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

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


It's 1982

I have just moved down from my home town of Rotherham, four A' Levels in hand and am about to begin three years of Theological navel gazing at King's College London.

I already have a passion for food. It is more enthusiastic than knowledgeable (some may say it still is, to which I eruditely reply "bite me") a passion shared and surpassed by my older brother known to you here as H1.

During my first weekend away from home, he invites me to have dinner with him and chooses The Chicago Rib shack in Knightsbridge. I can still recall every detail of the meal. Although, for DH that is not an astonishing fact as our family can just about recall every bite of food that has ever passed our lips. They provide the guideposts to our family history.

Excellent ribs, the best onion loaf I have eaten, before or since and cold beers with exotic sounding names like Rolling Rock and Coors. It was a great evening finished with, if I recall a visit to see "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" one of the films from Steve Martin's "funny" period. I didn't enjoy the film mainly because, the Rotherham lad in me which I have never quite killed off, was worried that two men sitting together in a cinema might be considered "odd"

Subsequent visits to other restaurants in the chain, The Chicago Meatpackers and Pizza Pie Factory were equally fun and the food good, despite the fact that pizza is officially snot on toast. The owner, Bob Payton was often on hand as a server (which I am told he did at each place at least once each week to make sure standards were being kept high) and food was reasonably priced, an important point for a student of small means.

Then, in the early 90's Payton died in a tragic motoring accident on the road to his home near Cambridge. His death, I believe was mercifully quick, but the chain died a slow lingering death and my last visit showed a tired, listless operation waiting to be put out of its misery, which it was shortly afterwards.

So, now it is back. Same chef (sort of) and just across the road from its original site

Part of me wants to love it. Part of me wants H1 to report that his visit was a Proustian madeleine moment, A La Recherche De Ribs Perdu if you will. But, part of me expects it to be dreadful. It was one of the first of its kind, but was of its time. Now there are too many ersatz American restaurants where people wear 'flair" and hunker down at the tables before offering you a pornographic sounding cocktail.

Their food may not be as good, but people's expectations of such places are so much less thanks to the grim arrival of places like TGI Friday and Planet Hollywood. Let us not forget that London restaurants are oh so good at living down to people's expectations.

You can never go back. It is like meeting your once lithe, slim college sweetheart at a reunion only to find that she, like you, is now plump, filled with cynicism and showing signs of wear and tear.

I expect it to be appalling. But, I shall be very sad to hear that it is.

Read below to see what H1 thought of his meal there.

From keyboard man in a rock'n ska band
To haulin' boss crude in the big rigs

The Chicago Rib Shack was one of the first (if not the first) restaurants where I took HS for a meal when he came down to study in London back ’82. In those days it was a bit of a fixture for me on the dining circuit along with Bob Payton’s other gaff, the Chicago Pizza Pie Factory. At the cheaper end of the market there wasn’t really much choice aside from dodgy curry houses, pasta joints, wine bars etc. Bob Payton’s places promised a bit of excitement: American Sports on the TVs, imported beers and, very un-English this, good service.

Roll forward twenty-six years and ‘The Shack’ has been relaunched. Of course these days things are not so simple so an agency was employed to run a campaign on Facebook and drip feed rumours of the restaurant’s imminent return. It seems to have worked though as the agency claim there were 3,000 bookings taken for the opening 72 hours.

When I visited they were still in soft opening mode which didn’t mean I got a discount but did mean I got to eat with fewer people. I can’t remember a lot about the décor of the site’s previous incumbent, Mocoto, but it’s now all exposed brick, dark wood and tables reclaimed from the original Rib Shack which I was surprised to learn limped on until the early nineties.

So what’s the food like ? Well, first, it’s best to bear in mind that the best BBQ is to be found in TX, USA. A few years ago during a DH does Texas road trip I was lucky enough to go to towns like Lockhart where fantastic Q can be eaten, by the pound, at several hangar-like temples to the art. The devotion to Q is pitched at religious levels. Even New Yorkers attempts are seen as utterly risible. So no pressure there then.

As it turned out everything was much as I expected (a common theme these days although I always hope for a surprise) and I’d be surprised if much had changed since my last visit all those years ago.

Aside from ribs there’s all the usual staples that you’d find in similar ersatz joints majoring in Americana like Big Salads, Burgers and Steaks although one or two unusual items stand out like the Suckling Pig.

Since I was planning to go long on ribs for my main course I skipped starters and went for an Dry Martini instead. Ah, the pleasures of the liquid starter.

