Dinner, The Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Hyde Park


So. It’s a big day. Let’s say momentous. I’m not that bothered, frankly, as I think most right minded people aren’t, but there are certain signposts in your life, and I’m now probably beyond the halfway point when it comes to ticking them off. This, in fact, taking into account modern life expectancy and David Cameron’s insistence on raising the retirement age until we’re all dead, may well have been the halfway point, so what do you do on your 40th?

A martini, as opposed to, say, the deposit on a small flat.

Well, if you’re my girlfriend, you manage the impossible and book a table at the newly crowned best restaurant in the country for lunch. And then they confirm by email and so do you. And then they phone you to confirm that you’ve confirmed. And so on. And then you turn up a little before twelve because they’ve insisted that you have to. And because you’ve been waiting for this, you’re quite excited, and you order a martini when someone deigns to come to take your order. A lovely Tanqueray 10 martini that you later find out costs twenty-three quid. I know. But you don’t know that, because you are in the bar, waiting to go into the best restaurant in the country.

And at twenty past the appointed hour, you are still waiting to go into the best restaurant in the country, until eventually you manage to catch someone’s eye and ask when you are actually going to see the interior of the best restaurant in the country. And, despite mentioning that you were here to eat when you arrived, they don’t seem to believe you. As a result, four different people approach you to check that you have made a reservation for the best restaurant in the country, with a number of interesting enquiries such as,

“Are you sure you have made a reservation at the best restaurant in the country?” (OK, I may have slightly made that one up,)

And the perennial favourite,

What was the name?” (this one I didn’t, but they did ask it a number of times, just to make sure I got it.)

In retrospect (I had a lovely birthday, by the way, thanks for asking) my favourite bit of the meal was my girlfriend thrusting her iPhone at a member of staff to show her their confirmation email. Steve Jobs did not die in vain.

Under a jelly mould, a man discovers some sort of primitive timekeeping device. The only other one in the building is being used to cook pineapples.

An hour after we arrived, we were taken through to the best restaurant in the country, the interior of which, I have to report, is a bit brown, although I like the jelly moulds on the walls. There was one thing missing, though. No one said sorry. Someone ‘didn’t understand what had happened’ but that was about it. I didn’t understand what had happened either.

I was still excited. I was in the best restaurant in the country, and I could see the pineapples turning on their special Swiss-made turny thing. And Meat Fruit kept on running past me looking like it could do with more toast, sorry, grilled bread. You’re definitely in a destination establishment when you know half the menu because you read the papers.

To be fair, in most other respects, the best restaurant in the country was marvellous. The staff were delightful and my only real complaint was that you had to either go for the house wine (a mere £20) or remortgage. The house wine was very adequate, and could nearly have made a whole martini.

Lemon salad

We decided to go for the set lunch at an almost martiniesque (do I stop now?)  £28 for three courses. My pig’s ear ragoo (I’m unclear about the spelling, also, but that’s how they did it,) was rich and tasty, if a little bit unsurprising. Her lemon salad on the other hand, with goat’s cheese curds, was exactly the sort of thing I’d been hoping for, so we swapped, which was her idea. Intricate tastes. That’s how I’m going to describe it – stunningly simple, and yet terribly complex and delicious. Apparently curds are very now.

For mains, the cured salmon was cooked on one side, what they did with beetroot astounded and, oh, it’s too difficult to explain, but it was lovely. My Bath Chaps were also lovely, as Bath chaps tend to be (Kingswood School ’82-’89, I thank you,) with a lardo topping that was much nicer and cleverer than a protein membrane has any right to be. We also had triple cooked chips that were, frankly, chips. I had been led to expect miracles, but that is probably media hype rather than Heston Blumenthal’s fault. There is so much hype around Heston I sometimes wonder if Quaker Oats think they have made a mistake not putting snails in their cereal boxes.

Cured salmon with beetroot and chard

Where Dinner really got me was dessert, which is unusual. Her Raspberry Loaf was a genuine delight, but my Chocolate Wine was something else. All that stuff I wrote about Franklin’s chocolate pot? Forget that. (Really, don’t – it’s amazing, and they’re nice to you.) The wine itself I could probably do without – it was perfectly interesting, but the chocolate tart was the star – the sort of thing that would have Belgians weeping and doing bad things to the Congo. Utterly divine, and I mean that to be as camp as it sounds.

