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

Friday, October 31, 2008


I have finally come up with an explanation for why I have disliked every meal I have had at a pub run by Tom & Ed Martin. They are decent chaps, I am sure, and the fact they are taking otherwise languishing old boozers and restoring them to some of their former glory with sensitivity and taste can only be applauded.

Yet, the food in all those DH have tried (with the recent notable exception of HP’s meal at The Botanist) The Gun, The White Swan, The Empress of India, The Well and The Prince Albert has ranged from middling and expensive at best to downright lousy and expensive at worst.

Now they have a new gaff and, true to form, the inside of The Hat And Tun, formerly Deux Beers, in Farringdon has been given a new lease of life with a sparkly back bar and a couple of real ales pumps. Unfortunately, the food is also true to the form of the rest of their pubs.

The lunchtime menu (they are only serving snacks in the evening) reads well with a list of British classics that would, if properly executed, bring a glad tear to my eyes. When the young waitress told me that their all their starters, including pork pies, scotch eggs and sausage rolls, were made in house, I had high hopes that this place may just buck the Martin Brother’s streak of poor luck as far as DH are concerned.

Any optimistic hopes were dispelled thirty seconds after I placed my order and heard the word “service” being barked as I was presented with a £3 Scotch egg. If you want to know what a proper Scotch egg looks like check out HP’s post on a meal at The Harwood Arms. This, well this was a travesty and compared unfavourably to something I once bought at a Budgens Express on the way home after a night on the piss.

Main courses too offer up British favourites of yesteryear, Fish & Chips, Bangers & Mash and a range of pies, which come with mash and liquor. For £10 came a smart option to include a pint with your pie & mash. The beer was well kept and served at the correct temperature but, I do wish pubs would train staff to pull a full pint without you having to go through the rigmarole of asking for it to be topped up EVERY SINGLE TIME.

When my plate arrived, the mash was under seasoned and undistinguished, the pie case was tough enough to top an Ultimate Fighting bill and, while the filling of steak & ale was tasty enough there was simply not enough of it to make the effort of excavation worthwhile. More bizarre was the liquor, the famous sauce staple of every London pie shop. Here, instead of the bright green sauce flecked with parsley and thickened with the water from boiling gelatinous eels, was a thin gruel of no discernable taste speckled with lonely herbage.

And there in lies the truth of the matter. It is all well and good spending time and effort on refurbishment to persuade a new audience into pubs but, you should give the chef the same amount of time as the contractor. If you are going to offer up potentially wonderful dishes to persuade a doubting crowd that British food is something to be proud of, you should at least find cooks who know how they are supposed to look and taste.

Meals like this just confirm my suspicion that food at places in this group is prepared by people who don’t know what they are cooking for people who don’t care what they are eating. A great shame and another chance missed.

At just shy of £15 for lunch, the food should simply be, well, better and, as I pulled my woolly hat over my wing nut ears and stepped out into Farringdon Road, I couldn't help but think they should ask the man who does their pub fitting if he can cook. He, at least, knows what he is doing.

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Thursday, October 30, 2008


If there is a restaurant with a more appropriate name in London than Maze, then I want to know about it. Because, the moment you enter you can’t help thinking “how the Hell do I get out of here?”

It’s not just the food, which is standard El Gordo style fodder. It’s not just the room, a weird “L” shape with arguably the most uncomfortable seats in the capital many filled with people who seem to neither know nor care what they are eating. It’s not just the noise, with piped music pumping at levels that would challenge what HP still refers to as “discotheques” nor is it just the service, which is awkwardly formal, yet still hapless and determined to up sell at every opportunity.

In the end, the reason visiting Maze is such a dispiriting event is a combination of all of the above added to the fact that you are always aware that you are being processed by El Gordo’s machine with little thought being given to your enjoyment at any point in time.

