The Hand & Flowers, Marlow

There are certain ‘destination’ restaurants, and if you drop enough clangingly enormous hints, sooner or later you might even get taken to one. I had stamped my feet and said “But I want to!!!” like some kind of middle-aged Verruca Salt so many times that my girlfriend’s principal reason to take me to Tom Kerridge’s Hand & Flowers for my birthday was probably to shut me up. I didn’t of course, but I am beyond grateful to her and may well be quiet for an extended period now, especially if I’m given some of his pork scratchings to nibble on.

Crispy pig's head

Crispy pig’s head

There may be more beautiful phrases in the English language than ‘Two Michelin starred pub’ but I can’t think of any. In this case, however, I would have to take certain issue with the pubbiness of the whole venture. Mr Kerridge’s recently enhanced TV presence and the clear brilliance of his cooking meant that the first thing we noticed on our arrival was the rather large extension being attached to the side of the building. Admittedly there is nothing inherently un-pubby about that, (although I wonder how many other pubs are expanding at this point in the recession,) but even the most battle-hardened CAMRA member would have to admit there are very few ‘proper’ pubs doing two sold-out lunch sittings on a Monday in late October. Again, that is not a criticism, but reading up on the pub, they have advertised four bar stools set up ‘for locals’, and I have to say that if I fancied a pint in Marlow, I’m not sure a stool squashed up against the bar of the Hand & Flowers would be where I’d have it. This is not a pub. It is a restaurant that happens to be in a pub, and if I sat at the bar, ordered a Guinness and took my paper out, I’d feel about as out of place as Marcus Wareing in a Wimpy, no matter how warm the welcome. The Hand and Flowers is all about the food, and I have very little issue with that.

An appalling photo of a stunning scallop

An appalling photo of a stunning scallop

We were taken to a sturdy table in the snug and slightly darkened main room of the restaurant – if I’m honest, a little more natural light wouldn’t hurt – and settled down with the menus and a palpable air of excitement. This was only heightened by the arrival of some light as a feather sourdough and a soda bread with a deliciously sneaky black pepper bite. We also got a slab of deeply satisfying salted butter that I half wanted to take to Dover and wave at the French to show them what butter should really taste of. We were also brought a little newspaper cone of fat whitebait and Marie Rose sauce, which pleased me no end. Not enough places serve whitebait to help you think, no matter how many times Jeeves tells us fish is good for the brain.

There is a very reasonably priced set menu at £15 for two courses or £19.50 for three, not to mention award winning fish and chips for £16.50 but, dear reader, it was my birthday. My crispy pig’s head was a joy to behold in every sense, a thin stick of perfect crackling setting off the unctuosness of the croquette (my other half even described it as “ a bit dirty – like really, really, really good KFC”, and I kind of knew what she meant.) The pigginess quotient was further increased by the addition of a beautifully rich sliver of pancetta and one of the best black puddings I have ever tasted and sharpened by a slice of pickled rhubarb, a coulis and a few fronds of chickweed. And yet this was not the best of the starters. Blowtorched Scottish scallop came in a densely satisfying mead and beef stock, further enriched with shavings of truffle and a flowery hint of nasturtium and apple. It tasted both familiar and yet unlike anything we had ever eaten before. While my starter may have been a wonder of technique and assembly, this was a veritable piece of alchemy, and probably the best thing we ate all day/month/possibly year.

Duck breast and faggot

Duck breast and faggot

Main courses were also excellent, although with a couple of minor reservations. As a complete sucker for The Great British Menu, I had to order the duck breast (winning dish 2010,) slow cooked immaculately, if not from the biggest duck. A juicy duck faggot, stickily rich duck sauce, duck fat chips and savoy cabbage with confit duck leg made this one of the duckiest dishes I have ever eaten even if the cabbage was a little over seasoned. Similarly, curly kale with crispy ham hock could have been improved with the crispiness not doing the meat any favours, but luckily I had a glass of very fruity Argentinian Trapezio to moisten it back up again.

Glazed apple tart

Glazed apple tart

A tenderloin of Wiltshire pork was a sublime piece of meat, accompanied by another deeply flavoured and sticky piece of malt glazed cheek and garlic sausage with a little ham, potato dauphine and a mustard mayonnaise. The one thing we couldn’t get our heads around was a pickled mustard leaf. Try as we might, we both just found it too pungent and over-powering. Tom must like it, as you don’t throw a flavour this robust at a dish without giving it some thought, but it wasn’t for us. Maybe we should have asked him as he bustled through the restaurant at this point in his whites – the fact that the chef who had gained the Michelin stars was doing the actual cooking probably allows us to forgive him for the mustard leaf.

There were no quibbles about dessert. A perfect glazed apple tart came with an almost nutty burnt milk ice cream, but did not quite match my tonka bean panna cotta, which was almost (but not quite) incidental to the fireworks of the poached plums, baby meringues, plum sorbet and ginger wine jellies that sat on top of it. This was another stunning looking dish that ate as beautifully as it looked.

Tonka bean panna cotta. Mid-eat.

Tonka bean panna cotta. Mid-eat.

