Daran, Stavanger

Me and a Ferry on a ferry in a fjord.

I have just realised this is my second blog in a row to feature Oldham’s finest export, but he is one of my best friends, MC’d my wedding, and frankly I can’t think of better company to travel in. I’ve been all over the world with Mick Ferry, including trips throughout the Middle East, Hong Kong, Cyprus and now Norway. I can also unequivocally say £28 is the most we have ever spent on two beers, but that’s Oslo airport for you.

We were in the wonderful, welcoming and not inexpensive country of Ibsen, A-Ha and Haaland for a couple of days to perform for what turned out to be quite the international crowd. Norwegian audiences have in my experience always been largely made up of those working in the Oil and Gas industry. They have now clearly made so much money then can employ a selection of musicians, therapists, graphic designers, carpenters and dental technicians from Germany, the UK, Eritrea, Australia and the US (and that was just the front row in Haugesund,) to improve their lives. There used to be far more Scots around, seemingly determined to negate their ill-deserved reputation for stinginess, but they seemed in short supply on this visit. Maybe £14 a beer really did get to them.

We enjoyed a lovely first gig at the Festiviteten Theatre in Haugesund whose lobby I have played many times, and one day hope to be allowed to perform in the actual auditorium. Afterwards we headed to a bar where the beer was being positively given away at around £8 a pint, while a local musician murdered some Bon Jovi, before repairing to another bar playing some of our favourite high energy disco pop. The night finished with a bloke seemingly having a fight with himself on the stairs which we stepped around just before the police arrived, providing us with a nostalgic throwback to that time we accidentally got involved in a punch up outside Oldham’s only gay bar after Mick’s 50th. Good times.

The next morning we took the absurdly scenic coach and ferry trip across the fjord to Stavanger and The Comedy Box, helmed by the marvellous Mr Kjetel Melkevik. Upon arrival at the Comfort Hotel (which did pretty much what it said on the side,) we fancied a bite to eat before the show. Unfortunately, the hotel didn’t do dinner, we were both hungry and there was a decent looking Thai across the street so we grabbed our credit cards and, with a certain amount of trepidation, crossed the road and the Rubicon of paying for our own meal in Norway.

Daran Thai isn’t going to win any awards for decor. It was functional, with a few of the minor flourishes one can expect from a regional Thai, like the small bowl of plastic flowers on the table – but the food was anything but.

My suspicions we might be up for something rather good came when our waitress offered us a choice between ‘Norwegian’ and ‘Thai’ spicing. I am genuinely sincere in my appreciation of Norway, but I think even they would admit they are not universally recognised as a culinary superpower, as evidenced by our hotel buffet the night before featuring a decent carrot soup, slightly weird potato fishcakes and more carrots and potatoes in an unspecified gravy. Big flavours are not really their thing, unless they’re pickled. There is not a lot of chilli in Norwegian cooking.

I love it, so, perhaps slight over confidently, went for ‘Thai but not insane’, while Mick went for a more measured ‘medium’. We got what we asked for, more or less. A bowl of breaded prawns with sweet chilli sauce were perfection, the very epitome of what the phrase ‘fat and juicy’ was invented for. My chicken fried rice was also exemplary – a wonderful example of an international staple cooked with real skill and perfect ingredients. Mick’s vegetable rice was a similar plate of complete comfort,. The fireworks were in the other dishes.

Som Tum is one of my favourite salads – a stunning combination of all that is best in Thai food. The four tastes of Thailand are meant to be salty, spicy, sour and sweet, to which I say prawn, chilli, lime and papaya and Som Tum says ‘bring it on’. The one caveat is that this particular example, whilst utterly delicious, and replete with the very welcome adition of some Thai pork scratchings, had really gone for the non-Norwegian spicing and Mick sat opposite watching in bemusement as I gently exploded. However , it would appear sitting opposite a snotty comedian with tears streaming down his face in no way detracted from his chicken massaman curry. This was a far less hysterical dish, but none the worse for it, with a depth of flavour that led Mick – a man whose own expertise in running up a banging curry I can personally vouch for – to proclaim it the finest he had ever had.

