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

Sunday, May 30, 2010


The other day I imagined Daniel Boulud in a meeting with the Mandarin Oriental and DB was saying “Thank you so much for this opportunity to bring my cooking to London” and the hotel bigwigs were saying “Well we had a meal cooked by Joël Antunes – it was memorable, fantastic stuff – he’s great, unavailable, hence your good self”. Well, it made me chuckle.

But surely, you might say, you’ve got this arse about face Hermano: DB is the famous one who you’d be very lucky to get. That’s as maybe but as far as I know M. Boulud does very little if any cooking these days, whereas M. Antunes was busy behind the stove on my visit to his eponymous brasserie. Yes, a chef who actually cooks in the restaurant which bears his name. Whatever next? How about a bloody good meal.

What’s extra surprising about this is the location of Brasserie Joël. I can’t say the Park Plaza Westminster hotel is the most hideous lump I’ve ever seen because there’s plenty around in Londo, but it comes close. Weirdly, it’s been sited just across the road from another Park Plaza hotel.

This behemoth is obviously aimed at the conference-goer and sure enough when I visited there were large groups of people who looked as disorientated as I was by the black décor and odd lighting. I found the act of actually walking to where I had to go quite difficult. And that was before I’d had a drink.

Eventually, through my random wanderings, I did find a bar called Primo. The portents for my evening weren’t good however. The correct answer in a cocktail bar to the request “I’ll have an Americano please” is not “right, one Americano coffee” neither is it “remind me what’s in an Americano again” when told it’s a cocktail. Less Primo more Lame-o. I stuck with a Campari and Soda.

Despite my legs buckling a bit at the shock of a £11 bill (that’ll learn me to be a wiseacre) I made it across the foyer into the restaurant and onto the set of a French sci-fi movie. I knew it was French because they had one of those compilations of chanteurs (and chanteuses) on the sound system with Charles Trenet going Boum and Yves Montand mourning lost love.

So there I was, all ready for a meal devised by an absentee executive chef serving up the same old stuff, except, blimey, the menu looked a bit different. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but dishes like Zucchini Flowers with shrimp mousse, Milk-fed Lamb shoulder, Suckling Pig Pork Belly do it for me all day long.

That Zucchini flower tasted pretty good too. Initially I was a bit disappointed it hadn’t been deep fried but the actual preparation – poached, I guess – was probably a better method given that the flower was stuffed with a delicate shrimp mousse and the stem retained some bite and flavor. It came with a light tomato coulis and a blob of Aubergine caviar. Nice one, chef.

It was the start of the Bank Holiday weekend and I wasn’t going anywhere (a bit like my life really) so an extra starter of Pork Terrine seemed mandatory – an unecessary indulgence. The terrines at Boulud have spoiled me for tettines in general so this one was going to have a hard time reaching that level. It didn’t: it was underseasoned and didn’t really have the depth of porkinessof the best examples. I also hope the artifice of putting terrines into those little kilner jars dies out (M. Antunes feels the same way). Still, a good effort and I liked the little accompanying toasts.

If there was a small dip with my terrine there was a massive rise (ooh-err) with my main course. A small hunk of Suckling Pig was good in the way that only Suckling Pig can be: sweet, fatty, rich. I believe there’s a picture of this actual piece of meat in the dictionary, next to the word unctuous.

Can one have too much pork ? Don’t be stupid - of course not. So with my pork there was a side of…pork. Pork feet - trotters perchance? – had been chopped up and made into a little cannelloni. If anything I liked it even more than the Suckling Pig.

When you’ve got good ingredients and have confidence in them and your preparation you don’t need much else on the plate. As if to reinforce this there was a solitary carrot but a good one and on the side a single roasted shallot. The whole had been annointed with a little jus which seemed to bring it all together.

Pud kept up the high standard. A light but alcohol-rich Baba au Rhum came with excellent Rum and Raisin Ice Cream, a small, roasted banana (much better than it sounds) and a little pot of crème Chantilly. I would normally run a mile from a dessert like this – so much going on, so much scope for disaster – but every component worked well and it didn’t deliver the sugar overload that sometimes comes as baggage.

At £6 I thought the price was reasonable too. You could pay twice that in more high-falutin’ places. In fact prices as a whole seem very fair given the quality of the food and the cooking and the fact we’re in a centrally-located hotel. And even with three glasses of wine I had to do a double-take when I got the bill.

