"It's not much but it's ours"

Wednesday, May 31, 2006


After last night’s disasters, I was determined to have a decent supper tonight. Or, at least, to give myself a fighting chance.

HP had mentioned Dragon Castle on the Walworth Rd just past The Elephant & Castle. It had been reviewed by the estimable blousy Scot, Marina in Metro and by someone who is not Guy Dimmond ( always a good thing ) in Time Out. Both had ranked it amongst the best Cantonese places they had ever tried in London.

A good chum was all on his lonesome tonight so asked if I had any interesting dining plans and quickly agreed to join me for supper when he heard where I was going.

We arranged to meet at The Anchor & Hope for a quick pre-dinner drink. I can’t help it. I am pre-disposed to just not like this place. I know how good the food is supposed to be and I can see how popular it is. However, the risible no booking policy just gets on my gonads and, after a couple of pints, I was very happy to head out of there.

A short cab ride had us outside Dragon Castle. It is huge. A cavernous room that can easily sit 150 people. It was pretty much packed when we arrived and a quick glance showed that, only two months after opening, it is a popular place with the local Chinese community, local Walworthian’s and is already becoming a destination for the review reading crowd ( hence our good selves )

First presented with the standard menu, we mentioned that we had read about the “ other” menu and were quickly handed an expanded version that had all the good stuff on it.

While we pondered, a plate of fiery chilli peanuts were plopped in front of us. Normally pretty perfunctory, these gave testament to the fact that there is someone here who gives a damn. We devoured two plates full before they finally dragged an order out of us.

There are some seriously interesting things to choose from on the menu alongside the more standard dishes and we began with two seafood choices and one meat choice

Sliced Pork Hock with chillied soy

Palourdes Clams with Sichuan pepper and chilli (£5.50 )– I found them a little salty, but that was overcome by the sheer meatiness of the clams and the fiery sauce which had enough chilli to give that typical Sichuan numbing of the tongue.

Razor Clam with Golden crushed garlic ( £5.50 each ) – a lot to pay and I found it a little tough. Still, nice to see it on the menu. Now they need to learn how to cook them.

I was thrilled to see the number of hot pots on the menu including one with frog’s legs. But, my chum was not to be turned away from the first one that caught his eye and we ordered

Hot Pot of braised eel and pork belly with Garlic – A stunner. Slices of braised eel which gave up the flesh from the bone with the slightest suck. A dense meaty sauce and good chunks of soft fatty pork belly. As good a hot pot as I have ever tried.

By this time, we were both looking at each other and saying “ how the hell did a place this good get to be here?” Some investigation with the manager shed little light as it appears that the owner has never run a restaurant before…. Who knows? But something good is happening South of the River and I never thought I would ever find myself saying that.

Our next three dishes arrived,

Double Cooked Lamb Shank with Chilli – you had me at double cooked. A beautifully gelatinous hunk of lamb ripped from the bone ( slightly too dramatically ) by the waiter when it looked like it would melt off with the slightest breeze. My favourite course of the night.

King Prawns with dry scallops and deep fried garlic shoots – The most standard dish of the night but still prepared with more dexterity than I would have expected.

Ho Fun noodles with Chinese chive and beansprouts – again a very standard dish, but not lumpen and heavy as is so often the case.

Suffice to say that my chum, who is a man whose eating capacity can change the balance of a country’s trade deficit, was beaten and it was left to me to clear up. I live to serve.

The bill came with some slightly dried up fruit slices and some bad chocolate ( which, surprise, surprise, my friend suddenly found room for ) It was £77 for two including three beers and some Pu Ehr tea. Service was also included but, of course, the indecipherable bill did not show that and we had to ask. This always leaves a bad taste in my mouth and I cannot see why Chinese restaurants should be allowed to get away with this nonsense when no one else is.

Still, a small point, if one that has to change soon. This was a hugely decent meal. A far cry from the MSG laden stodge that forms the basis of most Chinatown menus and enough to get me coming at least this far South of the River on a fairly regular basis.

The serve Dim Sum on Sunday from 11.30am. After the horrors of Harbour city. I suspect it is well worth a try. In any case, there are all those other hot pots to try

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Tuesday, May 30, 2006


Tee Hee. Sometimes there are meals that are so staggeringly inept that all thoughts of cost go out of the window and one just enjoys watching the wheels come off the car like the exploding charabang of Coco The Clown at Billy Smart’s Circus.

A few weeks ago, HP and I sauntered past what used to be a dire bar called Heeltapper’s that sat at the corner of Paul St and Worship St. It was being refurbished as a bar and restaurant which, in this area, usually fills me with dread as invariably they have a sign outside on the day they open saying “experienced sous chef needed”

Still, when I walked past the other day, they had one or two things on the menu that looked interesting, they apparently had a huge wine list offering many by the glass and they had a promotion via Top Table that gave a 50% discount on all food.

So, I booked. I deserve everything I got. This really is one of the more laughingly appalling restaurants I have set foot in for, well, as long as I can remember.

I arrived around 6.15pm and, apart from a few city boys having a pre-football beer, I was the only person in there for the whole of my visit.

The room is harmless but shows not one iota of design flair. Straight off the shelf identikit blah UK restaurant.

The front of house was friendly enough and honest to a fault. Probably too honest. I asked who the chef was. He said ‘ he’s British” well, that’s cleared that up then. “but” he added “ he’s not here tonight. It’s the second chef. He’s OK”

Filled with confidence, I fought my way through the crowd ( I am being ironic here just in case it is not clear ) to my table and had a look at the menu.

To be fair, if there was anyone in the place who could cook one or two of the dishes could be quite agreeable. But, there was not one trace in the entire visit that showed anyone with the most basic level of first year catering college training.