I didn’t get to see the bill, but I’m sure it was some considerable way north of the hundred pound mark, and for this level of cooking, not to mention the sense of occasion, it felt well worth the price, which of course one would say when one’s not paying. The second sitting had begun, although we were not hurried along in any sense, and we left feeling happy and very well-fed – just not much like we’d been to a pub. Luckily, that evening we went along to see The Book of Mormon, and the amount of gratuitous swearing involved meant we redressed the balance somewhat. It’s not a traditional musical, in much the same way that, try as it might, The Hand & Flowers isn’t a traditional pub, but you won’t catch me complaining. Unless you’re a pickled mustard leaf.

 

Oct 2013

Bell’s Diner, Bristol

I like reading about restaurants – as I hope do you. My favourite reviewer used to be Jay Rayner in The Observer, but I think he may recently have been usurped in my affections by Marina O’Loughlin of The Guardian, who writes beautifully, has a tendency to create perfect terms when the language has been too short-sighted to provide them itself, and generally manages to make being a food nerd seem a very funky occupation. These preferences may reflect my newspaper choices as much as anything, but I have also worked with Giles Coren who is a very nice chap even if he hardly stopped talking once in four hours (which is rich coming from me) and we’ve had the pleasure of Matthew Norman’s company twice on No Pressure To Be Funny. I’m still annoyed he took Nick Revell along for one of his reviews, but the meal, at Gregg’s Table was clearly so hilariously bad that I didn’t miss much. He did promise to take me some time, which I mention here just in case he’s reading. Hello Matthew (*cough*.) I sometimes have a look at Fay Maschler in the Standard and I am a big fan of Charles Campion, who brilliantly pulls off an understated love of elegant simplicity whilst looking so unfeasibly like Peter Griffin from Family Guy you lose even more faith in Seth MacFarlane than you did after the Oscars.

Charles Campion

Charles Campion

Peter Griffin

Peter Griffin

A.A. Gill just gets on my tits.

As anyone who has been to the Edinburgh Festival will tell you, everyone’s now a reviewer, including me, so it is important to work out whose opinions you value if you want to pass them on. My friend Wayne Deakin was in Bristol for a weekend and asked me if I had any recommendations for lunch, and I recalled an absolute rave from Ms. O’Loughlin for Bell’s Diner. Wayne also raved, and so when we found ourselves in Bristol a couple of weeks later, we booked a table and headed down to Montpelier to see for ourselves. There was a review in the FT that day as well. It was another rave. Seriously – there haven’t been this many raves in the West Country since the early nineties.

Montpelier is a rather funky/bohemian and yet somewhat down at heel district. This is Banksy’s home turf and he is responsible for a lot of the great street art, although his influence has opened the way for a wide range of other artists to veer between brilliant and quite awful. I used to visit regularly as it was home to the now defunct Jesters Comedy Club and have always been very fond of the area. It is not for nothing that there were riots here a couple of years ago because Tesco was trying to move in and the assorted people of the republic of Stokes Croft just didn’t want them. It would have got in the way of the bicycle shops, galleries and myriad pubs and odd little shops selling odd little things.

Lamb St Menehold, Spiced lentils

Lamb St Menehold, Spiced lentils

Bell’s Diner is almost the apotheosis of this charm – a bright corner building with big windows to throw light on to what is a delightfully artlessly designed space. It takes a lot of good taste to be this artless, and the whole operation retains a sort of unshowy eccentricity that has to be organic to work. And it does. How many other waitresses could show you that day’s FT review merely in the spirit of sharing, without the merest hint of showing off? Where else would buy a collection of old reading glasses just to put randomly on the tables for the hell of it? And where else would have a dansette in the corner and leave DJing duties to the customer? (Fleetwood Mac and then Paco Peña since you ask.)

Salt cod fritters, smoked onions, morcilla & chorizo

Salt cod fritters, smoked onions, morcilla & chorizo

And then there’s the food. Having ordered a couple of excellent coffees, we were brought still warm bread with Abernethy butter that was so good we had to be careful not to accidentally make it lunch by itself. There was a plate de jour of grilled chicken oyster, but as everything else came in small plates, we ordered eight of them between us, at which point one of our two lovely waitresses pointed out that with the three for £10 offer, it would be cheaper if we ordered another as well. There is something unspeakably brilliant about ordering everything on a menu, and there was something unspeakably brilliant about what arrived shortly afterwards.

Smoked onions & labneh

Smoked onions & labneh

I don’t like salt cod. Well, I didn’t until I tried their fritters with aioli and suddenly it was all salty fried pillows and punchy garlic smoothness. Slow-cooked cauliflower in yoghurt with caramelized butter and pinenuts was silky and toothsome. We had astonishing smoked onions with paprika and labneh which I can still taste as I type – and a number of palate cleansing combos such as an excellent feta, watermelon and mint salad. Lamb St Menehold might have been a touch too fatty were it not set off by a zinging tartare sauce, and another tomato and goat’s curd salad to take the edge off. There was morcilla and chorizo and spiced lentils – all kinds of dizzying combinations which managed to be thoroughly individual and yet perfectly complimentary at the same time. We did order quite a lot, and we left not a scrap.

LMP. How it should be.

LMP. How it should be.

Greed had now taken over, and we were not going to skimp on puddings. A perfect vanilla panacotta with strawberries was mildly superceded by a lemon meringue pie that made me want to take it back to school to show those responsible for my lifelong aversion to this dish exactly what they had done so horribly wrong.

