Spielburger, Barnet Everyman

I hate horror movies. I just don’t particularly like the sensation of being scared, weirdly. That is why Hal Cruttenden took me to watch Halloween 2 as part of an idea we had for a podcast, which presently consists of two middle-aged men bitching at each other for six hours in search of an editor. The Barnet Everyman is a cracking cinema – a tastefully decorated art deco number with enthusiastic staff and a lovely vibe throughout. Hal bought us a couple of excellent burgers at Spielburger on our huge expense account beforehand, and then we headed to the auditorium.

To our surprise, we were enthusiastically greeted at the entrance by a man with an extravagant moustache bellowing ‘I told her I first saw this TWENTY YEARS AGO and she had NO IDEA WHAT I MEANT!!!’ at us. Being English cowards, we both nodded politely, walked round him and sat on our comfortable sofa before turning to each other to question what we’d just seen. We soon found out, because our moustachioed friend added greatly to the atmosphere with helpful comments from the back like, ‘Well THAT wasn’t very nice!’ as Michael Myers sprayed gore across the screen. Nothing ruins the tension of a decent piece of cinema like a bellend commentating on it, and this was brought to something of a head when he strolled down to the front row (with his bottle of wine,) sat down and addressed a few more well chosen remarks to the screen. Eventually, some poor, hapless, (and considerably braver than us) teenager was dispatched by the management to ask him to vacate the room, at which point he stood up, declared us all to be ‘C*NTS’ and swept out with an enormous amount of dignity for someone who didn’t appear to have any.

The upshot of this is we were offered free tickets to a future Everyman screening as recompense for the extra entertainment, and being a generous soul, Hal gave me his. I took advantage of these on a rare date night last week to take my wife to see ‘The Favourite’ which was very good, although not quite as good as it thinks it is. I mean, if you can’t win an Oscar for playing a gout-ridden, bulimic, lesbian monarch who has a stroke in the final act, you probably shouldn’t be allowed in movies anyway. I could have won an Oscar doing that. But that is not why we’re here.

I’m on a bit of a January health kick/detox/Christmas cheese belly removal program at the moment, so I had essentially starved myself all day in the expectation of another Spielburger, and we arrived with plenty of time to sit down in the ‘distressed diner’ surrounds of this rather good little burger joint attached to the foyer.

I was going to have the ‘House’ burger I had last time – basically a good old fashioned cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato and a choice of cheeses and/or bacon. Having ordered blue cheese, the waiter mentioned a special version with French mustard and onion chutney, so I went for that with sweet potato fries, while my wife had the House with gruyere and regular fries. The menu is pretty sparse otherwise, but I did notice some padron peppers while we were waiting and added these to our order.

Everything was excellent. Succulent, tasty burgers, although I wish I’d had the House, or someone had stuck some lettuce and a slice of tomato on my special. They also had jars of Beaver Coney Island Hot Dog Mustard which seems to be a kind of American Piccalilli I advise you to go out and buy immediately. The fries were exemplary, especially the sweet potato version in their salty, crispy skins and the peppers were faultless, even if you do have to be going some to screw them up. They were, however, served in a cup and there were maybe ten of them. I have a pack from Sainsbury’s in my fridge – there are fifteen and they cost £1. The Spielburger Ten (two more than The Hateful Eight, two less than The Dirty Dozen,) were £5.50. We also had a bottle of mineral water each, and the bill for our meal came to £35. That is quite a sum I’d not quite realized Hal had spent on me. I must remember to thank him, and possibly not complain so much about having to spend a similar amount on my wife. BUT – that is A LOT of money for two burgers and fries. Yes, they were very good, but I’m not sure any burger is that good.

For years I have been annoyed by the mark up on food at cinemas and the ridiculous deals involving vats of popcorn and litres of sugary drinks, and I know it’s really where they make their profits, but this does seem excessive, even for much better food. I’m just really glad we didn’t have to pay for the film, otherwise, with babysitter, a Tuesday night at the pictures for two would have cost £90. Plus petrol. That. Is. Mental.

I love Everyman. I love the way they look, the way they present the films, the sofas, the fact you can take a drink or even food into the auditorium, the enthusiasm of the staff etc etc. But I’m sorry to say, next time, I probably won’t go the extra mile to Barnet. I’ll do the classic Hatfield Odeon/Nando’s run and still have change out of £60. I can’t blame Everyman for the cost of the babysitter, and I can’t really fault Spielburger for the quality of the burgers. I’ll just have to make sure every time I go there from now on, Hal Cruttenden buys dinner and there’s a nutter in the auditorium as well as pricing the menu. And with prices like these, who needs horror movies?



Jan ‘19

Hal is presently on tour, which he rarely mentions. If you go along, he’ll probably buy you a burger. Tickets are available here: https://www.halcruttenden.com/tour/

The College Arms, Hertford Heath

Guinea Fowl

The Sunday lunch is a venerable institution for very good reasons. Really, it should be simplicity itself, but it is not always so. We have all sat around cold plates of shoe leather in brown water, presumably left over from cooking the vegetables over (several) nights, which does at least soften the accompanying pucks of hardened batter in a futile attempt to make them more pudding, less Yorkshire. However, as the UK continues its journey away from international culinary laughing stock to experiment with more complex and divisive reasons for the rest of the world to dismiss as peculiar self-harmers, the dreadful Sunday roast has, thankfully, become that much harder to find. I make a good one. My wife makes a better one, much as it pains me to say so. What I think everyone can agree on is finding a pub near you that does a really good one is a discovery to be cherished, and once you have done so, that pub is likely to be the beneficiary of your custom for years to come.

I could wax lyrical here about any number of regular haunts over the years, but we all have our own, so, as a generous soul (but particularly lazy writer,) I’d like to invite you to take a moment to remember some of yours.

There. Nice, isn’t it?

I think I may have found the latest incumbent of the hallowed title of ‘Alistair’s local’. We’ve been to The College Arms about four or five times now, and it has only varied in standard from the very good to the absolutely excellent. We’ve even taken my parents there and they are the KISS OF DEATH to any establishment, as I think I may have mentioned previously.

Since getting married, moving out of London and becoming a dad, the biggest change to my Sunday lunches is they tend to involve more people and I don’t get to read the paper any more. Oh, and a bit more food ends up on the floor, which means the dog is happier too. My brother-in-law was staying with us, so we made a last minute decision to book and thankfully they found space. There is a restaurant if you call a little earlier and are not well disposed towards our four legged friends, in which case I don’t particularly want to sit next to you either. As it was, we found ourselves neatly tucked away with a high chair in a corner of the snug next to another family with a baby and a dog, like the sort of advert that makes you throw things at the telly.

