Verru (Slight return)


That’s me in the corner…

You know the way that celebrities get given enormous amounts of freebies, partly because their endorsement is like advertising gold dust, and also because the providers of these free services and products get some sort of reflected glory by association? Well, that sort of thing has rarely happened to me, mainly because I am not a celebrity. I did recently appear on Celebrity Deal or No Deal, but I think it’s safe to say Jimmy Carr was the celebrity there – the 22 comics standing behind boxes were mere screen filler and it should really have been called ‘Only One Actual Celebrity Deal or No Deal’ in the interests of veracity. It could also have been called ‘Watch Jimmy Balls Up Making A Lot Of Money For Charity’ but he does keep quite a sharp eye on his image, and I’m not sure they could have sneaked that one past him.*

Scallops & pig’s trotters

I did once get free room service in my suite at The International Carlton in Cannes as I was doing a corporate gig there (lobster on the balcony since you ask – or haymaking with sun shining, as I saw it,) and I was once given a very useful bag with a handy compartment for my laptop that is perfect for overnight stays, but the free clothes, cars and watches etc. have generally failed to materialize, with, it has to be said, fairly good reason.

So, imagine my surprise, when, amongst all the spam comments a blog inevitably attracts, I found a message from Andrei Lesment, chef/patron at Verru, who had read my review of his restaurant, and invited me to come along and have the à la carte, on him. This sort of thing just doesn’t happen that often – to me, at any rate. I’m sure it happens to Michael Winner all the time, but I’m very happy not being him. I mention this partly in the spirit of full disclosure, but also because having met Andrei, I very much get the feeling he was aware he was not feeding Winner-lite, but is simply enormously proud of his food and wanted to show it off to someone who appreciated it. On that front, we were all winners.

Lamb chops

I invited my friend Philippa along as it was her recommendation that brought me here in the first place, and it was near enough to her birthday to count as a celebration, so I offered to buy her dinner. We were greeted with a complimentary glass of champagne, which can never hurt, and some of the garlic bread I gushed about last time. The Maître d’ still looks unbearably young, but was kind enough not to draw attention to the fact I’d mentioned it previously, and service was once again excellent. My starter of scallops with pig trotters was simply stunning. The trotter was like delightfully chewy crackling, combining perfectly with the sweetness of the scallops, small blobs of nashi pear, dandelion and a little red curry sauce which essentially took my socks, and blew them right off. And I am hard to separate from my socks. The lamb chop with asparagus and ramsons (wild garlic) tempura opposite was also excellent, if slightly lacking the total ‘wow’ factor of my starter, but that is hardly a criticism.

Venison & pork belly

And then the main courses arrived. I had wanted to try the venison with crispy suckling pork belly, baked beetroot, rhubarb and treacle jus and luckily Phil let me have some of hers. This was a faultless plate of food, the venison standing up perfectly to the saltiness of the pork and the sweetness of the other ingredients and setting off a little symphony in my mouth. As it turned out, the orchestra was having a busy night – superb wild halibut with cauliflower, squash, mussels and lemongrass sauce was another piece of alchemy. The final masterstroke was the addition of monk’s beard, a sort of non-salty samphire that brought everything together astonishingly. We also had some green beans with garlic and the chips – because you have to have the chips, as I have noted before. At this point the orchestra had to put down their instruments to light the fireworks – I really can’t remember two more complex, tasty and original dishes appearing on the same table in a very long time. Perhaps the general feel of the à la carte is slightly more classic French than I had previously realised, but it is the addition of clever foraged ingredients and unusual taste combinations, beautifully cooked, that really make this an exhibition of Baltic brilliance.

Wild halibut

For dessert, Phil went for the burnt vanilla with rum and plum – essentially a crème brûlée – which was thoroughly acceptable, if a little bit humdrum when compared with what had gone before. I, on the other hand, ordered the forest berries, meringue and white chocolate and was transported straight back to tastebud central – a beautifully sharp, tart yet sweet conclusion to the meal. As Phil noted, “I think you won pudding”.

With a very decent bottle of Spanish white at £18.95, the bill (excluding my food) still came to £75 including service – so as you can see, not a steal, especially if you actually have to pay for your own food, which is what I imagine Andrei traditionally likes his customers to do. What is so impressive is how he plays with traditions in his cooking to provide a meal that I think would be hard to better in London at the moment, and that is great value for money no matter how you look at it. Although, of course, I would say that – I may not be a celebrity, but in the unlikely event that Andrei Lesment ever offers you anything for free, I can only advise you to Deal.


