Petek, London

IMG_2439When I first got together with my wife, she was living with Jimmy, a 6’2” motorbike-riding fireman, which some men might find quite intimidating. Luckily he was clearly more preoccupied with Smudge, his psychotic cat, and as one of the first things we did was stay up and watch the Oscars together, doing an Academy Awards Questionnaire that he had both compiled and photocopied, I was starting to wonder if perhaps it was not my wife who would have to resist his advances. That is emphatically not the case, however, and it turns out the main thing Jimmy wants from me these days is loft space (that is not a euphemism,) as he tries to make room in his flat in Finsbury Park for the new lady in his life.

IMG_2438All four of us agreed to meet up for dinner at nearby Petek, a Turkish place with décor teetering just on the tasteful side of kitsch. I could wax lyrical here over the pillowy slabs of delicious Turkish bread, homemade chilli tomato sauce and enormous lemony olives that arrived at the table before we had ordered far too much meze. I could also gripe slightly over the amount of time it all took to arrive, but then maybe that is the price you pay for over ordering in what is clearly a very popular local eatery. Added to which, the price we did pay – £25 each including service – would make that a slightly unreasonable gripe. There are better, cheaper and more atmospheric Turkish restaurants dotted along Stoke Newington High St, but it would be unfair to be overly critical of Petek because it really didn’t do much wrong.

IMG_2440There were a couple of glasses of wine, even if £7.95 seems a little stiff for a Rioja, excellent alcohol free cocktails, and some wonderfully comforting food. Turkish cooking manages to combine the freshness of herbs and citrus with pulses, dairy and plenty of stonking great proteins and their cooking juices. To quote John Bender from The Breakfast Club, ‘All the food groups are represented’. We ordered the set menu but added slightly disappointing lamb livers and some more prawns because it’s difficult to have too many prawns, even if our great-great grandchildren may well disagree with us. Particular highlights were a baby broad bean salad and toothsome little goat’s cheese parcels. All the usual suspects were present and correct, but with clever little lifts – pomegranate seeds on the halloumi, for instance, just to make things a bit more of an event, which is nice when that is essentially what you’re paying for. There was baba ganoush, hummus, sticky chicken patties, sausage and lamb shish that we gobbled at til we were almost too full to lick our fingers. The only real misstep was a falafel, but then I tend to find falafel a bit of a misstep in the first place.

Not much beats great food in pleasant surroundings with good company, and so I would give Petek a resounding thumbs up, which would make this one of the shorter blogs I’ve ever written, but then I have got you here on slightly false pretences.

IMG_2441After we got back from New York, (see previous post,) some of you may know my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, which is shit, frankly, and a lot of people have been very supportive. The prognosis is good and we are repeating all those positive mantras and one-day-at-a-timing our way through it. The reason I mention it is that the latest installment in the homoerotic adventures of Jimmy and Al sees us running a half-marathon next Sunday (15/03/15) in aid of Breakthrough Breast Cancer (along with my brother, Bruce.) Thanks to tear-inducing generosity from some quarters I have already passed my fundraising target of £5k, but I would like to raise more. If you have ever read any of these blogs and enjoyed them, or even if you haven’t, I would be thrilled if you could donate any amount, no matter how big or small, and prove those pedants wrong who believe it is impossible to give more than 100%.

My Just Giving page is here: www.justgiving.com/AlistairBarrie

Jimmy’s page is here: www.justgiving.com/big-jim-ryan/

And Bruce’s is here: www.justgiving.com/Bruce-McPoodledoodle/

In return I will promise never to end a blog on quite such a downer again, and you will have my undying gratitude. I also promise to make it over the finishing line without a fireman’s lift, as Jimmy’s given us quite enough of one by agreeing to do this in the first place. Thanks for stopping by, and many, many thanks in advance.

 

February 2015

New York

IMG_2118I love America. I really do. This sweeping generalization may come as something of a surprise to anyone who has seen my stand up over the past decade, but when you’re there the enthusiasm and energy of the place is mind blowing. As is the choice. America is all that is wrong with capitalism and everything that is so, so right.

A light breakfast

A light breakfast

Speaking of things being so, so right, I was lucky enough to marry someone pretty spectacular in December last year, and after a brief hiatus (because nothing says romance like putting your honeymoon on hold to perform at Jongleurs’ Christmas parties) we headed to New York, a city I have visited a few times, but never fallen for quite as hard as I did this time. We did the museums, Central Park, the Highline, the 9/11 memorial and I even got to gig with Louis CK, whose ringing endorsement of “Good job” after my set at The Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village will stay with me, even if it’s unlikely to form the basis of a long overdue critical re-appraisal of my work. And yes, you are right, I am the kind of dick who gigs on his honeymoon. And then blogs about it.

World Famous Cheesecake

World Famous Cheesecake

Where to begin? The first thing to get out of the way is the simple quantity of everything on offer, from options, to portion size to gratuity expectations to, inevitably, waistbands. Having slimmed and gymed down to ‘these photos are forever’ proportions for my wedding, I threw caution to the wind on honeymoon and as a result came back a stone heavier. A stone. I’m not going to make cheap jokes about American obesity, but what I will say is that it must take an iron will to live there permanently and not get fat. The hardest job in America is almost definitely being a bench, as evidenced by the photo at the top of the page, taken outside the Bronx Zoo.

I simply haven’t the time, and nor do I expect you have the inclination, to cover everything we ate, so this is in many ways a selection of highlights, and hopefully a couple of tips should you find yourself peckish in Manhattan*. We were staying in Chelsea for the first few nights, by which I mean the happily boho area on the West Side, not somewhere French people get racially abused on the subway. A useful recommendation to kick things off is Chelsea Market – home to a bewildering array of delis, bakeries, coffee shops and perhaps the best fishmonger I have ever been to in my life (‘The Lobster Place’ – what’s not to love?) where we got lobster (obvs) and herb crusted salmon for our Christmas lunch, because we could. Overall, it’s like a slightly smaller Borough Market, but with more on offer and a mildly less smug attitude – it feels like it’s there to sell amazing food rather than appear in Sunday supplements.

Steak and broccoli

Steak and broccoli

Our first real meal out was across the road from the market at the Old Homestead Steakhouse, which proved the adage that no one does steak like Americans. This was one of those classic dark wood paneled rooms where service was attentive and efficient and then someone brought you some oysters and then a beautifully cooked Porterhouse the size of your own head, the outside charred to perfection, the inside carnivorously crimson. As the meal progressed you could chat to the table next to you about how massive their portion of cow was while agreeing the scallops resting on top of it were possibly a protein too far. We had broccoli and spinach too – and although I’m sure Mr Atkins would have been proud of us, the arrival of their ‘World Famous’ (everything is ‘World Famous’ in NY) cheesecake meant that any pretence of ‘diet’ went straight out of the window. My wife reviewed dessert:

Crab toast

Crab toast

“This is the best cheesecake I have ever eaten.”

So I don’t think any more needs to be said on the subject. Not a cheap eat, but a definite recommendation.

As is this, albeit an obvious one: go to a diner. You will find one, almost immediately. Like all US restaurants, the one we breakfasted at on day two had a big sign informing you of what to do in the event of someone choking. Surely customers regularly choking in your restaurants is an indication that you are overfeeding them, but that didn’t stop us having pancakes, eggs, bacon, syrup, etc etc etc. I also had a hazelnut seltzer before my blood sugar could contemplate dipping below raging-child-on-Haribo-binge levels.

salted caramel ice cream sundae with candied peanuts and popcorn, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Oh. And her cookies

salted caramel ice cream sundae with candied peanuts and popcorn, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Oh. And her cookies

Crispo’s was a smart, arty and very popular Italian on the helpful list of local eateries our landlord left us. (Another tip – airbnb – stay in an apartment that is nicer than a hotel for less than staying in a hotel room that is smaller than an apartment.) The food was good but not exceptional – shishito/padron peppers were a little meh, scallops were great, pasta was pasta and crème brulee and chocolate pot simply fed the monster I was becoming. A great atmosphere, but, hey! This is New York – atmosphere is what they do.

