Verru, Marylebone


Being the young, thrusting, savvy-type comedian I am, my life is an endless whirl of meetings, projects and pow-wows, and the sight of me bustling into a restaurant with important files, lap-tops, iPads and armies of assistants to bark at as I bash heads with top corporate and broadcasting bods is a familiar one to the Maître d’s of all the major London eateries. I have The Ivy on speed dial, San Lorenzo in my pocket and Le Caprice on hold. That’s just the way life is for someone who this weekend can be seen at two (count ‘em) separate gigs in Leeds, ON THE SAME NIGHT.

Now, the more astute amongst you will have noticed that the above paragraph is a tissue of lies (apart from the bit about Leeds – I am ON FIRE up here,) but I did have a meeting recently with an actual producer who works for a proper broadcaster and everything. I did this mainly so I could write this review from the point of view of Ronnie Corbett (“as I said to the producer…”) although taking into account that he passed out in a restaurant a few days ago, this was perhaps not such a brilliant idea. (Don’t worry Ronnie, it’s called ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’ and often happens when people of advanced years eat more than they’re used to. My dad tells a story about it happening to both of my grandparents at the same time – he’s a doctor and he thought they were dead. They weren’t.)

The meeting was intended to be a chat about my continued inability to make any headway onto the nation’s airwaves (something I am very good at) and on that level, was quite a success (we both agreed that I had made very little headway onto the nation’s airwaves.) However, the producer in question also happens to be a lovely chap who has actually done what he can to redress that situation, as well as a proper comedy fan, so what we really did was gossip for an hour which was a lot more fun for all concerned. In the interests of appearing businesslike, however, I had asked a friend for any tips on a suitable venue and she had recommended Verru.

Home cured gravadlax

Now, perhaps the idea of Scandinavian food cooked by an Estonian may not ring everyone’s bell, but I’ve been to Tallinn and loved it and everything Scandinavian is so hot right now it hurts. Although a lot of it is cold, obviously. This wasn’t perhaps the place for foraged brambles and sea buckthorne (I’m not sure I’d want to eat at a place that foraged heavily in the Marylebone area) but from what we had, I’m sure they’d make pretty good fist of it if you asked them to. Verru is building quite a reputation, which given it’s 26 covers meant I had the choice of the two remaining tables, and opted for the one not actually in the till, but on a comfortable green leather banquette between a couple of tables of men in suits spending other people’s money. It’s a properly handsome place in an understated way, and the Maître d’ was charming and looked about twelve, as I’d been told he would, and gave me some quite stunning garlic bread, which I hadn’t. This was not your buttery, Britain thinks it’s France in the 70’s type affair, but beautifully fresh bread with the cloves baked through it; if garlic bread really is the future, then this is it.

On the evidence of the à la carte, this is definitely a place that I want to come back to and spend some proper money, but, as I said to the producer, the lunch special at £12.95 for two courses looked particularly inviting (and I wonder why I’m not more successful.) This was clean and deceptively simple cooking, which also had the added benefit of being delicious and so healthy I felt like finding a fjord to chuck myself in afterwards. An exemplary plate of home cured gravadlax, with blinis and pickled cucumber was deemed a great success, whilst my skandi fish soup was delicious – precisely chopped baby vegetables and delicately poached white fish swimming (not literally) in a clear broth that had taken all the attendant flavours and put on something of a party for my mouth. Not a wild party, admittedly, but some kind of sophisticated soiree, which is much more the sort of thing I’m interested in these days.

A terrible photo of a great pollack dish

A good entrecote steak was perfectly cooked, as advertised, which did strike me as a little odd – I’m yet to see a restaurant offering imperfect cooking, though I’ve eaten in plenty. It was perhaps not overly Baltic, but the nettle and herb sauce took care of that, and came with some chips that I have to say are the best I’ve eaten in London. Heston can triple fry all he likes, but these weirdly cylindrical things had been finished off in some form of flying animal fat and as a result, frankly pissed all over the Dinner version down the road. Not an image I’m hugely proud of, but a truthful one nevertheless. My pollack was a more complex affair, with more chopped baby vegetables alongside chickpeas, chorizo and pomegranate all happily singing from the same song sheet. My taste buds were getting quite into the swing of things by now, and the fjord was definitely starting to beckon.

