Brasserie Blanc, Bristol


I have been driving the length and breadth of this country for about ten years now as I am still unable to convince audiences to come to Battersea in plentiful enough numbers to earn a living from SW11 alone. Bristol is one of those cities, to which I would add Manchester, Cardiff, Sheffield, Leeds and Liverpool, whose recent regeneration has put paid to much of the aesthetic damage done to them in the post war years and which have emerged bright, polished and with a new Harvey Nichols or at least a very shiny House of Fraser to show for it. Even Birmingham has got a Selfridges, so clearly they knew I was coming. I’m especially familiar with Bristol as I went to school in nearby Bath, have many friends there, and it has been home to three comedy clubs – Jesters, The Comedy Box and Jongleurs, for some time. Jesters is presently re-developing in the city centre (if you can’t beat them…) The Comedy Box continues to put on excellent bills at very reasonable prices and Jongleurs is still operating from its original venue which is handy for all those stags and hens who couldn’t read a map if they had to find a new one.

I was very interested to walk down to the new Cabot Square development to see a really handsome job of high street rejuvenation, incorporating all the retail outlets that modern Britons would inevitably whither away and die without. Most striking of all is Cabot Circus, one end of which is now occupied by a Brasserie Blanc. I didn’t go inside The Friary Building, but M. Blanc waxes lyrical on their website about its previous incarnation as the old Quaker meeting hall and how he’s converted it. With all that religious baggage I suppose someone had to, but the location and the building itself looked lovely on a bright September day.

As our cities have rung out to the sound of building work, so our televisions have reverberated to the rise of the TV chef. Raymond Blanc is perhaps one of the most ubiquitous, but has never seemed to quite vouchsafe a place in the nation’s hearts like a Hugh, a Heston or even a Gordon. Perhaps it is the perceived superiority of his Manoir au Quatre Saisons that still seems out of reach to most of us, in a way that a Fat Duck or a St John’s just doesn’t. Maybe it’s that rumours of his financial demise abound just before he rebounds with a new series of ‘The Restaurant’ or a range of brasseries bearing his name. Maybe it’s just that he’s French. I hope not, but I, like, I suspect, many others, have always admired his obvious passion for food, without particularly warming to the man himself. Which is hugely unfair, but then these perceptions were, to an extent, borne out by my meal in Bristol.

Ham hock terrine with sauce gribiche

This from M Blanc on the website –

“I am often asked what a Brasserie Blanc is. Well if the Manoir is a delicate waltz then the Brasseries are the Can Can. For sure, this is not a place for refined haute cuisine and three course meals. Rather, Brasserie Blanc is a place for relaxed enjoyment where I can offer you simple, high quality food that comes as close as possible to the meals that my mother prepared for me at home in Besançon and at a price that encourages you to visit us regularly”

Sweetcorn chowder

Now I have no idea how this was a Can Can as opposed to a delicate waltz, but I would say that I think I see what he’s doing and it nearly works. We had a brilliant meal. Unfortunately there were two of us. On the positive side, the surroundings were delightful, as were the staff, and the lunchtime deal of 2 courses with a glass of wine for £12.95 is very good value. A sweetcorn chowder was creamy and tasty and came with popcorn floating in it, which was a clever touch, accompanied by a perfectly good glass of sauvignon blanc. Ham hock terrine looked very pretty but was hugely underseasoned – not bad, just boring, a bit like my glass of rosé – and only slightly lifted by a bland sauce gribiche. My main course, on the other hand, was lovely – a beautifully cooked piece of buttery plaice with runner beans and new potatoes that would have had me looking very favourably on the whole experience, were it not for the terribly dry and uninspiring beef Provençale with pilaf rice that arrived on the other side of the table. Neither of us were tempted by the desserts, although I’m sure at least 50 per cent of them would have been very good.

Plaice with runner beans and new potatoes

So, more of a Can Can’t than a Can Can. However, at £30, excluding service, this still represented something of a bargain, which has given me cause to question why I have previously wanted to Blanc Raymond. I won’t be rushing back, but I think a combination of the setting and an eye to judicious ordering will see me returning, if not regularly, then at least until Maman Blanc comes to perform in the Battersea area.