Pannacotta

Pannacotta

A couple of espressos and a bill of £54 excluding service left us feeling thoroughly replete and as sunnily disposed to the world as the September rays warming us through the window panes. A short stroll around the block later, we got back in the car and I reflected that although the local comedy club may be no more, there is still every reason to return to Montpelier when there are raves like this to be had.

Sept 2013

Edinburgh

EdinburghSo the dust has settled on another month of madness in the frozen north, which was in fact remarkably temperate this year – weather wise, at least. I had one of my best festivals ever – great audiences, plenty of extra gigs and delightful reviews, more of which you can read about here, should you feel so inclined. Other highlights included a car thief outside my window managing less than two yards in a stolen BMW before crashing it and my flatmate Mick Ferry asking “Which end?” upon being introduced to someone from ‘War Horse‘.

A proper Scotpanese lunch at Bonsai

A proper Scotpanese lunch at Bonsai

As a result of my involvement in Peter Buckley-Hill’s excellent Free Fringe, I also managed to not lose thousands of pounds, which, to the uninitiated, is what happens to the vast majority of comedians who are forced to hand out enormous sums to publicists, venues, printers, designers and indeed any passing Scottish person with a hovel to hire simply in order to do their job for a month. Our flat was far from brilliant (it was still over £3k for the month when normally it is rented out for £850) but it was a gigantic improvement on the one we were originally allocated. I cannot begin to tell you how relieved I am that it was Mick rather than Hal Cruttenden who got there first to ‘explain’ (in no uncertain terms) to the young estate agent that we weren’t going to stay there. Hal phoned me from the M1, and you haven’t heard panic til you’ve heard the voice of a camp man with a phobia who thinks he’s heading to a flat containing mould and mousetraps. I don’t think we’ll be using Southside Property Management again.

The Juice Cauldron

The Juice Cauldron

The Edinburgh festival is a strange beast which is very difficult to explain to anyone who hasn’t been there. It is extremely easy to live a dissolute lifestyle involving little exercise beyond running from one late night gig to the other, before heading to one of innumerable bars full of people in the grip of the same madness and then stumbling home at an hour when most decent folk are considering getting up. Therefore, it is important to eat well, and believe me, this year I did.

I’m a great fan of sushi in general, but particularly when I’m pretending to be healthy, and as a result, I had far more lunches at Bonsai than were necessary. Just up the hill from the Pleasance courtyard, it is an excellent spot to stock up on miso, gyoza, nigri, sashimi and whatever else takes your fancy. Service is casual but friendly, and the whole experience is about as unpretentious as raw fish in Scotland can ever hope to be. I think I managed to spend over £30 on one occasion, but I did have trouble moving afterwards. Like most places, they are happy to accept your money if you want to splash out, but they also offer good value bento boxes and there is a daily changing specials board.

Koyama sushi & sashimi platter

Koyama sushi & sashimi platter

Service was also friendly at Koyama on Forrest Rd, which I tried a couple of times as an alternative, but loses hands down to Bonsai on two fronts – firstly it has replaced a perfectly serviceable Italian I used to go to a lot even if I can’t remember its name, and secondly, if a small helping of edamame beans cost £4.50, imagine what everything else costs. The sushi isn’t bad, but whoever put their set menus together is not the sort of person I would want making me a mix tape, which is an old fashioned way of listening to music for our younger viewers. Bonsai is a five minute walk away, the sushi is better and everything is much cheaper.

Sometimes you just know what you want

Sometimes you just know what you want

Next door to Koyama is MUMS, which serves a brilliant vegetarian haggis, neeps and tatties with a luxurious veggie gravy. Apologies to Scottish purists here, but I wanted vegetables and I wanted comfort and that is exactly what I got. Round the corner is Favorit which is not going to set anyone’s world on fire, but I had reasonably good chicken fajitas there with Marcus Brigstocke after Simon Evans and I appeared in his improv show ‘Unavailable for Comment,’ and returned on my own a few nights later for a really quite good cheeseburger and chips with a glass of white wine because sometimes you just know what you want and you prove yourself right.

Roast vegetable antipasti

Roast vegetable antipasti

This is all within spitting (or staggering) distance of Bristo Square which, since the rise of the Underbelly and the Purple Cow has become the comedic epicentre of the festival in the Old Town. One tends to make numerous (almost nightly) visits to the Gilded Balloon for work and play and food. There are some great burger joints and pulled pork opportunities, Dragon noodles were very good even if they took a while coming (but then they are freshly made…) and special mention should go to The Juice Cauldron which is often the last defence many performers have against scurvy for the month. If you fancy a quick wander down to George Square, there are further opportunities to be separated from your cash, although I would say it has to be the Thai porkbelly salad served out of a metal caravan for me, even if you are late on stage to compere Best of the Fest in the Spiegeltent as a result.

