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

Tuesday, May 29, 2007


After yesterday’s return to South London a la recherché de hubcaps perdu and the shameful admission that I actually used to live there, it seemed only fitting that I spend today heading up to the other end of The Northern Line to two more of my old stamping grounds.

Back in the early 90’s I left publishing for an all to brief moment to go and work for a brand licensing company. I hated every last minute of it and six months later I scampered back into the welcoming arms of the first publisher who asked me.

The only good part about the whole wretched experience was that the owners of the company used to take us to lunch most days at a rather splendid food court off the top end of The Edgware Road where I had my first Bibim Bap, my first Pho and more dumplings than you can shake a won ton at.

Back then it was called Yohan Plaza. Now it is called Oriental City. But, not for much longer. Why? Because the good cretins of Brent Council have decided that what London needs is not one of its food treasures, but a B&Q. Patently it is more important to most people to be able to have a regular supply of Artex than a plate of Hokkien noodles.

If you have been reading along (and if not, why not?) you will know that I just got back from a few weeks in Australia. One of the things that really did impress me was their food courts which offer a bewildering variety of Asian dishes to a wide audience at very little cost. We have precious little of that in London and now, we are about to lose the one example we have.

They are fighting it, of course, and, if you look at the picture of their poster you can see the link to post a complaint to the council should you so desire. But, today, there did seem to be an air of inevitable despondency about the place. It was buzzing with a mixed lunchtime crowd and the stalls were all chopping, stir frying and steaming to full effect, but it just seemed a bit weary. The food was fine though and, for £11, I got a big plate of noodlage and some decent crispy pork in big enough portions to feed two people.

After lunch, I wandered through into the supermarket which also seemed to be weighed down under the burden of inevitable closure. Shelves once laden with the weird and the wonderful were empty and while there was still lots to look at and go “ what the fuck is that?” or “ who knew the Thai’s made wine?” It did all seem a little bit dispiriting.

So, it looks like another foodie landmark is about to fall off the map of London. Still, you all know now where to go if you need some polystyrene coving.

To make myself feel better, I stopped off on the way home at another area I used to call home, Golders Green. I don’t think I have walked down The Golders Green Rd for nearly twenty years since I lived there after leaving university.

Little has changed, it would appear. The local Jewish populace still seem to be the masters of the triple park and the sound of honking horns is as constant as it ever used to be. The other constant is Carmelli’s Bagel Bakery, a local institution.

People seem to think it has been there forever, but, if my memory serves me correctly, it only opened in 1986 (or this branch did) a fact I recall because I was their third ever customer. As I stopped en route from station to flat and pondered on what to have for supper, my nostrils were assaulted ( in the most positive sense of the word) with the waft of baking and I stepped in to buy my first ever onion bagel. What a memory.

Today, though, just four plain bagels and a few pictures. But, at least this place is unlikely to be replaced with a B&Q.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

I used to live South of the river. I know, I know, I find it hard to believe now that I am a sophisticated young (shut up) urbanite that I could have ever comprehended such a thing, but that was in the early 80’s. I was a student and, consequently, thick as a Ghurkha’s foreskin and broke to boot so had little option. I got better of course and now, even the thought of setting foot in The Swamps, let alone living there brings me out in hives.

Mind you, even in those days I had more sense than to go to Stockwell. It was (and is) one of the less pleasant areas of London whatever those people who want to, but can’t afford to live in Clapham, may tell you.

It does however have one redeeming feature. For reasons I can’t quite figure out, it is the home to a large population of ex-pat Portuguese and, therefore, also home to any number of cafes and restaurants providing a little taste of home to those from the poorer part of the Iberian peninsula.

Of these, the most well known is O Cantinho de Portugal. For as long as we can remember, DH have had it on out list of must tries, but have never got round to it primarily because we can always find an alternative in an area of town where we have a better than 50% chance of survival.

Today, however, we decided to chance our arm and headed down on the Northern line and along the Stockwell Rd, passing about seven other cafes on the way. All packed to the rafters with Portuguese families enjoying a bank holiday lunch.

