Tuesday 14 December 2010

My top 10 restaurants of 2010

When Toptable recently asked me to provide them with a list of my top 10 favourite restaurants of 2010, I thought it would be fairly short easy exercise. In fact it took me bloody ages and involved much furious scribbling (mainly in crayon) fevered bad tempered arguments (with myself) and even some howling.
It was a surprisingly traumatic experience.

As dawn broke, I awoke on the kitchen floor... naked and clutching a screwed up piece of paper containing the following list.

These may not be the best, or the most achingly hip or the newest kids on the block - but I liked them, and they all provided a frigging amazing food experience. I'd visit any of them again in a heartbeat.

So, here it is, my top 10 of 2010.
Spot on? or don't know my arse from my elbow? let me know what you think...

Oh, and if you follow this link - you'll find a load of other lovely and talented food bloggers listing their favourites as well.

Bob Bob Ricard
1 Upper James Street, Soho, London, W1F 9DE

Fabulously eccentric and glamorous, BBR is in a league of its own when it comes to sheer bonkers opulence, even the toilets are incredible. A unique menu of Edwardian nursery food, Russian dishes and international classics. It’s the craziest menu I’ve ever seen. What’s even crazier is, it works beautifully.

The Restaurant at St Paul's
St Paul's Churchyard, London, EC4M 8AD

If you ever take visitors to lunch in London and want them to experience somewhere really British and the beautiful ingredients this island has to offer...take them here, and feel your heart swell with pride. The honey ice and gingerbread sandwich is a must.

The Gurnard's Head
Treen, St Ives, TR26 3DE

Perfect in every way. Beautifully cooked, locally sourced food, an incredible rugged location, a superb (and bargainous) wine list, cheery and friendly staff. It’s basically everything you want a British pub/restaurant to be.

157 Commercial Street, Aldgate, E1 6BJ or 11 Langley Street, London WC2H 9JG

Superb cocktails and top quality steaks. An innovative and eccentric British approach to breakfast/brunch and the best burger in London. Hawksmoor is one of my favourite restaurants anywhere. The new Covent Garden site and the kimchi burger have to be experienced.

The Seahorse Restaurant
5 South Embankment, Dartmouth, TQ6 9BH

Incredibly fresh seafood cooked brilliantly right on the Dartmouth quayside. It has the slick, lived in look of a restaurant that’s been around for years, but is relatively new. Almost worth making the trip to Devon for alone. A real treat.

Great Queen Street
32 Great Queen Street, WC2B 5AA

Rustic seasonal food with a real British slant in a bustling Covent Garden restaurant. The emphasis is on shared platters. GQSt is consistently excellent. In particular the whole 7 hour roast shoulder of lamb and the rib of beef for two have to be experienced.

Polpo and Polpetto
41 Beak Street, London, W1F 9SB or upstairs at The French House, 49 Dean Street, London, W1D 5BG

Polpo and its newer, smaller Soho sibling Polpetto offer Venetian ‘baccaro’ style small plates in stylishly shabby and lively settings. The menus are fascinating in the kind of way where you want to order everything. We did.

Patriot Square, London, E2 9NF

Incredibly interesting experimental food cooked by El Bulli trained Chef Nuno Mendez on the site of the former Bethnal Green town hall. The set menu has to be one of the best fine dining lunch bargains in London.

Chilli Cool
15 Leigh Street, London, WC1H 9EW

Incredible Szechuan food, heavy on the chillies with a real offal slant. Tendons, tripe and intestine all featuring on the menu, Chilli Cool is one of London’s ‘must do’ dining experiences. It’s also ridiculously cheap.The sea spicy aubergine is frigging amazing.

Lido Restaurant
Lido Spa, Oakfield Place, Clifton, Bristol, BS8 2BJ

Eating Middle Eastern and Spanish inspired food whilst overlooking the renovated Victorian swimming baths is a unique experience. Ex Moro chef Freddy Bird serves up a stunning menu featuring a wood fired oven. The set lunch menu is a complete bargain. A must visit if in Bristol.

Wednesday 8 December 2010

The Gurnards Head - Cornwall

As long as I can remember, the idea of staying in an old-fashioned inn has appealed to me. Not for me the stark contemporary clean lines of a modern hotel. I want real character. I want to stay in cosy rooms above the pub, take my nightcap in the bar; waved off to bed by cheery, pipe smoking (no doubt bearded) regulars. Awake refreshed and eat a hearty breakfast by a flickering log fire whilst surveying the weather rolling in across the rugged moors outside. I also want to eat excellent British, seasonal food and drink fabulous booze. I want it. I want it all.
Sadly the reality so far just hasn’t delivered. It’s hard, actually almost impossible to find an inn that also has rooms, and isn’t charging extortionate prices and also, most importantly hasn’t been turned into a Weatherspoons.

