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

Friday, September 28, 2007


There was a pleasing circularity in having a Japanese meal tonight on my second night back in London, given that I began the last stage of the EAT MY GLOBE journey in Japan.

Unfortunately, that was about the only thing about tonight’s meal that was pleasing as LIFE on Old St, the latest entry into London’s burgeoning Sushi scene, proved to be a bit of a damp squib.

A shame really as the perma grins of the staff displayed a genuine sweetness that belied their hapless efforts.

Early signs were not good. A simple drinks order prompted eight questions (yes we counted) as the waiter struggled to come to terms with a simple order of tea, soshu and beer and still managed to come back with the incorrect drinks. Added to which, the time between courses would have allowed us to catch up with a couple of series of “24” as we waited and waited and waited for the different stages of our meal to arrive. From time to time, when food did arrive, it was often meant for neighbouring tables and was whisked away before we had chance to pick up a chopstick.

Much of this could have been forgiven if the food had been terrific. Indeed, some of it could be forgiven if the food had been any good at all. But, As HP put it “when you are serving raw fish, there is no place to hide” and in the case of LIFE, clumsy execution and lack of freshness in the raw ingredients were in full evidence.

An appetizer plate of pickled vegetables was not bad at all retaining a crunch and not being swamped by vinegar and a “spring roll” wrapped in shiso was pleasantly crunchy with salmon replacing the unavailable horse mackerel. Edamame, however were over salted and stone cold.

After a long wait a plate of assorted seafood tempura appeared which had been allowed to sit for too long until the batter lost its crunch and the white fish and prawns had begun to turn to mush. This was followed by sashimi of sea bass and sweet prawns that lacked the prerequisite sparkling freshness as indeed did plates of clumsily made salmon skin and spider crab rolls, nigiri of eel, fish roe and scallops which replaced the unavailable sea urchin.

Not dreadful, just flabby and looking as if they had been hacked inexpertly of dull eyed fish making us happy that we had not taken up the option of the more formal Kaiseki tasting menu option.

A visit to the basement of the restaurant saw the discovery of a small shop selling a disparate collection of the bizarre tat that the Japanese seem so fond of alongside a man with rather wild hair standing disconsolately by twin DJ decks as if he was waiting for a party that was never going to happen. One wonders if they had spent more on the fish than on Hello Kitty merchandise if he would have more people to appreciate his skills.

The bill for three of us came to £95 including service which, as I said was beguilingly charming for such an average experience. But, the bar of Japanese food in London has been raised much higher in the last eighteen months and this fell way below what is on offer even just in the environs of Clerkenwell and Shoreditch with places like Edoku, Ginnan, Tajima-Tei, Saki and Matsuri offering better quality at a range of prices.

Unfortunately, I can’t see LIFE having much of a life.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007


On the last leg of my current stage of the EAT MY GLOBE journey, I find myself in Helsinki.

A strange place many people (the majority of whom, of course, had never been here) had told me, for an excursion based around food given that its reputation is right up there, or indeed down there with good old Blighty as Jacques Chirac famously pointed out at the cost of one Olympic Games.

However, it was always going to be on my schedule once my hugely annoying Finnish fritend, Martina promised me a bit of huntin’, fishin’ and shootin’ with her family at their country house some 200km north of Helsinki

Despite her warnings about my lack of personal hygiene and unsavoury personal habits, they seemed happy to host me and, after a five hour journey from St Petersburg, I was met at the station by her sister, Paola. After depositing my bags at my hostel, I was soon hurtling northwards through the Finnish countryside.

The scenery is impossibly beautiful as indeed is the house in which I stayed for the next couple of nights. By the edge of a lake and surrounded by forests ( still populated by wolves and bears, I was told) it was the perfect place for a bit of R&R after a gruelling few months on the road.

The days were filled with walks through the woods to hunt for local mushrooms and the evenings with hunting as Martina’s brother in law, Henry and friend, Niko took me under their, er wing as we went off in search of local grouse and duck.

Joining us on the hunt was Pertii, in his late 70’s and having spent all his life in and around these woods, he knew every last blade of grass and tree. It was unsurprising then that, while we stood empty handed, he managed to bag a brace of birds which he laid out on the ground “ in respect to the forest” while he had a quick ciggie and waited for us to catch up.

It was to his house we all adjourned on the Sunday for a late lunch which gave me the chance to meet up with his wife, Kiti, known to one and all as The Princessa.

The Princessa is one of those women you read about in Enid Blyton novels where, after a big adventure, children are treated by a local farmer’s wife to a tea with ‘ lashings of ginger beer”

Larger than life, her house and kitchen is like something out of a fairy tale with books tumbling from shelves and tables literally groaning under the weight of the food she seems to be making constantly.

