Pub du Vin, Brighton

 

It’s rare that I prepare for a three course meal by snaffling my entire protein ration for the day before I’ve even sat down, but then again it’s even rarer for piping hot sausage rolls to start flirting with you from a bar top. Rarer still that they have a Scotch Egg friend who is waiting for you in the kitchen wearing nothing but curried mayonnaise, the saucy minx (ahem.)

Possibly the world's best sausage roll

We hadn’t booked at Pub du Vin for Sunday lunch, but were looked after impeccably by very helpful staff who sat us on high stools with menus. In retrospect, it was remarkable that a table became available so quickly, as within minutes the whole place seemed full of prospective diners, but this was quite enough time for me to decide that I had to try one of those sausage rolls. This was, quite simply, a great decision. As Dickens is to Dan Brown so the Pub du Vin sausage roll is to Ginsters. Buttery yet utterly greaseproof pastry wrapped around a generous portion of beautifully seasoned, deliciously moist I-can’t-bring-myself-to-call-it-sausagemeat, helped along with the merest smear of Colman’s, but also perfect without, I’m sure. In fact this was so good that I had to try the Scotch Egg, which had also been recommended by a complete stranger at the bar. Although not in the same league as the sausage roll, the soft yolk and mayonnaise still made it a pretty darn exciting example of its oeuvre, which I desperately hope is as bad a pun as it’s trying to be.

Scotch Egg with curried mayonnaise

We were then sat in the bay window, eyed jealously by the empty Indian restaurant opposite. The room itself is light and airy, with photographs on the wall occupying that tasteful area just south of arty. I’m not a huge fan of the trompe l’oeil ‘brickwork peeping through’ paintjob; the place looks great – why make it look like your wallpaper’s peeling? I wasn’t keen on the mural in next door’s Hotel du Vin when I popped in there for coffee recently either, but this is not Art Ponce, so I digress.

The menu is refreshingly simple, with five or so starters and mains and three specials chalked on the wall. We shared a pea, broad bean and goat’s cheese salad which was delightful – sun dried tomatoes and curdy cheese giving it a real punch, balanced by the freshness of the greener ingredients.

Pea, broad bean and goat's cheese salad (sorry)

The only real problems came with the mains. My lobster bisque (one of the specials) had to go back as it was lukewarm at best, so by the time we had worked out that the roast beef was also a little on the tepid side we felt it was a bit late to send that back too. The staff did, however, deal very efficiently with the problem – the fact I had to ask for another spoon when the replacement bisque arrived meant that it also came with a free glass of a very good New World Pinot Grigio, which was appreciated. The bisque was superb – melting salmon, red mullet and a large shell-on prawn in a velvety, rich soup with none of that slight tinniness that normally stops me ordering it. I also made the unusual discovery that if you want to mop your plate, bread is for losers – steal some Yorkshire pudding and you will be rewarded with a kind of lobster choux bun that is as delicious as it is surprising. The roast – temperature to one side – was a little light on the veg, but the beef was excellent and as rare as we were told it would be. Like a flirty sausage roll.

Roast beef, Lobster bisque

I shouldn’t really have had pudding, but I feel it is my duty to try every crème brulee that is offered to me, martyr that I am. This was up there with the sausage roll – smooth custard delicately (and not over-) flavoured with vanilla, topped with exactly the right amount of caramelized sugar to shatter pleasingly under the spoon without over sweetening what lay beneath. One of the best I’ve ever tasted, and there have been a few.

The bill came in at a very reasonable £53.10, service excluded. I’d actually forgotten the sensation of being able to reward service on my own terms; something I value as both a former waiter and a sentient human being. What marks good service out is how they respond when things go wrong, as opposed to when they’re going right, which they did for the vast majority of our meal. I truly dislike the term ‘optional service charge’ when it is clearly anything but. Pub du Vin doesn’t have an optional service charge because it doesn’t need one. And you can’t say rarer than that.

Aug 2011

Rajdhani, Phoenix Mall, Mumbai

 

I wanted to review a restaurant in Mumbai, so I headed down to Phoenix Mall, another of those international monuments to Mammon that have sprung up all over the world as part of Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nations. I shouldn’t be too dismissive – it is also home to the Mumbai Comedy Store where I’ve been playing with John Moloney and Wayne Deakin to full houses of delightful and non-WKD swilling Indians. In addition, the whole place is refreshingly free of looters – it’s quite something when you feel safer in a city that has recently been shot up and bombed by gangs of fundamentalist commandos than you do at home.

The main reason I opted for Rajdhani is that I quite fancied trying some proper Indian food without risking my fragile western digestive system. I’m generally quite adventurous, but if you think I was going to conduct an in-depth survey of Mumbai street food in the name of arse-based suicide you’re reading the wrong blog. Come to think of it, you’re probably on the wrong bit of the internet.

Rajdhani is part of a chain – according to it’s website, it’s known as the ‘thali palace’ with 72 different rotating menus featuring 22,464 vegetarian delicacies from Gujarat and Rajasthan. Garfunkel’s it ain’t. It does, however, seem to be doing a thriving business and in common with much in this amazing city, is quite a hectic experience. There is no menu – as soon as we sat down, a waiter arrived with a jug of warm water for us to wash our hands, and then battle commenced. I tried to ask about a number of the dishes, but it’s quite hard to conduct a meaningful conversation with that many waiters travelling that quickly so what follows does involve a certain amount of guesswork.

