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

Thursday, November 30, 2006


It’s been a busy couple of days with lots of meetings with stressed out driving in between as I tried to work out street names that seem to use every letter of the alphabet and one way systems that seem to go every which way but the way I wanted to.

However, on the whole, worthwhile and fun and Holland ( or at least the bit I am in ) is very beautiful indeed.

Day two saw me finish my meetings in Utrecht and head up to the prosperous town of Baaren to visit one of our biggest publishing partners. After an excellent meeting, I finally found my way to my hotel. One of the more odd experiences of my life.

The Kasteel Hooghe is a huge mansion with nearly a hundred rooms and as many staff. As far as I could tell, I was the only guest. All a bit odd as I rattled around in the cavernous building and took a stroll in the 40 acres of land before supper. With not a soul in sight apart from the odd member of staff who popped up now and again with a cheery greeting. I kept on thinking back to old Hammer horror films and half expected to wake up during the night to find I was strapped to a table while lots of unfeasibly tall Dutchmen were standing around me chanting diabolic incantations with pillow cases on their heads.

Given that there was me and lord knows how many staff, dinner was pretty shameful. A typically over fancy hotel dish of stuffed plaice was practically raw and I left most of it. However, by then, I was too tired to care and slunk off to bed. Double locking the door, of course.

Suffice to say, I am still here and no bits of me, that shouldn’t be, have been, er, explored.

Day three was more of the same. Two enjoyable meetings in the morning and then the longer drive West to Den Haag. After a few panic strewn phone calls and an unfortunate request to the female receptionist to “guide me in” I found myself in the basic but charming hotel I had selected at random on the internet. True to form, it turned out to be 30 minutes walk from the centre and I faced more eye rolling at the thought that I may want to go on foot rather than borrow a bicycle.

Still, I had been in the car for most of the last few days so a stroll was definitely in order before supper.

A lovely town as, I guess I should expect the centre of European justice should be. Parades of elegant shops and large open spaces.

A quick couple of gassy beers later, I was ready for something to eat and happened upon Da Hardans which looked cheery and warm. It was cold by now and I had forgotten my hat ( which for those of you who know me, presents, shall we say certain ear issues ) so I dipped inside and an entirely delightful waitress showed me to a table without one use of the word “also”

She also helped translate the menu which, apart from the odd word, was just, well, Dutch to me. Pretty hearty stuff and while I chose they brought me out a freebie of courgette soup which took the edge of the cold.

A terribly well made seafood consommé was a good choice to begin. Made with lobster and crayfish shells, she told me. The sort of thing that only restaurants have time and effort to make.

To follow, a decent chunk of limousine beef which was cooked rare as asked for and came with an unnecessary throw back to the 1980’s by way of an overly strong peppercorn sauce. Quite nice though.

As it was the last day, I treated myself to pud and was presented with a well made molten chocolate something or other. Not too shabby at all.

With a glass of non descript red and white the bill came to about EU40 ( about £25 ) which represents pretty good value.

I took the opportunity to look in some of the shops on my stroll back to the hotel. One of which was a very posh designer sex shop which had in the window an enormous plastic phallus with a sign underneath saying “LARGE ASS STUFFER: THE PERFECT GIFT FOR CHRISTMAS”

As I said before.

Gotsta love the Dutch.
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Monday, November 27, 2006


I love the Dutch, but.

I have to come straight out with this. The Dutch are nuts. I don’t mean pleasingly eccentric or beguilingly odd. I mean howl at the moon, Jack Nicholson in The Shining, barking Doollally.

Evidence? Well as if it was not enough to point to their over and incorrect use of the word “ also” and the fact that they chose orange to be the colour of the shirts for the national football team long before they became the gay capital of Europe, I point you to their obsession with bikes.

They love ‘em. In all shapes and all sizes. Mountain bikes, racing bikes, sit up and beg bikes and bikes with contraptions on the front for carrying babies which would have your kids taken off you by The Social in the UK before you could say “ Cathy Come Home”

Everywhere you go there are hordes of them and, in Utrecht, where I finished up today, the two wheeler is king and to hell with any poor unsuspecting pedestrian who dares to walk on the pavement in the mistaken belief that this would be a safe place to be.

