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

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


The next stage of EAT MY GLOBE is very much under way and I have been in Bangkok for four nights with one more to go.

If you have never been, it is a hard city to describe. The noise, pollution and humidity is offset by the warmth of the people and the incredible friendliness they show at every turn. Of course, like every Asian city, there is always a hustle going on, but unlike many, Beijing for example, there is little or no aggressiveness or it is hard to recall a city where I felt more safe or at ease.

It does present its challenges. Despite the SkyTrain and the MRT systems, it is still a bugger to get around and I am afraid I find the streets full of girly bars with their glassy eyed hostesses and fat euro trash punters hugely depressing.

However, it is definite a city I could spend a considerable amount of time in without getting bored and I am sorry to be leaving so soon.

The food ,of course, was my reason for coming and I have not done too badly given the limitations of eating on your own. I have crouched down at street stalls for some sweet sticky bananas, slurped green curry at a Suan Lum night market and fish ball soup in Chinatown, devoured crispy fried chicken at the weekend market of Chatuchak and guzzled enough cold beer to make me permanently gassy.

It is not all good, obviously and I have found the food courts to be a disappointment and some of the high end meals to be mediocre, particularly one at Bussaracum where everything lacked freshness except an excellent plate of frog’s legs.

Two meals, however, stand out. Baan Khanita on Soi 23 filled my first night with smells of shrimp cakes and soft shell crab while a meal yesterday at Chote Chitr made me realise just how good Mee Krawb and red curry could be.

I am heading off to Chiang Mai tomorrow to try some of the food from The North. I am not sure when, but I am 100% certain that I shall be coming back to Bangkok

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Sunday, January 27, 2008


A shameless plug for a friend today.

A few days ago, a proof of THE MAN WHO ATE THE WORLD by Jay Rayner plopped through the letterbox.

I would have been nice about it anyway, I am that sort of guy and I have had enough free meals from him. Fortunately, I don’t have to fake it as it is a very enjoyable read indeed and, although I had planned to look at it on my flight over to Bangkok, I finished it in a couple of days back home and left it sitting for HP to thumb through at his considerable leisure.

Unlike my own budget driven effort, which will be published in May 2009, Jay’s trip around the globe involves visits to high-end restaurants in Moscow, New York, Paris, Tokyo, Las Vegas and London where he is fed by some of the world’s great chefs at restaurants where a meal could cost the equivalent of a monthly mortgage payment.

It makes me feel a lot better as I sit in a small, windowless room in my cheap guesthouse in Bangkok pondering on tomorrow’s budget of $25 for the day that, despite the cost and even with the help of PR companies around the world, Jay was still subjected to some truly dreadful meals and bizarre company. From a World Poker champion who wonders what the odds are on dying from eating Fugu to the irrepressible Steve Plotniki, founder of Opinionated About Food, who takes him on a tasting tour of NY’s top restaurants.

The book is as much about the characters he encounters as the food.

It is very funny in the right places and chapters on Moscow and Tokyo particularly stand out. However, it is when Jay interweaves the stories of growing up with his celebrity mother and sometime TV chef, Claire, that you begin to see where his obsession with food came from. His attempts to recreate a childhood meal, at a much faded Joe Allen’s, with his own kids particularly made me smile.

It’s a fun read and a useful insight into the mind of a man who has been doing this professionally for nearly ten years.

Well worth picking up a copy when it is published by Headline on April 3rd

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Friday, January 25, 2008


When I was invited to choose a destination for a lunch meeting with my publishers on Tuesday, “not too far from the office” I thought of Villandry.

Strange really as I had not thought of Villandry in a long time and had not set foot in the place for at least five years that I can recall.

It speaks volumes that, when I referred to its location as “new” HP reminded me that it moved from its original place on Marylebone High St ten years ago. It is, it would appear, one of those places that has dropped off a lot of people’s radar. Certainly mine.

However, it fitted the bill. It was a short walk from the offices of John Murray and easy enough for me to get to on the tube between frantic bouts of packing and last minute organisation for the next leg of EAT MY GLOBE.

It fits the bill too for the setting of the restaurant, light and airy, situated alongside the food hall and the less formal dining area, the tables are just about far enough apart to have a conversation away from the ears of other diners (in this case, nearly all publishers many of whom I think I may have pissed off at some point in my past life)

The service too is aimed full square at the business meal. Efficient, but without any effort to engage or intrude on conversations of significant import or, in our case, me showing my poor companions pictures of dead dogs in South China.

It is, in fact, perfect for the working lunch. In other words, entirely inoffensive.

There folks is the rub. If the restaurant and the service is inoffensive, so too is the food. It comes and goes with barely a raised eyebrow from any of the diners who continue conversations without a pause as courses of perfect adequacy are placed in front of them.

My companions took a little more notice of their food that anybody else in the place. Primarily because I was shoving my camera under their noses taking pictures without which I would be hard pressed to recall what I actually ate.

None of this is to say that it is bad. It isn’t. The cooking is competent and the ingredients are good, which they bloody well ought to be given that they are being sold at nosebleed inducing prices in the deli.

