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

Sunday, July 30, 2006


It was a muggy day and, after the excess of yesterday, we were both muggy headed.

Sundays with a hangover often see us choose Dim Sum as a restorative. Today, however, HP suggested Vietnamese at The Viet Grill, a new sibling to our favourite place Cay Tre.

First, our standard stroll, along Brick Lane and past the Urban Beach which has been set up just behind the Upmarket. Unfortunately, my dear chum, Petra had taken the Chocstar van on the road, so I was not able to avail myself of the fabulous triple chocolate milkshake she introduced me to last week. Ho hum

Still, by midday, we were back on The Kingsland Rd and ready for lunch. The Viet Grill has only been open three months and is still finding its place in the strip of Vietnamese restaurants that are, I am told a legacy of The Rag Trade. We were, for all of our visit, the only people in there. I am sure that they will get busier. I hope so as this was easily one of the best Vietnamese meal I have tried in London.

As ever, three starters. Summer rolls were fresh and crunchy. Soft shell crab was plump and freshly fried with no trace of the greasiness we have found in less able places. Best of all was the signature dish of quail, stuffed with minced pork and Chinese mushrooms and braised in a stock with small lotus balls. The stock was beautifully restorative, the quail flesh fell from the bone and the stuffing was well, just delicious.

Main courses were also well above average. A Goi ( salad ) with chicken and seafood was crisp and the dressing suitably sharp. Courgettes cooked in a wok with garlic cloves were delicate and a more standard dish of noodles with tofu was better than the norm.

Best of all, for HP was another signature dish of “Feudal” beef which apparently has its origins in a form of torture where flesh was torn from the victim to the sound of drum beats and now refers to a way of stripping beef from a carcass. The end result was chunks of tender beef with a lovely char served with a dipping sauce of soy and mirin.

Best of all, for me, was a dish of pork, pounded with turmeric and baked for 20 minutes. The turmeric did not over power the pork which retained its own character and benefited from the crunch of cooking.

With some tea, some house made lemonade and a bottle of water, the bill came to £60 for two which again represents our ability to order for an imaginary extra person and a normal bill for two would come to about £40.

I am a regular reader of an excellent website whose writer is far more of an expert that either of Dos Hermanos on these matters so I would welcome any comments. I have no idea how echt these dishes were, but they seem a long way ( noodles aside ) from the usual Chinese based dishes one finds in others on this stretch and I am certain I will be giving this place another try soon

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So, after HP had what was reportedly a “ spectacular” meal at The Fat Duck and I missed out on lunch at Manzi’s, you would expect we both fancied a quiet night in.

But no, last night called for a bit of a knees up to celebrate an important occasion.

From the shirt Paul “ Fat Boy” Smith was wearing, one would assume it was his coming out party. It really was an extraordinary shirt made appropriately enough by the other Paul Smith the sort of shirt that would make a child turn to its father and say “dad, is the circus in town?”

Still, it may surprise you to know that we were not there to celebrate Paul’s acceptance of his true nature, but to mark his entrance into middle age. His fortieth birthday.

His lovely and, let’s not deny it, long suffering wife, Rachael, had arranged a huge table at MOSAICA @ THE FACTORY in Wood Green ( or Crouch end if you are trying to sell your house) for nearly thirty friends and family.

It’s bloody difficult to find, being hidden away in an industrial estate, but it is well worth the effort required.

The food is solid rather than spectacular. Excellent nibbles of chicken and vegetable samosa and onion bhaji were as good as I have tried in any restaurant, Indian or otherwise. Starters of foie parfait and brandade showed that there is some real ability in the kitchen.

Main courses were more standard. Competent enough but lacking in any punch. A rib eye steak was cooked rare as ordered but had no flavour and came with more of those horrible fat chips that are becoming a blight on menus across the land.

Puddings were not very good at all and a banoffee pie was left largely untouched by most.

That being said, this is a neighbourhood place without too many pretensions. Decent cooking, very, very agreeable service (even with dealing with such a large table ) and sensible pricing counts for a lot and, in the highly unlikely event that I lived in his area, I could see myself being a regular here.