But, gather close regular readers, that’s right huddle close and listen as I whisper dramatically, because I want to keep this amongst ourselves…. I’ve found it! It exists, and not only is it all that I dreamed of…. it’s more. Much more.

This dream of a pub is The Gurnards Head, and you’ll have to head to the far reaches of Cornwall, almost to Lands End to find it. But it’s there, and it’s bloody excellent.
To be fair, I’d heard mention of it from Browners of ‘Around Britain with a Paunch’ and come across it in Diana Henry’s excellent Gastropub Cookbook, Another Helping, but had filed it away in my ‘one day’ file.

So, you can imagine my delight and mounting excitement as the Cornish countryside flashed by outside, whilst driving there last Sunday week with friends Kate and Neil of Lahloo Tea, who had suggested accompanying them for a meal and one night’s stay to celebrate Kate’s Birthday.
Even the low groans, curses and moans from an amazingly car sick ‘E’ in the back couldn’t detract from my no doubt irritating cheeriness as The Gurnards Head ‘hove into view’ (Check out my crusty barnacled nautical speak!). Pirate style “Gaaaaahs” were certainly appropriate, as the inn is situated in beautifully rugged Cornish countryside, just a couple of minutes walk from breathtaking steep cliffs, and beyond that, the sea. As they say at The Gurnards Head ‘Next stop Newfoundland’. It really is perfect.

“Gaaaaah” groaned ‘E’ suddenly. But alas it wasn’t the almost obligatory Pirate speak. No. It was the sound of a desperately carsick passenger about to puke inside the car. Luckily, we had arrived just in time to avert disaster as we screeched to a halt stumbled, stiff legged, aching and in the case of ‘E’ puce coloured, out into the rather bracing coastal air and crunched our way across the gravel to the entrance.

Inside The Gurnards Head it was perfectly cosy, with a log fire lazily crackling and popping in the grate. Greeted warmly at the bar, we threw ourselves onto a cosy sofa and were offered complimentary tea, whilst we slowly recovered from the drive.

Twenty minutes later, having checked into our rooms, which are as you’d expect from the inn of my imagination were cosy and rustic (and with supremely soft beds), we assembled back downstairs for Sunday lunch in the restaurant.

We’d taken advantage of a ‘Sleepover’ deal, which included one nights Sunday stay, lunch, dinner and breakfast for…get this, £75 per person! Which is such a ridiculous bargain, encompassing as it does dining of such quality that I almost want to keep it to myself.

Seated and studying the lunch menu with ‘E’ having regained her composure somewhat, we briskly set about ordering food and booze.

Incredibly good, crumbly homemade soda bread was munched as we guzzled amazingly well priced and excellent wine served by the carafe.

My starter of Chicken Liver pate, Toast and Gherkins - despite being rather conventional - was beautifully executed, creamy and mousse like but with real depth of flavour. It was nicely done.

‘E’s plate of Red Wine braised Squid and Croutons was less conventional, and from the brief forkful I snatched of it, bloody amazing. ‘E’ now says it was one of the best things she ate all weekend.

Being by the sea and wanting to embrace all things aquatic (apart from great white sharks and perhaps box jellyfish) I’d uncharacteristically disregarded the Slow Rib of Beef and the Braised Lamb Shoulder and gone for Plaice with Fennel, New Potatoes and Citrus Beurre Blanc.
One word. Amazing.
Beautifully cooked fish with the almost toffee like, slowly caramelised fennel. The citrus beurre blanc cut through all of the other flavours, tasting fresh and sharp, like it should be doing you some real good with regards to health benefits. Dangerously tasty.
‘E’ had gone for the same dish and we were both extremely pleased and smug with ourselves as we ordered dessert.

I ordered the Fig and Almond Jalouise, (a kind of French strudel/turnover apparently) with hazelnut custard. It wasn’t bad actually, I’ve never been a massive fan of figs so any dish I like where they feature I’d mark up as a success. Not as jaw droppingly excellent as the plaice, but perfectly good.

‘E’ meanwhile had gone for the Chocolate Brownie with clotted cream. Which, considering she makes famously good brownies for a living was perhaps a tad unadventurous. But, also adds weight somewhat to her enthusiastic thumbs up when she said it was superb.

