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

Friday, July 31, 2009


The journey continued the next morning as Neal pointed our hire car North from his uncle’s house and towards The Giant’s Causeway, that odd little outcrop of rock which the locals claim was built by Irish giant Finn McCool so he could walk to Scotland to have a bit of a barney with his Scottish counterpart.

On the way, we stopped off to sample another one of the potential dishes for my EATING FOR BRITAIN trip, Dulce. Although, little known outside The Six Counties, Dulce is a bit of an obsession in Northern Ireland and is basically seaweed harvested in the early morning and dried on the rocks before being bagged and sold in shops and pubs just about everywhere.

I had wanted to meet one of the producers, but as most of them seem to do this as a sideline while still signing on it was understandable they were a bit reticent to talk to me and were a little less than enthusiastic when we stopped to have a look at where it was laid out to dry. Still, the shopkeepers were more welcoming and for £1.50, I was able to buy a large bag, which Neal and I sampled as we took a chance to look at the stunning scenery on the way to the Causeway. It’s odd stuff alright with the first taste of the chewy seaweed just being of salt, which is why they probably sell it in all the pubs. But, after a few times around the mouth, it begins to release layers of flavour and is actually quite addictive.

The bar at The Merchant Hotel recently won three major awards at the prestigious “Tales of The Cocktail” event in New Orleans, including one for “Best Hotel Bar” Walking into the plush room, it is easy to see why and, by 7pm it was already packed, primarily with visitors rather than the locals who are still coming to terms with the “hideously priced” cocktails.

Er, they should come to London, £7.50 struck me as a bit of a bargain, particularly when the drinks prepared by bartenders, Jack and Hayden under the auspices of manager, Sean Muldoon are up there with anything on offer in the capital. This is a serious bar and the drinks we tried including an excellent Martini, a Manhattan and a Sazerac, three of my tests of a bartender’s skill, were all produced with great presentation and perfect balance.

Definitely worth a visit if you are in Belfast.

If the bar at The Merchant Hotel is worth a visit, Cayenne, the remaining restaurant of the former Paul Rankin empire is, unfortunately, one to avoid, not just for the expense, which is comparable to anything in London, but for its confused menu and poor execution.

I am a fan of Paul Rankin’s. Few UK chefs are as associated with their region as he (Rick Stein and Nigel Haworth, perhaps?) and fewer still have worked so hard to promote the food of their area. Yet, despite the trumpeting of local ingredients on the restaurant website, the menu at Cayenne is a perfect example of what Jay Rayner once described as ‘culinary Esperanto” a mish mash which allowed for “gazpacho” to sit next to crispy duck and “Carpaccio” next to “Thai fish cakes” on the list of starters.

The mains too sat as uneasily on the page as they later did in the stomach. Duck with an “aromatic curry glaze” was offered as an alternative to lamb fillets with “Ras-el Hanout” leaving you imagine that Rankin had given his head chef the challenge of using every last ingredient in the store cupboard and he had proved himself more than up to the task.

Had the execution been up to scratch such an oddly matched parade of dishes might have come over as quirky, unfortunately, the plates that we were presented with had little merit and just came over as ill conceived. Neal’s starter of lobster salad saw three little blobs of decent seafood hidden under over dressed leaves and under cooked potatoes. Yours for a slightly less than good value £10.

My own starter of squid at £8 was better, cooked perfectly beneath a crisp coating and a fiery nahm jim sauce adding all the heat needed without having to dip into a slight incongruous spicy mayonnaise.

The standards again dropped with the main courses. Monkfish, the main event in my special is an expensive ingredient, but for £20 I probably could have expected slightly more fish than the less than palm-sized portion I received. The kitchen had tried to compensate with the addition of broad beans, peas and brown shrimp in a burnt butter as well as a quintet of little potato dumplings, all of which made sense, but the end result was an oily, greasy mess that did its best to hide the purchase of some excellent fish.

Neal’s lamb proved to be the winner in the WTF? Stakes. Cooked perfectly pink, I am sure it was bought from somewhere pretty and the lamb was very happy until they stunned it. It would have been a good deal less sanguine if it had any idea how it would end up, on plate which looked like it had been dropped and reassembled in a hurry.