Apr 2012

* To be fair to Jimmy, the website for his charity –  Helen & Douglas House – received so much traffic after the programme, it crashed. It’s better now, though, and you can make a donation by clicking on it.

David Kennedy’s Food Social & The Stand Bistro, Newcastle


Having picked my way back through the carnage of a Newcastle Saturday night, I think we can safely say the Toon quite likes a drink. Come to that, I don’t think it’s massively opposed to a fight, projectile vomiting, an al fresco shag or public urination either. The evening began as it meant to continue with various stag nights circling one another in my hotel bar while two separate hen parties eyed each other suspiciously to see who had the best boa and deely bopper combination – one was the obvious winner, but may well have been docked points for being a second marriage. I don’t wish to appear overly judgemental (although I am,) but one of the things I especially love about The Stand is the no stags and hens policy, because, frankly, I’ve seen them bugger up far too may comedy nights over the years*. This rule is of particular benefit in Newcastle in April when it appears the entire North East is gearing up to get married and has come into town to celebrate.

There is, of course, so much more to the city than what it gets up to on a Saturday night. I mentioned the galleries and architecture when I reviewed Marco Polo last year, but on this occasion I also enjoyed walking through the city centre and being able to see into, not to mention hear, a full St James’ Park, or Cockney Dickhead Direct or whatever Mike Ashley is now calling it in his ongoing attempts to personally widen the North/South divide. This was on our way back from The Biscuit Factory – an art gallery come restaurant where I had just had lunch with the delightful Tom Allen and Eddie French – a newer comic I’d not worked with before, but who does a mean impression of Jamie Oliver as played by the lead singer of Rocket From The Crypt.

Some art I don’t like

The Biscuit Factory is located a little further from the city centre than we realized, although to be fair that was more to do with the slightly circuitous route we took rather than actual geography. The restaurant itself is called David Kennedy’s Food Social, after the chef, and comes with the strapline ‘This is art meets haute cuisine’, which I have to confess filled me with a little trepidation, especially when I saw some of the art. The room itself was not overly busy, but most tables were filled as they did seem to be scattered in a slightly haphazard manner around the room.

The place had been recommended by my friend, former short film co-star and now Newcastle-based comic, Dave Hadingham, and as we were shown to a table and looked at the menus, the omens seemed pretty good, even if one painting in particular was making me wince. The set menu was excellent value at £10 for two courses and £12.95 for three, which Tom and Eddie both opted for. I ordered from the à la carte because I’m me, although we then had to wait a while to inform anyone of this. Service was cheerful and informative when it arrived, but we did feel that the general vibe was quite…relaxed, which can of course be a very good thing, but then so is a little bit of haste in taking orders and keeping a general eye on your tables, especially when there aren’t that many of them.

Marjoram cream, roast peppers, croutons & flowers

My home made black pudding with greens, poached egg and wholegrain mustard sauce was a big, big slab that Eddie suggested could be used as a patch for recent vegetarians suffering withdrawal symptoms. The pudding was good, but as a whole, the dish was a little underseasoned, and the mustard gave it a slight sweetness that robbed the dish of the real punch it should have had. A spring pea soup was a beautifully vivid green (maybe it should have been hung on the wall) and was nicely lifted with the addition of goat’s curds, but the real star was Tom’s marjoram cream with croutons, peppers and deep fried (courgette?) flowers – essentially a lightly herbed pannacotta, which was a fresh, novel and very good looking plate of food.

Crispy pork, black pudding and Belford egg

For mains, I went for poached Loch Duart salmon with fir potatoes and broccoli. This dish is simplicity itself, but luckily it was much more than the sum of it’s parts, held together beautifully with a herb butter, even if the portion of fish was a little parsimonious for a dish that cost £2.50 more than the three courses either side of me. Tom and Eddie both went for the crispy pork and black pudding with slow cooked Belford egg which was another winner – the meat encased in bread crumbs and deep fried to give it a fantastic texture that made much better use of the black pudding than my starter.

