Casanis, Bath

 

Can it be soup?

Can it be soup?

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

Quail

Quail

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

Gurnard and bream fillets

Gurnard and bream fillets

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

Iced nougat

Iced nougat

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

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

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

 

June 2015

Athens

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

Beetroot meringues

Beetroot meringues

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

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

Cheese pillow

Cheese pillow

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

A dreadful picture of a shrimp Frazzle

A dreadful picture of a shrimp Frazzle

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

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

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

Tzatsik-ish

Tzatsik-ish

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

Yoghurt sorbet, goat’s cheese snow.

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

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

Veal tongue carpaccio tuna mayo tomato water.

False doughnut

False doughnut

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

This is about as happy as I get.

This is about as happy as I get

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

Bream

Bream

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

Awards, anyone?

Awards, anyone?

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

Seabass carpaccio

Seabass carpaccio

Dorade, purees

Dorade, purees

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

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

All the desserts and some very lovely people

All the desserts and some very lovely people

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

Overdoing it on the sausages

Overdoing it on the sausages

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

 

May 2015

Lussmanns, Hertford

Cod cheeks

Cod cheeks

I’ve just fallen a little bit in love.

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

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

Pork and rabbit rillettes

Pork and rabbit rillettes

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

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

Steak frites

Steak frites

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

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

Honey & thyme pudding

Honey & thyme pudding

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

Fruit & rosemary crumble

Fruit & rosemary crumble

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

 

May 2015

Bosco, Barcelona

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

St Pau beans and Catalan sausage

St Pau beans and Catalan sausage

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

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

Octopus and wrinkled potatoes

Octopus and wrinkled potatoes

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

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

“No. Is too much”.

Aubergine tempura

Aubergine tempura

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

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

Braised oxtail and truffled parmentier

Braised oxtail and truffled parmentier

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

Apple crumble

Apple crumble

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

Bunyols de xocolata

Bunyols de xocolata

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

 

March 2015

 

Petek, London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

February 2015

New York

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

A light breakfast

A light breakfast

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

World Famous Cheesecake

World Famous Cheesecake

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

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

Steak and broccoli

Steak and broccoli

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

Crab toast

Crab toast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuna spring roll

Tuna spring roll

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

Seabass carpaccio

Seabass carpaccio

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

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

Lobster heaven

Lobster heaven

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

Pavlovana

Pavlovana

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

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

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

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

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

Mexican Jumping Prawn

Mexican Jumping Prawn

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

Mrs Ponce. And pretzel.

Mrs Ponce. And pretzel.

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

I do.

 

January 2015

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

 

Bistrot La Renaissance, Paris

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

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

Foie Gras

Foie Gras

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

Ribsteak, Pork

Ribsteak, Pork

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

Mouellaux chocolat

Mouellaux chocolat

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

No caption required

No caption required

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

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

Café gourmand

Café gourmand

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

Le Fin

Le Fin

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

 

November 2014

Corrigan’s, Mayfair

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

Kale

Kale

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

Crab

Crab

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

Terrine

Terrine

 

Beef

Beef

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

John Dory

John Dory

Lamb

Lamb

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

Grouse

Grouse

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

Chocolate cream

Chocolate cream

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

OMFG

OMFG

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

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

 

November 2014

The Empress, London

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

Whitebait & Padron peppers

Whitebait & Padron peppers

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

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

Cured salmon & beetroot

Cured salmon & beetroot

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

Snails

Snails

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

Vanilla pannacotta

Vanilla pannacotta

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

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

 

October 2014

Season Kitchen & Dining Room, London

 

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

Duck egg salad

Duck egg salad

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

Porno courgettes

Porno courgettes

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

Wild rabbit salad

Wild rabbit salad

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

Stoked salmon

Stoked salmon

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

Sea Trout

Sea Trout

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

Doughnuts

Doughnuts

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

Lemon tart

Lemon tart

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

 

September 2014