If it were not for the fact that I was asked to write about it for a paying gig, I can’t think of any reason I would have visited Maze and the fact that it is, apparently, the second highest grossing restaurant in London (The Wolseley being number one, fact fans) gives even more cause to be depressed about the current state of our dining scene if it were needed.

The small plate concept works well in principle, but with dishes at £10 + a pop, the bill can soon rack up, particularly when the server incredulously asks you if you really mean to order “JUST” four dishes before then trying to sell you two of each dish. Add that to the eye watering mark-ups of the wine list and you can see why entering this maze is not something you should take lightly

Their website talks of “French Cuisine adopting Asian influences” but there is precious little sign of that in a list of plates that, even with the input of Jason Atherton, are pure Gordon and, in truth beginning to look a little old fashioned and dated. The execution is spot on, this group nearly always gets that right and a starter of foie terrine with smoked eel was very good even if a “baked potato foam” added little. Two roasted scallops too, were cooked perfectly but doused in a sharp muscatel dressing to try and cover up the fact.

A “head to toe” of pork came in a trademark reduction that made our lips pucker about as much as our arses at the £12 price tag for the small chunk of pig with a sliver of deep fried breaded head meat and the only real skill involved in a roasted hake in parma ham came when HP expertly cut it in half (even when we are not enjoying a meal, we have to be miserable equally)

Puddings at the best part of “£bugger me” a time added as little to the meal as the cold bread and hard butter did at the beginning and with a bottle of Chinon, priced at £32 one of the cheapest on the list, brought our total to just over £100 leaving us to trudge into Grosvenor Square shaking our heads.

Picture one show’s HP’s succinct and eloquent verdict on the meal as we left and, later as we sat having an excellent Sazerac at The East Room, I could not help thinking of the last time I was in a maze on a childhood holiday to The Isle of Wight. HP’s advice to me then was the same as last night as I thrashed around in misery.

“It’s your own fault, you went in there in the first place”

He’s right, of course, I’m a fool to myself.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008


I had a great time in L.A, well you can see that for yourself and I am still having slightly unsavoury dreams about Marty’s Chilli dogs and the deep-fried chicken giblets at Roscoe’s Chicken N’Waffles.

However, after all those meals prepared by someone else, I am pleased to be back in my own kitchen and in control of the ingredients. Added to the urge to do a bit of home cooking the fact that I returned from 90o weather to a perishing London and it seemed like an opportune time to drag the slow cooker from the back of the kitchen cabinet where it has been languishing for over a year.

After eating American for fifteen days, it also seemed appropriate to celebrate some of our own dishes and a joint of Donald Russell beef in the freezer was the main event in a stew made with Black Sheep Ale, carrots, onions, button mushrooms and some rare breed pork lardons.

The sauce was spiked with a good beef stock, splendid Henderson’s Relish from Sheffield and, my own secret ingredient in stews and casseroles, a single Thai chilli, which gives it a nice little kick at the end.

So, as I say, I have lots of reasons for wishing I was back in L.A, but with Winter approaching, and more dishes like this one in my near future, Britain ain’t such a bad place to be.

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Sunday, October 26, 2008


There are few things when I am on the road that can beat a home cooked meal. I still recall simple dish of roast chicken prepared for me by my dear chum, Tana in Santa Cruz when I was exhausted and beginning to regret my decision to ‘go everywhere, eat everything” It lifted my spirits as well as filled my belly.

There are, however, home cooked meals and there are home cooked meals and Saturday’s “end of trip” invitation from my new chums, Liz and John Haskell promised to be as memorable as any meal I experienced on the whole trip.

As I mentioned before, John and Liz are uber-diners. I don’t use that term lightly, they are easily the most experienced restaurant goers I have ever met with filing cabinets of menus a testament to their visits to just about every great temple to dining in Europe and The USA. It turns out that Liz is not just a great eater, but also an extraordinary cook and when Sybil and I arrived at their beautiful home in L.A, we were presented with a menu not only for the eight courses she had spent days preparing but also for the wine pairings chosen by John in conjunction with their son, David, a former L.A sommelier of the year.