Lemon curd ice cream with meringue

I held off on dessert, but a lemon curd ice cream was appropriately zingy, even if the addition of a couple of little meringues left it a little over-sweetened. A banana and vanilla cheesecake, all piled up in a glass, was delicious – creamy and biscuity with a little powdered lime zest on top to give it an added kick. With coffees and a glass of white from a very approachable wine list, the bill came to £74.25 including service, which strikes me as a perfectly reasonable price for three hungry comedians to pay. We then toddled next door to the gallery to find some art we didn’t hate (there was some, luckily) before heading back into town to do battle with the evening.

As a post script, the good people of The Stand had suggested on Twitter that I ate at The Bistro there, but even I’m not stupid enough to review my employers. What I will say is that an anchovy and bacon wrapped chicken Caesar salad on Thursday night was one of the best I’ve ever had, and when Tommy Sheppard (the owner) insists you try the Yakitori burger, you kind of have to.

THAT burger…

This burger is beginning to take on legendary status in the comedy world, and so I made sure I tried it before Saturday’s show. Wow. Apparently the beef is marinated in soy and spring onion, and then finished with a chilli mayonnaise and pickled ginger, but I don’t really want to know, I just want another one. It’s so rich it almost tastes like venison, which is ironic, considering that’s the nearest you’re going to get to a stag in the whole building, if not across the rest of the city.


Apr 2012

* This ‘Stag’s To Do List’, confiscated at a gig recently, came to light just as I was writing this. See what I mean? (With thanks to Liam Mullone.)


Stravaigin, Glasgow


There’s nothing to get a comedian’s blood pumping like Glasgow. Legendary tales of Empire death and epic failure abound, and when you’re being compered by the effortlessly brilliant (and very Scottish) Joe Heenan and following local tornado Janey Godley, you’d better be bringing your ‘A’ game. Joe’s Sherlock Holmes routine is the best new thing I’ve heard on the circuit in a while, and Janey is such an astonishing fount of stories the crowd never want her to leave. So, when you walk on and everyone hears ‘Glas-go’ and not ‘-gie’, there is a perceptible sigh of disappointment, rapidly followed by an almost audible audience thought balloon that says, “This had better be fuckin’ good”. And that is when you earn your money. It says much for the generosity of the Glaswegian audience and the brilliance of The Stand as a venue that I was able to have such lovely gigs this weekend, but I’d be lying if I said my heart didn’t beat that little bit quicker on the way to the microphone.

Sea bass with crab & sweet potato cake

Rightly or wrongly I’ve always felt something of a connection with Glasgow (though luckily not the type that results in thinking I should wear a kilt at weddings.) My grandfather was born here and my Great Aunt Chrissie lived to the ripe old age of 104 in a small flat just behind Partick station – her motto: “If you can’t laugh, what can you do?” – and I have yet to come across a more infectious giggle in all the world. Unfortunately, I didn’t see a great deal of the city on this visit as much my time was spent hunched over a keyboard, but I did have a couple of restaurant recommendations to alleviate the typing, which I then summarily ignored as it turned out a very old friend was in town with her partner. She insisted we went to Stravaigin, and as she lived here for ten years, and tends to get her own way, I happily agreed.

I arrived first – unfortunately the restaurant was booked for a wedding reception, but it says much for the quality of what was to follow that someone wanted to celebrate their nuptials in a room adjoining a bar full of people nursing varying levels of Saturday hangovers. We sat on high stools until a table became available, and then we set about the menu. The staff were attentive and helpful throughout, especially when I changed my starter from mussels having discovered boudin of pike was one of the specials. I had seriously considered the pannacotta of parsley root, which was the stand out oddity on offer, but rejected it on the grounds that I’m a blogger, not an explorer, and the idea of a milk pudding on a stomach that had had one more Guinness than was strictly necessary the night before simply didn’t appeal.

Boudin of pike

The pike was beautiful – not really a boudin in the strict sense of the word, but probably served like that to make sure this famously bony fish wasn’t. Combined with booze-soused grapes, homemade lattice crisps and a nicely tart sauce vierge, this was a highly imaginative combination of tastes and textures. Similarly, a pork cheek and kimchee starter was a delightfully rich reminder of why cheekiness can be a wonderful thing, and a tamarind glazed sea bass with crab and sweet potato cake was both deceptively subtle and very tasty.