The girls are the worst. Speeding along with maniacal intent, they barely give a glance as they brush you aside and into the gutter. If it were not for the fact that they are the tallest nation on earth and fundamentally quite scary, I would have taken them to task.

They seem to park them just anywhere too. They are scattered around like flies around the proverbial. Hundreds and thousands of them. Against railings, bus stops, shop fronts. You can’t move for the bloody things.

Despite all of this, I do have to say that I do like the Dutch a great deal and Holland is one of my favourite countries to come when I am in Willie Loman mode.

After a 4am start and four meetings with people for whom the use of vowels is purely optional, I found myself at my hotel. Decent enough ,but through my own lack of ability to read the internet blurb, about 30 minutes walk from the centre of this lovely town.

Still, I needed the exercise after spending the best part of eight hours in my Toyota Hybrid and set off in search of supper clutching a handful of computer printouts a customer had given me with her suggestions on the best places to eat.

Restaurant Opium seemed to be closed for repairs, Restaurant Mas seemed to be so far away that every one I asked for directions just gave an audible breath of disbelief and Restaurant Luce just laughed in my face when I asked if they had a table for one.

I was beginning to get a little weary by now and tired too of dodging the crowd of be-wheeled young folk on their way to a night out. I was almost desperate enough to try one of the tourist traps by the canal but luckily found myself, purely by chance, outside De Garde, the last of the suggestions I had in my hand.

A stroke of good fortune compounded when it turned out to be rather nice. Cosy and buzzy, the service was friendly with them speaking English to me from the get go as if they had recognized my muscular body as the norm for people from the UK. Just as well as my attempts at Dutch need the rest of the room to be wearing water proofs.

While I sipped a small dark beer I was brought a small amuse of a tiny bloody Mary. Quite odd really.

I was given an English menu which had the usual, er interesting attempts at translation from which I chose a Roe deer carpaccio to begin with. I thought it would be quite expensive as the menu said it was “ a little dear” but it was only EU12 ( see what I did there?)

Not bad at all and topped with some wild mushrooms and red cabbage it got me off to a good start.

By the time my main course arrived, the small restaurant was packed with the resultant fug of smoke that gives testament to the other great Dutch passion, smoking ( anything they can get their hands on it would seem )

Still, it did not stop my enjoyment of a gamey saddle of wild hare with a rich reduction and more red cabbage. The vegetables at the side remained untouched and quite right too. The glass of red wine I had with it was so grim, it too was barely looked at. Ho hum

No room for pudding, so I paid the bill ( about EU40 ) and nipped out into the, by now, chilly night air and made my way back to the hotel while trying to avoid being hit by some bright young thing on a sit up and beg bone shaker. Feeling the whole while like I was in a life size version of Donkey Kong.

Gotsta love the Dutch, er, also.
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Saturday, November 25, 2006


Another visit for HS but a first for HP to Theo Randall @ The Intercontinental, this time with our Sister from El Norte (that's Yorkshire).

We started off in the bar area where I had a supersized dry martini. Unfortunately, the glass wasn't sufficiently chilled to start with and then the cocktail was left for several minutes while HS's cocktail was prepared. Result a not very chilled DM.
This is by far the biggest Dry Martini I've come across in London and while drinking that much gin gives you a good buzz it tends to screw up the taste buds somewhat. I'd also want it prepared somewhat better for £10.50.

Still, onwards and upwards to a very quiet dining room. Not something that bothers me unduly but one must wonder about a 120 cover place being so empty on a Friday evening. No matter - I like quiet dining rooms. HS and I started off with the Woodcock and Sister went for the Squid.

The Woodcock was nicely cooked but I found it underhung (and I'm not keen on high game). Quite good taste, however. Sister's squid was very good and was the most tender I've ever tried. For mains HS's lamb came as a large rack, perfectly cooked and full of flavour. My sister and I went for the seafood stew which was ok but I think the taste of some of the constituents didn't really come through. For me the food ranked high on the generosity front but was maybe lacking refinement such that clearing our plates was a bit of a chore given the portion size.

