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

Monday, March 30, 2009


Making people feel sorry for you as a sales technique requires a combination of shamelessness and chutzpah. Happily, HS possesses both qualities in bucket loads. Today, I was fortunate enough to see the master at work.

Standfords, for those who haven’t been to London’s fashionable West End, is the World’s largest Travel bookshop. It also just happened to have HS’s first book, Eat My Globe, on prominent display in the New Books section.

After a taking the obligatory snaps and a little vid, HS gazed wistfully at the book and said “Oh well, now I hope at least one bugger will buy it”. The comment seemed to be aimed at nobody in particular. However, there was a man standing next to us who looked first at HS: sad-faced, unshaven and wearing a tea cosy on his head, then at me: also unshaven, grey, slightly worn around the edges. He was later seen queuing at the till, a copy of EMG clutched tightly in his hands. Result.

Advanced selling techniques aside, I’m one very proud elder Hermano. To get a book published these days, especially when you’re not an established author is a fantastic achievement. Even more so when you’ve put as much work into it as HS has – this was truly a labour of love – and to have financed the whole thing from your life savings (how scary is that ?).

Even more laudable is that unlike most of the crummy celebrity tomes clogging up the bookshelves this is actually written by the man himself (although I hear the Copy Editors have financed second homes out of their overtime) and wasn’t produced to tie into some lame-o TV Series which always has to end with, as HS so eloquently puts it, another fucking banquet.

Anyway, in my humble opinion, Eat My Globe is a terrific read (and if you’ve seen the chapter on The Great Salami you’ll know I don’t say this out of nepotism) and should be next on anyone’s must-read list, maybe after Jordan: Pushed to the Limit.

So if you’re one of the intelligent, discerning and attractive people that read the Dos Hermanos blog I’d advise you to go down to your bookshop without delay and pick up a copy, not forgetting to pay for it on the way out. It will make you a Sex God (allegedly) and it might mean that HS can afford a new tea cosy.

Bravo Hermano !

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Sunday, March 29, 2009


Talk about a soft opening, Ba Shan, the latest restaurant from the owners of Bar Shu (to be re-opened after a refurbishment at the end of May, we were told) is having an opening so soft it could be a fluffy kitten wrapped in feather pillows.

There is no sign above the door yet, still being painted in China we found out, and the only evidence that the building diagonally opposite Bar Shu is an eatery of any sort is the view of laid tables through the small windows and a sign by a buzzer saying “Press this bell for Ba Shan.”

As we peered through the window, a waitress appeared at the door and ushered us in, apparently remembering us from a previous visit to Bar Shu and assuming correctly that we had come to give the new place a try. If she had not, we would probably still have been there now arguing if it really existed at all.

If the outside is a work in progress then the inside is already rather splendid, set out with the theme of a wealthy merchant’s house from Xi-an, with one room representing the “theatre” and another the “tasting room” etc etc

The food on the menu is also inspired by that same city at the end (or is that the beginning?) of the Silk Road and offered up in small plates to be eaten in the same way as Cantonese dim sum, with sharing the order of the day.

Starter plates included “strange flavour” peanuts with the “strange” being the unmistakeable hint of Sichuan peppercorn, with its tell tale anaesthetic properties numbing the tongue. Rather nice and better than a plate of ribs, slow cooked in soy and sugar until soft, and served cold. The dryness was a desired result of the process, they claim, I remain unconvinced as I did by the deep frying of prawns which were oily and saved only by an excellent “fish fragrant” dipping sauce.

So far, so blah, but things perked up immediately with the arrival of a plate of cold buckwheat noodles with a sweet, sour sauce and tofu and a procession of Xi-an style dumplings, which reminded me of my visit there, where I was told of a local saying

“If you have visited Xi-an and not eaten dumplings, you have not visited Xi-an”

The ones at Ba Shan are delicate and elegantly presented and the quotie in particular, equivalent to the Japanese gyoza, were delicious with the tell tale crust on the underside that comes from adding water to the pan while frying.

