The Pig & Whistle, Beverley

I do not wish to be unkind to a town that has always had more than its fair share of detractors, but when you’ve had one good lunch in Hull, it’s probably best not to push your luck searching for a better one the next day, even if I’m sure the £10 special at Viet Memories I had promised to return for would have been excellent. Luckily, I was armed with a Twitter recommendation and a car so I took the Highway out of Hull and headed for Beverley and The Pig and Whistle.

One of the great joys of Britain (and there really are some left,) is how quickly one can slip from urban sprawl to the sort of verdant fields, rolling countryside and harmonising birds that quickly bring out your inner William Blake. I highly recommend the Fall’s version of ‘Jerusalem’ if you fancy hearing that dichotomy in musical form, unless you are my wife and refuse to accept The Fall are, or were, in any way musical. It was on her behalf I took a detour to nearby Skirlaugh to pick up some photography equipment she had bought online, a place whose main achievement appears to be a name whose pronunciation bears little resemblance to its spelling. ‘Sker-La’ apparently, which must perplex any visiting Americans, but then it was on to Beverley, a delightful market town which I’m sure would live up to all their expectations of both the English language and Olde Worlde charm.

Of course one the great drawbacks of Britain (and there are really some of those left too,) is parking, or the lack thereof, which was why my initial pass through the town centre left me trapped in a one way system involving a craned neck, sat nav rage, ludicrously late turning decisions and danger to other road users. It is for this reason I must say, to even my own surprise, thank god for Tesco, whose decision not to charge people to use their carparks does, in the world of modern capitalism, begin to resemble a gesture of almost secular saintliness, were it not for the fact it is still Tescos. It would be nice if the NHS tried to do the same but of course that would be communism, comrades.

I was now a little late for my booking, and slightly concerned by the fact I had not spotted my destination as I drove past it. I was beginning to wonder if my cross words with the sat nav had led it to withhold vital information from me when I arrived to discover the real reason. The front of the The Pig and Whistle is a very modest, some would say unprepossessing, window with a couple of chairs and tables outside which could very easily be taken for any old coffee shop. But as I was about to find out, it was anything but (even if they do do excellent coffee.)

Once inside, I discovered there was, if not quite a Tardis effect, certainly a very comfortable and tastefully decorated restaurant at the back of the room away from the main bar and kitchen area. Only one of the twelve or so tables was occupied which seemed a little strange on a Saturday lunchtime, so I took a seat to find out what everyone was missing.

Quite a lot as it turned out. The menu is mostly tapas, with a couple of hot dishes, charcuterie and a very tempting blackboard of daily specials and another of deeply advanced (and highly tempting) bar snacks. It is a place to graze or to blow out. Your choice. I think I got it just about right. I was sorely tempted by a plate of Lindisfarne oysters, but resisted, and went down the simple tapas route. What I eventually ordered was the absolute definition of that wonderful phrase ‘an elegant sufficiency’.

As has been noted before, I am yet to meet the plate of Jamón Ibérico I haven’t ordered, so deep dark pink slices of melting porkfection were soon delivered to the table, with the addition of picot, those little Spanish breadsticks I can take or leave, frankly. Luckily I ordered some extra sourdough which was excellent, especially with the addition of artisan Netherland Farm butter, all salt crystal crunch.

I was already very happy.

Alongside this, a plate of patron peppers were everything they should have been, generous, simple, delicious. A remoulade of celeriac and kohlrabi in a punchy mustard and caper dressing was a thing of beauty, perfectly cutting through the richness of the ham, but the real revelation was a plate of spinach with chickpeas. I have never got chickpeas. They always seem to be a sort of vegetarian makeweight, and for anyone saying yeah, but houmous, I would say, exactly. I could happily go to my grave never having bothered my tastebuds with that particular brand of wallpaper paste again, no matter how organic your olive oil. But served with spinach and perfectly seasoned with paprika, garlic and cumin this was genuinely one of the best tapas dishes I have ever eaten. Anywhere. LIke complimenting Tesco, I can’t believe I am saying this either, but well worth the trip on their own.

I really didn’t need the treacle tart with creme fraiche and raspberries, but I had to have it, just to keep you informed. A delightful sugary hit after quite a salt heavy main, it disappeared from my plate almost before it arrived, alongside an espresso, the quality of which I have already vouched for.

The bill came to just over £50 including service, which is rather an expensive lunch for an itinerant clown who was performing in Hull for the weekend, where the wages are hardly beyond the dreams of avarice, but it was in no way expensive for what it was. I would go as far as to say it was the perfect lunch.

I wouldn’t normally mention a trip to the loo at the end of a meal – why would you? But in this case I must make an exception. Allow me to explain. It’s quite a big loo – indeed, with a little careful restructuring one imagines it could be downsized to provide room for more tables, but then it wouldn’t leave space for all the evidence of the kitchen’s provenance. The chef at The Pig and Whistle, James Alcock, has a serious pedigree, as proven by the huge variety of menus and memorabilia from some of London’s finest establishments on the walls – a Pollen Street Social menu, a Ducasse signature, a job offer from Marcus Wareing. I could have stayed for hours, but as there were still bafflingly few customers, I thought the friendly and attentive waiting staff might worry I’d passed out in there from a surfeit of pork. And contentment.

Any restaurant where you realise you are on hallowed ground simply by reading the toilet walls must surely be a good thing. But of course, the best way to find out is by simply eating there, and thanks to @frivoliteabakes I’m so very glad I did. Get yourself to Beverley, sisters.

May 2022

Viet Memories, Hull

Now, where was I? Well, not Hull for a start.

If you want to hear my thoughts on life for the last two years, could I gently suggest you might like to attend my new show, ‘Alistaircratic’ at the Edinburgh Festival in August? We’ve all had to deal with varying levels of hardship and abstinence, but the absence of a minor comedian’s food blog on your timelines has not been anyone’s most pressing inconvenience. I have not so much missed writing them as I have missed going to restaurants, but now we have come blinking out of the bunker, paler and fattier than we went in, hopefully the hospitality industry is getting back on its feet – just in time for World War Three.

The comedy circuit has certainly staged some sort of recovery, and I have been back on the road for a number of months. There have been plentiful opportunities to start blogging again, but I also have a living to earn/replenish, a new show to write and two toddlers to wrangle. There have certainly been a couple of culinary highlights – a superb tasting menu at Thompsons in St Albans for my fiftieth birthday, and a thoroughly debauched lunch at Rules with my oldest friend which I fully intended to write up, but unfortunately can no longer remember. Clearly, an excuse for another visit.