As for the wines. A very large list of bottles ( over 300 they told me ) but a dispiritingly small choice by the glass. In fact five each of red and white and many from the same maker. Mmm, so the choice of the name Vinum. That’s some more irony, right? Again, the front of house showing disarming honesty said “ that’s all we have, it’s not great is it?” Nope.

To begin, I chose a Goat’s cheese and beet salad. I imagineered a salad of at least two types of beets with some creamy cheese and a few peppery leaves. What I got looked like it was made by my six year old nephew after watching Blue Peter. Chunks of fridge fresh goats cheese cut into large lumps, some more lumps of school dinner type beetroot and a scary mound of frissee tossed in what I am sure was Sarsons. As horrible as it sounds. The glass of over priced white burgundy at £5.50 just about dulled my tastebuds enough to endure.

For the main course, I wanted the Suckling Pig. The waitress told me it was off. So, I ordered the chump of lamb. She pottered off and then came back to ask me how I wanted it cooked. “pink” I replied. She pottered off again. Then she came back and said “ we do have some suckling pig. Do you want to change” Despite my Reggie Perrin like vision of the chef fighting with the dog over the last portion of pork, I did change my order. Bit dim really. It was as bad as the starter. A stunningly ill conceived dish.

It came plonked on top of a stone cold “salad” of overcooked, mushy green lentils with crudely chopped tomatoes and a few spring onions cut on the bias to show that the chef had passed the first level of his NVQ. The pork was two decent slices with a tiny bit of crackling and on top a dollop of applesauce that was mouth searingly hot from the microwave. If I had many more pork dishes like this, I may have to think about changing religion.

With it a side of the increasingly common “hispi” cabbage. I think “hispi” must be native American for “ soggy and shit”

A glass of Bach Merlot Blend from NZ for £5.50 passed me by entirely.

I could not face pudding although part of me wanted to see just how bad it would be, so I got my bill. With the 50% discount , both the wine and the food came to £11.50. With tip ( why should staff suffer because they work in a crappy restaurant?) the bill came to £27. That’s £27 for two courses of such defining incompetence that I kept expecting Jeremy Beadle to jump out. And, that’s with a promotional discount

I know, I know, what more did I expect? Well, I expected anyone who is going to charge money for food to at least have a basic comprehension of how it should be prepared.

What it did go to show is that I don’t have to go to the US to have truly dreadful meals. I can just walk 100 yards from my front door and save on the air fare.

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Monday, May 29, 2006


There is a fairy tale about the three little pigs and the big bad wolf. The denouement, if my memory serves me well, has the sleeping wolf having his stomach opened to free the piggies within and having them replaced with rocks. He awakes, staggers to the nearest river for a drink, falls in and drowns.

After today’s lunch at Harbour City, I know just how he feels. I am pretty sure I ate pig, but I came out of there feeling like I had eaten rocks.

I have always rather liked Harbour City. As the more basic dim sum houses go, it has always offered up very decent dumplings and fried food that seemed to be a notch above others on the same street.

So today, when HP suggested lunch in The West End, Harbour City seemed like as good a choice as any. What a shame as it turned out all to be pretty poor ranging from "blah" to "yuk".

We always order a pretty large amount of dumplings and fried food and supplement this with plates of roast pork and duck. No change today.

A range of steamed dumplings ( Har Kau, Siu Mai, Char Sui Buns, Scallop & Chive Dumplings ) were lumpen and dense. The grilled Cheung Fun with dried shrimp was all cheung and no fun. Quite nasty in fact.

A series of fried dim sum ( Taro paste, Yam Croquettes, Paper Wrapped Prawns ) were greasy and heavy.

Baked treasury pork puffs, normally light and spicy, were doughy and cold.

Even the roast meats ,usually excellent, were very poor indeed. The duck was oily and cloying and the belly pork dry as a bone if ,at least, having a decent crackling skin.

The only two dishes worthy of note were both on the specials list. A fried squid paste and a plate of Duck's kidney's. The latter were not cheap ( at £5.50 a plate ) but at least offered a different taste to the one note cooking of the rest

We struggled through a lot of it because we were starving, but left a great deal. Unheard of for us.

And, with the portions of meat, it was not cheap. £55 for two. What you would pay for two at Royal China

The problem with eating dim sum at this most basic level in London is that there is no level of consistency. For every two decent meals you have in one place you will have one bad.

I staggered out of there feeling stuffed but not in a good way. I actually felt a little queasy as the oily lumpen mass began to slosh around my insides. Quite disconcerting.

In the end, it is probably worth paying the extra and going to the places at the mid and high end where, although, you are paying more per head, the cooking is consistent and the offerings a little more innovative

As for Harbour City. I don't think I will be rushing back anytime soon

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Sunday, May 28, 2006


At the risk of sounding like a friend of Dorothy, there is no place like home.

It was a long old trip back from Las Vegas (via Chicago ) to the wet and windy welcome that is London and, the last couple of days have been spent suffering the usual jet lag that has me fast asleep by 2pm and wide awake by 2am.

Still, it is worth it to be back home in my own bed.

One of the real benefits of being back in Blighty is the possibility of coming in contact with a decently made Martini. America with Martini’s is like England and football, we may have invented it (them) but that does not mean we are any good at it (them)

With one or two exceptions ( Angel Share in NY being the best I have tried ) Martini’s in the USA are not just foul but an insult to the very concept.

For me, a Martini is one thing and one thing only. Cold gin in a chilled vermouth washed glass drunk through a slick which can be citrussy ( with a twist ) or savoury ( with an olive )

It is, like frying an egg, the simplest thing to do and the hardest thing to do well. In the US, I invariably get a glass that may, if it is lucky, have had a few ice cubes sitting in it to melt for a few seconds before a gin is mixed with vermouth in the shaker and given a desultory wave of the hand. Then, worst of all, a matchstick of lemon peel thick with pith is plonked in the glass instead of a freshly cut sliver of peel spritzed over the glass to give the necessary oil. Never good. Often disgusting.