Sept 2011

Almeida, Islington


After the delights of Les Deux Salons last week, it was really not my intention to be going all out high end French restauranting again for a while, but then I have no power over when birthdays fall or the fact that for various reasons I had to take an old friend out in the Islington area to celebrate his. I lived in N1 for many years, and was always slightly surprised that for such a supposedly socially mobile area, the majority of its restaurants were as disappointing as the government that resulted from the deal struck in its most famous one. Granita is long gone, replaced now I think by some Tex Mex joint, although I did have a great meal there years ago. It was a date, and I seem to remember things working out for me too, despite the idiocy of taking the girl in question to see Gary Oldman’s light romantic comedy Nil by Mouth first. I don’t know what I was thinking, but clearly Granita was a magical place for negotiations, and the food was excellent.

I also ate at Almeida when Terence Conran first opened it, and was very disappointed. My overriding memory is of garlic, garlic and more garlic. Now obviously I like garlic, but not that much – I came away smelling like the French do in crap jokes. They also put tomatoes in a Coquille St Jacques, which is just plain weird. By a bizarre quirk of fate, my friend and I went to school with one of Conran’s sons, who once took him on a family holiday where most of the cooking was done by a chap called Simon Hopkinson who was trying out dishes for some new venture called Bibendum. Now that’s what I call self-catering. Almeida is no longer a Conran concern, and the chef is one Alan Jones, but I would go as far as to say Mr Hopkinson would be hard pressed to improve on what was coming out of his kitchen.

Cornish crab and avocado tian

We started with a couple of glasses of Piper Heidsieck at a frankly irritating £20, but it was a birthday, so I mustn’t carp, although in drinking terms, I much preferred the very versatile Beaujolais-Villages (still not given away at £32) we had with our food. I went for Cornish crab with avocado tian, confit tomatoes and lemon olive oil and dared them to put garlic anywhere near it. Mr Jones clearly wouldn’t dream of it – this was all the things it should be; the crab was the star, but wouldn’t have performed nearly so well without the supporting cast – with the added crunch of a melba toast and sparky green shoots to lift the whole dish. This contrasted nicely with the rich, earthy wood pigeon and puy lentils across the table, which came with lardons and a beautifully reduced sauce.The meat/fish theme continued into the main courses as my friend went for plaice with girolles, artichokes and a shellfish foam – very clever cooking, and a good example of the subtle difference between here and Les Deux Salons – both are excellent, but there are perhaps just a few more bells and whistles (and foams) involved at Almeida.

Wood pigeon and puy lentils

Whether or not that is a good thing is up to you. On a simpler level, my suckling pig was just the porkiest bit of pork I have ever eaten. It had the sort of piggyness that would have Jay Rayner reaching for tissues. Again, what he’d be using them for is up to you. Incidentally, if you didn’t know, Pommes Pont Neuf is French for chunky chips.

After the brilliance of the mains, the desserts were a slight disappointment. I very much liked my caramel and cocoa nibs crispy thing (called a brislet on the menu, although I can find no mention of this word anywhere else in the world, except in reference to a township in Polk, Minnesota,) but the pannacotta and red wine poached cherries were fairly unremarkable, and the crème brulee was a little shallow and not quite as smooth as it might have been. By this stage, we’d come to expect better things, but then the bar had been set very high.

Suckling pig, Le Chunky Chips

The bill came in at just under £150, including efficient and friendly service, although I did find the addition of a pound for Action Against Hunger a bit ridiculous. I’m happy to pay it, and obviously I admire the charity and the sentiment, but a) I had no idea it was going to be added to the bill and b) when you’ve just spent 150 quid on dinner for a blog called Food Ponce, one pound for Action Against Hunger just sounds like you’re taking the piss really, don’t you think? Again, I’ll leave that up to you.

If you had to decide between Les Deux Salons and Almeida, I have to say I would probably opt for the former, but this particular Tour de France was a close run thing, and the food at the Almeida is unrecognizable from my previous visit. Things change over time, which is of course why the birthdays keep coming. Sometimes, that’s no bad thing.


Sept 2011

Les Deux Salons, Covent Garden


Sometimes, the best intentions are best left elsewhere. I had no sooner sat at the bar in Les Deux Salons to peruse the soft drinks menu than James O’Brien sat down next to me and said ‘vodka martini, straight up, with an olive, hello Al’, like my own personal James Bond. Moments later Nick Revell arrived and ordered the same, but ‘gin, with a twist’ and so I had to follow suit, although with an olive as I actually like martinis. Our choice of three subtly different variations might be a happy metaphor for why we work so well together on No Pressure To Be Funny, but I think it’s more likely to indicate, as my girlfriend later pointed out, that ‘you three are such fucking champagne socialists.’