Haggis, neeps and tatties

According to the menu, ‘stravaig’ is an old Scots word meaning ‘to wander aimlessly with intent’, which as well as being a perfect metaphor for my career, is also a fair description of the main courses on offer. I was sorely tempted by a wonderful looking nasi goreng with poached egg to banish the last of those Guinness cobwebs, but then I spotted the guinea fowl Kiev with potato rosti. Often a dry meat, this lent itself spectacularly to the garlic butter treatment, and even if the rosti was inevitably a slight touch on the greasy side, it was topped with red cabbage that even I managed to enjoy. Now that really is saying something. Another pork cheek was happily being stuffed into someone else’s opposite me, as was one of the best haggis, neeps and tatties I have ever tasted. Apparently Stravaigin’s sister (or should that be mother) restaurant, the much venerated Ubiquitous Chip, does a venison version, which means I shall be wandering towards it on my next visit – not aimlessly, but very much with intent.

Guinea fowl Kiev

When recommending the restaurant, my friend had used the deceptively simple argument ‘because I love it’, and with the arrival of desserts it was even easier to see why. My coconut pannacotta (I succumbed in the end) was the perfect wobble, with a shredded mango and chilli salad and quite brilliant kaffir lime and lemongrass arancini. The combination of flavours with the added texture of the rice balls lifted this pudding seamlessly into the realms of the very special indeed. An olive oil cake with pistachio sabayon and coffee mascarpone was a similarly stunning balancing act, and a sticky toffee pudding was sticky and toffee and pudding. Who could ask for more? Well, we could – espressos, a grappa and a Laphroaig as it happens. I stayed off the booze as I had one eye on the evening ahead, but when the biggest complaint of an entire meal is that the coffees arrived before the desserts, you generally know you’re on to a good thing. It almost feels churlish to mention it now, as if I’m berating the staff for being too efficient.

Coconut pannacotta, arancini & mango

The bill came to an astonishingly reasonable £100, and we threw an extra £15 on top for service as we had been very well taken care of. That’s the thing about Glasgow, as every comedian knows – it can take care of you in more ways than one, and I, for one, cannot wait to Stravaig it’s way again.


Apr 2012

The Quarrymans Arms, Box


Well here’s a thing. I love Bath. I went to school here and have nothing but fond memories of the place. That’s not entirely true. Like most people, I have all kinds of jumbled up and confused memories of the period marked 10-18, but, looking back, I can’t be anything but pleased by the place and the people I spent the eighties with. As if to prove this, after a lovely gig at The Bath Komedia, I ended up in Moles (where I spent most evenings in 1990) with old school friends and the rather lovely Rich Wilson, dancing around like a tit to Primal Scream and having an absurdly good time. I probably looked like someone’s dad behaving inappropriately at a wedding but do you know what? I really didn’t care, and that’s where all the best times are to be had.

According to Rich’s wife, India, we did rock up home rather later, and I have a dim recollection of him being very naked as we ate her cheese and gargled red wine, but as a result, I thought it was somewhat beholden on me to make amends with lunch the next day. Some of my dearest friends live in Box, about a ten minute drive outside of Bath, where they keep godkids I’m allowed to visit and spoil but thankfully don’t have to keep or pay for. They were away for the weekend, but have previously introduced me to The Quarrymans Arms, which is so hidden away that you really need to know where it is to know it’s there. But once you know, you know.

One man and his 'pie'

This place is a friendly gem. There’s a lovely patio/beer garden with a stunning view of the valley and a hugely warm welcome inside if it’s a little too chilly to fully appreciate those dark Avonic hills. Once inside, it feels like everyone is in on a secret. There’s a regular menu and lots of special Specials. We took the marvelous Karl Spain with us, who ruined everything by having baked beans with his Full English (now is not the time for that debate) but the rest of us opted for lunch, as opposed to further offending my Full English/baked bean sensibilities.

Rich and India went for another sensibility offending item – a chicken and ham pie that was basically a really good combination of those items in a creamy sauce with some pastry floating on it. I don’t mean to be overly picky, but that’s not a fucking pie is it? Define pie. OK. Encased in pastry. Done. It wasn’t a pie. It was, on the other hand, bloody lovely, as was my carrot and coriander soup with croutons. It was possibly the hottest soup I have ever had, and resolutely refused to cool down the entire time I was eating it, but that’s hardly a valid criticism is it?

Dover Sole with lime hollandaise

This was followed by Dover Sole with lime hollandaise and a little chilli. For £14.95. I know. If I’m going to be ultra critical I could say that it was possibly just a minute overdone, but luckily sole is hardy enough to cope and so was I. Life is tough sometimes isn’t it? It was delicious, as was the ridiculously indulgent Banoffee pie that turned up at the end to remind us all that heart conditions are clearly something that happen to other people.

