Fox and Hounds, Hunsdon

IMG_9517Having asked our neighbours if they had any tips for a good local restaurant, they were particularly enthusiastic about the Fox and Hounds in Hunsdon. They extolled the virtues of the roasts, the unpretentious gastropubiness and overall quality of the ‘dining experience’ – as they would have described it if they were irritating food PRs, which of course they are not. If they were, I would be unlikely to ask their advice, let alone live next door to them.

Luckily, they are highly trustworthy people, and we decided to take them up on their suggestion. What impressed me most initially was phoning to be told that not only did the Fox and Hounds have a table, they also welcomed dogs AND babies. As confirmed terrier owners, and, now, possibly more importantly, parents of a little one whose age we are still counting in weeks rather than months, it is clear priorities have changed. Obviously I still love a glitzy venue, culinary fireworks and the theatre of a well managed service etc etc, but now I will happily eat spam fritters washed down with Nescafé as long as there’s a place to stow the dog, room for the pram, a baby-changing table in the loo and staff who will cluck not scowl at the possibility of the atmosphere being blood-curdled by an unhappy infant at any point.

Let’s face facts – if you’re my daughter, I’d say it’s pretty important you like restaurants if we’re going to get along, so it’s probably best to start the induction early. I mean, her menu options at this stage are entirely milk-based, but there can’t be any harm in giving her an idea of what might be on offer when she has, you know, teeth and stuff. Nothing like building up a sense of anticipation, even though, if she’s anything like her father, I am storing up a world of financial pain in the years to come – “Daddy, what is lobster thermidor?”

When that moment comes I will inevitably be caught in that difficult area between pride and financial embarrassment, but in the meantime, if you are going to introduce anyone, of any age, to the pleasures of eating out, you would be hard pressed to find a better venue than the Fox and Hounds. The only thing that annoyed me was we’d lived twenty minutes away for the past three and a half years and no one had mentioned it before.

In the end, we opted to leave Bagel (yes, even our dog is food-based,) at home, but if you want to get on my good side, opening the door and asking where the dog is, with genuine disappointment in your voice, is as good a way as any. The effect is especially heightened if you do so while standing next to a huge wheel of homemade focaccia dotted with salt crystals and rosemary which it actually took a physical effort to stop myself tearing a chunk from in passing.

We were placed in a cosy little corner of a banquette mere stumbling distance from the bar, all of which is decorated in a way that not only screams good taste, but seems to have been designed specifically to remind you this is both a restaurant, and a pub. There is a whole wall given over to cookbooks, by a large fireplace, and paintwork in a particularly soothing shade of battleship grey. My wife sat perched beneath a print of the Hertfordshire stag who looked down on all below him and saw it was good.

This certainly extended to the menu, which achieved the tricky balancing act of being both original, comforting, and not containing a single item I didn’t want to order. I think the word I’m looking for here is hearty. Black pudding, mushroom and egg, rabbit, pork and veal terrine, oxtail bourguignon, brill on the bone, Hampshire pork belly. There were subtler options – smoked mackerel salad, or a tiger prawn tagliatelle. Vegetarian options looked good at first, even if they did involve goat’s cheese (they always involve goat’s cheese,) although there wasn’t much for the non-carnivore in the mains section. There was, however, plenty of game, (sorry vegetarians,) lots of braising and a whole section FROM THE JOSPER CHARCOAL OVEN which is, unsurprisingly, where we mostly ended up.

I started with French onion soup, on the grounds that something as classic as this is a pretty good barometer of a place as a whole. I was not disappointed. A beautifully rich, meaty jus of a broth, thick with caramelized onions and a certain boozy oomph. If you order port and brandy at the bar, there is every chance you have something of a problematic relationship with alcohol. Stick it in an onion soup, on the other hand, and I’m pretty sure it counts as a seasoning. I might have liked a touch more gruyere on my crouton, but that is nitpicking of the highest order, especially as I had already hovered up a goodly portion of the aforementioned focaccia which tasted every bit as good as it looked.

Special mention at this point must go to my daughter, who was winning awards for snoozing, thus allowing my wife to get herself very much around a generous portion of freshly Jospered squid, scored, grilled and accompanied by a pleasingly citrus chermoula, rich with an irony bite of coriander – really simple, clean cooking, superbly executed.

Our initial desire to go out had been partly fuelled by a mutual desire to find ourselves a decent steak, and we couldn’t ignore the Chateaubriand flirting at us expensively from the menu. If I was being ultra critical, I would say that it veered ever so slightly to the rarer end of medium rare, but if it’s going to veer anywhere, that is the right way to go. With a piece of meat this good it really didn’t matter anyway. I might also say that £64 is quite a stiff price tag for just beef, bernaise, chips and a clutch of watercress, but once again, this was about the quality of the meat. Added to which, ordering a Chateaubriand and complaining about the price is a bit like going on holiday to Dubai and complaining it’s too sunny. At least ordering a Chateaubriand requires some taste in the first place. Also, the chips were epic.

I took a break at this point to discover the men’s loos were decorated with Modern Toss prints, which added ‘sense of humour’ to my growing list of the pub’s achievements. I’m not sure if there was a baby-changing station in there, because my daughter was behaving so beautifully that the next table even commented on it, probably out of relief as much as anything else. Apart from polishing off a bottle, she pretty much slept the entire time. Personally, I think she was just being appreciative of a truly excellent establishment; a view further enhanced by a few more pulls on an excellent Chinook Amber Ale and the dessert menu.

A fairly workmanlike pear and almond tart was rather taken out to dance by an beautifully subtle cinnamon ice cream, but the absolute star was a perfect vanilla pannacotta, all unimpeachable wobble and toothsome rhubarb on the side. This was another classic, perfectly executed, to such an extent that I feel I should mention the chef, James Rix. Not because I know him at all, but because I found his name on the website – he is clearly an absolute master at work and I cannot wait to return and experience some more of his cooking. Service was impeccably attentive and friendly, and the whole operation seems to have pulled off that difficult balancing act of offering fine dining that somehow feels like home-cooking. The bill came to an extremely reasonable £110 including service, (and despite the Chateaubriand.)

Two very happy parents wheeled a miraculously sleepy baby out into the December night, and returned home to let Bagel know we had had a lovely dinner of Spam fritters and Nescafé. I’m not sure she believed us, so I have promised to take her soon, purely to impress the lovely staff at The Fox and Hounds, and not for my own benefit at all. Even if I really needed an excuse to return, which I don’t, I’m pretty sure I can justifiably claim it’s simply an excellent place to settle the baby.