The room is a real charmer in itself – having caught just the right whiff of Parisian grandeur mixed with something a little louche (some of these words are French) and bohemian (one is Czech, apparently.) We took our cocktails with us through a busy, but not hurried, restaurant and settled down with the menus and some excellent bread that didn’t appear on the bill, for a change. One of the joys of working with my two companions is our propensity to have really good lunches on the pretext that we are in fact ‘having a meeting’, and so I should mention that this was our third visit. Previously, we have always gone for the set menu – very good value at £15.50 for three courses – but emboldened by ‘chemistry’ as James described the effects of his martini, it soon became clear that this wasn’t going to be one of those meals. Well, we had made a saving on the bread.

James opted for a fish soup which he declared ‘very fishy’ by which I think he meant delicious, not suspicious, as were my Cornish sardines with lemon, capers, chilli and toasted sourdough. Nick had tomato salad ‘forgotten varieties’ which true to their word, I have forgotten, but which came with fennel and olive oil – hugely fresh and tasty yet subtly palate cleansing. Between us we had ticked one of every starter section except Les Terrines (lovely chap,) but I’m sure I shall be returning to correct that soon, preferably on a Friday, as that is the day that their classic bouillabaisse ‘Marseille style’ is one of the Plats du Jour. This was a Thursday, which offers Navarin of Lamb, but we were now looking to the next chapter heading on this extensive, but impressive menu. I’m often wary of this many dishes on one piece of paper, but as there wasn’t one duff note (nôte d’uff?) in the entire meal, perhaps I shouldn’t be.

The mains were superb. Luckily, we are three people who know each other well enough to spend a considerable amount of time passing bits of food across to one another, so I can tell you that James’s calf’s liver and bacon was both succulent and rich, as well as properly crisscrossed with carbon from the grill, and I am still smiling at the thought of Nick’s bavette steak. Not always the easiest cut, this was handled perfectly – chewy yet tender and bloody and very, very tasty. In fact, possibly the only thing better was my saddle of rabbit – an absolute classic, executed perfectly; salty pancetta giving way to tender, moist rabbit and an offal stuffing that was borderline illegal. A beautiful carrot puree, spring chard and some stolen pommes frites made this probably my main course of the year.

All of this was washed down with a lovely Quatre Chemins, Pays du Gard, which felt like a snip at £18.50, and probably went some way to explaining the grabbing motions when the dessert menu arrived, and the decision to have a carafe of Sauternes from it, among other things. My tarte au citron was everything I expected – it is exactly the sort of dish that this kitchen would seem unable to get wrong – but the real stars were two iced peanut butter parfaits with roast banana. This dish alone means I am under pain of death to visit again and was sweet, crunchy, cold, hot and probably as bad for you as it felt good.

We couldn’t resist finishing off with a small plate of cheese to share – a lovely Rocquefort, surprisingly good smoked cheddar (smoked cheese usually reminds me of school dinners and plastic,) an ash coated chevre and something that was distantly related to Chaumes in that it tasted heavenly but would still make your fingers smell if you picked it up. Thoroughly sated, we ordered coffees, and Nick and I had a couple of Trepout VSOP’s – James opted out at this point as he’s got something called ‘children’ who were going to need ‘picking up’ later in the afternoon, while Nick and I ventured into Soho. After a couple of drinks, Nick headed home, while I ended up being roared at about Jesus by a Scottish actor who had seemed perfectly good company up until that point. None of this was enough to detract from the memory of a quite exquisite meal – at £225 including service it was by no means cheap, but for what we had I still think it was great value, if not of the everyday kind. I don’t do stars, but Les Deux Salons would get five, and is one.

Sept 2011


No Pressure To Be Funny will be starting a two month weekly run at The Leicester Square Theatre from Oct 12th. Guests already confirmed include Clive Stafford Smith, Rich Hall, Miranda Sawyer, Andy Hamilton, Mitch Benn, Matthew Norman, Holly Walsh, Paul Sinha and Matt Forde. A Christmas show – No Pressure to Be Festive – will be taking place on Sunday Dec 18th.

