove. A small piece of perfectly cooked bream wrapped in a vine leaf. I lost count to be honest, and I ran out of superlatives about a paragraph ago. When you’re finishing off ‘submarine of my childhood’ – a riff on Mastika, a sap that the Greeks use for gum and a rather nice digestif, spherified in a rosewater soup, just before the false ice cream doughnut appears, you realize that when you try to write about food like this, you are essentially talking bollocks. If you want to know what this food is like, you really must go to Athens and try it. After, by my calculations, fifteen courses, my mind was well and truly blown.

This is about as happy as I get.

This is about as happy as I get

Which is what made the next day even more special. My wife and I took the forty minute boat trip out to Aegina, known as The Pistachio Island, because, well, they’re big on pistachios. All along the seafront were the usual suspects – everything from shiny ice cream parlours with plastic seats to bars straining at hipness to family run bistros. I bet you could have a terrible meal here. At times like these you are heavily reliant on luck, and in keeping with the trip as a whole, we rode ours rather well. Having walked through the small but nicely stone slabbed and authentic fish market, we resisted the temptations of the restaurant adjoining it, mainly because it was adjoining it. Instead, we ambled into Ouzeri Tsias, (Ouzeri being the generic name for a place serving traditional Greek cuisine.) Slightly tatty, with just the right touch of homely – we settled ourselves under another awning, and proceeded to have one of the simplest and best meals I can remember. As far as I can tell, the son served us, and when I asked if the lobster was on, his mum showed me a couple and asked me if I’d like mine grilled or boiled. I asked what she would have and so we settled upon grilled, although not until we’d had a very good plate of plain asparagus. I had a couple of cold beers and could have practically wept for joy.

Bream

Bream

My wife had a perfectly cooked bream with some of those greens they’re rather keener on around the Aegean than we are over here, and we shared a classic Greek salads where they just plonk the block of feta on top with some oregano. Every time I have Greek salad I am amazed all over again at the simple alchemy of olives, tomatoes, feta, cucumber and red onion and this was no exception. This was essentially peasant food, for very, very lucky peasants and we got change from £50. Some people want Michelin starred technique and ferocious complexity as was supplied in droves at Botrini’s, some want the simplicity of Tsias. Personally, I see no reason why you can’t have both.

Awards, anyone?

Awards, anyone?

Interestingly, the next night, we kind of did. George took us down to the harbour to Varoulko Seaside – the first Greek restaurant to ever gain a Michelin star. Did I mention that I like George very much? This was another fascinating and exquisite meal, marrying wonderful seafood to cooking that, while slightly less whizz-bang than Botrini’s, was still technically superb and utterly delicious. We ordered an extra starter as we wanted to try cauliflower soup with smoked salmon, which gave us a tantalizing insight into what was to come – deep, smooth and soothing cauliflower seasoned with the saltiness of the salmon and just a note of espresso at the back of the palate.

Seabass carpaccio

Seabass carpaccio

Dorade, purees

Dorade, purees

From then on, we got what we were given and what we were given was goood. Seabass carpaccio with a little pickled seaweed, dorade with a tiny crisp bread coat and pea puree, smoked aubergine mousse and carrot and tomato jam that looked so pretty on the plate until we were told to tszuj them up a bit and taste them all together. Tender cuttlefish with a fava bean puree that might have distracted Hannibal Lecter and perfectly grilled prawns of a size you only seem to get on holiday – sorry, on business trips.

We ordered all the desserts. It just seemed easier and there were enough of us. There can’t be many things more fun than picking at a number of Michelin starred desserts with a group of friends sat by a big glass window next to some yachts. There was possibly a little too much chocolate in the desserts, but you’re right, that is a ridiculous sentence. There was a lemon cube if you wanted palate cleansing, and ice cream to cool you down too. There was everything really – I won’t go into too much detail as I’m starting to feel slightly ashamed of myself just writing this down.

All the desserts and some very lovely people

All the desserts and some very lovely people

The trip to Thessaloniki saw another packed out theatre and a restaurant which I want to call Ntore, but I think that may be another generic term. Anyway, it looks fabulous – like somewhere Tarantino or Scorcese might hold a gunfight – but don’t order the sausage platter. There was nothing wrong with them, except the number. I stopped at three I think, and still don’t want to look at another sausage for a while. But we had really had our gastronomic adventures in Athens.