There is a decent a la carte of relatively typical gastropub staples, but with a couple of dishes that hint at more ambition – a beetroot and butterbean slider, or a Catalanfish stew – but I have no problem with staples. These dishes are there because done well, they taste really good, which is exactly how The College Arms does them. We didn’t even have starters, but went straight for mains. My wife and her brother both had roast lamb, which was just about as spot-on as a Roast Lamb Sunday Lunch could be – perfectly cooked, moist and tasty meat in generous portions with the sort of Yorkshires my wife can make and I can’t (an extra one is another 50p, so they even have their own price tag.) What really elevated the whole experience though, was the perfect vegetables. It’s so easy to get bits of a roast wrong and they just don’t. I, naturally, went a bit more poncey and ordered the guinea fowl because we have history. About a decade ago, I lived with a dear friend, comedian and filmmaker, Barry Castagnola, who very kindly put me up in his flat when I was very much in need of being put up with. Early in my stay he told me about the local pub and the fact they did a good burger. When I came back he asked how it was, I airily said ‘Oh, I had the guinea fowl’ and he has not let me forget it ever since. This one was served as a supreme with crispy skin in a red wine jus, on a bed of kale with wild mushroom sauté potatoes and was every bit as epic as that sounds. I even splashed out on a Yorkshire pudding as it didn’t come with one (sacrilege!) and sent Barry a picture.

Obviously dessert was a requirement after this, and once again the kitchen proved that a little care goes a long way. My brother-in-law had an excellent chocolate tart that I would like to tell you more about but he was only handing out pieces too small for anyone else to taste. A square of bread and butter pudding with apricots running through it and sat in a large pool of custard might as well have had ‘comfort’ tattooed across its knuckles. I was left with a slightly deconstructed apple and rhubarb cheesecake. Now, in my book, a cheesecake needs a base – this had a ginger ‘crumb’ casually tossed across it. If I was being ultra picky I would suggest this left it as more of a splodge than a slice, but as I ate it, I (almost) became converted. Small blobs of rhubarb jam gave the cream cheese something to work with, and wafer thin slices of dried apple gave it further acidity and the textural contrast the crumb was trying to achieve. It was delicious, even if I thought it wasn’t at first, and that is quite a feat.

Service was exemplary throughout. Well, they forgot a pint of lime and soda, but I almost hope that was just to remind us how little else they got wrong. £80 for three and a half of us, including service, seemed a fair price for a truly lovely meal. If you are looking for the perfect Sunday lunch, I would recommend The College Arms unreservedly, but I won’t, because I still want to be able to get a reservation.

Jan ‘19

Noya’s Kitchen, Bath

If anything, comedians hate Christmas more than turkeys, mainly because turkeys can only die once. There are benefits to performing in rooms full of office parties, fuelled by 364 days of workplace frustration, a nagging sensation they wouldn’t socialize with the majority of their tablemates during nuclear fallout, a fundamental dislike of live comedy and inordinate quantities of expensive cheap wine, but last Friday night in Bath I was struggling to remember them from the stage. Admittedly, I’ve had worse. At this time of year the real benefits occur offstage, including, on this occasion, the opportunity to spend three days getting paid to live in the city where I went to school.

This also meant the chance to spend time with old friends. I was delighted to be performing with Laura Lexx, who provided a masterclass in how to MC rooms full of what our other colleague, the brilliant Mark Nelson, described to me in a Facebook message after Saturday’s gig as ‘C****NNNNTTTTSSSS.’ I also got to have lunch with Mark at Corkage on Walcot St, a small plates restaurant with a stunning wine list we were unable to take advantage of (much to the waiter’s distress,) due to the need to not be as pissed as our audience a few hours later. We had an excellent lunch, nonetheless, joined as we were by a man I shared a bedroom with from 1982 to 1989, which is exactly the sort of thing that people who went to boarding school think is normal, which is why most other people find it so weird.

I would write a review, but having discovered they have a second, more restaurant-y venue in Queen’s Square, I’ll save that for another day. Added to which, Corkage was recommended by another old London mate who has put up with me blogging our lunch innumerable times, now lives in Bath, and had booked Noya’s Kitchen on the Saturday. Philippa has excellent taste in many things, (including friends, obviously,) and as I walked into the restaurant with its impeccable colour scheme it looked as if she had done it again, were it not for the fact they couldn’t find our reservation. It is testament to the lightness of touch about the whole place that they made this very much their problem, not ours, and a perfect little corner table was found immediately.

I really don’t have a great deal to say about the food other than it was more perfect than the décor, the table and the service. This place is superb. Everything you could possibly want from Vietnamese cuisine, with the possible exception of a pho, which was sadly absent from the menu on this occasion. The food had all those wonderful combinations of sweet, sour, hot and salty, brilliantly realized in every dish. There is not an extensive menu, but as I get older, I’m beginning to appreciate that more. I think it’s an Italian tradition that you turn up at a restaurant and they give you what they’ve got, and I’m coming round to the idea. When you live in a society that (erroneously) fetishizes choice, being told what to have is something of a relief.

We shared three starters – delicate but hearty prawn summer rolls, which would have been outstanding on any menu, but here fell slightly behind some gloriously sticky corn & sweet potato fritters, given a pleasing crunch from their iceberg lettuce leaf platters. Pork dumplings were even better. Unctuous filling and crispy pastry finished off with generous globs of a chilli concoction that was the refreshing assault on the tastebuds December cries out for, even if we were in downtown Bath, not Saigon.

Mains were, by this time, predictably wonderful. Phil’s chicken stew had all the warmth of proper comfort food with the almost medicinal tones of ginger running through it, while my pork with vermicelli noodles was simply astonishing. Literally every gastropub that sticks porkbelly on its menu, as if it cooking it is simplicity itself, needs to come to Noya’s (they have a cookery school,)  to learn how to do it properly. Everyone talks about meat ‘falling apart’ but getting it to stick together at the same time is quite a feat. I could have eaten another plate of just the pork itself given the opportunity, but would have hated to do without the beansprouts, red onion, peanut, and oh, all those Vietnamesey things, all covered with a radish infused sauce that was half dipping, half porky smokey stock.

One of the glories of Asian cuisine, at least to a Western palate, is not usually dessert, which may explain why Phil simply went for a Vietnamese coffee. I am, nonetheless, always prepared to give things a try, and, like the martyr I am, availed myself of a quite outstanding chocolate brownie with mango ice cream. A dry brownie is a sad, sad thing, but this was extremely happy, the richness of the sticky chocolate perfectly complimented by the mango. We washed everything down with a Kiwi Riesling/Sauvignon Stump Jump, which was the ideal accompaniment to those bold Noya flavors and is highly unlikely to be served at any comedy club Christmas parties.

At £65 (without service) this was also a (very) fair price for a delightful meal. I would love to come back in the evening, as they also do supper clubs, tasting menus and all that jazz. To be fair, I would have jumped at the chance to go back that night, but I had to join forces with Mark and Laura to do battle with a table of army driving instructors dressed as Peaky Blinders – honestly, sometimes the jokes don’t so much write themselves as turn up in fancy dress. Luckily I was on first, had what seemed to be the best of them and then jumped on a train full of far worse people than I had left behind. Luckily, almost all of them got off at Swindon, where I will not be appearing in panto this season, and I was able to reflect on three lovely days, some excellent company and two wonderful meals only interrupted briefly by, well, you know…Christmas.