We drank far too much, I made a speech in which I think I once again described Paul as looking like Rick Moranis inflated by a bicycle pump and we watched him try to blow out all the candles on his cake ( there is a joke in there somewhere ) and a good time was had by all.

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It's deep beneath the skin
It's what I major in
It's what I do

Just over a year ago, in a stunt by a catering trade magazine, The Fat Duck was voted Best Restaurant In The World. It’s not of course, but it is very good. People who have eaten more widely than me and whose judgement I trust say it’s as good as you are going to eat in the UK.

My last visit was about four years as part of a large group of foodies and I remember having a good time though not a great deal about the meal (oh, yeah, there was the blindfold, the restraints and and strange things being inserted into my mouth …or am I confusing it with the private party at Madame Jojo’s later that evening…) so when I was invited by some friends to join them for lunch I thought it a good chance to reaquaint myself with Mr Blumenthal and his works.

Bray is a picturesque village by the Thames spoiled only by the life-threatening 4x4s using it as a rat run between two A-roads, the high rate of car crimes (a friend’s car was broken into on my last visit) and people who live in villages like this who most likely own the aforementioned 4x4s (they come in so handy for negotiating those for not changing difficult gradients in Waitrose).

Incongrously every other person you come across will be dressed in chef’s whites. This only makes sense when you realise Bray is home to two (count ‘em) 3* restaurants. The other being The Waterside Inn, which is five minutes from the FD. Plus Heston Blumenthal’s take on pub grub, The Hinds Head.

Let me say up front that I am usually deeply suspicious of food like this. DH’s MO for dining is usually based on the traditional Spanish model: several titbits leading up to a big piece of meat (or more rarely fish) with no accompaniments save for a bottle of a big red wine, followed by ice-cream/flan, strong coffee and even stronger aguardiente. But now I know there is another way.

First the moans. They seemed to have doubled the number of tables in the restaurant. If you don’t like having to coordinate your arm movements with the person sitting on the adjoining table this place is not for you. The service was perfunctory at best and and supercilious at worst. It just didn’t have that Michelin starred sheen.

Now the good part. Even with a full restaurant, all ordering the tasting menu, the food was superb (and fun). It constantly engaged the senses and provoked lots of discussion as we discovered different flavours and new combinations (yes, really). Highlights for the neophytes would include the palate cleansing Nitro-Green Tea and Lime Mousse, a long standing favourite, which is made at the table by the waiter by immersing a desert spoon of mousse in liquid nitrogen. After a few seconds you are served with a small orb which you should pop into your mouth. The whole disintegrates leaving the palate cleansed. Well, that’s the theory anyway. Sardine on toast sorbet, ballotine of mackerel 'invertebrate' was another winner for me along with Roast Foie Gras, Almond Fluid Gel, cherry and chamomile. The only weaknesses came with the ‘main course ’ dishes when I felt the quality of the ingredients wasn’t it at its best. Still, you want to taste the state of the art in British cooking, the Fat Duck would be a good place to start.

By the way don't worry about getting hungry, there is a copious supply of decent bread (brown or white) with superb unpasteurized butter and ther's always the Hinds Head if you have a chips jones after the three star experience.

After nearly four hours we eventually bade farewell to the FD and went for a quick post-prandial stroll around the village (think sounds of leather on willow, wood pigeons and 4x4s being gunned).

After a short hop back to London we fancied a drink so we stopped off at Borough Market for a mini wine crawl that included a a bottle of Albarino and a plate of Joselito Jamon at Brindisa. But that, as they say, is another story.

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Saturday, July 29, 2006


Sometimes the meals you don’t have can be as memorable as the ones you do.

If you ask anyone in London, with any level of restaurant sentience, what they think of when you say the word “Manzi’s” they will, no doubt conjour up an image of Barbara Windsor in her prime seated between the Kray Twin’s and Ronnie Knight drinking champagne before heading up to see Frankie Vaughn kick up his heels at The Talk Of The Town.

It was that sort of place and, in its pomp, in the late 50’s and early 60’s it was THE place to be seen for everybody from the stars of the day to royalty.

In recent years, it has fallen so far off the radar, most people have never even heard of it. But, those who have visited recently still argued that it served some of the freshest fish in town and the best seafood. It also had an hotel above which at least one person I know regularly chose to rest his head when visiting from NYC.