What finally nudged me into action was the combination of a weekend in Hull, playing the excellent Comedy Lounge and a Facebook post by my friend Paul Tonkinson. Paul had been stopping at Fiori’s, a sandwich shop in Leicester Square, for over two decades, and on the latest of innumerable visits had discovered it was closing down. He wrote a rather lovely piece about his last tuna salad on toasted poppy seed bagel, and the strange nature of comedians’ relationships with the people and places they come into regular contact with as part of this strangely itinerant but often repetitive existence we enjoy.

There are many door staff, technicians, bar staff etc we will have worked with for many years and, to our eternal shame, still don’t know by name, the moment of opportunity to ask having vanished in a shuddering cloud of insurmountable embarrassment many moons ago. There are cafes, coffee shops, sandwich bars, restaurants, running routes, cinemas, galleries, museums all of which we have come to know and love, and many of which have ceased to be and which we mourn a little each time we go in search of a new favourite.

What it also means is there are less and less new experiences open to those of us who have been round that circuit more than once or twice. Hull, however, was one of them. I have played there a couple of times, but never stayed. As I fixed an orange towel over the skylight to make up for the lack of blind in my hotel room I thought there might be a reason for that. I woke the next morning feeling like I’d slept in a can of warm Tango.

Far more importantly, it meant I had no idea where to go for lunch. Hull does not have a great reputation as a destination of class and grandeur, and as I walked into town I reflected that this did not seem entirely unfair. It is a classic case of a town that has been left behind, a destination for a lot of the same identikit high street outlets, a feeling less of soullessness than neglect. It reminded me of Southampton in the late seventies, which is hardly a ringing endorsement.

I had appealed for suggestions on Twitter and drawn a blank. In this situation I have one inevitable tactic. I googled Nandos – in times like these, the devil you know is a fine and noble option. So imagine my surprise when I rounded a corner to stumble across Viet Memories, and naturally, stumbled inside.

I have written quite a lot about my obsession with pho, the famous Vietnamese noodle soup, to the extent there is a section in this blog called Pholympics, partly as a comparison between the various ones I’ve tried but mostly because I was childishly pleased with the pun. Sat inside this rather welcoming room with Vietnamese telly on in the corner, what I assumed were Vietnamese chefs in the kitchen, some goldfish I felt were a little too big for their bowl on the counter, and a lady who was most definitely not Vietnamese behind it, I decided I need to try something different.

My asparagus and king prawn dish was absolutely excellent – a great choice in a menu that appeared to be straining with an abundance of them. Fat, juicy prawns with perfectly cooked asparagus spears, spring onion and carrots resting on a sauce of the cooking liquid heavy with umami. I ordered a side dish of perfect egg fried rice and just chucked them on top with a generous couple of spoonfuls of a punchy chilli oil. It was bloody marvellous.

It wasn’t cheap. My meal with a tip and a sparkling water came to £25, but neither was it expensive for what it was. They also do a lunch option of one course and a drink for a tenner, which I told the waitress I would be coming back for the next day to try the pho.

Sadly, I lied. In the meantime, I had received a tweet telling me about The Pig and Whistle in nearby Beverley which I visited for lunch today and which is highly deserving of a blog in its own right. Now that I’m back into the swing of things, I shall attempt to make sure it gets one. I shall also attempt to make good on my promise to return to Viet Memories, because from very unpromising beginnings, they managed to provide me with a very memorable lunch.

Hull is typical of those towns that have been left behind, where people like the owner of my hotel explained to me that he was a Brexiteer the day after Jacob Rees-Mogg announced a fourth delay on import checks to the UK because it would be an act of ‘self-harm’ – a full admission the UK cannot afford the deal this government has imposed on it, and which will do further untold damage to places like Hull. I do not believe the mythical levelling up agenda be anything more than empty sloganeering either, but somethings do give you hope. 

I took a run around the football stadium this morning which looked in fine fettle. I was touched by a number of murals reflecting the city’s proud maritime history which indicate a desperate sense of community beating away under the surface. The existence of a fantastic purpose built comedy club in The Comedy Lounge is a development to be treasured. And being served delicious Vietnamese by a woman who insists on calling you “luv” at the end of every sentence is another.

There is always hope for the future, my friends, especially when the recent past has been so harsh. And I know what I say is true, because I’m writing about yesterday’s lunch and I already know tomorrow’s is epic.

My Viet Memories are awesome too. Well worth the trip to Hull. And back.

April 2022

The Three Horseshoes, Madingley

This was meant to be a butter-soaked, garlic drizzled, artery-busting love letter from one of the great Parisian brasseries where I took my wife for her birthday last night. I had been looking forward to it for months. Unfortunately, after a delicious starter of langoustine ravioli in a pungent, truly ballsy lobster bisque, I found myself out on the pavement a few minutes later, heaving my guts up while forty-two Euros worth of sole meuniere went cold on my plate. I have not named the restaurant in question as I am loathe to blame them and my wife suspects I may have an allergy to something. I am utterly refusing to contemplate it could be shellfish, but as a result, could I just say Les Nymphéas in L’Orangerie are breathtakingly beautiful and were very much the highlight of our Parisian sojourn. Spending half the night talking to the great white telephone in the hotel bathroom less so.

Not many glowing restaurant reviews begin with an account of al fresco chundering. Luckily, the night before we went away, we took our two kids up to the in-laws just outside Cambridge and went out for dinner with a couple of very old friends who were equally delighted to deposit their three sprogs with a babysitter for the evening. I don’t wish to be a bore, but all four of us are very much at the pathetically delighted to be child free for the evening stage of parenthood. Obviously we spent far too much time talking about our children because that’s what you do if you have them, but god knows it’s nice to do so in the certain knowledge they’re not actually there and about to run a trail of snot along your leg at any moment.

The Three Horseshoes is a gastropub in the very best sense of the word. We were sat in a comfortable, spacious, tastefully decorated conservatory area while a nice waitress bought us good things to eat as we talked and laughed. A lot.

My celeriac soup with chestnuts was pretty heavy on the truffle oil, but I would consider that more a compliment than a criticism. Haggis fritters with a sweet chilli dipping sauce were one of those dishes to be filed under the ‘I must try this at home’* banner. Goat’s cheese arancini were tasty, if a tiny bit claggy, but show me the ball of rice that isn’t.