 

Dec ‘18

Dishoom, Edinburgh

Certain things irritate everyone. One of my pet hates is busy restaurants because it usually means they’re really good and I can’t get a table. This was very much the case with Dishoom during the Edinburgh Festival this year, which led to a slightly unfortunate altercation with the (otherwise enormously helpful) staff. I had heard wonderful things from Marcus Brigstocke, who had apparently received a round of applause from his fellow diners on finishing his food (he is a man of prodigious appetites, is Mr B.) I had also heard tales of wonder concerning the breakfast naan from Paul Sinha, who is certainly a man who knows his way around an Indian flatbread.

So, my wife and I tootled along early one evening, only to be told there was an hour plus wait for tables, and were given a pager which would apparently buzz when one became available. It was not a particularly warm August evening, but after a bit of discussion, we decided we could sit outside as there were a couple of tables free, and maybe move inside later, which is when the staff explained this would mean they had to take our pager off us and remove us from the waiting list. This struck us both as officious and unnecessary, but we were hungry, so we grumbled over a couple of menus, which is never the ideal start to a meal. As we ordered, spots of rain appeared, and I explained to the waiter that if it started raining in a properly Scottish fashion, I would be leaving without paying for my food. The waiter then explained they didn’t have an awning, which is when I explained this was the exact reason I wouldn’t be paying for our food should it become damp. I also think I might have pointed out that if you are a large restaurant which is open all day and has a waiting time of over an hour at 6pm, you could probably afford a f**king awning, so mightn’t it be an idea to get one?

Luckily the rain held off, and I seem to remember we had some nice okra and a very tasty black daal amongst other things, but to be honest, the whole experience had left a bit of a bad taste in the mouth, which had nothing to do with the food, and we paid quickly and walked down to Brasserie Prince on Princes Street for a decent dessert to cheer ourselves up.

This weekend I found myself in Edinburgh again – with no sign of a festival going on whatsoever, thankfully. I was playing the quite marvellous Stand Comedy Club, and the lovely flat they house comedians in is a mere two minute walk away from Dishoom, so I thought we should give each other a second chance. And I wanted to try that breakfast naan, dammit. Imagine my irritation when I arrived fourteen minutes after they’d stopped serving it. On the plus side, a table had been found immediately and my bright and breezy waiter explained enthusiastically/apologetically that they were very strict on timings as it’s a halal kitchen, and everything needs to be cleaned down to start the rest of the day’s service. To be fair to Dishoom, it’s hardly their fault if I turn up for breakfast at midday.

I considered going somewhere else for what was clearly, by this point, lunch, but decided against it and was rewarded for my indolence. I ordered three small plates – a delightfully sticky chilli chicken which I motored through like popcorn at the movies. Also, a pau bhaji – a smooth vegetable curry with hot buttered buns (fnaar,) freshened up with a little lime and chopped red onion. In a nod to my naanlessness, the waiter threw in a couple of extra buns which, as I’d also ordered a vada pau – a thoroughly pokey little potato butty with an exquisite green chilli paste – I didn’t think I needed. I really wasn’t going to eat them until I did.

I don’t normally blow my head off this early in the day, but it’s safe to say this was not food for the faint-hearted. Real heat, but married with proper flavours, and washed down with a delicious lime soda made from, er, lemon. All this for around twenty quid with superb service and my entire opinion of Dishoom had been magically transformed. It is easy to see what the fuss is all about with food this tasty, and fun.

Still, no breakfast naan – #sadfaceemoji etc. It was only Friday, though and a quick conference with the front desk, whom I now felt so much better disposed to than I had in August, meant I presented myself back in front of them at ten o’clock the next morning.

I am happy to report there is no finer way to start your Saturday in one of the world’s great cities than with one of the world’s great breakfasts. I opted for a bacon, egg and bacon naan and it was a thing of deep, deep beauty. Why on earth have I never had a bacon sarnie with a naan before? Why haven’t you? Excellent ingredients wodged together with a little fresh coriander that just threw in an occasionally welcome herbal note, and a homemade brown sauce that is how I imagine HP tastes in heaven. My only criticism is I wanted another, but my wife gets irritated enough with my Instagram feed while I’m away as it is, and I really wanted to get up Arthur’s Seat, so further carbs and fats and proteins would have been somewhat counter productive.

I’m ashamed to say that in over quarter of a century of visiting Edinburgh, I had never made it to the summit, and I’m very glad I took the opportunity to do so today – the view down is every bit as magnificent as the view up has always been. I’m equally pleased I decided to give Dishoom another go. Twice. I’m sure it won’t be another twenty-five years until I make it back up Arthur’s Seat. If only Dishoom opened before I had to get to the airport on Sunday morning, it wouldn’t even have been twenty-four hours before I’d be visiting them for another naan. I hope we’d both be pleased to see each other.

Nov ‘18

Aqua Pazza, Boston

IMG_2005There is so much to love about America, and I think we have to add American waiters to the list. As long as you can stifle the giggle reflex, their desire to accommodate your every whim, whilst exuding Moonie-ish levels of happiness and bonhomie AND making you feel like you have ordered better than anyone else ever in the history of restaurants can make for a truly heartening dining experience. I *know* no one can read a menu like I can Chris, but *thank you* for saying so. Now please stop beaming for a second because at this rate your face will be killing you by last orders.

I had never been to Boston before, and it is a sturdy, square-jawed kind of a city. One of America’s insecurities is its youth as a nation, but if there is a state that can claim some serious lineage it is Massachusetts and the surrounding area. Settlers first arrived nearly four hundred years ago and probably found themselves as welcome by the local inhabitants as they would under the present regime. Plus ça change. We walked the Freedom Trail, and attempted to go for dinner in the Union Oyster House, but a wait of over an hour was too long for us, especially with a little one it tow, even if it is the oldest restaurant in America. There is, admittedly, a lot of this about in Boston, including a number of the oldest pubs in America within spitting distance which gave the whole place a slightly disconcerting similarity to central Nottingham.

Finding ourselves in the Italian Quarter, we essentially took pot luck with Aqua Pazza, which the door plaque informed us was ‘a Frank DePasquale concept’, and as it turns out, Frank knows his concepts. Despite a relatively busy marble cocktail bar, a raw bar, shiny glassware and softened lighting of the sort you find in a place where deals are done and assignations, er, assignated, they found us a high chair and made a little family of Brits feel hugely welcome. My daughter even got crayons to eat, which is always a bonus.