What tastes of the lamb there may have been were lost in a wash of sauce and Neal pushed far too many slices onto my side plate for me to believe he was enjoying it in any way. He wasn’t and declared “the more I think about it the worse this meal gets”

Side dishes did little to improve his mood and a dry mashed potato with little evidence of the advertised horseradish made him, a good Northern Irish boy, wonder if the province's recent rediscovery of tarring & feathering could be put too better use. I thought the same, but of the shameful handful of string beans that came as a side order.

Our experience to date convinced us that desserts would be little better and we asked our young server, whose charm was the highlight of the meal, for the bill, a breathtaking £86 including service and a bottle of something red, which could arguably reflect the ordering of premium ingredients like monkfish and lobster if they were not served in such tiny portions, but really reflects a menu savagely overpriced for the quality delivered.

I remain a fan of Rankin, I suspect this oddity of restaurant fulfils a need in Belfast. For the life of me I can’t quite think what that need may be, but the place was packed. I can’t help hoping he finds enough restored confidence in the local produce of which he is such a proud advocate, that he soon sheds the need to hide their beauty under such a multi cultural bushel.

So, it may have been a disappointing ending to our restaurant eating in Northern Ireland, but it did not manage to dampen our enjoyment of a part of the country, which impressed me with its friendly people, gorgeous countryside, and on the whole surprisingly lovely food.

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For the last few days I have been, shall we say, living it large as I travelled up to Scotland for the launch of Glenfiddich's astonishing 50 year old whisky (post soon to come) While I was there amongst all the proper whisky experts, I was incredibly well taken care of with great food and, of course, lots and lots of superb Scotch to sample.

However, just as I found when I was on the road for a year and as I am finding now with research for EATING FOR BRITAIN, most of the time my cravings are not for fine dining, smart restaurants or even eating out at all.

Right now, after a week on the road, all I wanted for lunch was something comforting. It could have been scrambled eggs, it could have been as simple as a bowl of chicken soup or it could have been a thick bacon sandwich.

For some reason, however, when I awoke this morning, I had a huge craving for Pilchards on toast. I have no idea why and I cannot actually recall the last time I felt the urge to open a tin and heat up its contents. But, there it was and a short shopping trip to Waitrose later for a tin of Cornish Pilchards and some rye bread, my meal was ready.

Bloody lovely it was too and it reminded me, if I needed reminding, that sometimes, the most pleasure can be found in the most simple of things.

Now, I wonder how it might go with that £10,000 Whisky?

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009


A short trip to Northern Ireland in the company of my good chum Neal, began with a short drive from the airport to the small town of Comber, to the East (I think) of the city. Many of Neal’s relatives live in and around Belfast and, as well as offering a bed for the night, they had put us in touch with some people who could help me in my EATING FOR BRITAIN quest.

After driving through streets still lined with Union flags at the end of marching season, our first port of call was The Georgian House, a recently refurbished restaurant in Comber run by charming owner/chef, Peter McConkey. The restaurant had only been open for a few weeks, but had already won awards for its “Ulster Fry” that artery threatening breakfast containing enough calorific value to feed a sumo for a month. The main problem with the normal example, as with its mainland counterpart,the Full English, is not so much the quantity, but the quality as most people equate cheapness and cheapness of ingredients with value. Too often it is presented with mass produced bacon, sausages made out of reclaimed meat and eggs that have come out of the backside of some ery unhappy chickens

The “fry” at The Georgian House was “very dear” we were told by some of Neal’s relatives, which was put into context when “very dear” turned out to be £5.95. True for the area it was about £2 more than any other we encountered, but you could understand why the moment our plates were delivered. Superb, thick cut bacon, meaty sausages, eggs with golden yellow yolks, thick slices of soda bread, potato farls and some of the best black pudding I have tried in years.

The only ingredient which had us stumped at first, sat in the bottom left hand corner. They looked like little Shanghai dumplings and it was only when I bit into one that I realised that Peter was redintroducing the classic art of turning mushrooms. When I quizzed him about it after our meal he just responded “why not?” you can’t argue with that and, like every other ingredient in our meal, it was top quality. Definitely worth a visit if you are in the area.