With a sparkling water for me and a Singha for Mick, the whole meal came to £98, which is far from cheap, if not quite as eye-watering as my salad. After a lovely couple of shows we headed off for another drink in town, where we realised perhaps the extra portion of rice that came with the curry had been a mistake as it prevented a £11 pint of Guinness and a £12 Kwak having any discernible affect whatsoever. That was probably no bad thing as we had to be up early to get to the airport where I rejected my usual purchase of a snow globe for my wife on the perfectly reasonable grounds £20 is a hell of a lot of money to spend on something she already has.

Norway was, as always, a simply gorgeous place to visit, and one that makes you consider anew all those statistics about how high standards of living are in Scandinavia. I mean, it’s almost as good as the UK. All they really need now is a new Prime Minister to tank the Krone.

October 2022

The Shore Bar & Restaurant, Edinburgh

I have spent over a year of my life at The Edinburgh Festival. That is both a reflection of the number of times I have performed up here and how most perfomers feel as they enter the last week of another Fringe. There are far too many memories to unpack, good bad and indifferent. For me, the good will always outweigh the bad, which is quite possibly why I keep coming back, although why it is also becoming harder and harder to justify the experience to my wife.

One of my favourite years was 2013 as I had a successful show that I had not expended too much emotional energy on – not only did I come up with the stated intention of simply having fun, I made money and played to decent audiences, which was in stark contrast to 2012. I was also living with two of my best friends, Mick Ferry and Hal Cruttenden, who would go on to be MC and Best Man at my wedding a year later (the speeches were ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.)

Our original flat was an absolute disaster, with rat traps under a leaking sink and so unfit for purpose Mick took one look at it, (while Hal stood screaming on a kitchen chair,) and demanded we were rehoused immediately. I missed all this drama and arrived the next day to a perfectly acceptable alternative and Hal’s pulse rate heading back towards ‘resting,’ or as close as it ever gets. If you ever need an estate agent to be ‘spoken’ to, could I recommend alumni of Counthill Comprehensive, Oldham over St Paul’s every time.

As a result of our enforced relocation, we also received some money back and decided to spend it on a slap up dinner at Fisher’s, which remains one of my favourite meals of all time. I wrote about it here. So good was it that when my girlfriend came up, it was the first place I took her to. I am contractually obliged to point out that this was also one of my favourite meals of all time.

Fast forward almost ten years and that former girlfriend and I had booked a babysitter and determined to try and forge a date night out of the Edinburgh madness. Unfortunately, thanks to my own lack of organisational capabilities, Fishers couldn’t fit us in at a suitable time. So I asked Jo Caulfield, wonderful comic, friend and Leith resident if she had any other recommendations. She suggested The Shore Bar & Restaurant, which happens to be in the building next to Fishers and owned by them. So, a pretty reasonable alternative.

It is a beautiful space – wood panelled throughout, with a vast mirror at one end of the bar to create the illusion of a much bigger room, and slightly more formal seating in a dining room off to the right. The whole place has a vaguely Gallic feel – no bad thing in my book – and I found myself tempted by the advertised Jazz Sunday lunch, which is no mean feat for anyone who knows my opinions about eating to music. A relatively brisk menu of solid fish and meat dishes was presented and I prepared for some serious cooking.

I really wanted to love The Shore, so it’s a pity I think we caught them on a slightly Monday night. So much was perfect, and I know Ms Caulfield to have excellent taste in everything except husbands (I’m going for a drink with him later,) but there were a couple of issues. My wife’s scallops with a burnt apple puree were excellent, but the accompanying greens contained pancetta that could really have benefitted from crisping up. I realise this sounds picky, but as she pointed out, there were a couple of lumps of what was essentially unrendered fat in there, and they were not particularly pleasant to eat. My spiced calamari were thoroughly workmanlike, with a decent, if not overly punchy smoked chilli mayonnaise. There was absolutely nothing wrong with them, but actually, the star of the show was a beautifully dressed side salad, zinging with freshness and crunch.