A salad of ham hocks and girolles came long on leaves and short on fungal matter but the pleasingly chewy bits of pig made it worth bothering with.

An artichoke was served with the proper accompaniments but with the hearts removed and replaced by a “Villandry salad” which was declared as “a bit naughty” by one of my companions, which it was. Even more so when it appeared later on as a puree under slices of salmon, which came as her second course.

Another dish of black bream showed a kitchen that can cook, but one that can’t plate. Does anyone else think that serving tomatoes on the vine looks, well quite frankly, a bit naff? It is bad enough that they sell them that way in supermarkets to charge more labelling them “grown for flavour” (what the f**k else are they going to grow them for, juggling?) but to have them plonked on a good slice of fish like this is just ugly. It is also ill judged as the juices from the tomatoes takes away any crispness to the skin of the fish.

My dish of salt & pepper squid was much better with a pleasing coating covering perfectly cooked squid. No easy task. However, HP knows me too well. When he looked at the pictures, he said “you only liked it because they put the lemon half in that muslin thing, didn’t you?” and he was right. I have always been a sucker for that ever since my first visit to J Sheekey’s all those years ago. I still am. So sue me. All the juice, none of the pips. It's the way foreward I tell you.

This being a business lunch, we all forewent pudding and headed for the fresh mint tea test which they aced by producing two large pots of water with, er fresh mint. One of my great bugbears is that so few places feel able to do this. The benefits of having the shop next door I guess.

While my companion, Eleanor paid the bill (thank you, I have always depended on the kindness of publishers) I treated both her and my Editor, Helen to a slideshow of my pictures. They made enough “ooh” “agh” and “eiww” noises for me to convince me that I have not wasted the last seven months and to send me back to my packing with a smug smile on my face ready for the next six on the road.

By 3pm as we left, the restaurant, Villandry was empty again. I have no idea what it is like in the evening, but here at lunch, it was very much “job done” which about sums it up. Hardly groundbreaking, but for a business lunch, it just about does the job.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008


It was sweet up at the top
'Til that ill wind started blowing
Now it's cozy down below

Recently I’ve had a bit of spare time on my hands which means I can do pleasant things like go for lunch - one of the more civilised activities that sets us apart from the beasts. I was more than happy then to drag my lardy arse and crappy camera down to Royal Hospital Road to try out Gordon Ramsay’s new joint Foxtrot Oscar.

A small restaurant near his eponymous three star it’s a rather stark and utilitarian space with only about forty covers but once full buzzed nicely. Thankfully, it was bereft of restaurant critics (“Do you know who I am ?” etc.), but instead appeared to be hosting a meeting of the red-faced and chinless club (new member…Hermano Primero). I liked it immensely.

Like The Narrow and Devonshire Arms this is another diffusion effort from El Gordo and has the similar aim of producing good food at decent prices. They pretty much succeed in their aim. There are no culinary fireworks i.e. nothing here to frighten the most conservative of punters they’ll inevitably get, just well executed food - exemplars of bistro classics if you will. This is a kitchen that can cook.

A Prawn Cocktail – admittedly not the hardest dish to prepare – succeeded by dint of decent ingredients: a generous heap of fresh langoustine tails and a well-made tangy Marie Rose sauce. It was slightly under seasoned but improved with a twist of pepper. Crab Cakes came bursting with the crustacean’s white meat and were accurately cooked – no grease overload here.

Best of all was the Veal and Foie Gras Burger. I’d had this dish before before at the Boxwood Café but the version here was leagues ahead. Cooked pink with plenty of chunks of liver, it had a good loose texture and a fine meaty taste. A blob of onion ‘jam’ came on top. The bun was pretty good too. Chips were nice but needed the requested ketchup and mayonnaise. A little accompanying Caesar Salad was exemplary. The only thing that jarred was an odd warm tomato salsa. The dish didn’t really need it.

Given that I didn’t have to get back to a job it would have been rude of me not to have tried a selection of ice cream with buttery shortbread. So I did. Coffee was excellent and cost barely more than the dishwater served up by S**b**ks and their ilk. And they threw in a couple of Turkish Delight. Lovely.

Whatever you think of the foul-mouthed one and his TV persona he really does know his er…onions when it comes to running restaurants. If chain restaurants are a necessary evil then at least let them be reliable and good value for money as the aforementioned gastros. I look forward to completing the set with the Warrington when it opens in February.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008


It takes some doing to open five gastro pubs in London. The effort involved in building and running a small chain must be quite considerable and the reworking of tired, unloved old boozers in quieter corners of London is an admirable thing indeed.

It is a shame then that DH have never found anything in the group comprising The Gun, The Well, The White Swan and The Empress of India, worthy of note.

They range from the ordinary (The Well and The Gun) to the ordinary and expensive (The White Swan and The Empress of India) and the menus offer a dispiritingly identikit approach to gastro pub dining.

So, when I returned from my last bit of travelling, the news that the group had opened a new place, The Prince Arthur in Hackney, was not something that particularly set my pulse a racing. But, we live in hope and, when HP, suggested a supper tonight when my own plans fell through, we decided to get a bit of exercise and walk up to Forest Rd and give them a try.