Of my two types of ribs the Beef ones were better. Though lacking a deep beefy taste the short ribs were moist and tasty and didn’t fall too easily from the bone which I understand from devotees is a good thing. I’ve had better ribs in London at Bodeans but that was five years ago and I’ve heard that it’s not so great these days. The BBQ sauce was good although, in the Texas manner, I prefer it on the side. Other Bits - spiced cubes of potato – were moreish and a pleasant change from chips. The chunky coleslaw was a lot better than the gloopy norm.

My combination platter was not so successful. The Baby Back Ribs were dry, ameliorated somewhat by the sauce, unlike the chicken where no amount of dousing was going to improve matters. I left most of it. The Brisket was cut very thinly and was characterless in taste. The pulled pork was better but you have to really like their sauce as it was over everything. My Other Bits (oo-errrr) in this dish weren’t so good and were slightly cold.

I really wanted to keep in the spirit of things and go for something like Apple Pie or a Banana Split but having two main courses did for me (I tried, I really tried). I did have some decent ice cream – it’s wonderful how a few minutes improve the appetite - but two scoops did seem a bit, well, mean. The prices are not exactly bargain basement either but this is Knightsbridge not some shack in West Texas.

I have to say it’s not an auspicious location for a restaurant. The aforementioned Mocoto and Oliver Peyton’s (no relation) Isola both crashed and burned on this site. It’s also not on the main drag where Harrods is so passing trade may be limited. The owners seem very confident though, when booking you’re confronted with a long list of T&Cs:

Bookings made between 6-8pm Monday - Sunday have a strict 2 hours at the table.

Bookings made between 12noon -2pm Saturday / Sunday and Bank Holidays have a strict 2 hours at the table.

We will be re-allocating this table to other guests after 2 hours.

Your meal is served to you efficiently and comfortably within 2 hours; but do please be on time for your Table!

Our bar will be open for you to enjoy, so arrive early for your table and stay behind for some drinks after dinner.

Bookings made Monday - Sunday 8-10pm

It is highly likely that your table will not be available before 8pm if you do arrive early, you are welcome to enjoy drinks in the bar.

If we are running a few minutes late with your table, don’t worry as you will always get at least 2 hours at the table to
………etc etc ad nauseum.

So let’s hope they get enough custom to make table turning a necessity. It would look a bit silly being turfed off your table in an empty restaurant. Mind you, not as silly as me wearing my bib - it's house rules I was told.

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Saturday, April 26, 2008


After a pleasurable few days in ugly, unloved Casablanca, I had high hopes on my arrival for three days in the stunning city of Marrakech.

It’s beautiful all right. The twisting alleys of The Medina., the explosions of colour in the labyrinthine souks and the well preserved remnants of its royal past. It should be the perfect place to experience Morocco and Moroccan cuisine at its very best.

More the shame then that, despite its many attractions I never found myself warming to it at all.

In part it is down to the vast numbers of tourists, mainly French, who come here in legions (see what I did there?) next Spanish, a smattering of Brits and plenty of fearful looking Americans with their unerring ability to blend in seamlessly with the locals.

I was adding to the tourist numbers by one, obviously so it little behoves me to complain, but I will anyway. Like all cities that begin to predicate themselves on the arrival of visitors from many nations, everything in Marrakesh seemed neutered.

Even the mayhem of the Jemma El Fna with its snake charmers, acrobats, dancers and fortune tellers felt more like a ride in a theme park than a real expression of the character of the city. The bustling streets had all the edge of a well-polished billiard ball.

I was half expecting to hear the ringing tones of Disney’s “It’s A Small World”

As with the city itself, so with the food, much of which was aimed at providing opportunities to spend cash rather than to experience quality.

That is not to say that I have not found possibilities of eating well, very well in fact, but it took the help of the owner of my charming and well-placed riad to help separate the good from the bad.

My stomach has been good to me on this trip so, returning the favour, I avoided the stalls of the night market where plates are cleaned by dipping in a bucket of the same water all night and I gave a wide berth to the fruit stalls offering freshly squeezed Hep’ A in a glass. Instead, I sought out a couple of higher end restaurants. One in The Medina and one in the new town.

Riad Dar Mimoun came highly recommended and, like most riads offered a variety of set menus which gave me the opportunity to try more royal Moroccan cuisine including the best example of a pastilla I have tried to date. The sweet, savoury combination of the pastry stuffed with chicken and almonds and then dusted with sugar is not to everyone’s taste, but it was one of the highlights of my visit.

