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

Thursday, November 29, 2007


I guess eating at a place that is set up as a combined performance space and dining room on a weekday lunchtime when I am jet lagged to buggery is not the fairest way to judge a restaurant. But, my view is, if they are open and taking cold hard cash from people then it doesn’t matter what the circumstances are, they should be able to deliver.

I have been out of touch a bit recently with all of my Stateside peregrinations. So, when it came to finding a suitable spot for lunch today, I am not proud to say that I consulted that least literary of magazines, The Caterer to find out if anything interesting had opened in the neighbourhood.

Up popped The Brickhouse in the old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane. Open for about four weeks it is, as I say, a space where you can combine your eating pleasures with the chance to watch burlesque or people cavorting around on a trapeze while shaking nipple tassels in one's general direction. I am not quite sure why this may be a good thing, but I guess they have done their research.

Thankfully, when I trundled up for lunch, there was no one trying to perform acrobatics in the place and I did not get too close a look at anyone's booty. In fact, up to the point I was about to leave, I was the only one there and had a booth for six on the mezzanine floor all to my lonesome self.

They are obviously expecting people to come along for lunch, circus acts or not, and offer a deal of two courses for £20 (three for £24) It is all pretty identikit med-mix stuff with a carpaccio here and a bit of gnocchi there with nothing to scare the performers from their perches.

A Venison Carpacchio (should it have an “h” in it? It does on the menu) had a crunchy coating of Sichuan pepper and came with a drizzle of garlic dressing and that over powering combination of rocket and truffle oil which is becoming a blight on unimaginative menus all over the country. It all combined to make a harmless mush lacking any spark of life or imagination.

They had pork belly on the menu, so my second choice was already made. It looked the part, coming with small, sweet shrimps and capers. However, it also came on a bed of buttered bok choi which upped the fat content of the dish to the point that it left a greasy residue in my mouth that I can still taste an hour of so later.

I skipped pudding and tea and got the bill which came to £31 including a couple of glasses of wine and service which was efficient and very amiable.

My waiter told me that they are now getting quite busy in the evenings and I can believe it. It is a good looking space, it has an interesting cocktail list (not having tried one I can’t say how well made they may be) and could be a fun place to pass an evening watching people doing a fan dance. But, amongst the many reasons why it may succeed, the food, which is barely competent, is not going to be one of them.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007


There are probably two restaurants here in Northern California that are on the gastro tourists “must do” list.

One is Thomas Keller’s French Laundry and the other is Alice Water’s Chez Panisse.

Well, I have tried Mr Keller’s cooking a few years ago at Per Se and think I summed it up as “perfectly OK, some brilliance, lousy cheese” So, when it came time to choose a last meal for my latest leg of the EAT MY GLOBE trip, it seemed only right that I would choose the other option, that most iconic of Californian restaurants,Chez Panisse. Thanks to the efforts of my chum, Alexandra, I was able to get a reservation a month in advance.

First though, a spot of breakfast in another outlet in the CP empire, Café Fanny which, despite being named after a woman’s front bottom is a hugely popular place for breakfast in these here parts.

I am afraid it was a sign of things to come as, despite the fact they looked the part, the hot chocolate was neither hot, nor particularly chocolatey and the muffin was bullet hard and suffering from a paucity of fruit.

Mind you, given my naturally optimistic personality (no sniggering at the back) I still held out high hopes for my supper, particularly following a quick tour around the kitchens of CP at lunchtime in the generous company of pastry chef, Sam which included a quick viewing of the lamb which was on the set menu for the evening.

I was actually due to have two suppers that night. My chum, Alex had invited me to her house where her relatives had brought a cooler full of Dungeness crabs from Northern California for us to try.

So, ever the brave little soldier, I girded my ample loins and sat down to a plate of exemplary seafood and the merest sliver of cake before heading down to Chez Panisse to meet my new chums Tamar and Carolyn for supper number two.

I wish now that I had stayed for some more crab action. Not because of the company which was exemplary, but because of the food which would be placed firmly under the word “mediocre” in the dictionary if I was being kind and which, I suggest, would barely pass muster in a London gastro pub if I was not.