O Cantinho was too, but they found us a table in the main restaurant where, true to Iberian form, TV’s were blaring and people were talking at a volume that would have people from neighbouring Brixton complaining that the noise was drowning out the sound of Megadeth at The Academy

The menu is fairly short and to the point and complimented by half a dozen pleasing looking chef’s specials.

We both went for clams in wine and garlic to begin which saw us presented with large plates of meaty shellfish with enough tangy sauce to mop up with bread or scoop up with an empty shell depending on how carb conscious you may be feeling. Not a bad start for £7 a pop

For main courses, HP went for a standard plate of pork chops which, in true Portugese fashion came with both chips and rice. The chops were thin, but grilled perfectly and the chips, cooked in olive oil were suitably crunchy.

Better though, was my own plate of Maozinha, a cocido-a-like stew of chickpeas, Portuguese sausage and gelatinous veal trotter. A hefty plateful that defeated even DH despite HP’s sage advice to “ focus on the meat, only the meat” We sucked on fatty trotter and chewed on spicy sausage but the sheer quantity began to draw beads of sweat and I had to give up in the end. I am a grave disappointment to my family in so many ways. This will only add to it.

For pudding we filched their last remaining Pastel de Nata which was fine, but barely worth the calories.

The wine list is small and exclusively Portuguese and a bottle of Reguengos Reserva came in at £18 and suited the meal down to the ground.

With a couple of beers and a couple of fierce aquardente, the bill came to £75 inc tip which was a bit of a shock to the system after the barely scratch the wallet joys of Australia. Still, we left there replete and definitely planning to return one weekend when they serve up big plates of leitao a faia to a homesick crowd.

So, perhaps South of the river is not so bad after all.

What the hell am I saying?

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Rhodes W1

Just by chance you crossed the diamond with the pearl

Haven’t heard much from the spiky-haired one in recent years. Apart from an indifferently received brasserie the last place I went to with the famous Man U supporting, TV chef ‘s name was Rhodes 24 which was merely ok and pretty typical of a what a London Michelin 1-star is these days: unlikely to frighten the horses or the many expense-account diners. But now he’s back and this time he’s serious. Two or even three stars are the aim for his new joint Rhodes W1.

I’d lost track of when this fine-dining resto was going to open but luckily my friends (yes, I do have some) Sam and Scott – who have eaten at more Michelin *** restaurants than I’ve had er…hot dinners - had got a res for the first night with a spare place for me.

So is he going to get his extra stars ? Well, all the infrastructure is in place. The room is very opulent with lots of little details that a design naïf like me would never appreciate. I liked the mirrors and the over-the-top chandeliers above every table, although as Sam pointed out they’d never be able to move the tables around or squeeze in some more covers as the chandelier configuration wouldn’t match. Some natural light would have been a good idea as well. The atmosphere though was quite muted, even funereal, exacerbated by the lack of punters (barely half of its 45 seats were occupied). There was service, lots of it, that wasn’t too obtrusive and someone to show me to the bogs - which is nice when you’ve had a couple stiffeners beforehand. I was worried this latter service would extend to unzipping me and shaking when I was done but apparently this only happens in Parisian three stars restaurants nowadays.

You choose your meal from a standard prix-fixe, from which you can get two or three courses or, more interestingly, from a menu of 12 small tasting dishes which you can use to construct your own tasting menu. These can also be interleaved into the standard menu, which is what we did.

First, though all the little extras which you expect at this level of dining. Sometimes, these can be the best part of the meal. Not quite on this occasion, but they were terrific: little tastettes of foie gras, truffled cheese crispy things and croquettes of eel with a horseradish cream that had us grabbing it back from the waiter and dipping our fingers into the bowl to finish it off. A sprightly little pre-starter of crab in a mayonnaise with avocado and grapefruit was also quite pleasant. So far so enjoyable. Not so good was the interminable wait for our food proper. I suspect the large table of VIPs may have held things up but in any case it was at least an hour before we got our starters. It interrupted the flow of our meal and we ended up having to order another bottle of a lovely White Burgundy that Scott had chosen. Not a great tragedy but it did mean I ended up drinking a bit more than I intended. Such are the dangers of fine dining. Ho Hum.