So, HP’s promise of a pre lunch drinkie was as welcome as a drop of water to a man after three weeks in the Sahara.

He makes them just right. The glass chilled, the vermouth given a nodding relationship with the glass and a goodly slick of lemon oil.

First though, our standard walk. Coffee and a almond croissant at Apostrophe for HP and some Chai and a Galician tuna empanada from stalls in the Upmarket for me. Then a quick stroll home in time for that Martini and some lunch

English Apsaragus, A chicken from Furness in BM, force meatballs made from duchy original sausages, wilted greens, Ginger Pig shortback bacon and sweet roasted carrots. All very good indeed and served well by a bottle of Irancy and a Felsner Gruener.

But, for all the deliciousness of the food, I am just glad to be back in the vicinity of a decent Martini.

Perhaps, next time I am in the USA, and need a Martini, I can just click my heels together.
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Thursday, May 25, 2006



More wheezing and spluttering marked the beginning of our last day in Las Vegas. I headed out to CVS to pick up some more drugs while Mark managed to drag his flu ridden carcass out of bed and be ready for us to head off for our morning stroll.

There was a showing of Ansell Adams work at the Fine Art Gallery of Bellagio and, after all the kitch and tack, a bit of culture seemed just the job. So, after a preposterously large Cobb salad at Café Bellagio, we paid the $15 a pop and spent a good hour or so gazing on the stunning work of one of the great photographers of the Twentieth Century.

Now, you have to work hard to make AA’s work uninspiring. But, whoever curated this managed it. Poorly hung and lit and with an inconsequential audio commentary, the works shone despite the efforts of Bellagio, not because of them. Never mind, a harmless way to pass some time.

After a few hours by the pool, I was ready to go and meet my new latest best chum, Evelyn while Mark was headed back to the airport. I had the better deal. Fighting your way through security or supper with chums at Alex at The Wynn?

I have to confess that I did not know a lot about this restaurant. But, Evelyn declared it the best in Las Vegas and who am I to argue.

I met up with her and her hugely charming partner, Chris at Parasole Down, a splendid outside bar at The Wynn. A perfect place for a pre dinner glass of wine before heading to Alex.

It is a lovely room if over the top which is the nature of all things Vegas. The service was immediate and exemplary throughout the meal. They obviously knew Evelyn well.

While perusing the menu, a glass of Rose Champagne kept us topped up.

The beauty of this menu is that you can mix and match as you please. There is a tasting menu for $155. A Wine flight determined tasting menu for $345 and a three course set menu for $120. We went for the last of those options

To begin, Evelyn and I had Frogs Legs Meuniere with herb Anglotti and tomato confit with artichokes. I was less thrilled with this than I imagined from the description. The Florida frogs legs were a little chewy as was the Anglotti. The artichokes did not add anything as far as I could see.

Chris chose a dish of kumamoto Oysters which I did not try because of my allergy. I think he rather liked them given the expressions he was making.

Much better was an extra dish we ordered for the table of Ricotta Gnocchi with a green garlic custard and crayfish. A stellar dish that was one of the highlights of the trip.

I was allowed to offer up a suggestion for the wine to go with our first course and we had a Rias BaiXas Senorans which I thought worked splendidly. I hope the others did. They made the right noises and no one vomited, so I trust it was OK.

For main courses, we all chose the same dish, Roasted Squab with Foie Gras and spiced Pineapple and Rhubarb. A very, very good dish indeed. The squab was cooked to my preference, a little pinker than medium. The foie had just a little crunch before the melting insides hit the mouth and the spiced fruit cut through the fattiness of it all wonderfully. A well thought out and executed dish.

With some help, we chose a Loire Cab Franc ( can’t recall the maker ) which I enjoyed a great deal. Full on leatheriness.

A small inconsequential palate cleanser followed which involved tapioca which is seldom, if ever, a good thing.

Then we shared a cheese course. Much description of the individual cheeses came from our server. He could have saved time and just said “bleh” I am never sure what it is, but cheese courses at high end restaurants in the US are, without exception, poor. This was better than many ( for shame Per Se, for shame ) and it come with some excellent accompaniments ( particularly a lavender jelly ) but the main event was poor, dry and ill kept.

Desserts were very good. My Banana Chocolate Malt with Macadamia nut brittle was as good a dessert as I have had this year. I cannot recall what Evelyn and Chris had, but they looked equally good.

They comped us a glass of Moscat from Greece with our desserts which I rather liked.

After some very acceptable petits, it was time for the bill. In an entirely unexpected but hugely appreciated act of generosity, Evelyn insisted on paying. A truly lovely act from a very nice person and what a way to end my trip.

Evelyn made me promise that, when she and Chris are next in London I will take them to St John. Not a fair exchange in my opinion, but more than happy to oblige.

So now, after a few hours sleep, I am at Las Vegas airport and ready to head home. It’s been an interesting trip with a nice mix of business and pleasure. There have been two exceptional meals ( Rosemary’s and Alex – thanks to Evelyn for both ) a few perfectly decent meals ( Georgia Brown’s ) and a whole lot of blah. Just like being at home really.

As an amusing postscript, I just heard an announcement over the tannoy which went.

“A passenger has left his false teeth and hearing aid in the restrooms by Gate D23. If you can hear me please come and get them from the gate. If you can’t enjoy your mashed bananas”

Home here I come
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Wednesday, May 24, 2006




The horrible steak from Craftsteak sat heavy in our stomachs this morning and with me getting over a cold and Mark in the midst of a brutal one, the sight of two middle aged men coughing, wheezing and belching was not one I would wish on anybody.