In fact, all of the dumplings we tried were spot on and even the vegetarian versions deserved a few raised eyebrows for their soft casings and fresh innards of crunchy vegetables. Points removed for not draining them properly so they sat in a puddle in the bottom of the serving dishes, but they did not last long enough for that to matter.

Best of all, were two versions of roujiamo, otherwise known as Chinese Hamburger. A Xi-an classic and here at Ba Shan served in bite size versions with a filling of cumin-scented beef a nod to Xi-an spice trail heritage.

Finally, a dish not yet on the menu, but which we were urged to try, small rounds of puff pastry, stuffed with more gently spiced beef, which broke open to release a pleasing waft of steam as they had come fresh from being deep fried.

With tea and a charge for lovely service, the bill of £70 made us sit back a bit, but represents an attempt to work our way through the entire menu and the way these small plate meals always tend to build up to more than you anticipate. A sensible meal for two here should come to no more than £60, consistent with dim sum at one of the better places.

Ba Shan wont please the purists, of course, just as its sister restaurants fail to stifle dreary moans about lack of authenticity, but by my limited experience of the region it celebrates, it does a pretty decent job and, what’s more, it’s a nice place to have lunch, which, I have to say, in London, is becoming an increasingly rare thing and worth trumpeting, even if they owners don't feel that way yet about the existence of the restaurant itself

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Saturday, March 28, 2009


I blame Fergus Henderson. He was the man responsible for introducing England to the pared-down style of menu that has spawned a myriad imitations. Actually, the Continentals have been doing the same thing for years – when you order a Steak in Spain that’s precisely what you get.

What you also get, or rather should get, in both instances is an impeccably cooked piece of meat or fish of excellent provenance. Anything less and the dish fails. There’s nowhere to hide with this style of cooking. Now I expect all plainly written menus to deliver on their (unwritten) promise.

So when I saw the word Chipolatas on the menu at The Salisbury, a refurbed pub in one of the grottier parts of Fulham, my foodie bones kicked in and I imagined, not just any Chipolatas but the best ever Chipolatas. The Chipolatollahs if you will.

What I got was certainly extraordinary. Extraordinary in that they didn't have a cocktail stick protuding from them. They were the sort of Chipolatas that'd you'd get, and avoid, at the Office Christmas Party. Luke warm and overcooked the four sad specimens (£3) sat there mocking me. They seemed to be saying How you like me now, foodie-boy ?

Those naughty little Chipolatas weren’t alone, oh no. Food this bad doesn’t come alone. Crab (£3.95) had been mixed with mayonnaise and put on a piece of bread which had been dipped in egg and allowed to dry. Well, it looked that way. There was also a spoonful of something that tasted mostly of garlic.

Coming at me from my right was a couple of Welsh Rarebits (£1.95). I speared one of these bad boys with my fork and yellow gunk spurted out - much like lancing a particularly ripe boil. How one can fuck up Cheese on Toast at any time, let alone in a restaurant completely unencumbered by customers beats me but the kitchen had managed in spectacular fashion. Bringing up the rear were some greasy Blue Cheese Fritters (£2.00). I didn’t have the cojones to find out what the cheese was or why it was blue.

To my right were the heavy mob. Foie Gras (£6.00) bore some resemblance to that engorged liver and was probably the most edible thing on the table but that’s not saying much. It was supposed to come on toast but as evinced by some of the other wheat-based small plates on show this is obviously a kitchen that finds the act of putting bread under a grill as arcane and mind-bogglingly difficult as constructing one of Heston B’s Ejaculating Puddings. Sweetbreads (£2.95) had been woefully undercooked. This is a kitchen that does not understand that fire is our friend.