The classic tagine of lamb with prunes and almonds was less surprising but equally well prepared. The bony chunks of lamb giving up blubbery marrow when sucked.

For my last “blow out” meal in the city, a visit to the highly recommended Rotisserie De La Paix. Situated in the new town built by the French in the 1920’s the restaurant has a pleasant shaded garden which in 38o heat was a welcome place to sit and have my first alcohol of my time in Morocco, a half bottle of the rose wine for which the country is well known.

Rotisserie De la Paix is well known for its grilling and, top of the tree is their “Royal” Mixed Grill offering, which comprised a colon challenging plateful of kebabs, sausages, chops and chicken alongside fiery dipping sauces.

It’s not cheap by local standards with the meal including some of that diabetes inducing tea (try asking for it without sugar. It is worth it to see the look you get) coming in at £23 but, given that I did not need to eat again that day, not bad value.

I can certainly understand the appeal of Marrakech and don’t regret adding it to the EAT MY GLOBE itinerary, but I am also certain that I feel no great desire to return.

Next up, Fez.

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Friday, April 25, 2008


And they wandered in
From the city of St. John (Slight Return)

Of course this is where I should have been yesterday to celebrate St George’s Day. If anything shouts, nay, screams Britain (sorry, England) it’s Mark Hix’s food. It was still in soft opening mode though and I was told things weren’t running quite tickety-boo. They still weren't when I visited on opening day. Disappointingly the cooking at the Hix Oyster and Chop House just doesn’t pass muster.

I was dining out with one of my foodie chums which was good because it enabled us to have a reasonable stab at the menu – even my gargantuan (ok, greedy guts) appetite is rather on the wane these days.

I didn’t think much of the room or its furnishings: the table was wobbly, the chairs were uncomfortable and you couldn’t hang your jacket on the back of them. There were loads of ceiling fans that I just found distracting and didn’t seem to serve any purpose other than ornamental. It all came across like an attempt at a slightly upmarket Café Rouge.

The menu looked a bit cut down from the one I’d seen on the website but it still read well with lots of good things to choose from. Oysters were served as at Brown’s with the shells on and with meat still attached which meant much messing around with blunt knives. Irritating. Serving them on seaweed just seems like an affectation to me – ice is, as they say, best by test. They tasted good although I’ve had better natives earlier in the season. They didn’t quite have the depth and length of flavour of the best examples.

Of the starters I preferred the Rabbit Brawn although my dining companion wondered how many rabbits you’d need to make it – their heads being not particularly large. In any case it was dense and meaty and tasted of bunny but the portion was rather parsimonious for £8.25. The little accompanying salad of peas and pea shoots was a good idea and tasted fresh and lively. I know Mr Hix’s aim is to make the dishes as plain as possible but some toast wouldn’t have gone amiss here.

They must have been burning five pound notes to make the Smoked Salmon. It’s the only explanation I can think of why three smallish slivers of farmed salmon come in at £10.75. The taste of smoke dominated.

Skate Knobs were fish nuggets fried in a Panko-like covering. Served in a loose, sharp, caper mayonnaise they’d been fried as well as could be expected but like a lot of similar dishes they had a sort of Findus-like quality about them. The solid chunks of fish flesh within were tasty though.

From what I’ve read, Mark Hix’s aim is to try and give the place the feel of an American Steakhouse (now where’ve I heard that before). So the focus should definitely be on the meat. Unfortunately, this is where the food was weakest.

A Bacon Chop lacked fat and flavour. It was cooked rare (too much so for my taste). I know pork and shellfish is a tried and trusted combination but in this case the cockles and laverbread seemed like they’d come from another dish.

Onglet looked a bit better but there was a burnt taste to the meat which was not pleasant. My dinner companion also noted that it was a bit overcooked. A marrow bone had been split and filled with what I think was a marrow bone gremolata and then baked. It just tasted of baked breadcrumbs to me. The best part of the main courses were the sides. Chips, Onion Rings and Béarnaise were all good. A table next to us had the Porterhouse which looked a much better bet on the meat front.

Puddings, enthusiastically priced at £6.75, were not impressive - they looked as if they’d just been chucked on the plate. Buttermilk drop scones were a bit tough and served with a sickly-sweet honeycomb ice cream. Amadei Chocolate mousse was just that. I liked the truffles.

Service was ok – there were plenty of staff milling around – but there were a couple of hiccups. They supersized our wine from a £24 bottle to a £44 quid one although to be fair when I pointed it out they deducted the difference. Also, looking at the bill later on I noticed they overcharged us on two of the starters. Only by a couple of quid, but still.