However, by 9am, we were showered, dosed up to the eyeballs on medication and ready to head out and face the strip.

I had walked a bit of it the day before, but was ready to head further down past the Caesar’s Palace and beyond. The weather was in the high 90’s ( although the weather man seemed almost in tears when he explained that it was going to “plummet” – his words not mine- to the low 90’s over the holiday weekend. What ever will they do poor loves?) so we dipped in an out of the air conditioned Casinos as we walked.

A lot of the old casinos have closed. Boardwalk is in the process of being ripped down. The Algiers is long gone and a number of the others looked like they are on their last spin of the wheel. In their place are the staggering new hotel resorts such as The Wynn and the slightly older Venetian and Bellagio. While a vast amount of money has been spent on these hotels, their casinos and in enticing the great and the good of the restaurant world to come here, they are still pretty kitch and tacky ( I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing ) As I said about someone once. The people who built these have the best taste that new money can buy. It reminded me of watching MTV Cribs. Lots of money has been spent and you know that all the best consultants have been, er, consulted. But, there is not one ounce of good taste. There is an old saying “ like a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire” That’s sums it up. Still. I loved every moment of it.

We stopped for a perfectly fine lunch at a small café in The Wyn and then, after a route march down past Circus Circus and The Sahara, we caught a cab for the short hop to the Liberace Museum.

Worryingly for my parents, I have always had a soft spot for Liberace and re-read his autobiography any number of times, so to be able to visit this place was a bit of a dream come true. Staffed almost entirely by blue rinsed ladies it costs $12.50 to tour the museum which houses both his extraordinary collection of cars and pianos and also costume collections that would make Elton John look like he bought his clothes at M&S. Great fun. We were the only people under 70 in the whole place.

Fortunately, they had a shuttle back to The Strip. It was leaving in a hurry so I was unable to buy the candelabra with flashing electric candles that I thought HP would enjoy as a souvenir of my visit.

We were both pretty knackered by now, so hurried back to the hotel, changed and went and spent an agreeable few hours by the large pool. Very nice indeed and even nice to realise that even though I feel hugely flabby having been unable to train for a week or so, I still have a long way to go before I reach the flabdom of some of the people washed up like minkie’s by the pool. Oh, and in case you were wondering, a teeny weeny string bikini is so not a good look for a 250lb woman. A sight that will haunt me to the end of my days.

By 6pm, we were ready to head out again for our evening meal and headed first to Mandalay Bay for a cocktail.

A thoroughly dispiriting experienced. We stopped in the bar of Fleur De Lys an outpost of a popular San Francisco restaurant. The staff were vile and should probably be in the “picking wings of flies” industry rather than the service industry. The martini was disgusting and it cost a whacking $45 for a couple of drinks. Ho hum.

But, thankfully dinner was better. Much better.

I have a new chum, met via food board, called Evelyn. I have yet to meet her. But, when I said I was coming to Las Vegas, she insisted that I should try Rosemary’s and was kind enough to make a reservation.

It is off The Strip. A long way off The Strip. The cab driver took us so far that I suspected that he had a couple of shovels in the boot of his car and was going to bury us out in the desert after making us perform unspeakable acts. But no. He was just taking us to a strip mall some 8 miles from The strip.

Despite its unlikely location, I am delighted to say that Rosemary’s is easily in the top ten meals I have had in the US and I don’t say that lightly. The food is superb ( the chefs originate from NOLA and came up here to help run Emeril’s first Las Vegas restaurant ), the service spectacular and they have a great wine list.

It helped no doubt, that Evelyn made the reservation as it was very obvious that they all adored her there. She had been kind enough to arrange a glass of Gruet Rose ( from New Mexico – who knew?) for us to sip on while looking at the menu which was unexpectedly delicious.

Once we had chosen, two amuse courses followed. A scallop ceviche and Carolina cheesy grits with a wild mushroom ragout. I only took one bite of the former before, being distracted by the waiter asking about wine, I turned to find it had been whisked away by an overly attentive bus boy. Bugger. The latter though was the stuff of dreams. A big bowl of that would set a man up to fight wars.

For our starters, Mark went for one of the daily specials. Goat cheese gnocchi with more wild mushroom ragout. He declared it the best gnocchi he had ever eaten ( and trust me he looks like he eats an awful lot of gnocchi ) I tried it and was hard pressed to argue with him.

My starter was their signature Texas BBQ Shrimp with a Maytag blue Cheese slaw. This was good, very good in fact, but not a patch on Mark’s dish which is up there with some of the best dishes I have tried in the US.

For our main courses, Mark was persuaded by the waiter to try striped bass with andouille sausage, rock shrimp and fingerling potatoes in a creole sauce. Another spot on dish with crispy skin, firm flesh cooked just to point and a terrific sauce.

My choice was a grilled pork chop with Hoppin’ John ( a mix of rice, blackeyed peas and smoked bacon – every bit as delicious as it sounds ) and a Creole mustard sauce. The pork chop came medium as I like it and the Hoppin’ John was breathtakingly good if rather filling. I found the reduction a little fierce, but in the midst of such able cooking, that is a small minus point.

With this, we chose a Russian River Siduri Pinot 2004. Very enjoyable but probably a year or so off being its best and quite pricey for what it was at $85.

We split a couple of desserts which were, in truth, the weakest part of the meal, though not bad at all. Chocolate molten cake and a Lemon Icebox Pie. Both came with a raspberry sorbet which seemed a little lazy compared to what had gone before. But, hey. They comped us a glass of Lindemans Framboise to have with it. All a bit sweet for me but Mark necked his like it was going out of business soon.