By this stage we had developed an ordering system in a vain attempt at self-preservation – ordering one starter, two main courses and then attempting (and failing) to order one dessert. Of course we could just get the food ‘to go’ – at The Blue Note, the enormous man next to us took his wife’s barely nibbled cheeseburger with him. From a jazz club. Sometimes Americans are so massively uncool they become cool all over again. Although to me the restaurant plate remains a challenge to be defeated, not smuggled home via styrofoam.

Tuna spring roll

Tuna spring roll

Anyway, we failed hugely to stick to our ordering guidelines at our next destination, the achingly hip ABC Kitchen. We’d heard wonderful things, repeatedly, from my sister-in-law, and the difficulty we had getting a table seemed as good a thing as an irritation can be. We did manage to pick one starter – superb crab toast with lemon aioli (as it should be at $16) but then shamelessly ordered two more as part of the prix fixe menu. In mitigation the food here was noticeably healthier than elsewhere – I even had one of those green smoothies that taste like happy rust. Tuna sashimi was as exquisite as we’d been told it would be, bashing the taste buds around with ginger and mint, while a cauliflower soup was wholesome in the very best sense of the word. A Portobello mushroom will always make a good alternative burger and my chicken paillard was about as exciting as any chicken salad has the right to be. There is a slightly Stepford Wives arrangement whereby all the waiters wear their own checked shirts which I think was meant to be homely but I found creepy, not helped by the fact they topped up our water glasses after very sip. This is one of my pet hates, although apparently I should ‘just fucking get over it and let them do their job’ but then if you haven’t had at least one row it’s not a proper honeymoon, is it?

Seabass carpaccio

Seabass carpaccio

Anyway, all was forgiven with the arrival of her cookie plate and my salted caramel ice cream sundae with candied peanuts and popcorn, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. I’m not even going to bother telling you what that tasted like – just read it back and loosen your belt slightly as you do so. The bill came in at £75 excluding service, which almost made me want to strap on a lumberjack shirt myself, especially when the ‘suggested gratuity’ creeps up to 22% in some places, a sentence that obviously causes all right thinking English people to come out in hives.

If you really wanted poor service, you could always nip into Ping’s in Chinatown for Dim sum on Christmas Day, but I’m sure there are other places that will forget your order, bring half of it and then present you with a dumpling garnished with human hair. To be fair, the place was full of people who looked like they were having a good time, but that goes for most of Chinatown, and unless you have any special requirements or knowledge, I’d say pot luck is as good a way to go as any, and on another night Ping’s might be perfectly acceptable. Where else would a bald man get given hair for Christmas?

Lobster heaven

Lobster heaven

Every time I’m in New York my friend Brian and his wife take me and my wife (there was a different one last time, but this joke has been officially sanctioned by the present incumbent) to The Mercer Kitchen. This is owned by the same chap who brought the Chiltern Firehouse to London for all those of you who care less about food and much more about who’s eating it. I’m as celeb-idiotic as the next ‘Hello’ reader, but I can’t say going through the rigmarole of getting a table there has ever particularly appealed, especially when I have been looked after so fabulously at the NY outpost and can hardly wait to take my third wife there in a few years time, presumably quite soon after the second one has read this sentence.

Pavlovana

Pavlovana

The quality on offer in what is a high turnover operation remains exceptionally high. We were given plentiful space in the (almost) painfully stylish downstairs dining room and they catered superbly for Brian’s ten-year-old son Cooper without us even noticing. I ordered the same lime and seabass carpaccio I’d had a few years ago, and while it wasn’t quite as epochal as I remember, I have always described it as the best starter I’ve ever eaten, and memory has a nasty habit of building up expectations to unreasonable levels, which were thankfully met by my astonishing lobster main course. This was everything opulence should be whilst remaining strangely comforting and I may well consider making all my sauces with a chilli almond emulsion from now on. Further bells and whistles were reserved for my green apple pavlova with basil seed vinaigrette which looked every bit as exotic as it tasted. I think everyone else ordered food – gleaming tuna spring roll with a slick of soy bean puree, a burger for Cooper, a huge hunk of pork chop with some marvelous cheesy cereal going by the name of parmesan grits. There was perfectly cooked salmon steak with Brussel sprouts given ideas above their station by a truffle vinaigrette, skate, a sorbet or two – but I wasn’t really paying much attention from lobster pavlova heaven. A high point among high points, even if I have no idea how much it all cost as I was, delightfully, not allowed to pay for it.

imagesYou know when people say you must do something somewhere and you make a mental note to spend that portion of your holiday stabbing yourself in the eyes with a fork instead? Well, apologies for this, but you simply must go to Grand Central Station. The architecture is worth a look on its own, but the subterranean and rightly world famous oyster bar is better than any other I’ve been to. A manic flurry of activity offering everything from a simple plate of oysters on a marble bar top to the full sit down and stuff your face experience, this was perhaps my favourite place we visited. America often worries about its lack of history, indeed it is often noticeable how they try and establish traditions for the very reason they don’t feel they have enough of their own. But here, downstairs from a deli that would give the Harrods Food Hall a fair fight, is a tradition and a piece of history all rolled into one. There is a vast array of seafood on offer, much of it cooked in front of you and served by bustling staff of all ages, working in beautiful concert to produce an eating experience that is pure theatre. And if that sounds like hyperbole, don’t worry, as you can see, at least the logo is appalling. It looks like it was rejected as too garish by 1975’s least tasteful gay bar – my only thought is they’re trying to put people off but it hasn’t worked. My only disappointment was that we just popped in mid-afternoon for a plate of oysters. Next time I will be clearing most of the day.

Sandwiches of the Gods. And some quite crap chips and disappointing pickles.

Sandwiches of the Gods. And some quite crap chips and disappointing pickles.

If you want manic, of course, you are spoiled for choice in the Big Apple, and another destination that lived up to the hype was Katz’s Deli, home of the famous Meg Ryan orgasm and some of the most expensive sandwiches ($20 each) known to man. You’d think any place that gave you a ticket as you crowded in and then herded you like sheep towards one of twenty-odd sandwich cutters barking at you and each other could, quite frankly, sod off. And then they give you a piece of pastrami to nibble as they’re cutting some more pastrami for your pastrami on rye and you think, ‘This wouldn’t happen in M&S’. Then you fight another couple for a table that has been vacated approximately 0.02 seconds previously and then it’s a bit of a blur until you’re paying an exorbitant amount at a booth and suddenly you’re out on the street before you realize you have just had one of the quintessential New York experiences, and, far more importantly, one of the greatest sandwiches you have ever eaten. Next time I’m in Selfridges I’m going to head for their salt beef bar, The Brass Rail, order a large Reuben and laugh at how ridiculously civilized it is, all the while wishing it was Katz’s. I mean, you can’t even buy a proper pretzel on Oxford Street.

Mexican Jumping Prawn

Mexican Jumping Prawn

I would of course like to offer some contrast. The irate man godamming at the short-order cook messing up his eggs at an open kitchen where we ate breakfast by Battery Park one morning, a frankly crap hotdog on Broadway, but I would be clutching at straws. We did have one meal that was hilariously awful, but even that wasn’t actually bad. Next to our hotel (the highly recommended Soho Grand where we spoilt ourselves for the last couple of days) was a sushi restaurant where we thought we’d go and fill up on raw fish and edamame to do ourselves a little good. It was only once inside we realized it was, um…Mexican sushi, and, having been shown to a booth were far too British to recognize this for the stunningly awful idea it was and run away. There was a tuna sashimi guacamole thing, and some prawns in a batter clearly designed by the team behind Alien, but individually, they tasted fine. It was just the combination that was so achingly wrong, and as I found myself dipping mango nigri in soy sauce I realized I’d found that elusive dining experience – something so bad it’s good. I won’t be back for the food, but I may well be back for the comedy.

Mrs Ponce. And pretzel.

Mrs Ponce. And pretzel.