 

December 2017

Parasties, Heraklion, Crete

IMG_5927In many ways, I would prefer it if 2016 were rerun. Rebooted even, and the present incarnation booted into touch. At the beginning of this year I could still nurture fantasies of seeing David Bowie live, acting with Alan Rickman or swapping jokes with Victoria Wood. Somewhat far-fetched fantasies, admittedly, but technically possible nonetheless. Donald Trump was still more of looming orange buffoon (bouffant?) and 17.4m Brits didn’t have to start most of their sentences with “I’m not racist, but…”

IMG_5928IMG_5941From a personal point of view, though, I can’t really complain. I took the show I wrote about my wife’s treatment for and recovery from breast cancer to Australia, toured it throughout Europe and had my first proper run at London’s Soho Theatre. I ran my first marathon. I have also just completed my first theatre tour of Greece, where, thanks to a slightly bizarre set of circumstances, I now find myself selling more tickets than I do at home. Indeed, the one positive to Brexit for me is that I was away earning Euros the week the pound dipped to its lowest point in 168 years. If you had told me a couple of years ago I would find some tiny level of fame in Greece, I would probably not have believed you. That I have is entirely thanks to my good friend Giorgos Xatzipavlou (George) who asked me to appear in a benefit for Unicef that was shown on Greek TV. I joked at the time that only I could get big in the most screwed up economy in Europe. Little did I realize that a mere eighteen months later, thanks to the foolishness of a significant minority of my countrymen, touring Greece would turn out to be an astute financial proposition.

IMG_5935Athens was to me, for many years, the answer to that question often asked of comedians – “What was your worst gig?” In 2008 I performed at a dreadful corporate to two separate audiences of diplomats’ wives, many of whom didn’t speak English, on either side of a tent in someone’s back garden, sharing a non-existent stage with a full size crystal carriage, a life-size Father Christmas and a faulty microphone. They may have wanted to laugh, but thanks to the enormous amount of Botox and facelifts on display, sadly that was a physical impossibility

Barrie, Botrini & Xatzipavlou

Barrie, Botrini & Xatzipavlou

Now, I am far more well-disposed to the place. Athens is a wonderful, vibrant city, and Greece is a thoroughly lovely destination with amazing food, superb hospitality, unique history, delightful people, terrible drivers, dangerous pavements and, very importantly, sold-out theatres.

Thanks to George (and his manager, Alexandros,) we visited Thessaloniki, Athens, Syros, Crete and Patra and it looks very much as though we will be repeating the experience in 2017. The shows were exceptionally good fun, and, as I discovered on my last trip, so was the hospitality. Once again we ate incredibly well, including another memorable trip to the brilliant Botrini’s as mentioned in an earlier blog. We did three dates in Crete, and were lucky enough to have two rather good meals in Heraklion, one of which I thought I would write about here. Not that the first wasn’t pretty exciting too – our hotel had various succulent cuts of lamb roasting around an open fire in its huge dining room, which was also home to an enormous tank housing a rather large crocodile for reasons no one seemed to wish to explain.

IMG_5932The next day however, we took a trip to Knossos and the very impressive Archaeological Museum, then wandered around the city to find something to eat before flying back to the mainland. Parasties may be a slightly unfortunate anagram in English, but in Greek it’s a rather marvelous restaurant, specializing in local, er…specialities. A lot of this stuff is the sort of thing you can get at any taverna in Greece, but there was an attention to detail and an emphasis on quality ingredients here that elevated it to the really rather special. We were sat on a sort of roofless terrace/front room where the décor was comfortable and on the tasteful side of funky. Lots of wood and earthy colours, reflected in little idiosyncrasies like serving the bread on what appeared to be an old roof tile. Not that easy to hand around, but it was excellent bread, so who’s complaining?

IMG_5931We weren’t. A Greek salad arrived, with one of the finest, creamiest fetas I have ever eaten. This tasted good in a way that made you think of the whole process, from field to sheep to milk to plate. I hesitate to use words like organic, because I don’t know if it was, but it was certainly made by someone who knows their feta. George said it was excellent, and George is someone who knows his feta. Dishes then came thick and fast. We were going to Botrini’s that evening, so were attempting restraint, but that is really quite difficult in a Greek restaurant, especially when George is ordering.IMG_5934

Grilled oyster mushrooms (something of a general find this trip) were superb – beautifully woody with the carbonized char of a well-directed flame. Similarly a spinach pie was all blistered outside and moist, tasty greenery within. Dolmadakies were a huge step up from the disappointing versions we’d had at an expensive tourist trap in Chanai a couple of days before – small, succulent and not served anywhere near a heavily tattooed stag night. There was also a very serviceable plate of puréed fava beans with sweetly caramelized onions. For me though, the absolute highlight was a pastrami pie that George insisted we try – all salty meat, melting cheese and perfect filo, although I’m very glad we also had the snails too – a Cretan speciality – swimming in hot olive oil and rosemary.

IMG_5936Having eaten far too much of this, we should not have been surprised when a rather nice marmalade cake was brought, unbidden, as that is just what happens at the end of meals in Greece. A lovely tradition no doubt, but one that has just caused me to loosen my belt on the plane seat I am presently sitting in as I’m fairly sure I am returning from the Mediterranean with rather more than I brought with me.

Pastrami pie

Pastrami pie

I have no idea how much the meal cost thanks to George’s enormous generosity and almost pathological refusal to allow me to pay for anything. Luckily by the end of the trip I had managed to sneak into a few establishments to get the bill before he realized – much to his consternation as I was apparently using ‘his trick’ which is exactly the sort of underhand deviousness the Greeks have come to expect from the British. Well, the British Museum, anyway.

George’s generosity was reflected in far more than his insistence on paying bills, it was evidenced in his eye for detail on the shows, his (and Alexandros’s) hard work in setting the whole thing up in the first place, and their friendship and hospitality throughout the trip. I have never been made to feel more welcome on my travels and there have been many. Looking at the diary, I can only hope Switzerland, Austria and Hungary are half as delightful in the coming months.

IMG_5939I am a Brit who loves Europe, feels very much part of it and desperately wants to remain within it, no matter what any idiotically binary referendum may have concluded.

As they say in Greece, Efharisto, which means thank you, as being polite to other people, in other countries, in a language other than your own is something we should aspire to, not reject as a weakness in some feeble effort to ‘take back control.’ I appear to have got my country back. Sadly it seems to be the one from the late seventies, and I’ll be honest, I don’t like it very much at the moment. Which is very different from how I feel about Europe in general, and Greece in particular.

Yamas!

 

Oct 2016

Helford Passage, Cornwall

CornwallGlastonbury was tremendous as usual this year, if possibly muddier than Michael Gove’s name in the Boris Johnson household(s.) Some people insist the mud makes no difference to their enjoyment, but they are usually lying, still on drugs or watching the television coverage. We had a brilliant time and I thoroughly enjoyed both watching and performing, but after three days of squodging around in ankle-deep gloop, we fancied putting our beautifully toned calves and (trench) feet up for a couple of days somewhere a little more restful. Happily, my wife had secured a job photographing (www.spinkreative.co.uk) a friend’s apartment a couple of hours down the road in the ridiculously picturesque Cornish village of Helford Passage, and presumably on the strength of her free Glastonbury ticket, allowed me to come with her. So, three days at the world’s best festival followed by three days in Cornwall and all tax deductible – wouldn’t it be nice if all business trips dovetailed so conveniently?