For main course I had the kind of venison haunch on garlic mash, cavolo nero and parsnip chips that made me want to put on a kilt and go out to wrestle its original owner on a hillside somewhere. A 9oz sirloin steak was pronounced ‘really good,’ with the kind of eye-rolling that only comes from subsisting mainly on stolen bits of fishfinger for the past few months – a beef and ale pie was despatched with similar alacrity. The rack of lamb was tasty enough although the fat could have done with a little more rendering and the fondant potato was bit of a ‘disappointment’. This was from the same person who had the arancini to start, but then my wife is used to disappointment on so many levels by now.

My treacle tart with a citron creme had the kind of sugary hit that I imagine you can get professional help to wean you off, while everyone else had a chocolate mousse that was also given the ‘really good’ assessment around the table. Not the most loquacious critique, I’m sure you’ll agree, but then it’s quite difficult to be wordy when you’ve got a mouthful of chocolate. 

There were a couple of glasses of wine and a beer, but obviously nothing too extravagant on a school night, and a bill that worked out at roughly £45 a head including very happy, smiley and mostly efficient service. Driving home from the pub we both agreed we had enjoyed a thoroughly wonderful meal. One of the reasons I love restaurants is that they are the perfect environment to be sociable. The food should not overshadow the company and the company should compliment the food, and that was abundantly the case at The Three Horseshoes. Who needs to go all the way to Paris to pay for these things? Well I don’t for a start. I was outside redecorating the pavement while my wife took care of the bill for her own birthday meal. What a lucky woman.

Feb ’20

*but won’t.

Shoku, Salford

There are many great match ups in the world. Cheese and wine, Laurel and Hardy, Rhythm and Blues, to pluck three from thin air. The pairing of yours truly and Adrian Chiles may not yet have achieved that level of international renown, but it was the reason I found myself in Manchester last week to appear on Question Time Extra Time. That, and the need to annoy a very specific type of Twitter troll with my wokeness. Having arrived in a soaking wet Salford a good few hours before the show, I had plenty of time to look around for something to eat, and as I was trying to avoid Prezzo or Wagamama or anything else too generic, I stumbled upon another double act I imagine you’ve never heard of.

Shoku is a Japanese/Peruvian fusion restaurant and cocktail bar stuck next to another pub called The Botanist (god but the gin boom has much to answer for,) and as such represented the traditions of two countries I had never put together in my head, let alone stomach. I have no problem with fusion per se. Surely all traditions have much to learn from one another, and I’m dialectical kind of a guy, but as much has been said about fusion failures as its successes. Liver in lager remains a perennial (and very good) culinary/cinematic in-joke. On honeymoon in New York in 2014, we discovered a Mexican sushi restaurant which remains the worst culinary experience I’ve had in America, and I’ve had someone try to convince me a Philly cheesesteak is a good thing. My friend Ian Moore recently posted a picture taken on a visit to the same city where he came across a place called Taco Mahal. I’m not sure I want curry in my taco, but then maybe it’s not for me. I went into Shoku to see if it might be.

It’s a classy looking joint, which is some achievement considering the walls contain evidence of the dreaded ‘local artist,’ but the space itself is well designed with clean lines, a separate bar and a semi-open kitchen. Happily, when there were plenty of small, empty tables marooned in the middle of the room, where most waiters seem contractually obliged to sit you, I was given a very comfortable and spacious booth all to myself. The menu was a little more problematic as it contained the seeds of confusion that can often make mixing up traditions such a difficult experience. There was a good selection of sashimi and ceviches – as I suppose both cuisines enjoy a fair bit of raw fish with citrus – as well as mains, ramens, nibbles, snacks and small plates. I felt a bit like I was wrestling the concept to the ground, but what I cannot deny is there were definitely things on there I wanted to eat.

Edamame came warm and shelled, with a decent umami hit of kimchi ketchup, while tuna tartar tostadas came balanced on a couple of lime slices and were very serviceable, even if the taste of the fish was a little lost to the smoked egg yolk. But they were fun to eat, and I started to warm to my dinner. I have to compliment the waiter who had obviously seen this kind of confusion before, and it was he who led me to the chicken karaage, which is best described as high end KFC doing a decent impression of soft shell crab. A genuinely tasty dish livened up with ponzu mayo and a pleasingly firm and crunchy texture, a trait it shared with some marinated miso aubergine topped with a pecan crumb. Not bad at all, if a little insipid, and no one does miso aubergine like Kulu Kulu in London (one of my favourite dishes anywhere,) but the main problem was that I cleary hadn’t ordered quite enough to see me through to the end of late night radio shenanigans.

On first pass I had ignored the pork belly bao on the grounds I don’t generally like them much. In my experience, these Japanese buns are usually just big whorls of creamy coloured dough wrapped round a sticky bit of disappointment. I may have to rethink my prejudices though, because when this arrived, not only did it fill me up, it made me re-evaluate the whole meal. The bun itself was simply a folded circle of a perfectly light yet chewy dough, balanced again on a couple of those lime wedges, but what was really special was the gloriously tasty, sticky, soft and crunchy pork belly within. This was served more like a miniature pancake than a bun, and was all the better for it. The menu described it as follows, (which will serve better than any florid adjectivising from me:) bbq pineapple / kimchi ketchup / pork popcorn / togorashi. It was exquisite, and really, when something not only knocks your socks off, it also makes you re-evaluate your opinion of an entire dish, you cannot help but be impressed.

At £30, dinner wasn’t cheap, but then neither was it expensive, and the service was exemplary, even if the entire waiting staff appeared to be harvested from the funky school of young male Manc students who were much cooler than I ever was at that age. Still, I had The Roses and The Mondays, and I don’t think they’ve got anything better, AND I got a grant, so we’ll call it evens, and not begrudge them a decent  (and well-deserved) tip.

I shall certainly be back. Hopefully on 5Live, but I trust it is not ungrateful of me to say that much as I am looking forward to revisiting the Chiles/Barrie double act, not to mention a Twitter bunfight with an Aston Villa fan called Leighton, I’m just as excited about the buns at Shoku. Now I’ve tried a pork belly bao, I need to go back and do a bit more exploring. After all, it seems very clear the connection between Peru and Japan runs far deeper, and makes a lot more sense, than the one between Italy and Prezzo.

January 2020

Servinis, Cardiff

On Friday lunchtime, I found myself in the midst of an existential crisis in Cardiff City Centre. That this great nation, home of Dylan Thomas and Nye Bevan, with its proud socialist traditions, should have thrown its lot in with the right-wing project that is Brexit is bad enough. That the city has changed so vastly since I first played The Glee Club on its opening weekend fifteen years ago is not in itself a tragedy. Unfortunately, having sold its soul so completely to the corporate cock that the centre itself is now a vast, shiny, temple of Mammon called the St Davids Centre, containing all the usual suspects, probably is. Visiting one of them – The Apple Store – to be told the new computer I have spent nearly a thousand pounds on will not run the software my old one did for unspecified reasons, nearly led to my own personal Welsh Falling Down moment.