Chris, our beloved waiter, would indeed have been mocked by a puppy for his wide-eyed eagerness, but I say this in admiration, not admonition. When you can report back from the kitchen that a certain item can be cooked ‘without removing from the dexterity of the dish’ while keeping a straight face, you have my vote, not to say my undivided attention while I try and work out what the hell you’re talking about.

There is an excellent selection of seafood and Italian accented specials and we ordered fairly simply and quickly – parenthood does tend to mean the luxury of languorous dining is a thing of the past these days. There was some excellent sourdough, which I’m pretty sure Chris took commission on as he kept on bringing it as fast as I could shovel it into my mouth. This was probably a good thing, as the portion sizes were not extravagant, but I’m happy to report the flavours were.

My starter of tuna crudo – flash seared fish with a green curry paste and enough chilli to give it proper attitude – was a refreshing thing of beauty, while my wife’s tartare of the same fish was a similar delight for the taste buds but with the added texture of a natty little wonton cannoli.

Scallops with cauliflower is boring, so I ordered it to see how good the kitchen was. I can cheerfully report the reason this is a classic combination is that it tastes like one, and this was simply the best version I have ever eaten. While portion size in terms of extras may not have been excessive, I’m pretty sure six actual scallops is a pretty good return on a $30 investment and they were cooked to perfection. This was a nutty, brassicy, buttery kind of a dish, with a lot of caramelisation going on. I loved it ever so slightly more than my wife’s lobster roll, which although beautifully indulgent, was still a sandwich, so I won. I should add that the roll came with truffle crisps, which were so good I’m starting a campaign to have them installed as the only crisp flavour allowed from now on. All this was washed down with a ‘frizzante’ (someone’s been Googling) glass of Vermentino which Chris said was ‘possibly his favourite wine ever to go with seafood’. I avoided the temptation to ask him if there was anything he didn’t like, mainly because it really was absolutely bloody lovely.

We should have had dessert, but it was a Friday night, and the restaurant was obviously hotting up for the kind of weekend service that I would be delighted to take my wife to if we hadn’t got a small attention-seeking missile launcher with us. It also allowed us the luxury of leaving an American restaurant without the feeling we were about to burst from conspicuous consumption, which is genuinely the only time this happened in an entire holiday. It wasn’t cheap, but food this good shouldn’t be, and anyway, someone was going to have to pay for Chris’s therapy and the surgery required to return his face to its natural state.IMG_2109

We sauntered off into the night, utterly replete, and were able to return to Boston a few days later and grab an afternoon plate of some of the best oysters I’ve ever had at the Union Oyster House. Service was once again impeccable, and even included a lovely man who brought out a lobster the actual size of my daughter to take photos with her. Twice. It may be a tourist hotspot with plaques all over the place listing all the famous people who’ve been there, but there is a reason for that. People want to go there. And I want to go back. I also want to go back to Aquapazza. And Boston. And America. But I would prefer it if they made Chris President.

 

Oct ‘18

Partick Duck Club and Nonya, Glasgow

RAZQ1150
In these times of heightened sensitivity in the gender wars, it’s probably not a brilliant idea to admit to a little light stalking. Still, at least I’m fessing up, so American conservatives can rest easy I’m unlikely to take my place on the Supreme Court any time soon. The unfortunate recipient of my attentions is the food writer Marina O’Loughlin, who I’ve never actually met, but with whom I like to think I have struck up some sort of relationship via social media, which is exactly the sort of thing a stalker would say. In a very crowded market place, she is undoubtedly the wisest and funniest commentator on the modern restaurant scene in the UK, which is obviously the main reason The Sunday Times poached her from The Guardian and why I therefore had to swallow my anti-Rupert principles and sign up to breach their firewall for my designated two free articles a week. To get my own back I only read one.

Knowing from my own extensive research (/more stalking,) that Marina hails from Glasgow originally and finding myself there for a long weekend at the excellent Stand Comedy Club, I dropped her a line and was rewarded with a couple of recommendations, which has done nothing to diminish my nerdy fanboy status.

Glasgow is such a handsome city. Of course there are parts you wouldn’t want to walk down on a dark night, but there is a reason that Washington DC nicked the template. I walked down Argyll St, bang into the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, just sat around a corner being all magnificent, on my way to The Partick Duck Club. This must be one of the most wonderfully named restaurants I have ever visited, and they explain all about it on their website so I won’t bore you with it here. The food was anything but boring.

Do you remember when cauliflower used to be crap? Overcooked, pale and flaccid or just buried in cheese sauce to make it acceptable? Don’t get me wrong, a good cauliflower cheese is a thing of beauty, but I remember the first time I roasted some in the oven just for the hell of it and suddenly found out it was my favourite vegetable. A bit of chilli and oil and char and hey-presto! That’s exactly what they did here but better with a little crème fraiche, micro herbs and spiced nuts to accentuate the already nutty tones. Simple perfection. I followed it with the duck leg as I felt I had to. Some might say the addition of duck fat fries and a crispy duck egg into which to dip them might have been slightly overdoing it, ducky. I would simply refer them to the name of the bloody restaurant. Not only was this a glorious celebration of a wonderful ingredient, it was lifted to another level by the addition of a pineapple chutney which cut perfectly through the fattier notes and found me in the not unfamiliar position of licking the plate. All this was washed down with a very decent ale I’ve forgotten the name of and meant I had to have a pear frangipane tart with candied orange crème because…well, because.

I could not fault the food, and service was so exemplary that when I dropped a piece of cutlery a waiter came running over with a new fork, not because he’d seen me do it, but because ‘it sounded like a fork’. All this and coffee for just under £40 (excl service) seemed like a steal – O’Loughlin was clearly on fire.

Nonya is a rather different proposition – just around the corner and further proof of why the West End is becoming one of Glasgow’s hottest areas if you want to eat well or punch a hipster (the two often go hand in hand.) While the Duck Club is an all day affair, and still retains a charming pubbiness, Nonya is a little more restauranty, but no less welcoming for all that. It looks like a restaurant – stylishly designed, comfortable without being imposing. And there is some seriously good stuff coming out of the kitchen via South East Asia. Laab spiced chicken heart skewers with a little five spice on the side were exquisite. They were on the menu as bar snacks, which should make your average peanut cower in shame. There were peanuts on the menu too, but they were soy braised with celery and spring onion, so I imagine they held their heads up high. I didn’t bother with them as I was getting a bit carried away further down the menu with a spinach and bamboo dumpling that now holds the prize for the nicest dumpling I have ever eaten – crunchy on the outside, gelationous and beautifully flavoured within, with a jumpy little dipping sauce to hold the whole thing together. A curried venison roti was still listed as a bar snack, but was anything but – the meat and slightly oily, crunchy roti freshened with a chilli, red onion, cucumber and coriander salad that was like being slapped about the chops in a friendly way.

This trick was also pulled off by a (very generous portion of) flash-fried onglet from the Small Plates section of the menu, from whence I also ordered a pork belly, aubergine and black bean hot pot that was more a cuddle than a slap, and all the better for it. I stopped at this point because the walk back to my hotel was really not long enough to work much of this off. This is not the kind of stalking that does much for the waistline.