Mackerel & Chowder

Mackerel & Chowder

I defy anyone who comes to Cornwall not to love it and it has been far too long since I’ve spent any time there. Helford Passage might almost have been constructed as an advert for the Cornish Tourist Board, which is going to need all the help it can get now they are realising that if you vote to leave the EU, it is unlikely to continue sending you those nice subsidies you’ve been enjoying for the last forty years. Located at the estuary of the Helford River, like many of the villages in the area, visitors can’t drive right down to the shore as there simply isn’t space. A lot of this is occupied by the quite fantastic Ferryboat Inn, a mere stumble from our small but perfectly formed apartment, which was handy as they also have a small but perfectly formed selection of Cornish Ales on draught. If you were writing your spec for a perfect pub, it is entirely possible you might come up with The Ferryboat all by yourself, but luckily you don’t have to as someone else has already done it for you. Youth unemployment is a huge problem for the area, but one of the upsides is that everywhere we went was staffed by incredibly friendly yet terribly efficient twenty year olds, who probably had more qualifications than most of the people they were serving. Still, if I came from Cornwall I don’t imagine I’d want to leave either.

IMG_4987There is a pool table (but out the back so you won’t get annoyed if you get annoyed by that sort of thing,) plenty of seating at the front to appreciate the views across the estuary, and then casual restaurant style seating throughout the main bar to appreciate the views across the menu. My grilled mackerel was as perfect as taking a mackerel and grilling it could be – crispy skin, juicy flesh packed with flavour and a homemade tartare sauce for which the phrase lip-smacking was probably created. But the star turn was my wife’s chowder, a serious soup with a proper hunk of hake bobbing around in it. To describe flavours this deep as ‘comforting’ seems to be doing them a disservice, but this was so good it would probably have put you to bed and read you a story before doing the washing up. And they brought us chips because ‘they’d just made some’. I mean – come on. A lemon posset topped with a blueberry coulis and candied almonds was again perfectly executed, and two hours into our mini-break I was already considering making an offer on the apartment.

Hell yeah.

Hell yeah.

When I was a child, I hated going for walks. I never saw the point. I ruined multiple family outings sulking over some cliffs or stomping disconsolately round a monument. My principal objection was that any walk that started and ended at the same point was, logically, a complete waste of everyone’s time, and I still think I had a point, but surely one of the clearest signs of getting older is an enjoyment of walks for their own sake. This is very easily done in Cornwall, and the next day we walked along the coastal path, then doubled back and visited the beautifully maintained Trebah Gardens. There aren’t many sub-tropical gardens of the ooh and ah-ing variety located anywhere else in the UK that aren’t under glass, and it’s one of those places that makes you realize with horror you are considering joining the National Trust. There is also a lovely café doing a small selection of light lunches very well indeed – we both had quiche because it felt like a very quiche place, and they were excellent. There were also Bakewell and treacle tarts with clotted cream to die for. My mum would absolutely adore it, which is a much higher compliment than it sounds.

Megrim sole

Megrim sole

In the evening we repaired to The Old Red Lion in nearby Mawnan Smith – another proper pub, with a thatched roof, bar propping locals in the snug and the requisite helpful, youthful staff. I’m not sure I’ve had Megrim Sole before, and while it’s not going to win any beauty contests, it was nicely cooked with a simple lime and caper butter, as was a whole plaice with a garlic and herb version. Desserts were less inspiring – I don’t think I’ll be rushing back for the Triffle (sic) Torte – but it’s certainly not the pub’s fault the main thing I will remember it for is watching England lose to Iceland at Euro2016 in the worst performance I have ever seen. If there’s one thing that’s likely to push the Cornish towards independence, it’s probably the realisation that statistically, they probably now have a big enough population to beat the rest of the country at football.

IMG_4993

Crab

Crab

 

We were told one of the highlights of a trip to Helford Passage is taking the ferry across the water to Helford itself and The Shipwright’s Arms. Having decided that thanks to a spot of rain we would instead drive around the river, thus undergoing a forty five minute drive through tiny, winding, overgrown roads to arrive approximately half a mile from where we started, could I heartily recommend the ferry? It’s small, local, and runs on demand from a kiosk outside the Ferryboat Inn. If you get rained on a bit, you’ll live. You’ll still thank me. Helford is probably where they wanted to film Doc Martin but couldn’t because it is even more picturesque than Port Isaac, and The Shipwright has the confidence of a destination that knows what it’s doing and does it very well indeed. My crab starter came with a healthy portion of punchy white and brown meat, granary bread (from Vicky’s Bakery up the road,) and a salad of carrot ribbons, leaves, tomato, cucumber and apple that just seemed to show that whoever was in charge was a grown up who knew what they were doing. A deep fried Cornish brie oozed all over a homemade chutney and everyone was very

Brie

Brie

happy, even more so when two perfect portions of fish and chips arrived. They were also accompanied by genuinely pleasant mushy peas – something of a contradiction in terms as far as I’m concerned, but not one I’m likely to complain about.

IMG_5001A little tip if you visit the Tate at St Ives – do check if it’s open first. Sadly it is presently shut til March 2017, which must be handy for the summer trade, but we didn’t mind too much, and happily munched a rather good crayfish salad and a couple of pasties at the kiosk overlooking the beach. The restaurant just above it also looked good, but we wanted to wander off and look at art we couldn’t afford in some of the galleries in town. A stop in Falmouth at the National Maritime Museum on the way back was worthwhile, (if only to snigger at the spelling of Cnut in the Vikings exhibition,) before returning to The Ferryboat for a game of pool and a last meal before leaving the next morning. We shared the seafood platter I’d spotted on our first visit, and although I might have appreciated a couple more oysters for the £38 price tag, picking my way through a plate of crustacea remains one of my absolute favourite occupations, especially if someone has sensibly refused to put any whelks on it. We finished with the lemon posset again and a rather lovely sticky toffee pudding.

IMG_5010There was even a band playing that I quite enjoyed, which is a fairly remarkable achievement. I couldn’t be happier than when I’m dancing around to live music in a field, but if they started playing in a restaurant I’d tell them to sod off. Well, actually I wouldn’t, I’d just glower pointlessly in a corner while my wife tutted at me, but it is highly unlikely I’d consider they were enhancing the experience. These guys were playing a very proficient and unobtrusive brand of jazz, but it is as much a testament to the good taste on offer all over this part of the world that I liked them as much as I did. And we didn’t even have to walk through any mud to get away from them afterwards.

Sticky toffee pudding

Sticky toffee pudding

 

July 2016

 

If you’re interested in booking our friend’s one bed apartment, it’s 16b, Helford Passage at www.holidaycornwall.co.uk. And if you think this counts as advertorial rather than absolutely independent criticism, you’d be completely right. You even get 10% off at The Ferryboat if you tell them you’re staying there.