Cuccina

Cuccina

I could name many other places – breakfast at Victor Hugo Deli overlooking the meadows is always a pleasure, and I will always find myself in Ciao Roma at least a couple of times for solid, if unspectacular, Italian food. This is a little unfair on Ciao Roma who also do excellent homemade ice cream, but unfortunately they do pale into insignificance in comparison with one of my (and many others’) favourite Edinburgh eating experiences. Bar Napoli on Hanover Street is an institution, and with good reason. Open all day, with a menu so long you’d be suspicious if it wasn’t for the fact that the kitchen is always bubbling away with activity and amazing smells. You can’t attempt authentic, you just have to be it, and the food here has been an ongoing pleasure to me for years.

Something I failed to order

Something I failed to order

This year I popped in on a visit to the New Town and started with a very generous plate of vegetable antipasti, with excellent mozzarella, a drizzle of balsamic and good olive oil, which nearly left me too full for my cuccina (fish stew) until it arrived, garlanded with garlic bread and wafting fishy tomato garlicky goodness at me. The best way I can describe the place is that when one of the chefs saw me taking pictures of my food, he brought over another dish to photograph. Any chef who is so proud of his cooking he wants to show you what you failed to order is alright by me, and I think that little incident sums up everything I love about Bar Napoli. Indeed, I took my girlfriend there when she visited, and I’m happy to report the minestrone, the halibut and the maccheroncini were great too, but then they would be, wouldn’t they? At under £30 for two they were also very good value, which is just another reason to go.

The view…

The view…

It’s worthwhile popping in to Harvey Nichols Forth (see what they did) Floor Brasserie if you’re in the area, if only for the view, although I did have half a dozen oysters and a very nice ham bagel and chips while lamenting my inability to afford anything downstairs as they’d already cost me £25. Having said that, I am unlikely to return as I noticed from the menu that they were producing a couple of shows in association with ‘Funny Women’, a dreadful organization that charges comedians to enter its new act competition and does nothing of value for women or comedy, as can be seen from the number of companies including Nivea, Dove and, er…Babycham that have worked with them incredibly briefly. The same can be said of a number of excellent comedians including my good friend Jo Caulfield who no longer want anything to do with them. Harvey Nichols probably didn’t know any better, but I imagine it does now.

Cruttenden, Ferry, Barrie

Cruttenden, Ferry, Barrie

I do like to try and go for a proper ‘event’ meal (or two) when I’m up in Edinburgh. Last year the No Pressure To Be Funny crew went to the brilliant Sweet Melinda’s, which to my shame I didn’t blog about, mainly because it was more fun to write about the fairly awful time Hal and I had at The Witchery instead. In the meantime, an online piece I wrote about it did make it into a book this year – Secret Edinburgh – so that will have to do for now. This year, however, on our night off, Cruttenden, Ferry and I piled into a taxi and headed down to the Leith branch of Fishers, about which I’d heard fabulous things, to spend the £100 mouse related refund we’d been given by our landlords.

Eddie’s sherries

Eddie’s sherries

We walked in to see our friend Phil Nichol and his girlfriend already sat at another table, and it soon became clear that Eddie, our fantastically helpful waiter, was very much used to festival types turning up for excellent seafood in a thoroughly convivial atmosphere.

We began with fishcakes, beef carpaccio and langoustine tails with garlic and herb butter, which were uniformly excellent, washed down with a bottle of Muscadet which was perfectly ok, but probably not my finest choice. I also ordered three oysters which I wasn’t charged for when the bill came because it’s just that sort of place and Eddie’s just that sort of guy. Which is exactly why I returned there for lunch when my other half came up for the weekend.

King scallops

King scallops

Main courses were equally impressive – a very good steak for Hal who inevitably worried that he was offending someone by not ordering seafood, superb King scallops with crab and potato salad for me, and the stand out dish – Mick’s Aberdeen smoked haddock with black pudding crumb which was a perfectly cooked combination of tastes and textures and about as Scottish as you could get without having Mel Gibson make a film about it. We bravely made our way through a very nice bottle of Barronie de Coussergues house red, and then tidied up with pavlova, sticky toffee pudding and ice cream. Eddie then managed to sell us a combination of sherries that he was kind enough to write down for me, but I think you should just get along and try them for yourself. Each was worth the trip. Our bill came to a very reasonable £150 for a truly memorable meal in wonderful surroundings, and we poured ourselves into a cab home before things got messy.

Lobster, innit.

Lobster, innit.

Smoked haddock with black pudding crumb

Smoked haddock with black pudding crumb

A week or so later it was a pleasure to once again be greeted by Eddie and explore the menu further. We were not disappointed. Red mullet with a gooseberry compote was an unabashed delight, with a perfect balance of acidity and meatiness, while fish soup was a solid opening gambit across the table. I then had to have the very, very good lobster (the last one, apparently – for future reference you should always order ahead,) while herself went for the haddock and was every bit as impressed as Mick had been. My crème brulee was everything it should have been and I would suggest that the phrase “I actually think that’s the nicest sticky toffee pudding I’ve ever had in my whole life, ever,” is pretty much the last word in sticky toffee pudding criticism. The bill came to £82 excluding service, which was again excellent, and again included some freebies (more langoustine tails) for which we were not charged. For the second time in a fortnight I left Leith a very happy man.