When they eventually came the starters were ace. A Salad of sweetbreads with freshwater crayfish and soft quail’s egg would not have been out of place at Le Champignon Sauvage. A Ragout of Oysters likewise. With samphire and herbs and a sauce of great depth it was a perfectly balanced dish. Doing a little experimenting we also discovered the crispy sweetbreads worked really well with the sauce in this dish. So, three taste sensations for the price of two (huzzah).

From the small plates the star (in my opinion) was the Steamed turbot with a Mackerel Ravioli. Beautifully cooked fish was topped by a delicate ravioli in a little sauce of buttered baby leeks. Barbary duck with turnips and foie gras wasn’t as good but was enjoyable nonetheless.

Most of us are familiar with Gary Rhodes and the dishes that he cooks on TV but these belie his actual forte which is a lightness of touch in his preparation especially with regard to seafood. Unfortunately we had all plumped for meat for our main courses and they weren’t so good. They certainly looked the business but the taste just wasn’t there. The salt roast pigeon was served almost raw and was a little tough, I gave up eating it half way through the first breast. The accompanying white asparagus was overcooked. Very pedestrian. The restaurant deducted it from the bill without a quibble.

The other two main courses produced similar reactions. It seems the meat had been cooked sous-vide producing lovely looking meat but without much else going for it. These are the kind of dishes commonly found in most of London’s fine-dining restaurants and, as was the case here, they never produce a particularly spectacular result.

By now I was tiring – just can’t hack it these days – and wanted nothing more than a warm cup of cocoa and bed, but somehow I bravely soldiered on. I may have missed a pre-dessert at this stage.

Nothing in the pudding list appealed but I was persuaded to have the Cherry trifle with iced Jersey cream. It was a witty play on the classic dish but as midnight was approaching the joke passed me by with nary a wave. There were also some PFs which at any other time would probably have been declared delicious.

Chef’s first words to us after the meal were “So you didn’t like you main courses, then ?” I may have incoherently mumbled something back about not being taken with sous-vide dishes but what I did learn was that Mr Rhodes is only going to be here for a month. There’ll be new openings in Dhubai, LA and London while in between he’ll be pitching a TV series to the BBC. Whew. Spreading yourself a bit thin there, Gazza?

I know nothing about running a restaurant but I would have thought when going for the top rating you would need to be in the kitchen, refining and improving his dishes, overseeing what goes out. Even El Gordo was at stove until he got his stars. And there is the small fact that the place is called Rhodes W1 (not Hughson W1 or even The Cumberland Hotel Restaurant). One thing is sure - before the month is out I’m going to return to eat all those fish dishes I didn’t have the first time round and drink a little less wine. Maybe.

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So, after the relative disappointments of Sydney and a non food inspired (which is just as well given how uninspiring the food was) trip to Perth, I have spent the last few days in Melbourne.

There is a huge rivalry between these two cities and both have a great deal to offer. But, in food terms, there is no competition. Melbourne knocks its more braggardly neighbour (and, remember everybody needs good neighbours because that’s when good neighbours become good friends) into a cocked hat with corks on it to keep away the flies and ranks high amongst the best eating cities I have ever visited.

You can read about the foodie wonderment that is Melbourne on EAT MY GLOBE as soon as I get back to the UK and have chance to write about it. At the moment I am too busy shoving food down my gullet, but it is worth the wait to hear about Canoli and lobster claws at Brunetti’s, Bratwurst at The Vic’ Market, Baked Cheesecake at St Kilda and, best of all, the mother of all Souvlaki at Lamb on Chapel St.

However, Melbourne does not just win out on the ethnic cheap eats front, it also wins the battle of the high end dining battle, based of course on my limited and entirely unscientific approach.