St. Ives

St. Ives

 

Taverne du Passage, Brussels & ‘tZilte, Antwerp

IMG_3661IMG_3669Last week saw me in Belgium for a couple of days for gigs in Brussels and Antwerp to rooms full of extraordinarily civilized people. While I remain undecided which way I will vote should the proposed in/out referendum on the EU materialize next year (in an unusual example of David Cameron actually keeping one of his promises,) my instinctive leaning towards inclusivity would seem to place me firmly in the ‘Yes’ camp. The behaviour of festive audiences in Belgium compared to the UK, on the other hand, would have me happily voting ‘No’ – on the proviso I can move to the continent and leave Britain and its leery obnoxious drunken Christmas parties to float off into the North Sea whilst gangs of pissed secretaries and Neanderthals with self-esteem issues throw up over the side.

Kidneys and sweetbreads

Kidneys and sweetbreads

Pineapple carpaccio & apple tart

Pineapple carpaccio & apple tart

I have been a comedian for too long to put up with some of the idiocy we normally get at Christmas time, and something seems to have clicked in my psyche this year whereby I have properly lost my shit twice in the past ten days; once at a moronic heckler in Greenwich and secondly facing down an entire table of boorish builders in High Wycombe. I am not the aggressive type, so I can only blame a confidence that I wouldn’t have been doing this job all over the world for over fifteen years to rooms full of laughing people if I had never said ‘something funny’ (Greenwich.) Similarly I’m pretty sure I’ve got more jokes than Oscar Pistorius has limbs (High Wycombe) which, to be fair, would have been quite a good heckle if I hadn’t been having a very passable gig to the 95% of the room who had been paying attention up until that point. Even so, calling a builder a c**t and offering him out when he is a) drunk and b) surrounded by lots of other drunk builders, is the sort of idiotic behavior I am only likely to indulge in when I’m on stage and adrenaline has taken the place of intelligence. Still, he left, and I remain convinced that on this occasion, he was a c**t, so I’ll chalk that down as a festive win, thank you very much, especially as his boss came to find me afterwards to apologise for his entire company.

Clam, cucumber, kimchi

Clam, cucumber, kimchi

In Belgium on the other hand, I performed two hour long sets to not one heckle, and generous laughter and applause. That’s a whole hour of me. Twice. And no ‘participation’. Belgians are not just polite, they are clearly also amongst the most patient people on the earth – and all this in a country that thinks nothing of 12% proof beer. God alone knows what havoc that would wreak on the December streets of Leeds or London should it ever spread across the Channel.

Beetroot, capers, thyme

Beetroot, capers, thyme

We spent a day in Brussels first, where I had booked a table once again at the wonderful Taverne du Passage, the stunning brasserie where I had a run in with my nemesis in the form of tete de veau a couple of years ago. The resultant blog was the most popular I’ve ever written, but that positivity was somewhat undermined by the fact I had ruined my own meal to write it. This time I was under strict instructions from my wife to order stuff I knew I liked and we had a quite fantastic meal. Rather like Terminus by the Gare du Nord in Paris, this is simply everything a restaurant should be. The only off note was a misunderstanding that meant my wife had scallops instead of snails to start, but as they were ‘probably the best scallops I’ve ever eaten’ we were hardly likely to send them back. I had the best mushrooms I’ve ever eaten (again) on toast that clearly understood everything tastes better cooked in a lot of butter. I still went a little experimental on main course in that I opted for offal, but my veal sweetbreads and kidneys in a mustard sauce were cooked so beautifully I almost got a little teary. After finishing on a perfect apple tart with the most vanilla of ice creams and a delightfully zinging pineapple carpaccio, we paid the €150 bill happily and headed off to look at some Magritte paintings as we were, after all, in Belgium. This was the sort of meal you could have eaten at any decent continental brasserie at any point over the last couple of hundred years except we didn’t. We ate it at the Taverne du Passage, served by the most charming of waiters (even if he didn’t know his snails from his scallops,) and we loved it.

Poultry liver terrine

Poultry liver terrine

The next day in Antwerp, we had booked lunch at the two Michelin starred t’Zilte at the top of the magnificent MAS tower. This was one of those settings so imposing you almost felt like an intruder – all the way up to the 9th floor to a single door behind which lay some fabulous food and a lot of people considerably more wealthy than we are. Luckily the staff were very welcoming, if a little formal, but that was only to be expected given the extraordinary technique on display from the kitchen. I had had a glass of thoroughly smooth Bordeaux in Brussels, but here we stuck to mineral water just to help us appreciate what was put in front of us. I do like a set three-course menu (€68) when the chef clearly has no intention whatsoever of only serving you three courses.

Scallop

Scallop

Cerviche

Cerviche

A basket of varied and beautiful breads was brought and slowly dispatched through the meal as the first appetizer was put in front of us – malt crackers with a hazelnut sour cream, dotted with a little caviar. The sort of thing Philadelphia and lumpfish roe wants to be when it grows up. This was swiftly followed by cucumber and kimchi clams – all creams and textures (including a little iced puck of cucumber that was a joy to eat.) My only criticism was one of the clams was still gritty, but luckily I am not a Michelin inspector, although, should they be reading, I am very much available, especially over the festive period. The plate was also one of the prettiest imaginable, a theme that continued throughout the meal. This was food as art, and even if I wondered if flavour was sometimes slightly sacrificed to the aesthetic, it was truly impressive stuff. And each dish kept on getting better. Our second appetizer was a delicious concoction of beetroot with capers and thyme, whilst our third (three appetizers! Now that is what I call three courses!) was a sublime disk of ‘poultry liver’ terrine topped with baby onions individually stuffed with langoustine tartar. As my wife said, someone has actually had to stuff each one of these tiny baby onions. This was astonishing attention to detail, and even if a little of you could not help but think ‘what is the point of this?’ you ate it, and realized in that very mouthful the answer to your own question.

Wild duck

Wild duck

Cod

Cod

There was no choice of starter, and a complex dish of thinly sliced pumpkin with its seeds, tuna flakes and diced scallop tartare arrived, followed swiftly by another plate with a beautifully cooked single scallop and a scallop foam, ceps and charred chicory. They complimented one another perfectly, especially the earthiness of the vegetables against the sweetness of the seafood, although we both agreed the fishiness of the tuna flakes was an acquired taste we weren’t quite sure we’d managed to acquire.

White chocolate, sea buckthorn

White chocolate, sea buckthorn

My wild duck main course was another object lesson in plate dressing, with tiny spheres of pear and boudin cutting through the gameiness of the meat and a quite wonderful sauce. My wife is not a duck fan for reasons I simply cannot fathom, but they very kindly brought her a perfectly cooked fillet of translucent cod, with another seafood foam and ceps. Not a million miles away from our starter, but that is hardly a criticism especially considering it was off menu.

Dessert was mind-blowingly good – indeed the only problem I had was that by eating it, it felt a little like destroying a work of art. One made up of white chocolate, textures of sea buckthorn, pistachio, lemongrass shards, wafer thin pastry waves to echo the perspex shapes of the building and a little ginger ale vinaigrette. So, frankly, this was a work of art that needed destroying and we thoroughly enjoyed doing so.