All the dishes were pretty nasty but not nearly as nasty as the Chicken Curry (£4.00). When I saw it on the menu, I yet again failed to connect with reality as I conjured up a vision of a chef – maybe one looking not dissimilar to HB – leafing through the pages of an old cookery book, possibly Victorian, to come up with an authentic curry from the last days of the Raj (good name for a restaurant). The contents of the small bowl on the table looked like it had come from the seepage of the Welsh Rarebit except it smelled, much, much worse. I tentatively fished around inside the yellow liquid and came up with some pieces of meat that could have been anything, so grey and overcooked, were they. The smell was, how shall I put it, quite pungent. I managed a single sip without gagging.

I’m a greedy bugger by nature so even if food is poor I’ll still hoover it up but in this case I just couldn’t. The whole thing was so miserable, so utterly awful and easily the worst meal I’ve had in London that all I could do was laugh disbelievingly and ask for the bill. The friendly waitress didn’t even notice I’d left most of the food or if she did it didn’t phase her. She did ask if everything was ok but how do you break it to her, and the rest of the onlooking staff that the food is crap. Gentle reader, I bottled it.

Once outside the cold air brought me to my senses and I realised I couldn’t let the night end on such a down note. Someone once said if you have a bad meal, go and have another [meal]. It was only a short hop to the rather wonderful Harwood Arms where I managed to squeeze in at the bar for a pint of Black Sheep and one of their fantastic Veal Scotch Eggs all served by the world’s most attractive barmaid. Suddenly, The Salisbury seemed a long time ago. Let's hope I'm not given to flashbacks.

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Friday, March 27, 2009


I am not a totally heartless bastard despite what an ex-wife and any number of former girlfriends may tell you. I understand that everybody needs a day off, particularly chefs who seem to work harder than just about anybody. Well, the good ones that is. The bad ones are obviously feckless layabouts.

However, just as those taking a day off from any office should be expected to make sure all is in order and that their colleagues can cope, so too should a chef taking a well deserved night off make sure that his plenipotentiaries can manage without him. Perhaps even more so given that people will be paying a good chunk of their hard earned for what comes out of the kitchen.

Which brings us to Wednesday night’s meal at The Coach & Horses in Farringdon, a gastro pub whose stock has risen considerably recently with the arrival of one Henry Herbert, and a place where people whose judgements I trust had told me I really ought to give a try.

Well, as HP says, menu construction is a large part of the art of attracting paying guests and that displayed outside The Coach & Horses pushed just about every DH button going. There is some deep fried stuff, a bit of offal, a pie or two and enough use of the word “home made” to make anyone teary eyed.

The good work is carried through on the inside too with a blackboard proclaiming the provenance of the ingredients and cheery staff who, although not hampered by excess custom, were still friendly and on the ball.

More is the pity then that what came out of the kitchen was all just a little bit shoddy. Not inedible, but suffering, in parts, from execution so slapdash that it made us want to shake our fists at God and curse him for giving man fire.

The three-starter trick is usually a great indication of the intentions and competency of the kitchen and deep Fried Pig’s Head with sauce gribiche, herring roes on toast and a scotch egg sounded like the perfect beginning.

The Scotch egg was delicious, slightly overcooked and lacking the runny yolk of the best examples (I cite DH Vs The Bull & Last, M’lud) but not bad at all. The pig’s head, despite coming with an excellent sauce, was dry and, much as we love offal, the two thick white chunks of ear cartilage we excavated added little.

Good to see herring roe on a menu again, but these little nuggets of fish eggs managed to be flavourless and cried out for the ignition key of a squeeze of lemon to wake them up.

Main courses were even more dispiriting. I am beginning to hate the sight of lidded pies, which have gone from being rich, unctuous stews topped with crisp, yielding pastry of the puff or short variety, to being well, er this, a waterlogged bowl of gunk with a cement topping. The presence of rather good chips did little to raise our spirits and after two attempts by HP to dive for meat, he gave up, shrugged his shoulders and went back to his own dish.

This was a little better. Well prepared lentils, crisp cabbage and a tasty pork chop. But, what a miserly chop and, while I am all for medium cooked pork, if the quality is there, this was bloody close to the bone, rarely a good sign as HP pointed out to the waitress.