Of course, I may well be back for The Comedy if the Cellar will have me, and I never did get that selfie with Louis. Mexican sushi was final proof, if proof were needed, that if you offer this much choice, occasionally you will get it spectacularly wrong. But you are going to have a lot of fun finding out, because most of the time New York gets it so very right. If you’re ever asked if you want to be a part of it, there can be only one reply.

I do.

 

January 2015

*You should never find yourself peckish in Manhattan. There isn’t time.

 

Bistrot La Renaissance, Paris

2014-11-24 08.45.012014-11-24 16.21.56Stag nights are a relatively modern invention, and I have never quite got the hang of them. To my mind, the desire to have a night predominantly designed to get you so larruped you may go blind indicates you’re probably an idiot in your twenties, desperate in your thirties or just plain embarrassing in your forties. Which is, in many ways, how things should be, but the reason I have never wanted one is because, as I explained to numerous enquiries from well-intentioned friends in the run up to my wedding – “I talk to the pricks every weekend, I don’t want to be one of them.” Added to which, having had an alcohol free 2014, it seemed very unfair to drag people along to a gathering where the idea would be to get utterly trousered when I wasn’t going to join in. It would be like taking a virgin dogging – he’d probably rather not do it and everyone else would feel a bit uncomfortable watching.

2014-11-24 18.56.25So, when my best man asked me what I wanted to do, I just suggested we went for dinner. In Paris. Well why not? Hal Cruttenden’s done lots of telly recently, so he could afford it, and as we met at the Eurostar terminal it seemed abundantly clear that here were two straight men who could very much put the gay in Paree. This was a view enthusiastically endorsed by what appeared to be all of Facebook and everyone we’d ever met.

Foie Gras

Foie Gras

And we didn’t care. After the Gare du Nord we checked into our hotel and popped out for the obligatory croque monsieur and a spot of sight-seeing. We stopped for coffee and cake at the Café Tour Eiffel, a surprisingly quiet and classy little affair considering its location, though my opinion may have been swayed by a fellow customer complimenting my French, albeit probably for effort rather than grammatical precision. We didn’t go up the Eiffel Tower because Hal was worried he’d propose. Having discovered that Paris was much bigger than our map, we took a cab back to the hotel for a quick nap before the evening’s festivities because otherwise we might have got cross over dinner, which would have ruined everything.

Ribsteak, Pork

Ribsteak, Pork

In a vain attempt to man up a bit, we had bought tickets for the Moulin Rouge, because nothing says red-blooded men like nipples, apparently, and we had booked to see a lot of them, but first we had to eat. A flick through various guides had unearthed La Renaissance in the Rue Championnet, slightly off the beaten track, so we jumped in another cab as further experiments with the map had proved that our only abilities with it involved walking in the opposite direction to the one we wanted. Upon arrival, we discovered a restaurant bar for which the term shabby chic might have been invented, with people outside smoking slightly threateningly, for which I believe the term ‘Parisian’ has been coined. Once inside, things were relatively quiet, but one of the selling points of the place is the original 30’s décor, which goes a long way to explaining why Quentin Tarantino used it as a location for ‘Inglourious Basterds’, and why it was considerably cooler than its two latest customers. But the welcome from our waiter was very warm, the specials board was up and Blue Monday, The Message and Get It On came on the sound system in quick succession which only heightened the impression we were mildly over-dressed.

Mouellaux chocolat

Mouellaux chocolat

The food was pretty good, if not quite the gastronomic fireworks we might have expected from a five-star Time Out review. Two starters of excellent foie gras with a tea and bergamot jelly were very, very good, and got me quite excited for main course, but a pork filet mignon with a mushroom sauce was merely workmanlike. Adding walnut to the accompanying polenta jazzed it up a bit, but it’s still polenta, and I’m never quite convinced. A ribsteak with potatoes, onion and red wine sauce was similarly acceptable, while a ‘moellaux chocolat, crème anglaise au café’ was a slightly disappointing fondant in a rather thin sauce. Having said that, the service was excellent, the ambience very Parisian, and we obviously did a lot of staring into one another’s eyes.

No caption required

No caption required

We even nipped outside to the smoking area for a couple of Romeo y Julietas I’d bought with me for added stagness, and even if we got the distinct feeling it was more a Gitanes than cigar establishment, I could easily see myself returning for a bohemian afternoon of liver failure when I’m back on the absinthe. On this occasion, however, we paid the extremely reasonable bill and set off down the street to the Moulin Rouge in completely the wrong direction, puffing at our cigars like a right pair of numpties.

2014-11-24 23.11.50The Moulin Rouge did nothing whatsoever for our heterosexual credentials, being quite the campest thing I have ever seen. I’m very glad I went, even if I’m not sure that nipples, feathers, roller skates, nipples, Shetland ponies, 80s pop videos, snakes, nipples, sequins, juggling, dodgy ventriloquism, nipples and seating that might have upset a battery hen are entirely my thing. Well worth a visit, but perhaps, in the culturally sensitive words of ‘Allo ‘Allo – “only wernce.”

Café gourmand

Café gourmand

A nightcap (of ice cream, party people) later, and it was another cab back to the hotel in crazytown. A leisurely breakfast of coffee, croissants and the usual in-depth discussion about Hal’s career followed the next morning before we headed back to the station. Our train wasn’t til mid-afternoon, but this gave us ample time to enjoy a superb lunch at Terminus Nord, the quite brilliant brasserie I wrote about last time I was in Paris. This is one of my favourite places on the planet, and as I polished off soupe à l’oignon, a very punchy steak tartare and a suitably calorific café gourmand for dessert, I reflected that it is also perhaps one of the best located. No matter what has happened to you in Paris, you can always stop here on the way out and all will be well with the world.

Le Fin

Le Fin

Luckily, I had already had a marvelous time, for which I must give full and heartfelt thanks to Mr Cruttenden. We may not have been the best stags, but we made a couple of very convincing dears.

 

November 2014

Corrigan’s, Mayfair

2014-10-20 12.40.212014-10-20 12.33.48Well this is all getting very tedious. As anyone who knows anything about reading or writing reviews will tell you, the bad ones are the best. Looking back at my past few blogs, I’ve been on a bit of a winning streak recently. What I need, and I imagine would be preferable to read about, is an absolute stinker of a meal, served in a rusty bucket by a filth-taloned gorilla with poor social skills and a personal aroma masked only by the stench from an open sewer masquerading as a kitchen.

Kale

Kale

What we’ve got is Corrigan’s, which is about as perfect a restaurant experience as one could wish for. One of the great pleasures of writing this a couple of weeks after the event is that I get to relive the experience – taste is the sense most closely connected to memory and just looking at the pictures is causing me to salivate. However, I am writing this on a plane back from a gig in the Middle East, so you’ll be glad to hear that any residual taste memory is about to be wiped out by the imminent in-flight meal. I would have written this sooner, but I’ve spent the last two weeks (when I haven’t been on the road) demolishing and re-building two bathrooms with my father-in-law, which is time-consuming but ultimately rewarding hard work, and very difficult to interrupt with the words ‘Excuse me but I’m just nipping off to write a quick restaurant review’. I could have written a DIY blog, but I think we can all agree that ‘Bathroom Ponce’ has a rather unpleasant ring to it, so to speak.

Crab

Crab

So, two weeks ago my better half surprised me on my birthday by taking me to a restaurant for lunch. This in itself is not a surprise, but the destination is. Last year was Tom Kerridge’s rather marvelous Hand and Flowers, this year the turn of another Great British Menu champ and all round foodie demi-god (to those that care about such things,) Richard Corrigan. I have eaten in Bentley’s, his Picadilly seafood restaurant, a couple of times, and thoroughly enjoyed, if not quite loved it. I also visited his former flagship, Lindsay House, but this was, to quote Tina Turner for no reason whatsoever, simply the best.

Terrine

Terrine

 

Beef

Beef

I loved the room for a start – someone has managed to design a restaurant that looks chic, classic, modern and yet slightly old-fashioned all at the same time. You try finding a shade of blue that tasteful for your leather banquettes. Service was more or less impeccable – they stopped pouring water every time we took a sip almost immediately when asked, there were profound apologies about getting our (very good) cocktails the wrong way round, and most importantly the staff gave the impression of being complicit in a special occasion, which for us it was, even if it was clearly less so for a number of diners waving some fairly hefty expenses claims around nearby.