Before our desserts we were given a tour of the kitchen by Mr Randall who was a) actually cooking there and b) showed a real enthusiasm for what he was doing - so props to him.

We finished off with some decent puddings and an ordinary double espresso.

I wasn't as knocked out with this places as much as HS. The ingredients were ok, the cooking was good but there was a lack of refinement that I would have expected given the price. Mind you, it could have been the after effects of the DM. Odd as well that there was no Pork or beef on the menu - the seafood stew was very much a last choice for me because there was nothing else that appealed. Still, time will tell...
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Thursday, November 23, 2006


It may come as a surprise to many of you, but chef’s are people too. It would do us no harm at this time of year to remember that chefs while they may not think as quickly, feel as deeply and are certainly not to be taunted or pointed at in the street. OK, well some obviously are but not when they are looking, riding around on Vespas or advertising supermarkets.

I have, it would appear, come over all warm and fuzzy. Why? you may well ask. Well, it is that I have just come back from a very engaging supper at Acorn House that left me feeling all a glow. A supper that not only tasted damn good but left nary a carbon footprint on this battered old world of ours.

You see, Acorn House is predicated on eco warrior sensibilities and it pervades everything they do. So, you can eat like a pig and save the planet at the same time. Result.

The amiable and charming front of house, Michael, explained some of the concept to me while I looked at the menu. They track the carbon footprint of everything they cook. Chairs and tables etc do, I think, all come from recycled material. Food is seasonal and, where possible organic, they filter their own water, have a wormery on site ( er, that one threw me a bit but stay with me ) and grow as many herbs as possible on their roof terrace. As if to top the lot, Michael explained that they even collect their regular order from Borough Market in a van powered by vegetable oil.

Of course, none of this would count for a mound of organic flageolet if the food was not much cop. But, I am delighted to say that it is quite a lot of cop bordering, in fact, on a surfeit of cop.

The chefs are alumni of Fifteen ( boooo! ) and River Café ( How much!?) which brought to mind last week’s “ meal of the year” at Theo Randall’s. This is not quite at that level, but then again, neither is the cost.

The seasonal menu is split into four sections with soups ( at around £5) Starters ( around £8 ) Pastas ( around £9 ) and Mains ( £10-13 )

While I looked at the menu I sipped on a glass of apple and pear juice made at the bar about 10 seconds before being brought to the table. You don’t get much fresher than that without getting your face slapped.

The choice was hard but in the end I went for a starter of Dorset crab with grilled leeks, salsify and chives. A stunningly fresh combination and served well by the best bread I have eaten all year. Proper bread with a crunchy crust and which demanded to be slathered in butter and devoured. I had to ask them to take the basket away. The crab was not overpowered by the salsify as I anticipated. A winner of a dish

They made me a small portion of risotto to try as a mid course. The risotto was obviously made by someone who knows what the hell they are doing and was creamy and perfect. I was not so convinced by the combination of stilton and walnuts running through it which seemed odd. The blue of the cheese, particularly hit a duff note.

The wine list is short and sensibly priced and I stuck to their limited “ by the glass” list with a Pfalz Riesling with my first two courses

I needed something with more “thrutch” to it with my main course so went for a Montepulciano which had all the stops out. Just as well as my main course was as hearty as it comes.

All their meat is sourced from The Ginger Pig farms and it shows. There can be none better available in London right now. A huge portion of roast shoulder of mutton was hacked off the joint and then crisped up and served on top of creamy butternut squash, shredded cavolo nero and a tart quince and rosmary sauce. Hell, it was tasty but almost too much for someone of my delicate sensibilities to finish off.

Somehow, I managed to clean my plate, but could not even bear the thought of looking at the dessert menu. So, I am afraid I cannot tell you anything about it. Let’s guess shall we? Some chocolate something or other, some ice cream, probably a panna cotta etc etc. I am sure it is well done and they probably cost about a fiver.