Looking at chef’s CV it seems he’s been around a bit and his last job didn’t go too well. But my attitude with regards to the person cooking my meal is always the same: I don’t care what you’ve done in the past. I don’t really care what your plans are for the future. Just cook me the best meal you can in the here and now and I’ll be a happy camper. Job done M. Antunes.

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Saturday, May 29, 2010


The Prawn Cocktail Years have a lot to answer for, although if Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham hadn’t written their retro-cooking classic then as sure as Dib Dabs are Dib Dabs somebody else would have.

Yes - there’s a bit of a retro revival going on and it ain’t pretty. Fondues are the dish de nos jours and it’s easier to find a gourmet Sausage Roll than a decent pint of ale in a pub these days. The kids are just lapping it up.

And why shouldn’t they? As HS’s book Eating For Britain (buy it now!) shows there’s some great dishes from our past that are worth reviving. The trouble is the current trend manifests itself as putting a crappy, dried-up Scotch Egg on the menu. Wither all the creativity? And more importantly, could it be found in West London?

The Mall Tavern is yet another take on the modern gastropub, part of a chain owned by the Perritt Brothers. In the way that better examples of the genre are, it didn’t look like a chain gaff and according to the blurb had a good chef at the helm. There were rather too many French people there on my visit but the pub can’t help being in Notting Hill. Maybe as another retro measure they could put up a sign saying No Dogs, No Work Shoes and definitely No French.

But I digress. Massively. One of the USPs of the pub appears to be the range of snacks. Anything that gets people to eat a little something whilst drinking is obviously a good thing but the food on offer has to be up to snuff otherwise you’d be better off with a pack of peanuts.

I'm don't know where Cauliflower Fritters comes in the pantheon of great British bar snacks and I'm not sure they're a suitable match for a pint of Old Hooky but both were very good in their own way. The beer was well-kept and only slightly-annoyingly served in a jug (hey, groovy).

The fritters were small florets that had been blanched but still left with a bit of a bite and lightly battered. Served with a curried mayonnaise dip they were like a little veggie nod in the direction of our subcontinental, imperial past.

Lamb Scrumpets - another new one on me - were rissoles of meat that had been breaded and deep fried. Larry was pretty fatty but since the frying was good they weren’t de trop. I also liked Dorset Meatballs – little porky spheres in a tomato sauce with lots of fennel in the mix. More Old Country than West Country.

Asparagus should be really good at this time of the year but the specimens I had here weren’t. Chopping up the thicker bits and mixing them with shallots was a good idea but none of it had much of that lovely asparagus taste. Disappointing.

I am a sucker for Chicken Kiev although I have no idea when I last had one. Probably in a restaurant called La Cazuela in Fuengirola c1990 which served “The best Chicken Kiev on the Costa del Sol”. I think it came with kiwi fruit, but in those days everything came with kiwi fruit.

Chicken Kiev should be a fairly dense piece of fowl with garlicky, buttery juices just bursting to get out and splatter you and your beige slacks. This one opened with a wimper.

The Scotch Egg shape, while aesthetically pleasing didn’t work with the result that the chicken meat didn’t envelope the sauce properly. The crisp coating was good but it had come away from the chicken. And the filling wasn’t great with large unchopped bits of garlic strewn hither and thither.

A hash brown was more a sort of thick Rosti. A bit heavy going it was the wrong sort of starch to accompany an already rich plateful. Coleslaw done well is a fine dish but this one was poor – a mixture of finely shredded vegetables does not a slaw make.

Chips tasted ok but would have been better crisped up a bit. The kitchen must have had a heavy Friday night because they’d mislaid their vegetable peeler.

A decent sweet rescued things somewhat. A couple of big slabs of Neapolitan Ice Cream gave me a real À la recherche du temps perdu moment.

In spite of an indifferent main course the relaxed surroundings, good beer, a bit of original thinking in the snack department and smiley efficient service contributed to me having a pleasant time at The Mall Tavern.

It was only later, whilst indulging in a bout of post-meal analysis (Dos Hermanos do it all the time), that I felt a little short-changed. The kitchen can obviously cook but in a dining room where initially I was the only one eating it should have been better.

I’ve talked about this before but sometimes the difference between the merely competent and the excellent is the love and the effort the kitchen puts into the food. Details are important. If you’re not going to slip into the morass of gastropubs you’ve got to keep your standards up. Gastros that fancy themselves a cut above please take note.

