Quo Vadis, London

 

So, we were meant to be going to Le Gavroche for lunch as it was my friend’s 30th birthday and the recession is clearly something that is only happening to other people – we had eaten there once before and were thoroughly looking forward to the rematch, if not the bill. Unfortunately, due to a combination of crossed wires and unbreakable commitments, we were unable to fulfill our booking and had to cancel our table (typing this last sentence has caused me actual pain.) As a result, it fell to me to find somewhere with at least a slight sense of occasion, if not the chance of Michel Roux Jr looming around a corner, and I remembered that my friend had mentioned how much she wanted to eat at Quo Vadis. With his politics apparently gathering devotees in these straitened times, what better venue than the building in which Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital?

Menu with added shadow puppet (photographer’s own)

My apologies for mentioning the economic climate twice in the opening paragraph, but two other considerations did factor in my thinking – firstly the chef at Quo Vadis is now Jeremy Lee, and secondly, he appears to have given the restaurant a good shaking down to almost universal praise, which also seems to have extended to a lowering of the prices, but not the standards.

I’m a big fan of Jeremy Lee. I can’t claim to have eaten his food before, but like so many people these days I get to feel I have through the medium of television, particularly Great British Menu, which I think I can now say has replaced Masterchef in my affections. This is mainly because it is slightly more exciting to see top chefs competing with each other than talented amateurs, but also because it’s slightly less ubiquitous (although passing The Square the other day, I did see they had Philip Howard’s ‘Tasting of Cornish Mackerel Great British Menu Winner 2012’ on the menu, so the rot has clearly begun.) Mr Lee has always impressed me by being admirably restrained and tasteful in his comments, but most of all I like the way that his campness seems to slightly freak out the other Scottish chefs, particularly Alan Murchison – who clearly cooks amazing food but always looks to me like he’s on the brink of a psychotic episode.

Mackerel, watercress & potato salad

I have walked past the imposing building a thousand times, and always thought to myself that I must go inside, or ‘beyond the great edifice’, as the website grandly puts it. Once there, they have managed to pull off the neat trick of formal informality – all linen and wild flowers rather than crystal, cutlery and ‘arrangements’. We were offered the opportunity to have a drink at the bar, but as I’m still not drinking until the end of the bloody Edinburgh Festival, we decided to go straight to our table. We were first to sit down, but what was interesting was how the room filled up almost to capacity through the course of our meal but with no real change to the atmosphere beyond the pleasant thrum of people enjoying being fed. This is a great room to eat in.

Lamb’s sweetbreads with almonds & peas

Continuing the theme of elegant simplicity, we were offered brown or white bread. Both were excellent. The menu offers a number of options on one pleasingly clear card – bites, oysters, a pie, a two or three course theatre menu and an à la carte. To start with I had squid, samphire and bean salad which was beautifully lifted with a little mint and parsley. The addition of breadcrumbs roasted in olive oil added a clever texture that transformed a very good starter into an excellent one. The mackerel, potato and watercress salad was another brilliant balancing act of fresh simplicity and both plates were returned pretty much licked clean. The mains were, it has to be said, a little small, but then we did decide not to order any side dishes, and it was only lunch, after all. I could not resist lamb’s sweetbreads with peas and almonds – the nuts coating the sweetbreads and doing a similar job to the breadcrumbs in my starter – delicious, although if I was to be ultra picky, the tiniest bit greasy on the outside and not the most elegant plate of food I’ve ever eaten. Lamb’s onglet was gorgeous – rich, tasty, and frankly lamby, with slightly charred asparagus setting it off perfectly.

Lamb onglet with asparagus

For dessert, there was an excellent cherry and almond tart that was moist and chewy yet with stunningly crumbly pastry, clotted cream and soused apricots. I couldn’t resist the St Emilion Au Chocolat, which I pretty much inhaled – promptly undoing all my good work on the alcohol front. I seriously would not advise driving after this pudding – added to which, a run might be a better idea as you could clearly use the exercise. This was pure calories, with a dollop of double cream on the side, just in case. Absolutely delicious, although (and I never thought I’d find myself writing this) possibly just a little too boozy even for me.

Cherry & almond tart

With an excellent glass of Italian house white (gavi) and sparkling water for me, our bill came to £68 including impeccable service. I know it’s not the done thing to disclose how much you paid for a birthday lunch, but I think it’s worth mentioning here as, for a special occasion, I think this represented fantastic value. Added to which, she got a present too, so she’s not allowed to complain. I’m sure this line has been used before, but if ‘Quo Vadis?’ means ‘Who goes there?’ then the answer is “Me please, again. As soon as possible. And not just for birthdays”.

 

July 2012

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The Alley Cafe, Nottingham

 

Sitting down to write this, I was pretty convinced that I’d spent yesterday as an accidental vegan, until I remembered that the bean and pea salad I had for breakfast came with a yoghurt dressing which dragged me a few steps back down the path towards animal cruelty. Many of you might be thinking that anyone who starts the day with a pea and bean salad deserves everything he gets, but breakfast wasn’t included with my hotel, and I had decided to turn the lack of choice at the local Tesco Express into a virtue before I realised I was compromising a lifestyle choice I hadn’t actually made.