When I arrived, she was busy baking, with her daughter, for a church event while preparing to feed the eleven or so people she had invited to lunch. Her cellar was fileld to the brim with bottles of cordials made from local berries, jams, chutneys and pickles not to mention the birds that were hanging there waiting to be plucked.

I spent a very happy morning with her talking about the traditional cooking she grew up with as a child all the while being plied with cake, ginger and rhubarb cordial and tea. Then I helped her prepare three wild mallard for the lunch by singing the remaining feathers from them and stuffing them with apples from her garden while she turned her attention to a dish of mushrooms in cream.

After a long walk up into one of the hills that sit on Pertii’s land to collect lygon berries, we all arrived back at the house at around three o’ clock to find that The Princessa had prepared enough food for twenty people with plenty left over in case another twenty happened to be passing by.

There were three types of mushroom dishes, pickled, made into salad with apples and smetana and cooked in cream. There was a home smoked salmon, pickled herring, a carpaccio style dish made with Elk killed by Pertii the hunting season before, the inevitable black rye bread and boiled potatoes and, off course, the three birds I had helped to prepare which had been pot roasted and were sitting along side a bowl of their natural cooking juices.

After a few words from Pertii to welcome his guests, we tucked in with fish and meat being kept well apart on separate plates.

Well, on this evidence (as well as lots of other evidence in other matters, I am sure) Mr Chirac patently does not know his arse from a hole in the ground. This was one of my best meals of the trip to date. Fresh tastes, some unusual too ( the pickled mushrooms particularly drawing me back to the table three times) with ingredients that could not have been more local as they were nearly all picked, shot or caught in the surrounding forests.

Best of all, the potatoes. Remember how these used to taste? I rarely eat them now as, even the organic ones taste like polystyrene egg cartons. These? Well these tasted like potatoes used to when I was a kid and I found myself eating bowls of the things without aid from butter or any other condiment.

With a couple of glasses of a very decent red to slosh it down, I managed to make an embarrassingly big dent in the amount of food and soon found myself burping contentedly in their front room with a cup of tea and a mere sliver of apple cake to polish it off.

Not a bad way to spend a Sunday.

Cheers, Martina.

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Friday, September 21, 2007


Well the danger on the rocks is surely past
Still I remain tied to the mast

So the journey ends where it began in one DH's favourite cities, Madrid. It's one of the few places the nearer we get the more excited we get. After alighting at Atocha I started walking up the street to my hotel. Although my bag was heavy, the daytime temperature about 30 and I was walking up a hill I did the mile walk in record time. Bags dumped then off to one of DH's favourite areas in our favourite cities, Calle Ponzano.

Some say there are more bars on this street and its offshoots than in all of Scandinavia. Well, I wouldn't know about that but there are a hell of a lot. Restaurants too. The first time we visited we peaked too early and we were only about a quarter of the way up the road by the time we had drunk our fill. This time I was a bit more selective and visited some of our old haunts for some tasty nibbles. At Fide, which specialises in canned fish, a baby squid stuffed with its own tentacles and skewered with an anchovy. At El Doble a small canape of Bacalao liver on toast, at Alboran, an Andalusian fish restaurant, a plate of bacalao croquetas and a glass of manzanilla to remind me of where I had just come from. Apart from that sherry I kept to the Mahou, served cold and correct with a frothy head and a tapita, the best of which was a omelette made with setas and a small plate of torreznos. Then back to the hotel for a little shut-eye.

For the evening shift a little bit more of the tried and tested. The big bar on Plaza Opera which was home base for many of DH's visits where they always try and serve us dobles instead of canas but which we always return to for a mid-afternoon chupito of pacharan or orujo. The tapita here a big plate of pungent olives. A glass of cider, just for a change, with some paella and finally one of DH favourite tapas bars, Bonar de Leon. Luckily they had run out of paella. Lucky not in the sense that it's not good - I sure it is - but lucky in the sense that I got a big plate of allitas. No knives, no forks, just get stuck in and get your hands greasy. Was it down with a bigger than normal cana and hand over the dosh about 1 point something euros. I needed a little walk after that little lot and before the final food of the evening at DH's favourite restaurant Dantxari.

We've blogged about this place before but we enjoy it so much (as does Madrid it appears given that every table was taken) I make no apology about blogging about it again. The service is spot on and the food, simple tasty Basque cooking but done with a light hand. No culinary fireworks but food you'd want to eat at least once a week. Dishes such as Cogollos de Tudela (Lettuce Hearts from Tudela in Navarra) served simply dressed with some peppers and bonito. Chipirones encebollados, baby squid and onions cooked until the squid is very tender and the onions a sweet melting mass and Mollejas con setas, a butch composition of sweetbreads and mushrooms.