It is a set menu schtick at Chez Panisse . You get what you are given and it is predicated on the very best ingredients prepared simply to display their natural flavours.

Such things depend on two things. Great provenance and great execution. Unfortunately, on this showing we got neither.

First up a plate of grilled leeks with beets, house cured pancetta and vinaigrette that would not have been out of place at “ Abigail’s Party” and was as insipid a dish as I can recall paying money for in as long as I can remember.

Next up, Lamb. Now, don’t get me started on American lamb. I have yet to find one good example in all my time eating in restaurants in the US. It is invariably flavourless and the chefs have not clue number one how to cook it. I am sorry to say that here, at this most famous of restaurants, was no different. If the meat had any flavour to begin with then it was smothered in a sauce so salty they should have served it with statins on the side to save me getting my blood pressure checked when I get home.

A herb soufflé was perfectly fine, but the “vichy-style” carrots were cooked to the point of school dinner mushiness.

As bad a dish as I have experienced on the whole of this part of the trip.

Quite why we chose to go for a supplementary cheese course, I don’t know. I always think that America is where good cheese goes to die. But, choose it we did. What we were presented with was three small slices of non descript domestic cheeses, two from California and one from Wisconsin. All I can say is that they should all hang their heads in shame. The “cheesemakers” for producing and the restaurant for serving.

Finally, the pudding. A poached pear tart with a Muscat sabayon. I am not sure if it is just a matter of US tastes but, again, the pears turned to mush in the mouth, the pastry tasted burnt and the sabayon would need some sort of scientific instrument to detect the Muscat.

It is rare for me to leave any food on my plate. I am after all a good northern boy. But, I let much of this meal remain untouched, which speaks volumes.

Despite the charming company, I kept wishing I was back eating more of that spectacular crab simply dressed with Meyer lemon rather than this meal which merely served as a means to extract $110 from each of us without ever delivering at any level on food or service which was perfunctory and without charm. A bottle and a half of Spanish wine were not overpriced but equally insipid. As much my fault for choosing as theirs for offering.

I would cross oceans to eat more of that crab. I would not cross the street to eat at Chez Panisse again.

Ho hum

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Monday, November 26, 2007


Just one day to go on this leg of EAT MY GLOBE and then back to the London for a few days before heading up to that there Scotland for a week or so to make a bit o' scotch on the smallest distillery of all, Kilchoman.

I headed up to my funky and retro motel in Berkeley yesterday and spent the day pottering around the town which is quite fun if (in the case of the oh so perfect shops of Fourth St) insufferably twee.

Today, my chum Alexandra Eisler invited me to join her and some friends up in the Napa Valley for a wine tasting. This was not, however, going to be any ordinary wine tasting. We were going for a private session at Hendry Ranch, one of the oldest wineries in The Napa and one of the most highly regarded. If I say that it used to provide grapes for the legendary Opus One, you will know what I mean.

Again, this was not going to be any ordinary tour as our host was going to be George Hendry, the son of the original owner and still the chief winemaker.

We arrived close to midday and spent a good couple of hours with Dr Hendry who gave us a tour of the vineyards (they grow eleven varieties of grapes) and of the winemaking facilities before taking us into a rather splendid tasting room to try some of the wines which are categorised not only by grape but by which block of land they come from and which clone of the grape has been used.

They are very recognisable Californian wines with high alcohol content and plenty of fruit and, at first I found many of them to be a bit much for me particularly the pure Cabernet.

However, we had brought a picnic with us and, once we tucked into plates of cheeses, breads from The Acme Bakery, Salads and smoked salmon, then wines began to work very well. In particular, a Primitivo which we served at the end of the meal with a plate of chocolate truffles.

I still don’t think I am ever going to be a huge fan of these powerful wines, but with the patient and scientific explanations of Dr Hendry, I can at least understand the thought process involved in their creation.

As we headed home, we made a brief detour to the town of Napa itself to meet up with another local legend, Steve Sando, a man who has become well known across America for his company, Racho Gordo which specialises in raising and selling over thirty types of rare heirloom beans. He posts regularly on a food website called and you will see that the other posters on there are in a state of almost constant arousal whenever his products are mentioned.