Having put the comedy world to rights between us, a couple of coffees and a bill for just over £40 added to the general feeling of well being. Rather like the British public and my broadcasting talents, I have a distinct feeling that in terms of Verru’s potential, we had only seen the tip of the iceberg, but this is a perfect place for either a business lunch or something a little more sociable. Luckily, as I said to the producer, I thought we’d managed to combine the two rather nicely. Which is probably just shorthand for saying I’d nicked his chips.


Jan 2012



Well, not all of it, obviously. However, if I listed everywhere I ate over four days it would make the title of this post somewhat unwieldy and give extra publicity to Le Pain Quotidien in St. Pancras, where I drank some brown frothy milk that I can only think is a way of hurrying French people out of the country. Still, it can’t be any worse than making them leave from Waterloo.

Even people who don’t like France or the French (they’re called ‘bigots’) can find something to love in Paris. If you’ve not been, well, buy yourself a guidebook. I’m not going to do the full cultural tour, because this is Food Ponce, so you can only imagine how pleased I was by the name of the road in the picture above (look carefully.) I will say – I preferred the Musée d’Orsay to the Louvre, and I surprised myself by not being disappointed with the Mona Lisa. Do book online, as you get straight in, which is particularly handy if you don’t wish to queue around the glass pyramid, where the absence of rain is more than compensated for by a combination of fountains and gale force winds. The Pompidou Centre is worth a look both inside and out (this is a brilliant architectural joke) and the view from the top is worthy of the Eiffel Tower. Not that I’d know, because I didn’t go up the Eiffel Tower, but if you do, please pop in to Le Jules Verne and let me know if the scallops starter really is worth €62. Even in a city as expensive as Paris, that made the eyes pop out, as, I imagine, did the sight of Tom Cruise proposing to Katy Holmes in the same room, though for entirely different, libelous and unsubstantiated reasons.

Terminus Nord

Our hotel was by the Arc de Triomphe, thus placing it firmly in the mythical Tourist Dining Exclusion Zone which gets mentioned so often by the guidebooks you’d think they were bringing back the guillotine for anyone tempted by an overpriced croque monsieur within spitting distance of the Champs Elysees. This led to that uneasy feeling that we were about to make a horrendous mistake in the culinary capital of the world. We’ve all been there – I’ve made catastrophic errors in my home town (never, ever, eat in Trattoria Da Aldo on Greek Street,) but generally I just go on instinct, which served us fairly well here as we walked past Les Gourmets Des Ternes about three times, arguing. It was when we got inside that things got amusing. As soon as we walked in, we were spotted (not difficult, we were only the second table to arrive) by Jean-Francois Marie, his open necked shirt and his white tuxedo. To give you an idea of of the man, it’s probably best just to look at the website, where there’s a video and 52 pages of photos of him with customers.

There are photos on the wall, there are tablecloths embossed with signatures and doodles from former celebrity diners, including Jack Nicholson and literally hundreds of people I’ve never heard of. I feel sure that despite my sub ZZZ non-celebrity status (I was once on Richard and Judy,) if he’d had the slightest inkling I’d ever been near a stage, bulbs would have started flashing, as he seemed like the kind of guy who wouldn’t just attend the opening of an envelope, he’d insist on hosting the after party too. Luckily, as we made it fairly clear we weren’t after his ‘amazing pepper steak’ he left us in the capable hands of a nice chap who looked disconcertingly like Despicable Me. We could have spent quite a lot of money had we wished, but instead simply went for a rather nice ‘fromage de tete’ – which you can order in France because it’s not called ‘brawn’ – then a serviceable cream of vegetable soup and a reasonably decent moutarde de lapin served with tagliatelle which came to €50 with a couple of glasses of wine. As we left, no one took our picture, which left us feeling as unremarkable as the food. Nonetheless, the place retains a distinctly Parisian feel, I’m sure there were a lot worse places in the vicinity (shouted the guidebook,) and I know Jean-Francois would feel he was worth the visit.


We stumbled upon a nice little tip for lunch the next day – the Café Des Officiers, about ten minutes walk from the Eiffel Tower, and therefore just outside that particular T.D.E.Z. I did go for the croque monsieur (you have to, at least once,) but what was really impressive was a special of onglet de boeuf with fettuccine, which was bloody (and) tasty. With a couple of coffees and water, the bill came to €35, which almost resembled a French bargain, so I marched off to look at a bit more art feeling terribly Parisian despite a slight tendency to murder the language at regular intervals.