Throwing our napkins onto the table and surveying the beautiful sunlit and rugged but freezing countryside outside we decided as a group that the best course of action would be to change into stout walking gear and go for a walk along the cliffs to work off lunch. There being apparently an excellent pub, recommended by the owner of The Gurnards Head in a nearby village.

Up to this point in our relationship, ‘E’ had often regaled me with tales of her outdoorswoman prowess and skill. “When I was camping in Wales/The Lake District/New Forest etc etc etc.
Understandably therefore I had her down as a cross between Bear Grylls and Daniel Boon, in fact I think I half believed she’d killed a large wild animal with her bare hands once, and I’d followed her advice on sturdy footwear (Hiking Boots) and spare warm clothing to the letter.
‘E’ on the other hand had followed none of her own advice, no suitable footwear and no spare clothes. In fact, she’d decided to wear every piece of clothing she had brought for the weekend all at once, as she was cold. Alarm bells were faintly beginning to ring.

Meanwhile, Kate and Neil appeared looking like they’d been sponsored by Gore-Tex, clad in all the correct outdoor gear. I jealously think I spied some kind of Kevlar retractable walking stick.

We strode off relaxed, happy and confident down the lane behind the pub towards the cliff path and beyond, the sea….

An hour later our cheery outdoor walk had descended into the sort of trial of grim desperation last seen on the Bataan Death March. ‘E’s tales of outdoor prowess were, lets say exaggerated, as we struggled our way over boulders, down rugged, slippery cliff paths with sheer drops into the sea just feet away and up tiring steep inclines. It was starting to get dark. It was cold. We couldn’t see a village with a cheery pub anywhere in the distance. How could it get worse?
That’s right. ‘E’ could slide fully over in the mud due to her entirely unsuitable footwear and be absolutely caked from head to toe. Disaster enough you might think, remember she was wearing ALL of her weekend clothes. But what’s this? ‘E’ scrabbling for purchase, has managed to grab a spiky gorse bush…and then, get this…somehow stuck her face in it as well! So less Bear Grylls, more Norman Wisdom

Struggling on, tired muddy and in ‘E’s case, bloody we started to come across traces of civilisation, and finally The Tinners Arms pub in Zennor that proved to be so cheery, warm and welcoming that even ‘E’ forgot about her earlier misfortune. We returned to The Gurnards Head in high spirits via a less taxing county lane route.

After a power nap, a hot shower, and a change of clothes (apart from ‘E’ who had to borrow clothes from Kate) we assembled downstairs in the bar for dinner, refreshed and cheery. Interestingly, I think a factor in the relaxation may be the lack of any mobile signal in the area. No calls, no Twitter, no email…frustrating at first, but then freed of the 21st century shackles of being so constantly contactable and in touch it becomes strangely liberating to take such a complete break.
Additionally the extremely happy and relaxed attitude of the staff helps. Nothing is too much trouble and this relaxed attitude extends to the pricing of the drinks, which are ridiculously cheap. There’s nothing worse than staying somewhere and looking at the bar menu or the room service menu and knowing you daren’t order from it less you be utterly gouged. Not so here, it seems there’s not much of a mark up in evidence at all. It’s extremely unusual to be able to order drinks and not really worry too much about the cost.

We opted to eat dinner in the bar, at a cosy corner table.
Starting with the same excellent homemade soda bread we’d eaten at lunch, we sat and discussed what to order.

The menu has an enticing second section ‘The Kitchen Garden’ with a selection of dishes based around produce from The Gurnard Head’s own garden. I agonised over my choice, there being so much I wanted to eat, but in the end went for a Quail and Mushroom tartlet with Celeriac Puree and Mushroom Jus.
I have rarely ordered a decent quail dish, being so often disappointed that I’ve almost given up on it. But happily this last throw of the dice proved to be well worth it. Frigging superb, rich, moist and incredibly tasty. I was tres impressed.

Meanwhile, ‘E’ was eating a beautiful looking dish of Scallops with Pumpkin Puree and Parsley Tapenade. She was enthusiastic about the dish with her only criticism being that the tapenade was perhaps a bit too overpowering when competing against the delicate flavours of the other ingredients.

I’d gone for the Cornish Duck Breast, with Chervil Root, Chard and Darphin Potatoes, chosen because I hadn’t eaten duck for ages, and was intrigued by chervil root, which in the end proved to have a pleasant slightly aniseed taste. Overall it was a cracking plate of food, The duck being beautifully cooked with my only criticism that perhaps the portion of darphin potatoes was a bit large in relation to the other elements of the dish…which isn’t really much of a criticism is it?