Likewise so is a visit to Aunt Sandra’s Candy Factory, a Belfast institution for well over fifty years and most famous for producing “Yellowman” a garish yellow candy made with baking soda. It’s never seen outside the six counties and even Neal who used to live there had not encountered it before

David Moore the current owner had just finished giving lessons in sweet making to some local schoolchildren and showed us the hooks on which he and his staff still stretched the sugar as it cooled before it was rolled into sweet shapes using cutters from the early part of last century. Using a hammer, David broke bits off a big “Candy Cowpat” of Yellowman for us to try. It is a bit like proto-space dust with an initial sharp taste, which disappears as it crackles in the mouth. Not unpleasant, but you could not eat a lot of it.

By now, both Neal and myself were exhausted and headed back to his relatives for some R&R before a big night out in town.

More to follow

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Sunday, July 26, 2009


If Gastropubs were like football teams The Anglesea Arms was once at the top its game. Back in the day (sorry) when the Gastropub was quite a rare bird indeed and it was seen as a means of producing good, uncomplicated food in casual surroundings and not as a delivery mechanism for hosing punters with massively marked up, pre-cooked food, The Anglesea Arms was generally acknowledged as the Head Honcho, the Chairman of The Board, the Big Cheese, if you will.

Places like The Eagle and The Peasant may have been around longer but the queues at the weekend attested to the fact that the cooking at this Hammersmith favourite was a bit special. Then something happened. AA went dark. I heard a rumour saying it was closed. Then HS told me it had got a new chef and apparently was worth trying out again, after all these years.

The Anglesea Arms is situated in a pleasant little area dubbed Brackenbury Village by the estate agents. This is usually a euphemism for a sketchy area that doesn’t have a tree that’s not been vandalised or a postbox free of dangerous graffiti. In this case though the attribution seems apt. Sitting in a pub cooled by larges fans and cradling a pint of Summer Lightning, the rather grim environs of Shepherds Bush (I can’t believe it’s exactly as I left it twenty years ago) and Hammersmith seemed far away.

There’s no booking here, which back in the 90’s might been a problem for the reservation-phobic DH. But now, on a sunny Saturday, people were arriving, sleepy-eyed, in dribs and drabs which meant nabbing a table wasn’t an issue.

I must admit that Summer Menus don’t get me er, tumid, nevertheless the reasonably-priced menu did have a few things that looked worth a punt although another type of fish (or in addition) wouldn’t have hurt.

Six Irish Rock Oysters were good and fresh although they were spawning. Not to the extent of those I had at Racine and not enough to mute the briny taste. It made me wonder though whether a) kitchens recognise this and b) if they do whether they send them out anyway. Just a thought.

Tongue had been cooked, coated in breadcrumbs and fried. The two large discs needed more salt but were still good and meaty. The little salad on the side didn’t really come together although the Tomatoes were excellent and the Marjoram was a nice touch. Some Sauce Gribiche would have been perfect here.

I have the feeling that the Head Chef at The Anglesea runs a tight ship. A request for a bowl of Chips with my Crab necessitated a little conflab in the kitchen before the nice lady serving me said “The kitchen only has a limited portions [of chips]…but you can have some”. The person who requested some after me wasn’t so lucky.

They turned out pretty good though. It seemed like they actually were “Hand Cut” and while not triple-cooked still had a crisp exterior and fluffy insides. A bit like me really.

With the Chips a dressed Crab provided plenty of messy fun. Retrieving smooth, intense, pate-like brown meat and sweet delicate white claw meat was followed by lots of cracking and sucking of exoskeleton and poking of fingers into various Crab orifices to get full value for the £12 price. Apologies to any neighbouring tables witnessing all this.

A Tavel Rose from Domaine De La Mordoree was good gear and went very well with everything although at a stonking 13.5% it belied the reputation of Rose as a light, gluggable Summer drink and had me walking a couple of inches off the ground as I left.