If a meal is even a quarter decent, HP can’t be moved from his seat until he has had a bowl of ice cream, a frightening clear spirit and a coffee, at The Coach & Horses he waved any such notion away, zipped up his fleece and made for the door about three seconds after we had handed over a whacking £76 for the meal, a bottle of delicious gamay and a well deserved tip.

By now, the dining room and bar were empty apart from one other couple. A sign, I am sure both of the current cash crunch and the Guardian’s move to leafier climes, er King’s Cross. I expected to hear the sound of tumbleweed as we opened the door and stepped out towards Farringdon.

I was told today that Wednesday is the chef’s night off. Good for him, as I said, we all need and deserve our rest, but one day when he is off skateboarding, rollerblading or dancing to rave music as I believe young folk do nowadays, he should try eating in his restaurant, it may come as an unwelcome surprise.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009


I vacillate over Heston Blumenthal (oh, do grow up)

On some days, I can buy into him as the culinary equivalent of haute couture, you might not indulge very often, but some, at least, of the creativity will eventually filter down to be sampled in the mainstream. Triple cooked chips etc etc. And, on his current series “Cooking feasts for Who the hell is that?” he comes over as a beguilingly barking English eccentric, even if you do long for the food to choke most of the diners or at least just Germaine Greer.

On other days, when I remind myself how little his menu at The Fat Duck has actually changed over the years, I think he is a charlatan, a one trick pony who has managed to create a whole career out of flim flammery and who, in his series “Big Chef Takes on Little Chef” to be honest came over as a bit of a cock.

Heston at Little Chef? You can just hear the TV exec’s squeal with delight. It’s the best high concept idea since someone first uttered the words “Danny DeVito and Arnold, twins”

What next? MPW asking if you want ‘extra crispy” at KFC or Tom Aikens flipping burgers at Wimpy (actually, that’s just about all TA is good for, but that’s for another post)

If I had not been heading down to Dorset to do something more important, I might never have visited the Little Chef in Popham, which recently underwent the much-publicised Heston treatment. Not that I have ever had any great problem with Little Chef. Trust me I have had a lot worse breakfasts than their Olympian for a lot more money.

Pulling into the car park tells you all you need to know. This is now a destination restaurant and my ten-year old Ford Focus looked a poor specimen compared to the Audi’s and Merc’s already filling the spaces.

The inside too tells its own story. As HP found out on his recent visit to The Chippy, irony and food are seldom happy bedfellows and the Little Chef in Popham just screams out with knowing wit. Bright red tables archly adorned with little round ketchup bottles, dangly bright lights hanging from the ceiling and waiters with the word “Waiter” in big letters on the back of their bright red shirts, as if anyone would wear something that vile if they didn’t have to for work.

Some people obviously loved the design, because also there was a contingent from the responsible design company, dressed in lurid greens (“against the red, it will look fab. Right?”) for a photo shoot, no doubt to show off their skills to other potential suckers, I mean customers, of course.

It all served to make what should be a simple diner look like an eatery from Pee Wee Herman’s Great Big Adventure and, quite frankly, after sampling the food, I would rather encounter Paul Reubens jacking off in a shabby L.A porno cinema than be faced with this Heston-ised version of short order cooking.

To be fair to Mr B, however, he did his bit. After the usual T.V silliness of creating a challenge, adding a bit of tension with “Mr Blue Sky Thinking” the boss and doing that thing he does with dry ice one assumes is in the contract for every show, he finally settled for just getting really great ingredients and trying his best to teach the Little Chef staff how not to fuck them up on their spangly new equipment.

He succeeded in the former, as the ingredients are all (little plastic pat of butter aside) well sourced. The menu trumpets free-range eggs, Wiltshire cured bacon, and even a bit of Scottish black pudding. But he obviously failed in the former and although my breakfast, the “All New Olympian” looked adequate from an arial view, a quick peek at its dark underbelly told a different and more challenging story.

