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

Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Much as I’d like to believe that the slew of restaurant openings in London will raise the bar by providing more competition à la New York I fear it has instead diluted a dining scene that is, despite what excitable pundits may tell you, not as wonderful as it likes to think it is. The result has been that sorting the wheat from the chaff has become increasingly difficult and very dispiriting, especially when one's own ackers are involved.

We’ve done a couple of posts in the past about St Pancras and its other restaurant and I assume this is the final piece in the refurb jigsaw: the opening of the hotel, the Renaissance run by Marriott and the Gilbert Scott restaurant run by Marcus Warering.

Dos Hermanos have a bit of a soft spot for St Pancras – it has played a recurring role in our lives, so we’re always interested in anything associated with what is undoubtedly one of the most interesting buildings in London.

First impressions were promising. Despite some uncertain service in the bar I managed to get a Dry Martini that wasn't a complete disaster although when it comes to stemware I'm so over the funny glasses shtick - give me the classic Martini glass every time and historical precedent be damned.

Eventually the smiley servers managed to locate us and guide us to our table. The room has a nice wow factor to it despite being yet another space by David Collins – surely the Paul Ross of restaurant design - maybe because it appeared more tasteful than the usual luxury hotel norm which always brings to mind Miles Kington’s phrase “The best taste that money can buy”. They've jammed in 120 covers though so expect a bit of buffeting if you have a table in the centre.

So great room and good service, both of which are the result of no little effort I assume. Shame then, that things went downhill when it came to the food.

The dishes have a nod towards their origin in their name but it’s all a bit forced and comes over as Heston-lite although mercifully there wasn’t all the tedious historical footnotes that you get with Mr B.

My Asparagus with poached egg, almonds and tarragon was a good idea in search of more accurate cooking. The asparagus tasted fine but were mockingly floppy (oh how they mocked) and the whole was rather greasy. A sprinkling of some sea salt might have perked things up as well. The egg was properly cooked though.

Soles in coffins was aptly named – dismal, if not funereal. Whether it was the freshness or this preparation of a delicate fish that was to blame the result was flesh that was too soft and broke up too easily. The vermouth sauce was gloopy; the taste of the shrimp and mace didn’t come through. Chips were fat and could have done with some colour but at least they were cooked through.

I did note there were a lot of choices on the menu so I just wonder whether those dishes that require better timing may suffer compared to those which are mostly about the pre-prep.

Of the puddings the best was a slightly chewy but tasty Eccles Cake with Ice Cream. Not up to St John standards but still pretty good. Mrs Beeton’s Snow eggs with Everton toffee, peanuts, burnt honey custard sounded more interesting than it tasted, which wasn’t of anything much really.

A Bakewell tart was declared "Exceedingly Good" but I think that was in an deeply ironic sense. Then again it's a dish from Derbyshire so what would someone from the wrong side of the Pennines know about it anyway. Bloody Lancastrians.

Now it could be I was just unlucky with my choices. Certainly, my dining companions (Fish Cake/ Jugged Steak, Mulligatawny/Pigeon in a Pot) seemed happy enough with their dishes. But as I get disappointed on a regular basis I do wonder if there are enough good chefs to go around especially as for a lot of them the slightest whiff of greasepaint and they're off before you can say "Red Tomatoes, Green Peppers". That’s fair enough - people have bills to pay - but what does that leave for Joe Diner?

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011


In 2009, I was lucky enough to be invited to meet Ali Ahmed Aslam at his restaurant, The Sheesh Mahal, in Glasgow. You may not have heard of him, or indeed his restaurant, but he is arguably responsible for creating one of the most famous dishes in the world, the Chicken Tikka Masala.

Our meeting was part of research for my book, EATING FOR BRITAIN and, after spending time with Ali Aslam and his family, he took me into the small kitchen of the restaurant to show me how the dish was prepared. The food was delicious and I polished off the dish, cleaning my plate with pieces I tore from a stupidly large naan. It was a memorable experience and made, I hope, for an enjoyable chapter in the book. At the very least, to eat the sauce at the source was an memory that I shall not rapidly forget.

There is something quite special about eating at dish in the place where it was created and, over the last few years, I have been fortunate enough to do just that, sampling everything from Bakewell Puddings to Tabasco Sauce in the places where they were created and continue to thrive.

A short while ago, I received a mail from the good people at The Brown Hotel in Louisville, KY, where the "G.O.A.T" once lived and has a suite still bearing his name. The e-mail was an invitation to come and help celebrate the 85th Anniversary of the hotel’s culinary gift to the world, The Kentucky “Hot Brown”

I had heard of the Hot Brown before, but knew little about it other than having once heard it described as “a Welsh rarebit on steroids” That description alone was enough to make me want to take the hotel up on their offer, so Sybil and I combined the journey with the opportunity to meet up with one of her best friends who has relocated to the city and, on Saturday morning we arrived in the lobby of the hotel, hungry and in need of an unfeasibly large breakfast.