For main course, my wife had the fish pie with more of the exemplary salad. Frankly, if a restaurant of this calibre can’t get their fish pie right, we would have been in real trouble, but they did and we weren’t. I always feel bouillabaisse, though, should be a slightly decadent delight, a murky sauce holding bags of flavour and all kinds of fishy morsels within. Don’t get me wrong, this had some very good things in it – some beautiful sea trout, a few mussels, three pleasingly plump king prawns and the absolute highlight, a delicious piece of creamy crab toast. But the sauce, which I always feel should have the not-quite-but-almost-gritty consistency of a good soup de poissons felt a little underpowered and thin. It was in no sense a bad dish, it just didn’t wow me like a bouillabaisse should. I was also still quite hungry after eating it, so ordered bread to mop up the rest of the sauce – it may not have been the best I’ve had, but I certainly wasn’t going to waste it.

What felt like a slightly off night for the kitchen was compounded by a tarte au citron packed with a powerfully, lemony filling, but on a pastry that was far too thick in places and a brownie that while tasty, felt more floury than squidgy, which, as we all know, is just not quite right.

It was a good date night. We were child free for a few hours for a start. We had eaten some nice things. But there were a coupe of bits we were not so keen on, and when the bill took ten minutes to arrive I must admit I started doing that face which meant my wife started doing that face. Service otherwise had been great, and I don’t think a bill of £90 for a decent meal for two was anything other than reasonable.

Look. I know we’re in the middle of a cost of living crisis. There are more important things than flabby pancetta, a thin sauce and a floury brownie. I am hugely lucky I can go for a meal at all, let alone to a great restaurant with the mother of my children during a break from a month’s professional showing off. I would go back to The Shore in a heartbeat, I just happen to think we hit a bit of an off night, and as someone who has been coming to the Fringe for longer than I care to remember, I know we can all have those. In fact, I had one yesterday, and my audience appeared far less impressed with me than I was with The Shore. But in a town of reviewers, unfortunately The Shore was  ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ the night we went when we really hoped for ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️. I look forward to another night, when I’m certain it will be every bit as good as the speeches at my wedding, Mick’s way with landlords and Hal’s impression of a fifties housewife.

August 2022

The Potted Pig, Cardiff

I first ate at The Potted Pig on 13 Dec 2019 on the recommendation of the UK’s foremost warm-up artiste and bon viveur Mark Olver. Some of you may recall that was the day after a deeply traumatic event which ushered in the worst administration in British political history. If you can’t remember, I admire your ability to forget, or disavow your refusal to accept. Having stayed up late with a bottle of wine that grew more miserable with every glass, a slight hangover was abated with a superb mushroom dashi and some of the best roast pork I had ever eaten, but the trauma was clearly still too much for me to sit down and write about it when Britain had just elected the most unsuitable candidate to the highest office in the land with a quite overwhelming majority.

It’s quite something to realise now how much more trauma was to come. Considerably less meals in restaurants for one thing, although some of you might quite reasonably consider that to be one of the less horrific consequences of a global pandemic. One constant has of course been the crashing awfulness of that unsuitable candidate who has, in the well worn phrase, set himself very low standards he consistently failed to achieve. So it was, if not with a spring in my step, certainly a palpable sense of relief that I walked into Cardiff town centre to reacquaint myself with The Potted Pig in late July 2022, even if I knew I had a long afternoon ahead of me, reworking the Edinburgh Fringe show whose entire line of attack had been fundamentally altered by the enforced resignation of the Potted Prig a couple of weeks earlier.

The restaurant is in an underground vault that could be deemed oppressive if it didn’t feel like you have been admitted to a rather exclusive and comfortable bunker. On the day I was there, possibly a little too exclusive, which was a shame as it is always good to see good places busy. Still, we are all struggling at the moment – a fact possibly not unconnected with those in charge of the country.

Luckily, those in charge of the restaurant were doing a considerably better job. Kat, my chatty and enthusiastic waitress was on hand to bring me a very reasonable martini and talk me through what was an extremely tempting, if not inexpensive menu. It was also one of those relatively rare examples of a menu from which I wanted to order more or less everything, which might have made my choice of main course all the more surprising. She also informed me the restaurant was on its third head chef since my last visit, but luckily, change of leadership has clearly not meant declining standards. I wish I could say the same about Liz Truss.

