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

Saturday, October 30, 2010


I had planned to remain in London for at least another couple of weeks, until I received a call asking if I could attend some important meetings in NYC. So, I brought forward my flight to LA and rerouted it through The Big Apple. No great hardship to spend a couple days in one of my favourite cities, but a great shame to have to cancel catch ups with so many of my good chums back in Blighty. I trust they can find it in their hearts to forgive me.

It was an all too fleeting visit. Any visit to New York is too short, of course and I was there for work, not pleasure. However, amongst all the meetings, I did at least have a couple of nights to hang out with family and some of my close friends who live in the city.

I often get e-mails asking me which restaurants I recommend in New York and, while I can trot out the familiar names with the best of them, people seem most surprised when I tell them that my favourite place of all is a small Egyptian restaurant, The Kabab Cafe, in Astoria, Queens.

I have written about The Kabab Cafe and its owner, Ali El Sayed, before on the blog. I even dedicated a small part of the NYC chapter of Eat My Globe to a meal I enjoyed there in 2007. Tight schedules had meant I had not been able to fit in a trip to Queens since that visit.  So when my good friends, Cathy, Alan and Sandy suggested that we make it our venue for supper, I had no hesitation in agreeing to meet them in the tiny fifteen seat restaurant on Steinway Street.

A meal with Ali is not like any meal you will have ever experienced. It is not just that the food is exceptional, which it is (more of that in a moment) Nor is it just that a meal there costs about $40 if you are showing off, which it does. A meal at The Kabab Cafe is pure performance art as Ali gives you the benefit of his encyclopaedic knowledge and forthright opinions while delivering plate after plate of astonishing food from a kitchen the size of a small dining table.

There is a menu at The Kabab Cafe, I am told. But, I have never seen one. Ali knows that I am a man who is inordinately fond of my offal and had made plans in advance. As we arrived, we found assorted pots and pans bubbling away on the stove and the man himself decanting braised sheep heads into a bowl to remove the meat from when they had cooled.

Once we had all settled and opened a few bottles of wine (from which Ali, of course, helps himself to a liberal chef's share) the meal began in earnest with hot breads and an even hotter dipping sauce. I could describe the meal in detail, but there is little point as, if you were to visit, he would prepare something entirely different for you. In fact every table on our visit received an entirely different array of dishes to ours from the extensive catalogue he keeps in his head.

We began with a plate of sweetbreads with deep fried kale and thick hummus, followed by roasted beets with apples and zatac, dumplings stuffed with pumpkin in a yoghurt and basil sauce, lambs tongues with olives, crisp fried calves brains, artichoke hearts in lemon juice, whole roasted sea bass and gurnard, fried whitebait and, best of all, a dish Ali called Gavede, a stew of minced lamb served with a raw egg which he mixed into the bowl at the table.

Finally, as we all waved away the suggestion that we should attack a plate of braised lamb shanks, he relented his assault and let us finish off with a plate of home made Egyptian desserts and a cup of hot hibiscus tea to aid our digestion. It was another stunning effort from Mr El Sayed and confirmed the status of The Kabab Cafe as one of my favourite places to eat anywhere on earth.

I'll be back soon.

Just in case any of you are wondering about the first picture, it is of the excellent lobster roll served at the Grand Central Oyster Bar. A little treat to myself in a small gap between meetings at lunchtime. A bit over the top given how much food I knew we were going to be presented with that evening, but, hey, this is NYC after all.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Four years ago, DH decided to celebrate one year of posting about our eating experiences in words and blurry pictures by holding a small supper at one of our favourite restaurants.  We posted about it on the blog and managed to rustle up a little over a dozen willing souls to join us for memorable meal at Hawksmoor in Shoreditch.

Move on to 2010 and DINE WITH DH has become, people tell me, one of the more popular dining events in the capital with  hundreds of people requesting a place for meals at such notable restaurants as Casa Brindisa, Bentley's Indian Zing, Forman & Field, Vinoteca and The Bull & Last.