Overdoing it on the sausages

Overdoing it on the sausages

I had no idea I would come back from austerity-ravaged Greece having put on almost as much weight as I did in artery ravaging New York. I thank George, Katerina and Steve from the bottom of both our hearts, and I cannot wait to go back in November to perform some more theatre shows where it appears they’re actually going to pay me too. Seriously, I would do it for free. Again. Unless you’re reading George, in which case I won’t, but you must let me pay for dinner – I know a little place in Aegina…

 

May 2015

Lussmanns, Hertford

Cod cheeks

Cod cheeks

I’ve just fallen a little bit in love.

A couple of days ago my parents came up to visit us in Hertford for lunch and in keeping with our luck so far this year, our favourite pub proceeded to give us a really terrible meal. This always seems to happen when we go anywhere with my parents. The only thing worse than receiving a main course an hour late to find it’s over-cooked is when it’s my dad’s. When, almost two hours after we had sat down, it was pointed out the desserts we had just cancelled had been taken off the bill as though this was some kind of bonus, he managed to give an excellent illustration of why he is presently having treatment for a heart condition.

I’m not even going to name the place, mainly because I want to go back. It’s usually brilliant, perfectly located at the end of a good walk and takes dogs, but in fairness to my father, on this occasion they gave him every reason to come over all a bit Basil Fawlty.

Pork and rabbit rillettes

Pork and rabbit rillettes

So, when my friend Nick Revell visited the next day, I was feeling slightly less well-disposed towards my recently adopted home town than usual. Luckily I was about to find the perfect tonic. Mr Revell is quite the Epicurean, so I decided to try Lussmanns, a restaurant in the centre of town I’d heard good things about, with two other outposts in Harpenden and St. Albans. Alright – I know it’s not Paris, New York and Milan, but in Hertfordshire terms this is the big time. And frankly, I’m delighted I don’t have to travel far for something so utterly delightful.

The room is simply but elegantly decorated, with paintings that appear to be signed by the chef, which I rather liked. This is an achievement in itself as I’ve been to a number of places over the years where the proprietor has seen fit to inflict his daubs on his customers, and it’s rarely pretty. In this case, however, it added a lovely little touch of St Ives to proceedings. More importantly, that good taste extended to the food. We went for the set lunch at the indecently decent £11.95 for two courses and they went so well we had to have a third (a disgraceful hike to £14.50.)

Steak frites

Steak frites

Nick’s rabbit and pork rillettes was a nicely gutsy bit of cooking topped with a herb crust, while my cod cheeks with garlic, chilli and lime grew in stature the further I got through them. Served in a small frying pan, I prodded tentatively at first, just to be doubly sure I liked cheeks, and not convinced that the garlic shouldn’t have been chopped a little finer, at which point the ingredients all started ganging up on me, a little crunch from spring onion, softer ends of the same vegetable cooked out a little more, and the liquor seemingly intensifying with each mouthful. By the end, I was shovelling it in as fast as I could, until I experienced that lovely bittersweet disappointment of finishing something and finding there’s none of it left.

We were relatively unadventurous for main course, both going for the steak frites, and never has simplicity been so amply rewarded. Onglet can be a difficult cut and is normally cut relatively thin, but this is a kitchen that exudes confidence and if it wanted to serve a thicker slab than we were expecting, we weren’t going to argue. This was what steak tastes like in your imagination – juicy, tender and gloriously meaty. Well worth the £2 supplement, served with perfect French fries and hugely complimented by a carafe of the house Merlot.

Honey & thyme pudding

Honey & thyme pudding

As I have said, it would have been rude to skip dessert after such a main course, and more huge compliments were on the way. At the risk of slipping into hyperbole, I simply can’t remember enjoying a pudding more than my honey and thyme sponge – gorgeously moist and resting on the lightest of caramel sauces; seriously opulent and gently fragrant all at the same time. The use of herbs in both this and Nick’s superb fruit and rosemary crumble (nuts in the crumble, obviously,) spoke further volumes about the quality and imagination on display. The clotted cream ice cream with both dishes just felt like we were being spoiled. And who doesn’t enjoy being spoiled?

Fruit & rosemary crumble

Fruit & rosemary crumble

A couple of espressos later and a bill for £52 excluding charmingly gracious and unfussy service meant we walked out into the sunshine with spring in more than just our our steps. The menu proudly trumpets Giles Coren’s verdict in The Times that Lussmanns is ‘everything a modern local restaurant should be’. It’s impossible to disagree and I cannot wait to return with my wife to show her exactly what I’ve been gushing about. We just won’t bring my parents.

 

May 2015

Bosco, Barcelona

Barcelona has, quite rightly, something of a stupendous reputation for food. I had always considered it a blemish on my CV that I had never visited, and therefore as my wife’s birthday approached, I took what I saw as the perfect opportunity to do something I wanted on the pretext of doing something for her.