Clearly you can take the journalist out of Glasgow, but you can’t take Glasgow out of the journalist. It continues to be a favourite city of mine for any number of reasons, and now I have a couple more. Not only that, I also retain a healthy (I hope) appreciation for the talents of one of Mr Murdoch’s finest employees, whom I’m very much hoping will regard this blog as the compliment it is intended to be rather than a cause to apply for some sort of injunction.

 

Sept ‘18

Farm, Tallinn

IMG_9940Well I wasn’t even going to blog it, but as I now find myself with four hours to kill in Oslo airport having just spent £18 on an unexceptional burrito and a bottle of water, I need something to occupy myself, and writing about Estonian cuisine just seems the obvious choice to distract myself from bankruptcy.

I was delighted to find myself back in Tallinn at the Komeediklubi (sorry, fluent Estonian, don’t like to show off,) working for my good friend Andrus Purde. I was even more pleased to find I was travelling with Nick Doody, an exceptional comic and thoroughly good egg whom I have known for nearly twenty years. The only problem was the fact our flight had been at 7am, it was lunchtime, -10 and we really wanted to eat. We took a wander around the Old Town and eventually plumped for Farm, mainly because the menu looked good, and only partly to avoid a man who was asking Nick for money. Once inside I knew we had hit some kind of jackpot simply by virtue of the utterly baffling display of stuffed animals playing cards in the lobby, as though some ambitious Estonian taxidermist had seen one of those old pictures of dogs playing snooker and really decided to up the ante.

I always love it when the guardian of a conspicuously empty restaurant asks if you have a reservation, and then makes quite a play of checking the bookings when it is abundantly clear they could happily sit you at one of about fifty tables, but this was a fairly short-lived amusement, and we were soon shown to a large table near an open, glass-walled kitchen. I wasn’t wild about the décor – it looked as though a department store designer had been handed a brief marked ‘rustic’– but it was neat, tidy and clearly designed to appeal to tourists, which was handy, as that’s essentially what we were.

And I have to say it did appeal, hugely. The menu was a fascinating collection of game, fish, berries, herbs and the heartiness of Eastern European cooking with a Baltic influence. By which I mean there was potentially a lot of sour cream about. There was even a decent vegetarian option of mushroom cutlets, even if I could tell their heart wasn’t really in it. It wasn’t cheap either, with most main courses starting around the teens upwards, and one does tend to get a lot less for one’s Euro these days, so we opted to have mains only. But first we were brought Estonian black bread, baked in house and not something I thought I always appreciated. As I said to Nick, if it looked like cake, it should bloody well taste like cake. Our charming waitress informed us it was best enjoyed with butter and a few flakes of sea salt, although, as Nick pointed out, everything tastes better with butter and a few flakes of sea salt. What I was not expecting was for it to genuinely taste like cake, and really good cake at that. This was helped along merrily with a couple of glasses of local beer – a pilsener for Nick and a ‘red’ beer for me which was a delicious, full bodied challenge to order a second, which we nobly refused to do because, you know, professionalism.

When the mains arrived, possibly my only criticism was the portions were slightly less hearty than the ingredients, but my grilled ox heart with potato and roasted garlic cream was a tender, meaty delight, nicely enlivened by a few smears of juniper and some perfectly cooked yellow beets and green beans. The only slight misstep was a quenelle of tarragon butter that I didn’t think really qualified as a sauce, but then the dish didn’t really need it, and besides, it went very well on a second order of bread. Nick pronounced his pike fillet excellent, if a little bony, but then that is rather like attempting to leave the EU, then finding it was a little more complicated than living up to a slogan on the side of a bus. It is par for the course.

We decide to call it a day at that point despite being mildly tempted by a selection of dairy based desserts that I’m sure would have cleansed our palates admirably. The bill came to €45, including exemplary service, and with this level of cooking really resembled something of a bargain. There is an element of the tourist trap to the place, with its in-house bakery and adjoining café on site, but then if you’re going to trap me somewhere, feed me excellent beer, bread and intriguing flavour combinations while I natter away to an old friend, you are unlikely to find me complaining. We walked back out of the front door to discover three stuffed owls sitting on a grand piano that thankfully no one had started playing while we ate, and I wrote something complimentary in the guest book while our coats were retrieved. I fully intend to return to Farm next time I’m in Tallin, where I very much look forward to enjoying Estonian gastronomy again, if not, possibly, the taxidermy that may well make some of it possible.

March 2018

Salt House Tapas, Liverpool

IMG_9850Well, this was a teeny bit crap, to be honest. I apologise for laying my cards on the table so early, but this is a review, not a whodunnit. I’m also very sorry to anyone from Salt House Tapas who reads this and thinks it’s a bit unfair, mainly because the reason it was a teeny bit crap was, I’m afraid, mostly down to the service. And I want to apologise to them again if that hurts their feelings, because they seemed like lovely people, just not very good at, you know, serving lunch.

I was up in Liverpool for the weekend to play the soon-to-be legendary Hot Water Comedy Club, which seems to be redefining how successful a relatively small club can be – four shows on Saturday including two almost unheard of (for the club circuit) matinees. This is very good news both for comedy, and comedians. They also use social media in a way that is revolutionising how they publicise themselves. It was for this reason I checked out of my AirBnB first thing on Sunday morning, and had a day to kill around town before taping an hour long special for their new YouTube subscription channel that evening.

There’s only so many times in a day you can write out the set list you intend to do before going slightly mad, (especially as events can conspire to alter the running order quite so conspicuously, more of which later,) so I had made a mental note to find somewhere nice for lunch. Having already had a (very good, but very bad) burger in Almost Famous the previous evening and spent most of Sunday nicking the WiFi from Joe and The Juice in John Lewis, my main consideration was finding somewhere that wasn’t playing house and techno at ear-splitting volumes. I don’t even know if they’re called that any more, I just know I don’t want to pay £5.20 for a carrot, apple and ginger juice whilst feeling like it’s 3am at Manumission in 1992.

I had passed Salt House Tapas on my walk to work every night of my stay, so I took the only plausible option on day four and walked in instead. I had already had a good (and sizeable) breakfast at Bill’s around the corner earlier, so there was no need to go full on crazy, however tempting the menu appeared. One of the great joys of tapas, of course, being that you can meander round a menu a fair bit without breaking the bank or the waistband.

I was a little put out to find they had run out of padron peppers – those carbonized, salty packages of goodness which are usually first on my order, but these things happen. There was a three plate plus bread option for £12.95, so I opted for sea bass, tenderstem broccoli and an apple, grape, avocado and rocket salad. And if you know anything about me at all, you’ll know I also ordered a large plate of cured meats that cost more than everything else combined.

