Havana Bar, Wellington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 2019


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 2019

St John Bread & Wine, Spitalfields

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 2019

Hart’s, Nottingham

Well, this is tedious. In Nottingham for the weekend playing the excellent Glee Club. Despite having attempted to check into the Jury’s Inn they used to book us into, (and having paid to use their car park) it turned out I was actually in another hotel nearer to the gig but further away from my car. After a smashing show on Friday night, the next morning I went for a stupidly long run having not had any breakfast, thinking I would treat myself to a Nando’s protein and vegetable blowout for lunch, as that is often my fallback failsafe eating option when on the road.

None of this was the tedious bit, even if it reads like it. What happened next was – I Googled ‘restaurants near me’ on the off chance there was something more exciting than Peri Peri chicken to be had nearby, and came up with Hart’s, approximately 100 yards from my hotel. I walked up there and was sat at a table within minutes, had an excellent lunch and then walked back to my hotel. Absolutely nothing else to report, which I think we can all agree, in blogging terms, is tremendously dull.

Hart’s is, in reality, what a favourite restaurant should be. A small independent, in this case attached to a hotel, serving exemplary food at reasonable prices in a manner that, whilst relatively unshowy, lets you feel like you are treating yourself. There was an interesting à la carte of what used to be called French themed dishes, but as it was written in English, let’s just call it classic restaurant cookery, and try not to be too Brexity about it. There was a lot of roasting and hearty looking things going on with starters hovering around the high single figures and mains dotted around the twenty pound mark, but mostly above. In an effort to placate my wife I opted for the set menu at £24 for three courses. This did not work, as I discovered soon afterwards when she saw my subsequent Instagram post, although I’m really not sure what she was doing looking at her phone when she was meant to be enjoying a fun weekend of solo childcare back in Hertford (*Runs for door*.)

What arrived was, in the words of The Cure, simply elegant. I decided on a butternut squash soup as I wasn’t in the mood for goat’s cheese and I didn’t know what a crottin was, although I bet it’s like fried toast. I’m very glad I did. This was exquisite – silky, smooth, almost sweet with a little slick of oil through it and a slight bite from chopped chives. Genuinely one of the best soups I’ve ever had, mainly because I rarely order soup in a restaurant as it’s generally not as exciting as the other things on the menu. Thanks to some rather nice sourdough, this plate went back to the kitchen cleaner than it was before they put soup in it.

Artfully arranged, a plate of perfectly cooked, crispy skinned cod was a delight, translucent flakes resting (as you do) on a bed of diced chorizo and leeks, with a delightfully truffled cauliflower puree whose only fault was there wasn’t quite enough of it for my ‘taste’, by which I mean ‘greed’.

I’ve been off sugar since the start of the year, so when I have some, it is a genuine treat, and a yoghurt and lemon parfait with poached rhubarb was superb, especially with an added quenelle of unadvertised rhubarb ice cream. This was already doing a heavenly little dance on the taste buds, but a scattering of candied hazelnuts added further texture (SUGAR!!!) and what can only bedescribed as an all singing, high kicking chorus. Rarely have I eaten three plates of food one after the other that have better fulfilled their job descriptions: starter, main, dessert. Bish, bash, bosh. Done. Simple perfection.

Service was efficient, friendly, and while there may have been a slightly longer wait for a couple of dishes than I might have liked, that is only to be expected from a busy kitchen turning out dishes of this quality. With a bottle of sparkling water and a tip, the bill came in at £30 for a really rather memorable lunch. Rather unexcitingly, I had absolutely no complaints whatsoever, and walked back to the hotel in a fabulous mood. Luckily the England rugby team soon put paid to that by getting stuffed in Cardiff against all expectations, and nothing is more tedious than that. I was very tempted to go back to Hart’s for dinner just to cheer myself up again.


Feb 2019

Lily’s Ashton

January is of course the time for reinvention, when you spend a good fortnight or so pretending you’re going to become some better version of yourself that rarely makes the transition to February. I’d like to say I’m adopting a healthier lifestyle, but what I’m really trying to do is get into a couple of suits that appear to have shrunk somewhat in recent months. We can all pretend we’re committed to a new regime for its own sake, but what generally pushes us over the edge is the more mundane sight of catching oneself in the mirror from an unusual angle and wondering why there’s a darts player in your bedroom.

I’m not doing Dry January, although I haven’t had a drink in 2019. I just don’t want to set a time limit on it, although I realize that is sacrilegious to the martyrs of brief abstention and their self-congratulatory Just Giving pages. However, if you want to lose an inch or two off your waist, a Guinness moratorium is not a bad place to start. I’m not doing Veganuary either, although I did consider it for about thirty seconds until the reality of organizing it set in and, you know, ham. Nonetheless, I have tried to cut down on meat and dairy, to the extent I now have almond milk on my cereal in the mornings which I would have laughed at in the way my father still does a few years ago. It would probably be a good idea to give up dairy altogether, but, unfortunately, cheese.

Someone who is a better person than me in these respects is teetotal vegan comedian Justin Moorhouse, who, as he describes in his excellent new show ‘Northern Joker’ is not your stereotypical idea of an alcohol-free herbivore. I’ve known Justin since I started in comedy, and he’d been promising to take me for a meal in Manchester for ages. There is much good food to be had there, but it is quite something that a city as funky, cosmopolitan and downright fab as Manchester doesn’t have any Michelin starred restaurants. This weekend, however, that was not what we were after, as Justin had promised to take me to his favourite – Lily’s, in Ashton, just outside the city.