Red mullet with gooseberry compote

Red mullet with gooseberry compote

On the last weekend, my brother and his girlfriend came to stay and took me to one of their discoveries, which I must also recommend wholeheartedly. Despite being a large and promisingly retro decorated room, it still appears we were lucky to get a table at Spoon on Nicholson Street for a very late lunch/early supper. It has that pleasing bustle and confidence of a place that knows exactly what it’s doing on a reasonably large scale, but still retains a certain intimacy. Our waitress was a keen combination of efficiency and warmth, and a wild mushroom soup and smoked salmon with home-pickled cucumber were both faultless, although not quite as good as the chicken and ginger broth my brother ordered – a perfect Edinburgh festival dish if ever there was one. I was very boring and went for salmon with green beans and new potatoes on the understanding that it was a dish that left the kitchen nowhere to hide, which was a challenge they rose to effortlessly. Perfect crispy skin, moist flesh, the health giving properties of French beans and potatoes for carbs, which were much needed as I rushed off to another show, leaving my brother with a slightly spiced Toulouse sausage resting on a warming bean casserole and his girlfriend’s perfectly cooked pork chop with greens. I don’t know how much it all cost – although prices were far from extortionate – and I cannot wait to return.

Salmon, green beans & new potatoes

Salmon, green beans & new potatoes

Which would pretty much sum up my entire month. For all its inherent craziness, there is a reason I have been visiting the Edinburgh Festival for twenty years, and now I have even more reasons to return. On the way home, we stopped at the award-winning Tebay services which deserve a blog in their own right, but that must wait to be written, as must Sweet Melinda’s – not to mention next year’s show, and perhaps a guidebook on which Edinburgh estate agents are best avoided if you don’t want to start your festival with a bout of mice-based hysteria.

 

August 2013

Croatia

DubrovnikThe thin sliver of stunning Croatian coast alongside the Adriatic has seen its fair share of conflict over time. It is only twenty odd years since Dubrovnik itself was under siege from the forces of Serbia and Montenegro on the flimsiest of pretexts and it is remarkable how unscathed the magnificent Old Town appears, when a quick cable car ride to the Fort Imperial overlooking the city and the museum therein confirms it was anything but.

Croatia on a plate - squid'n chard

Croatia on a plate – squid’n chard

As a result, one could understand and even sympathise with any residual negativity Croats might feel towards their northern neighbours. Less clear is what they’ve got against the Swiss, or more specifically, their chard. I rather fell in love with Croatia – the climate and the culture, and to a certain extent the cuisine – so why they insist on serving overcooked and over-seasoned Swiss chard with everything is beyond me, especially when it has the consistency of tissue paper that has been left to marinade in washing up liquid.

Fish platter ‘Toranj’

Fish platter ‘Toranj’

Vegetables do not seem to be a Croatian strong point. The seafood on the other hand is excellent, and four of us headed along the coast to Cavtat on our first evening to find some. Cavtat is something of a rich person’s playground, as evidenced by the number of enormous yachts showing off along the seafront. There was some of the usual touting for business from the restaurants, but in the end we ‘opted for’ (they offered us free schnapps) Toranj, which proved to be a fine choice; especially if you like young men playing water polo next to your table, adding a slightly bizarre homo-erotic element to proceedings.

Rubber bands in cardboard

Rubber bands in cardboard

The schnapps arrived with a small plate of smoked mackerel pate – something of a Croatian tradition, and a very pleasant way to start a meal while we got to grips with the menu. To put it simply, if you like squid, go to Croatia. They do a lot of it and they do it very well. Black risotto made with squid ink is ubiquitous, and none the worse for that. There were also plump mussels and some seriously disappointing deep fried oysters. I thought they might be interesting but they weren’t, unless you’re interested in food with the consistency of rubber bands in cardboard but without the flavour.

Simon sans bib

Simon sans bib

My main course was a considerable step up as my girlfriend and I shared the fish platter, which is so good I noticed it had even made it into our guidebook. A delightful selection of prawns, langoustines, mussels and clams came with potatoes, a vinaigrette dressing and even some rock mussels, which were new to me and quite chewy – I’m glad I tried them, but I could happily live without ever doing so again. A bit like the Swiss chard they’d partially hidden under the whole sea bass. Across the table a buzzara, or fish stew, was more of the same but more garlicky and requiring a bib to eat, although, if you’ve seen our friend Simon eating ice cream, that’s just more of a general rule to keep him presentable. A plate of grilled squid was just bloody good, even if it too was charded. This was simply very good seafood, cooked properly and wonderful to share whilst men who had forgotten their bibs splashed about nearby.

ex-fondant/soufflé

ex-fondant/soufflé

We weren’t planning on pudding, but maybe the schnapps had kicked in, or the bottle of Malvasija Dubrowcka which was white, dry, delicious and meant we had ordered a couple of chocolate soufflés before we realized what we were doing. The moment they arrived, we broke them open to discover that they were in fact fondants. We suggested this to the waiter, who replied, quite reasonably,

“You can call them fondants if you want, we call them soufflés”.

He was wrong, of course, but it’s not his fault he’d probably never even seen Masterchef and by this point all the evidence had completely disappeared. All in all, an impressive start to the holiday, and whilst not a steal at over forty quid a head excluding service, the days when one could flounce into Eastern Europe expecting everything to be practically given away are over, and with good reason.