John Dory

John Dory

Lamb

Lamb

We opted for the tasting menu, which is not cheap at £75 a head, but still represents excellent value, even if we did start with kale on toast. Actually, we didn’t – first we got flowerpot bread which was rendered charming rather than twee by the simple expedient of being great bread, and a couple of amuse bouches – individual mouthfuls of wild mushroom vol-au-vents and a quite incredible goat’s cheese stuffed battered olive, which remains my partner’s high point of the meal. That is not to do down the rest of the meal. That is to say it was a pretty spectacular olive.

Grouse

Grouse

Then came the kale, and all was well with the world. Apparently bought all the way from Corrigan’s estate in Ireland (you mean you don’t have one? What have you been doing with your life…) this set the tone – simplicity and refinement in one perfect plate. A crab dish was elegance personified, but not afraid of a proper chilli kick that ensured all parts of the dish spoke for themselves and each other. Farmhouse terrine was about as rustic as you could get away with in fine dining terms, and it was this balancing act that propelled the meal to such dizzying heights. Proper, hearty ingredients – John Dory, braised short rib of beef, grouse, all treated with complete respect, but also amazing ingenuity – a half-bone of marrow and an indescribably good spinach puree with the beef, for instance, but cockles too. A few ribbons of pickled courgette with the terrine. I’m not going to list everything, but this was pretty much all you’d ever hoped for when being fed by Richard Corrigan. Hell, they even threw in a free dish – rolled lamb neck on a risotto spiked with endive and shots of coriander – and again, an unexpected touch, slices of pear on top that wouldn’t have been missed, but were so much more appreciated for being there.

Chocolate cream

Chocolate cream

Dessert was just spectacular. Well, a chocolate cream was merely very, very good, but even at this distance, thoughts of my prune and armangac soufflé almost bring a tear to the eye. This was one of those desserts that was almost like falling in love. In fact, from the moment a perfect custard was poured into it from a silver jug, it wasn’t like falling in love at all, it was the real thing.

OMFG

OMFG

Double espressos and macaroons bought on an oven tray finished things off with both class and a homeliness that hit all the right notes, and completed a lunch I may now be looking back on with a rose-tinted glow, but one that seems thoroughly deserved. It wasn’t cheap, but then special treats shouldn’t be, and anyway, I wasn’t paying. The temptation to add a smiley face here is almost overwhelming. It was still considerably better value than most other high end establishments I have visited, and they also do a two and three course lunch menu that hovers below thirty quid which I would urge you to check out immediately, should you find yourself at a loose end with a desire to splurge a little extra cash in Mayfair, as you do. Go on. It’s almost Christmas.

2014-10-20 14.49.38So. If you want a bad write-up, I’m afraid this time you’ll have to look elsewhere. I couldn’t recommend Corrigan’s highly enough – especially if you’re after a restaurant that really lives up to the idea of being a destination in itself. I can’t buy a bad meal right now – after paragraph 2 I paused for Gulf Air’s tandoori chicken and rice and it genuinely tasted nice. Either my tastebuds have been dulled by brick dust, or I’m due a fall. When the bad meal comes, as it inevitably will, it’s going to be a long way down in every sense.

 

November 2014

The Empress, London

2014-09-17 18.36.20I like dogs. I love my dog. I also enjoyed the painting of two dogs catching a frisbee on the wall of The Empress in a corner of Hackney that has come a very long way since I first encountered it in the nineties. What I didn’t like was the incredibly loud actual dog barking away at the bar when I arrived to meet my partner at a pub/restaurant I had otherwise heard rave reports about. However, as it was pretty much the only thing I didn’t like about the place, I’m going to mark it down as contrast and consider it ‘local colour’. And anyway, even its owner got the hint and took it away after fifteen minutes, thus leaving me almost nothing to complain about whatsoever, which is probably my only complaint.

Whitebait & Padron peppers

Whitebait & Padron peppers

There really aren’t many things better than catching up with old friends over good food. This small enclave of bars and restaurants is a delightful slice of what gentrification can mean if you are an unrepentant ponce like me, and while I may not be able to afford one of the big Victorian houses that have shot up giddily in value around the corner, I could very easily afford The Empress, which further improved the experience.

The fact we didn’t quite order all the menu is probably as good a reason as any to come back, but we did consider it. Our friends have eaten here countless times and it was easy to understand why. We started off with some starters pretending to be bar snacks – whitebait plump enough to merit an upgrade in status to fish without chips, and Padron peppers that fizzed in the mouth with saltiness, juiciness and chilli heat. Padron colliders, if you will (no, YOU shut up.) The pork rillettes were simply the best I’ve ever eaten and I have eaten a lot of pork rillettes.

Cured salmon & beetroot

Cured salmon & beetroot

While you could go starter/main course/dessert, it seemed more fun, not to mention sociable, to order lots of small plates and share them around, which left me with that pleasing sensation of being unsure of my favourite and changing my mind each time I changed dish. The freshness of the sardines were espoused with a kind of evangelical zeal by our waitress who had that slightly forbidding air of someone who was more likely to bellow ‘EAT!’ at you than quietly guide you round the menu, and with food like this she was well within her rights to behave however she wanted. Bitter endive, olives and a kind of harissa houmous punched the sardines up a notch, providing a completely different seafood hit to the mellower herbal tones of diced cured salmon, fragrant with cucumber, beetroot and dill. Raw beef was chewy but tender with chilli, sesame, lime and an oriental opulence I’m sure I’ll try and fail to reproduce at home, while crispy lamb breast with anchovy and rosemary was just a big fat smack on the lips. From someone you very much wanted to smack you on the lips, I hasten to add.

Snails

Snails

I like snails, although I sometimes wonder why, if we wanted to eat them that badly, we always insist on marooning them in so much garlic butter they taste of nothing else. And I must admit, even in the finest French brasserie the panicked thought, ‘You’re eating fucking snails’ can catch me unawares, but now I think I may have found the perfect version. Served in half a shin bone with the marrow and the most moppable sauce in existence, they were tender, tasty, elegant, luxurious and pass me the thesaurus. As my friend Simon wondered aloud, ‘How do you get onions like that?’ I think the answer is butter and very slow cooking, but I bet mine wouldn’t turn out like that. And that is one of the beauties of this place – as with the beef, you feel you could rustle a lot of it up at home with the right ingredients and a well-thumbed copy of the correct cookbook. You are of course fooling yourself utterly, but that’s half the fun.

Vanilla pannacotta

Vanilla pannacotta

Dessert proved the point rather nicely by turning up sneakily as if to say, ‘Well, you couldn’t do this, could you?’ – a vanilla pannacotta with exemplary wobble, greengages and a scattering of hazelnuts, and a quenelle of frankly thrilling chocolate mousse had me seriously considering ordering a second dessert, as apparently the one I edged my spoon towards wasn’t mine to approach twice.

By this time the thoroughly handsome dining room had filled up to near capacity, which is good to see on a Wednesday night, and I imagine many of them were tucking into guinea fowl, goat or another of the proper main courses I now want to go back and try. Even though we weren’t drinking, a bill of £95 for the four of us, including service I would happily call ‘confident,’ meant we were beautifully looked after in every department. At this rate, who knows what this corner of Victoria Park will resemble in another twenty years’ time – Nirvana or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, quite possibly – but if I were you, I’d take the opportunity to visit right now.

 

October 2014

Season Kitchen & Dining Room, London

 

2014-08-27 19.16.21Now that hipster beards are a thing and therefore soon to be a thing of the past – surely nothing can spell the end of a trend like melting your Baked Alaska on Great British Bake Off – I imagine Shoreditch will have to find another way of displaying rampant twattery. They might want to look a mile or two up the road to Finsbury Park if they want to find out how to be achingly trendy without everyone wanting to punch them in their (freshly shaved) faces.