Service throughout was exceptional. The front of house could not have been more charming and our waiter was well versed and just the right side of familiar. A hard balance to keep.

The bill for two came to $220 including tip. Not cheap ( particularly when you have to add $50 for a round trip cab fare ) but for cooking of this capability, I have no problems at all

For all the pale reflections of great restaurants from other parts of the world that open in Las Vegas, I would certainly argue that any food obsessed person going to Las Vegas and not eating at Rosemary’s has not eaten in Las Vegas at all.

Afterwards we headed down to Freemont St to see some of the older casinos from “pre-strip” days. All a bit grim and I was not the slightest tempted by a sign offering up a 9lb ( yep, that’s NINE POUND ) burger. Honestly
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Tuesday, May 23, 2006




I got about two hours sleep. As always, when I know I have to be up disgustingly early, I find it almost impossible to sleep at all and just managed a couple of hours shut eye before the phone shrieked its early morning call. Bugger.

I was showered, packed and in a taxi to Dulles by 3.45am. A time when I would normally be dreaming of doing something altogether unhygienic with Kirsten Dunst.

Still, it did make the fair old distance to the airport easy to cover and I was on line at the Delta check in by 4.30am. Behind me in the queue were a number of United passengers who were as far from gruntled as it is possible to be after they were told that their flight the night before was “overbooked” and they had been bumped, put up in a hotel and given a massive $12 to buy some food. Unlucky for them, but fortunate for me as I happened to get talking to one of them, a delightful Irish woman who lives in LA but previously lived close to me in London’s most important area.

We spent the next hour before boarding chatting and then I found, to my great pleasure that we were sitting next to each other. Despite the fact we were on the very last row of the plane, the flight to Atlanta from where we were both catching connections seemed far too short. One of the great pleasures of travel is meeting people like this and I am very hopeful we will stay in touch.

Then the much longer and altogether more disagreeable flight from Atlanta to Las Vegas made all the more miserable by the fact that I managed, when running to catch my connection (I suspect ) to drop my camera which is now nowhere to be found. Buggery, buggery, bollocks. It was getting a little long in the tooth but has served me well. I hope whoever picks it up gives it a good home. As for me, I bought a disposable which I will get processed later on. Bear with me.

Las Vegas airport was heaving as I waited for my baggage. There are two major conventions in town as well as the American Country Music Awards (which explained the large number of people wearing Stetsons in the taxi line without a hint of irony ) but, my bags were, for once, off the belt first and I was soon checking in at our hotel, The Excalibur

The rooms are as old and threadbare as the hotel itself. But, it seemed clean and comfortable and I did not have any great plans to stay in the room for any period of time. So, for $100 a night between the two of us, it’ll do me just fine.

My dear chum, Mark, was not getting in from Kansas City until later in the evening. So, after dumping my bags, making doubly sure that I could not find my camera, I went out to explore The Strip.

I have only been to Las Vegas once before when Hermano Primero forked out for me to come over with him in style. First class on Virgin,a couple of nights at Bellagio’s, supper at JG Prime and ringside seats for a big fight. All a bit different this time apart from one thing. I loved it then and I love it now.

There is so much to dislike about Las Vegas. The incredible, constant din from the slot machines, the hard boiled faces of the local residents all of whom seem to have ended up here rather than to have chosen it especially. Like the debris at the end of a terminal moraine as a glacier of civilisation retreats. The seediness seems more obvious that it did in 2001 when the city was trying to promote itself as a family resort. Now, the only family that would feel really comfortable here would be led by Charles Manson. Oh yes, there is Cirque Du Soleil too. The most scarily pointless, most witless piece of crap it has ever been my misfortune to see. They seem to have a show on at just about every casino in town. What the hell is that all about?

For all that, there is still much to adore. The main thing being the sheer hutzpah of it all. Whether you love or loathe it, you do just have to shake your head at the audacity of it all. As I wandered from casino to casino, you do have to admit, however grudgingly, that Las Vegas may just possibly be the best place to have some fun on earth.

Favourites? I think the shopping mall at Caesar’s Palace is hard to beat. The MGM Grand is still the most impressive and Bellagio’s seems to have the best selection of restaurants ( although I have not done an actual comparison.

By 1pm, I was starving, having eaten nothing but a microscopic pack of airline peanuts all day. I was in Bellagio’s and the hunger pangs hit just as I was standing in front of the buffet. So, I did. I know I shouldn’t have, but I did. $25 inc tip brings you all you can eat ( and all the soft drinks you can manage ) from a buffet that, while impressive was not as groaning as I had expected. Meat counters with turkey, lamb, beef and venison. Seafood counters with a variety of shrimp. Asian offerings from stir fries to sushi, salads, soups, cheeses and desserts. There is little chance that you will go hungry but equally little chance that you will eat anything that would ever make you want to go back there. Bellagio’s is, I am told, one of the best in town and one of the more expensive. How lousy must the others be then? Still, I can understand why people queue up to use them. The person I saw having lunch next to me returned to the buffet at least eight times and came back with enough food each time to feed a family. By the time he came back with his desserts, I was ready to offer him a “wafer thin mint” It was an outstanding performance. Me? I did all right, but nowhere in that league.

Afterwards, a walk was much in need and I strolled a little further down the strip about as far as Treasure Island before heading back to the hotel to freshen up and wait for Mark to arrive.

By the time he did, it was about 7.30pm and, after freshening up we were ready to take a stroll and have a pre dinner drink.

First across to CENTRIFUGE a bar in the MGM where we drank over priced bottles beer and a young cocktail waitress climbed on to the counter and shook, what Mark called her “booty” in my face. Quite inappropriate. I wonder if her mother knows she behaves like that.