The first things to arrive were the condiments familiar to anyone who likes poppadums (who doesn’t like poppadums?) – onion salad, mango pickle, green and red chutneys. There was also a small pile of sweetened powder I wasn’t sure what to do with, but whilst I was pondering this, dishes really began arriving thick and fast.

Vegetarian thali

If you look at the accompanying picture, I will try and list what we had – possibly the surest way to show my complete lack of expertise. Clockwise from bottom left: okra with onion and herbs, vegetable curry, mustard seed potatoes, paneer curry, spiced curd, mild dhal, spicy dhal, fruit curd and some sort of sweet dumpling that Wayne liked and I didn’t. The larger bowl on the left is a dhal-ish type curry with some sort of broken biscuit, the one to the right another curd, with a savoury dumpling. I suspect dumpling is not an Indian word, but I’m doing my best here. As well as the chapatti and poppadums, there was a sweetened flat bread that reminded me of an American biscuit and a herb bread which may have been a phulka, but I was getting fairly confused by now. We weren’t given much choice about a somewhat uninspiring rice curry with a little added ghee, or the ‘cheesy bread pakoda,’ which, judging by the name, were probably aimed squarely at ignorant westerners who liked them very much indeed, thank you.

Almost all of this was very good – highlights included the pakodas, the paneer and vegetable curries, and the potatoes and okra. I also discovered that I like curd – especially the spiced (cinammon?) one that tasted like the white sauce they put on Christmas pudding at school should have done but never did. The fruit salad version was delicious too, as was a very sweet cake like creation sprinkled with nuts that I noted down as an ‘Indian brandy snap,’ despite its complete lack of brandy or snap, which also put paid to my inbuilt notion that I didn’t like Indian sweets because they were too, um…sweet. I could have done without the ‘welcome drink’ with a few shreds of undefined herb and something else (barley?) floating in it, but I could see how it worked with the rest of the thali.

‘Thali’ means ‘plate’ in Hindi, and we eventually had to ask the waiters to stop filling ours up before we burst. With a couple of cokes, the bill came to a whopping 798 Rupees, or a tenner, for two of us. Downstairs, Diesel were selling trainers for ten times that price which were probably made round the corner by someone who didn’t get that much to feed their family for a month. Thoughts like these are never far away in Mumbai, but in many ways that is also what makes it such a fascinating city to visit – maybe next time I should be a little braver and try the street vendors; if the food doesn’t kill you, the traffic almost certainly will.

Aug 2011

 

P.S.

I will be doing a benefit for a school for street children that we visited in Mumbai at The London Comedy Store on November 7th with both John, Wayne and a couple of people I can’t name yet but who could sell out the place ten times over by themselves. Further details to follow, but thought I’d mention it here first…

Mien Tay, Clapham Junction

 

This is the first time I’ve experienced the dilemma of writing about one of my personal favourites and worrying that I mightn’t be able to get a table on my next visit, so I have brilliantly circumvented the problem by not having enough readers to make the already packed Mien Tay on Lavender Hill any busier. Added to which, approximately one hour after we left the premises, feral gangs of fuckwits began looting the Debenhams a couple of hundred yards down the road, before ‘showing the rich’ by ransacking a (wait for it) party supplies shop and then torching a couple of flats. Wow. What a way to ‘get your taxes back.’ Wish I’d thought of that, especially as I actually pay them.

Somehow I doubt the residents of One Hyde Park were exactly quaking in their handmade beds, and much as I dislike the fact that there are people living in £140m apartments whilst normal working people are priced out of their own capital city, neither should they be. At least not until the revolution is organized with a slightly more coherent agenda than free trainers for all.

As a result, it seems fairly fatuous to pontificate about on the joys of Mien Tay’s delightful signature quail starter with honey, garlic and spices or the fact that I reckon they’re a fairly strong contender for best pho in town. But I’m gonna.

I was recently working overseas with the Bath based shotgun enthusiast and rib preparer Nick Page who asked me if I’d tried the Vietnamese opposite the old Battersea Jongleurs that he’d stumbled upon by accident some time ago. When a restaurant’s fan base extends to the West Country via a dinner table in Cyprus, you know it’s a good idea to book. I haven’t been to Mien Tay when it hasn’t been full, which might explain the slightly brusque nature of the service, but in my experience they’re just being quick because they are busy, and with food this good, I really don’t mind. There are upstairs and downstairs rooms, gaudily decorated with plastic vines and bright colours, and the whole place hums with a combination of industry and the chatter of happy eaters.

Quail with honey, garlic and spices

One day I will be organized enough to order the Seafood Claypot 24 hours in advance, which is merely one of the many dishes I haven’t got round to yet because other ones keep on getting in the way. I didn’t have the sea bass with mango or the pork and beansprout pancake this time either because, frankly, I was busy, but I can definitely recommend them from previous visits. I had to start with the quail – spatchcocked and sticky and moist and delicious. A small squeeze of lime and a dip in what I think is just salt and pepper and you’ve got one of the best starters in London. Even A.A. Gill liked it, but I can’t help ordering it despite that. Exemplary prawn summer rolls were followed by the aforementioned pho for her – she had ordered the sliced steak version but by the time anyone had noticed that this one also contained meatballs she was halfway through it. I can’t be bothered with adjectives – just order a bowl, add whatever bits you like and you should understand what I’m on about.