Duck egg salad

Duck egg salad

The reason I begin with this frankly unwarranted diatribe against the graphic design community is because as I walked in to Season, ten minutes before everyone else arrived, I experienced the very strange sensation of feeling as though I’d just arrived somewhere incredibly hip but which, unusually, had managed to pull off the sensation of being incredibly cosy and welcoming at the same time. The dining room itself has the feel of an old thrift shop designed with exquisitely shabby taste that leaves you cooing over the old school chairs right up until you see the price tag on them. There is a simple secret to pulling this off beyond good taste in interior design, and that is giving a shit about what you’re doing, and on that level Season scores very highly indeed. Even the (one) misstep seemed to be born out of trying to do things well and that is an approach only to be applauded.

Porno courgettes

Porno courgettes

I was shown to a round corner table, which as the waiter (too young for a beard but you could see it was itching to grow) pointed out, was a better option than the one he had originally earmarked for us in the middle of the room. I sat down with some fizzy water and complimentary bright green olives to wait for everyone else and read the tracing paper menus. Tracing paper menus are just the sort of affectation that might annoy me elsewhere, but here seemed rather quaint and redolent of the sort of schooldays that no one outside the cabinet ever really experienced. There was also a smaller menu on the table concerning their wine pricing. I’m having a year off booze which I’m pompously enjoying, but this was one of those times that tested my resolve. A blanket mark up across the board (as opposed to a percentage per bottle) means that they were offering, for instance, a Chablis Grand Cru that sells at The Dorchester for £162 at £42. I bit my lip, patted my smug liver and poured myself another glass of fizzy water.

Wild rabbit salad

Wild rabbit salad

My brother, girlfriend and better half arrived in quick succession – as did some more free olives (I like this place) and we got to grips with the menu. There is a certain amount of waffle about how the name of the restaurant reflects their philosophy, which I always feel is a bit unnecessary – we live in a globalised world, and blathering about local/seasonal/organics can get a bit wearisome and uninformed in places. What I really want a menu to tell me is that we have these things that we have made into this and it’s really good. Luckily almost all of it was. Really good.

Stoked salmon

Stoked salmon

Having polished off a Camden Pale Ale in no time at all, my brother ordered the house cocktail – or ‘Season Restorative’ made with Kamm & Sons Ginseng spirit which is exactly the sort of thing you would only have in a restaurant and why going to restaurants is fun. I wasn’t even (particularly) jealous of him – possibly because at this point we were all tucking into what he confidently described as ‘the best soda bread I’ve ever eaten’, and he wasn’t wrong. It was like cake. Good cake.

Sea Trout

Sea Trout

Wild leaf salad with duck egg was fabulous – spiky sorrel and mugwort (yes, we asked) soothed by the richness of the egg, while Stoke Newington smoked salmon (apparently smoked by a man with a huge beard, fact fans) was firm, meaty and beautifully paired with diced peach and melon jelly. Courgette flowers were ridiculously phallic, and what happened when you cut into them was frankly porngraphic, but a crisp batter and the cream cheese filling meant they were as tasty as they were rude and amusing. The only disappointment was my wild rabbit, fennel and orange salad. I applaud the effort, but the cold rabbit was just too dry and was really the only thing we ate that didn’t feel worthy of its place on the menu. Still – the exception that proves the rule and all that.

Doughnuts

Doughnuts

Bavette steaks were chunky red slabs of meat with a big slapping hit of chimichurri slathered all over the accompanying cherry tomatoes, while sea trout was a serious hunk of expertly cooked fish with clams lightly poached in the broth and iron rich sea vegetables floating alongside. There were good chips, new potatoes and a ‘Growing Communities’ salad that was disarming in its brilliance. As my other half pointed out, it’s quite something when the most amazing thing on a table groaning under the weight of this much food is a green salad, but I guess that just proves what a dick I am for moaning about the menu banging on about its seasonality.

Lemon tart

Lemon tart

I’m still annoyed I didn’t have the bitter chocolate pot for dessert, mainly because we had already ordered one lemon tart, but I had another and it was faultless. I just wanted to try the chocolate. Rhubarb and custard doughnuts were five balls of sugary indulgence, if not quite the revelation I was hoping for, but that is splitting hairs. They were still bloody good. All told the bill (with a couple of glasses of house red and white) came in at roughly the same price as a bottle of Chablis Grand Cru at The Dorchester, and I know where I’d rather be. Since moving out to Hertford, I come through Finsbury Park a lot, so I’m sure I’ll return – I need to try that chocolate pot for a start. Like fashions, seasons may come and go, but this Season is clearly rooted in a very good place, and hopefully here for the long term. A bit like my beard.

 

September 2014

Mr Cooper’s House & Garden, Manchester

 

 

Fake Plastic Tree...

Fake Plastic Tree…

Simon Rogan occupies a deified position in the British culinary hierarchy. His Cumbrian restaurant L’Enclume is spoken of in deeply reverential tones, (and almost had a bigger part in ‘The Trip’ than Messrs Coogan and Brydon,) a pop-up in London a while back had everyone salivating, and all he has to do is burn a piece of lettuce on Great British Menu and Prue Leith at al start losing their shit. I’m not even being facetious – everybody loved the burnt lettuce so much I wanted to eat it too. I missed the recent TV show about him and Aiden Byrne setting up competing fine dining restaurants in Manchester, because sometimes life is too short, but like most people I tend to agree that while Manchester has a lot of dining, not much of it is all that fine. I can’t comment on Manchester House, although I have heard the dread phrase ‘Footballers’ Wives’ bandied about by my friend in the north who knows about these things. However, I did try and get a late table at Mr Rogan’s The French. Having seen some of the reviews, my failure, a mere three hours before I wanted to eat there on a bank holiday Saturday, was completely understandable, but having seen the prices, also something of a relief. I have no problem spending foolish amounts on food, but it’s usually a good thing when circumstances conspire to prevent me doing so. Luckily, his second, more bistro-ish venture in the Midland Hotel, Mr Cooper’s, did have space (rather a lot of it in fact) and so I trotted along the 100 metres from my hotel with my paper and my expectations.

Eel & porkbelly torte

Eel & porkbelly torte

I really wanted to be impressed. I know the man whose name is above the door is unlikely to be behind the stove, but that didn’t stop me hoping for some of that burnt lettuce action, and…well, I guess you should read on if you want to know.

It was a combination of small things that led to what can only be described as my disappointment. I don’t mind that they didn’t have my reservation, and the staff were unstintingly pleasant throughout, although there did seem to be a lot of them for a pretty sparsely attended restaurant slap bang in the middle of gay pride. Far be it from me to stereotype, but I would have thought a room that seems to have been designed as a partial homage to B&Q garden showrooms would have appealed to the more kitsch elements floating past outside. I didn’t mind that the seat I was on still had breadcrumbs scattered on it, even if it was the only bread I was going to come across until I accidentally inhaled the topping of my cauliflower cheese. A slightly bent knife is never going to worry anyone untowardly, but as everything began to add up, I just got a sense that this wasn’t going to be the hit I had hoped for.

The menu gave me hope. A good ten starters and main courses that all intrigued on various levels were neither cheap nor outrageously priced. My starter of smoked eel torte with lovage and pork belly was a thoroughly elegant plate of food and even appeared with a little gem lettuce, even if it wasn’t remotely burnt. I thought smoky, oily eel and unctuous pork belly would be a winning combination, but buried under an almost Dairylea topping on an oatmeal base, what I ended up with was a slightly confused cheesecake. Now I like all of those things, and I can’t say it was unpleasant. It did make me think for quite a while, but unfortunately my final thought was ‘I’m not sure why they bothered’.