St Pau beans and Catalan sausage

St Pau beans and Catalan sausage

We were not disappointed. A short walk from our hotel led us straight across Las Ramblas to the fabulous Boqueria food market. Within minutes I could be spotted wandering around with ham hanging out of my mouth like a late-night fridge visitor, but with nicer ham, sold as it was in little cones, like ice cream, but better. The markets, and the produce, are simply wonderful – places to meander around and get lost in and as much a tourist destination as anything by Gaudi. The temptation to stop everywhere for tapas is almost overwhelming and we did, almost immediately. There was also an evening wander that ended with a lobster paella, which are two words that sit happily together, like ‘seat’ and ‘upgrade,’ which unfortunately don’t happen on EasyJet, no matter whose birthday it is.

In a long weekend we (unsurprisingly) only scratched the very surface of the place. With so much on offer, I was just intent on enjoying myself, and didn’t initially plan on writing about it until we happened upon Bosco, after which my wife looked at me and said simply ‘You have to blog this. This is one of the best meals I’ve ever had’.

Octopus and wrinkled potatoes

Octopus and wrinkled potatoes

Bosco looks from the outside like a rather well designed bar – lots of solid furniture, pillars and a kind of tasteful classic aesthetic. There’s even a fresco for goodness sake. We had passed it the night before and nearly gone in, but the fact it was about ten yards from our hotel meant we had wanted to be more adventurous. Luckily, we were feeling far more conservative on our second evening, by which I mean we didn’t fancy another long walk, not that we wanted to privatise the NHS. Rarely has such a short trip been so well rewarded.

The menu was divided between fairly standard tapas and sections from the garden, the farm and the sea, as well as the rather charming ‘Couple of eggs’ with black sausage, iberico ham or foie gras. Our attention was caught by the specials, or ‘Suggestions of Seasons’ – five dishes in total, so we ordered the lot, assuming they were tapas sized portions. This did not meet with the unequivocal approval of our waiter whose combination of campery and abrupt disdain was displayed magnificently with the words,

“No. Is too much”.

Aubergine tempura

Aubergine tempura

I imagine this is how Kenneth Williams might have behaved if he was Spanish and annoyed at being a waiter. I don’t usually enjoy being told off in restaurants, but on this occasion we went with it, and ordered a couple of specials and a couple of other dishes from across the menu. I’m very glad we did, because very soon all was forgiven. By us, anyway.

IMG_2553Earlier, we had spotted a shop that seemed to sell nothing but beans with a queue snaking away down the street. Thinking that any city that took its beans this seriously must be on to something, we ordered St Pau beans with Catalan sausage which explained what all the fuss was about. This was comfort in a plate, with plenty of peppery, herby, sausagey kick from a pork sausage, earthy black pudding and, er…just really good beans. A plate of the tenderest octopus I’ve ever eaten, with wrinkled potatoes (oh yeah) was astonishing. The merest hint of caramel licked up with salt made this a kind of alternative surf and turf, alongside a plate of perfectly fried aubergine tempura.

Braised oxtail and truffled parmentier

Braised oxtail and truffled parmentier

This was one of those meals where you start giving each other meaningful looks, even if you don’t talk much because your mouth is too busy. As my wife said, even the salad was immense – what was truly wonderful was its simplicity: perfectly crunchy lettuce, cucumber, fresh tomatoes, olives and a little grilled asparagus. We were so preoccupied we didn’t even notice our oxtail with truffled parmentier hadn’t arrived. Eventually I pointed this out, and, when our waiter deigned to bring it over, it more than coped with our undivided attention. Velvety, braised meat in a sauce the colour of one of those night skies you’re always hoping turn up on momentous occasions, this was lifted to the sublime by the richness of the truffled potatoes and little matchsticks of more grilled asparagus for bite. One of the best things I’ve eaten all year, if not ever.

Apple crumble

Apple crumble

We were so effusive by now, I think the waiter even smiled at one point, as though he’d known all along what he was doing. But still he had one last trick up his sleeve. We were slightly worried about dessert, but what actually happened turned a very very good meal into a great one. My apple crumble was perfectly acceptable, which is to say it would have been a highlight anywhere else, but across the table from me arrived four little spheres or ‘bunyols de xocolata’ with halved blackberries and a little caramel sauce. Inside the thinnest coconut dusted coatings was the most perfect warm molten chocolate imaginable. Between us the superlatives kept coming. We even thought of returning for them before we headed to the airport the next day, but decided not to on the unlikely grounds that to have them again might sully a perfect memory.