We drove out of town with Justin’s daughter and niece and he told me a bit about the place. A former café set up next to the local Asian supermarket by the eponymous Lily in the early70s, it seems to have been full for the last four and a half decades. As a result, they recently moved a few yards away to a bespoke new restaurant, opened in a grand ceremony by a local celeb, one Mr J. Moorhouse. Lily is sadly no longer with us, but her entire family clearly still is, and they welcomed us all, and Justin in particular, into the restaurant as one of their own.

It was mid-afternoon, but the brightly lit, charmingly muralled room was already buzzing with customers, waiters and some seriously good smells. We were placed in a booth just inside the door to the neighbouring shop where various ice creams, pastries and Indian sweets were lined up in display cases, and we got to grips with what I can only describe as an exhaustive menu.

A couple of admissions – firstly, I’m not sure my opinions of a lot of the food count for much as it was clearly made by people who are experts in a cuisine I simply don’t know enough about. Secondly – I have a tendency to binge (which may explain both the ill-fitting suits and my decision to knock booze on the head for a while.) Luckily, we found a positive solution to these potential pitfalls by getting Justin to order. And he did. A lot. So it wasn’t my fault.

The poppadums arrived first and that was when the good news began. We’ve all sat around sickly mango chutneys, tired onion salads and icky lime pickles. I have eaten many, many poppadums in my time, and the condiments here were the best I have ever had. Each with it’s own punchy flavor, and as far from a jar of Sharwoods as it’s possible to travel. This could have been lunch and I would’ve been happy. Then the first wave of proper food began.

Justin ordered so much we didn’t actually have space for any more on the table, and these were only the starters. Delicate little chaats – crispy yellow lentil flour shells filled with boiled potato, brown chick peas and a delicate mint pouring sauce were a hit with me and Justin, if not the girls. Crispy okra was a crisp yet chewy sensation, and a whole selection of samosas and bhajis kept coming, with various dipping sauces. Pretty sure we had some Lentil kachoris (a kind of spicy lentil pasty,) and Bateta wadis (spiced potato dumplings in a gram flour batter) but I may be wrong. It was getting quite hectic by now. There was a lot of chilli going on, but that delicious kind of heat that is a catalyst, rather than the flavour itself. And if things got too much, there was plenty of yoghurt about to cool you down (not vegan admittedly, but then again, neither am I.) To give you an idea of the taste explosions going off all over, I didn’t even think about meat, and if your idea of a meal out has to involve bits of animal, in a rather neat reversal, I’m afraid it is you who are missing out.

A number of uneaten bhajis and samosas were put into a doggy bag and greatly appreciated in the ComedyStore dressing room later on – as often happens with Indian food, the flavours were, if anything, more pronounced when eaten cold. But back at Lily’s we were working our way round our main courses. These included some spectacularly fragrant rice, slippery chilli tofu and a smooth and flavoursome spinach and mushroom curry. I’d ordered a naan as I’m clinically unable not to. We had two types – plain and garlic, chilli and coriander – which were a further delight for mopping up everything else, as well as some rotis. Having spotted one on another table, the girls also ordered an uttapam – an enormous rolled lentil pancake containing, oh, you know, some really tasty vegetable stuff. I was eating, not taking notes. One dish stood out above all others though, and that was the Gobi Manchurian from the Indo-Chinese menu – stir-fried battered cauliflower florets that we actually ended up fighting over in a very polite way. By this point, the odd dish may have remained unfinished, but these bronzed little nuggets stood no chance.

Slowly, we eased to a stop, like some sort of overladen steam train. Somehow the girls managed to find space for a couple of ice creams, but obviously that would have seriously screwed with my diet. As it was, I had eaten my bodyweight in vegetables, and as we all know, on the calorie front, that simply doesn’t count. Service was beyond wonderful, and I get the impression that would be the case whether you attended with the chief ribbon cutter or not. Rarely have I felt so welcomed, or so satisfied after a meal. I’d like to give you an idea of the price, (I know that it was very reasonable from the pricing on the menu) but I can’t tell you the exact figure, because Justin very kindly picked up the bill.

You can give up whatever you want for the New Year, but it’s perfectly possible to be more positive, and find something new to do instead. Next time I’m in Manchester, I’m pretty sure I’ll take the tram up to Ashton and pay Lily’s another visit. Obviously I’ll see if Mr Moorhouse is available to escort me, partly because I owe him lunch, partly for a little reflected North West celebrity gold dust, but mainly because there is no more fun place to be a teetotal vegan for the afternoon at any time of the year.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Jan ‘19

Justin is taking ‘Northern Joker’ on tour which even includes dates in the South. You can find venues and tickets here: https://justinmoorhouse.seetickets.com/tour/justin-moorhouse

Spielburger, Barnet Everyman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jan ‘19

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

The College Arms, Hertford Heath

Guinea Fowl

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

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

There. Nice, isn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

Jan ‘19

Noya’s Kitchen, Bath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dec ‘18

Dishoom, Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nov ‘18

Aqua Pazza, Boston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Oct ‘18