Across the table ‘E’ was taking the worst food photo with her mobile that I’ve ever seen. She’d made her plate of Brill, Cauliflower and Shrimp gratin, fresh Vermicelli, White Wine velouté and Spinach look like someone had just thrown it up onto the plate. Nice eh?.

Luckily, I am incredibly skilful (and also ruggedly handsome, but I digress), and was on hand to do the dish some justice. ‘E’ absolutely loved the taste of the brill and the gratin, but wasn’t massively keen on the vermicelli, saying that she’d have preferred some potatoes as the carb element to this dish instead. She was also keen to stress this has more to do with personal preference rather than anything wrong with the makeup of the food.

Across the table, Neil and Kate gave their respective dishes of Guinea Fowl and Sole ‘Murat’ massive thumbs up. Happiness all around then.

Our desserts of Apple Tart Tatin and Dark Chocolate pudding with mint ice cream were both very good, but when stacked up against the outstanding starters and mains, a little less impressive.

Overall, a bloody fabulous meal. We stayed up for some time afterwards drinking, playing cards and chatting. I found it an incredibly novel experience to be able to stagger off beyond the bar, up the stairs to bed afterwards rather than brave the cold and a taxi home.

Waking up, incredibly rested and relaxed, we dressed and headed downstairs to meet Kate and Neil for breakfast, which we ate at a table in the bar and being served by the impressively side-burned owner, Charles.

It seems the relaxed attitude extends to breakfast and you can order anything that takes your fancy, as much tea and coffee as you can drink, help yourself to toasted homemade bread and jams, a full English, locally smoked kippers, porridge…. the best breakfast ever really if you’re a greedy bastard like me.

It was so pleasant, rather than eating up and checking out, we sat and chatted, ate, drank and read the papers for a couple of hours. In the background the smouldering log fire burned lazily . Outside, proving just how rurally located it actually is, a herd of cows wandered past in the road outside, directly past the pubs front door. It really is a magical place to eat and stay at.

I can honestly say The Gurnards Head provided overall one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in a pub restaurant or hotel. The food was truly outstanding, the attitude of the owners and staff is beyond relaxed, they obviously love where they are and what they’re doing and they want you to love it too. I left, even after just one night’s stay feeling totally relaxed and refreshed and wishing I could reap the benefit of spending a week there.

‘The Sunday Sleepovers’ are available from 5th September to 22nd May 2011 and include complimentary tea on arrival, Sunday lunch, dinner, one night’s accommodation and breakfast the next day. For a frankly ridiculous £75 per person.
I urge you to go!!

The Gurnards Head
Nr Zennor
St. Ives.
TR26 3DE

Telephone: 01736 796 928


Wednesday 17 November 2010

Hawksmoor - 7 Dials - London

Last week I was summoned to appear in court as a witness. I’m more than prepared to do my civic duty, being from the less salubrious part of Essex, I am quite obviously a steadfast advocate where it comes to upholding the law…but sadly this call from lady justice proved to be a right royal pain in the arse. Let me explain. Now that I reside in Bristol, rather than Essex – London is now well over two hours away. Getting to Camberwell Green court for 9am, when there’s a tube strike on (not that it mattered much, South London being notoriously ill served by underground services), meant that I (and ‘E’ she’d kindly decided to accompany me for moral support) had to get up at 4am!

Nevertheless, we did it. I burst through the doors and strode into court, on time, with fists clenched and my jaw set in grim determination rehearsing my dramatic “You can’t handle the truth!” line only to be stopped dead in my tracks. The wheels of justice had pretty much fallen off already. The case was being ditched due to a ‘technicality’ and my services were no longer needed.

10am, a gorgeous sunny autumnal day in London.
What to do to salvage something from this disaster?
Stuff our faces and get roaring drunk perhaps?
Yes indeed, that sounds like inspired thinking!

Being a massive fan of the original Hawksmoor in Commercial Street, and an even bigger fan of their
incredible burger, the lure of the newly opened restaurant in Covent Garden was strong.
A few phone calls later, and we were all set for lunch.

Wandering into the reception area and then downstairs, the size of the new restaurant compared to the original is nothing but impressive. The whole place is decked out in wood panelling, there’s a distinct Victorian gentleman’s club vibe to the interior. It’s dark and cosy, and looks like it’s been in existence for decades rather than weeks. A beautifully appointed bar runs one whole length of the room, and then the main restaurant proper was just visible through some doors at one end.