Dorade with endive and herbs

That night we opted for the first of our recommendations, from a friend who has a place in Paris so actually knows stuff. As you come out of the Gare du Nord, you will notice a garish red sign blaring the words Terminus Nord at you. Do not be put off. Once inside you’ll find a beautifully preserved Fin de Siècle brasserie, all glass, mirrors, linen and very…Gallic. Except for the staff, who were far more charming and helpful than stereotypes would suggest. In deference to my surroundings, I had what can only be described as the full French – snails, bouillabaisse and profiteroles with a glass of Sancerre. Snails are weird. No matter how much you try, you can’t get away from the simple fact that you would be unlikely to relish tucking into a plate of them unless they were absolutely drenched in garlic, butter and parsley, but they were, and I did. The bouillabaisse was big and hearty and served in a tureen that added to the fun, even if it lacked the complete oomph of the very best versions I’ve eaten. I’d heard the profiteroles were the best in Paris and they did not disappoint. Only three of them, but filled with an ice cream in which you could see the vanilla seeds and a chocolate sauce that was properly decadent. An onion soup opposite me was a meal in itself (apparently,) ‘gorgeous’ and ‘one of the richest things I’ve ever eaten,’ which is patently bollocks as she then went on to nick a profiterole. We spent €80 including service, and were so impressed we made time for coffee and croissants there on the morning we left.

Tartare de boeuf

On our last evening we found ourselves at Les Fines Gueules, a tiny little 20 cover place in the cellar of a rather good looking bar just behind the Louvre and another recommendation. Unfortunately, the cold that I had been fighting off for the past few days turned up on the way there and utterly mugged my taste buds. I’d like to write an informed, and, I imagine, glowing review of the place as everyone was very nice and very helpful, and I could tell by the textures of what I was eating that I was in the presence of some very good cooking. Unfortunately, and excuse my French, I couldn’t taste a fucking thing. Speaking of which, don’t ever try to explain this to a waiter with limited English in your limited French whilst pointing at your nose – no one comes out of it looking good. A scallop ravioli in a saffron sauce looked and felt magnificent, but no, nothing – the same for a dorade with endive, fresh herbs and a balsamic reduction. I’m told they also tasted magnificent, but not as good as a tartare de boeuf enlivened with little shavings of pecorino. This was to have been the big culinary hoo-hah of the trip, but I’m afraid to say I even skipped dessert because it was, frankly, pointless to spend any more than the €85 we already had.

Some Art

Luckily for me, I’d already had a wonderful time, a truly memorable meal at Terminus Nord and now I’ve got ‘a little place I know’ to visit, if only to find out if it’s as good as I think it is. Taking into account its location, I think we can safely assume the answer is a resounding yes, but I’m planning to go back, just to make sure.


Jan 2012

The Waiting Room, Eaglescliffe & Marco Polo, Newcastle


Despite its reputation for arctic temperatures, the weather in the North East seemed to be entering into the spirit of the Christmas/New Year hiatus by taking the week off too, which was handy as I went naked in order to fit in with southern preconceptions of the Geordie dress code. This allowed me to walk around the disgracefully picturesque town of Yarm in nothing but a scarf and happily munch a curd tart from the local bakery completely anonymously. Unfortunately I blew my cover by continually saying ‘Yarp’ like the bloke from Hot Fuzz because I thought it was funny, until someone noticed and made me remove the scarf.

I can report with some certainty that Eaglescliffe has one of the least attractive train stations I have ever visited, although the train that brought me to it was quick, clean, spacious and properly wi-fied up so as a result I have decided to take Grand Central Rail to all my destinations in future. I’m sure this won’t be a problem because, as we all know, the entire rail network is now predicated on being a bastion of choice for the ‘customer’ rather than an antiquated, over-priced anomaly that doesn’t do ‘passengers’ and would be put to shame by nineteenth century India.