Bunyols de xocolata

Bunyols de xocolata

With a glass of rioja and water, the bill came to a very reasonable €80, plus a generous tip to try and cheer our waiter up. We noticed the table next to us had ordered so boringly we genuinely discussed going over and shaking them in the direction of some of the fireworks available elsewhere on the menu. Of course we didn’t – I suspect it’s impossible to have a bad meal at Bosco no matter what you order, and with any luck, one waiter’s eyebrow would have sent them scurrying for a special or two whilst we wandered delightedly off into the Barcelona night. I’m not sure if the sky was the colour of braised oxtail, but it should have been.

 

March 2015

 

Petek, London

IMG_2439When I first got together with my wife, she was living with Jimmy, a 6’2” motorbike-riding fireman, which some men might find quite intimidating. Luckily he was clearly more preoccupied with Smudge, his psychotic cat, and as one of the first things we did was stay up and watch the Oscars together, doing an Academy Awards Questionnaire that he had both compiled and photocopied, I was starting to wonder if perhaps it was not my wife who would have to resist his advances. That is emphatically not the case, however, and it turns out the main thing Jimmy wants from me these days is loft space (that is not a euphemism,) as he tries to make room in his flat in Finsbury Park for the new lady in his life.

IMG_2438All four of us agreed to meet up for dinner at nearby Petek, a Turkish place with décor teetering just on the tasteful side of kitsch. I could wax lyrical here over the pillowy slabs of delicious Turkish bread, homemade chilli tomato sauce and enormous lemony olives that arrived at the table before we had ordered far too much meze. I could also gripe slightly over the amount of time it all took to arrive, but then maybe that is the price you pay for over ordering in what is clearly a very popular local eatery. Added to which, the price we did pay – £25 each including service – would make that a slightly unreasonable gripe. There are better, cheaper and more atmospheric Turkish restaurants dotted along Stoke Newington High St, but it would be unfair to be overly critical of Petek because it really didn’t do much wrong.

IMG_2440There were a couple of glasses of wine, even if £7.95 seems a little stiff for a Rioja, excellent alcohol free cocktails, and some wonderfully comforting food. Turkish cooking manages to combine the freshness of herbs and citrus with pulses, dairy and plenty of stonking great proteins and their cooking juices. To quote John Bender from The Breakfast Club, ‘All the food groups are represented’. We ordered the set menu but added slightly disappointing lamb livers and some more prawns because it’s difficult to have too many prawns, even if our great-great grandchildren may well disagree with us. Particular highlights were a baby broad bean salad and toothsome little goat’s cheese parcels. All the usual suspects were present and correct, but with clever little lifts – pomegranate seeds on the halloumi, for instance, just to make things a bit more of an event, which is nice when that is essentially what you’re paying for. There was baba ganoush, hummus, sticky chicken patties, sausage and lamb shish that we gobbled at til we were almost too full to lick our fingers. The only real misstep was a falafel, but then I tend to find falafel a bit of a misstep in the first place.

Not much beats great food in pleasant surroundings with good company, and so I would give Petek a resounding thumbs up, which would make this one of the shorter blogs I’ve ever written, but then I have got you here on slightly false pretences.

IMG_2441After we got back from New York, (see previous post,) some of you may know my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, which is shit, frankly, and a lot of people have been very supportive. The prognosis is good and we are repeating all those positive mantras and one-day-at-a-timing our way through it. The reason I mention it is that the latest installment in the homoerotic adventures of Jimmy and Al sees us running a half-marathon next Sunday (15/03/15) in aid of Breakthrough Breast Cancer (along with my brother, Bruce.) Thanks to tear-inducing generosity from some quarters I have already passed my fundraising target of £5k, but I would like to raise more. If you have ever read any of these blogs and enjoyed them, or even if you haven’t, I would be thrilled if you could donate any amount, no matter how big or small, and prove those pedants wrong who believe it is impossible to give more than 100%.

My Just Giving page is here: www.justgiving.com/AlistairBarrie

Jimmy’s page is here: www.justgiving.com/big-jim-ryan/

And Bruce’s is here: www.justgiving.com/Bruce-McPoodledoodle/

In return I will promise never to end a blog on quite such a downer again, and you will have my undying gratitude. I also promise to make it over the finishing line without a fireman’s lift, as Jimmy’s given us quite enough of one by agreeing to do this in the first place. Thanks for stopping by, and many, many thanks in advance.