Platter Peskarija

Platter Peskarija

Our next port of call was just that, and I could not really recommend it highly enough. Lokunda Peskarija has every right to be awful – not only a tourist hot spot itself, its many tables are also either side of one of the main entrances to the Old Town. However, as tourist spots go, it is pretty special. I can’t do Dubrovnik any justice here – just look at a picture and go. And while you’re there, pop into Lokunda, right by the harbour wall, which is perpetually busy, but cleverly gets round this by serving a simple selection of (more) brilliant seafood in one of the most stunning locations on the planet. I had some proper oysters – because they serve natives here as a matter of course – before we all tucked into pans of mussels, baby squid, grown up squid and prawns. There was some bread, some wedges of lemon and a little glass of Subrian Miličić (dry, white, again) for me. There was no chard to be seen. It all came to 635 Kuna or eighty quid for four and then we all went and had an ice cream from one of the many parlours dotted around that make you suddenly remember how close you are to Italy and how good lemon ice cream can be if done properly.

Cold platter ‘Klarisa’

Cold platter ‘Klarisa’

There are hundreds of places to eat around the Old Town, and as is often the case when in close proximity to World Heritage sites, you take your chances to an extent. There is one street dedicated almost entirely to pizzerias, so why I ended up having fairly unremarkable chicken fajitas there is beyond me (at Šilok, not actively unpleasant but I think we could have chosen better.) However, one of the better appointed destinations is Klarisa, set in a heartbreakingly beautiful courtyard adorned with purple bougainvillea where we sat at an immaculately linen covered table for one of the funniest meals I’ve ever had. The food itself was slightly disappointing for one of the supposedly finest eateries in the city. Things started well with more complimentary pate and service was excellent throughout. An octopus salad was an exercise in tasty simplicity and a swordfish carpaccio was light, zingy and meaty all at the same time. The cold platter ‘Klarisa’ was more of the same, but this time with smoked tuna and marinated sea bass, while a prawn risotto was good but could have done with the wine being cooked off a little more.

Swordfish carpaccio

Swordfish carpaccio

Main courses, though (mostly) attractively presented were more problematic. Amberjack is a meaty fish not dissimilar to tuna, and surely the only real sin is to overcook it, which is exactly what they’d done until it just resembled what it was – a large lump of protein on a plate. My John Dory fillet was relatively tasty but spoilt by the slimy and unpleasant skin still attached to it. A sea bass fillet and sole in champagne sauce were much better. Grilled vegetables and chips were perfectly acceptable, possibly because it gave them no wiggle room to include chard anywhere (except under a couple of the fish.)

Amberjack’n chard

Amberjack’n chard

Only two of us were drinking (a very serviceable house white,) so it is a bit difficult to explain what happened next. Actually, it isn’t. Despite loving both live music and eating out, I have never been that excited about combining the two. Indeed, a couple of days earlier, we had hot-footed it from one restaurant when we noticed the last table was two feet from some empty music stands  – a course of action thoroughly vindicated when we walked by later to hear the worst ever synthesizer-led version of ‘Smoke on The Water’ being murdered for the benefit of the remaining guests. Klarisa had gone a whole step further with gold suits for the band (one of them also had a gold guitar) and the obligatory chanteuse emoting her way through a number of tunes you had hoped you would never have to hear again. It started badly enough with the classic opening notes of a Casiotone preset segueing into what I would charitably describe as a ‘take’ on My Way. At this point, it’s best just to give you a set list – Theme from The Godfather, Delilah (which is when I think we properly lost it,) Norah bloody Jones. Yesterday. Crazy. Hilarity at this point involved hari kari mimes and the idea that no one ever ordered dessert here because they couldn’t make it past Crazy.

A nice complimentary plate

A nice complimentary plate

We did order dessert, possibly out of guilt, and a pretty reasonable crème brulee with peach compote arrived alongside a less exciting warm chocolate square with vanilla ice cream, and, er, ‘English sauce’ which was, needless to say, the funniest thing we had ever heard. Until that is, we managed to predict both Careless Whisper and Always on My Mind in quick succession at which point we had to leave because hysteria had set in. I couldn’t recommend Klarisa highly enough, but sadly that is not for all the right reasons, and there are probably better meals to be had for getting on towards £200 including service. They did give us a nice complimentary plate though.

My better half and I returned to Cavtat for our last meal which turned out to be a wise choice. We were found a table on the first floor terrace of Dolium that afforded us excellent views of the richest man in Norway’s massive £25m yacht. (Yeah – but is he happy?) Our waiter was an older chap whom I was slightly worried was run off his feet, not helped by an over officious manager (or owner) quietly bollocking him the whole time. This was unnecessary and annoying, but it was the only blot on an otherwise lovely meal.

Sea Pearls

Sea Pearls

We started again with oysters and then shared ‘Sea pearls’ – a big bowl of shellfish and squid (although not much sign of the advertised crab) in a glorious garlicky broth. This was followed by a whole sea bass cooked in salt, expertly filleted at the table (take that Mr Manager.) This is so clearly the best way to eat this fish – every time I have it I am amazed all over again by how moist and delicate it leaves the flesh, and this was no exception. Dessert was crème caramel – another Croatian tradition that I’m not that wild about but at least it wasn’t chard – and ‘cake of the day’ which was a fairly workmanlike tiramisu. Free schnapps was offered but declined, and a glass of house white wasn’t the best I’d had, but the standard of both food and surroundings more than compensated.