Pea & pistachio roulade

Speaking of India, the last time I ate vegetarian food was at Rajdhani Thali, and to be frank, as a somewhat helpless carnivore, it is not an option I return to on a regular basis. Morally, all the arguments for vegetarianism receive a resounding tick from me, but then again, so does the smell of a bacon sarnie. However, Eaglescliffe does have an award winning vegetarian restaurant called The Waiting Room, which slightly makes up for the lack of one in the station next to it (a waiting room, not an award winning vegetarian restaurant.) I really don’t think it’s right to review a meal you’ve been taken out for, so I shall be brief, but I would like to say that their pea and pistachio roulade was a thing of beauty – one of those unusual vegetarian dishes where you can say you didn’t miss the meat at all and actually mean it. All five of us were similarly impressed (my hosts are regulars) and as I washed everything down with some very tasty Long Wall Mouse Blonde Beer, I reflected that eating less meat was something I must file away with all the other New Year’s resolutions I’m not going to keep. Proving that there’s no such thing as a holiday from this business we call show, The Waiting Room also doubles as an occasional performance venue, and comics who have played there include Stewart Lee and Josie Long, so they’ve got pretty good taste in comedy too.

This part of the world has not been tremendously well served by the comedy industry in recent years. Despite the brilliance of Geordie comics such as Ross Noble, Gavin Webster and Jason Cook, there has been a noticeable absence of decent venues for them to perform in. The Hyena was the only comedy club for miles, but now there are excellent gigs (so I hear) at the Stockton Arc and perhaps most significantly, The Stand has arrived in Newcastle. Rather than gush too much, I’ll just say that I wish all clubs (festivals and probably countries) were run with the same ethos that Tommy Sheppard brings to his quietly growing empire, and I cannot wait to play the Newcastle Stand in April. I’m quite excited about the Glasgow one the week before as well, but I’ve played there many times, so I already know it works, even with this accent.

Carpaccio di manza

One of the other reasons I’m looking forward to going back is Newcastle itself, which has a rugged handsomeness that is perhaps missing from its more effete Georgian cousins, Bath and Edinburgh. It also has some stunning newer achitecture – including the Millennium Bridge, the quite beautiful Sage concert hall and the Baltic Centre – I know the last two are in Gateshead and the bridge takes you there, but I doubt you’ll hear them complaining. In addition to this there is a very good Italian restaurant in the shape of Marco Polo. To be honest, from the outside it looked a bit bland and corporate, but once inside it had that cheery buzz of a popular place that knows what it’s doing, and the dark wooden interior had a kind of cosiness that put paid to my initial reservations. The menus themselves (see photo, above) are a bit faddy – long thin things that fan out – but the contents divide nicely between those dishes you’d expect to find in a city centre Italian and a few surprises. A basket of breads including a quite brilliant pear focaccia served with very nice Colovita olive oil and balsamic vinegar further improved my (already quite good) mood.

Radiatori al ragu

I managed an emphatic return to my meat eating roots by ordering a whole plate of the stuff, raw. My carpaccio di manzo was delicious – good beef with lemon juice and olive oil nicely enlivened with shavings of truffle, parmesan and a selection of micro herbs including baby beetroot shoots. For mains, a beef ragu was rich and hearty, pepped up by chianti, rocket and ricotta that was, nonetheless, no competition for my rabbit and leek cannelloni. The meat was ground down with the leek, beautifully seasoned, and then given a hefty kick by the wild mushrooms which, along with some dots of pesto, gave a lightly creamy mascarpone sauce the desired lift. I don’t often order pasta, but here I was very glad I did. Employing my customary restaurant meerkat stance, I was able to peek at other people’s dishes and it struck me that Marco Polo is the sort of place you could go for both a major celebration, or the quick lunch that we were after. That is not an easy trick to pull off, and sure enough, as we were leaving, a large party of children entered the building, so that was lucky. The bill, not including excellent service, came to just over thirty pounds, which seems reasonable, even if I did rather spoil any savings by going and blowing a load of cash on a Vivienne Westwood suit half an hour later. In my defence, it was so massively discounted in the sales I couldn’t very well not buy it, and I do need something to wear in April, if only to stop perpetuating ghastly comedy stereotypes.


Dec 2011

Pizza Express & Yim Wah Express, Cambridge


The Festive season. A time of peace and joy to all mankind, unless of course you are a comic, in which case it is often a time to be ignored loudly by large groups of people who are unsure why there’s someone nearby not talking about them into a microphone. Why do we do it? Well, the money, obviously, if not the huge sense of artistic satisfaction. Having said that, I had a perfectly pleasant December, and if the worst Christmas gig you have is one slightly rowdy night out of three pretty good ones at the Comedy Café you can count yourself lucky.