In need of a reviving lunch, I suddenly realised that simply everywhere I looked was yet another chain restaurant. I wheeled about like a drunk as interchangeable eateries whirled around me – Zizzi, Ed’s, Ask, Frankie & Benny’s, TGI Fridays, Yo Sushi, Cafe Rouge, Carluccio’s, Bar Burrito, Prezzo and on and on and on. I numbly began queueing at Shake Shack with the vague notion I fancied a burger, before making a break for Nando’s in a misguided bid for a healthier option. Once there I found an even longer line of identikit diners, so I headed outside for a little air to be confronted by Wagamama, Bill’s and Gourmet Burger Kitchen.

Some of these places are very good – I love a Nando’s, I keep everything crossed for the survival of Pizza Express. Some – Wahaca – are truly excellent, and I almost succumbed before I had an epiphany of sorts and determined to find somewhere independent, cooking their own food, and do my tiny bit to support them in their losing battle against moneyed homogeneity. I even took to Twitter for help – comics are great to ask for foodie recommendations as we spend so much time wandering around strange cities at lunchtime. The brilliant (and vegan) Carl Donnelly suggested the plant-based cuisine of Migli’s, while old friend Glenn Wool helpfully mentioned a pasta place he couldn’t remember the name of, in an arcade, near the castle, ‘opposite a book store.’ 

Cardiff’s numerous arcades remain one of its great joys. They criss-cross the main streets of the city centre like little veins to the main arteries, and still manage to support a large number of independent businesses, as well as a growing number that are less so. Having bought a couple of paintings from a small gallery down one of these a few years ago, I set off for another look and found myself in Wyndham Arcade. Here I came across Servinis, a tidy looking little cafe that had just the right mix of bustle, comfort and genuine warmth that I had so conspicuously been unable to find elsewhere. I was sat on a table for four by the window with a tiny little individual sign on it saying ‘You are a cutie pie’ which would normally have me stampeding for the exit, but here somehow managed to appear both charming and idiosyncratic. There was an open kitchen and a fairly simple menu consisting of all sort of breakfasts, hashes, sandwiches, a soup and a few main courses and salads. They offer a few cocktails too, but not so many you started to doubt they knew what they were doing.

In keeping with my general mood and distrust of the modern world, I opted for faggots with gravy, chips and peas and a side salad (off menu, but not a problem.) You can’t get more honest, down to earth and relentlessly unponcey than faggots, and they were delivered to my table shortly after I had polished off an absolutely impeccable cappuccino, accompanied by a nicely bitey local ginger beer. It was a bit early for cocktails.

My faggots were great. The chips were actually the best thing on the plate, but that’s hardly a criticism – perfect crunch on the outside, fluffy spud within. If I’m 100% honest, the faggots might have done with just a touch more offal for my taste, but they were tasty, satisfying and absolutely hit the mark. Were they the greatest thing I’ve ever eaten? No, they were faggots, but if you want dizzying flavour profiles, go and find Marcus Wareing. This was a lovely plate of proper ingredients, served with utter charm in a welcoming room by a busy kitchen who clearly cared about what they were doing. It may not have bothered the Michelin inspectors, but it absolutely warmed my heart. All told, the bill came in under twenty quid, although a richly deserved tip took it just north of that, and I was able to walk out on to the streets of Cardiff, if not a changed man, then one in a much better mood than I had been an hour before.

On Saturday I found myself in a similar situation, although a little later having gone back to bed after an early start to watch England’s thrilling dismantling of the All-Blacks. I decided to hunt down Carl’s vegan option. I found it, closed. Permanently. So then I went looking for Glenn’s pasta joint. Opposite a bookshop in the Castle arcade, I found an empty unit, tables and chairs stacked around disconsolately like a weary metaphor. Luckily I managed to find a very serviceable carbonara at the nearby Santa Maria. A proper sauce and a familiar accent indicated some genuine Italian involvement, even if I’m always a little suspicious of a restaurant with garden furniture and no garden. While I was there, I googled my favourite gallery, to find it had shut down too.

I’m not here to preach the horrors of late-stage capitalism, or rail against the corporate world and its faceless dismantling of the fabric of our town and cities. I just want some lunch. But my two afternoons pootling around Cardiff were a sobering experience. This was probably not a bad thing after that early start for the rugby, but we would all do well to be wary of what is happening beneath our noses. Next time you’re out on a busy shopping trip, take a moment before you dive into the convenience of your nearest Zizzi’s or Café Rouge. Try and hunt down somewhere independent to support a little diversity in our lives. Ed’s Diner will get on fine without you. Somehow, Frankie & Benny’s will survive. Independent cafes, bookstores, galleries and specialist places won’t, and we shall all be poorer for that. And if you’re in Cardiff, hunt down Servinis and a plate of those faggots. They’re like the big hug we all need in the midst of our collective consumerist crisis.

October 2019

Navona, Thessaloniki

There is something about the atmosphere of simmering hostility one encounters upon boarding a RyanAir flight – a sort of assumed impending argument between passenger and airline – that truly is one of the great consumer experiences of the modern age. I pondered this as I boarded my flight home from Athens after a highly enjoyable and successful mini tour of Greece with my good friend Giorgos Xatzipavlou, during which the generosity and friendliness of my hosts was once again self-evident, in stark contrast to RyanAir’s legendary customer service.

I think it’s safe to say we didn’t eat as well as we have done on past visits – a tight schedule of four shows in four cities on four nights meant we never really stopped in one place long enough to truly stretch our culinary legs, but this was Greece so even a chicken burger in Heraklion at 1am was a very tasty affair.

In Thessaloniki, we stopped at The Makedonia Hotel for lunch – a relatively upmarket place I have stayed at before, but which this year’s tour budget would not stretch to. This was not a problem at all, as I rather enjoyed going on holiday to the 1970s. Nothing makes you feel younger than staying in a room with a radio that doesn’t work carved into the bedside table. The Makedonia on the other hand, is a rather more swish affair, having recently been bought and refurbished by a Russian of the suspiciously capacious pockets we have come to know and love from the post-communism honesty boom.