After chancing my arm with the chips finessing my pudding didn’t seem like a good idea. These days the Ice Cream ante has been upped and kitchens with any sort of rep all make their own. The stuff here was fine in taste although the texture too soft and smooth. For me The Bull & Last’s Ice Cream remains a standard.

Summer’s not a good time to really put a kitchen through it’s paces and it would be worth returning here later in the year, Autumn say, when more interesting stuff comes onto the menu. For now The Anglesea Arms remains a decent choice for a long relaxed lunch. If Gastropubs were like football teams The Anglesea Arms would be…Arsenal.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Along with the recent proliferation of Steakhouses in London there is small but noticeable boom in the number of the Argentinian equivalent, Parillas. You have eleven (count em’) Gauchos in London alone. Eleven too many in my opinion. There are a number of smaller places like old DH favourite Santa Maria del Buen Ayre and relative newcomer North London Garufa which left us disppaointed by its ‘politeness’

The new kid on the block is Constancia, which by virtue of being South of the river and hence completely off our radar has been quietly getting on with it business in a rather non-descript part of Tower Bridge Road for the past two months. If you weren’t looking for it you’d easily miss it. No so the locals who were piling in on a sultry mid-week evening.

Started by two brothers, Constanscia, despite having one or two trappings of a chain - branded t-shirts for the staff – is in fact an independent operation that, importantly, smells and delivers like a bon-fide meat, er, joint. It has a relaxed feel but the food is the real deal: unapologetic and full-on.

Old BA hand HS nodded his approval at our starter of Beef Empanadas. Beautifully crisp, hot pastry encased minced Beef mixed with chopped Egg and Olives. There was probably some Paprika or similar going on in the mix giving a little heat. Not cheap at £2.80 a piece but well worth it.

A meal in a Parilla like one in say, an Asador follows a similar pattern: a few bits to nibble on and to distract you while the main event is prepared. Despite HS having consumed the best part of a K of Cowboy Ribeye for lunch at Goodman’s he gamely plumped for the biggest dish on the menu, the mighty Parillada Constancia.

Having a Steak cooked rare on a grill usually means that it doesn’t develop much of a crust, as was the case here. At Garufa this was a bit of a problem as it was served on a hot plate powered by tea lights. At Constancia they had a small brazier with ash-white coals. It was so hot I had to have a beer. By flipping the Steaks a couple of times and moving them around the required char was achieved.

As with most Argentinian places the Beef is imported and vac-packed. Traditionally the meat isn’t aged that much. I suppose this is because so much is eaten and the taste over there is for fresher tasting beef. I liked my aged JOS Steaks as much as the next person but I do like this younger stuff - there’s still the beefiness of a good steak. The complexity isn’t there but sometimes that’s an advantage: I’m don’t want to drink ’82 Clarets every day of the week. Once or twice a week is enough.

Morcilla was from Southern Spain. It didn’t have the rice of the stuff from Burgos, it wasn’t as runny as the Leon variety, nor did it have the spices of the pudding from Ronda. It was bloody good though (see what I did there). Even better were the homemade sausages which were dense and well-filled with a coarse pork mixture.

Serving the Provolone cheese in a separate dish was a good idea as usually it goes all over the grill and is a bugger to divvy up. Chips with Garlic and Parsley were great.

Given how echt the whole meal was HS wondered why there wasn’t intestine on the menu. When asked, one of the brothers shrugged his shoulders, “it’s difficult”. Which probably means some numpty in the Food Standards Agency thinks someone may strangle themselves on entrails. Bring it on, say I.

Probably unnecessary, but you know we’re going always going to order it anyway, two bowls of homemade Helados were good although I think my Vanilla and Dulce de Leche edged it.

With a Coffee and Grappa (both necessary to keep body and soul together) the final bill of £115 including service seemed pretty high. However, unless you went mad on the wine this is probably as much as you’re going to spend here and it is possible to get away for a less.

Given the great food, service and atmosphere and the fact there are places which charge a lot more for a lot less I think they’re onto a winner here with Constancia. File under top Argentinian in Bermondsey. Oh and good work, HS.

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