And then we all trooped back into the car and back to Bath for another lovely evening at The Komedia. There may have been more dancing. It is genuinely one of my favourite venues in the world – I got caught smoking outside it in 1986 by my chemistry teacher when it was still the Beau Nash Cinema, but my relationship with it has seriously improved since then. If you want a lovely weekend, I cannot recommend it highly enough, and it is well worth digging out The Quarrymans Arms while you’re at it.


Apr 2012

The Masons Arms, Battersea


Even if I say so myself, I do a bloody good roast chicken. The secret is to cook it in plenty of stock under foil, which you remove for the last fifteen minutes to crisp up the skin, but which means the meat has been steamed as much as roasted, thus retaining its moisture, and providing a rather nice chickeny (which is a word) gravy with absolutely no effort whatsoever. I’ve messed about with it for my own amusement over the years, but the starting point was a recipe from the children’s author Georgia Byng which can be found here.

As a result, I very rarely order roast chicken, mainly because it is often a disappointment and I feel I can do it better at home. I also very rarely write a blog if my meal consists of one course eaten by myself and accompanied only by my paper on the basis that it would probably be quite dull and fairly unhelpful. Although regular readers might feel they’re already used to that.

However, having just returned from The Masons Arms, I decided to make an exception – I have eaten there many times, and the lunch I have just had seemed to me to be a fairly good barometer of what is available at an all round excellent ‘gastropub’ in the best sense of the word. The pub was providing good food and drink in Battersea for many years before I moved here (it’s almost as if my arrival in the area was not the most important thing that has ever happened to it,) and has just had a minor refurbishment. It is actually my nearest pub, although I don’t go in all that much as it is not the cheapest, and I spend so much time out and about in places where alcohol is available that when I have a night off, I’m quite keen on my sofa as opposed to yet another bar. Having said that, I did pop in a week or two ago for a mid-afternoon Guinness (because I can) and got chatting to the manager, Matt, about the refurb – which, in all fairness, does seem to consist mainly of making the kitchen slightly less open and getting Fullers to pay for some new windows. Having said that, there is some nice art of the local artist type on the walls, sofas, proper tables and chairs, occasional live music, a quiz and some genuinely friendly and helpful staff who strike just the right balance between being waiting and bar staff. They seem happy in their work, which is always the first step in making sure you’re happy to enjoy it too. All in all, a pretty perfect local.

Interior with rubiks cubes...

As summer seems to be doing its usual job of turning up in spring (and then buggering off again til autumn, I should imagine,) and I have to drive for a couple of hours for a show tonight, I thought I’d treat myself to lunch. There was much to enjoy on the menu, and I was sorely tempted by the salt and pepper squid, but in the end, I decided not to be greedy, and I also decided against red meat for the main course as I eat too much of it and apparently it’s going to give us all cancer. This is up there with all my other pan-flashing, teacup-storming health kicks in that I’m sure I will find myself happily sitting down to munch my way through a couple of packets of chilli biltong later, but in this case, it led to me ordering the half a corn-fed chicken. I had a very good cup of coffee and a pint of apple juice and soda water as I sat in the corner, right next to a radiator which pleasingly compensated for a day that was not quite as warm as it was pretending to be.

'Majestic' roast chicken

The chicken arrived with something of a flourish (I think the words were “the majestic roast chicken,”) but to be fair, this was spot on. A really tasty, and yes, chickeny, roast chicken, with properly crispy, herby (and indeed mustard seedy) skin and moist flesh, sitting on top of duck fat roast potatoes, carrots and parsnips, with a couple of different types of cabbage in a pool of very commendable gravy.  I am aware that the last three blogs have all been Sunday lunches, but there was so little wrong with this dish that I decided it was worth one all by itself, so here it is. The dessert menu was a little heavy, and as the health kick is extending to not absolutely stuffing my face on a regular basis, I decided to simply have another apple and soda and cry into the sports pages about Southampton’s 3-0 defeat to Blackpool yesterday instead. The bill came to £19.50 without service, and merely added to my opinion that I am very lucky to have such a great place so close, and that perhaps I’m not the only one who can do a roast chicken justice in SW11.


Apr 2012