Given my loose methodology, it was lucky that I was joined on my visit to Vue De Monde by my brainiac pal, Dr Adam Balic and his equally smart wife, Rebecca who had been kind enough to put a roof over my head for the week of my stay. I am pretty sure they are going to be well stretched considering ways to fumigate my room after I leave and I am also pretty certain I have heard the word “exorcism” mentioned.

Vue de Monde. Melbourne’s finest opened a little over seven years ago under head chef, Shannon Bennett and Adam, in his clinically analytical way had selected it not just for the food but because of its importance in the development of dining in Melbourne. It is true that the very mention of it makes most Melbournians go a little shaky at the knee with excitement at the thought of chef Bennett’s culinary creations.

It is an effort to get a table and, once you do secure a reservation, you receive at least six further phone calls to confirm, reconfirm and take credit card details. All a bit odious really and compounded by an equally silly attitude to Melbourne’s otherwise ubiquitous BYO policy which involved a further million phone calls and a breathless wait to hear if the sommelier considered a selection of bottles from Dr Balic’s cellar worthy of consideration.

All this tomfoolery makes me nervous as I find it hard to imagine that a restaurant can supply a decent experience with its own head so firmly inserted in its own rectum. However, when we arrived the unstuffy nature of the service belied the silliness that had gone before.

Critics had described the chef as “risk taking” and “experimental” which makes me profoundly uneasy when what we are talking about is my dinner and a bloody expensive one at that.

This “risk taking” comes through in the room too with school style chairs given little added comfort with the addition of padding, lamps swinging precariously close ot head level from red string and an open kitchen with angled mirrors so squealing diners can get a look at the food porn on the professional side of the pass.

Likewise, I had my doubts about the food. Doubts that were deepened both when I dipped my knife into a pat of Eschire butter that turned out to have gone stale and when our server came over to explain the menu. They don’t believe in such old fashioned things as paper here. They don’t have a menu, they have a “philosophy” a philosophy based on a Menu Gourmand of a minimum of five courses ((for AU$180) which can be supplemented by further courses for additional cost up into you burst or your wallet waves the white flag.

So, there we were in a restaurant harder to get into than a nun’s knickers. A restaurant that had called us more times than an ex girlfriend with issues and where the staff had acted out the menu philosophy by way of mime while we ate stale butter and I was prepared to hate every moment.

But, I didn’t. God help me I actually really liked it.

There were some dishes that did not work and there was a little too much of the test tube/teet pipette frippery that I dislike but, underlying all of this is a very serious kitchen creating an ever changing menu which offers, daily, over 40 dishes from which to construct a menu.

An amuse of snails was not well regarded by any of us. A little too hard to eat and not worth the effort for the small mouthful our excavations unearthed. But, the slick of Aloe Vera and Pea sauce gave a sign of things to come.

A dish of South Australian Abalone came with the mollusc braised for 12 hours and then served in thin meaty slices with its braising juices and an eight spice powder heady with star anise. An accompanying trip of melon discs with watermelon foam lacked crispness but the seafood was off the scale good.

By universal acclaim, the next dish was the star of the night. A risotto spiked with Madeira was made perfectly to point and, on its own, would have been memorable. When slivers of West Australian truffle were layered on top, it became unforgettable.

Rebecca eschewed things offally, so for the next course, she stared down a plate of tomato cannelloni with a garlic crumb and Iberico ham while Adam and I worked our way through a terrine with layers of confit carrot, foie, rabbit rillette and a pistachio mousse. Hers worked better in description than execution although I liked the taste of garlic crumb I snaffled. Ours was top of the tree good and the rabbit, in particular did not give his life in vain.

Fish dishes are where high end restaurants often get found out. Vue de Monde did not. A small red mullet came stuffed with local crayfish and while the carrot string binding added little the fish and filling were exemplary. The first appearance of a test tube obliged the waitress to give us some instructions on how to use its contents by dribbling a little of the juices inside over the fish to begin and then supping the rest when everything else was finished. Hardly worth the effort or the performance but the main ingredient won us over.