The Brown Hotel was not going to disappoint and, soon after we had been shown to our table in J.Graham’s, the hotel’s café, Chef Joseph Madzia appeared to escort us both to the kitchen. While I discussed the dish with the chef, Sybil commandeered the camera. So, if the pictures look better than usual, you know why.

The Kentucky Hot Brown was created, in 1926, by then Head Chef, Fred K. Schmidt. Although the official line is that it was created as a late night supper for the revellers in the Brown’s famous ballroom, there is also a theory that it was thrown together on the fly by the chef for hotel workers after they returned from a night on the tiles. Whatever the truth of its origins, there is little doubt that it soon became the most requested dish at The Brown Hotel, ordered by over 95% of its customers, and that its popularity spread until it became the unofficial signature dish of its home state. It is now available all over Kentucky and many restaurants in Louisville offer up their own version. The Hot Brown at The Brown Hotel, however, is the original and, according to most people I spoke to, still the best.

In the kitchen, Chef Madzia had laid out all the ingredients for the perfect Hot Brown. It is a simple dish, created with less ingredients than you could count on the fingers of two healthy hands; Texas Toast (a double slice thick brioche like bread), roast turkey breast, beefsteak tomato, mornay sauce (a béchamel sauce thickened with Parmesan cheese), grated Parmesan cheese, paprika and strips of bacon.

While Sybil proved her ability to snap away at an international level, the chef began to prepare the Hot Brown, cutting the crusts of two slices of Texas toast and layering them in the bottom of the enamel dish in which it would finally be served. He cut a beefsteak tomato into wedges and placed them at either side of the dish and then topped the bread with at least 7oz of turkey breast that he sliced off a turkey crown already roasted and allowed to cool that morning.

The bowl was then placed in a 450o oven for five or so minutes. While it began to take on a little colour, Chef Madzia added great fistfuls of freshly grated Parmesan cheese to a béchamel sauce he had prepared with cream, flour and a good crack of black pepper. As the cheese melted into the sauce, it was time to retrieve the dish from the oven and ladle over a glistening, thick coating of sauce making sure that everything in the bowl was drenched. Finally, the chef sprinkled a little paprika over the dish and topped it with two slices of crisp pre-cooked bacon, before returning it to the oven for one last blast to turn the surface of the sauce.

After taking some final shots of the finished dish, we returned to our table so Chef Madzia could prepare a couple for us to sample. While we waited, I took the opportunity to look up the nutritional information about The Kentucky Hot Brown on my iPhone. For the record, one serving provides around 900 calories, 53gms of fat, 45gms of carbohydrates and 57gsm of protein. Bloody Hell. Although, judging by those numbers, eating more than one a year would mean you will die an early death, you would also die with a whopping great big smile on your face as they carried you on a stretcher to the morgue.

The Hot Brown may be lethal, but it is also bloody delicious. Just as when I visited The Sheesh Mahal, I left solid evidence of my enjoyment of the dish with the instantly recognisable calling card of The Clean Plate Club. Sybil looked slightly aghast at my accomplishment, but it was enough to earn me a nod of approval and a murmur of “good job” from our server as he cleared away our plates and deposited our bill on the table.

To celebrate the 85th anniversary of the birth of The Kentucky Hot Brown, the hotel is trying to create 85 different versions of the dish. In an odd fit of enthusiasm, I promised them that I would make a Turkey Tikka Masala Hot Brown for them to include on their list.

I think Ali Ahmed Aslam would approve.

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Monday, May 23, 2011


Someone once said if you have a bad meal go and have another. So the next day following a less than sparkling dinner I took a stroll down to Ground Zero to see how the construction of the Freedom Tower is coming along (final height: 1,776 feet) then wandered back up to the LES for lunch at Momofuku Ko.

I was told it's a notoriously difficult res having only a dozen seats at a bar and only two sittings a day available solely via the website. I got lucky and had got a booking the first time I went on the site a couple of weeks earlier.

They don't allow photographs so there's not much to report apart from the fact that I spent an enjoyable three hours or so for lunch and that David Chang had obviously hidden all his Dan Brown tomes and carefully selected cookbooks by all his chef chums to decorate the toilet (come on, we all do it).

During the meal there were one or two wow moments and there was a good arc to the whole meal although it climaxed with chicken which was a bit prosaic, nice though the chicken was. It was good to have visited but I wouldn't be in a hurry to return.

I would return like a shot to Andrew Carmellini's The Dutch though. Situated in SoHo this American restaurant had only recently opened and when I popped by for an early supper the place was rocking. The friendly FOH directed me to the bar where I knocked back one of those American beers that taste as if a three-year old (remember, the one with the gun?) was now in possession of strong alcohol and a DIY beer flavor kit (No: 3 Porter).

I needed it mind you, on a Saturday night the sound levels were, er, quite challenging. Eventually the nice lady came and retrieved me and sat me down at the Oyster Bar which is not a bad place to be – there’s a quieter back room for those with reservations.