Beef pho

I went for a simple vegetable noodle dish and morning glory – water spinach with soy sauce and garlic – which were both tasty and fulfilled some sort of amorphous five-a-day concept that was floating around in the back of my mind. They were also the perfect accompaniment to my chargrilled goat. We don’t eat a lot of goat, but this is a fine place to start – strips of juicy, gamey meat tapering out to slightly carbonized ends with a little caramelized onion and chilli. According to an elderly Vietnamese woman who was at the table next to Nick when he ate here, it also puts lead in your pencil, which is handy to know, and just the way you want to find out.

I nearly ordered the Vietnamese rainbow drink (mung beans, gelatinous seaweed and coconut milk) in the name of research, but then decided I wasn’t feeling quite that inquisitive, so we got the bill, which arrived with some fresh orange segments. £35 for this little lot seems pretty reasonable, even if we stuck to sparkling water – there is a wine list, but they don’t mind if you bring your own. One other little caveat is that they don’t take cards, but I was prepared and perfectly ready to hand over cash.

Imagine that – handing over cash? What a novel idea. I’m not sure if Mien Tay was unfortunate enough to have its windows kicked in during the idiocy that followed (I certainly wouldn’t mess with the lady who usually seems to be in charge,) but might I suggest you head down there to a fabulous restaurant in an area that now needs to support its local businesses far more than it thought it did before Croydon facelift and dumb-ass hoodboy rolled into town.

Aug 2011

Wahaca, Covent Garden

 

I bloody love Masterchef, and I have done ever since Gregg’s tiny vocabulary and John’s three facial expressions (twinkle, furrowed and semi-tearful) took over. I have predicted every winner, and with the possible and slightly shameful exception of the last series of The Apprentice, it is the only programme where I have watched every episode. I have some puritanical misgivings about the format changes in the last series, but generally speaking I even like the base. I like the buttery base. I like the buttery biscuit ba…oh, just look on YouTube.

I’d love to eat at Matt Follas’s The Wild Garlic in Dorset as I picked him as the winner on his first appearance when he tea-smoked a scallop (the only other one I did that with is James Nathan, who now cooks at Rick Stein’s Seafood Restaurant which I’ve already been to, and now prefer Paul Ainsworth’s No 6 when I’m in Padstow, thank you very much.) I recently saw the 2007 champ Steven Wallis at my bus stop, and having only spotted him helping in the background on Great British Menu in the past couple of years, felt a pang of sympathy that perhaps the Masterchef crown was not the passport to untold riches I thought it was, when he suddenly hailed a cab and was whisked off into the headily glamorous world I’m sure he now inhabits.

I am a man slightly obsessed, and the first winner I remember picking is Thomasina Miers, who now pops up all over the place and runs Wahaca, a Mexican Cantina in the world’s cheeriest basement in Covent Garden, but which has now expanded to four other branches across London. Everything’s so good I wanted something to go wrong just for the hell of it. We arrived at around six, with no reservation (they don’t take them, not that I knew that,) as we were going to watch professional bile spewer and alcoholic Doug Stanhope at the Leicester Square Theatre, so maybe it’s a good thing that we tempered the performance with such a positive hors d’oeuvre. One waitress happily showed us to our table, and then sunnily let us go and sit in another section where we were not quite sitting on top of other diners. It would seem they do pack them in, but then again, if you build it… Our new and equally cheerful waitress arrived and managed to pull off that difficult trick of enquiring if we’d ever been to a Mexican before by being helpful and informative without being remotely patronising, something I hear they have difficulty with at Harvester.

We were tempted by the Wahaca selection of street food, but with the weather the way it was (illegally hot) and the fact we’d walked into town, we both decided on salads. Obviously it would have been rude not to try a few little things first though, so we had a queso fundido – cactus, onion and melted cheese served with tiny tortillas, and a chicken tostada to start. The fundido were fun, but a little bland, while the tostadas were delicious. I know, because I ate them both. There are nice touches, such as unordered dipping sauces of varying chilli heat and the waitress circling your orders and writing her name in crayon on the menu, which would normally have me twitching Britishly, but felt just right here. I was yet again on water (in large part down to some recent appalling behaviour involving pitchers of Margarita, so this was really not the place to fall off that particular wagon) but we also had ‘citrus fizz,’ which looked impressive – with fresh mint and lime – but didn’t actually do a great deal for either of us citrusly or fizz-wise.

Ceviche salad, Chicken tostadas

Both salads arrived in generous tortilla baskets; hers – tasty, chewy, char-grilled steak leaking juices through cos lettuce, spelt and pumpkin seeds, mine all zinging lime freshness over shrimp, scallop, avocado, mint and cucumber. Summer on a plate. I am no Mexican expert, but this felt both authentic and delicious. We even ordered extra guacamole (home made, obviously,) to finish the baskets with, and then I had to have a feta and broad bean quesadilla because the table two along had and I liked the look of them. They may have been no more than the Mexican equivalent of grilled cheese for the hardened veggie, but that didn’t mean they didn’t taste really, really good.

At £33.60 (excluding service,) we tottered out through the increasingly busy restaurant thoroughly sated and rather happy. As we left, lots of the staff seemed to be hugging each other. If I didn’t know better, I’d say we’d stumbled upon some sort of cult, but let’s face it, if it’s anything to do with Masterchef, I’m pretty much signed up already.