 

February 2015

New York

IMG_2118I love America. I really do. This sweeping generalization may come as something of a surprise to anyone who has seen my stand up over the past decade, but when you’re there the enthusiasm and energy of the place is mind blowing. As is the choice. America is all that is wrong with capitalism and everything that is so, so right.

A light breakfast

A light breakfast

Speaking of things being so, so right, I was lucky enough to marry someone pretty spectacular in December last year, and after a brief hiatus (because nothing says romance like putting your honeymoon on hold to perform at Jongleurs’ Christmas parties) we headed to New York, a city I have visited a few times, but never fallen for quite as hard as I did this time. We did the museums, Central Park, the Highline, the 9/11 memorial and I even got to gig with Louis CK, whose ringing endorsement of “Good job” after my set at The Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village will stay with me, even if it’s unlikely to form the basis of a long overdue critical re-appraisal of my work. And yes, you are right, I am the kind of dick who gigs on his honeymoon. And then blogs about it.

World Famous Cheesecake

World Famous Cheesecake

Where to begin? The first thing to get out of the way is the simple quantity of everything on offer, from options, to portion size to gratuity expectations to, inevitably, waistbands. Having slimmed and gymed down to ‘these photos are forever’ proportions for my wedding, I threw caution to the wind on honeymoon and as a result came back a stone heavier. A stone. I’m not going to make cheap jokes about American obesity, but what I will say is that it must take an iron will to live there permanently and not get fat. The hardest job in America is almost definitely being a bench, as evidenced by the photo at the top of the page, taken outside the Bronx Zoo.

I simply haven’t the time, and nor do I expect you have the inclination, to cover everything we ate, so this is in many ways a selection of highlights, and hopefully a couple of tips should you find yourself peckish in Manhattan*. We were staying in Chelsea for the first few nights, by which I mean the happily boho area on the West Side, not somewhere French people get racially abused on the subway. A useful recommendation to kick things off is Chelsea Market – home to a bewildering array of delis, bakeries, coffee shops and perhaps the best fishmonger I have ever been to in my life (‘The Lobster Place’ – what’s not to love?) where we got lobster (obvs) and herb crusted salmon for our Christmas lunch, because we could. Overall, it’s like a slightly smaller Borough Market, but with more on offer and a mildly less smug attitude – it feels like it’s there to sell amazing food rather than appear in Sunday supplements.

Steak and broccoli

Steak and broccoli

Our first real meal out was across the road from the market at the Old Homestead Steakhouse, which proved the adage that no one does steak like Americans. This was one of those classic dark wood paneled rooms where service was attentive and efficient and then someone brought you some oysters and then a beautifully cooked Porterhouse the size of your own head, the outside charred to perfection, the inside carnivorously crimson. As the meal progressed you could chat to the table next to you about how massive their portion of cow was while agreeing the scallops resting on top of it were possibly a protein too far. We had broccoli and spinach too – and although I’m sure Mr Atkins would have been proud of us, the arrival of their ‘World Famous’ (everything is ‘World Famous’ in NY) cheesecake meant that any pretence of ‘diet’ went straight out of the window. My wife reviewed dessert:

Crab toast

Crab toast

“This is the best cheesecake I have ever eaten.”

So I don’t think any more needs to be said on the subject. Not a cheap eat, but a definite recommendation.

As is this, albeit an obvious one: go to a diner. You will find one, almost immediately. Like all US restaurants, the one we breakfasted at on day two had a big sign informing you of what to do in the event of someone choking. Surely customers regularly choking in your restaurants is an indication that you are overfeeding them, but that didn’t stop us having pancakes, eggs, bacon, syrup, etc etc etc. I also had a hazelnut seltzer before my blood sugar could contemplate dipping below raging-child-on-Haribo-binge levels.

salted caramel ice cream sundae with candied peanuts and popcorn, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Oh. And her cookies

salted caramel ice cream sundae with candied peanuts and popcorn, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Oh. And her cookies

Crispo’s was a smart, arty and very popular Italian on the helpful list of local eateries our landlord left us. (Another tip – airbnb – stay in an apartment that is nicer than a hotel for less than staying in a hotel room that is smaller than an apartment.) The food was good but not exceptional – shishito/padron peppers were a little meh, scallops were great, pasta was pasta and crème brulee and chocolate pot simply fed the monster I was becoming. A great atmosphere, but, hey! This is New York – atmosphere is what they do.

By this stage we had developed an ordering system in a vain attempt at self-preservation – ordering one starter, two main courses and then attempting (and failing) to order one dessert. Of course we could just get the food ‘to go’ – at The Blue Note, the enormous man next to us took his wife’s barely nibbled cheeseburger with him. From a jazz club. Sometimes Americans are so massively uncool they become cool all over again. Although to me the restaurant plate remains a challenge to be defeated, not smuggled home via styrofoam.