To be honest I wasn't expecting much from the food so when I started eating I was surprised at how good it all was. After a platter of Oysters (well I was exhorted to Eat Bivalves) tender Asian White Boy Ribs finished with a sort of soy glaze and sprinkled with sesame seeds were excellent but even better was the little Oyster Sandwich.

A riff on the slider/po’ boy, the oysters were fried in cornmeal and served in a toasted sesame seed bun with some sort of mayo-based relish. Possibly one of the best things I’ve put in my mouth all year and believe me there’s a lot of stuff that’s been in there. I quickly ordered another one. In case they ran out.

When I said it was one of the best things I’d eaten so far that was only because I hadn’t had the Fried Chicken yet. I don’t eat a lot of Fried Chicken – finding the good stuff in London is a bit tricky – but I’m willing to wager that I’ll never eat any as good as the Dutch’s version.

It had obviously just been cooked because it was very hot and a big waft of steam escaped as I broke into its coating, exposing the moist meat underneath. Normally I indulge in a certain amount of analysis (too much?) when eating a meal but this was one of those occasions when the response was purely visceral.

The chicken came with some warm, crumbly biscuits which were slathered in a honey butter and a tray of trad accompaniments, (almost condiments): coleslaw, collard greens and mashed potatoes and gravy.

Oh yes, and the fries were the best I had on the whole trip.

Sure, it’s just fried chicken and trimmings but to get them this good requires no little effort and a big heapin' helpin' of skill on the part of the kitchen.

Desert was a bit of a flop - the flavours of the Ice Cream and Sorbet selection I had ordered to fill in any small gaps in my stomach were too diffuse – although the little cookies were nice. Dear reader, I forgave them.

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Friday, May 20, 2011


I had hoped that by being in the United States on the big day I would escape the brouhaha surrounding the Royal Wedding but I was quickly disabused of that notion when I switched on the big screen TV in my hotel room. Most Americans seemed only vaguely aware of what was going on in London but the media sure was having a whale of a time. I rang my uncle who lives on the UWS to confirm he was showing due respect by genuflecting towards the screen.

Ensconced as I was near the West Village it was inevitable I would have to endure Little Britain and even more bombast and bunting but at least I could walk past The Village Vanguard and make-believe it was November ’61 and I was waiting to see Trane and his Quartet play their seminal set.

After a pleasant jaunt along the High Line - the second section extending it to West 30th Street is due to open in June - and a large hand-pressed OJ from a random 10th Avenue deli I dodged past the ne’er-do-wells around Penn Station, collected my Amtrak tickets and couriered a super-secret package to HS in LA. Chores done I wandered along to John Dory.

Part of Brit chef April Bloomfield’s burgeoning portfolio (The Spotted Pig and The Breslin being the others) John Dory is a sort of fishy brasserie situated on Broadway. Like a lot of places in the City it comes over as a casual sort of place with friendly tattoed staff and an interesting rock/reggae soundtrack.

No surprise that I was immediately drawn to the Oyster Bar which was piled high with ice and bivalves. As a snack a bowl of peanuts came roasted with cloves of garlic and rosemary and were good messy fun and yes, I did eat the garlic thus ensuring my continued success with the ladeez ("Helloooooooo....").

Oysters while not up there with the best of British Natives were nevertheless very enjoyable especially the West Coast Prince William (is there no escaping these people???). So enjoyable in fact that I had another dozen. I usually prefer my oyster au naturel but little relishes of cilantro and chilli, and a mixture of freshly grated horseradish and Champagne vinegar were good enough to eat on their own.

Chorizo stuffed squid with smoked tomato at $16 sounds like a lot for a single, small cephalopod but what a cephalopod! It was all soft and savoury and stuffed with a delicious rice cooked with chorizo and saffron and no doubt lots of other lovely things. It was sat on a ladleful of small, soft white beans and was topped with smoked tomatoes. Terrific stuff and I almost ordered another but instead got the check and headed onwards and, er, downtown-wards to Mario Batali’s Otto Enoteca and Pizzeria, my go-to place for gelato in NYC. Specifically the Olive Oil one created by ace gelato maker Meredith Kurtzman. Coffee, Grappa and a small mooch around after and I needed a little lie-down in a darkened room to prepare for dinner.

Al Fiori is a swanky joint in the swanky Hotel Setai. I had hoped for an atmosphere of understated elegance but it was as calm as a Pitcher and Piano on a Friday night in The City and the lighting was set veeeeeeeery low (if you value the appearance of your food it's worth visiting NY restaurants during the hours of daylight).

Food, when I could make it out, was the usual overworked small pieces of protein. Pasta a speciality of Executive Chef Michael White was a bit chewy and Desserts so unmemorable I didn't even take a photograph of them. Service was poor and we seemed to get a different person at each course, most whom didn't know who was having what or even what was on the plate. There wasn't even the recompense of good conversation as the noise levels meant I couldn't heard a word of what my guest (my uncle was saying).

The one highlight was discovering an Italian Saison ale that was really rather good but overall a pretty grim experience and one which just goes to show that NYC is quite capable of matching London for blah fine dining experiences.

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