August 2011

Moshi Moshi, Brighton

 

Here’s how to annoy yourself and everyone around you. You know the way the ‘Macarena,’ Beelzebub’s insidious theme tune, burrows its way into your head like one of those earwigs from ‘The Wrath of Khan,’ and when you hear it you can suddenly find yourself chirping ‘Hey…Macarena’ and wobbling your head around for no apparent reason? Well, now that I’ve got your attention, not to say approbation, try replacing the word ‘Macarena’ with ‘Moshi Moshi’ and see how long it is before you want to kill yourself. I say this because for reasons I cannot adequately explain, I found myself doing exactly that as I walked through the bizarre combination of concrete jungle and elderly, more sedate architecture that encloses Bartholomew Square in Brighton, home of ‘…Hey Moshi Moshi’ (sorry.)

Despite its slightly confused surroundings, I rather like the building itself. You can sit outside on shaded, slatted benches, or head inside the open fronted light box of the restaurant to the bar, facing directly on to the conveyor belt for the committed sushi grabber, or onto one of a number of backless booths that appear just exotic enough to give you a taste of the Orient without actually having to sit on the floor. I sat at one of these with my back to a child, but needn’t have worried as he was foreign and therefore well-behaved. The belt glides between these seats and you can pluck away discreetly whilst checking the menu for further options.

Monkfish liver terrine

Service was efficient and friendly, to the extent that the waiter seemed genuinely upset when explaining that the soft shell crab tempura was the only dish that wasn’t included in the £2.30 Sunday lunch special. This didn’t bother me at all as a) I wanted it anyway, and b) this somehow convinced me that ordering the monkfish liver terrine as well (which was on offer) represented some sort of saving. The tempura was delightful – light batter with beautifully flavoured crab and that slightly oily feeling that you might be eating Japanese but it doesn’t all have to be good for you. A couple more pieces of vegetable tempura would have been nice, but that’s just because I love vegetable tempura. The terrine was…interesting. I can’t say I loved it because I didn’t – I wanted to try it, I appreciated it, but I just can’t say the combination of terrine texture and slightly fishy liver floated my particular boat. Having said that, the spot of (soy?) sauce it came with gave it a lift and my companion absolutely loved it.

Speaking of boats, at this point one of the waiters came by with a whole wooden model of one, packed to the gunwales with different types of sushi and sashimi that he then rather annoyingly placed on another table (to be fair, I think they had ordered it.) This looked to me like the perfect combination of showmanship, variety and excellent seafood, but I don’t know for certain as they wouldn’t offer me any and I was soon being told off for staring.

Gyoza chicken dumplings

Luckily, back at our booth, things were going rather swimmingly too. As well as edamame beans and the odd bit of sushi and sashimi that I couldn’t help liberating as they passed, we also had superb gyoza chicken dumplings and suimono soup with crayfish and a quails egg floating in it which was quite the nicest alternative to regular miso I’ve ever tried.

Korean sashimi may have been the most expensive dish we ordered, but that much fresh tuna, salmon and er, Cornish daily catch (white fish, possibly bass, can’t be sure, didn’t ask, too busy eating,) atop a pile of brown rice and salad vegetables was well worth the £11.80, even if someone ordered it without the advertised chilli sauce and sprinkled it liberally with soy instead.

Korean sashimi bowl (partially attacked)

Having polished that lot off, common sense would have told us it was time to stop, but I had heard great things about the green tea brulee. I’m normally very happy to watch Japanese desserts – those artificially coloured, sugar dusted creations specifically – head on down the track, but on this occasion, I’m glad I didn’t. Sweet without being sickly, aromatic but tasty and the perfect conclusion to a wonderful meal. At £44.50 (without service) it was also fantastic value, even if we didn’t drink anything more madcap than sparkling water. I’ve been to Moshi Moshi before, I shall be going again, and if there is anything you don’t like about it, one little tip – when you get that song in your head, in fact, any song, simply sing ‘It’s the FI-NAL COUNTDOWN…’ quite loudly and it will immediately disappear to be replaced by something far more appalling. You’ll thank me for this. Or possibly not.

July 2011

Marrocco’s, Hove

 

This weekend saw me performing at the Komedia in Brighton, undoubtedly one of the best venues for non-arena filling comedians in Britain, if not the world. Brighton has always struck me as the place you go to retire if you have made an irreversible fashion error in your youth – a bizarre piercing perhaps, or a tattoo of dogs playing snooker. However, if you can excuse the ridiculously high percentage of white people with dreadlocks, not to mention the stags, hens and general drunkards of a sweltering July tourist weekend, the town remains a liberal delight. Especially if you actually go to Hove, where you’re less likely to get rollerbladed into.

I have tried to go for coffee or ice cream at Marrocco’s a number of times and heard great things, but have never been so committed that I was prepared to brave the inevitable queue that snakes outside from the chiller cabinets. On this occasion, however, I wanted lunch, and there was far more space in the cool, tidy restaurant at the back than there was out front. No one’s going to win any design awards here, but for food, value and service, you’d be hard pressed to do much better. Unless you’re the table behind us, whom I heard complaining about I’m not sure what, but who had clearly ordered pie and chips in a rather good Italian on a boilingly hot summers day, so have only themselves to blame.

We thought we were ordering a light lunch. Drinking only good coffee and tap water, we shared a Guazzetto di Pesce and the Antipasto Misto, which at only £10.95 was unlikely to leave us too bloated, we thought, wrongly.