Tuna spring roll

Tuna spring roll

Anyway, we failed hugely to stick to our ordering guidelines at our next destination, the achingly hip ABC Kitchen. We’d heard wonderful things, repeatedly, from my sister-in-law, and the difficulty we had getting a table seemed as good a thing as an irritation can be. We did manage to pick one starter – superb crab toast with lemon aioli (as it should be at $16) but then shamelessly ordered two more as part of the prix fixe menu. In mitigation the food here was noticeably healthier than elsewhere – I even had one of those green smoothies that taste like happy rust. Tuna sashimi was as exquisite as we’d been told it would be, bashing the taste buds around with ginger and mint, while a cauliflower soup was wholesome in the very best sense of the word. A Portobello mushroom will always make a good alternative burger and my chicken paillard was about as exciting as any chicken salad has the right to be. There is a slightly Stepford Wives arrangement whereby all the waiters wear their own checked shirts which I think was meant to be homely but I found creepy, not helped by the fact they topped up our water glasses after very sip. This is one of my pet hates, although apparently I should ‘just fucking get over it and let them do their job’ but then if you haven’t had at least one row it’s not a proper honeymoon, is it?

Seabass carpaccio

Seabass carpaccio

Anyway, all was forgiven with the arrival of her cookie plate and my salted caramel ice cream sundae with candied peanuts and popcorn, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. I’m not even going to bother telling you what that tasted like – just read it back and loosen your belt slightly as you do so. The bill came in at £75 excluding service, which almost made me want to strap on a lumberjack shirt myself, especially when the ‘suggested gratuity’ creeps up to 22% in some places, a sentence that obviously causes all right thinking English people to come out in hives.

If you really wanted poor service, you could always nip into Ping’s in Chinatown for Dim sum on Christmas Day, but I’m sure there are other places that will forget your order, bring half of it and then present you with a dumpling garnished with human hair. To be fair, the place was full of people who looked like they were having a good time, but that goes for most of Chinatown, and unless you have any special requirements or knowledge, I’d say pot luck is as good a way to go as any, and on another night Ping’s might be perfectly acceptable. Where else would a bald man get given hair for Christmas?

Lobster heaven

Lobster heaven

Every time I’m in New York my friend Brian and his wife take me and my wife (there was a different one last time, but this joke has been officially sanctioned by the present incumbent) to The Mercer Kitchen. This is owned by the same chap who brought the Chiltern Firehouse to London for all those of you who care less about food and much more about who’s eating it. I’m as celeb-idiotic as the next ‘Hello’ reader, but I can’t say going through the rigmarole of getting a table there has ever particularly appealed, especially when I have been looked after so fabulously at the NY outpost and can hardly wait to take my third wife there in a few years time, presumably quite soon after the second one has read this sentence.

Pavlovana

Pavlovana

The quality on offer in what is a high turnover operation remains exceptionally high. We were given plentiful space in the (almost) painfully stylish downstairs dining room and they catered superbly for Brian’s ten-year-old son Cooper without us even noticing. I ordered the same lime and seabass carpaccio I’d had a few years ago, and while it wasn’t quite as epochal as I remember, I have always described it as the best starter I’ve ever eaten, and memory has a nasty habit of building up expectations to unreasonable levels, which were thankfully met by my astonishing lobster main course. This was everything opulence should be whilst remaining strangely comforting and I may well consider making all my sauces with a chilli almond emulsion from now on. Further bells and whistles were reserved for my green apple pavlova with basil seed vinaigrette which looked every bit as exotic as it tasted. I think everyone else ordered food – gleaming tuna spring roll with a slick of soy bean puree, a burger for Cooper, a huge hunk of pork chop with some marvelous cheesy cereal going by the name of parmesan grits. There was perfectly cooked salmon steak with Brussel sprouts given ideas above their station by a truffle vinaigrette, skate, a sorbet or two – but I wasn’t really paying much attention from lobster pavlova heaven. A high point among high points, even if I have no idea how much it all cost as I was, delightfully, not allowed to pay for it.