During my meal, I had been engrossed in my book ( for the record, an eighth reading of Norman Mailer’s The Fight, the single greatest book on Sport ever written ) so did not really pay much attention to my bill when it came. I paid £39 including a well deserved 12.5% service charge. On closer observation later, I saw that they had comped me a couple of things so, perhaps it would have got closer to £45. In either case, well worth it.

I had a couple of posts recently chastising me for being so harsh on two restaurants that I visited just after they opened. Why? Acorn House has been open a week and a day and yet, despite its newborn status, it reeks of a smart set up that has been well thought out from the beginning.

If it were within spitting distance of me, I would be going there all the time. Oh wait, it is and I shall be.
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Tuesday, November 21, 2006


There are few people in life more scary than my friend Gavin. Like a cross between The Childcatcher, Uriah Heap, Julian Sands and Dr Who of the William Hartnell era. It’s the hair, I think, long and thinning at the same time, that makes young children hide in terror behind the skirts of their mothers.

So, it was little surprise, when I arrived at The Jerusalem Tavern to find he had managed to carve out a space all to himself in an otherwise packed bar as people cowered from him in fear of losing their souls.

Still, it meant a quick trip to the bar and a quiet pint before we went off in search of Sushi

Someone had told me that my old haunt, Blossom had reopened back in Hoxton Square so, off we toddled.

Well, they were there all right, but not quite as they had been. Blossom City Point, it appears, has retained all of the sushi chefs and this branch now specialises in cooked food from Japan and Korea

What does remain the same, however, is the quality of cooking.

We shared an array of starters. Gyoza of pork and prawn were crispy and stuffed with a tasty filling, Katsu prawns were so good I ordered a second portion. Edamame peas were, well peas and crispy squid was perfectly cooked, crispy as advertised and served with a fiery sauce.

While Satan, I mean Gavin seemed to enjoy his black cod bento box, my Bibimbap was as good as I have tried. Chunks of fresh raw rib eye, strips of courgette and carrot with lots of chilli. Of course, there was a raw egg to be mixed in while it was all stirred and served in a sizzling hot stone bowl.

For £60 all in including service and four bottles of gassy beer, it was a hugely pleasant way to spend an evening. Now, if only we could get Gavin to stop asking if they have any spare bottles of virgin’s blood and then giggling fiendishly.
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What do I know about Cheltenham ? It’s a spa town, it’s got a race course
and a college for ladies, I once helped someone move there and spent most of a wet Saturday driving around the one way system looking for somewhere to park, er...that’s it.

I’d been invited to accompany a couple of friends to the spa town with the promise that our destination was somewhere where the food “really is your sort of food”. They know me so well. Le Champignon Sauvage (known locally as the Champion Sausage) is a Michelin ** restaurant run by David Everitt-Matthias, the chef, and his wife Helen, who seemed to take cares of everything else. They've been there about eighteen years and I learned that in that time if the chef was not in the kitchen then there would be no service, which is very refreshing in these days of the overexposed TV chef spending little time at their eponymous restaurants (you know who you are).

We arrived after a harmless journey (one unscheduled stop, well there had to be, this is BR, sorry, First Great Western) and a short taxi ride. After the horrors of Odette’s the interior of LCS was a welcome relief: warm, relaxing with some interesting pictures and objets d’art.

The first thing to hit me was the smell of freshly baked gougeres a basket
of which quickly appeared and just as quickly disappeared together with a few glasses of champagne. Some excellent warm bread followed. I was particularly keen on the bacon and shallot which was a bit of a meal in itself. I was warned off having more by my friends as they knew what was coming. I’m glad I listened to them.

What a meal. There was a little starter of fried sand eels (don’t see those too often) in a pungent smoked eel brandade with horseradish cream; a plump seared scallop with cauliflower puree, wood sorrel and a perfumed cumin foam; a dense meaty cube of veal breast paired with langoustine; a fillet of perfectly cooked Zander sitting on sliced duck hearts of exquisite tenderness with an intense pumpkin puree, bay boletus and chestnuts (Autumn on a plate); a cannelloni of kid with a slice of duck tongue and ethereally light goats curd.