Halibut

Halibut

I did not have to wait too long for my main course, although it was just long enough to notice I’d been waiting, and there’s few things as annoying as waiting an extra couple of minutes to receive a piece of fish that is a couple of minutes over-cooked. I did mention this to my waitress who immediately offered to replace it, but it was nowhere near bad enough to send back, and not quite good enough to be happy with. It just seemed a bit unfair on the fish, and me, when I was already contending with the fact that ‘new potatoes’ meant ‘a new potato, sliced’. As the fish came with a very pleasant gratin sauce rich with peas, edamame and pistachio, the side of cauliflower cheese was probably overkill, but actually, lacked seasoning and the requisite cheesy oomph. The breadcrumb topping was lovely though, which I was just noting down when I breathed some of it in and spent the next two minutes choking attractively while my eyes streamed. This did at least mean I didn’t have to spend any longer looking at the big plastic tree in the middle of the room and again, wonder why they’d bothered.

Dessert was much more like it. I was told that the carrot and olive oil cake was a little dry (why have it on the menu then?) but the chilled lemongrass soup was highly, and rightly, recommended. An ice cream and coconut sorbet arrived with small pieces of melon, a glassy green tea wafer and baby mint leaves, and the soup was poured over (not by me I hasten to add, and I’m sure there was a drop left in the jug,) but it was exactly the kind of treat I’d been hoping for – delicate Asian flavours scrubbing the palate clean. My only criticism was the mint leaves, which tasted fantastic but made for a slightly unpleasant texture – perhaps shredding them might have made a quietly beautiful dessert perfect.

Chilled lemongrass soup

Chilled lemongrass soup

An excellent cappuccino rounded things off nicely, but also gave me pause for thought. If they could do something like the end of the meal so well, one has to wonder about the rest of it, and I’m afraid it does rather look as if Manchester is voting with its feet. Many of them are clearly heading towards The French and I for one am still very much up for the hike to L’Enclume, but at £45 for a booze free lunch with a non-optional (albeit thoroughly deserved) service charge tacked on, I suspect that Mr Cooper may be walking towards his own High Noon, which is a shame, because with a few tweaks I really get the feeling he could come out fighting.

 

August 2014

France

 

2014-06-08 22.19.23All of it, obviously. Step aside Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and all you Rouxs, Food Ponce has Les Bleus covered. Except for Paris, which I’ve already written about definitively having spent four days there in 2011. Come to think of it, I think I used the same joke then (I just checked – I did,) and like a politician’s punchline it doesn’t get any funnier with repetition.

I have, however, just driven through what feels like most of France. Twice. In a slightly hare-brained scheme to mark my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary, my brother and I joined them with our partners at a cottage in the South of France where we used to holiday in the eighties. If you think you’ve heard of La Rochette, you haven’t. Not this one. I would say it has a population of around 60, but why bother when the internet tells you it’s exactly 57? Anywhere with a population small enough to be counted that accurately has to be pretty remote, and it is. I don’t know if the intervening 25 years had lent a rose-tinted glow to the journey, but as we closed in on our destination after two solid days of driving, the looks I was starting to receive from my passenger were less those of someone enjoying their holiday, more a combination of cramp, disbelief and hours of accumulated worry that the dog might lose control of its bodily functions in her lap.

Oeufs en Meurette

Oeufs en Meurette

La Rochette is located up some very bendy roads about an hour north of Nice, and a fucking long way from Calais, if you’ll excuse my French, which I think you’re going to have to. The nearest town of any note is Puget-Théniers, but it would be a very small note. If you should find yourself wandering around there at any point, which you won’t, Café Math does a very reasonably priced set menu lunch (€13.50) served by a young waitress who admirably took her inability to understand my pronunciation of ‘Perrier’ about as far as was credible. Next door to the station (which you’ll probably find yourself visiting relatively quickly,) L’Oustalet does excellent bruschettas and ice creams, and reasonably good steaks, all of which seemed to be cooked slightly differently from how they’d been ordered. It’s not a bad town, just not a particularly exciting one, but then it doesn’t need to be, as it’s in the South of France, which is quite enough for a town to be smug about as far as I’m concerned.

2014-06-07 20.53.24We had a lovely holiday, but somewhat chastened by the drive down, we decided to make the journey back even longer. This was a much better idea than it sounds as it allowed us to travel at a more leisurely pace on prettier roads, enjoy a couple of nights of moderately good hotel living and make sure we still had time to circle Lyons a couple of times before we got over-excited by too much traveling in the right direction. Our first stop was Mâcon, and as someone who has stayed in a lot of hotels over the years, I was pleasantly surprised by the Ibis Styles, mainly because I’m someone who’s stayed in a lot of unstylish Ibises over the years. This one even had a swimming pool which was just what I felt like after the drive, and then we headed down to the banks of the Saône and Le Lamartaine for dinner. This is one of three fairly similar looking restaurants in a row in what could easily be described as a tourist trap, but then three similar bistros in a row in France does not fill one with the same trepidation as it might in, say, Hastings, which we passed through on our way to the Channel Tunnel and, a thousand years later, still appears to be crying out to be invaded.

Cancoillotte, saucisse etc...

Cancoillotte, saucisse etc…

We picked Le Lamartine for no particularly good reason beyond a smart exterior and a pleasing menu of French and regional (i.e. Bourgogne) classics which I was very happy to get to grips with. I did want to try andouillettes, the famed sausage that Jay Rayner once described as being ‘made from the business end of a pig’s intestine’, but firstly I wasn’t feeling brave enough and secondly I still have flashbacks to the tête de veau incident, especially as it was on the menu here, eyeing me balefully. That did not, you’ll be glad to hear, prevent me being adventurous and trying something different, as I like to see it, or ordering by guesswork and being an idiot as my girlfriend calls it. She sensibly opted for faultless snails and a nicely cooked fillet of dorade, which couldn’t have been more French if it had tried to sleep with her. Not me though, not when Oeufs en Meurette were available. What are Oeufs en Meurette you may well ask? As did a French friend when I got home, which should tell you something. I thought I’d take a punt – I mean, I like eggs, what the hell could they do to them? What they can do to three of them, it turns out, is poach them and serve them on croutons in a sort of beefy meaty stocky soupy winey kind of a thing that had a slight Worcestershire sauce style kick about it and was probably used by the French to wipe out hangovers after the Hundred Years War, but was not unpleasant for all that.

Beef carpaccio

Beef carpaccio

I should have opted for safety with my main course, but enquiries unearthed a sausage dish with some sort of fromage that had the waitress waving her hand under her nose in the international sign for ‘whiffy’. If I wasn’t going to have andouillettes, I could have these. What in fact arrived was a large plate of rounds of garlic sausage on sauté potatoes, a jug of quite thin and relatively un-whiffy cheese (cancoillotte) sauce and a token tomato and lettuce salad hidden under a mound of bacon lardons. Basically a heart attack on a plate. It was solid comfort food, but not terribly exciting, and my other half summed it up best when she pointed out that I had ordered quite an expensive Full English Breakfast over two courses. Dessert was a good couple of boules of ice cream (I ate a lot of ice cream on this trip) and a very reasonable bill of just over €70 (excluding service) left us happy, if not as happy as I’d have like to have been.

Soupe à l'oignon

Soupe à l’oignon

The next day saw us arriving in Reims, which the French pronounce as if they were doing a very quick bout of heavy lifting. We checked into another Ibis Styles (no pool this time) and headed into town. I had not been to Reims before and it is stunning – the trip to the Cathedral worth the entire trip on its own. The main restaurant area from Place Drouet d’Erlon is a dizzying boulevard of choice with everything from the high end (and full) Café Flo at one end to pizzas and Mexican and Irish pubs and everything in between. There was plenty of opportunity for catastrophic misjudgement here, but luckily we chose well in Le Grand Café, and left the catastrophic misjudgement to the fashion faux pas of the passers by.

[Seriously, I have never seen so much appalling taste or badly contained flesh on display. Hookers from central casting would be well within their rights to claim a lot of it was a bit much, and at one point I considered sticking forks in my eyes so I didn’t have to see anymore. How much this was tourists and how much locals I don’t know, but if France is the land of elegance and style, then truly Reims is its (sorry about this) Waterloo.]