Petit Fours

Petit Fours

Excellent coffee was accompanied by two home made truffles and a plate of quite stunning petit fours including some of the best madeleines we have ever been lucky enough to put in our mouths. The bill came in at €200 including service, which may be quite a lot to spend on lunch, but this level of cooking costs money, and for me, it felt like genuine value for money. Especially as, by my reckoning, our three course meal had been nearer eight courses long, and one gritty clam apart, utterly faultless.

IMG_3663My waistline would not let me eat at Taverne du Passage every day, (although I could see myself putting that theory to the test if I did move to Belgium,) and t’Zilte must go down as one of those rare special treats one allows oneself from time to time, but every now and then you do think ‘Hell, it’s Christmas,’ and this is how I like to behave at my Christmas party. Especially if I have to go and do a gig afterwards, which I am delighted to report was awesome in Antwerp, and infinitely preferable to ghastly in Greenwich, or horrible in High Wycombe.

 

Dec 2015

Byron

 

IMG_3008Apologies if you’re wondering where July’s Food Ponce was, but I was busy writing and previewing my Edinburgh show. If you are following me on social media in any capacity, you may well be aware that I am in Edinburgh. In fact, if you still follow me on Twitter it’s unlikely you will do so much longer if I mention it again.

So. I’m in Edinburgh (‘No More Stage Three’ – Movement, Cowgate, 15:45. Sorry.) Time is at a bit of a premium, but I do have a review to write up that shouldn’t take long, which will be a relief to all of us.

Before

Before

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I met up with our friends Jimmy and Aoife for a bit of dinner before we headed to Edinburgh. (I am there now – did I mention that?) We were in Holborn, and by clever use of smartphone, managed to narrow our options down to one of the hundreds of available eateries in the area. I liked the sound of Holborn Dining Room, so we marched down there, took one look at the very impressive menu and decided we’d all rather pay our mortgages this month instead. (Especially with rent being what it is in Edinburgh, where I am now.) A couple of noses around the outside of average looking brasseries later, one of us remembered we had walked past a branch of Byron’s about three minutes previously. Normally when you meet friends for dinner, you don’t tend to think ‘burger’, but this is a thought process the growth of the bespoke burger chain is working hard to challenge. Something about the suggestion chimed with all of us and off we trooped.

The sides

The sides

The Holborn branch of Byron stands somewhat incongruously next to a McDonald’s a bit like a single malt* stood by a Buckfast* – they’re both ostensibly offering the same thing, but you know which one you’d prefer.

Good company makes for a good dining experience as much as anything else, but so does getting down and dirty with a good burger menu. Another bonus is an efficient waiter taking a nicely dry attitude to our attempts to order most of the menu. He was also huge and impressively biceped. Jimmy is (as mentioned in a previous blog) a fireman, so I was not feeling like the most alpha male at this mealtime, but you will not be surprised when you see what we ordered to discover that my present lack of gym physique is fairly self-explanatory.

Health food

Health food

Between us we ordered two Byron’s – bacon cheese burgers essentially – a B-Rex, with BBQ sauce and jalapenos which Jimmy didn’t eat because he is, according to my wife, ‘a massive pussy.’ I had an excellent ‘Le Smokey’. My burger featured fried onions and BBQ sauce too – of which I am not normally a fan. I tend to find the act of barbecuing something confers enough flavor on it without adding a reduced brown sticky gunge with all the subtlety of cleaning your teeth with marmite. However, on this occasion I was wrong. Le Smokey turned out to be exactly that. A big bold burger that was, like all of the above, moist, perfectly cooked and just enough of a challenge to eat tidily to make the whole process worthwhile. We also ordered far too many side dishes because it seemed completely appropriate. French fries, home fries, mac and cheese, courgette fritters (vitamin fans,) onion rings and a nicely poky jalapeno coleslaw.

Oreo Milkshake

Oreo Milkshake

This was already excellent in just the spoiling oneself relatively unhealthily way a good burger should be, when I tried some of Jimmy’s Oreo milkshake. I had already ordered a root beer or a mineral water or something equally tedious, but having tried the milkshake, I grabbed another passing waiter and sorted out my drinks option pretty quickly. This elevated a really good, fun meal to something actually rather special. So special we didn’t even have room for dessert. Well, in the interests of full disclosure, we walked to the Magnum shop in Covent Garden afterwards to find an hour’s worth of bloody tourists in my way so we grabbed a gelato somewhere else while I had a cry, but that’s another story.

After

After

This was a genuinely brilliant dinner – good stuff, done simply and unfussily. I have thought about reviewing a Byron before – I often stop at the one in Manchester when I’m working up there – but that was before I discovered the Oreo option. I have spent a lot of money at fine dining establishments where nothing has tasted as good as that milkshake. Here, we had plenty of change from £100 – most of which we admittedly gave to our waiter so that he could go and buy some new dumbells as he’d clearly worn out the last pair, but it was money well spent. Then it was time to head home and drive to Scotland where, as we all know, absolutely everything is good for you and there is healthfood as far as the eye can see. Perhaps I’ll see you up here, and maybe you could come to my show which I have, in all fairness, hardly mentioned since the second paragraph.

 

July 2015

* Famous Scottish drinks. From Scotland. Where Edinburgh is. Where I am.

Casanis, Bath

 

Can it be soup?

Can it be soup?

If you haven’t been for lunch with an old friend in the sunshine recently you probably should. I first met Martin in 1982 with the awkward handshake reserved for 10-year-olds who can’t understand why they’ve been forced to leave home to live with strangers. It’s fair to say our friendship has been through many of the tribulations you would expect of 30 years but the fact we’re still meeting for lunch would seem to indicate it’s still intact. The last time we met was at Rowley Leigh’s estimable (and sadly now closed) Café Anglais in West London – a thoroughly delightful restaurant in a curiously characterless room. It was also in Whiteley’s shopping centre, which would have given me plenty of room to sneer, (always good for a blog,) but I didn’t write about it – perhaps because the food was excellent and I didn’t pay.

Quail

Quail

I was working in Bath, our old stomping ground (where Martin still works,) and we’d arranged to meet; the only problem was where. Bath was never that good for restaurants – having claimed to have invented eating out when the legendary ‘Hole in the Wall’ opened in 1952 (and run by an old boy from our school,) it pretty much rested on its laurels for the next fifty years. You can spend a lot of money if you choose (I’m looking at you Royal Crescent,) and there are many of the usual options available to the generic shopping experience diner. I’m probably being slightly unfair – I’m very out of the loop in Bath terms, and it is 2015, where every dive you used to stagger out of in the early nineties now has a cider sommelier and its own range of bespoke Scotch Eggs. I have heard amazing things about Menu Gordon Jones, but could almost feel its answerphone laughing at me when I called hopefully the morning before. However, another friend had suggested Casanis, approximately thirty yards from Martin’s office, which, as these things tend to, had completely slipped his mind. Luckily, he was in full approval, and was waiting for me in the tight little suntrap of a courtyard at the back when I arrived fresh from the joys of parking half a mile away for the fun of it.