Bath chaps with lardo

We finished with coffee and a bill of £125. I’m really glad I went and I’m enormously thankful to my girlfriend for managing to organise the experience, because the place is booked solid. Would I recommend you go? I’m not sure. Of course, if you want to say you’ve been. Amazing food and a lovely view of Hyde Park. The clientele still made it feel a little like a hotel restaurant, which, after all, is what it is. I would have loved to place a few of the One Hyde Park residents on the Swiss turny thing alongside all the other pineapples, but the point is, I was made to feel enormously unwelcome when I was doing something that should have been a big deal. If you’re going to be a big deal, don’t fuck up other people’s.

Raspberry Loaf

In the evening, we went to Mien Tay with some of the finest people known to humanity. Turns out, it’s one of the best restaurants in the country. It cost about a martini each. I had goat, which was a surprise, because I thought the Mandarin Oriental bar staff had already got mine.


Oct 2011

Franklin’s, East Dulwich


My friend Philippa and I have shared many things over the years – flats, holidays, Blackadder fandom bordering on the obsessive, a comedy club (she ran it, I just turned up occasionally) and a love of good food and drink. Together we have darkened the doors of The Savoy Grill, The Seafood Restaurant, Lower Slaughter Manor, Seabar and others too numerous to mention, or in many cases, remember. L’Escargot is certainly a bit of a blur for Phil, although that was thanks to the combination of a highly polished floor and heels rather than the (very good) wine list. While sharing a lovely Sunday lunch at José after she had run a half marathon for the Tall Ships Trust, in memory of a friend who is no longer with us (see previous post,) I had also promised to help her move house. Though not quite a gargantuan effort to move her drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin, this did entail moving most of her possessions a good two hundred and fifty yards across Peckham Rye and, of course, lunch.

We were, frankly, gobsmacked by how good it was. I hate to ruin the suspense, but Franklin’s is a wonderful place. I have become slightly worried that Food Ponce is becoming one ringing endorsement after another, so for the sake of balance, I might point out that while the food in the Fox and Grapes in Wimbledon isn’t bad, £47 for a pub lunch for two with no booze is taking the f**king piss, which is why it’s not getting a full review, even if Claude Bosi is in charge. Franklin’s, on the other hand, gets my undivided attention.

Although it advertises itself as a restaurant, there is a pubby feeling as you walk into the bright and airy bar, which is no bad thing (there is more formal seating in the back, and a function room downstairs.) I was immediately impressed by the selection of beers on tap – a couple each of good lagers, bitters and ciders, a local pale ale and a Guinness. Who could need more? Well, we could actually, as I was driving, and so ginger cordial was procured from their farmshop next door (I know, you’ll like this place) and Phil made a couple of minor forays into a wine list that was clearly selected with the same good taste as the beers.


We shared half a dozen Colchester oysters to start, with a pickled onion vinaigrette that was a nice change from the routine shallot version, and prevented us from making any inroads into a rather interesting selection of bar snacks while we ordered the rest of our meal. I had the lunch special at £16.95 for three courses, although this did involve a sneaky pudding exchange for which I think we were forgiven. Phil started with a very tasty pork tenderloin with aubergine and paprika – although the meat was a little dry, which was our only criticism of the entire meal. My mussels with chorizo were plump, juicy and lifted to something completely other by the addition of small chunks of fried bread. I ended up drinking the broth straight from the bowl because sometimes you have to.

Kidneys & pease pudding. Plaice, shrimps, chicory & olives.

I think I fell properly in love when my kidneys arrived. I did take a picture of them on their own, but haven’t included it as their triumph is not an aesthetic one. Beautifully earthy kidneys in a rich mustard sauce accompanied by a pease pudding full of bacon bits. Something even better appeared to be happening across the table – Phil’s whole plaice with brown shrimps, chicory and olives was a thing of beauty, all its constituent elements marrying in a way that would make a Mormon jump for joy, if they’re allowed to do that sort of thing. Perfectly cooked fish, salty shrimps and a little char from the chicory all cut through by the slightly acid tang of the olives. Absolutely stunning. I’d moved on to a raspberry spritzer by now because I know how to live, and the bell from the kitchen when a dish was ready was making me salivate like one of Pavlov’s dogs. Reading this back, I realize I must be a delightful dining companion.

The desserts were well worth a dribble too. My lemon tart was a great big citric smack, although because I have been watching the Great British Bake Off I was about to comment on how, if I was being super-picky, the bake had not quite made it to the very centre of the pastry base when Philippa quite rightly shut me up with a spoonful of chocolate and orange pot. With a little cream sloshing about on top of it, we were not originally sure we had got the right dessert, but hidden underneath was ‘possibly the densest thing I’ve ever eaten. In a really good way,’ and I had to agree, even if I prefer her description of José’s meatballs from a literary point of view.