A failure to clean the hot plate meant that every element of the meal had a nice brown crust underneath, the eggs particularly showing off a nice tan, which explained why there was no request for how you would like them cooked. "Sunny side up, or charred, luv"

The bacon flipped to reveal a nice burnt streak, like wise the sausages and a few misplaced strands of thyme, that great breakfast staple, had been fried to a crisp on the underside of a blackened mushroom. Worst of all, two semi-cooked halves of tomato tasted as if they had been drenched in oil gone rancid from being kept too close to the stove.

A visit to the toilets, where more irony abounds, compounded the feeling that someone was taking the piss. A handful of wall tiles were adorned with cooking tips (obviously the staff never need to go during the day or they might learn something useful) and there was piped music that, God give me strength, taunted one and all with the sounds of Lionel Bart’s “Food Glorious Food” Like showing a parched man in a desert a picture of a glass of water.

Food this atrocious doesn’t come cheap and, with the breakfast at £6.50, a thimble full of decent fresh orange juice, a pot of tea and a tip for the staff, who asked how my meal was more than once and more in hope than expectation, it came to just under a shameful £13.

A further ten miles or so up the road, I stopped for petrol and peered through the windows of another Little Chef, this time, untouched by ironic design or the whims of a 3 * chef. It was like Heston Blumethal had never happened and one can’t help thinking on the showing of the Little Chef at Popham, that this could be a good thing.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009


There can’t be many things that have been part of British culture since the 1700’s, apart from syphilis and an inbuilt dislike of scousers, but apparently, The Bakewell Pudding is one of them, being the result of a happy culinary accident of one Mrs Grieves, cook at The White Horse Inn in Bakewell, Derbyshire.

Well, I certainly didn’t know they had been around that long and I certainly didn’t know that they should always be referred to as a “pudding” and never, ever on your life, cross your heart, swear to God and hope to become American, as a “tart”

The Bakewell Tart with its little cherry on top and a blob of artificial white icing has about as much to do with Bakewell as a sausage roll from Greggs has ever had to do with something which oinked and then provided scratchings. They are an abomination and my new chum, Jemma Pheasey of The Old Original Bakewell Pudding Shop, shook her head in disgust when I asked where they kept the glace cherries.

She is Bakewell born and bred and has been developing the business at the shop for nearly ten years, so she knows her pudding, as indeed does Norman in the kitchen through whose delicate little digits every pudding passes.

It is a simple little thing, but like many things of few ingredients, when done well a real little beauty and while sipping a warming cup of tea Jemma gave me a history lesson.

Mrs Grieves accident of forgetting to put flour in her cake mix but serving the result anyway proved to be a great success and people flocked from far and wide, well as far as Sheffield, to sample the newly created pudding.

Soon, she passed the recipe on to the wife of a local candle maker, Mrs Wilson, who knowing a good thing when she saw it, persuaded her husband to stop dipping his wick (ahem) and change their workplace to a pudding shop in 1829, which it remains to this day. There are other claimants to the throne of pudding originator, notably nearby Bloomers, but their shop opened about a decade later according to Jemma.

The pudding consists of puff pastry, eggs, almonds, strawberry jam and butter and, er that’s it. In the kitchen, Norman was deftly cutting out the bases for the afternoons batch and Jemma showed me how simple it is to make by pressing the pastry into a small foil pie dish and pressing out, adding a blob of jam, topped off with the mix (although she wouldn’t, and I wouldn’t expect her to, share the exact proportions) and then it was baked in the over for about forty minutes.

People are split as to whether one should indulge one’s pudding fantasies with a hot one or a cold one. I of course wanted to try both and Jemma obliged taking me up to the shop’s rather smart little upstairs tea room and placing in front of me some sizable pud’s with a little side dish of cream.