Iberico, Nottingham


Ah, Nottingham. Bows and arrows, merry men and medieval taverns, or gun crime, stag nights and binge drinking, if you want to be a bit more twenty first century about it. And comedy clubs – three new ones in the last year – clearly designed to distract the townspeople from arguing about which of their pubbes is the most olde. I was at The Glee for the weekend with Ian Moore, Nick Doody and John Fothergill, who I’m very lucky to count as good friends as well as great comics. (This being Nottingham I should probably call them jesters, but I do have some rules.)

On Saturday, I wandered into the Lace Market to follow my normal routine – stare longingly at the windows of watch shops and then try on lots of clothes I can’t afford. Luckily, Flannels didn’t have a Holland Esquire jacket I wanted (at least not in the right size) so this freed up a bit of extra cash for lunch. It is thought processes like these that will see us out of the recession.

The first thing I noticed about Iberico was how close it was to a La Tasca. Now I’ve only eaten in one of these once and it wasn’t completely awful, but I’m pretty sure the proprieters of the Nottingham branch were less than thrilled when Iberico opened its doors round the corner. In football terms, this is a bit like Notts Forest finding they have to play Barcelona every day, although that analogy doesn’t work completely as Forest have had some success in Europe, which is more than you can say for La Tasca.

Iberica is located in the ‘historic’ Galleries of Justice. If that sounds a bit…Inquistiony for you, rest assured – it has nothing on the sacrilege that is The Pitcher and Piano in the church next door – but it does have something of the dungeon feel to it. It was going to be pretty difficult to import Spanish weather to the Midlands anyway, let alone into a gothic basement, so Iberico has done the next best thing and imported some quite wonderful ingredients instead. The lunch special – two tapas, Catalan bread and dessert for a very reasonable £11.95 – is only available Monday to Friday, but this didn’t bother me as I was getting quite excited just reading the menu and am clinically incapable of choosing only two tapas dishes anyway. Fresh sourdough arrived to help me think, with olive oil and balsamic vinegar so sticky it even stuck to the bread properly.

Paleta Iberico de Bolleta D.O, Aged Manchego.

We started with ham because you have to. I managed not to order the most expensive, settling for the Paleta Iberico de Bolleta D.O (still £13.95,) alongside some aged Manchego with sweet pickled figs and smoked paprika. Everyone knows all about black pigs and acorns by now. All I’ll say is that if I was on death row, I think there’s a good chance I’d order charcuterie for my last meal  – obviously I aim to get executed at a very high end place. There’s something almost forbidden about really good cured ham that does strange things to me, and with the cheese and figs I was already making the weird appreciative noises that I may have mentioned in previous posts. Meanwhile, Catalan bread – a kind of Spanish bruschetta on lightly fried bread with tomatoes, garlic and herbs – had my taste buds telling my arteries to be quiet.

Catalan Bread

They (the arteries) were in for a fairly rough ride. Next up, two courgette flowers stuffed with Monte Neblo goat’s cheese in a crispy batter and drizzled with honey. The person sat opposite me said something about things being too rich and sweet at this point, so I think we can discount her opinions. Patatas bravas, triple cooked in goose fat, were a perfect example of a dish that is often done badly because it should be easy to get right, while Truffled Onglet beef was so rich it should probably have gone back to Spain to prop up the economy. Luckily the addition of broad beans and pickled shimeji mushrooms pegged it back to the merely wealthy.

Courgette Flowers

Ensaladilla Rusa – seared tuna with tomato and soft quails eggs – was all kinds of things, but mostly very clever and very delicious. The person opposite me doesn’t like soft egg yolks, so we shall continue to ignore her, although we did both agree that the one slight disappointment was the lime, salt and pepper squid. Small pieces of squid with a bit too much batter and not quite enough lime or alioli to prevent them being a little dry – they definitely suffered by comparison with the enormously high standard of everything else.

Truffled Onglet Beef, Ensaladilla Rusa

I don’t really think of dessert when I have tapas, and in any case, by this point the arteries had had a word with the stomach and they’d both agreed they were full. The bill, with exemplary service, water and a very nice glass of white Rioja, came to £73.76. For what was essentially a treat, I think that represents pretty good value, and as most of the comedy circuit is now spending more time in Nottingham than it used to, I‘m sure I will be treating myself again. Next time I should probably try La Tasca, but after this, I doubt I would do them justice. I’ll be too busy sitting in the Galleries.

Sept 2011