Raspberry spritzer

We finished with coffees and a small Armagnac for her as the sun of a ridiculous Indian summer filtered in through the windows and convinced us that for once, everything was well with the world. Old friends and new discoveries – even the music was good. As our bill arrived with the same friendly and unhurried efficiency as everything else we had asked for, I seriously considered popping along for the Rugby World Cup breakfast offered at the weekend, but decided East Dulwich was a little too far to travel that early in the morning. More importantly, I would hate to associate Franklin’s with any kind of disappointment.


Sept 2011

José, Bermondsey


Having never been to the Dome before, and only really being aware of its farcical role in the dawn of a new century, the fact that it is now quite a good music venue is of little interest to me, or will be until I go and see The Fall there next month, at which point it had better rock. However, as a friend was completing Run to the Beat, which finished right outside, I was able to go and have a nose close up. Surprisingly, I found myself rather taken with the large tent where the Queen held hands with the Blairs to sing Auld Lang’s Syne (where was that river of fire?) to compound the nation’s embarrassment at having held a New Year’s Eve party that was less a celebration and more a happening waiting to accident.

The Union Square inside the venue is fighting a brave, if losing battle against its inevitable corporate soullessness, but as we stood around congratulating those who’d actually done anything apart from turn up to a pub on a rather nice Sunday, it became apparent that, due to an unspecified cock up, half our number had repaired to Bermondsey for lunch. As a result my friend and I had to join them in José, which turned out to be the happiest accident of them all.

I am no expert on Spain, but I know what I like and I really like good tapas, as was evidenced by my recent visit to the excellent Iberico in Nottingham. The vibe here is rather different, which is only to be expected given the size of the place (tiny,) the light (from the big yellowy thing in the sky) and the location (the bohemian oasis that is Bermondsey St.) Tapas is generally such a civilized way to eat, as the growth of ‘small plate’ dining over here would seem to attest – see Terroirs, amongst others, for details – although I did once eat at a short-lived ‘Italian tapas’ place just off Carnaby Street which was as wrong as it sounds. I have seen some some complaints flying around the internet concerning how busy José can become, and it is fair to point out that in Spain, this would be just one of a number of eateries you could dip in and out of before you slipped into a sherry induced siesta or started complaining about the bullfighting ban. However, one (Juan?) José is very much better than no José at all.

Chilli & garlic prawns, Tomato & onion salad, wine list

As we arrived, our party were sat around one of the few tables – most of the eating areas are along the bar or at the shelves in the windows – leaving little room for us. We stood at a barrel, which was fine – we were offered stools but declined on the grounds that my friend’s legs would probably have started seizing up if she stopped using them. Service was sunny and efficient, and it didn’t take us long to get going. I stuck to water, but my companion opted for a well deserved glass of white Rioja – it was called Tremendus, and it was. You can do serious damage to your wallet with the wine list here, but then that’s half the point. You can also save a bit and channel the funds into Iberico ham instead, which is of course what I ended up doing. The ham was heavenly, but then at £9 it wanted to be.

Morcilla with broad beans and almonds

The food was almost uniformly excellent, with superbly fresh ingredients, brilliantly handled. Large prawns came with just the right chilli and garlic kick while chicken livers were moist and irony in a way that even Americans could understand. A tomato and onion salad cut through the meatier dishes beautifully, including some lamb meatballs with spicy tomato sauce that my companion memorably described as ‘unlike any other meatball I’ve had – not radically, just a step to the left,’ which is of course where you’ll find all the best commentators. The squid special came with a superb allioli, although only one of the advertised runner beans turned up and the morcilla with broad beans and almonds was delicious even if I felt the morcilla a tiny touch overcooked. But this is to be terribly nit picking – the mackerel (with peppers and fantastically crispy skin) was so fresh I’m surprised it didn’t swim off.

We eventually called a halt to proceedings as it was becoming clear that otherwise our waitress was going to bring us the entire menu, and finished off with a couple of cortado coffees, which were actually among the highlights of an already highlight heavy meal. Like a large cappuccino shot at perfect drinking temperature, these were, funnily enough, one of the first things we discussed later in the week over lunch in East Dulwich, more of which in the next post. Our bill came in at a pretty reasonable £59, and while I would recommend heading to José during the less busy hours of the day, the Juan* thing I would definitely recommend is heading to José, whether by accident or not.


Sept 2011