The hotel itself is on a lovely spot overlooking the bay and the Navona Restaurant occupies a prime spot adjacent to the wide boulevard that is the pride of Thessaloniki’s seafront. It is the perfect place to watch the beautiful (and some somewhat less beautiful) people walk by. It is mostly the beautiful people who walk into Navona, if they are able to secure a table from the immaculately dressed and smiling guardian stationed by the reservation book at the entrance, who despite her impeccable manners somehow still manages to radiate a little of that oligarch menace. Groups of deeply tanned mothers shepherd glossy children to their goblets of Aperol Spritz and men with expensive watches accessorised with bangles and beads a decade or three too young for them sit with girlfriends of a similar vintage. This might sound relatively awful, but the atmosphere was pleasant, the service faultless, and we were sat in the sunshine in excellent company to enjoy food I wasn’t paying for, so it would be churlish to complain. 

And so to the food. Was it as good as Russian money could buy? Well, yes and no. My starter of tuna tartare looked absolutely stunning – a beautiful oblong of fish, tiny bell peppers, caper berries and  the world’s tiniest onions, garnished with vanishingly thin slices of radish. I dived in expectantly, but unfortunately a dressing of mustard and dill oil came with such a drastic slap of citrus, it was more of a belly flop. It was not actively unpleasant, but when I order tuna, I want to taste the fish and not what it is swimming in. 

This was especially strange as my companions, Giorgos and his friend Tellis shared a superb Panzanela salad which was not only one of the boldest Greek salads I’ve ever eaten, it was truly brought alive by dint of a stunning red-wine vinegar dressing. I wish the kitchen had used (a bit of) it on my tuna.

As Navono claims to be ‘a taste of Italy’ I thought I’d try on their pizza for main course. Perhaps it was a reflection of the sad news that not only is my country attempting to leave the EU, it can also no longer support Pizza Express, while Pizza Hut baffling continues to trade, but I thought the chances of a decent version should be pretty good when I could actually see the Mediterranean as I ate it. I was mostly right – apart from the fact I was sitting next to The Aegean – delicious, slightly burnt edges with just the right chewiness and a generous topping of pancetta and artichoke. The middle was a little soggy, but it all ends up in the same place and sprinkled with black pepper and a little chilli oil, I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

Tellis and Giorgos opted for slightly more grown up dishes and here was further proof that the kitchen knows what it’s doing a lot of the time. A chicken supreme with chanterelles, parsnips and ‘authentic’ gravy left the chef nowhere to hide, which was not a problem as he or she executed it perfectly. Mind you, I would be interested to know what ‘inauthentic’ gravy involved. Or perhaps I wouldn’t. 

The best think we ate was Tellis’s pork dish – beautifully cooked medallions of pork wrapped in prosciutto and served with a delightfully balanced green-apple glaze. Just as you convinced yourself you’d tasted something rather nice, a proper hit of lemon thyme turned up on the tastebuds and lifted the whole dish beyond the good to the really quite special. 

If I have not exactly raved about Navona, that feels a little unfair, as we had a really rather fabulous lunch, although that was down to the company and the surroundings as much as the cooking. You could certainly do worse than an alfresco meal overlooking the sea at one of Thessaloniki’s premier hotels, although I’m sure there are many more options to sniff out. Hopefully I will be in a position to do that the next time I manage a Greek minor tour (COME ON!) I must admit, if we come back to Navono I would love to continue avoiding to pay for it as I’m pretty sure further lining an oligarch’s pockets doesn’t come cheaply. Especially when the pound has truly crumbled and I’ve had to get a visa to work there as well as spend an extra couple of hours at the airport just because 17.4 million of my countrymen didn’t realise they’d been sold a pup. 

I suppose the one advantage might be having to fly with RyanAir slightly less often. Someone should tell Vote Leave to start campaigning with that slogan. It would be a lot more honest than almost anything else they’ve come up with.

October 2019

Perard, Le Touquet, France

After a month of over-indulging in New Zealand it was clear that what my waistline really needed was a new challenge, and where better to look than France, where it is physically impossible to go on holiday without ingesting your body weight in cheese? One can only love a country that invented a way of serving chocolate in bread just so you can have it for breakfast. 

We found ourselves spending a few days in Le Touquet, which I suppose is best described as a sort of Gallic Bournemouth, although probably only if you want to offend the French, which we are of course managing with stunning regularity these days. Very much the high-end-most-expensive-real-estate-in-the-country part of Bournemouth though, as this part of the Pas-de-Calais coast is well known as the getaway destination of choice for the moneyed Parisian classes, as is evident from the size of some of the houses. It has an air of Martha’s Vineyard about it, not to mention a little of the architectural laissez-faire of Sentosa in Singapore and has been an equally popular destination with visiting Brits. Edward VII was a regular visitor when he got tired of being manipulated into interesting positions on specially designed chairs by a certain kind of Parisian hostess, and P.G. Wodehouse lived there for many years. You could see both Berties fitting in very comfortably.

Despite being June, it was clearly still off-season, as you could tell from the way the town essentially ground to a halt from about 11am til 3:30 in a display of midday inactivity that would make a Spaniard proud. I had demanded a proper seafood binge as one of the pre-conditions of my holiday, and having located Perard on Google, was a little worried they might be following the trend of not opening for lunch despite being an actual restaurant, but I needn’t have worried. The smartly turned out dining room was quiet, but very much open, as was its adjoining fishmonger and oyster bar, and we were immediately impressed by our young waiter’s decision to seat us in our own section, presumably so that our daughter couldn’t annoy other diners by throwing prawns at them.

Perard is something of a legendary Le Touquet institution, opened in the sixties and famous as much for its celebrity clientele as its lobster bouillabaisse. This is evidenced by framed cartoons all round the walls, which manage to pull off a more elegant nod to its status than the rictus-grinned ‘film star with owner’ shots favoured by other destinations with a similar reputation. However, it is justly renowned for its food, and despite this being the town where Emmanuel Macron casts his vote, he didn’t appear to be around, which was lucky as I was far more interested in what the menu had to offer. 

There was no point in messing about. I went straight for the full Plateau Prestige Fruits de Mer at €55 Euro a head. Admittedly, this isn’t cheap, but then there is no way a full tray of prawns, shrimps, langoustines, oysters, whelks, half a lobster and half a crab would, or frankly, should be. For what arrived at the table, I actually consider this rather good value. I had a glass of Pouilly Fumé and frankly, a tear in my eye. A seafood platter like this is one of the great joys of life, and in the unlikely event I retire somewhere luxurious with abundant wealth in years to come, I can very much see myself making sure I do so somewhere that serves a good one. Le Touquet, in fact – I mean, why not? I’m only a mere best-selling series of iconic comedy novels and a Eurotunnel away. This was simply excellent, although with a couple of caveats that are really not the restaurant’s fault. 