I don’t speak Italian. I visited Rome for the first time earlier this year and loved it, but I couldn’t claim any expertise in anything Italian, except perhaps for Gallo socks, which I’m not going to mention again in case anyone asks how much I spent on them. I did know I was ordering fish soup, but I think I was vaguely expecting something more akin to a soupe de poissons (nope, don’t speak French either,) or bouillabaisse. What I got was an enormous pile of mussels, octopi, prawns, calamari and cherry tomatoes in an elegant pool of clear, buttery, garlicky broth. While I began making my way through this, garlic bread and bruschetta arrived. With garlic on it. I have to say, if you don’t like garlic, this probably isn’t the place for you, but then again, if you don’t like garlic, I’d probably advise you to go away and read something else.

Then the antipasto arrived. I’m not going to lie to you – I’m going to play pretty ignorant now, because I am. I could Google feverishly and make a moderately good stab at telling you what was on the plate, but sometimes ignorance is bliss. Suffice it to say, there was lots of it and it was delicious – I took a picture of it so you can see for yourselves.

Antipasto Misto

There were definitely sun dried tomatoes and Napoli salami. And about two other types of salami. And prosciutto. And that flat dry bread a bit like one half of a pitta crossed with a poppadom. And mortadello (? – the pink one with spots of fat and pistachios in it,) and some really lovely plain, sweet, thin cut ham. And those glowingly bright green olives that I can’t remember the name of either. And something totally delicious that I know I can’t pronounce, because I asked and I couldn’t, but was some sort of Calabrian salami which looked as though it was surrounded by fat which actually turned out to be provolone cheese. As an idea this is so thumpingly brilliant (and Italian) that I can’t believe I’d never heard of it before. There was parmesan and another hard cheese, I think pecorino – you could hear the crystals crunch between your teeth. There was a bit of lettuce underneath but we need not speak of that. We almost finished everything else.

Admittedly, we had not exactly stretched the kitchen. Antipasto could be filed under that category of cooking that could be called ‘arranging,’ but when things this good are arranged this well, you’ll get no complaints from me. The bill, including service came to a mere £27.39, and my only complaint was that I didn’t have space for an ice cream. Or a pie.

July 2011

The Trafalgar, Chelsea

 

I don’t much like Chelsea. I don’t think many of us do. Whilst it might have been quite fun to wander down there in the 60’s to watch Twiggy snog Georgie, or to hang out with Vivienne and Malcolm ten years later, nowadays it seems to consist mainly of sloaney girls who aren’t as pretty as they think are looking for a Geordie to victimize or someone to buy them a house. Not even Chelsea fans like Chelsea, mainly because very few of them can afford to live there, unless they’re Russian and have managed to siphon off their entire country’s energy profits in dubious circumstances.

I have to admit to a certain fondness for the King’s Road in the late eighties, when, despite its obviously faded grandeur, I still got excited by vintage 501’s at American Classics and once spent an outlandish amount on a 50’s flying jacket that I looked terrible in but loved with a passion. And even now, as a contented habitué of Battersea, I do find myself over there quite regularly as the walk across the river is lovely and (in a sentence written entirely for the benefit of comedians Smug Roberts and Nick Revell) the farmer’s market is mah-vellous. Actually, it isn’t. The farmer’s market is full of unimaginative restaurants for those who read a menu by price and get worried by originality, but the Duke of York Square market on a Saturday is well worth a trip. Try some freshly shucked Maldon Oysters, have a pie, remortgage your house for some Spanish ham and definitely try a Rainbow box from the Caribbean stall, whilst nicking bits of cheese and chorizo from anyone nice/stupid enough to leave any out for you. Then vacate the area.

I very rarely eat on the King’s Road – I’m sure there are some decent places (ok, Pizza Express,) but I can never get away from the idea that someone is secretly pilfering an extra tenner from my wallet just because of where I am, and so many of the options (ok, Pizza Express) just seem to be offering the same old same old. I sometimes pop in to Phat Phuc for a pho, but it’s not exactly a world-beater.

However, we were going to the cinema because having, to my shame, dragged my sorry literary arse through the final installment of the Harry Potter books just to say I’d done it, we now had to go and see the last film as apparently it’s the best (it isn’t.) Working on the utterly misplaced theory that a bad book makes for a good film, I had agreed to go to Cineworld and we needed to eat, as man cannot live by popcorn alone. This led to a lot of wandering up and down and one nearly full-blown argument, until we eventually decided to risk it and go to the Trafalgar.

I say risk, because I have walked past the Trafalgar many, many times and always thought it to be full of exactly the types and all the culinary ambition I have already dismissed. Perhaps the fact it was fairly empty, especially the dining area, improved my mood. As did the décor, which has got that slightly bohemian ‘we just threw this together and somehow it looks both careworn and groovy’ look, which I believe costs thousands. Things looked up further when I overheard the barman discussing the draught ales with what sounded unmistakably like enthusiasm.

Ah. Enthusiasm. Perhaps best overheard, rather than introducing itself, sitting up on its hind legs, offering you its chin to tickle and then licking you throughout the course of your meal. Meet our waitress. She did a good enough job, and in this recession-ravaged-professional-miserablist of a country, maybe a sunny disposition is something to be treasured, but the words, “I’ll be bothering you throughout the meal because (insert tinkly laugh) I haven’t got anyone else to bother!” didn’t fill me with joy. Neither did her amazement that I was having a water and the lady was having a cider. What is the world coming to! And then I had a salad and she had fish and chips! Short of getting her cock and balls out and whapping them on the table, I can’t see what my girlfriend could have done to surprise our waitress more. Although she did come back to check how things were thirty seconds after putting the plates down the wrong way round, so maybe that’s exactly what she was looking for.