It is hard to believe we have hosted a dozen of the things to date, but the combination of a fixed price and great venues seems increasingly popular.  So much so that our latest event on Monday 25th could easily have seen ten times the number of people attending as the thirty lucky few whose names I pulled out of a hat.
Mind you, while the numbers may well reflect the popularity of DWDH, they also reflect the fact that our chosen venue for the night was the new Covent Garden Location for Hawksmoor's new restaurant.

DH and Hawksmoor go back a long way.  HP was one of the first people to walk through the door of the Shoreditch branch in 2006 and it has become a regular haunt for us ever since.  Given that these events may be more spaced out in future with my relocation stateside, I wanted to do something a little bit special for my all too brief return to Blighty and was delighted when Will & Huw said they would be up for hosting a bunch of us during their soft opening.

Unsurprisingly, the new space on Langley Street is stunning.  Huw tells me it is a converted brewery and both the bar area (always a vital part of the whole Hawksmoor offering) and main dining area are built around the supporting columns in the cellar space.  In the kitchen too, they have done things properly with about ten times the space of the original restaurant and a Josper Grill very much in effect.

After a welcoming cocktail provided by the good people of Ketel One we made our way to a long table set up for us down the spine of the main dining room and left the rest up to restaurant manager, Tim, Will, Huw and the rest of the excellent staff who were using the opportunity to feel their way around their new working space.

There was, of course, plenty of food.  There always is at DWDH.  The one thing we insist on is that people come away feeling like they have had fantastic value for money.  No one has let us down yet and Hawksmoor kept us well on track to some serious meat sweats with a menu that far surpassed even the impressive one they had promised.

I don't have pictures of everything because, quite frankly, I was a little bit pissed and too busy enjoying myself to remember to snap everything with my little point and shoot.  Particular mention, however, should go to the Hawksmoor chipolatas made with beef, pork & mutton, the T-bone steak which is still hard to beat as the best steak in London and a collection of stunning sides. Alongside all of that, there were oysters, Tamworth pork ribs, smoked salmon and a couple of exemplary desserts.

As well as the pre-supper cocktail, there was also enough good red wine splashing around to have a bath in and, for those that like that sort of thing, an espresso Martini.  All enough to send people out into the chill night air of Central London four hours later pledging to return again and again.  Quite right too.

One sour note of the evening, given the number of people who clamoured for tickets, was an e-mail from one pair of diners an hour before the event to say that they were not coming because they were ill.  These bugs that hit you an hour before you have to shell out £50 are a bitch aren't they?  Perhaps they should, as I reach my sixth decade, but the ill manners of some people never cease to amaze me.

All I can say is Amy Lu and friend, you don't know what you missed.

I am likely to be away from the UK for the next few months as I ponder on matters immigration.  However, I am already working on some ideas for next year.  So keep 'em peeled. Dine with DH will be back before you know it.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010


We've had a few (scrub that, thousands) of mails asking us why no updates to the blog. I can't speak for HS but in my case it's mainly down to the fact I’ve been on holiday but it’s also because I have a certain ennui with the current dining scene in this city.

While I'd like to believe that the many new Burrito joints (it's a flipping wrap - get over it), Bahn Mi shops (it's a sandwich pal, not Babette’s Feast) and grim chains (oh goody, yet another Eat, you are spoiling us, City of London) are raising the foodie bar in London I tend to see them as no more than exercises in seeing how much dosh can be squeezed from gullible Londoners for the least outlay.

Ditto most restaurants which rather than attempting to provide something so wonderful that you’d never want to go anywhere else again work on the “What can we get away with” principle based on the premise there’s always another mug punter around the corner.

Ok. Now I’ve got that little lot out of my system I can tell you about my visit to Les Deux Salons, a pretty major restaurant opening and as good a way as any to get the blog rolling again (albeit creakily).