Firstly, whelks can fuck off. I had a couple, and actually, dipped in a very good mustard mayonnaise they weren’t bad at all, but good seafood should sing of itself rather than need slathering in mayo. They are cheap, and bulk up a platter in a way that is completely understandable, but have always stood out for me as not really belonging, like Dairylea on a cheeseboard or Angel Delight on a dessert trolley. Similarly, shrimps. Now don’t get me wrong, I love a shrimp, and a good potted version is a thing of beauty, but unshelled they are fiddly little buggers, and unlike some, I just don’t like them when they’re crunchy, so they need peeling. These were particularly delicious, with a wonderfully nutty taste, but in the end, well, I simply couldn’t be bothered and left the majority – presumably to go to waste, which is a shame for such lovely produce. 

I think the secret in future, is going to have to be the perfect customised personal seafood platter, and I am very much considering gearing my fictional retirement towards the pursuit of that ideal. Holding the whelks and shelling the shrimps is certainly a great place to start. Hey – it’s my fantasy, and if I want to employ a specialised shrimp-sheller, you can’t stop me.

While I spiralled off into seafood dreamland, my wife very sensibly ordered the skate wing with capers, buttered spinach and mash. This is another of the restaurant’s classic dishes and this was simply beyond reproach. I have not tasted a better version anywhere.The only mild downside to the whole experience was that they served Perrier Fines bulles – a slightly less fizzy version which I thoroughly disapprove of, as does my daughter who presently spends most of her time at the dinner table shouting ‘BUBBLES!!!’ when she’s not getting herself around a faultless children’s portion of salmon linguine.

Sadly, they had no tarte tatin, and some floating islands were perhaps a slightly richer dessert than the meal required, but then I’m pretty sure my protein heavy main course had left me a couple of calories to play with, and the crème anglais was rather good. A lemon meringue tartelette and a chocolate mousse were both predictably faultless.

Daughter, disgusted,

There are few greater, or rarer, pleasures in life than planning something you really enjoy, and then reality playing out as if your imagination was in charge. It is not something that happens often, and when it does, you must cherish it. Should you wish to experience something similar, I can only advise jumping on the Eurotunnel. The sense of massive release you will achieve by leaving Folkestone, will only be heightened by the drive to Le Touquet, and even the parking was free. Leave Europe? Are you insane? I’m pretty sure I’m going to retire there – I just need to find myself a butler and the right sort of chair.

June 2019

Havana Bar, Wellington

And so to Wellington for the final leg of what has been a wonderful festival. A few of us had been here earlier in the run to perform at The Opera House for the Gala, which was something of an honour in itself. I don’t care who you are – getting up to show off in front of a capacity crowd in a proper old venue should never be commonplace, even if it is where you’re lucky enough to ply your trade. My circuit doesn’t tend to take in that many opera houses, but it’s an absolute delight when it does.

The other place we visited on our brief trip was Havana Bar, a Cuban tapas restaurant introduced to us by the lovely Ben Hurley – an excellent Kiwi comedian who also had the honour of being my tenant when I sublet him my Battersea flat during the 2009 Edinburgh Festival. I’m pretty sure that was easily as big a highlight of his comedic career as becoming a TV star in his own country has been since. The food was exceptional and we – Mr and Mr Sinnerman and their hanger on – vowed to return.

Two funky-coloured wooden buildings lead you up a little path between themselves to a plaque on the door that says ‘Nothing Historic Ever Happened Here.’ After this meal, we beg to differ. Last time out, we had worked from the bar menu – a selection of about 9 separate tapas dishes that I’m pretty sure we ordered in their entirety, and between about 6 comics they did not last long. This time we were offered the a la carte, which we perused before asking after a number of things we remembered from the bar menu and missed very much. Whilst I am entirely sure the larger main courses on the menu would have been excellent, the small plates were what we were after and I’m afraid you may have to be prepared for a degree of hyperbole in what is to follow. Essentially we ordered almost all the small dishes from the a la carte, plus extras, plus desserts. Paul and I had Bloody Marys. They were also exquisite. We simply have not had a finer meal, certainly in New Zealand, possibly anywhere.

First up was a delicious Maori potato bread, with onion butter – a twist on a Kiwi kids classic as I understand it, which involves making a dip from butter and onion soup. Beautiful bread, surprisingly light, with pleasantly rich, oniony butter. But still at heart bread and butter. I like bread and butter, but then the fireworks really started.

To begin – prawns sautéed in chilli and garlic. Here goes. I think these may have been the best prawns I’ve ever had. These are apparently an ever present on the menu and they are perfection – beautifully seasoned with a sublime balance of heat and herb, combined with a juicy springiness that can only come form the freshest of shellfish and the deftest hand at the pan. We ordered another plate. Next, beef tongue chips, breadcrumbed and served with smoked onion mayo, a very lightly pickled ginger and a dusting of Parmesan. These were a favourite from the bar menu which Paul has consistently said were the best thing he’s eaten in New Zealand. They did not disappoint a second time, so we ordered a third.

Pan roasted mushrooms with a pumpkin seed cream were an outrageously luxurious whack of comfort eating, spread thickly on thinly sliced, crisp toast that I think was another very welcome example of the potato bread. A few fronds of dill added another yet dimension to indicate this really was a kitchen working at the very top of its game. A raw beef tataki with Jerusalem artichoke crisps and vinaigrette was so good I am simply running out of superlatives. If anything, its more delicate flavours meant it won out over the chips for red meat dish of the day for me but that is a tough call. Like comparing Pele and Maradonna, you’re never going to be happy with whoever comes out on top. (It’s Pele, as he never knocked us out of a World Cup by cheating, but it seems pretty clear the Hand of God wasn’t far away from the stove at Havana.)

Another signature is the Grilled Cubano! I like to consider myself something of an aficionado of the grilled ham and cheese sandwich with mustard and pickle – I find it very hard to walk past Selfridges without popping in to The Brass Rail for a Reuben, I would happily fly to New York just to have the Katz’s Deli version and have you been to Northern Soul in Manchester? These easily bear comparison. We had ordered them last time around, and while it may sound wrong to order a sandwich halfway through a meal of this size and quality, it wasn’t.