There was a bit of confusion while taking the order, mainly down to the waitress struggling a little with my accent. This was nothing to do with a Scouse/London divide. She was, I’m pretty certain, Spanish, and even if her English was a little halting, I’m hardly likely to complain at being served tapas by a Spaniard, especially when the first thing she brought me was some sourdough that was so chewy, crusty and downright delicious I almost didn’t dip it in a good olive oil. I was actually pleased with the small portion as otherwise I could have quite happily scarfed an entire loaf.

This is when the problems began. A beautiful portion of hand carved Iberico D.O.P Bellota ham arrived, and I greedily polished of a few rosy shards. Thing was, it wasn’t what I had ordered as there was no chorizo or salchichón. When I pointed this out, I was rather hoping they might bring them separately and all would be well with the world. But no, dear reader, they took the plate.

*clutches pearls*

Never separate an Al Barrie from his Iberico – the whimper could be heard in the Wirral. But fair enough. A short while later, my sea bass appeared and was really rather good, all crispy skin and succulent flesh cleverly offset with charred leeks and a fruity green olive tapenade. I thought about trying to ration myself til everything else arrived, but rationing is not one of my strong points, and it was all gone even before the replacement charcuterie arrived. If the shoulder was all silky, salty excellence, the chorizo was a little disappointing – slightly dry and not as punchy as it might have been. The saltichón was perfectly serviceable, and I would have been thoroughly content if only everything else had arrived.

By this time, another table had sat down a couple of feet away and ordered. I had finished my charcuterie and watched, a little put out, as their food was delivered. They had prawns, soup, a salad, and something else hot that I couldn’t identify without leaning across and pinching a forkful, which I was sorely tempted to do as my salad and broccoli still hadn’t arrived. Eventually I called another waitress over to ask where they were, and was asked, slightly primly, if I’d been informed that everything was prepared from fresh and arrived in the order it was cooked. I avoided the temptation to point out that a salad needed very little cooking, and spent the next couple of minutes looking pointedly at my neighbours’ plates in a peculiarly British display of non-complaining. My Spanish waitress then came over to explain that everything was prepared from fresh and arrived in the order it was cooked. I wanted to say, “I know. That’s how tapas works,” but I didn’t. I may have been getting a little irritable by now. Eventually my food arrived, but clearly assembling a perfectly simple salad and charring a little broccoli in the mid afternoon lull could only have taken this long if they had forgotten about them. The former was fine (and fresh) and the latter was perfectly acceptable even if the accompanying ‘hazelnut tarator and pumpkin and sesame crumb’ hardly screamed nutty seedy craziness. There was a perfunctory apology for the wait, but what would have been really nice was some ham, bread and sea bass to go with it.

These were not bad ingredients – in some cases they were superb, but the final irritation was still to come when the bill arrived. I had been charged £9 for the plate of ham I had sent back, but not the £13.50 for the plate I eventually received. Being a generally moral sort, I pointed this out, which I think would have been the perfect opportunity to make amends by waiving the extra charge, and this would have been a much happier piece of writing. Instead, an amended bill was brought with the full price now coming to £28. I like to think I’m a generous tipper, and I still left a couple of quid – I’m not a monster – but at £30 for a light lunch, I would suggest Salt House Tapas should do better. Liverpool is a hell of a party town with a thriving restaurant scene, and next time I imagine I will carry on walking past rather than in, rather as the couple who were thrown out of my show later (and then arrested,) probably wish they had done. The staff and management at Hot Water were brilliant, and the fact it hardy disrupted the gig at all was testament to their skill at dealing with a potentially tricky situation. Perhaps they might head down the road to show Salt House Tapas how to handle a much more trivial matter that could have been dealt with very effectively by the simple application of a little common sense.

 

February 2012

 

 

 

Pholympics

vietnamese-pho-recipe-2If you asked me for my favourite things to eat, I’m pretty sure Pho would be up there. I was first turned on to this deeply flavoured, hearty but aromatic (in the right hands,) concoction by Anthony Bourdain in one of his books called ‘How I became too cool a chef to bother cooking much anymore,’ or something like that. I don’t mean to be snide – ‘Kitchen Confidential’ was excellent. ‘A Cook’s Tour’ seemed to be exactly what someone who’s worked hard their whole life would do with the opportunities to have a bloody good time success afforded him. So fair play. And he can certainly spot a trend. I don’t know how much it was down to him, but nowadays you can’t move for joints offering beef noodle soups all over the world, from roadside stalls to upmarket malls. I’m now slightly worried there aren’t any left in Vietnam, but until I get round to ticking that particular country off my bucket list, I shall just have to eat their national dish elsewhere. I love it – my wife makes a brilliant one, there are pop ups offering speciality ones, huge chains offering dizzying varieties and what is so fascinating about it is that for what is ostensibly a fairly simple dish, it can accommodate so many permutations.

I eat a lot of Pho. It is comfort food, hangover cure, refreshing, satisfying and reassuring all in one go – all those things derived from the magical Asian alchemy of hot, sour, sweet and salty.

In the interests of full disclosure, I also thought of the word ‘Pholympics’ and decided I wanted to use it.

So, from now on, I’m going to keep a record of the Phos I try, and give them a star rating out of five. As a comedian, I know just how irritating that can be, so I feel it is time to annoy someone else with it. I’m even going to do halves, cos they’re really bloody infuriating. And I’m going to use a soup bowl emoji instead of actual stars, like some kind of irritating broth hipster, and you can’t even punch me because I am living far away inside the magical internet. So there.

 

IMG_98241. My Pho, Liverpool.

Bit of a game of two halves this, which seems appropriate. However, as I was up in Liverpool for four days and went twice, that should tell you this funky little eatery is well worth a visit. There are bright murals on the wall, lots of good things on the menu, and a definite ring of authenticity. I have decided that for Pholympics I am always going to order the Phò Tái – with thinly sliced beef, partly for consistency but mainly because I always do anyway. First however, I ordered the tiger prawn summer rolls, a copper-bottomed Viet classic, which looked so amazingly appetizing when they were delivered, I chomped greedily in, only to be surprised by their almost complete tastelessness. This was weird, as everything looked so right, from the juicy little crustaceans in their pancakes, to the chopped red chillies in the dipping sauce. They just tasted a bit meh. Sorry, but that was that.

The pho arrived shortly after and was, well, decent. Not as deeply flavoured a broth as the very best, despite the boast of the ten hour cooking time and the need to taste before adding chillies. I added all my chillies, although, as usual, I then spent quite a lot of time fishing them all out again. Not bad at all, and certainly good enough, cheap enough and close enough to return for lunch the next day, when things took a definite step up. Unfortunately part of this involved a transfer to a fixed high stool that seemed to be ergonomically designed to prevent you from ever getting comfortable. However, some chicken summer rolls were a vast improvement on the previous day’s prawn version, and a plate of crispy chicken wings sent me flying back to a little street stall I used to hit with alarming regularity on a couple of trips I’ve made to Kuala Lumpur. These were excellent, and the soup was better too. Not that the first one was bad, but what this does speak of is a kitchen that makes everything fresh every day, and all I got was a little variety, which is frankly, what we spend most of our lives pining for.