Gurnard and bream fillets

Gurnard and bream fillets

There was a pleasing bustle about the place that would probably have dissipated if we’d actually spread ourselves throughout the restaurant, and we got on with the serious business of chatting. It took us a while to get round to looking at the menus, indeed long enough that certain London eateries would probably have tried to reset the table by the time our very patient waiter took our order. Luckily this didn’t take long as it was a smart and confidently short selection of French classics with a couple of specials, all hovering around the reasonable side of pricey.

Iced nougat

Iced nougat

My asparagus and pea soup was green. Very green. Indeed I’d go as far as to say purest green, and see which of you knew which 80s comedy I was quoting to see whether or not we could be friends. It was also somewhat insipid. There were certainly a few peas floating around and I could definitely taste asparagus, but it was easily the most unremarkable thing we ate, which, considering it was perfectly ok and mopped up with some rather nice bread, is the closest to praise it’s likely to get. Martin’s soupe de poissons was much more like it, dark, serious and tasty – a proper classic with all the classic bits arranged classically – and a much better indication of what Casanis is all about. Annoyingly for Martin, I’d also manoeuvred him into ordering the gurnard and sea bream fillets with basil and tomato gnocchi and crab sauce, as I wanted to try it. This was another fine example of what happens when you put good things that work together, er…together, but was also not a million miles away from his starter in taste terms. I did this mainly so I could order the quite fantastic ballotine of quail, stuffed with julienned vegetables and served with one of those shinily reduced sauces that can be called a jus without anyone needing to be punched. Placed alongside this was a square of pommes dauphinoise so French it would have slept with the kitchen sink if it had put on a tutu, and reminded me exactly why this is my favourite way to eat potatoes.

IMG_2861Dessert was a prettily arranged iced nougat, saved from terrible over-sweetness by a sharp red berry coulis, and a proper cheeseboard with comté, stilton, reblochon, camembert and a fine chèvre. This was the sort of food that forced British people in the seventies to admit that France was not all bad, and when done properly, as here, it’s simply very hard to beat. An expertly arranged wine list had led me to an excellent dry white, which I enjoyed so much I’ve completely forgotten what it was, but the bill reliably informs me was a Perrins white at £26.50. All I can say is that the Perrins family know what they’re doing, even if I don’t.

A cafetière and a bill of £100 left us feeling utterly replete, which is not a word I use lightly, but if eating out was invented on George Street sixty years ago, the tradition is alive and very well five minutes up the road. I just wish it had been there thirty years ago as it would have saved my parents any number of mediocre pub meals where they tried to buy my forgiveness for essentially outsourcing me for my entire adolescence. Not that I’d change a thing – for a start, I’d have been eating this meal on my own. Good company in a good restaurant in good weather is where you’ll find me at my happiest, and Casanis more than held up their end of that particular trinity, while Martin and I took care of the company. Of course the sun was shining. It would have been rude not to.

 

June 2015

Athens

IMG_2807Like everyone, comedians have a tendency to complain about their job. Bad gigs, chasing payments, terrible journeys, the crowd that didn’t get you or the TV opportunity someone else did. You cannot blame us for this – moaning about work is so central to the human condition there are cave paintings of people bad-mouthing the boss by the water cooler. With comedians, the ones you should really feel sorry for are the partners who care not one jot that the new Leeds Jongleurs is in a Tiger Tiger, or that Channel 4 have decided topical comedy doesn’t work simply because they made an unholy pig’s ear of The Ten O’Clock Show.

Beetroot meringues

Beetroot meringues

However, in a phrase that I have repeated far too many times on my travels, it still beats working for a living, and there are moments when you really need to thank your lucky stars above you have the best job on the planet below. Sometimes even your partner has reason to be grateful.

I have just returned from a thoroughly delightful trip to Athens to perform at three fundraisers for UNICEF organized by my good friend and fellow comedian Giorgos Xatzipavlou. Frankly, if that’s what it takes to help the children you can count me in. Holidays are a frivolous waste of time, and if you’re prepared to fly me and the wife to Greece to put us in a hotel just for the pleasure of hearing me address a very understanding audience in their second language I’m your man. The shows were fantastic, as was the hospitality, and while Grexit remains a very serious possibility, we boldly ignored it for the week and may well have contributed to a serious upturn in the local economy. Lovely people, wonderful weather, breathtaking surroundings, excellent food, a socialist government and the show was on TV. I was a Europhile before the trip. Now I want to move there.

Cheese pillow

Cheese pillow

Knowing about this blog, George (as he shall henceforth be known as Giorgos sounds a bit over formal and Giorg looks wrong,) was very keen to show us a little of the local restaurant culture, or, to put it another way, he completely spoiled us rotten. After three nights of shows we had a weekend off (I know – where is that timesheet?) before heading to Thessaloniki for the final performance and George took us to Botrini’s. We were joined by his girlfriend Katerina and his friend Steve, who was kindly driving us around and who isn’t really called Steve but whose real name is so Greek not even Facebook can cope with it.

A dreadful picture of a shrimp Frazzle

A dreadful picture of a shrimp Frazzle

I think I’ve been to enough restaurants by now to recognize that slightly tingly feeling you get when you realize you’re about to have an experience rather than just a meal. That sensation was heightened by the arrival of beetroot meringues and was in no way dampened by a light drizzle that took us from our slightly oversized table to a perfectly cosy one under an awning across the courtyard. We had opted for the tasting menu and I always find these rather hard to write about as it inevitably becomes just a list of dishes. Which is a shame because I have just discovered that thanks to the awning, the photos I took of them are truly appalling. Perhaps I would do the meal more service by simply listing the noises we made with each course although that would run the risk of making this blog somewhat pornographic, and there’s quite enough of that on the internet already.

There was some fiendishly clever cookery at work here. You know things are going to get interesting when the waitress comes over to apologise that tonight,

“There will be no octopus in its natural environment.”

Tzatsik-ish

Tzatsik-ish

There was a lot of deconstruction going on, but what was also very clear apart from the superb technique on display was there was a great deal of fun being had, both in the kitchen, on the plate and around the table. After a lighter than air cheese pillow (one of four amuse bouches,) highlights kept coming thick and fast. My notes are a scribbled selection of ingredients that perhaps don’t do the dishes justice, but are probably worth repeating here as the best way to give you a sense of them:

Yoghurt sorbet, goat’s cheese snow.

Lardo wrapped prawn with hazelnuts. Oh my. Like a shrimp Frazzle.

Squid sea urchin truffle carbonara (truly amazing this one, with the squid replacing the pasta)

Veal tongue carpaccio tuna mayo tomato water.

False doughnut

False doughnut

And so on. Many of these were re-imaginings of Greek classics – an octopus stifado arrived on a bed of perfect risotto with a herb snow, (almost definitely not its natural environment,) one of my absolute favourites was a deconstructed tsatziki with a cucumber granita and garlic cream hidden in a white chocolate clove. A small piece of perfectly cooked bream wrapped in a vine leaf. I lost count to be honest, and I ran out of superlatives about a paragraph ago. When you’re finishing off ‘submarine of my childhood’ – a riff on Mastika, a sap that the Greeks use for gum and a rather nice digestif, spherified in a rosewater soup, just before the false ice cream doughnut appears, you realize that when you try to write about food like this, you are essentially talking bollocks. If you want to know what this food is like, you really must go to Athens and try it. After, by my calculations, fifteen courses, my mind was well and truly blown.