I find it hard to become tumescent when thinking about beans unless Natalie Portman is bathing in them, but, when someone in the good old US of Stateside has been kind enough to cook a batch for me, I have always enjoyed. They are not available outside the US, so most of you will just have to take my word for it.

He offered tequila and whipped up a guacamole before we left him to prepare supper which, unsurprisingly, involved beans and headed back to the city and my motel.

So, tomorrow is the last day in the US and I am off to Chez Panisse. But, more on that later

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Friday, November 23, 2007


We kissed again as the showers swept the Florida shore
You opened your umbrella
But we walked between the raindrops back to your door

That’s it. It’s final. I’ve decided. I’m going to try and be the first diner at all new London restaurant openings. I’m fed up of arriving at a joint only to find the Executive chef (who was featured very prominently in the PR) has departed the pass. Fed up of the staff who once the critics have gone take their foot off the gas pedal we call er…service. Fed up of missing out on little freebies and 50% discount offers. Fed up of not being able to get a table because the critics have bigged the gaff up. No more Mr Slow Coach. Things change today.

Not that you would ever be in danger of not getting a table at Podium. The night I ate there my compnions were a couple of drunk business man at the tiny bar (which also doubled as the coat check it seems), a lone businessman eating a burger and reading The Telegraph, some people who appeared to be related to the chef and er…that’s it.

The musak didn’t really help the mood segueing from some drum 'n' bass lite (very annoying) through some sub-Dan jazz noodlings (quite nice after a glass of wine) into Rock’s Greatest Hits (very strange) including Nirvana performed with much feeling by a chanteuse in a sort of lounge stylee ("Come az zou arrr as zou werrrr az I vant uuu to beee").

I don’t remember the last time I ate in a hotel restaurant. Not a hotel restaurant in the Theo Randall/Gary Rhodes/Alain Ducasse mould but the other one, the one that hosts the Association of West Midlands Actuaries Christmas Party (partners welcome), the one that Alan Partridge took his big plate to, the one where everybody is a solo diner and where staff outnumber the punters. That hotel restaurant is called Podium and I don’t really know why it exists.

The menu was priced very aggressively considering you have Galvin @ Windows located diametrically and places like TR, Wild Honey and The Wolseley a short hop away. Surprisingly, though, the food wasn’t bad. The better dishes were bookends to a small Veal Chop which was a decent lump of meat overcooked a tad with some ok chips and bearnaise.

My Pheasant Boudin was better than the one I had recently at Le Café Anglais. More delicate and more accurately cooked it was pleasantly but not overly gamey. A small Black Fig Tart on a flaky pastry base also showed signs of adeptness in the kitchen. A shame then, that a pleasant supper was spoiled by the staff trying to stiff me (and presumably other customers) by having a whopping 250ml glass as their ‘regular’ glass.

There’s no reason for me to return here but I think Hilton a missing a trick or two. They obviously have a chef who can turn out stuff that is the better than the norm so if they spruced up their menu a bit and dropped the prices a tad then they might have somewhere worth visiting. I doubt it’ll happen though - there’s too many conferences to host, delegates to up-sell wine to and Ms Hilton is very high maintenance.

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I am almost at the end of this leg of the EAT MY GLOBE trip and to be perfectly honest, I am running on empty at this point. Admittedly, the fumes I am bumping along on are filled with the pleasing scent of all the BBQ, Hot Dogs, Tacos, Po’ Boys and Philly Cheese Steaks I have consumed in the last two months, but fumes never the less and the last few days of the trip are proving quite tough.

So what better, when one is tired, than to be welcomed into the bosom of a family for that most American of celebrations, Thanksgiving?

This was not my first experience of a Thanksgiving meal but it was the first time, in all my many visits to the USA, that I had found myself in the country on the day itself.

This, however, was no ordinary Thanksgiving nor, indeed, was I going to be joining an ordinary family.

When I first floated the notion of heading off around the world to stuff myself silly, the very first invitation I received was from my new chum, Tana Butler, to join her and her extended circle of friends and family in Santa Cruz, the weirdest of Californian cities.

Dinner was to take place in her friend, Laura’s house that evening. But, first I found myself at Tana’s place helping to lug around a 25lb turkey ( yes, I said 25 lbs) and preparing her other contributions to the night’s meal, devilled eggs, dressing and shitake gravy.