The apogee was reached with a dish obviously designed for the Pig lovers among us (double detention for anyone sniggering) which was truly a plate to sort the men from the boys (and the women from the girls). A porcine feast of the lightest Black pudding studded with sweetbreads combined with an andouillette (which had just the right whiff of the farmyard without being too ahem...intestinal) and a rich and gloriously sticky pigs trotter stuffed with snails and nettles. The Chef’s Chef indeed.

I’m not a huge dessert fan but the same care and skill which had gone into the previous dishes was evident in desserts of caramelised mango with apple and rowan berry sorbet and tapioca (now I haven’t seen that for a very long time and then it was called frogspawn and came with something we called monkey blood) and a warm bitter chocolate and black olive tart with a scoop of clean-tasting fennel ice cream.

We moved into the bar area for our coffees and to scoff down some good petit fours.
I was pretty full by then but I managed, somehow (all for you dear reader, all for you). We had an interesting chat with the chef until all too soon we had to go and catch our train home.

What impressed me overall was I could taste every element in a dish. There was
nothing extraneous. The flavours were very apparent without being overwhelming (if that makes any sense). The combinations also worked very well. Such was the generosity of the whole operation that in the end I was full, but in the sense of being completely satisfied as oppose to feeling bloated. I must also mention the service from Helen and the young waiting staff which was friendly, professional and unobtrusive. Perfect really. Le Champignon Sauvage is just one of those places where the time just whizzes by - I think we were there for about four hours - and you don’t really want to leave.

What do I know about Cheltenham ? I know it’s home to a rather good restaurant called Le Champignon Sauvage. Now if we could just get the team to come to London…
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Friday, November 17, 2006


A simple supper tonight with two very good chums who I had not seen for a long while. A highly literate Essex housewife and her meal ticket.

I had wanted to try The Fox which was due to re-open this week. Unfortunately, that has been delayed so, as we needed to eat within a short distance of Liverpool St, I plumped for a reservation at The Princess.

I had forgotten how abominably loud the restaurant area can get when the bar below is full of London’s equivalent of the B&T crowd as it was on this rainy Friday night. When I finally managed to fight my way through the crowds and climb the spiral staircase, I could barely make myself heard by the waitress.

Eventually, I was able to get her to understand and was shown to a centre table while she took care of my dripping coat without batting an eyelid

When my friends arrived and deposited their equally drenched coats we chose quickly from the small menu which is a hybrid of Iberian and Italian and a few other things thrown in for good measure.

To begin, two of us chose flash fried squid on top of a mound of skordalia. Slightly chewy but with a good light, crisp batter. I did, however, expect the skordalia to have a more garlic kick.

The housewife chose a risotto made with roasted squash which, bizarrely for an other wise vegetarian dish, came with a big slice of (unannounced, I think ) pancetta on top. A problem for her, but not for me as I helped myself to it.

Two main courses were of the robust variety with solid but unremarkable versions of those gastropub staples, Lamb shank and belly pork. Not a lot to report. They were well flavoured hunks of meat and welcome on a cold night.

More interesting was a dish of Fideus ( a small grain like pasta ) with wild mushrooms which we all helped devour.

We ordered two desserts to share between the three of us and when the wait for them extended past the twenty minute mark, we began to think that the kitchen was struggling to cope with the fact that the dining room had now filled to capacity. The waitress finally appeared with two plates, one of which held the banana tatin we had ordered and the other one which did not hold the ricotta dumplings with chocolate sauce which was our other choice. Instead, she plopped down a plate containing a chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream with the words “ I am really sorry, we can’t find the dumplings”

How does one lose dumplings? Presumably they are not things that you leave laying around and forget where you put them.

Still, they were incredibly apologetic and gave us the puds on the house. Very good they were too with the tatin having an excellent light base and the chocolate pudding a delicious rich molten centre.

I was off the juice tonight after a week of over indulgence and because I have another personal trainer course tomorrow. My friends, however, splashed out on a bottle of champagne which I did not taste but they seemed to enjoy.

Service throughout the meal was as good as I can recall anywhere and well deserving of the 12.5% added to the bill which came to just over £100 for the three of us.