Both bills came in at just under £20, and I’m pretty certain I’ll be popping in next time I’m in Liverpool. I would advise you to do the same. So, maybe not a gold medal to kick off Pholympics, but certainly a decent silver.

🍜 🍜 🍜 and a ½

Feb 2018

 

2. Pho, Covent Garden

This is the big one. The bells and whistles venture-capitalist-backed-wannabe-mega-chain, the Nandos of the noodle soup world. Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Pret, Leon and every other specialized foodie start up wants to find its niche, expand furiously and make zillionaires of its founders and investors. And that is the society we live in, so you can moan about it whilst singing The Red Flag, or you can nip in between gigs to eat their food. Like many of the aforementioned establishments, Pho wants to be careful it doesn’t go the way of Byron, a huge success story that now appears to be back-pedalling at quite a rate on its initial expansion, and closing a significant number of branches. But hey, what do I know about spreadsheets, economic climates, market share and world domination? I just like soup. And Byron, as it happens.

I first came across Pho in Brighton, and you have to say they do what they do very well. There is an extensive menu of Vietnamese classics and the food is vibrant, fresh and tasty. They have grown quickly, and when you travel like I do, somewhere you are pretty much guaranteed a healthy portion of one of your favourite dishes is surely to be welcomed. I was zipping between gigs in Leicester Square and Drury Lane, hadn’t eaten and had half an hour to kill. My legs practically walked in by themselves.

I have written before (ad nauseum) about my annoyance at music in restaurants. Something in the background is fine, and I do like music – I am aware it can enhance an atmosphere. I just generally don’t like to be overwhelmed by it when I’m eating, especially if I’m with someone and want to have one of those old-fashioned things known as a conversation. I was on my own on this occasion, and I may well just be getting old, but I still don’t quite see why diners need to put up with banging techno quite so regularly. I do realize that the last sentence could quite happily just read ‘I may well just be getting old’ but if I want to turn into my dad, it’s my blog, and I’m very happy to do so. He’s a terribly nice chap.

But this was really about a smash and grab raid for some soup, so maybe the bpm were simply there to speed the process along. The place was full (it was 9:30 on a Saturday night,) but a small corner table was found for me almost immediately, and I ordered without needing to see a menu. The pho was dependably good – excellent, tender beef and a good selection of herbs including proper Thai basil. I was going to moan about the somewhat mingey portion of three bits of chopped chilli, until I chucked them in the broth to find it already had a reasonable kick of its own and promptly picked them out again. I also had a plate of Morning Glory – that fabulous, garlicky water spinach that I could eat by the plateful, but always slightly annoys me by being priced between £6-8, which seems a bit stiff for what is essentially a side order.

I have to say, in this instance, it was also very heavy on sinewy stalks, which may have been a reflection of what was left by the time of night I was eating. It still tasted good, and I suppose may well have given my digestive tract a healthier workout than usual, which has led me to a possible interpretation of how it got its name that I really don’t need to share here. So, not the best, and I do still get slightly irritated by the long handled wooden spoons they insist on giving you for your pho. I know it’s their thing, and I know it was probably what Tristan and Jocinta like, actually ate the soup with in this, uh, fabulous little noodle bar, where they rubbed shoulders with genuine Vietnamese and had their, you know, epiPHOny in downtown Saigon in ’03 – but I’ve never liked them.

That is personal prejudice, as is the fact that I genuinely applaud what Pho does; there is a great atmosphere, service tends towards the impeccable and the pricing is generally reasonable – under £20 for a filling and satisfying meal. I am no fan of chains, but when you’re on the road as much as I am, a good one that does something you like very well is to be treasured. The delightful waitress also gave me two tokens for free Phos at any of their outlets, which not only explains why I will be back sooner than later, it also explains the extra half star they lost on account of some slightly difficult spinach.

🍜🍜🍜🍜

March 2018

 

IMG_00363. Pho Wardour St

Walked all the way through the snow on a freezing Monday night to find it closed with no explanation and therefore no way of using one of my vouchers. Had to settle for sushi instead of a warming bowl of pho. No stars/bowls whatsoever as I’m feeling vindictive.

 

March 2018

 

IMG_08024.Sunshine

To the Melbourne International Comedy Festival for what was a lovely month of shows, food and company in a city I have visited a couple of times, but would never say I knew well. There is another blog on the way about some of the fabulous food we ate there, but, as I am updating Pholympics first, I thought it was quite important to mention we appeared to visit Pho heaven while we were there.

My cousin has lived in Australia with his wife and two daughters for many years and kindly offered to put us up for the duration of the Festival. When I asked him where exactly he lived he said,

“Sunshine”,

And I said,

“That sounds nice,”

To which he replied, “Yes. It does.”

Sunshine is not venerated by Melbournians. It is a little loved suburb to which the nickname ‘Scumshine’ has unfortunately been attached, and provided me with quite a nice little opening routine for some of my shows. I think you’re asking for trouble calling somewhere ‘Sunshine’ in the first place, confirmed by the fact there used to be a gritty Aussie soap/drama set there which was rather more The Bill than Downton Abbey. But, in fairness, like all suburbs within a short train ride from a big city, it appears to be on the gentrify, so to speak, and we actually became very fond of it. One of its biggest selling points, apart from the delightful free accommodation afforded us by the kindness of my cousin and his family, was the biggest concentration of Vietnamese restaurants on the high street I have ever seen. I have not been to Hanoi, but I imagine even they would be run close. On my first day I popped into one deli to pick up some Banh Mi for lunch, and on Day 2 we went for Pho at Pho Hien Saigon.

It was absolutely excellent. There were some other dishes on the menu, but we went straight in with some excellent prawn summer rolls and Phò Táis. There were even three sizes. I only ordered the large once, as even I struggled, but the medium was ample and it was as near to a perfect rendition of the dish as I can ever remember eating. There was so much that was good about the place – one of the waitresses slicing up mounds of fiery red chillies in the corner, the tenderest rare steak gently poaching in the broth as you ate, free tea on the tables. I could not fault it.

In fact, it was so unimpeachable, I think we went back about eight times. We developed a routine order, also including some lovely little prawn spring rolls that came with crisp lettuce leaves and a fabulous dipping sauce – mostly fish sauce and chilli, but with shards of carrot and just the perfect combination of sweet, sour, salty and hot to compliment the fish and the pastry. We were in Pho heaven.

IMG_0450Having said how many other restaurants there were, we really should have widened our net further, but once you find perfection, it is difficult to look elsewhere. We tried one other – Côdô, and it just wasn’t anywhere near as good. A greasier, less beefy broth, the noodles a little over cooked, the beef tougher. They had some decent ground beef parcels and water spinach, but I was in love, and it wasn’t with Côdô.