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010


I'm not really down on chain restaurants - chain restaurants are down on me. With a few exceptions, once a place is chainified then all the characteristics that made the original so, well, original and endearing tend to go out the window. In their place come dull, safe menus. Portion control and bottom lines are royalty in this brave new world and the bean counters are the kingmakers. All so familiar, all so depressing.

North of the river – but probably coming soon to an area near you -
the major playas are the Martin brothers. Each new gastro opened by the pair seems to bring a decremental change in quality. I couldn’t even bring myself to eat in their last place The Cadogan Arms whose menu and atmosphere plumbed new depths of conformity and mediocrity.

South of the river, Renaissance Pubs (weren’t they a team in The Apprentice?) hold sway. The Tommyfield was originally The White Hart but this naughty sibling obviously wasn’t pulling its weight and so was rebranded, which sounds a lot more sinister that it probably is.

I’m guessing here, but I think the residents of Kennington are not spoiled for choice when it comes to gastropubs (there is of course the rather splendid Canton Arms just down the road but that’s not a gastro, no, definitely not a gastro) so I wasn’t surprised that The Tommyfield was pretty full and buzzing by the time I left.

There are, indeed, a lot of things to be buzzy about here. A pint of Sambrook Brewery’s Wandle was in very decent nick and I didn’t need to ask for it to be topped up. The room, though a bit “corporate”, wouldn’t be the worse place in the world to spend an hour or two. Unfortunately I couldn’t get too Sheffield United about the food. Not very bad, just so, so predictable.

It’s not exactly a challenging menu but execution of the food was a little uneven. A Soft Shell Crab fritter was in fact a whole crab, deep fried. Maybe fritter looked better on the blackboard. Fritter? Mmmm….nice. I think this type of crab is in season at the moment so I’m assuming it was fresh.

It wouldn’t have mattered if it was frozen though as the taste was mainly that of batter and oil, the latter obviously used for the Fish ‘n Chips. On the side, a pointless salad garnish and an industrial-tasting tartar sauce. The lemon did come in a little muslin bag though, which would have impressed HS no end.

I liked the fact that in a nod to the local demographic they had a Caribbean Patty on. I was regretting my decision though, as I watched a few sorry-looking, dried-up specimens going to neighbouring tables.
Happily mine was good and moist.

It didn’t look much like a conventional patty to me – they’re usually yellow owing to the turmeric used – and with the flaky pastry more akin to a pasty, but given the West Country-Bristol-Jamaica link I am prepared to believe this was a sort of retro-patty. The filling wasn’t bad, a bit white bread though and in serious need of spicing up. The requested hot sauce never turned up.

The price came with a bit of a cheeky sarf London wink too. A tenner is a bit steep for a pasty, sorry, patty, even with a blob of gloopy coleslaw (the chips were from the crab dish).

But that’s the nature of these operations where the markup percentage on glasses of average wine is measured in the hundreds and however much you try and convince yourself otherwise nothing is done out of love for the food or for the customer – more for the dosh. I’d have a pint of beer and then saunter down the road for your tea.

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Sunday, May 23, 2010


I am delighted to say that next week will see the publication of EATING FOR BRITAIN by John Murray.

I spent a litte over twelve months travelling to just about every corner of the U.K attempting to construct the perfect day of British eating. It was a heck of a trip and, along the way, I had the privilege of meeting farmers, chefs, restaurants owners, brewers, distillers, butchers and fishermen to name but a few.

There were a handful of things to really, really depress me about the state of food in Britain(Chicken Tikka Lasagna anyone? Nah, didn't think so). However, there was also much to be proud of (see pictures above for some of the highlights) and I returned home believing that British food is in a far better state than I imagined when I set out. We still have a long way to go, of course, but there are lots of folk out there who really do give a damn about bringing the best to our tables.

I could not get everywhere and, indeed, could not fit everyone I met in the book. But, I hope that those of you who are kind enough to pick up a copy of EATING FOR BRITAIN will at least think that I gave it a good stab and have done justice to the people I met.


The book is available on AMAZON

I do however have two signed copies to give away. To have a chance to win one all you have to do is answer the following question


Answers to with the subject heading EATING FOR BRITAIN BOOK

The competition closes on June 10th and I will select the winners names at random after that. I cannot enter into any correspondence with anyone, but shall inform the lucky (?) winners soon after.

Good luck and happy reading


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