All in all, a decent neighbourhood supper with no fireworks but solid, steady cooking in pleasant surroundings. That is if you go after 8pm when the kids have gone and you can actually hear yourself think.
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First of all, I have to apologise for the quality of the images tonight.

The lighting in Odette's is very muted and, I did not want to use my flash for fear of offending the locals.

Mind you, it is that kind of place. Entirely predicated on offending as few people as possible.

I recall, a few years ago, describing Hywel Jones cooking at Lola’s like being a Spitfire engine in a Reliant Robin body. Well, tonight’s meal was more like having a gifted child on a leash so they can’t do any harm.

There was noting actively bad about it but the tastes had been neutered so as not to frighten the local populace of Primrose Hill. As HP put it “ it is the sort of place you could bring your grandparents without them being scared by any unnecessary flavours”

Our table was booked for 8pm and, when we arrived, it was already bustling and we were shown to a grim table right by the door. They moved us straight away but we still suffered shocking drafts of cold wind every time someone entered or left the restaurant.

The room is actively the worst I can recall, all chintz curtains and garish wallpaper and so many tables are crammed in that every time neighbouring tables were being served I came face to face with the backside of the front of house.

That was, however, the only contact we had with him as this was also some of the least engaging service we have encountered for a long time. Our immediate server was fine, but the rest of the staff seemed distant and disinterested and no one bothered to explain the tasting menu at all. Not that it looked particularly interesting.

We began with an amuse of Fennel soup with olive croutons. Not another plate of foaming nothingness? Oh yes. And nothing was what it tasted of with no depth of flavour. More like a weak cup a soup. A bad start.

A bad start compounded by some very ordinary bread which had dried out slightly.

For our starter’s HP ordered a ballotine of quail served on a remoulade. Both unremarkable and under seasoned. It looked pretty and tasted of nothing. I had chosen a simple salad of a poached duck egg on a salad of pea shoots and wild mushrooms. While the pea shoots were fresh and crisp the dressing was too sharp and the duck egg was cold leaving the yolk to ooze out and form a cloying covering to the wild mushrooms. The egg came on top of a small square of bread which had been partly toasted but not enough to add a counter point of texture.

So far, so ordinary. The best thing about it was the glasses of Chardonnay we chose from the decent “ by the glass” list.

For main courses, HP chose Williams’ signature dish of turbot with cockles. Made famous of course, when it was voted on to the menu for the Queen’s birthday. Well, it was just the dish for an 80 year old woman. The turbot was very good, but that was offset by gritty cockles and a reduction that was reminiscent of just about every high end restaurant in London. Again, inoffensive.

My dish of venison was better and provided the only “ oh, that’s good” moment of the entire meal. Slices of perfectly cooked venison came with a crispy square of confit shoulder which was spot on. A small sludge of truffled potatoes did not add much though and the sauce, advertised as “ bitter chocolate” was right in one regard and it wasn’t the chocolate bit. Not great but certainly the better of the two.

The menu offers two courses for £30 ( I think ) and three courses for £40. The desserts were not really worth the extra £10 and we were slightly dispirited as we looked at the identikit list. Chocolate? Check. Souffle? Check.

HP’s Panna Cotta was, however perfect consistency and flecked with vanilla. It came with some fruit whose provenance we could not discern but it would not have mattered anyway as it was to heavily sprinkled with overpowering basil shreds.

A poached pear sable looked the part, but again the flavours were non descript apart from a very good dribble of salt caramel.

The new owners ( the people from the Mean Fiddler I think) obviously have stars in their eyes as certain elements of Michelin schtick were in full effect. The napkin test and the mint tea test were aced with aplomb and service while charmless was prompt.

However, they just get too many elements wrong to ever be in with a hope. Cold duck eggs and the wrong glasses for the wine ( a passable Trinity Pinot from New Zealand at £32 ) being just two examples.

The bill for two came to a massive £140 including service. That is a lot to pay for food that seems to have had all seasoning and interest surgically removed just before leaving the kitchen.

All of my grandparents have shuffled off this mortal coil, unfortunately. But, if I wanted to go back to Odette's again, I think I might have to ask someone if I could borrow theirs, they would feel right at home.
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