imagesYou know when people say you must do something somewhere and you make a mental note to spend that portion of your holiday stabbing yourself in the eyes with a fork instead? Well, apologies for this, but you simply must go to Grand Central Station. The architecture is worth a look on its own, but the subterranean and rightly world famous oyster bar is better than any other I’ve been to. A manic flurry of activity offering everything from a simple plate of oysters on a marble bar top to the full sit down and stuff your face experience, this was perhaps my favourite place we visited. America often worries about its lack of history, indeed it is often noticeable how they try and establish traditions for the very reason they don’t feel they have enough of their own. But here, downstairs from a deli that would give the Harrods Food Hall a fair fight, is a tradition and a piece of history all rolled into one. There is a vast array of seafood on offer, much of it cooked in front of you and served by bustling staff of all ages, working in beautiful concert to produce an eating experience that is pure theatre. And if that sounds like hyperbole, don’t worry, as you can see, at least the logo is appalling. It looks like it was rejected as too garish by 1975’s least tasteful gay bar – my only thought is they’re trying to put people off but it hasn’t worked. My only disappointment was that we just popped in mid-afternoon for a plate of oysters. Next time I will be clearing most of the day.

Sandwiches of the Gods. And some quite crap chips and disappointing pickles.

Sandwiches of the Gods. And some quite crap chips and disappointing pickles.

If you want manic, of course, you are spoiled for choice in the Big Apple, and another destination that lived up to the hype was Katz’s Deli, home of the famous Meg Ryan orgasm and some of the most expensive sandwiches ($20 each) known to man. You’d think any place that gave you a ticket as you crowded in and then herded you like sheep towards one of twenty-odd sandwich cutters barking at you and each other could, quite frankly, sod off. And then they give you a piece of pastrami to nibble as they’re cutting some more pastrami for your pastrami on rye and you think, ‘This wouldn’t happen in M&S’. Then you fight another couple for a table that has been vacated approximately 0.02 seconds previously and then it’s a bit of a blur until you’re paying an exorbitant amount at a booth and suddenly you’re out on the street before you realize you have just had one of the quintessential New York experiences, and, far more importantly, one of the greatest sandwiches you have ever eaten. Next time I’m in Selfridges I’m going to head for their salt beef bar, The Brass Rail, order a large Reuben and laugh at how ridiculously civilized it is, all the while wishing it was Katz’s. I mean, you can’t even buy a proper pretzel on Oxford Street.

Mexican Jumping Prawn

Mexican Jumping Prawn

I would of course like to offer some contrast. The irate man godamming at the short-order cook messing up his eggs at an open kitchen where we ate breakfast by Battery Park one morning, a frankly crap hotdog on Broadway, but I would be clutching at straws. We did have one meal that was hilariously awful, but even that wasn’t actually bad. Next to our hotel (the highly recommended Soho Grand where we spoilt ourselves for the last couple of days) was a sushi restaurant where we thought we’d go and fill up on raw fish and edamame to do ourselves a little good. It was only once inside we realized it was, um…Mexican sushi, and, having been shown to a booth were far too British to recognize this for the stunningly awful idea it was and run away. There was a tuna sashimi guacamole thing, and some prawns in a batter clearly designed by the team behind Alien, but individually, they tasted fine. It was just the combination that was so achingly wrong, and as I found myself dipping mango nigri in soy sauce I realized I’d found that elusive dining experience – something so bad it’s good. I won’t be back for the food, but I may well be back for the comedy.

Mrs Ponce. And pretzel.

Mrs Ponce. And pretzel.

Of course, I may well be back for The Comedy if the Cellar will have me, and I never did get that selfie with Louis. Mexican sushi was final proof, if proof were needed, that if you offer this much choice, occasionally you will get it spectacularly wrong. But you are going to have a lot of fun finding out, because most of the time New York gets it so very right. If you’re ever asked if you want to be a part of it, there can be only one reply.

I do.

 

January 2015

*You should never find yourself peckish in Manhattan. There isn’t time.

 

Bistrot La Renaissance, Paris

2014-11-24 08.45.012014-11-24 16.21.56Stag nights are a relatively modern invention, and I have never quite got the hang of them. To my mind, the desire to have a night predominantly designed to get you so larruped you may go blind indicates you’re probably an idiot in your twenties, desperate in your thirties or just plain embarrassing in your forties. Which is, in many ways, how things should be, but the reason I have never wanted one is because, as I explained to numerous enquiries from well-intentioned friends in the run up to my wedding – “I talk to the pricks every weekend, I don’t want to be one of them.” Added to which, having had an alcohol free 2014, it seemed very unfair to drag people along to a gathering where the idea would be to get utterly trousered when I wasn’t going to join in. It would be like taking a virgin dogging – he’d probably rather not do it and everyone else would feel a bit uncomfortable watching.