Purple-150x150All in all, a delightful conclusion to a lovely holiday in a country I had previously only associated with tennis players and garish football strips. Thanks to the kindness of my girlfriend’s parents and their very pleasant villa we have an open invitation to return, and I’m sure we shall. Having said that, I am tempted to visit Switzerland first to see if they have maintained their famed neutrality, or are doing something unspeakable to a Croatian vegetable at every meal. Knowing them, they’ve probably covered it in either melted cheese or chocolate, which will never work because, as we all know, revenge is a dish best served cold.

July 2013

Apsleys, Lanesborough Hotel, London

It’s not often you open a menu and actually gasp, or rather inwardly gasp as to do so audibly might get you turfed out of the restaurant on the quite reasonable grounds that somewhere like this was not meant for people like you. Starters hover around the thirty pound mark, though you’ll need more than ten times that if you fancy the caviar. In common with most non-billionaires, part of me dislikes eating in that rarified atmosphere where you feel permanently on your best behaviour and another part really loves to see how the other half live. (Half? Half? Who came up with those figures?) Luckily, Toptable offers you the occasional opportunity to snoop more effectively than an American government agency and I am perfectly happy to act as whistleblower on the understanding that extraordinary rendition is something that rarely happens to food bloggers.

 

Sea bass tartare

Sea bass tartare

Heinz Beck is a three Michelin starred chef who is now strutting his stuff at Apsleys at the Lanesborough Hotel on Hyde Park Corner, and, because everybody needs to eat, is offering an extremely good deal for those of us who fancy nosing around his beautifully appointed art deco dining room. A mere forty-five pounds gets you three courses and a glass of rather nice fizz with the opportunity to sneer at those frightful nouveau riche Wellingtons over the road thrown in for free.

 

Veal salad

Veal salad

Apsleys being the faynest of fayne dining establishments does of course mean you get rather more than this – your bouche is well and truly amused. Service is exquisite – attentive and better drilled than the armies of him-over-the-road, even if one operates from a permanent position of worry that they’re about to inform you there’s been a terrible mistake and ask you to leave. To be fair, this is a far more telling reflection of my insecurities than my experience, and it was with some excitement I chose quite a lot of breads from a fairly dizzying selection and took a sip of my rather excellent Franciocorta.

Cod goujons

Cod goujons

I’d describe the menu as modern Italian with German precision, beautifully presented, and the tone was set with a delightful pre-starter of pea and ricotta mousse, finished with a carrot air, which was far more than the sum of its parts and considerably less pretentious than it sounds. The set menu offered three choices for each course, and we began with a sea bass tartare in bread crust with cantaloupe melon which was more than acceptable, even if the overriding flavour was of the fried bread the fish was wrapped in. Luckily, that is a flavour of which I thoroughly approve. As are Frazzles. I would like to apologise to Mr Beck for our appalling lack of couth here, but as my other half tucked into her exquisite poached (or sous vide?) veal salad with an astonishing tuna sauce, she proffered me a cube of veal jelly with the words,

“What are those crisps, you know, like bacon?”

And she was right, too. Salty cubes of deliciousness perfectly accompanying the softness of the meat and the slightly tart fish.

Amaranth with vegetables and poached egg

Amaranth with vegetables and poached egg

We were very much up and running now, and about to experience the poshest battered fish I have ever laid taste buds on. My only criticism of cod goujons, in a light tempura with cherry gazpacho and thinly julienned celery with edible flowers was that there weren’t more of them, but at these prices for this standard of cooking I can hardly complain. The accompanying dish was not only the best thing we ate, but also probably the best advertisement for what this kitchen can achieve. Amaranth is a type of cereal I had never come across before – tiny grains not unlike quinoa, but served wet with a poached egg, like the most exquisite porridge you’ve ever tried. Each expertly turned vegetable somehow tasted more of itself than the one before, complimented by purple and yellow flowers which made this incredible dish a feast not only for the eyes and stomach but also the memory.

A millefoglie, obviously.

A millefoglie, obviously.

A zinging amuse-bouche of deconstructed lime cheesecake paved the way for desserts that you just knew were going to be so pretty it was almost a shame to eat them, but a mango mousse with poppy seed parfait and rosemary ice cream and a millefoglie with Chantilly cream and cherry sorbet both belonged in a gallery as much as on a plate. Which is not to say they were not a triumphant end to a meal of already considerable highs.

Mango mousse

Mango mousse

Just when we couldn’t have been much happier, a tray of handmade petit fours arrived at which point it became abundantly clear to me and my other half that we may not ever be the other half, but we’re very keen to visit occasionally, especially if they make us feel this welcome. With a couple of bottles of water and service, our bill came to £111, which for an experience like this is well worth the money. In fact, if you can’t face spending hundreds on a meal, may I take this opportunity to thoroughly recommend indulging in a little light spying on both the Italians, Germans and whoever else you might find in this corner of West London. Just make sure you’ve got your Toptable password to hand, as otherwise you may be forced to do the washing up for quite some considerable time.