A little cleanser was out next, er, intercourse as small foaming glasses were brought out. I am always wary of things that foam. From the bath time in Matey Bubbles as a child to rabid dogs, they remind me of bad stuff. Below the dry ice inspired foolishness however lurked a clear tomato consommé that had us all arching an eyebrow like Roger Moore in one of his more expressive acting moments. Very, very good indeed.

Which is just as well as what followed was the misfire round. The first meat course saw Rebecca presented with two small squared of belly pork with some slivers of brussel sprouts and a small foamy mound flavoured with apple cider. As poor a dish involving belly pork as I can recall and, when she rejected it after one mouthful, neither Adam or I wanted any part of that action. The black pudding was good although, so as not to frighten the locals they called it “boudin” despite its very British style.

Our meat courses were precious little better with flavourless lamb loin and fatty belly in a greasy sauce of split peas being saved only by the addition of some fine small sweetbreads.

Fortunately, the next course more than made up for it. I normally despise smooth cheffy stylings on a classical theme, but Shannon Bennett’s take on Beef Wellington is an astonishing success. Rare red dear with a tarragon mousse surround comes enfused with a mushroom jelly and encased in a sweet brioche like pastry. With small “soldiers” of carrot and mandarin foam, it was as good a meat dish as I have eaten this year.

The second intercourse (which is a lot more than someone with a face like mine is used to) came in the lollipop shape of quickly frozen slices of kiwi surrounded by a strong peppermint jelly. So good that I got Adam to beg the waitress to bring me another which they happily did.

All of which cleared the palette for the next amusement. A small egg box containing three upturned eggshells stuffed with, in turn, pistachio Custard, white chocolate and orange mousse and a prune & armagnac eggnog. Each had its own distinct texture and clean flavours and we each chose a different one as out favourite.

Adam loves his cooking and his cookware. The final course made him give a little girly squeal of delight as small glass dishes containing raspberry soufflé were placed in front of us. The inside of the glasses had been dusted with dried crushed strawberry which also sprinkled the plate and the whole was topped with a small, sharp raspberry ice cream. Perfectly made and perfectly refreshing.

They failed the mint tea test which is shameful at any restaurant but particularly at one charging this much money but they aced the napkin test and the arrival of excellent petits made up for it. Standard and competent macaron sat next to small cake cases containing mini Pavlova which we filled with apricot from a teat pipette. Banana ice cream came covered in chocolate and on sticks and tiny tarte tatin finished off the plate as indeed, did we.

Adam had dipped into the Balic cellar for two exceptional bottles which met the sommelier’s approval. A 1998 Chateau Fuisse had aged, was buttery and worked well with at least two of the dishes. A 1990 Chateau Climens Sauternes did equally well against the puddings. We complemented these with the sommelier’s selection of small glasses for the first couple of courses which included a Fino sherry and a not entirely successful Vouvray. A bottle of 2002 Bandol held its own with the meat dishes.

That lot with a little corkage brought the bill to about AU$850 (about £120 a head) which is not insubstantial and, for a town where you can eat sublimely well for $10, pretty frightening.

But, this is a world class restaurant and,although operating in a small pond, would be 1-2* quality in places where such things matter.

Comparisons are odious, but then so am I, so I am going to make one. My other high end experience in Australia was at Tetsuya which, while a different style of cuisine is still fighting for the same “international diner” market. I enjoyed both but while Tetsuya is, to all intents and purposes, offering the same menu as he has for many years, Shannon Bennet is constantly recreating. Where Tetsuya offers comfort and recognition for regulars, Vue de Monde offers change and challenge which sometimes comes with the inevitable misfire. The misfires at Tetsuya were shameful for a place that does the same dishes day in day out. The failures at Vue de Monde come from taking risks some of which wont work.

Tetsuya is at No4 in the Restaurant Magazine’s specious listing of best restaurants in the world. Vue De Monde comes in at a lowly 70 something. I can only assume that is because most of the liggers, n’ eer do wells and hangars who vote have not been here

So, Melbourne has it at every level over Sydney. Poor souls in NSW, what are they going to do? I guess they could always let fireworks of that bridge again.

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