This is about as happy as I get.

This is about as happy as I get

Which is what made the next day even more special. My wife and I took the forty minute boat trip out to Aegina, known as The Pistachio Island, because, well, they’re big on pistachios. All along the seafront were the usual suspects – everything from shiny ice cream parlours with plastic seats to bars straining at hipness to family run bistros. I bet you could have a terrible meal here. At times like these you are heavily reliant on luck, and in keeping with the trip as a whole, we rode ours rather well. Having walked through the small but nicely stone slabbed and authentic fish market, we resisted the temptations of the restaurant adjoining it, mainly because it was adjoining it. Instead, we ambled into Ouzeri Tsias, (Ouzeri being the generic name for a place serving traditional Greek cuisine.) Slightly tatty, with just the right touch of homely – we settled ourselves under another awning, and proceeded to have one of the simplest and best meals I can remember. As far as I can tell, the son served us, and when I asked if the lobster was on, his mum showed me a couple and asked me if I’d like mine grilled or boiled. I asked what she would have and so we settled upon grilled, although not until we’d had a very good plate of plain asparagus. I had a couple of cold beers and could have practically wept for joy.

Bream

Bream

My wife had a perfectly cooked bream with some of those greens they’re rather keener on around the Aegean than we are over here, and we shared a classic Greek salads where they just plonk the block of feta on top with some oregano. Every time I have Greek salad I am amazed all over again at the simple alchemy of olives, tomatoes, feta, cucumber and red onion and this was no exception. This was essentially peasant food, for very, very lucky peasants and we got change from £50. Some people want Michelin starred technique and ferocious complexity as was supplied in droves at Botrini’s, some want the simplicity of Tsias. Personally, I see no reason why you can’t have both.

Awards, anyone?

Awards, anyone?

Interestingly, the next night, we kind of did. George took us down to the harbour to Varoulko Seaside – the first Greek restaurant to ever gain a Michelin star. Did I mention that I like George very much? This was another fascinating and exquisite meal, marrying wonderful seafood to cooking that, while slightly less whizz-bang than Botrini’s, was still technically superb and utterly delicious. We ordered an extra starter as we wanted to try cauliflower soup with smoked salmon, which gave us a tantalizing insight into what was to come – deep, smooth and soothing cauliflower seasoned with the saltiness of the salmon and just a note of espresso at the back of the palate.

Seabass carpaccio

Seabass carpaccio

Dorade, purees

Dorade, purees

From then on, we got what we were given and what we were given was goood. Seabass carpaccio with a little pickled seaweed, dorade with a tiny crisp bread coat and pea puree, smoked aubergine mousse and carrot and tomato jam that looked so pretty on the plate until we were told to tszuj them up a bit and taste them all together. Tender cuttlefish with a fava bean puree that might have distracted Hannibal Lecter and perfectly grilled prawns of a size you only seem to get on holiday – sorry, on business trips.

We ordered all the desserts. It just seemed easier and there were enough of us. There can’t be many things more fun than picking at a number of Michelin starred desserts with a group of friends sat by a big glass window next to some yachts. There was possibly a little too much chocolate in the desserts, but you’re right, that is a ridiculous sentence. There was a lemon cube if you wanted palate cleansing, and ice cream to cool you down too. There was everything really – I won’t go into too much detail as I’m starting to feel slightly ashamed of myself just writing this down.

All the desserts and some very lovely people

All the desserts and some very lovely people

The trip to Thessaloniki saw another packed out theatre and a restaurant which I want to call Ntore, but I think that may be another generic term. Anyway, it looks fabulous – like somewhere Tarantino or Scorcese might hold a gunfight – but don’t order the sausage platter. There was nothing wrong with them, except the number. I stopped at three I think, and still don’t want to look at another sausage for a while. But we had really had our gastronomic adventures in Athens.

Overdoing it on the sausages

Overdoing it on the sausages

I had no idea I would come back from austerity-ravaged Greece having put on almost as much weight as I did in artery ravaging New York. I thank George, Katerina and Steve from the bottom of both our hearts, and I cannot wait to go back in November to perform some more theatre shows where it appears they’re actually going to pay me too. Seriously, I would do it for free. Again. Unless you’re reading George, in which case I won’t, but you must let me pay for dinner – I know a little place in Aegina…

 

May 2015

Lussmanns, Hertford

Cod cheeks

Cod cheeks

I’ve just fallen a little bit in love.

A couple of days ago my parents came up to visit us in Hertford for lunch and in keeping with our luck so far this year, our favourite pub proceeded to give us a really terrible meal. This always seems to happen when we go anywhere with my parents. The only thing worse than receiving a main course an hour late to find it’s over-cooked is when it’s my dad’s. When, almost two hours after we had sat down, it was pointed out the desserts we had just cancelled had been taken off the bill as though this was some kind of bonus, he managed to give an excellent illustration of why he is presently having treatment for a heart condition.

I’m not even going to name the place, mainly because I want to go back. It’s usually brilliant, perfectly located at the end of a good walk and takes dogs, but in fairness to my father, on this occasion they gave him every reason to come over all a bit Basil Fawlty.

Pork and rabbit rillettes

Pork and rabbit rillettes

So, when my friend Nick Revell visited the next day, I was feeling slightly less well-disposed towards my recently adopted home town than usual. Luckily I was about to find the perfect tonic. Mr Revell is quite the Epicurean, so I decided to try Lussmanns, a restaurant in the centre of town I’d heard good things about, with two other outposts in Harpenden and St. Albans. Alright – I know it’s not Paris, New York and Milan, but in Hertfordshire terms this is the big time. And frankly, I’m delighted I don’t have to travel far for something so utterly delightful.

The room is simply but elegantly decorated, with paintings that appear to be signed by the chef, which I rather liked. This is an achievement in itself as I’ve been to a number of places over the years where the proprietor has seen fit to inflict his daubs on his customers, and it’s rarely pretty. In this case, however, it added a lovely little touch of St Ives to proceedings. More importantly, that good taste extended to the food. We went for the set lunch at the indecently decent £11.95 for two courses and they went so well we had to have a third (a disgraceful hike to £14.50.)

Steak frites

Steak frites

Nick’s rabbit and pork rillettes was a nicely gutsy bit of cooking topped with a herb crust, while my cod cheeks with garlic, chilli and lime grew in stature the further I got through them. Served in a small frying pan, I prodded tentatively at first, just to be doubly sure I liked cheeks, and not convinced that the garlic shouldn’t have been chopped a little finer, at which point the ingredients all started ganging up on me, a little crunch from spring onion, softer ends of the same vegetable cooked out a little more, and the liquor seemingly intensifying with each mouthful. By the end, I was shovelling it in as fast as I could, until I experienced that lovely bittersweet disappointment of finishing something and finding there’s none of it left.