Yim Wah Express

I had a short run of shows at The Junction, which I’d not visited since a trip to see A House support The Blue Aeroplanes nearly twenty years ago – which will mean nothing to those of you who are not aficionados of early 90’s indie bands. It was excellent incidentally, and if you get nothing else from this review, do yourself a favour and get hold of a copy of Swagger. You’ll see what I mean.

I used to visit Cambridge quite often in those days as two of my best friends were studying how to be braying alcoholics at the rugby club, sorry, University. Actually, that’s terribly unfair (on one of them,) but the city always fascinated me with its mixture of brilliance and privilege, the two of which did not always go hand in hand. I hadn’t been back for some time, apart from playing the Magdalene College ball a couple of years back which pretty much reinforced my old prejudices, but what I noticed this time was how homogenised this undeniably beautiful city has become. The same old names you see clogging up every high street somehow become more depressing when they’re overlooked by King’s College at Christmas and you can hear the choir practicing.

To be fair, I hadn’t done any particular research as regards restaurants, which may explain why we ended up in Pizza Express. I have nothing against Pizza Express, in fact I rather like it. It’s hardly foodie heaven though, and I wouldn’t have mentioned it had I not ordered a Da Morire Romana pizza – Gorgonzola D.O.P, caramelized leeks, artichokes, pancetta, rosemary and chilli oil on an extra thin base. Apparently it was dreamt up by one Simon Pritchard from over 60,000 entries to win their ‘Create Your Pizza’ competition and I can genuinely say it is one of the nicest pizzas I have ever eaten. I even tweeted about it. The saltiness of the gorgonzola (with a bit of help from the pancetta) lifts everything to another level, nicely rounded off with a little chilli kick. No more Mr Fiorentina (with mushrooms instead of olives) for me. I have found my pizza. Everything else was, well, Pizza Express, which might explain why they’ve been doing so well for so long. Having said that, a week later I was in Norwich where there is a branch attached to the gig, and I have to report that they slightly overdid the oil, making for a greasier experience, which I suppose just goes to show that every Pizza Express really is different. Except it isn’t, is it, and that’s why we like it – at just over £20 for two it’s a pretty reliable option on other fronts too.

Soft shell crab

The next day, partly because of some decent write ups in the window but mainly because good Chinese restaurants should always be full of Chinese people (© my parents’ generation) we decided to try Yim Wah Express for dinner. Clearly everyone eats in a hurry in Cambridge. At this point, I must recommend their website as it gives you a better virtual tour than I can. The place was not quite full, but had a nice buzz about it, with friendly staff and an interesting looking open kitchen at the far end.

The menu was fairly extensive, as they tend to be, including some interesting challenges such as shredded pigs stomach and garlic broth, but we were only after a light supper. A starter of soft shell crab was very tasty, although the batter was a little dry and floury. Honey roast pork was delicious – moist, rich meat with a nicely sweetened crust and plenty of rice, mopped up with kai lan (Chinese brocolli) and oyster sauce. I had gone with the chef’s recommendation of beef with chilli oil Sichuan style. This is similar to the food cooked at one of my favourite Soho haunts, Golden Day on Shaftesbury Avenue, although there it is Hunanese rather than Sichuan, but one thing both traditions have in common are chillis, and lots of them. Look at the picture – it’s quite an odd feeling to tuck into your meal knowing that you are seconds away from sweating like someone doing something wrong somewhere inappropriate.* However, when done well, as it was here, the heat enhances the ingredients – in this case beef, aubergine and mushroom – in a way that makes the dish much more interesting than merely fiery. I have to say I prefer the Golden Day dishes I have tried (principally the sea bass and the chicken) mainly because they were less oily, but this was still a success, in a restaurant I would definitely return to. They’ve got pigs ears and trotters that need trying another time, and this is clearly a kitchen that knows it’s way around a pig, even if I wasn’t being one on this occasion.

Appropriately enough, at this point we had to fly. The bill came to a thoroughly reasonable £37, excluding service. I would like to have paid with my American Express card for thematic reasons, but I don’t have one. Instead, I contented myself with patting my stomach and saying ‘that will do nicely’ as I left for my gig, and played The Blue Aeroplanes loudly in the car on the way home.


Dec 2011

*comedy staple – feel free to add your own ingredients.