The menu is not earth shattering, but then again it’s a Chelsea pub looking to do a brisk trade, so I didn’t expect it to be. I’m not going to tell you what kind of sausages they had with their mash because you already know they’re Gloucester Old Spot. Modern not quite gastropub I would call it, and only because the word gastropub is so overused that it needs qualifying if they’re not doing astonishingly twiddly things with unexpected ingredients. Her fish and chips were, however, excellent. Crunchy batter, well cooked fish, good chips and perky tartare sauce. Apparently the peas were good too, but they’d disappeared by the time I got a look in. My crab, samphire, chicory and butternut squash salad was a revelation. I don’t like brown crab meat. I know I should – it’s the essence of the sea, the bit the Nigels and the Nigellas secretly love to lick off the spoon etc etc, but to me it’s fishy and gritty and the white stuff is delicate and moreish and everything that is perfect about seafood and exactly what we had here. Generous flakes of crab combined beautifully with slightly salty samphire, crunchy leaves and cleverly cut ribbons of squash all held together by a perfectly understated lemon crème fraiche dressing.

At £26.35 this wasn’t massively cheap, but neither was it taking the piss either, unlike the waitress, who proceeded to bring us a customer feedback form and point out that it wasn’t just to say how brilliant the service was but you could also win a meal for two which was actually quite likely between you and me because not many people fill it out so tinkle it was well worth doing wasn’t it just for the fun of it ahahahaha? Seeing as this was (approximately) her fifteenth visit to the table, I thought it best not to pass comment. I still left her a tip, partly because I’m terribly nice too, and partly because I feared if I didn’t, the whole façade would come crashing down and I’d leave the place with her grabbing my ankles and wailing ‘What did I do wrong?’ Which would have been a much better ending than Harry Potter and the Deathly Epilogue managed three hours later.

July 2011

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Reply

Canteen, Royal Festival Hall

 

If ‘Love is What You Want’ then clearly I wanted to go and see Tracey Emin’s retrospective for someone’s birthday, because nothing says Many Happy Returns like used tampons, concrete embroidery and shite pencil drawings. I admire Tracey Emin, I find her emotionally exhausting and a couple of things did sing for me, but the bottom line is I don’t actually like her art. I’m allowed not to, and I don’t think I’m supposed to anyway – probably my fault for being the sort of person who should fuck people like Tracey, according to one of her neon signs. Still, I’m glad I went, albeit a bit truculently. (Apparently – I was definitely out toddlered by two little girls who ended up sat on the floor of the giftshop with Tracey sketch books and whom I’m not going to write about in case I get all Daily Mail at their mum for taking them in the first place.)

‘Love is What You Want’ is on at the Hayward and I’d recommend it because you need to have your own opinion, but another advantage (apart from the brilliant straw fox overlooking Waterloo Bridge) to the location is the chance to wander around the Southbank on a glorious day and see all the other people congratulating themselves on their proximity to ART. And restaurants and cafes (and gift shops) to help them consider how deeply affected they were by it all. I’m going to stick my neck out here, but with all apologies to my top secret Italian local (of which more, perhaps, someday,) I think I may have found the best coffee in London. Caffe Vergnano 1882 has got lots of interesting blurb in its menu about where it comes from and how good it is, so all I will add is that the coffee is superb. I go for meetings in the RFH all the time (not with anyone important, obviously) and will now be moving them about fifty yards to the right just for the puerile thrill of seeing 1882 written in chocolate powder on top of my cappuccino.

The menu looked none too shabby either, but that will have to wait for another day as I had already booked a table at Canteen. I’ve eaten there a number of times and always enjoyed it – the name gives a good indication of the surroundings and the menu. Deceptively simple, but hearty should you wish, a little lighter if you’re a lady who lunches. Clearly booking is for those who should really be fucking Tracey – looking on the list at the front desk, I saw I was the only one who had bothered (to book, not to fuck Tracey.) The place was busy – a good sign, and not initially a problem as we were ushered to a solitary booth by the door, with a mirrored wall behind.

(I mention the mirror mainly so I could point out to anyone from Canteen who might be reading, that having one of the waitresses checking her make up in it six inches behind one of your guests heads might be considered a little obtrusive, not to say rude.)

The whole point of Canteen is to work as an efficient, clean-lined café, a sort of upmarket IKEA without meatballs, not quite fine dining, but very good dining. You could almost sum it up in one word – proper. Except they haven’t – they’ve summed it up in the word Canteen, and they seem to have taken this so much to heart that the service was so slow and generally lackadaisical that I was tempted to get up and do it myself. If a glass of Pinot that took ages to arrive is sent back because it’s warm, the fact that the same one comes back a bit quicker with the recommendation that it’s ‘the coldest one we’ve got,’ is not necessarily to be celebrated.