So, yesterday, when pondering on where to go for a Saturday lunch, I thought of Manzi’s. Just the place for a Dover Sole and a glass or three of Sancerre. I called to check when they were open and a chirpy young lady told me Midday and said I would not need to make a reservation.

This is where it gets strange.

After a morning’s shopping, I arrived to find the door open, but no one around. I went inside and the dining room was certainly not set for lunch or any meal for that matter.

A man in work overalls appeared and asked if he could help me. I explained that I had spoken to someone and they said they were open at Midday. “not here, mate?” he replied “ it’s closed”

“what, closed for lunch?” I asked.

“nope” he shrugged “closed for good” and he shuffled off leaving me to my own devices. I stood in the empty and slightly sad dining room with its grubby chequered table cloths and up turned chairs and imagined what it must have been like in its glittering heyday.

I haven’t got to the bottom of it yet. Apparently, further investigation on the web says "closed for refurbishment". I hope so or this would be a genuine “end of an era” moment. No Ivy Group to save this old girl like J Sheekey’s, no Marco to waltz in and take over the building and turn it again into a glittering hang out for models and footballers. Rather, expect it to be an identikit Cantonese restaurant within weeks. The obvious fate for such a piece of real estate so close to Chinatown.

Time waits for no restaurant, I suppose, but I can’t help feeling that London would become just that little bit less interesting by exactly the amount of one shop worn, old showgirl of a restaurant’s worth if Manzi’s were to pass and somewhere Ronnie and Reggie would begin to revolve slowly.
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After the culinary lows of the past week I felt a little bit of home cooking was in order. A Salad Nicoise seemed like a suitable dish for tea on a hot summer's evening.

I went for a classical assembly although this is one of those dishes in which every component is disputed. Mine contained cos lettuce, tomatoes, green beans, boiled new potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, anchovies and tinned tuna. The dressing was made with oil, vinegar, lemon juice, capers, garlic, anchovies, black olives, finely sliced shallots and seasoning.

First though a plate of Iberico Chorizo provided a small diversion while the eggs were boiling. Then came the salad which we had with a chilled bottle of Albarino.

For sweet we had an excellent brownie courtesy of the highly recommended Chocstar (although I believe this one was actually made by a patissier of some tony restaurant) accompanied by a very full-on Gonzalez-Byass Noe PX.

Short and sweet and setting us up nicely for weekend fun.


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Thursday, July 27, 2006


There are lots of bad restaurants in London. Lots of them. But, The Butcher & Grill abuses the privilege. It may have only been open two weeks but it has to go high up on the list of places to be avoided like one would the opportunity to deep throat a Bubo victim. It’s that horrible.

London, it seems finds it incapable of offering a decent steak. Oh, there is Santa Maria and a couple of Pope’s Eye’s but they are all located in places that decent people don’t want to tread to often. The rest? They may offer meat of decent provenance but, to quote Woody Allen, such small portions.

A few weeks ago, after a great Sunday lunch at Ransome’s Dock, Dos Hermanos sauntered past The Butcher & Grill. It was having a pre opening “ Family and Friends” day. The principle seemed sound. A butcher out front and a grill room in the back. Kind of like the places I have been to near the slaughterhouse in Brussels where you choose a chunk of meat, they grill it and serve with chips and a glass of beer. Nothing better.

HP had his doubts, but I thought it was worth a try even if it was a schlep from home. So, when a chum invited me to join him tonight, I gave it a go. Once again, HP was right. London, again, has just got it terribly wrong. This restaurant not just misses the point of what it should be offering, it gets in a car and drives fifty miles in the wrong direction to make sure if misses the point. I just can’t get over how bad it was.

After an “ interesting” journey around some of the industrial estates of South London, we arrived and parked just in time for our 8.30pm reservation and hd chance to look at a fairly sorry looking butchery counter and display. Now, I did not expect The Ginger Pig, but the quality of the meat here looked very mediocre. Pork with a thin layer of fat, flaccid looking veal and bright red beef.