Then after another drink at the bar at Emeril’s, off to our main meal of the night.

What can I tell you? Not quite a disaster from start to finish, but pretty close.

We arrived in time for our 9.30pm reservation to be told they were a little behind and would we mind waiting for 10 minutes at the bar. I don’t mind that, if I can get to the bloody bar. Here it was five deep. I tried to sit at a bar table and was told that they were for dinner only and I had to get to the bar. “how?” I asked the waitress. “where exactly do you think I might be able to get to the bar?” Nonplussed, she just pointed again at the throng at the bar.

When we did finally manage to get a seat there, it was now 20 minutes after our reservation time and counting. A quick word with the hostess did no good as she said they were now running about 30 minutes behind. I got a bit assertive at this point and suggested that there was a good reason I booked at 9.30pm and not 10pm. Finally, we got to our table about 35 mins later.

It all went a bit downhill from there.

Some slabs of blah bread were deposited on the table with some over salted butter. We will get back to the propensity to oversalt later.

For a starter, we both ordered the Spring Garlic Soup. Not bad at all apart from, you guessed it, the oversalting.
Then for main courses, Mark had a 16oz NY Strip and I went for a 16oz Rib eye. Mark’s seemed to be cooked to his liking, medium rare, but mine was so far off the black& blue I wanted that I had to send it back. It was medium. This is a steak place, right? So they should know how to cook a steak. They brought it back about 10 mins later by which time Mark had almost demolished his steak and I had kept hunger at bay by eating the perfectly fine sides of spinach and onion rings.

This time it was cooked to order with a good crust. But, they had achieved this not with a hot searing pan but by even more over use of the salt. I ploughed through a chunk of it but had to leave over half to avoid hypertension. Quite the worst steak I have had on the trip.

We did not bother with desserts and coffee so got our bill a whopping $200 for two for a meal that was nowhere near as good as that we had recently at the Weber place. Shameful. A really grim meal.

Afterwards, a stroll through The Tropicana and to The Hooters Casino ( for research purposes only, of course ) and The Luxor ( where someone mistook me for Vin Deisel!! - in what way do I look like a bald fat man with no future. Oh, I see what they meant) before we were both ready to crash

Tomorrow, The Liberace Museum. So at least I will get my portion of fruit for the day
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Two early evening suppers after two busy days at the fair brought our time in Washington to its natural conclusion.

On Saturday, the second day of the fair, we were joined by two of our German partners for a simple family style supper at SKEWERS.

There is very little to be said about this. It was neither excellent nor downright horrible but merely a joint that served decent, if over priced Kebabs ( or kebobs as our colonial cousins infuriatingly insist on calling them ) to a primarily young and hip crowd.

No one died in the eating of this meal

Sunday was the last day of the fair. Many people, with huge good sense, had headed back to their hometowns and left the hardened few to see the fair to the bitter end. Or in my case, until 2.30pm where I decided to leave the gang to mop up the last survivors and head back to the hotel for a kip and to rest my tootsies which by now were suffering an appalling attack of gout and glowing red in quite an alarming manner.

By 6.00pm though, I was feeling much better and also dosed up to the eyeballs on a wide variety of OTC medication. So, I met up with the two of my colleagues who had no further plans and headed out for out last night of the fair supper.

A very attractive restaurant in a hotel near Dupont Circle.

The room is charming and light and airy. There was a terrace which looked welcoming, but the hostess told us they were only offering “ light Summer fare” there. I do hate it when people use the word fare. It makes me think they should be dressed as Maid Marion. It sounds doubly wrong coming at you in an American accent. But then, most things do.

Our table was not quite ready so we managed to prise a drink from a surly barman when he finished chatting to his chum by which time we were ready to sit down.

A rather elongated process followed where the two hosts kept taking it in turns to tell us that the other was going to seat us with neither showing any inclination to do so. Finally after much confusion we did manage to get to a nice table by the terrace and have a look at the menu.

The list changes daily so there were no specials and there was much on their to tempt. Unfortunately, the service was definingly hapless and there were long waits between getting the menu and ordering and then between that, receiving our food and subsequent courses. I think they only had one actual server in the room supported by a host of ineffectual bus boys.

The kitchen shows signs of someone quite able in charge, but is let down by the front of house ( almost the exact opposite of our experience at Mie N Yu where our server was really rather good and let down by inept cooking )

To begin, I, along with one of my colleagues ordered fried calamari with anchovies. They also had a single oyster each which I, of course, had to forgo. The cooking was on the money. The seafood was crisp and fresh and reminded me of the fried seafood I have grown to love so much on visits to Spain. There was a twist here with a little green curry paste running through the batter which added nothing. A small shard of metal we found in the portion served to my chum, Bernard also added nothing and drew barely a grunt when we pointed it out to the waiter. We could have kicked up a real stink and I expected some sort of apology or at least a tannoy announcement saying “ beware our seafood has a high metallic content” but no. The server merely took the metal off us and walked off. I really expected him to say “ don’t tell everyone or they’ll all want some."

The main courses too showed a really deft touch. I had a soft shell crab stuffed with more crab meat mixed with basil and garlic. Served with a concasse of tomatoes, it was a perfect light dish after a heavy week. One of my colleagues tried halibut which was meaty if a little overcooked. I think there is about a 10-15 second point at which this fish is perfect. Hard to get right. This was a pretty good attempt.

Bernard was having no luck at all. His seafood stew looked very good with a salmon sausage, shrimp, mussels etc etc, but it was stone cold. Not tepid, but cold. They whisked it away when this was pointed out and brought the same plate back with, it seemed, just having poured hot stock over it ( or nuked it – which I thought more likely ) A shame. It could have been a contender as the tastes were very good.

