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.