We cooked, we talked, we played with Tana's little grandson, Logan and we listened to Louis Prima. I did quite a bit of drinking too, both of the incredibly view from her back yard and from a bottle or two of quite decent pinot. It was all incredibly restorative and by the time the bird was cooked, I was ready for the full blowout.

First of course, the best bit of the whole turkey, the giblets which Tana’s husband, Bob and I shared before we drove over in a car over burdened with Thanksgiving delights.

We were greeted by nearly thirty people all of whom had brought their own contributions to the meal. Cranberry sauce, creamy mashed potatoes, stuffed squash and enough other things to feed about double the number of people who would be sitting down to share this meal.

As I said, this “family” was no ordinary family with ex wives sitting down with ex husbands, half sisters sitting down with step sisters of third marriages etc etc. All very confusing, but all incredibly welcoming to the latest stray to turn up for a meal. That’ll be me then.

It was noisy, raucous and all enormous fun. Guitars appeared, people sang and I returned to the heaving buffet enough times that I have spent the whole night dreaming of high strength Zantac.

At the end of the night, I was invited back for next year’s celebration. I have it in the diary already

Right now, I am just giving thanks for a memorable day and for the fact my stomach did not explode.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007


What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free

St Pancras Station has a special place in the collective DH heart. For a large part of our childhood we lived in South Yorkshire, our Grandparents and later on our work and life were located in London so the return journey from Sheffield East Midlands station to St Pancras was, and still is, a regular occurrence for us. Built higher and bigger its neighbour Kings Cross there was always a great sense of occasion arriving or departing here although the circumstances meant they weren't always the best of times.

So now the once grimy station has had a lick of paint and is now open for business to the Continent and beyond. A shame then that it’s all a bit crap. I expected the much hyped 95m Champagne bar to be just that: 95m of bar with people serving along its length and groaning platters of Britain’s finest Oysters on display. Instead we get a something reminiscent of an AMT coffee bar and a queue to have a drink. Whether this was down to Searcy’s who have the contract or the architects I don’t know but it’s disappointing. Talking of Searcy’s they’re ok just about but I’m sure we could have done a bit better with a Caprice or Corney and Barrow.

Downstairs things are not much better. Much like a BAA-run airport the space is just seen as a great fat retailing opportunity so we get M&S, Paperchase and WHS (Wooo- Hooo!) and many more. Of course the idea to locate the Eurostar terminal here after establishing it in Waterloo was also a decision made for financial reasons above all others so we shouldn’t really be surprised .

Oft-made comparisons with the magnificent Grand Central Station are of course risible but if you can ignore the tacky retail opportunities, the stupid statues and that Champagne bar then just look up take in the awesome sight of Barlow's shed, once the largest enclosed space in the world and realise that it was so nearly another Euston. And for that we must all be grateful (well, that and the fact that the trains go nowhere near the Northwest).

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007


It’s official, I am exactly half way through the EAT MY GLOBE trip and, as I imagined I would be at this point, I am dog tired (I have also eaten tired dog, but that is another matter)

I had planned my few days in Salvador, Brazil as downtime, to go and sit on the beach and drink far too many Caipirinhas.

Well, I have done both things so far with considerable gusto and, last night, was even persuaded by some others at my guesthouse, to join them in the Pelorinho (old town) for the weekly festival which, for those aware of my previous crimes against rhythm, ended in the unlikely sight of me dancing until 2am this morning.

The food, as I expected, is hardly spectacular but, with its origins in African food, it is filling and very cheap. Local vendors sell chilled coconuts from which you suck the water through a straw after they have lopped the top off with a worrying looking machete and there are plenty of stalls selling mystery parcels of stuff fried in the rather noxious local dende oil.

Best of all, so far is the mocequa which is basically a seafood stew cooked in coconut milk and fish stock served over rice and farofa. The best examples keep away from the dende oil which is entirely overpowering and cost about £5 for a bowl big enough to serve two. Hardly haute, but, in context, perfect.

As indeed is the hammock that I plan to spend the rest of the day in. That is, until tonight’s party.