To start, I had the smoked chicken, pancetta and spinach risotto topped with a delightful chicken skin scratching, for which I have only one criticism – it was a bit titchy. Mainly because it tasted so very good. It was also served on of those wide bowl-like dishes whose only actual area to fit food into is a small indent in the middle of the plate the size of half a boiled egg. I don’t like them. I find them difficult to eat out of, and in this case, I would suggest there wasn’t quite enough space to fit in as much risotto perfection as I would have preferred.

But still, it was a starter and set me up very well for what was an outstanding main course. I don’t often go for the vegetarian option, although I do regularly feel sympathy for vegetarians that the word ‘option’ remains resolutely singular on the vast majority of menus. It’s less an ‘option’ than a stipulation if you don’t eat meat. However, in this case, a number of factors pushed me towards a quite superb beetroot and truffle terrine. Firstly, to be honest, the price. Wages everywhere are stagnant, but they have been positively comatose on the comedy circuit for over a decade, and, as we all know, the cost of everything else has rocketed. Justifying £30 on a main course when you’re away working has become not just hard, but practically impossible to justify. The second reason is that I have grown some beetroot in my garden this year, and my, er ‘invention’ of the butter addled confit beetroot means I am planning to grow little else next year. This was an absolute delight, a wonderful contrast of textures with the soft earthiness of the sliced beetroot within and the crisped without, all offset by deeply pungent and satisfying notes of truffle. A perfect fricassee of greens alongside meant that I felt my lunch had also done me as much good as my run round Cardiff Bay that morning (were it not for the martini,) and at £18 it represented pretty good value for money too.

Desserts looked very tempting, but also veering towards the more overtly sugary end of the market, and for some reason my sweet tooth had deserted me for the day. Instead, in what is again a relatively unusual move for me, I opted for a selection of Welsh cheeses that were not only delicious, they also had the benefit of making me feel like a proper grown up. Maybe Boris Johnson should try some.

All in, with impeccable service, the bill came to £56, which is a lot to spend on a working lunch, but I justified the expense by driving off to a thoroughly hilarious, tiny and charming festival in Herefordshire called ‘Rock the Barn’ before returning to the joys of The Glee Club in Cardiff for the evening.

I then had the pleasure of driving home without the doom of a Tory election victory hanging over proceedings, before heading off to Edinburgh to give Boris Johnson the roasting his calamitous Premiership so clearly deserves. I suppose it’s also a small consolation to reflect that The Potted Pig would probably have done an even better job of it than I ever could.

July 2022

The Blind Bull, Buxton

So here we are again on another weekend away, driving myself across the country and my long-suffering wife apoplectic as she wrangles two toddlers while I treat myself to a rather nice lunch. Sorry.

To be fair, I was in a similar state of incandescence last night, after the inability of Travelodge to provide a postcode on the correct carriageway of the M6 meant it took me an hour and ten minutes to get to a hotel three miles from my gig. The confirmation email also warned of imminent roadworks in April 2020, so god knows who’s going to break it to them about Covid, let alone monkey pox. Ideally, one of the advantages of a child-free evening should be a chance to get to bed reasonably early rather than furiously clutching a mug of whisky two hours after you intended to be asleep. Funnily enough, the single malt in question was a birthday gift from my good friend Nick Revell, an excellent little number named ‘Singleton’ which is I imagine what I may well be when my wife reads this.

As I’m gigging in Glossop and Saddleworth tonight, I once again asked on Twitter for lunch recommendations, and just like last month, @frivoliteabakes came to my rescue. In fact, she could be said to have excelled herself. Well worth a foodie follow. So I jumped in the car and headed off through the Peak District to Buxton, or to be more accurate, Little Hucklow. Or, to be really picky, The Blind Bull – a Twelfth Century Inn nestling down the bottom of the sort of left turn which makes you think they cannot be serious. When you get here, however, it quickly becomes very clear they are.