The food was, to be fair, pretty good, but I knew that. That’s why we were there. Admittedly one of us was freaked out by half a pint of prawns  but I can’t really blame Canteen for that, (‘the eggs and the legs and the eyes!’) or that I therefore  had to swap them for my nicely spiky devilled kidneys on toast. Mushroom and celeriac pie came with mash and those greens that seem to announce how much good they’re doing you whilst boasting about how tasty they are, and at £10 with the prawns the lunch special  is great value. The same perhaps cannot be said of my soft-boiled egg, green bean, anchovy and (two slivers of) artichoke salad which is much the same price, but it still tasted delicious to a lady who lunches like me.

Sitting as near the front desk as we did, I did hear a couple of those other ladies moan about the speed of service, and I have to agree with them. Canteen is a great restaurant and a great concept, but at lunchtime on a summers day on the Southbank, it should not be too much to expect a few more staff. Unless they fancy adding the words ‘Self Service’ to the name, which would be a shame because they’d have to get the branding done all over again. Maybe Tracey could do them a nice neon sign.

July 2011

The Angel Inn, Bowness-on-Windermere and Mojos Brasserie, Windermere

 

It’s not too far from Penrith, but I’d come on holiday on purpose. Well, not really a holiday, but a couple of days off in the Howbeck hotel in Windermere (voted ‘funkiest’ B&B by the AA last year – I’m not sure how a B&B gets voted funky, but lovely staff, breakfasts involving black pudding and an upgrade to a room with a spa bath certainly help.)

I don’t know if you’ve been to the Lake District. There’s so much breathtaking scenery you could be forgiven for bringing a ventilator, but luckily there’s also plenty to keep the cynic entertained. How many terrible galleries can one area support, for instance, and why do they all have the same shockingly bad picture of a red stiletto shoe on sale? Not to mention outdoor sports shops. There are literally thousands – it’s like the camping equivalent of Douglas Adams’ Great Shoe Event Horizon. If you want walking poles and appropriate footwear, you can buy both and then browse appalling pictures of the scenery to hang in your brand new tent without once setting foot on a fell. Or you could just wander around a big lake in unsuitable clothing and moan about fresh air and natural beauty just in case anyone realizes how much you like it.

You could also head to Grasmere to criticize the unbearable tweeness of the Gingerbread shop(pe?) or you could just buy some, eat it and shut up as your mouth is now doing something worthwhile. Pleasingly chewy, totally delicious. From there, I must recommend Tweedies bar in the Dale Lodge Hotel, where they have had the brilliant idea of serving beer on a paddle. By which I mean they give you a bit of wood with three holes in it, which they then fill with three third pint pots of your choice of ales. I hate to get old and chunky jumpered about this, but I’ve gone right off lager – I’m normally a Guinness drinker anyway – and this is exactly the sort of place to get boring about real ale and how it actually tastes of something. I had a stout and two bitters, one of which was called Hare-Straightener, reflecting the inevitable punning tendencies of your average brewer, and the fact that if you can’t find a crap picture of a stiletto in a Lake District gallery, there’ll be a crap statue of a hare somewhere nearby instead.

An open top bus past Wordsworth’s later and we wandered down to Bowness with a vague recommendation for The Angel Inn. At first I was more concerned that I’d just passed the second fish foot spa I’d seen. I had thought that the claim to be ‘The Lake District’s leading Fish Foot Spa’ in Ambleside was an unnecessary boast, but now I’ve seen three. The entire area is obsessed with feet. Luckily, mine took me up the stairs and through levels of beer garden to the pub. I love a beer garden with levels. It gives you something to aim for. This was clearly reflected in three separate signs telling you to find a table number before ordering – it felt a bit heavy handed, but when your main criticism of a venue is that the signs are too helpful, you know you’ve struck gold. The place looks good inside too, with pictures on the wall that didn’t make me want to wrap them around chocolate or punch them repeatedly. The restaurant appeared to be full (on a Monday) but I didn’t make it that far as, happily, the bar got in the way.

I was weighing up Cumberland Ale vs Conniston Bluebird, when the barman handed me a free sample of the former, so it felt rude not to order a pint. This set the tone for some excellent service – I had hardly sat down in level 1 of the beer garden (Table 40, I thank you) before my starter arrived.

Potted shin of fell reared beef with sourdough toast and homemade piccalilli. Just typing it has made my mouth water. This was stunning – deeply flavoured, toothsome, unctuous (all those adjectives) shin, packed moistly under a melting disc of fat-I-pretended-was-butter, spread on still hot sourdough and one of the best things I have ever put in my mouth ever.

Potted shin and pickles

The homemade piccalilli, cornichons and pickled onions were the perfect accompaniment, and I started making noises that had level 2 looking down on us disapprovingly. No sooner was this whipped away (I may have been licking the pot) than the mains arrived. I get tetchy at the best of times about slow service, but the speed with which a busy kitchen was producing food this good should be remarked upon for novelty value if nothing else. I recently waited over 45 minutes in Leeds Nando’s for some chicken – not that there’s much else to wait for in Nando’s beyond the chance of ringside seats at a teenage fumble. The only criticism of my duck leg confit might be that a small corner of the skin was a little floppy, but these things happen to us all, and that was only the one leg. They’d rather winningly brought two, and the perfectly cooked meat combined beautifully with fondant potato, onion marmalade, spring cabbage and a slightly under seasoned smear of squash. Similarly, the Shepherd’s pie was fantastic – I’d almost describe the filling as fruity thanks to the sweetness of the peas and the carrots, but that would be to undersell its proper meatiness, topped by perfect mash.