What can I tell you? The cold one is nice, certainly nicer than any of the abominations I had tried before. But, the hot one, with its gooeyness quotient (technical term) racked up to max had me drooling enough that the remaining pie was rendered inedible by anyone else.

Jemma waved a thick file at me filled with all the documentation to achieve European PGO for the pudding and I can only hope they can persuade the technocrats of Brussels that this little piece of England is aptly named

They have certainly persuaded me

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Monday, March 23, 2009


Foodies beware, restaurateurs are on to us. They lure in the decent, honest gastronaut with interesting online menus and bigged-up Chef CVs (Worked with MPW = Chopped some carrots but got sacked the following week). You pitch up all expectant and excited and then realise, pretty quickly, that you’ve been sold a pup. It’s all the more galling when in these straightened times genuinely good and interesting places are suffering whilst the cruddy ones continue to divert valuable funds.

I had two such experiences recently. One experience was of the “Look, I’m not angry – I’m just disappointed” sort. The other was of the laugh out loud, hilariously bad sort. The pain of writing about two different yet similarly depressing experiences is immense, but I’m going to tough it out for you, dear reader.

I don’t know whether it was just the area of London I was visiting - High Street Ken - but looking for a pub for a pre-prandial pint before my visit to Bistrot Eleven proved problematical. I ended up at the only pub I knew, the Elephant and Castle, an old stamping ground of HS when he used to work for Penguin. It’s owned by a chain now so it was hardly surprising that I had to get my pint topped up and that in the end it wasn’t worth doing, so poor was the pint.

Bistrot Eleven - 11 Abingdon Road in its previous incarnation - promised much when I browsed the menu online: good-sounding combinations jumped out at me as I mentally put together my proto-meal. The reality was different. The dishes were mostly still there but they seemed to be missing the components that had attracted me to them in the first place. Where were the Kidneys ? The Sweetbreads ? The Truffled Macaroni ?

My instincts about restaurants have become finely honed after many years of dining out but still I ignored the nagging inner voice which said just get the Steak and Chips and go. My fears were compounded when a neighbouring table received their food and the assembled diners immediately fell silent.

I’m sure my face must have betrayed immense disappointment when the Goats Cheese Beignets arrived. I had expected something ethereally light and delicious. Instead , small breadcrumbed tubes, maybe of the Findus family (or should that be genus ?), that tasted mostly of oil and very little of Goats Cheese came with some chunks of Beetroot and a bit of Rocket strewn here and there. It was at this moment I realised I’d made a mistake, but there was no backing out now - I’d ordered an extra starter. Twit.

Confit Shoulder of Rabbit was a small ball of bunny meat which came in a rather nasty caul. The meat itself had been shredded and had a decent texture but had no depth of flavour, or, indeed any flavour at all. Likewise, the Pommery mustard mousseline accompaniment lacked bite or interest. Pea shoots, plonked on the side, seemed like an afterthought rather than a measured contribution to the whole.

My main of Gilthead Bream at least proved that someone had the chops in the kitchen – the fish was cooked pretty well. Only problem was, it smelled. Of fish. Which is not a good thing. I also think there may have been a mix up with a delivery of a flatpack from Ikea as I’m sure my fish was topped with rubber washers and not the advertised Sautéed Baby Squid. The mixture of Chickpeas and Chorizo the fish came on was dull bedsit-level cooking. Chips weren’t too bad.

I get the feeling that there’s a capable kitchen at Bistrot Eleven but that it’s just not trying hard enough. There’s also an obvious skimping on the quality of the ingredients. Both these things are fixable – if the will is there.

I’ve probably used this analogy before (and if I have, tough – it’s our blog) but going to a new restaurant is a bit like a first date. You start off all optimistic, excited and looking forward to the evening ahead. Things don’t get off to a good start and you know it’s not going to get any better. You struggle on for a bit, trying to maintain a smile. You pass on dessert and coffee. The bill is like a departing slap to the back of the head.

Well that’s what my first dates are like. As I said before, not angry, just very, very disappointed. Sigh.

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