I’ve got my doubts about Mark Hix. I’m sure in person he’s a decent enough chap but the media portrayal of him some sort of vanguard of British food strikes me as PR-generated guff because he’s failed to deliver on my last two outings to gaffs he’s been associated with. Of course, he’s not doing the cooking at The Albermarle or Hix Oyster and Chop House, but he was here the night I went so presumably he had some control over the dishes going out. And what went out was pretty mediocre.

Still, mediocre goes down a bomb in London these days – it’s more about the scene, you see – and given the Chop House’s prime location I’m sure it will do very well commercially. There are enough know-nothing City boys and Meeja types in the area to make it so. Me, I’m not a fan of artifice so I’m going to continue patronise Vinoteca round the corner. By far the best option in the nabe in my humble opinion.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008


My English she is much better now
But the hat is just too flat

It’s St George’s Day today and what better way to celebrate than by eating some English food. But what is English food ? You could say the sort of stuff served up at St. John and restaurants of that ilk, but that would be a bit exclusive as only a few hundred people in London are fortunate enough to eat that type of food on any given night. KFC and a nice Alcopop to wash it all down would be more like it. Not for me, though. I finally decided that a gastropub might have what I was looking for.

The Wells in Hampstead is not really a pub. There’s a bar and a few bar stools but I think the general idea is that you sit and get served. It’s probably what the good inhabitants of Hampstead like to think of as a pub. God knows what they’d make of a real one.

The menu ticks all the gastropub boxes with a surprisingly large choice given that whilst I was there only a handful of people were eating. Maybe they get a rush of punters in the evening. Anyway, there was a special on of Steak Pudding. Pint-Pudding-Perfect.

Well, not quite. For a start the pudding was a bit compact and bijou. A bit Hampstead if you will. It also was concave on top which suggested that it hadn’t been completely filled. Cheapskates. The Suet pastry was nice but the steak and mushroom filling lacked the depth of flavour one would expect given it had been cooked in Guinness. Some kidneys in the mix would have helped as well. The little chiffonade of Spring Greens and batons of carrot were unnecessarily ‘cheffy’ – an unadulterated bowlful of either vegetable would have been fine – and the chips had more than a whiff of the not made here about them. They weren’t of the ubiquitous handcut variety which probably explains it.

Apple and Rhubarb Crumble – now that’s pretty English - had an odd topping that had coalesced into little balls and which didn’t really integrate as it should with the filling underneath. That filling though was good, not too sweet and nicely spiced with a little cinnamon. The Vanilla ice cream was tasty as well.

So not too bad overall. A bit reserved, a bit moderate, a bit English in fact. And it even drizzled for me on the way there. Happy St George’s Day.

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Of all the websites in all the………….. Oh, come on, you just knew I was going to begin with something from that dire little B movie, didn’t you?

Before I arrived in Casablanca, I had a look at a couple of guidebooks. One described it as “unloved and unlovely” and the other was even less favourable describing it as ‘actively rank”

I knew immediately that I would like it here and I have. A great deal.

Oh, it is far from being a pretty city. In fact, it is downright ugly and has none of the tourist attractions I anticipate seeing in Fez or Marrakech in the next few days.

Despite that, it has the appeal that DH often seek out. That is, a city just getting on with it, none too bothered if you are a visitor or not. It is a city full of working stiffs just concentrating on earning their daily crust and then spending the rest of the time eating that crust anywhere they can find it.

It may not be a city with much to look at bar the Hassan II mosque with its 100,000 capacity, a tatty looking Medina and a bit of a port, but it is a city that makes up for it with its own bustling charm and enough food options to make a palate jaded by more than a year on the road perk up and take notice.

It is a city where you can pop into any neighbourhood snack bar and get an excellent mixed grill of chicken, merguez sausages, beef chunks and lamb chops for £2.

It is a city where you can amble into any local patisserie and come away with a box of pastries so good you want to put them on the bed and roll around in them while making “ooh-ahh” noises

It is a city where supper can be taken at a small storefront next to the market where half a spit roast chicken is served with a warm dipping sauce of juices from the bird mixed with oil, parsley, garlic, lemon zest and pine nuts all to be mopped up with chunks of bread.

It is a city where, alongside the same market you can have a plateful of exquisite fried fish and seafood for less than a Starbucks back in London and it is a city where slow cooked tagines with chicken and preserved lemons followed by a dense, meaty pastilla of pigeon dusted with icing sugar can be had any time of day.