Dirty job, but……………

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Monday, November 12, 2007


Roll your cart back up the aisle
Kiss the checkout girls goodbye

Foodie things I’ve never done, Number One in a list of thousands: I’ve never been to KP (or Kensington Place as civilians know it). Strange really as during its heyday in the late late eighties and early early nineties I use to live not far away and used to walk past it every day. Fast forward almost twenty years and I’ve now rectified this gap in my restaurant CV and a chance to see what Chef Rowley Leigh’s cooking er…chops are like by visiting the latest London restaurant opening Le Café Anglais.

Whiteleys in Bayswater was London’s first departure store in the 19th century. It closed in the early eighties and re-opened as a shopping centre in the late eighties. I particularly remember the large Tower Records store where I spent a large amount of money on the enormo box set that is the Keith Jarret Sun Bear Concerts (well I liked it) which was promptly stolen when I’d only reached disc number 11. This was my first visit for years and it seemed well, not exactly run down but very quiet with numerous concessions not taken up. A place in decline ? It’s rather incongruous then to find a large upmarket restaurant in among the chains eateries with a smattering of mallrats and Bayswater hoodies loitering outside.

I was a littler early for my res so I had a cocktail at All Star Lanes a new bowling alley just outside Whiteleys. If you can ignore the brain-dead and surly staff, the shrieks of hen parties and the garish décor that will be dated by tomorrow you’ll get an ok cocktail or more interestingly one of a large list of American Whiskeys although to be honest you’d be better off (financially and spiritually) giving this place a miss and taking a large glug of cold gin before you leave home.

Ignoring the bizarre Gilgamesh I don’t think I’ve seen such a big restaurant for some time. There must be almost 200 covers. It’s also very attractive - all art deco and cream upholstery. The pass and kitchen are open for all to see and there is a big vertical grill on show. Nice.

The menu is pretty good too – it looks like Rowley Leigh has made a list of every one of his favouritest dishes and put them on a menu. There’s Hors D’Ouevres (when was the last time you saw that on a menu). Starters proper like Oysters, Fonduta, Pike Boudin, Crab Spaghetti, Omelettes, Consommé. Main course Fish, Roasts, a decent selection of Game, Cheeses etc. etc. Even with 50% reduction there’s more on the menu than even a Hermano could manage.

Of my trio of HDs the star dish was the Salsify Fritters. The slightly al dente Salsify came cocooned in a light and crisp tempura-like cover. It came with a little unassertive aioli dip. The eggs in my Oeuf en Gelee and Kipper Pate were both cooked perfectly but unfortunately a bit before service. So they had a nice runny yolk and a firm white. But they were cold. As was the Kipper Pate which tasted better once chambred.

The Pike Boudin which came next should have been another star dish but didn’t taste much of the advertised fish. The texture was ok: nice and light but there was an unpleasant tough brown membrane on the base where the sausage had been baked. The Beurre Blanc could have been a bit richer as well. A bit of a disappointment but then I suppose that’s what soft opening are about.

Having had some good Grouse at Patterson’s a week ago I was in the mood for some more. This one came as the whole roasted (pink going on rare) bird with Bread Sauce, Game Chips and a little pot of gravy. The restaurant’s order of sharp knives hadn’t arrived so I struggled with my bird for a bit (a pretty frequent problem) before sending it back to be carved properly. Once the fowl had been dismembered this dish was spot-on. The Grouse had been properly hung - about a week which, for me, is just enough so that the taste of the flesh isn’t overpowered. The bread sauce was smooth and nicely clovey and Mr Leigh obviously had me down as some sort of lardy given the two bowls of crisp Game Chips I got. Dear reader, I failed to finish the lot.
Oh I also had some Ceps Bordelaise which were a bit lacking in the taste department.

The ice cream should have been a lot better.

Despite my misgivings about the food and the slightly uneven service I really enjoyed myself. There was a sense of occasion about my meal there which I didn’t get at some of the recent and more food-focused restaurant openings. The errors with the food should be straightforward to remedy and the large number of covers should make it easier to get a reservation. Of course once the food prices double the hitches will need to be ironed out tout de suite if Le Café Anglais is not going to end up going the way of Whiteleys and ending up a big fat White Elephant.

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