Moules Provençal

Moules Provençal

All of which ran counter to every other impression I had of the city. Le Grand Café was that unusual beast, a very busy tourist restaurant that managed to be both an authentic destination and yet feel strangely intimate. Our waiter was superb – helpful, efficient and tactfully switching between English and my dreadful French without a hint of superiority, in stark contrast to the stereotype I shamelessly perpetuated earlier. My better (at ordering) half started with an exemplary beef carpaccio, pepped up with raw mushrooms, artichoke hearts and capers and followed this with a generous portion of moules Provençale, a house speciality. She also ordered me to ‘order something that you know, and like’ which seemed a reasonable request from someone who has recently grown a little weary of eating across the table from a truculent schoolboy with the wrong sweets.

One good thing to come out of Brasilia

One good thing to come out of Brasilia

In light of that I kept it simple, for which I will be truly grateful. My soupe à l’oignon was faultless – a thoroughbred of the genre. A deeply rich broth packed with onions and possibly the largest crouton I’ve ever encountered, slathered with melted gruyere, was close to perfection. A sole with melted butter was delicious, if not exactly oversized, and the vegetables weren’t going to win any awards, but then vegetables rarely do. My dessert was such a brilliant idea – a trio of crème brûlées – I can’t believe I haven’t come across it before. Strawberry, vanilla and (the winner) caramel were exercises in sugary pleasure, and I only had to run a half marathon, visit a cardiologist and employ two dentists afterwards to nullify the side-effects. My other half had a Brasilia, which is neither a disappointing World Cup campaign nor a waxing (you’ll be delighted to hear,) but yet another chantilly topped ice cream delight of coffee, vanilla and meringue with which she professed herself blissfully happy. We sauntered off down the boulevard (one must always saunter down a boulevard) thoroughly pleased with ourselves, Le Grand Café and a bill of €82.

*claps*

*claps*

If you are ever approaching Calais, I could definitely recommend giving Saint-Omer a miss for lunch, especially when you need the time to get lost in the search for an hypermarché before crossing the Channel. Not nearly as much as I could recommend not adding another hour and a half to your journey home trying to avoid running out of petrol on the M20 and then turning the wrong way on the M11. If the last leg of our trip was farcical, it was probably in keeping with much of what I shall now charitably deem ‘a driving holiday’ but that didn’t stop us enjoying ourselves, or reminding us that when it comes to stopping randomly for dinner, there is a reason the Michelin guide was created in France, while on this side of the Channel, our tyre manufacturers were tediously manufacturing tyres.

 

June 2014

 

 

Boqueria & Capitan Corelli’s – A Tale of Two Batterseas

 

2014-05-01 15.12.29 Apparently, a new ‘mortgage questionnaire’ has recently been introduced by the powers that be to make the unalloyed pleasure of purchasing a house an even greater joy. I imagine Question 1 is something along the lines of,

‘Would you like to live in London?’

If the answer is ‘yes’ you are immediately denied a mortgage while they arrange for you to be openly mocked in the nearest public space that hasn’t been sold to amoral developers, on the understanding (rather than ‘condition’) that a tiny alcove is set aside and labelled ‘affordable housing cupboard’.

Cured ham selection

Cured ham selection

Having spent the last seven years happily ensconced in Battersea, two miles from where I was born, I would very much like to have bought a house there, but sadly I don’t speak Russian, have a trust fund, or wish to live in a cupboard.

Battersea has, to use a technical term, gone mental. The imminent arrival of the new American Embassy and the attendant building sites along the river in Vauxhall, the millionaires-only-need-apply Power Station development and the boon to travel delays that is a planned extension to the Northern line have fired up a massive housing bubble within a bubble that is itself within such a bubble they should get Michael Buble to play the opening ceremony. The present state of the London housing market is a genuine horror story, with its roots in the politics of the eighties, the ramifications of which threaten to stretch into a bleak and irreversible future for which we will all be poorer.

Gambas, innit?

Gambas, innit?

Well. Not all of us, obviously.

It was my good friend Marcus Brigstocke, himself a long term resident of SW11, who recently pointed out to me that Battersea was becoming ‘like Hong Kong – essentially lots of very rich people living on top of one another,’ and if there’s a phrase to truly take the charm out of an area, that’s it right there. Marcus is moving to Balham because he managed to get on the property ladder a long time ago and because he does considerably more telly than me.

I, on the other hand, have moved to Hertford, because that was always the dream.

Seriously good anchovies

Seriously good anchovies

Seriously – I love it. I have a garden big enough to have discovered a (fourth) pond we didn’t even know we had when we bought the place. I have three bedrooms, a loft, a basement, ample space for expansion and I’m still waiting for the morning when I wake up and decide the whole thing has been a dreadful idea, but with every passing day that seems more and more unlikely. To buy anything like this in Battersea, we would simply have had to add a ‘0’ to the price, and that, for somewhere twenty miles away, really is proper mental.

My first farewell to Battersea was to a building I had already said goodbye to some time ago. What is now a second outpost of Brixton’s (rightly) well-regarded Boqueria used to be a tiny branch of the less well-regarded Barclays Bank until it shut suddenly a couple of years ago, with the cheery announcement that the standard of service would not be affected in any way. Since I now had to cross a rather large river to get to my nearest branch, I begged to differ, but simply chalked it down as yet another bare-faced lie from the financial sector.

Courgette carpaccio

Courgette carpaccio MD (Massively Delicious)

The building lay dormant until a few months ago when the builders moved in and in no time at all we had a shiny new tapas restaurant perched on the junction of Queenstown Road and Battersea Park Road, right next to the traffic lights, just like in Spain. Boqueria is named after the famous market in Barcelona, and really my only serious criticism of the whole venture is one of location. As Marcus and I sat on the raised area overlooking the crossroads and tucked into some really quite excellent Spanish food, I could not have felt less Hispanic if you’d nicked my football, banned bullfighting and refused to let me have a nap in the afternoon.

Squid with rice

Squid with rice

Marcus had been singing Boqueria’s praises for some time, and for the most part with good reason. While a plate of cured hams was not the finest I’ve ever had, we had gone for the mid-price option, and with Spanish ham you get what you pay for. There were many highlights – beautifully plump anchovies in vinaigrette matched with perfect olives, spicily fragrant chorizo with cider, faultless prawns, punchy alioli, delicious squid in its own ink with rice and a zinging plate of courgette carpaccio so cleverly done it had letters after its name. There was good bread, a fine selection of cheeses and the only minor let down was a pork shoulder with foie gras and truffle puree which probably suffered most from simply being more expensive and yet not quite as exciting as we thought it would be. All this was washed down with sparkling water and fresh pink grapefruit juice cutely served in jam jars. We finished with a couple of cortado coffees and a bill of  £82.55 excl service, which seemed very reasonable for what we ate, which was quite a lot. Would I recommend Boqueria? In terms of food and service, unreservedly, but it is instructive that every time I recall the meal, the image that persists is one of a huge articulated lorry belching fumes behind Marcus’s head. I would happily return, but as I now have that much further to travel, I’d probably go the extra mile to the Brixton branch, if only to find out whether it’s in the middle of an NCP car park.

Brigstocke and smoking lorry

Brigstocke and smoking lorry

My final meal was a rather more emotional affair. I have introduced Marcus to the enormous joys of Capitan Corelli’s and he has become a regular. I have taken friends, family, girlfriends and fiancée, but this was a meal I wanted to eat on my own. For anyone who has been following this blog from the beginning, in my third ever post I threatened to write about my top secret Italian local, and now that I will no longer be disturbed by my enormous readership darkening its doors, the time has come. If you’ve also been following those execrable Aviva ads, you’ll have already seen Corelli’s as it was the location for one of them, even if the glories of eating there weren’t particularly well represented by Paul Whitehouse in a fat suit and comedy accent.