It is city where, with nothing in particular to look at, you can look at nothing in particular, for as long as you like, while drinking glasses of sweet tea infused with thick bunches of mint or strong, thick, black coffee.

It is also a city where it is easier to find a camel’s head on a hook, outside a butchers shop, than it is to find a beer. But, that’s Morocco.

As I said I rather like Casablanca it could be the beginning of …………….

I really am terribly sorry.

For those Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young fans amongst you. Tomorrow sees me on The Marrakech Express. It’s taking me to Marrakech don’t you know?

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Monday, April 21, 2008


Spitewaves are threatening
The seaside hotels

It’s good to get out of the city now and then. Once, when I was a little boy and staying with my grandparents in London, my Grandad decided it was such a nice day that he was going to take the day off and take me on a day trip to Brighton. I remember playing on the pebble beach, running along the piers and having an orange juice and a bag of crisps outside a pub while grampa had something stronger inside. I also got to see the Brighton Pavilion which at the time I thought (and still think) was completely bonkers. He explained to his employers that the red face he had acquired was due to high blood pressure.

I’ve only been back to Brighton a couple of times since then so a visit seemed long overdue. I’d heard good things about The Meadow and that it was one of the better places to eat in the area (I think the article was by über-foodie Andy Lynes). A short train ride later and I was making my way from Brighton to Hove where The Meadow is located.

When it’s wet and slightly out of season seaside towns have a melancholic quality that that I find appealing so I quite enjoyed my walk along the esplanade which was deserted save for the odd jogger and parents who had obviously press ganged their kids into taking the sea air (yes, you can play with your DS later…yes, I know it’s raining…yes, you can have an ice cream afterwards if you’re good). After all that walking, well fifteen minutes of it, I rewarded myself with a little loosener of Harvey’s Sussex Best in The Wick pub then hopped across the road for my meal.

The Meadow is all nice and light and airy inside with high ceilings and simple décor and with some strangely appropriate folk chanteuse warbling over the sound system I felt pretty comfortable.

The menu is shortish but to the point with a couple of choices of meat, fish or vegetable based dishes available for starters or mains. Everything sounds interesting and the prices are pitched at the London gastropub level. The real bargain though is the set lunch menu where two courses will set you back the grand sum of £11 which probably doesn’t get you more than a couple of Pret Sandwiches and drinks these days. Adding pud only increases the bill by another £3.

I think I’ve said before that one can usually tell what a meal is going to be like from the first taste of the food. Here it was from the first taste of the bread. Served warm and with a crisp crust and soft moist crumb I thought this is homemade and I’m going to have a really good meal.

First up a starter plate of Potted crab and brown shrimp with Celeriac remoulade. A lot of the time this dish would just taste of mayonnaise but in this instance was made so you could taste the crab and you could taste the shrimp. The remoulade was crunchy with a julienne of celeriac which provided good texture contrast and a little salad of microgreens was a lot more than an afterthought.

Fillet of Lamb had been cooked so it had a good char on the outside but kept pink within. There were more tasty microgreens including some wild garlic.
(I have to say I love microgreens. They provide loads of flavour, look good but remain light to eat.)

A word about the service here which is excellent: unfussy and relaxed but efficient. Since I was having an extra starter I’d asked for a little time in between the courses which I duly got. Before my main course came I had a little browse of the drinks list which I was surprised to see had a big range of sherries. These included a fair number from Gonzalez Byass including some of the aged varieties and the brandies. What’s also nice is that the measures are 100ml and the prices ungreedy.

Cooking fish is always a good test of a kitchen’s ability and a main course fillet of Bream passed with distinction. It was firm with nice crisp skin. Underneath there were crushed Pink Fir potatoes and some beets and greens. A small scoop of crème fraiche mixed with chives added richness and sharpness to the dish. Top stuff.

There was selection of good homemade (natch) ice cream and sorbet to follow. The latter was made with Blood Orange that was particularly apt after several courses of food. The Lepanto PX brandy served a similar purpose.

This was pretty much a flawless meal. No culinary fireworks, just assured, elegant cooking with a lightness of touch and using the great ingredients. The dishes were uncluttered by too many components but there was always enough going on to make the food interesting as well as tasty to eat. Chef Will Murgatroyd really knows his cooking er…chops.

If it was in my neighbourhood I’d want to visit at least once a week. It isn’t, unfortunately, but I hope the good folk of Hove realise what a gem they have on their doorstep. And if they don’t then I pity the fools (sorry Mr T). A big DH thumbs up.

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