I do have a sneaking admiration for vegans, mainly for their consistency, not to say bloody-mindedness, and probably above all for their patience. The stereotypical worthiness and what my father always insists on referring to as the ‘rope sandals and muesli’ element I can do without, but in my experience, most vegans are simply committed to something they believe in and don’t wish to appear hypocritical by shoveling down mung beans whilst wearing a parka made of baby goat. On the other hand, as I have said before, I do love meat, and I’m afraid I’m unlikely to give it up for anyone, no matter what their consistency.

Morally, I do feel this means I somewhat surrender the high ground. Why should something die, just because I’m hungry? Well, frankly, it shouldn’t, but if I want to get my protein fix, it inevitably does and I think it’s important to at least accept the reality of that, if not, in all probability, the responsibility.

I was in Nottingham for the weekend, appearing at The Glee Club with a reliably excellent bill that included one of my favourite comedians and Cutting Edge colleague, Roger Monkhouse. As I said when introducing him on Friday, if there was any justice in the world he would be a household name, but there isn’t, so he’s not. Also appearing was the quite new and therefore annoyingly impressive Micky Sharma, and the marvellous Michael Legge with whom I have worked many times and who once memorably described my stand up as “like watching Have I Got News For You, on Dave”, which is exactly the sort of comment I would normally get massively stroppy about if it wasn’t so funny. And accurate.

An angry vegan (This is what they’re all like)

Michael is hilarious company, and considerably more thoughtful about whom he offends than his infamous blog sometimes suggests. He is also, in his own words, ‘an angry vegan’, a subject about which he claims, completely falsely, to have no sense of humour whatsoever. When I asked him why he became a vegan, he replied with the words ‘Adam Bloom’, which is already quite an amusing answer even before you hear the explanation. Adam is a good friend and brilliant stand up, but when Michael saw him doing a routine that elicited cheers for calling vegetarians ‘self-righteous’, after twenty years as one, he decided, on the spot, that he wasn’t ‘doing enough’, and immediately became vegan. The fact that this happened at the Edinburgh Festival, where many people are living on offal deep fried in animal fats only adds to the comedy value of the story as far as I’m concerned.

I only discovered Michael was vegan when I suggested we went for lunch – I’ve already blogged about the rather good Waiting Room just outside Newcastle, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect another meat free meal to pop up on Food Ponce every now and then. Michael discovered the Alley Cat Cafe on the internet, which I imagine is an invaluable resource for vegans, (the Alley Cat is actually vegetarian but offers vegan options) and so we arranged to meet Adam Crow there – another comic, who was in town playing Jongleurs. It was, as you might expect, down an alley, just off the main square.

Passing a cheerfully painted wall outside, we went upstairs to order. The room itself was light, and quite wood beamy and casual, or, as Michael put it “this is what they’re all like”. We were cheerfully served from behind a bar with a very reasonable selection of beers, including the rather good Freedom lager, which I haven’t seen for a while. As I’m booze free at the moment I ordered a ginger beer and had a look at the fairly limited menu. That is not a criticism as such – they are clearly more cafe than restaurant, as evidenced by the large number of wraps, bagels and homemade cakes and biscuits on offer, but I wanted something a bit more substantial, so opted for the marinated tofu steak, as did Michael. Adam went for a cream cheese bagel and what turned out to be very good wedges as he’s “trying to be good” and “lose some weight”, which we all know is best achieved through the medium of bread, cheese and potatoes.

Marinated tofu ‘wodge’

We sat outside and waited for the rain to start falling as it’s June, but luckily our food arrived first. My main problem with my meal was the use of the word ‘steak’, because what arrived just wasn’t one. I guess ‘wodge’ doesn’t scan so well on a menu. What I did have though, was a big wodge of char-grilled tofu sitting on top of some very tasty root veg mash with a commendably rich and spicy red wine and tomato sauce, finished off with a few sunflower and sesame seeds. I must admit I’d be hard pressed to tell you much about the marinade, but the sauce, and the rather nice side salad made for a pretty good lunch, even if I felt the weak point was, inevitably, the tofu. It was at this point, as we’d run through the usual gamut of veggie jokes, that Michael pointed out that the one I’d just made, about how it would have been really good with some actual steak, was the one they all really hated.

The rain then inevitably arrived, so we nipped back inside for a very good cup of coffee. My meal had come to just over a tenner, which you really can’t argue with. By accident, my supper consisted of Tesco cous-cous which I’d picked up as part of a two for one offer with the earlier pea and bean salad, and I have to say I did feel rather good about myself and my intake for the day, although whether that was down to the health giving properties of what I ate or its smugness content is debatable.

Having said that, I had a thoroughly enjoyable lunch, partly down to the company, but also because of the food. I’m extremely unlikely to find myself turning vegan, or, if I’m honest, going out of my way to eat vegetarian all that often, but at the same time, I’m not going to criticize people who choose to consume a lot of pulses, just because they’ve decided not to eat something that used to have one. Which is a very good vegan joke, although I’m sure Michael will tell me it’s a very old one, which was probably heard on Dave, last year.

 

July 2012