I had to head to the bar again to give the Bluebird a go, which led inevitably to an accidental pudding order. Burnt lemon custard with strawberries and shortbread arrived pretty much before I’d ordered it and was a fitting end to one of the best meals I’ve had in a while. I won’t insult The Angel by adding ‘in a pub’ to that last sentence because it’s neither necessary nor appropriate. At £50 for two, with drinks, this was superb.

If you’re going to call yourself a brasserie, on the other hand, you immediately set your stall out a little higher. The next evening, following Trip Advisor, we headed to Mojos Brasserie in Winderemere and I have to report that it has sadly lost its.

I’m loathe to write nasty things because the staff were terribly nice, but the fact that they asked us four times if everything was alright over one starter and two mains did give you the suspicion that they weren’t enormously confident in the kitchen either. A Cumberland skillet of black pudding, sausage and bacon was quite tasty if a little stingey, and accompanied by a few salad leaves and little spots of pesto, which just seemed a bit odd. Beef cobbler was ok, if again somewhat ungenerous, especially on the cobbler front, and my lamb was fatty, but not unpleasant. Vegetables were, er…there, but what did stand out were the brocolli fritters. All I’ll say is that if even the Japanese have trouble tempura-ing something, probably best not to batter it when you’re English. The Scots have their own rules. At £35 with a couple of glasses of wine, I didn’t feel too hard done by, just really underwhelmed and a bit hungry.

On the plus side, there were no pictures on the wall, which probably reflected the only seriously good bit of taste on display. Any stilettos and I’d have been off. Looking around at the other diners, I got the feeling that these might have been the people who went on Trip Advisor and were just pleased not to be too disappointed. When an American couple sat down and asked what a cobbler was, I wanted to rush over and tell them to nip down the road to The Angel before they could have their prejudices about English food confirmed. I could also have told them that a cobbler was something to do with shoes, but this being the Lake District, they’d probably have expected that.

June 2011

Cay Tre, Soho

 

I’m a huge fan of the Old Street branch of Cay Tre and have been since it opened. I will happily wait for a table, and have done, many times. Not here. Pho has just opened on Wardour St, and knowing their Brighton branch, Cay Tre Soho seriously needs to up its game. It’s not their fault that I had some braying trustafarians modelling rugby shirts next to me and discussing spring chicken as though it was their girlfriend, but on a simply ambient note, the combination of them and the unnecessarily loud music did make it rather like going to a rave at Henley with like, uh, ethnic catering.

Food wise, in the same way that you can judge a good Thai by its tom yum, you can judge a Vietnamese by its pho and if you’re going to make a big play of the rib-eye steak on the menu, it’s probably best not to serve it with gristly shavings. I like my pho quite hot – so I usually add some chopped chilli and then remove it as I’m eating. Pernickety and slightly OCD I realise, but when you’re presented with one unchopped chilli to add, and a slice of lemon (shouldn’t it be lime?) it’s very hard to cut it up with chopsticks. I asked for some chopped chilli, which never arrived. As a bit of a pho snob (add your own -ing) the broth was watery rather than the comfortingly aromatic variety you find on Old Street. Not much marrowbone here. Maybe the stock needs longer, or they could borrow a meatier one from round the corner. It is Soho after all and…too…many…jokes.

I quite liked the kimchi – pickled Korean cabbage – although my girlfriend didn’t, but that’s a matter of taste, and at least it wasn’t ludicrously overpriced like much else on the menu – eight quid for beans? Really? My girlfriend is, however, very wise, and when I mentioned I was writing this, did ask me to add the words ‘shit’, ‘overpriced’, and ‘cold’ to my review, and she’s head of department for an English faculty so I felt I had to. Her Dong Du curry was quite tasty, but I think she counted two mouthfuls of actual lamb, which, for a tenner, seems a little steep. I even mentioned it when the bill arrived, and normally I’m like both of the old ladies in Fawlty Towers, so it must have been a bit shit, overpriced and cold.

I’ve got a meeting in Soho tomorrow, and I’ve already arranged to meet at Cay Tre. I would say I’ve booked a table, but no one was answering the phone this afternoon. I’ll be trying other things, but they’re going to have to be really good or next time I’m eating in Dean St, I’ll be trying other things.

24 May 2011

 

P.S.

Ok, as a postscript, at lunchtime the music was quieter, as was the whole restaurant, unsurprisingly. We shared some very good prawn summer rolls to start – zingingly fresh with a gutsy chicken liver and peanut paste to dip them into. We then moved on to different phos – mushroom for him and venison for me. He is almost as big a snob as I am and declared his to be excellent – quite light, but in a good way. Mine was far from light, but also in a good way – succulent strips of venison in a broth that came very close to grabbing you by the lapels and taking you outside for a good kicking because of what you’d said about its mate. Fresh tomato and cucumber added a pleasing freshness, and I finished with a burning tongue and a new found respect for Cay Tre’s Soho incarnation.

However, with a bottle of water, the bill still came to just over thirty pounds. I know this is the West End, but for a shared (and traditionally inexpensive) starter and what were, after all, two bowls of soup, that still seems rather a lot. One of the joys of the Old Street branch is how they manage to cram that much flavour into that much great food at such a reasonable price. That might be a lesson their sister restaurant can learn from, because right now, I think it’s worth spending the difference on the bus fare down there. Actually, come to think of it, you could probably afford a taxi.

26 May 2011