As ever, with this group, the refurbishment has been done well, even if this is a little more pedestrian than some of the others. There is Deuchars IPA on tap, which is always a good sign and, although there is no separate dining area, they had kept a table by for us.

Before the food, a word about the service. One noticeable aspect of dipping out of the country for extended periods and then coming back for short stints, is that I have noticed considerable improvements in the levels of service in the UK. It may not be at the perma-grinned automata levels of the US, but I can’t recall too many examples of poor service in the last few weeks and some, lord help us have even managed it with a smile.

The service at The Prince Arthur was the very essence of chirpy charm, which makes it even more of a shame that the food that came out of the kitchen was easily the worst we have experienced in any of the pubs in this group.

As HP puts it, you can always tell pretty quickly and, the moment our three starters were put in front of us it was apparent that, if there had been a chef involved in the construction of the menu, he was either off that night or busy watching the football.

A salad of woodpigeon came with the bird overcooked to the point that HP got a workout trying to cut through the breast meat and sitting on chicory, which came in a thick slick of balsamic. Potted mackerel was fridge fresh with the butter casing forming an almost impenetrable barrier between fork and flesh. When the excavation was a success, the fish proved to be rather nice although the squirt of basil oil dousing the lot offered little.

There was a terrine, always a good test of a kitchen. It contained ham hock and black pudding, two ingredients that usually make DH come to blows if they are not divided equally. The fact that we left chunks of this cold slab on the plate speaks volumes as did the fact that the kitchen had allowed two slices of burnt toast to leave the kitchen.

HP’s main course of saddle of rabbit on a white bean cassoulet was further evidence of pre-prep and the absence of anyone to oversee plates before serving. It was not a cassoulet, of course, it was a slice of rolled rabbit saddle on a mound of white beans in sauce. That would be excusable if it was good, but a slick of jus of indeterminable provenance over powered the whole plate so we couldn't tell if the ingredients were any good or not.

They made a half decent stab at fish & chips. The batter on the fish (our server “thought” it was haddock) was crisp and the fish flaked nicely inside its protective coat. The chips too had a crunch, but were of the unforgivable fat variety and had been formed into a chip tower, which I thought had been made illegal since 1988.

A decent and sharp tartare sauce raised the game a bit, but it was dragged down by an unforgivably parsimonious splodge of mushy peas. I didn’t mind the fact that they were, obviously, tinned. They are the best kind. I did mind that the plate contained barely a teaspoonful.

Puddings held little appeal by now, so the bill, including a bottle of wine and a sensible service charge of 10%, came to £84. Even with three starters, a lot to pay for food that showed little evidence of anyone who had been to catering college.

There were precious few diners in the place as we left but, that was true of just about every restaurant we passed on our walk home. A cold Tuesday night in January with recession just around the corner. Many places are going to find it hard to battle through the next year’s economic gloom

It might help this small group of gastro pubs if their food was any good.

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Monday, January 21, 2008


But with a business like this
There's an gnarly downside

Urban Turban – it’s a fun name eh ? It’s like the title of a sitcom, probably starring Hardeep Singh Kohli (you know, the guy with a turban - he’s fun he is). Puts a smile on the face. Nothing like a bit of fun. Shame then that I was all funned out by the time I left Urban Turban - 45 minutes later and £45 lighter - the new restaurant from Michelin starred Chef Vineet Bhatia,. A more cynical and efficient way of parting punters from their money I have yet to encounter.

A friend once said that one of the scariest phrases in the English language is “Indian Tapas” (actually I would put this below “Cheap Sushi” but above “Our Special Sauce”). The Desi Tapas Platter was a tray of six small cones filled with food of indeterminate…well it was just indeterminate. There were bits and bobs in various hues and colours which tasted vaguely Indian in origin. Unfortunately, a taste that hung around like an unwanted guest for the rest of my night and which my fellow tube passengers got to enjoy whenever I burped. The only thing recognisable was something called a Chicken Lollipop – recognisable only because I remembered it from the menu - which I think even Micky Ds would have been embarrassed to sell.

I looked around at my fellow diners perched awkwardly on small stools at small tables in a room which was like the overflow area for a particularly tacky nightclub. Were they having fun ? Given their strange shell-shocked, opened-mouth look I didn’t think so. I turned my attention back to deconstructing my first course only for my next one to turn up on the overcrowded table.

It’s a long time since I’ve had a Biryani. What I do know about Biryani is there are many variations on the theme. What I didn’t know there was a version made with a few dry cubes of Lamb and a large amount of rice. Well, I do now. Relentless and unforgiving, if you like eating lots of rice but not much else this dish is for you.

HS is a black and white kind of guy – things are either very, very good or they’re very, very bad, I’m your shades of grey type of person – some call it fence sitting – but I can usually eke out some positives from a given meal. But this time I was beat, I really hated everything about this place and was more than happy to get my bill and get back to civilisation ASAP.

Sometimes I think we get the restaurants we deserve. So what has Notting Hill done to deserve Urban Turban (great name by the way) ? For fuck sake I only have so much time on my hands to write these posts, you know.

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