The wine list was short but very well chosen and allowed me to do this Spanish thing with a bottle of Rueda for $32. Worked perfectly with our food choices.

Shared puddings of sorbet and some pie or other were just fine and went well with a glass of Tokaji which left us with a bill of about $200 including service which while friendly enough needs to go to a home for the terminally hapless.

So, my meals in Washington were a mixed bag. Only one was really any good and that was Georgia Brown’s. The rest went from “perfectly fine” to “I am going to hunt you and your family down” But, as so often in times of convention, the meals are a secondary thought and do not really give a fair example of what a city has to offer. I suspect that were I to come here for a weekend just to eat, my choices would be different and so would my opinions of Washington as an eating city.

After the meal, Emmanuel, our driver, took us on an unplanned tour of the city by night time. All very elegant and impressive if hampered by another flare up of gout. Still, given that it is all I got to see of the US capital, I could hardly complain

Next stop, Las Vegas
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Saturday, May 20, 2006



Book fairs, where ever in the world they may be, always make me think of that song by Was, Not Was from 1980. OUT COME THE FREAKS and, at the BEA they certainly do.

As you stand in the relative safety of one’s booth at a trade show, you see some of the truly insane people from around the world passing by, usually in fancy dress and trying to persuade some poor unfortunate to listen to their idea for a book. More often than not, the book is a 200,000 word essay on the history of the rail industry in Poland or, even more alluringly, a novel involving the struggles of a one legged man to bring up a family of fourteen on half a bag of rice every two years.

In between fending off these oddballs, we do actually manage to have some pretty decent meetings and so we did on day one of the fair. And, everyone worked bloody hard.

It was, however a tough day. Much of the UK contingent at the fair seem to have the same ailment as me and spent the day hacking up a lung as we tried to explain our wares to passing buyers. For me, also, still dosed up on Nyquil from the night before, it was even more tough and, by 5pm, I was ready to leave the rest of the gang to their own devices, head back to the hotel for a nap followed by a reviving shower.

We had an early supper planned by a colleague and while I feel a little bad about posting bad things after someone has gone to the effort of organising, this is a food blog after all and this is what I am supposed to do. That is why I am going to describe in full details the horror show that is

This is no criticism of the person who organised the evening. I am grateful that anyone would take the time to think about where I may like to eat.

However, this place is so irredeemably nasty that I can’t let it pass.

Situated in Georgetown, Mie N YU is a fusion restaurant bringing together Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine.

Reading the reviews beforehand, the plaudits seem to be more about the room than the food and it was very clear when we arrived that the décor is where the money had been spent. Every room was different and decorated up to the nines in a range of styles from that of a Souk to the room in which we were seated that was like a scene from Lord of The Rings. That always fills me with dread as it means more attention and money has been spent on the room than the kitchen.

People at the table rolled their eyes when I said this but it is an undeniable law and it was soon to be proved true.

My chums really liked the room. I thought it looked like a whore’s sneeze, but that is purely a subjective view

The service was quite friendly but entirely overwhelmed. Our server was very agreeable but left to cope with about 50 people on his own. It left him totally unable to pay any table proper attention and there were at least three occasions where we had to ask a bus boy to get him to come to our table.

This was exemplified by the serving of pre-dinner cocktails. They insisted on bringing each one to the table individually and pouring them. A fine idea. But, when you have 8 people, it did mean that one end of the table was practically finished before the other end was served. The cocktails were not much cop either. All tooth rottingly sweet.

A few of us, eventually, were able to order starters. I cannot speak about the others but mine exemplified the second rate nature of the kitchen. A mango salad was floppy and limp. It shouted out that it had been prepared too far in advance so the shredded fruit was allowed to over marinade. Fierce shreds of raw chilli had been dumped on top giving plenty of fire but failing entirely to give the cleansing effect that is the raison of a salad like this. It displayed not a single level of dexterity in the kitchen.

Main courses, likewise. Halibut in Miso, braised short rib, Shanghai Shrimp and, in my case, a NY strip with wild mushrooms and blue cheese.

Again, I did not taste the others, but my meal displayed all the hallmarks of a kitchen without a clue. A perfectly decent piece of meat cooked to order ( black and blue ) which would have been fine on its own. Unfortunately, it was not. Slopped on top of it was a bizarre mixture of large chunks of blue cheese and luke warm mushrooms of no particular provenance. I was starving after my day at the fair, but even I could not bring myself to eat the accompaniments which I scraped off the beef and left on the side next to the soggy tempura onion rings. A dish as misconceived as selling Goodyear tires a la mode.

The short but well chosen wine list was probably the best thing about the place. I ordered a bottle of Albarino and a Telmo Rodriquez Ribero. Both worked quite well all though some seemed a little non plussed by the white from Northern Spain and preferred the red. I thought both were pretty good.

There had been huge gaps between courses as the poor servers struggled to keep up with the sheer volume of diners and, twenty five minutes after ordering our desserts, we cancelled them and went out to meet our waiting car. I feel hugely aggrieved for a waiter in such a situation. Why should he lose service ( 15% I think on a party our size ) by the kitchen’s inability to get food out in decent time? Bear in mind these were not desserts that took time to prepare. How long does it take to scoop out some sorbet, slice a bit of pound cake or pie? That is just a clear sign that there is not even a decent sous in the place.

As we left, a pasty faced looking white girl was performing bad belly dancing in front of a bemused looking table. It is that kind of place.

However, it was packed with lines forming outside of people clamouring to get a table. It would seem that style over substance is just as big a draw in the US as it is in London.
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Friday, May 19, 2006



Another hacking cough had me awake at 3 am and watching infomercials from my hotel bed in Chicago until my morning porridge was delivered at 6am. By which time I had figured out how to be a millionaire with NO money down, build washboard abs, cleanse my skin, whiten my teeth and buy commemoration plates to sell on E-bay.