You only need look at the pictures to know that it was a memorable meal, but they don’t tell half the story. Light cornets were filled with salmon tartar, a nod towards Thomas Keller and The French Laundry and an egg shell laboriously cleaned and filled with egg yolk, cream and a hint of maple syrup was a tribute to Alain Passard’s signature dish at Arperge. Around that, dishes whose simplicity belied the effort that had gone into their preparation. A tomato tart with oregano and a crumbly crust, tuna tartar with crispy wantons speckled with sesame and poppy seeds and a pumpkin soup with more depth than Jonathan Miller.

By the time we reached the main event, we were already reaching capacity, but still found room for a perfectly moist roast chicken with a stunning slow cooked, creamy potato gratin, before leaving the table and facing down moist Heath Bar brownies and a persimmon cake that tasted like Christmas.

Liz, ever the critic gave herself a B-, but this was a meal that pushed many supposedly memorable meals from my brain, particularly when complimented with interesting wines like a sparkling white from New Mexico (who knew?) a Riesling from Slovenia and finishing off with a fine Madeira with the cake.

By the time we flopped on their sofa and turned our attention to their two small, well behaved dogs, it was nearly midnight and six hours had passed in a happy blur. We were sorry to leave, but now I am headed back to London, I feel very fortunate to have such generous and talented new friends who, if I needed any persuasion, have made sure that a return visit to La La Land is going to be on the cards very soon.

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In the 1920’s and 1930’s Downtown Los Angeles was where it was at, ritzy hotels and movie theatres lined the streets and the Art Deco offices were filled with workers speeding towards the American Dream.

Move on the best part of a century and Downtown L.A is a very different place indeed. Still filled with office drones by day at night they flee the centre for more fashionable areas leaving the heart of the city to the poor, homeless and confused. The stunning buildings too remain more of less intact but many are empty and for the most part Downtown is not a place where you would want to spend any great amount of time.

For some people, however, Downtown is home and more than that, a district they are determined to revive to its former glories. One such person is Monica May, chef and restaurant owner whose simple new establishment The Nickel Diner, run with her partner Kristen, is already giving people a reason to stay local for lunch and dinner.

Close to Skid Row, The Nickel Diner was converted with considerable effort from a run down Mexican taqueria and the renovations revealed the wall decorations of the original diner, which have been restored to charming affect.

I am in awe of great American Short order cooking and cooks, often overlooked as a talent and, as Monica explained to myself, Sybil and our new chum, Susan, it is increasingly hard to find people willing to fill the posts given that most young cooks have had their eyes filled with T.V chefs and the glitter of Michelin stars.

At The Nickel Diner, they seems to have done well and while the menu may be filled with solid diner staples, Monica’s chef’s background means the ingredients are a notch above what you anticipate from such places and the execution likewise. Sybil’s Tuna burger was a perfect example with a meaty steak cooked to medium and served with perfect shoestring fries. A hamburger for Susan came with terrific onion rings and my own BLT was as good an example as you are likely to get. With soft drinks including fresh lemonade, the bill came to $15 a pop including tip. Excellent value.

As the diner was beginning to empty of its lunchtime crowd, we then spent the next two hours chatting happily with Monica and Kristen who fed us one of their desserts, a cupcake with a difference, a “hidden” layer of Space Dust ( or Pop rocks as the yanks call them) that Susan rather took a fancy too.

When we finally walked out into the afternoon heat, Sybil gave me a tour of downtown to walk off some of the excellent lunch including the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and The Bradbury Building where many scenes from Bladerunner were shot and best of all, The Grand Central Market where, despite her declaration that Mexican food in L.A is and I quote, “sucky” she let me try a carnitas taco. By local standards it may have only be ordinary, but I would love to have a place that made anything close to this quality in my neighbourhood.

A fun day and with places like The Nickel Diner, Downtown, L.A, it would seem is on the up again.

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