I couldn't have managed Leche Frita (they do it very well here) so instead it was a bowl of PX and raisin ice cream. The house insisted I have coffee and a shot of orujo blanco to help it all down. Honest.

A very good end to a very good trip. So good in fact that I could easily do it all over again. Now where was that asador...

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007


It’s been a long, quite arduous, but thoroughly enjoyable couple of weeks since I left Beijing and headed out on the Trans Mongolian/Siberian Railway via Ulaan Bataar to Moscow.

The food along the way, through Mongolia and into Russia, has been filling and often quite tasty, but I don’t think anyone in their right mind would ever bring themselves to describe it as fine dining consisting, as it did, mostly of cabbage, potatoes and bread in various interesting, and often deep fried, combinations.

So, today, when the poor unfortunates who got to share a train carriage with me for seven nights went off to explore matters of cultural import, I decided to go in search of a good, old fashioned, proper restaurant. One with knives and forks, napkins and all the kind of malarkey that I have missed for the last two and a half months.

A smidgeon of research threw up TIFLIS, widely considere to be one of the best Georgian restaurant in Moscow and well known as a meeting place for those pondering on purchasing gas pipelines and/or English football teams.

So, fter a couple of hours stroll in this vibrant and resurgent city including visits to The Red October Chocolate Factory and through Gorky Park (which will, inevitably, indelibly imprint that song by The Scorpions in your head for the next six weeks) I arrived at Ostozhenka 32 just as they were opening up for the day.

The down the nose glance of the front of house reminded me that I was

a Dressed like a scruffy SOB who has been washing his smalls in tiny hotel sinks using vaguely brown tap water for the last month.

b)Sporting a moustache that made me look like a gay porn star gone to seed. The result of a foolish competition with my fellow travellers to see who could grow the most ridiculous facial fuzz during the trip. I think, given a quick glance in the mirror this morning, the bookies may well have to close the betting.

Still, after a few imperious sniffs, I was allowed in and settled at a rather lovely little table on a terrace dappled with Autumn sunlight where I sat reading my copious notes for EAT MY GLOBE and sipping on a cup or three of strong black tea.

Georgian food is meat heavy with Shashlik (skewers of meat) in particular evidence along with breads, rice and cheese and, to begin, I ordered,kachaturi, a traditional flat bread stuffed with cheese accompanied by, suluguni, two thin swirls of a dense cheese served in yoghurt sauce thick with mint. The bread was a revelation, straight from the oven, it was light and delicious with the cheese layer providing a slightly sour after note. The perfect tool to sop up the minty residue after I had gnawed my way through the chewy cheese swirls.

Along side these two dishes, another Georgian speciality, Bhaza, a mix of beets, walnuts and pomegranate seeds which provided the perfect slightly sharp topping for the last two of the four large slices of bread provided.

To be perfectly frank, that would have been plenty and I sat in a slightly bloated state of discomfort wondering what the Russian for “doggy bag” might be just in case I had to use it for the veal shashlik I had chosen.

Fortunately, I had forgotten that levels of service in Russia make even those in The U.K. seem positively adequate and that the gap between courses is often better measured with a calendar than a watch. So, after about forty five minutes, when my meal finally arrived, I was hungry again and eagerly anticipating my plate of speared calf.

Very good it was too with the chunks of veal remaining moist while delivering the prerequisite char. The accompaniments of rice with bits of stuff in it and tired looking salad leaves added little, but some slightly vinegared onions proved an interesting counterpoint.

Given that some unfathomable political stand off has led to a ban on all Georgian products in Russia, there was none of that rather good Georgian beer on offer and what was on offer was imported and at the nosebleed inducing end of the scale, as indeed were the wines on offer. So, I stuck to the black tea.

I had not expected it to be cheap and I was damn right. By the standards of my trip to date, it was pernicious bearing in mind that a blow out in Beijing cost about £5. But, Moscow is right up there with Oslo and London in the “fuck me” cost of living stakes and RUB4,000 (about £80) seemed about acceptable for a decent meal amongst the fashionable Muscovite elite who had filled the terrace since my early arrival.

It also provided a wake up call that the next stage of EAT MY GLOBE to the USA would provide slightly more stress on my savings that did China, Hong Kong, Mongolia and even Japan. No bad thing for someone who has been able to stretch a little a very long way in the last few weeks.

However, as a way to reacquaint my self with meals that were not cooked by shirtless men with a disposition to phlegm up their guts on to the floor while cooking mystery meat in a wok, it was just what I wanted.

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