We had, in the interests of a later start, changed our flights from those that flew into Washington Dulles to some that flew into National. A smart move, no? NO. We had obviously thought without the horror that is Chicago O Hell airport and the stupefying incompetence that is United Airlines.

Suffice to say that, where as our original flight would have had us in town by 2pm, the delays to our alternate meant we did not arrive until nearer 5pm. This really is a hateful country to travel in by air.

I just had time to check in to my functional and standard room at the Renaissance Hotel before it was time to meet my chums for supper.

Hotels during convention times are scary things. During the BEA ( Book Expo of America ) they become more so as hundreds of thousands of people involved in the US book business flock into town. Mostly, it seemed, to hang out in the lobby of our hotel. It took me nearly fifteen minutes to find my chums. Mainly by a process of elimination where I assumed that they were not the ones with humongous hair or “caution wide load” backsides.

When we had finally gathered it was time for the short walk to our first meal of the fair.

As the name may suggest, it is a southern restaurant and my research showed that it gets very good local reviews.

Before we were seated we had to wait until all of our table arrived. I have never been able to get an explanation of why this is necessary. Anyone?

Still, it was worth the wait once we did get seated as service was seriously on the ball and friendly.

Pre dinner cocktails were a bit blah. My Manhattan was served in a highball despite a request for it to be up. A cosmo was insufficiently limey and a G&T was over diluted.

A dispiriting start if you will pardon the pun. But, things soon were rescued when the bread plate was brought to the table. Sublime buttermilk biscuits and cornbread with whipped butter. I tried a tiny bit of each but I could just as easily, devoured the plateful.

A few of us ordered the perfunctory house salads to begin with and we split a couple of orders of Fried Green Tomatoes. I don’t really get these but was assured that they were a very good example of the ilk.

More impressive though were the main courses. I plumped for the Southern Fried Chicken which was exactly that. Plump that is. I substituted the mash potatoes for sauted mustard greens and it also came with collard greens and pan gravy. Some of the best I have had in the US since I ate at Jaques-imo’s in NOLA.

Others went for Pork Chops on maple whipped yams, New York Strip and, devilled shrimp stuffed with blue crab and served on Mac & Cheese. I tasted a little bit of all and all were well worth trying. The whipped yams in particular. My chicken was by far and away the star, however. Golden and crispy with crunchy skin and moist flesh.

Desserts were, as they seem to have been since I set foot in the country, ludicrous. We split a peanut butter pie, a sweet potato cheesecake, a pecan pie and some sort of fruit basket in a brandy snap that had whipped cream and ice cream added just in case the fruit threatened to have any beneficial nutritional effect.

Not a cheap way to begin the fair with the meal for 8 coming to the best part of $500. But, a pleasant way to spend the evening before book fair and a good way to get over the horrors of travelling domestically within the US.
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Thursday, May 18, 2006



So, in the relatively brief amount of time we had before supper, the heavens really opened and hailstorms hit downtown Chicago with a vengance.

Fortunately, by 6.30pm, when we met for a drink in the hotel bar, the skies had cleared and we all managed to scamper into the bus for the short ride to the restaurant without getting our tootsies wet.

The first time I came to the Weber Grill restaurant about three or so years ago it had just opened. I recall being very tired and in the middle of a brutal sales trip. I recall thinking it would be yet another of those crappy themed restaurants that inhabit that part of downtown and I recall being predisposed to hate it. I also recall being entirely wrong, being served with an exceptional martini, perfectly cooked steak and very, very decent wines. Sometimes, despite yourself and your snobberies, you have a good time.

Further down the line I am much more involved with the Weber way than I had been before, so I can, quite rightly, be accused of looking more favourably on the restaurant than others. Also, as we were the guests of the president of the company and one of the members of the Stephens family, you could argue that I would be more sympathetic.

However, the truth is that, like everything Weber does, The Weber Grill Restaurant is honest, decent and well thought through. An unassuming restaurant that serves very enjoyable food and is packed every night.

We arrived at 7pm to meet with our hosts in The Summit room ( each room being named after a different type of grill ) and after a passable martini ( cold and dry but with a badly prepared twist ) we all tucked into plates of the BBQ starters which included steak skewers, beer can chicken, grilled shrimp and tobacco onions. All very good at taking the edge of our appetites.

The main courses are much as you would expect from a place predicated on steak with their specialities being a Prime Rib, a 24oz NY strip and assorted other cuts of meat and various BBQ style offerings. All the food is cooked on oversize versions on the Weber grills and benefits from the charcoal cooking.

I can only speak for my steak. The NY strip. A very tasty piece of meat, cooked perfectly to order ( for the record, rare with a good char ) but all the other dishes I saw looked equally well done. The side orders are, as seems to be the case in all steak places, perfunctory and, while fine, they are unlikely to be the reason people will go there.

Out host ordered a 2002 Jordan Cabernet form Sonoma with this which perfectly complimented the minerality in the 21 day dry aged steaks.

Then to dessert. Unlike last night, these desserts, while ginormous ( is that a word? ) actually tasted of something and the one I tried, the Key Lime Pie Cheesecake, was quickly devoured by all. A Sunday was less popular and the chocolate bundt cake scared everyone away ( primarily because none of us knew what a bundt was )

I make no bones about it. I am biased. I have, over the years, become a fan of Weber. Everything they do is thoughtful and in touch with the needs of their market. That is, I guess, why they are so successful.

No one would ever argue that this is Charlie Trotters or Tru. What it is, is a very honest restaurant serving decent food, well prepared with good service to people who demand value for money.

And, there is nothing wrong with that.

Next stop. D.C.
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