The drive itself was stunning, and the glorious countryside provides the perfect backdrop to what I’m delighted to report was an equally stunning lunch. Look away now, Emily. I was placed in a cosy little corner table in thoroughly tastefully refurbished surroundings – all stone floors and wood, open fireplaces and good prints on the wall – exactly how you imagine a medieval publican might redecorate his place if he’d had access to a decent interior designer. As my gig is still five hours away, I’m still sat here, but considering a walk through the beer garden and out on to the rolling hills in a while to shift a little of the treacle tart I’ve just polished off, of which more later.

As it is genuinely hard to think of a more picturesque destination for lunch, I’m also at a loss to think of a menu I’ve had more trouble choosing from. I wanted almost all of it. Bless my waitress who patiently took me through most of it twice while I ummed and ahhed and was generally useless. I was sorely tempted by the raw roast beef with fermented chilli and shrimp dressing – indeed I’m actually salivating writing this and cursing myself for not having it, but that would have meant foregoing the asparagus with crispy egg and pickled shallot I had instead. This came in a vivid green lovage sauce and may well be the nicest thing I’ve put in my mouth since lockdown. Breaking open the egg to allow the yolk to ooze out into it provided a masterstroke of creamy richness, and I genuinely failed to display any shame whatsoever in using the teaspoon from the (excellent) coffee I’d ordered on arrival to spoon up all the sauce that remained. Leaving anything on the plate would have been a greater sin. 

I was a bit more prosaic with my main course, much as I wanted the stone bass with clams and sea herbs, but as it’s a Sunday I decided to go for a roast – pork belly with black pudding. Everything on the plate was served piping hot and almost entirely to perfection. Deeply satisfying green shards of cabbage, definitive roasties, parsnips, and meltingly delicious pork with a slick homemade apple sauce. By this point I was actively looking for problems, as if I wasn’t sure anything should be this good. So here goes with my damming critique – of the six inches of crackling around the pork, three hadn’t crisped up. Take THAT Blind Bull. I even found myself wondering if the Yorkshire pudding might have been left a minute or two too long in the oven, but then decided that was actually the ideal treatment for retaining its structure when mopping up a faultless gravy. When you’re clutching at straws like this you know you might as well surrender yourself to the fact you’re in exceptionally good hands.

I needed a bit of a break after this, to the extent I put the exceptionally patient waitress through her paces once more because I wanted everything on the dessert menu too. Eventually I settled on a treacle tart, as much to compare with the one I had at The Pig & Whistle last month as anything else. That had been more than serviceable, but this, with all due respect, rather blew it out of the water. The addition of a quenelle of orange and vanilla ice cream was a masterful floral counterpoint to the deeply sugary hit of the tart and showed exactly the same lightens of touch with flavours as the lovage sauce had with my starter. Added to which, while the Pig & Whistle’s tart was a fairly solid item, once you broke this open, the filling oozed out on to the plate, mixing deliciously with the ice cream. They really know how to give good ooze at The Blind Bull.

I would tell you how much this all came to but I can’t, partly because I haven’t asked for the bill yet, but mainly because my wife will be reading. Put it like this, I don’t expect to have much change from the forty guineas I am probably expected to pay with once Boris Johnson has pursued his monstrously stupid project of taking us back to Imperial measures and presumably the 1950s in a(nother) failed bid to distract from his own crapulence. Personally, on this evidence, I am very happy to go back to the Twelfth century. I really cannot fault my lunch and service was exemplary too – including welcome little touches like the unbidden pint glass of water when I sat down that would be regarded as normality in Europe, but which are therefore generally regarded as a sign of weakness in England by those who will never be happy until the glass has a crown on it. But let’s be honest; those people are never going to be happy.

I too struggle with happiness between my bouts of rage at this government and the vagaries of the Travelodge booking system, but some things really are a pleasure to be savoured, and The Blind Bull is very much one of them. To describe it as exactly ‘en route’ between my gigs is probably pushing things a little geographically, but it is most definitely worth a detour all of its own if you are ever in the area. I certainly plan to come back, to try the rest of the menu, if nothing else. I cannot wait. Just don’t tell my wife.

May 2022

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