My lunch, many, many times

My lunch, many, many times

I love this place. It is best described as an Italian greasy spoon, and at any time during the day (it only opens for the evening on special occasions – if you’re anywhere near during Italy’s World Cup games it’s worth trying to get in,) you will find every kind of character wandering in, from local office workers to hungry comedians, families with young children to gangs of men shouting at each other in Italian and ordering enormous plates of pasta. It would give Nigel Farage a heart attack, which is another reason to love it. Enzo, the chef, spends as much time pinching babies’ cheeks and glad-handing as he does in the kitchen, but what he cooks in there is fabulous. Behind the counter you’ll usually find the gently brooding presence of Mustafa and a touch of hard-working glamour from Wilma, who deflects industrial levels of flirting with consummate ease whilst also constructing the best sandwiches in South London. The whole operation is smiled over by the rotund and implacable presence of Pasquale, the patron, who parks his elderly chocolate Rolls Royce outside, takes a corner table and surveys his domain with perhaps a minestrone in front of him, or just his hands linked contentedly over his belly. The walls are covered in pictures of film stars and singers, not to mention the odd article from Sunday magazines extolling its virtues – Helen Mirren includes it in her ‘perfect London evening’, it would definitely feature as my ‘favourite table’ and Marcus was considering writing about it for ‘Secret London’ until I told him not to. He can now.

Wilma

Wilma

The food is sensational, if not particularly refined. Corelli’s exists to feed, not to be reviewed. There are normally three or four pastas (if you want the best choices, get in before 12:30,) and the same number of main courses, on plates piled high with a selection of whatever vegetables were available that morning. Highlights will vary, but there’s always a good chance of oxtail, rabbit stew, meatballs, squid and chicken in varying permutations. I have a particular fondness for the breadcrumbed fish, which I had on this occasion, although the river cobbler with tomatoes and garlic is always a winner too. It really is well nigh impossible to go wrong. There is no wine list, but a decent glass of red or white can always be found if required.

Mustapha

Mustafa

Next door they have an ice cream making operation (it doesn’t get any better than this, does it?) but there are also rows of apple pies and individual tiramisus in the chiller cabinet. I had the tiramisu. Of course I did, it was my last meal as a Battersea resident in a Battersea institution, so I won’t patronize you by trying to describe how absurdly good it was. I finished with what I confidently contend is the best coffee in London – I know Helen Mirren agrees – and how could you improve on Italian coffee made by a Turkish man?

And the price of all these unfettered delights? Well, there was plenty of change from £20, but I wasn’t going to take it. I got a hug from Mustafa and a kiss from Wilma, who also pressed another tiramisu into my hands for my absent ‘lady’ (although she wasn’t the one who scooped it greedily out of the fridge a couple of days later,) and I suddenly realized I had an enormous lump in my throat.

Tiramisu

Tiramisu

I may now have frogs, fish, fruit trees and raspberry bushes, two sheds, some truly idiosyncratic DIY to unravel, fields to walk the dog in, stairs up to my bedroom and down to my garden, and all these make me very happy, but I don’t have Corelli’s, and that makes me sad. We have been through a lot together, and of the many things I shall miss about Battersea, I shall miss Corelli’s most of all. Although it is not their fault, I really can’t say the same about Boqueria, because, very well done though it is, it’s also very well done elsewhere; there is no shortage of restaurants I can go to watch bankers oblivious to the fact that where they’re eating was once an actual bank, and somewhere that served a purpose beyond servicing their expense accounts.

The best cup of coffee in London

The best cup of coffee in London

There are still some places, however, that hum with a sense of community, with individuality and charm and genuine warmth and genuine worth. They are becoming harder to find, and, like those of us not on a six-figure income, they are being squeezed out of our capital city on a daily basis.

There are plenty of Boqueria’s, but there is only one Capitan Corelli’s. Go – it deserves treasuring, and best of all, it will treasure you right back.

 

May 2014

Racine, Knightsbridge

 

Crab Florentine

Crab Florentine

Dates, as we all know, can veer from the appalling to the sublime and back, sometimes in the course of a single evening. Personally, I always found the whole thing very unnerving, which usually meant talking like a typewriter and failing to impress – my favourite type of date used to involve drinking too much and hoping that eventually one of you fell on top of the other. I’m engaged now, which used to mean you were excused the whole business, but when you work away as much as I do, it is considered impolite to always sit on the sofa scratching yourself on nights off. As a result I am expected to involve myself in ‘date nights,’ sometimes as often as twice a quarter. There are other date expectations – for instance, that it doesn’t get written up as a blog and posted online, but then these are the pitfalls of agreeing to marry a comedian.

Raclette Comtoise

Raclette Comtoise

Knightsbridge is of course a ridiculous place, especially for dinner, but thanks to Toptable, I had been granted a visa. I like Toptable, (even though I’ve just discovered they’ve changed their name to Opentable for no apparent reason.) I’m sure I shouldn’t, although I’m not sure why. I think it’s something to do with buying into all this bollocks about exclusivity and privilege, but as all they’ve ever really done for me is provide an opportunity to eat in very good restaurants at reasonable prices, I’ll keep on checking the emails. I had heard many good things about Racine (although it appears a lot when you Google ‘tête de veau’ which previous readers will realise strikes fear into my very soul,) and four courses and an aperitif for £35 sounded like excellent value.

Featherblade steak

Featherblade steak

The restaurant was quiet as we entered through the large leather curtain that stops anyone untoward looking in, and we were warmly welcomed to a very comfortable and spacious corner table in order to admire the rest of the leather in the room. They give good banquette at Racine, which is probably why it started filling up with a merry and very well heeled clientele as the evening progressed. As neither of us were drinking, a choice of non-alcoholic aperitifs were offered and I am now going to start making my own virgin mojitos because they are bloody nice. Menus were proffered, orders taken, and then everyone realized we’d been given the wrong menus, and new ones were bought, but this time with extra things on them. When the only cock up of an entire meal is friendly staff bringing you additional options, it’s safe to assume you’ve had a good time.

Grilled rabbit

Grilled rabbit

I started with Crab Florentine – a gorgeously rich sausage of pasta stuffed with white crab meat (and one tiny piece of shell, but I’m regarding that as proof of freshness) and spinach with a properly opulent béchamel and crab sauce zig-zagged along its back, dusted with a little paprika. This had the unusual ability to convince you it was good for you despite the fact it clearly wasn’t. Meanwhile, melted raclette Comtoise with cornichons salad was a winning combination of luxuriously melted cheese and sharp pickle, smacking you round the chops ‘like a posh ploughmans,’ in the words of the other half.

Cheese!

Cheese!

For main course, she had a grilled featherblade steak, perfectly bloody and oozing Roquefort and walnut butter. It was sensational, as was my rabbit on a bed of green beans, which retained just the requisite crunch and a mustard sauce for which the word ‘pokey’ might have been invented. On top was a shard of smoked bacon, which was (I’m quoting again) ‘immense’. My only problem was that it really didn’t seem to be the sort of place to pick up the bones and gnaw. Service was so gracious I doubt they’d have minded, but apparently you don’t do things like that on date night.

There was a cheese course, which is the sort of sentence that makes me enormously happy, as does the fact they came from the legendary La Fromagerie. A further indication of the quality of service was the maître d’ writing down the names of the mellow blue cheese and Chablis washed rind oozy number for me precisely so that I could mislay the piece of paper.

Crème caramel

Crème caramel

Dessert was spectacular, in an understated and very classy way. Which is more than could be said for either of us as we had both of given up sugar for the previous ten days, and began salivating like Pavlov’s dogs at the very idea. I don’t imagine we presented a particularly attractive picture to anyone else, but this was fabulous. The crème caramel at Racine appears to be made with crack. It was easily the best I have ever tasted – almost creamy like pannacotta, but with the richness of egg and the slightly bitter hit of caramel. Meanwhile, a petit pot au chocolate is best remembered with the words,

“I’m really happy right now. I don’t want this to end”.

Petit pot au chocolate

Petit pot au chocolate

It would have been nice if she was talking about the date, but we both knew it was the chocolate. But I’ll take it, and if you want to take anyone anywhere, on this showing I would thoroughly recommend Racine, especially if you get the deal we did, which was a steal. As is a 14.5% ‘optional’ service charge, but then this wouldn’t be Knightsbridge without it, and unusually for this part of the world, they were worth every penny.

 

April 2014