And just when you thought things couldn’t get any better, we had our socks blown off by a vegetarian dish – yeasted butter poached cauliflower florets doused in aged cheddar and a sauce made with prune, shitake salt and that most over-used of ingredients – truffle. Here it was added sparingly, and unarguably. This, with all due respect to the good people of Partick Duck Club, is the best cauliflower dish I have ever eaten. We ordered another. Obviously.

That was, of course, quite enough food. There was no need for dessert. Absolutely no need, and we set our minds against it. But then there was no need for the second order of beef chips, prawns and cauliflower either. The rum baba Olly and I ordered was perhaps a slightly heavier end to the meal than was ideal, but I just wanted to taste it and it did not let me down – shards of toasted coconut meringue, boozy raisins and a sprightly lemon curd to cut through all that richness. Paul pronounced his chocolate mousse excellent and we asked for the bill before any more damage could be done. I’m not sure if the fan at a neighbouring table who came over to ask Paul for a selfie had noticed what we’d eaten, but if she had that might explain the note of surprise in her voice when she congratulated him on how svelte he was looking.

The final surprise was the bill. The entire meal, including a tip for our South African waitress, who seemed to warm to us the more we ate, came to just under £50 each. That is spectacularly good value for food of this, well – brilliance can be the only word.

To quote Paul, word for word, Havana is “Right up there as one of the best restaurants I have ever been to,” and he’s a Chaser and they know their stuff.

Me? I’m just looking to find out out if there’s a comedy festival in Cuba next year. 

May 2019


I’ve never been to New Zealand before. It’s wonderful, as if someone had towed Scotland somewhere nice. It is, undoubtedly, a long way from home, but I had the pleasure of incredible hospitality from The New Zealand International Comedy Festival and especially Scott Blanks and everyone at The Classic Comedy Club. I was also lucky enough to be sharing the trip with several old friends, including Paul Sinha and his fiancée Olly, who were kind enough to act as my surrogate family when it became clear my wife was unable to join the trip for heavily pregnant reasons.

I have known Paul for twenty yearsand he is a superb, craftsman of a comedian, though still better known to the general public as ‘The Sinnerman’ from ITV’s enduringly popular daytime quiz show ‘The Chase’. He is a general knowledge fiend, who delights in pointing out when jokes contain factual inaccuracies (I know there are homegrown exhibits in The British Museum Paul, but it really doesn’t help the punchline.) What I don’t think any of us realized is quite what a sensation ‘The Chase’ is on New Zealand TV. It’s on every day. Often twice. Most of us spent our first few days getting over jetlag – Paul spent his getting over how famous he is.

We have eaten very well. Regular haunts have included our local Asian food court, just down the road from us on Queen St, where Hanoi Corner do a particularly good pho. Unfortunately I had to pay for it, unlike Paul, who ordered from the Indian/Chinese next door and received his food gratis simply for being The Sinnerman. If you want a decent burger, you could do a lot worse than ‘Burger Fuel’ – a cracking Kiwi chain that needs to expand to England, although it might be worth sending Nandos with it, as the New Zealand outpost is not a patch on the UK version. There are any number of decent Koreans, a fantastic Szechuan (Yummy Dumpling House, indeed) opposite the hotel, a wonderful Japanese (Tanuki’s) right next door to The Classic and even a coffee chain (Colombus) who do a breakfast/brunch menu so good it would get them kicked out of Crouch End for unfair business practices.

There have been some higher end highlights. In the first week, as we walked up the popular K Road, past the excellent Thai Street Food restaurant where we’d somewhat over-ordered lunch the day before, we came across Coco’s Cantina. This was a superb Italian, offering a limited range of unimpeachable dishes, which we realized as soon as we looked at the prices, but by that time – well, we’d sat down. There was a little confusion until we worked out the best course of action was to divide a ‘date menu’ between Paul and me whilst Olly ordered a couple of separate dishes. This is perhaps not a move that would go down awfully well with most couples, but if I was being a terrible gooseberry, they were both far too polite to mention it.

There were beautiful breads, a wonderfully rich chicken parfait, goat’s cheese with pear, charcuterie, and an excellent mushroom pasta (I think – it was Olly’s and I didn’t wish to intrude any further than I already was.) I also had broccoflower for the first time, which is exactly what it sounds like. There was a very creditable Scotch fillet with salsa verde and a fig leaf ice cream and rhubarb semifreddo to finish. The produce and cooking was of the highest order, chosen from a menu limited by authenticity rather than any sense of parsimony. There was also a complimentary grappa, but unfortunately we were unable to secure anything further on the strength of our celebrity companion. We did, however, get the entire kitchen staff coming to the table for selfies with him. They were charmingly polite about not having the faintest clue who Olly and I were, which was both thoroughly charming and completely understandable. Although Olly is the eleventh ranked quizzer in the UK and I did completely sell out my festival run, for future reference. (A younger person would probably put a winking emoji here.)

The best part of a trip to the island of Waiheke may well have been Scottish comedian Chris Henry yelling ‘The Chase is on’ as Paul ran for a late ferry. Luckily the captain waited until we’d all stopped laughing hysterically to allow us on board, which we thought might have been professionalism, but turned out to be because he was a massive Chase fan too. Waiheke is a delight. I have never been offered ‘wine tasting and archery’ before (what could possibly go wrong?) Nonetheless, the trips through the vineyards were both stunning and…refreshing. The Mudbrick Vineyard and Restaurant is an Auckland institution that really deserves a blog all of its own, but I’ll just say I had A LOT of oysters followed by a stunning venison dish and I want to go back. Repeatedly.

Today is Sunday, and to celebrate our last day in Auckland, at lunchtime we went to the Grand Harbour Chinese Restaurant for Dim Sum. This is a must visit destination – a huge, bustling dining room with enormous lobsters in tanks and floor staff criss-crossing the floor as though they were driving demented mobility scooters loaded with goodies. We were found a table remarkably quickly, which I think is testament to the efficiency of the operation rather than their nascent celebrity guest.

That level of professionalism also extended to the food, which is probably the best Dim Sum I’ve ever eaten. From crispy chilli chicken wings to shell-on tiger prawns, there wasn’t a false move, and we were constantly updating our order from the passing trolleys. I couldn’t work out why a green bean dish was quite so tasty, until I came back to the hotel and Googled it to find out the lip-smacking umami hit came from pork and olive mince, which is a new one on me. There were beautiful, plump dumplings bursting gelatinous skins to reveal generous fillings of prawn and spinach. Pork bao buns, a cold chicken dish I didn’t think I was going to like but did, and probably the highlight of the whole meal, roast pork. As Paul pointed out, this should surely be the signature of this type of restaurant, and it did not disappoint. Imagine the best pork belly you’ve ever tasted got married to a crispy duck and you were eating the result. Perhaps not a brilliant metaphor, but a sensational piece of cooking. I even had my first Chinese dessert – an oozing custard tart that gave Portugal’s version serious competition. I still think I prefer the slightly more caramelized tones of a Nata, but it was a close run thing. Our overall bill came to just over $150, which was nothing short of an absolute steal.