First a confession: I've never had a satisfying meal at any of Anthony Demetre's restaurants. First at Putney Bridge - even after he had gained a Michelin star - then at Arbutus and Wild Honey. The latter two restaurants have always been extremely popular, due in part to keen pricing and perceived value for money (=cheap, something us Brits are very keen on) but I’m afraid I just didn't get it.

Les Deux Salons is a big step up from the more modest gaffs in the collection. It occupies what was previously a barn-like Pitcher and Piano located just South-West of Covent Garden. It’s now been converted by Martin Brudzinski from pissy lager-selling, pickup joint into, well, I guess it’s supposed to be an evocation of grand European brasserie. I think Mr Brudzinski must have knocked this one out on a Friday afternoon after a few stiffeners at the Dog and Duck.

I’m afraid I didn’t like it. It all felt a bit insubstantial to me. HS said it all sounded a bit Trompe l'oeil but he’s a smartarse and nobody likes them do they? The other tables were too spread out as well (limiting numbers?) – the seating in a brasserie needs a certain density. To cap it all my table was wobbly. Not a great crime against humanity, but, still.

Unfortunately, the food failed to compensate for the dodgy décor and the wobbly service – although the latter did improve as the evening progressed.

Once I’d got over the shock of not getting a slice of orange in my Lillet Rouge and the shock to my choppers of some tough bread – why are the simple things so hard – there was the triple whammy of not seeing any sort of Bivalves or Shellfish on a Brasserie Menu. Odd seeing as big trays of Fruits de Mer going out does add a certain glamour to proceedings. And who doesn’t like a dozen on the half shell with a glass of fizz?

Instead, and more prosaically, I went for the Brawn. A little bit of me died when a plate with a small glass jar turned up. This affectation has been done to death by now and isn't an improvement over a slab of terrine. The Brawn itself was underseasoned and tasted mostly of fat without any porkiness to compensate.

The small Beetroot and apple salad was strewn with some microgreens but was a bit apologetic. What was wrong with some piccalilli - this was English Brawn after all?

The Salt Cod Brandade dish was an improvement but had a built in entertainment factor. They omitted to tell me the Parsley Cromesqui would, when speared by my fork, spurt out dark green parsley puree like some sort of alien ejaculate. Well, the waiters probably had a chuckle.

The offending Cromesqui would have been a bit better (and less dangerous) if it hadn’t been so tough. I was pleasantly surprised by the baby squid which were properly cooked and having ate my bodyweight’s worth of them in Spain recently I know from baby squid. The brandade wasn’t too shoddy either although it was quite salty. Somehow though the dish was less than the sum of its parts.

Roast Halibut with razor clams was one of the most expensive dishes on the menu so what the dish lacked in embellishments should have been made up by good ingredients and precise cooking. The quality of the Halibut was fine but it was flabby and overcooked especially surprising as they’d not managed to get any colour on it. I suspect it may have been cooked properly then left on a hot plate to cook some more.

I quite like the idea of chopping up the clam and serving it in the shell but it was tasteless and a bit rubbery. It really could have done with a a squeeze of lemon to liven it up a bit.

The accompanying veg was beyond help.

A sweet of Rum Baba – fast becoming my number one dessert choice (sorry Ice Cream, you’re so dumped) – rescued things somewhat. It was light with a decent texture and a good measure of navy rum (other brands are not available) which was poured over it at table. I was a bit wary about the thin slices of pineapple served but they worked well providing a fresh, sweet counterpoint to the rum-sodden pudding. That’s not me BTW.

I wish it wasn’t so but at the end of the meal I was thinking that I've still never had a truly satisfying meal in an Anthony Demetre restaurant. But, hey, what do I know? The other places have been enough of a success to open a 250 seater restaurant in the heart of London’s famous West End which was filled and buzzing with (apparently) happy people. Call me an old, misery-guts naysayer but for me this says more about the low expectations of London’s restaurant-going public than it does about our burgeoning London restaurant scene.

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