We were shown to what must be the smallest table for two I have ever encountered. A table that even my four year old niece would have been hard pressed to use to host one of her imaginary tea parties. The gaps between the table were tiny too which proved interesting when my sturdy friend tried to squeeze in so he could see the rest of the room like a girly would want to.

Then came a 15 minute wait for anyone to come and take our order. This happened to me once at a solo lunch in NYC. I got so pissed off that I actually phoned the front desk to request a server which certainly got their attention. I begged my friend to do the same tonight, but, just before we thought the delay permitted such oafishness on our part, our server arrived.

She was chirpy if slightly misinformed. We had had plenty of time to look at the menu and I was chuffed to see a 20oz T- Bone on there. My dreams of a decent piece of dead cow were crushed though by the news that the T-Bone was off, Instead, I had to order a miserably small 8oz rib eye. I asked for it rare and with a char. “Black & Blue?” she asked “ why yes” I replied suddenly delighted that she at least knew the right language of steak. But, running a grill room and being out of the main event so your punters have to settle for second best is like running a whorehouse and then sending the guys into a room to do their own thing with a copy of the Victoria Secret catalogue. I CAN DO THAT AT HOME !! It cost less and I don’t have to come South of the river.

I asked if I could order a larger cut of the other steaks but was told that this was out of the question. It certainly was as by this time, the butcher bit was closing. I guess they just change the name to The Grill then.

My friend ordered the Barnsley chop. When he asked for it rare, he was informed that “ we can’t serve our pork rare” Mmm? That’s all well and good but a Barnsley Chop is Lamb. The opening two weeks did not include staff training then?

To begin with, I ordered a Duck Rillette while my chum ordered Dry cured bacon with broad beans. His was fine. Mine was one of the nastiest dishes I have ever eaten (or indeed not eaten and you know how disgusting something has to be for me not to finish it ) To all intents and purposes sawdust with a duck flavouring. Dry, crumbly and utterly inedible. I left two thirds. We pointed this out to our server. I am not sure it quite registered and I don’t think it was deducted from our tab although I am not sure as I did not pay.

The main courses arrived. The Barnsley Chop was tiny. On the menu it said 14 oz. I would have loved to have weighed it uncooked. I am sure it was the weight they say but both my chum and the table next to us who had ordered the same looked very crestfallen when it arrived. I am not surprised. A good Barnsley chop should be at least two cutlets on each side. My steak arrived but was certainly not black and blue. It was rare, I will grant you and it tasted quite nice, but the outside was a uniform grey as if it had just been tossed in a pan rather than grilled. Other steaks came to other tables with a decent cross hatch of grill marks so I have no idea what was happening here.

Pictures of the sides can be found in the dictionary under the word “Perfunctory” Chips were too fat, so crisp on the outside too floury on the inside as is the nature of chunky chips. Mushrooms tasted slightly stale to me like they were pre prepped and warmed through. They could not manage to ruin some green beans although God knows given time, I am sure they could find a way. Of the four sauces, the Bernaise and Hollandaise were both pretty good. The salsa verde and sauce vierge were really not.

More haplessness on the puddings. My cheesecake was dry as a bone and crumbly. My chums orange cake came without the advertised Tarragon syrup. When he asked if he should be getting some, the server said that it did not come with anything. He challenged this and asked to see the menu and she then said “ oh, you’re right, it is just that it never has done yet” So, having tasted it, that’s a few hundred lucky souls who have not had to taste this cloying syrupy disaster although they have had to put up with dry as old leather cake. Quid pro quo, I guess.

We just asked for the bill. With a couple of orange juices and two glasses of red wine and some mineral water, the cost was a not inconsequential £85. A lot to pay for a meal that is little better than a Harvester without as many visits as you like to the world famous salad bar.

As we left, the duty manager asked us what we thought, so we told him. He took it on the chin and said that they had only been open a short while. The classic restaurant excuse. If they are still bedding in, why charge full whack?

It reminds me of The Marquess Tavern when they said the same and I said “ I am bedding in a new credit card, so I can only pay you half”

Mind you, half of what we paid would still have been too much for this “meal”

I realised on the way out the model they were copying, Mitch Tonk’s successful Fishworks chain.

I think they have got is spot on as they are over priced and crappy too.

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