Tonight, we went to see Paul’s extra show at the 700 seater SKYCITY Theatre with a lot of the other comedians here and we could not be happier for him. I know how much he loves his quizzing, but he also takes his comedy equally, if not more seriously. Which is why, despite a wonderful performance to a capacity crowd, I still think his highlight of the trip may well have been the waitress at Grand Harbour, who approached the table to say,

“I know you. You’re that comedian, aren’t you?”

Auckland has been awesome, I know all of us can’t wait to come back. I just think next time a lot of us need to start appearing on one of ITV’s enduringly popular daytime quiz shows to really get our numbers up.

The Sinnerman Selfie queue, post show at SKYCITY 19/05/19

May 2019

St John Bread & Wine, Spitalfields

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in need of a good lunch could do far worse than being fed by Fergus Henderson. It’s also a great deal more exciting to read a slating than a rave, so you may be disappointed by this in a manner I wholly wasn’t by an unplanned trip to East London.

As someone who occasionally auditions unsuccessfully for the opportunity to flog unwanted items to an unsuspecting public, I found myself in Hoxton attempting to convince a bunch of aging creatives I could take their YouTube video viral in a manner totally at odds with the size of fee on offer. I was ushered into offices that would have been open plan, were it not for enormous rounded Perspex screens that resembled Kubrick’s vision of the future circa1965. These are presumably vital for keeping app developers and cereal influencers separate and preventing artificial turf wars breaking out across the floor. However, it did make for an odd environment in which to be filmed pretending to be covered in food from a faulty food blender which did not exist. As anyone who has been through the ridiculous process of attempting to appear in adverts will tell you, the one thing you invariably leave at the door is your dignity, which is made even more agonizing when you have a personal shopper and a Bitcoin entrepreneur staring at you quizzically through the walls of their adjacent pods.

Having sold my soul (very cheaply,) I bid farewell to my perfectly amenable tormentors, certain I had failed to convince them of their fictional blender or my air-driving skills, mainly because I had failed to convince myself of them either. Nonetheless, I departed with a spring in my step, partly because my ordeal was over, but also on account of the weather, which seemed to be putting on a much better show than I had just managed. I ambled towards Spitalfields with lunch on my mind, and no particular plan of how to achieve it.

Crossing Brick Lane is often said by those in the know to be the best way to avoid disappointment, which is perhaps a little unfair, especially if what you’re after is a bagel, but in retrospect, I think I knew where I was going. I’d like to pretend my life is a bohemian whirl of chance discoveries, but for most of us, when it comes to lunch, there is little that recommends itself like certainty.

Unsurprisingly enough, I found myself in front of St John Bread and Wine and did what any sane person would do. I went inside. Like its slightly better known sibling up the road, there is something enormously comforting in the unfussy minimalism within. A more waspish diner might throw the words ‘Victorian workhouse’ at the décor, but between the wooden tables and chairs, the blackboards and the glimpse of a kitchen that is clearly a place to work rather than show off, there is a simple utilitarian aesthetic at work.

This also translates into an easy confidence on the part of the staff. They know they do what they do very well, and they invite you to share in it with them. If you are not impressed by St John, that is your loss, not theirs. A simple A4 sheet lists the dishes on offer, with a few specials chalked up on the blackboard. These are not all ingredients you would expect to find on every menu, but they are of a part with the quiet revolution in British cooking Mr Henderson has presided over for the last couple of decades.

As such, it would have been remiss not to begin with the dish that best encapsulates that ethos, the effectively holy roast bone marrow on toast. The late Anthony Bourdain described it, unimprovably, as ‘God’s Butter.’ Nonetheless, when dealing with food this famous, one is always tempted to see if the fuss is still justified. The answer is yes, it is. I had almost prepared myself for disappointment, until the crisp of the thinly sliced sourdough toast was dampened with the comforting richness of the marrow and perked back up with the zing of caper, parsley and onion, and that sense of magic filled both mouth and brain. It made me very happy, and you can’t ask for much more from a plate of food.

There was the usual exceptional selection of wines by the bottle and glass, but unfortunately I needed my wits about me later in the afternoon, which is the only area where lunch veered away from the sublime. This did at least allow me to concentrate on the food. My main course was a special of rabbit offal with radishes and a quince jelly that appeared determined to ask redcurrants outside for a fight, and then leave them there looking foolish. Radish tops made excellent mops for soaking up a delicate sauce made with sherry vinegar and chicken stock – I also ordered some greens, and was about to get a little grumpy at cabbage costing £5.20 until I tasted it and then I just wasn’t. I also wondered about portion size, but the combination of the rich, iron packed offal, the sweetness of the jelly and the soothing qualities of the sauce all worked so beautifully together, I finally understood why the phrase ‘an elegant sufficiency’ was invented.

The main reason it was invented was, of course, to leave room for dessert. Having recently forsworn chocolate as part of an innovative ‘fitting into some of my trousers’ regime, I had made it to April in slightly better fettle than I had approached January. As such, I was in the mood to reward myself. My wife replied to the picture I posted of my lunch online with the suitably tart, “Is that pudding simply a slab of chocolate?” to which I responded with, “It is a chocolate terrine with a brandied prune. So basically yes. With a brandied prune.” I may not have been drinking but there is certainly no law against sherry sauces or fruit pickled in the finest sense of the word. This was pure, decadent indulgence, and if anything made me grin more widely than my starter, which can’t have been a pretty sight.

This was not an everyday meal, even if an unshowy restaurant selling sourdough and Eccles cakes across the counter made it almost feel like one. Which is really St John’s greatest triumph – they make the wonderful almost mundane, were that not to damn them with faint praise. It is not every day I spend almost fifty quid on lunch, and if it was, I’m pretty sure it would not be long before I would have to start searching for a new wife, without the good fortune which is, according to Jane Austen, a fundamental requirement of finding one. It is probably best at this point I resist the temptation to mangle her words any further. She doesn’t deserve it and anyway, you shouldn’t mess with perfection. As St John Bread and Wine understand. Perfectly.

April 2019