We were relatively unadventurous for main course, both going for the steak frites, and never has simplicity been so amply rewarded. Onglet can be a difficult cut and is normally cut relatively thin, but this is a kitchen that exudes confidence and if it wanted to serve a thicker slab than we were expecting, we weren’t going to argue. This was what steak tastes like in your imagination – juicy, tender and gloriously meaty. Well worth the £2 supplement, served with perfect French fries and hugely complimented by a carafe of the house Merlot.

Honey & thyme pudding

Honey & thyme pudding

As I have said, it would have been rude to skip dessert after such a main course, and more huge compliments were on the way. At the risk of slipping into hyperbole, I simply can’t remember enjoying a pudding more than my honey and thyme sponge – gorgeously moist and resting on the lightest of caramel sauces; seriously opulent and gently fragrant all at the same time. The use of herbs in both this and Nick’s superb fruit and rosemary crumble (nuts in the crumble, obviously,) spoke further volumes about the quality and imagination on display. The clotted cream ice cream with both dishes just felt like we were being spoiled. And who doesn’t enjoy being spoiled?

Fruit & rosemary crumble

Fruit & rosemary crumble

A couple of espressos later and a bill for £52 excluding charmingly gracious and unfussy service meant we walked out into the sunshine with spring in more than just our our steps. The menu proudly trumpets Giles Coren’s verdict in The Times that Lussmanns is ‘everything a modern local restaurant should be’. It’s impossible to disagree and I cannot wait to return with my wife to show her exactly what I’ve been gushing about. We just won’t bring my parents.

 

May 2015

Bosco, Barcelona

Barcelona has, quite rightly, something of a stupendous reputation for food. I had always considered it a blemish on my CV that I had never visited, and therefore as my wife’s birthday approached, I took what I saw as the perfect opportunity to do something I wanted on the pretext of doing something for her.

St Pau beans and Catalan sausage

St Pau beans and Catalan sausage

We were not disappointed. A short walk from our hotel led us straight across Las Ramblas to the fabulous Boqueria food market. Within minutes I could be spotted wandering around with ham hanging out of my mouth like a late-night fridge visitor, but with nicer ham, sold as it was in little cones, like ice cream, but better. The markets, and the produce, are simply wonderful – places to meander around and get lost in and as much a tourist destination as anything by Gaudi. The temptation to stop everywhere for tapas is almost overwhelming and we did, almost immediately. There was also an evening wander that ended with a lobster paella, which are two words that sit happily together, like ‘seat’ and ‘upgrade,’ which unfortunately don’t happen on EasyJet, no matter whose birthday it is.

In a long weekend we (unsurprisingly) only scratched the very surface of the place. With so much on offer, I was just intent on enjoying myself, and didn’t initially plan on writing about it until we happened upon Bosco, after which my wife looked at me and said simply ‘You have to blog this. This is one of the best meals I’ve ever had’.

Octopus and wrinkled potatoes

Octopus and wrinkled potatoes

Bosco looks from the outside like a rather well designed bar – lots of solid furniture, pillars and a kind of tasteful classic aesthetic. There’s even a fresco for goodness sake. We had passed it the night before and nearly gone in, but the fact it was about ten yards from our hotel meant we had wanted to be more adventurous. Luckily, we were feeling far more conservative on our second evening, by which I mean we didn’t fancy another long walk, not that we wanted to privatise the NHS. Rarely has such a short trip been so well rewarded.

The menu was divided between fairly standard tapas and sections from the garden, the farm and the sea, as well as the rather charming ‘Couple of eggs’ with black sausage, iberico ham or foie gras. Our attention was caught by the specials, or ‘Suggestions of Seasons’ – five dishes in total, so we ordered the lot, assuming they were tapas sized portions. This did not meet with the unequivocal approval of our waiter whose combination of campery and abrupt disdain was displayed magnificently with the words,

“No. Is too much”.

Aubergine tempura

Aubergine tempura

I imagine this is how Kenneth Williams might have behaved if he was Spanish and annoyed at being a waiter. I don’t usually enjoy being told off in restaurants, but on this occasion we went with it, and ordered a couple of specials and a couple of other dishes from across the menu. I’m very glad we did, because very soon all was forgiven. By us, anyway.

IMG_2553Earlier, we had spotted a shop that seemed to sell nothing but beans with a queue snaking away down the street. Thinking that any city that took its beans this seriously must be on to something, we ordered St Pau beans with Catalan sausage which explained what all the fuss was about. This was comfort in a plate, with plenty of peppery, herby, sausagey kick from a pork sausage, earthy black pudding and, er…just really good beans. A plate of the tenderest octopus I’ve ever eaten, with wrinkled potatoes (oh yeah) was astonishing. The merest hint of caramel licked up with salt made this a kind of alternative surf and turf, alongside a plate of perfectly fried aubergine tempura.

Braised oxtail and truffled parmentier

Braised oxtail and truffled parmentier

This was one of those meals where you start giving each other meaningful looks, even if you don’t talk much because your mouth is too busy. As my wife said, even the salad was immense – what was truly wonderful was its simplicity: perfectly crunchy lettuce, cucumber, fresh tomatoes, olives and a little grilled asparagus. We were so preoccupied we didn’t even notice our oxtail with truffled parmentier hadn’t arrived. Eventually I pointed this out, and, when our waiter deigned to bring it over, it more than coped with our undivided attention. Velvety, braised meat in a sauce the colour of one of those night skies you’re always hoping turn up on momentous occasions, this was lifted to the sublime by the richness of the truffled potatoes and little matchsticks of more grilled asparagus for bite. One of the best things I’ve eaten all year, if not ever.

Apple crumble

Apple crumble

We were so effusive by now, I think the waiter even smiled at one point, as though he’d known all along what he was doing. But still he had one last trick up his sleeve. We were slightly worried about dessert, but what actually happened turned a very very good meal into a great one. My apple crumble was perfectly acceptable, which is to say it would have been a highlight anywhere else, but across the table from me arrived four little spheres or ‘bunyols de xocolata’ with halved blackberries and a little caramel sauce. Inside the thinnest coconut dusted coatings was the most perfect warm molten chocolate imaginable. Between us the superlatives kept coming. We even thought of returning for them before we headed to the airport the next day, but decided not to on the unlikely grounds that to have them again might sully a perfect memory.

Bunyols de xocolata

Bunyols de xocolata

With a glass of rioja and water, the bill came to a very reasonable €80, plus a generous tip to try and cheer our waiter up. We noticed the table next to us had ordered so boringly we genuinely discussed going over and shaking them in the direction of some of the fireworks available elsewhere on the menu. Of course we didn’t – I suspect it’s impossible to have a bad meal at Bosco no matter what you order, and with any luck, one waiter’s eyebrow would have sent them scurrying for a special or two whilst we wandered delightedly off into the Barcelona night. I’m not sure if the sky was the colour of braised oxtail, but it should have been.

 

March 2015

 

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