If you are ever in Melbourne, it is unlikely you will make the trip to Sunshine unless you have a specific reason to go, but I would suggest that Pho Hien Saigon really is worth the trip. Hell, typing this from my office in Hertford, I’m even tempted to just jump back on a plane now. You can fault my lack of imagination, but when you have a whole blog dedicated to one type of soup, and you find the perfect incarnation of that soup, you will be fully aware that a lack of imagination is someone else’s problem, and that the five bowls of soup under this review are for Saigon, who could do no wrong in my eyes, and not Côdô, who could. I am already plotting my return to The Melbourne Comedy Festival, and if I’m honest, it’s not entirely for the comedy.

🍜🍜🍜🍜🍜

April 2018

OK Diner

IMG_9610The life of the itinerant comedian is not always* a glamorous one. I think it was Bill Bailey who decided to take a break from the circuit when he realized he had a favourite service station. This will be a familiar sensation to any road warrior – a title a friend of mine laughingly bestows upon us as it sounds a lot better than Waze Guys or Costa Defectives.

You need only a passing acquaintance with Kerouac or Cash to be imbued with the romance of the road, but it is a different beast in the UK. Surrounded as we are by coast, any road trip longer than a day inevitably ends up rather damp. As a result, even the least experienced comedian soon knows our dear, benighted and presently very messed up country better than almost any other profession. Quite early in their career, he or she will have developed preferred routes, haunts and eateries. Many of these are burnt on our cerebellums in perpetuity, or would have been had Google Maps not surgically removed our ability to remember the simplest of directions a few years ago, in much the same way mobile phones robbed us of our memory for numbers the decade before.

My own personal speciality these days is the A1, a hilariously underdeveloped sibling to the M1, which is often quieter and and less given to pile ups and average speed checks than its closest relative. One of my favourite foibles of this resolutely unsexy road are the occasional Sex Shops which regularly pop up either side of it. I have no idea who gets turned on by endless miles of trunk road, but there is clearly a market for those who get to Peterborough and realize they’ve forgotten their butt plugs. There is another one just past Grantham in case you’ve forgotten anything twice, and should you leave your love eggs somewhere (or in someone) up North, there’s another on the southbound carriageway just before the A14. Which must be a relief.

There are also a number of branches of the OK Diner which appear from time to time, giving the entire road the feeling of a slightly tawdry, overlong and under illuminated Las Vegas strip. Sex shops and British diners. It’s half a surprise they don’t just rename it Route 69 and have done.

Now, I have a deep and abiding love for Americana, and America. As it goes through the torments and convulsions with Trump that are not so very different from our own with Brexit, I feel a very great sense of sorrow for the present state of a country I have lived, worked and studied in. I also have an enormous fondness for the diner, whether in the art of Hopper or Hollywood, or the endless cups of coffee I used to consume at Palookah’s in Wilkes-Barre PA, while listening to Lee Dorsey’s Yah-Yah on the table jukebox when I was 18 and lucky enough to be at High School there. I have always been tempted by the OK Diner experience, if only for the resolutely British lack of ambition in its name.

Which is, sadly, where the problem lies. There are many things we British do well, but aping the Americans is not one of them. One only need observe Wimpy, tuition fees or the ongoing inability of British TV to produce a decent nightly topical comedy show (I am still available, dammit,) to prove this. However, a combination of my own inexorable progress around the roadmap of the UK, and a free day during which I discovered the existence of an OK Diner round the corner from my Holiday Inn, just outside Chester, meant I had both the time, and the inclination, to see just how OK the OK experience was. If it was truly awful, at least I could blame the Welsh.

To be fair, while a concrete cluster of Subways, McDonalds, KFC and petrol availability does not scream ‘destination,’ the designers at OK Diner have stuck manfully to the task of furiously ignoring their locale. They have beefed up the décor with exactly the sort of prints and bric a brac that create the sensation of somewhere desperately trying to pretend it’s America whilst resolutely refusing to acknowledge it overlooks the A55. But hey, the welcome was warm, the music towards the acceptable side of the expected and there was a happy bustle around the place. I was plonked into a solo booth, handed a menu and brought some surprisingly pleasant filter coffee.

Health food, it ain’t, but then you knew that. The menu resembles Donald Trump’s bedside reading. You know where you’re at when the item below the All Day breakfast is entitled ‘The Bigger One’. But then again, it’s a diner – if you want quinoa and bircher muesli, you’re in the wrong place. At times like these, it is best to embrace the situation, which is why, despite considering the burritos, pancakes, burgers et al, I ended up ordering the ‘Homefry Hash’ – ‘New potatoes griddled with onions and red peppers served with our tender beef brisket in a sweet and tangy sauce topped with two fried eggs’ – on the basis that, if nothing else, it did at least contain a vegetable. I don’t count the potatoes or the onions, and admittedly I was daring the sauce to be dreadful.

And you know what? It wasn’t. Despite my worst fears, the sauce was neither over sweet nor too tangy – if anything, it was masked rather effectively by the eggs, and some properly cooked down, melting beef brisket that would put many a pop up street food stall to shame. This was genuinely tasty, filling, and a relative snip at £7.25. Throw in a really very good strawberry milkshake, a touch of Elvis and some delightful Welsh waitresses performing some sort of bizarre relay with the condiments until they collapsed into giggles and I couldn’t have been happier.

Hell, I even ordered dessert. Sadly that is where things went awry. I’m pretty sure their ‘Famous Original Cheesecake’ isn’t all that original. It might be famous, but only in the way, say, Ted Bundy is famous. This was a soggy-bottomed, loveless affair that screamed mass-production and stuck to the roof of your mouth in exactly the way you wished it wouldn’t. There are worse things to have stuck to the roof of your mouth than a baked vanilla cheesecake, but what elevated this to the unspeakable was the metallic crime against raspberries that came slathered upon it. A good raspberry sauce is a thing of beauty; this was a maroon atrocity that would make brake fluid feel good about itself. It looked very much as though the sweet tangy sauce I had feared on my main course had been sneakily smuggled on to my pudding as an afterthought in the vague hope I wouldn’t notice. As Monica’s mother once said of Rachel’s British Trifle with mince, it did not taste good.

Which is a shame really, because everything else did. I may have gone in without the greatest of expectations and a possible inclination to write an unpleasantly snobbish hatchet job. However, my bill for a hearty lunch came to a very reasonable £17.95 before service, which was exemplary. The nice ladies of the Chester OK Diner not only made me feel very welcome, they gave a delightful North Welsh slant on the big-hearted Diner waitress that is a staple of every Hollywood movie from The Wild One to Goodfellas. It was Americana via the A55, and you now what? It was OK. I mean, it’s not my favourite, but I left Elvis, and the building, in a very good mood and, as someone once said in another movie, I’ll be back.
January 2018

 

*very, very rarely.