 

July 2013

L’Oursin, Antibes

I love what I do, but, like everyone else, I have good days and bad days. Admittedly comedy does tend to feature a bit more variety than the average desk job, but I can tell you, a hurried drive down the M62, running late from one room of drunken stags in Manchester to another of hens in Liverpool on a Saturday night is every bit as depressing as turning up for a 9 to 5 at a paper merchants in Slough on a Monday morning.

And then sometimes you get flown to Antibes for a couple of days.

I was there for The Comedy Store, with guitar wielding Christian Reilly, staying at the home of the owner’s wife, Sylvie, and performing at gigs run by their son, Sebastien. Surely only an idiot would write a blog detailing the hospitality extended to him by his employer’s family, but then, as they say in France, je suis cet idiot.

Added to which, without wishing to be too obsequious, the hospitality was excessively good, and when it came to the food, pretty much unsurpassable. Sebastien had even gone as far as phoning me a couple of days beforehand to check if I had any dietary needs – in an industry run almost exclusively on basketed chicken, I cannot tell you how rare that is. I explained that my self imposed ban on red meat and dairy obviously didn’t include France on the grounds that I didn’t want it to, and that as we were in the Med, I would really like some Fruits de Mer at some point. Upon arrival, Sylvie picked us up from the airport and drove us to her beautiful house, then went inside to prepare lunch while Christian and I sat on the patio discussing our annoyance that not all gigs were like this.

I would like to extend my apologies (not to mention my surprise and disdain) to any avid fans of UKIP who might be reading this, but there are just some things that France does better than us, and eating al fresco is generally one of them. I am as much a fan of the good picnic as the next man, but there is something about sitting outside in the Côte d’Azur with a fresh baguette that simply can’t be beaten. Throw in a homemade mushroom quiche, two types of paté, cold roasted peppers with garlic, basil and olive oil, wash it down with a nice glass of rosé and I could quite happily punch Nigel Farage’s lights out whether he had a fag on or not.

Crayfish linguini

Crayfish linguini

And this was just the start – I believe we performed a comedy show at some point in the evening – but after that it was home for a delicious daube (Provençal beef stew,) a few more glasses of wine and bed. The next morning we drove to the boulangerie for croissants and pain au chocolate which Sylvie and I ate outside while discussing what we would eat for our last meal, which is a game I always enjoy. Apparently I am almost French in my tendency to discuss what I am going to eat later whilst I eat, which I regard as one of the nicest things anyone’s ever said to me.

 

Sea bass

Sea bass

We took a trip into town for lunch, and a wander round the harbour. One of the reasons an English language gig works so well in Antibes is the large contingent of yachties that are there at any given time, which, having grown up on the Isle of Wight, is the sort of sentence that would normally fill me with dread. However, these are, in the main, professional crew for the yachts and super yachts of the rich and famous, and generally more down to earth than your average braying Cowes week Hooray, although perhaps the same cannot be said of their employers. We whistled appreciatively, not to say a little jealously, at some of these behemoths of the sea, then walked round the corner to find the really big ones. It truly is another world when your own personal sea-faring plaything is bigger than the average cross-channel ferry, but I guess that’s what you get if your job title includes the words oligarch, sheik or massively obscene inheritance.

Sebastien, Sylvie & Fruits de Mer

Sebastien, Sylvie & Fruits de Mer

We met Sebastien at L’Oursin (The Sea Urchin) in the old town, which immediately endeared itself to me with its large fresh fish counter opening out onto the square. Inside is all varnished wood, brass and tasteful nauticality, but this was Antibes so we sat outside with everyone else. It is obviously quite touristy, but the restaurant seemed to be doing a thriving trade and featured that French staple, the older waiter who knows this is a proper job for a grown up. There is a serious amount of food on the menu, but in all honesty, what we had was a little hit and miss. Christain opted for a crayfish linguini which was delicious but so rich he couldn’t finish it, while Sylvie claimed her soupe de poissons was a little thin, and if Sylvie says something, you tend to believe her. The stand out dish was Sebastien’s sea bass with roasted vegetables, while my Fruits de Mer was ok – I’ve had better oysters and langoustines, and while these were good, I’m never going to be a great lover of whelks or winkles. However, sometimes the atmosphere and the company is just as important as the food and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t thoroughly enjoy my lunch, especially as it was accompanied by an excellent and very affordable bottle of Bernard Chéreau Muscadet, which also made me forget that while I can do raw clams with complete equanimity, the Englishman in me still prefers his mussels cooked and finds shrimps a bit fiddly.

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Christain Reilly surrounded by chocolate, laydeez

After a visit to one of the best chocolatiers I’ve ever encountered, it was time to prepare for another gig (oh the hardship,) which I believe went very well even if it’s not really up to me to say so. We ended the day with a late meal of veal escalopes and I now know the secret is to add cornflakes to your breadcrumb mix – so not only was our trip enormously pleasurable, we can now say it was educational as well. After another morning visit to the boulangerie (did I mention I bloody love France?) it was, sadly, time to leave. It would be remiss of me not to thank both Sylvie and Sebastien wholeheartedly for their kindness and hospitality at this point, and I hope the gigs go from strength to strength, mainly so I can go back and do them again. We landed back in a drizzly Gatwick. The next day I flew to Glasgow for the weekend, where I was staying in an Ibis, which I suppose serves me right.

June 2013