2014-11-24 18.56.25So, when my best man asked me what I wanted to do, I just suggested we went for dinner. In Paris. Well why not? Hal Cruttenden’s done lots of telly recently, so he could afford it, and as we met at the Eurostar terminal it seemed abundantly clear that here were two straight men who could very much put the gay in Paree. This was a view enthusiastically endorsed by what appeared to be all of Facebook and everyone we’d ever met.

Foie Gras

Foie Gras

And we didn’t care. After the Gare du Nord we checked into our hotel and popped out for the obligatory croque monsieur and a spot of sight-seeing. We stopped for coffee and cake at the Café Tour Eiffel, a surprisingly quiet and classy little affair considering its location, though my opinion may have been swayed by a fellow customer complimenting my French, albeit probably for effort rather than grammatical precision. We didn’t go up the Eiffel Tower because Hal was worried he’d propose. Having discovered that Paris was much bigger than our map, we took a cab back to the hotel for a quick nap before the evening’s festivities because otherwise we might have got cross over dinner, which would have ruined everything.

Ribsteak, Pork

Ribsteak, Pork

In a vain attempt to man up a bit, we had bought tickets for the Moulin Rouge, because nothing says red-blooded men like nipples, apparently, and we had booked to see a lot of them, but first we had to eat. A flick through various guides had unearthed La Renaissance in the Rue Championnet, slightly off the beaten track, so we jumped in another cab as further experiments with the map had proved that our only abilities with it involved walking in the opposite direction to the one we wanted. Upon arrival, we discovered a restaurant bar for which the term shabby chic might have been invented, with people outside smoking slightly threateningly, for which I believe the term ‘Parisian’ has been coined. Once inside, things were relatively quiet, but one of the selling points of the place is the original 30’s décor, which goes a long way to explaining why Quentin Tarantino used it as a location for ‘Inglourious Basterds’, and why it was considerably cooler than its two latest customers. But the welcome from our waiter was very warm, the specials board was up and Blue Monday, The Message and Get It On came on the sound system in quick succession which only heightened the impression we were mildly over-dressed.

Mouellaux chocolat

Mouellaux chocolat

The food was pretty good, if not quite the gastronomic fireworks we might have expected from a five-star Time Out review. Two starters of excellent foie gras with a tea and bergamot jelly were very, very good, and got me quite excited for main course, but a pork filet mignon with a mushroom sauce was merely workmanlike. Adding walnut to the accompanying polenta jazzed it up a bit, but it’s still polenta, and I’m never quite convinced. A ribsteak with potatoes, onion and red wine sauce was similarly acceptable, while a ‘moellaux chocolat, crème anglaise au café’ was a slightly disappointing fondant in a rather thin sauce. Having said that, the service was excellent, the ambience very Parisian, and we obviously did a lot of staring into one another’s eyes.

No caption required

No caption required

We even nipped outside to the smoking area for a couple of Romeo y Julietas I’d bought with me for added stagness, and even if we got the distinct feeling it was more a Gitanes than cigar establishment, I could easily see myself returning for a bohemian afternoon of liver failure when I’m back on the absinthe. On this occasion, however, we paid the extremely reasonable bill and set off down the street to the Moulin Rouge in completely the wrong direction, puffing at our cigars like a right pair of numpties.

2014-11-24 23.11.50The Moulin Rouge did nothing whatsoever for our heterosexual credentials, being quite the campest thing I have ever seen. I’m very glad I went, even if I’m not sure that nipples, feathers, roller skates, nipples, Shetland ponies, 80s pop videos, snakes, nipples, sequins, juggling, dodgy ventriloquism, nipples and seating that might have upset a battery hen are entirely my thing. Well worth a visit, but perhaps, in the culturally sensitive words of ‘Allo ‘Allo – “only wernce.”

Café gourmand

Café gourmand

A nightcap (of ice cream, party people) later, and it was another cab back to the hotel in crazytown. A leisurely breakfast of coffee, croissants and the usual in-depth discussion about Hal’s career followed the next morning before we headed back to the station. Our train wasn’t til mid-afternoon, but this gave us ample time to enjoy a superb lunch at Terminus Nord, the quite brilliant brasserie I wrote about last time I was in Paris. This is one of my favourite places on the planet, and as I polished off soupe à l’oignon, a very punchy steak tartare and a suitably calorific café gourmand for dessert, I reflected that it is also perhaps one of the best located. No matter what has happened to you in Paris, you can always stop here on the way out and all will be well with the world.

Le Fin

Le Fin

Luckily, I had already had a marvelous time, for which I must give full and heartfelt thanks to Mr Cruttenden. We may not have been the best stags, but we made a couple of very convincing dears.

 

November 2014