Hawksmoor is renowned for its strong cocktail list, and a reputation for making them well, so the new bar menu is a fascinating read. Incredibly well researched with a potted history of every drink, it’s absorbing to flick through. I was particularly impressed with the section comprised of Edwardian ‘Bridging drinks’ – designed to while away the long hours between lunch and dinner. And If that isn’t a fantastic enough concept for you. How about a drink from the ‘Anti-Fogmatic’ section? I quote: -

Harry Craddock, an American who published the legendary Savoy
Cocktail Book in 1930, was obsessed with creating an effective pickme-
up. He thought it was a “great necessity of the age” to develop some
kind of “anti-fogmatic, eye opener, bracer, corpse reviver or morning
glory.” His recommendation was to drink such drinks “before 11am, or
whenever steam and energy are needed.”

Obviously a visionary, I am often lacking steam and energy before 11am and can obviously appreciate the need for such drinks.

We relaxed and took in the atmosphere. I sipped on a pretty decent ‘Marmalade cocktail’ whilst ‘E’ being something of a sherry fiend knocked back a ‘sherry cobbler’ Until we were joined by our lunch companion
Niamh and ready to wade into the food. Huzzah!

I’ll say it right now; bearing in mind how bloody amazing the original Hawksmoor burger is, there was really only one real choice for me from the menu – the kimchi burger.

Kimchi, in case you’re not aware (I wasn’t) is a Korean dish of fermented cabbage mixed with various spices. We were told one of the Hawksmoor chefs had tried it whilst travelling, and brought the idea back with him. Inspired.

I don’t often write about the wine I drink, but in this case the Moulin Montarels Grenache deserves a mention as it was bloody gorgeous and at £19 a bottle ridiculously cheap, a perfect accompaniment to a long boozy lunch.

It was with mounting excitement that I eyed each plate of food being transported from the kitchen, luckily I had sedated myself heavily with booze and vino otherwise I would have been barely able to contain myself when our food finally arrived.

There we have it in all its glory, the kimchi burger – using the incredible Hawksmoor burger as its base, I admired it from every angle. But what was that smell? A kind of cheesy, funky tangy whiff hung heavily in the air. Looking up, I eyed ‘E’ and
Niamh suspiciously and then slowly I realised. The smell was emanating from my burger. I wrinkled my nose and surmised that kimchi smells a bit like sweaty socks. Not that appetizing, but as I was paying £15 for the privilege, and I’d drank a fair bit of booze It would have to smell a hell of a lot worse than that to stop me from tucking in.

Proving that smell is absolutely no indication of how good something actually tastes. I found happily that the kimchi burger is bloody gorgeous, rich, spicy, and tangy with a bit of a chili whack – it really is an incredibly flavored thing. I liked it so much, after stuffing mine I ate Niamh’s leftovers. Cracking.

Paired with beef dripping chips and béarnaise, I was the proverbial dog with two dicks.

Meanwhile, ‘E’ being the problematic pescetarian that she is was tucking into half a lobster with triple cooked chips and béarnaise and judging by the rapidly growing graveyard of lobster bits and bobs being assembled at the side of the plate, really enjoying it.

We sat, chatted, laughed and ordered more wine, and then more wine and then finally staggered back to the bar to order more cocktails. We’d lost all track of time when ‘E’s good friend
Petra joined us.

Just for the record, we drank…

CORPSE REVIVER NO:4 Cognac stirred with Crème de Menthe & Fernet Branca
Not a big fan of this, it tasted like toothpaste.

Two rounds of
Vodka, Homemade Coffee Liqueur, Square Mile Coffee & a dash of Demarera syrup
These were bloody nice, really good.

Gin with homemade Ginger Syrup & Lemon Juice, topped with London Pride
A recommendation from the barman when asked for a refreshing drink – it certainly was.

Bermudan & Spiced St Lucian Rums blended with Coconut sorbet & Pineapple

Ahhhh a classic – and Hawksmoor’s version is incredible – loved this!!!

Finally Niamh and Petra shared a
Rye, Vermouth, Maraschino, Cane Syrup, Angostura Bitters & a dash of Absinthe
between them, which came up beautifully presented on a silver platter and was as far as I could tell, exemplary.

At this point we realized it was almost 8pm, we’d been in Hawksmoor for over seven hours (Now that’s what I call a lunch) and ‘E’ and I had to run to make our carriage back to Bristol.
Bearing in mind we were both utterly spannered, it’s amazing we made it up the stairs let alone back to Bristol.

Drawing a curtain over this tawdry, alcoholic end to the evening. Lets have a conclusion….
The new Covent Garden Hawksmoor restaurant is fantastic. The cocktail menu and bar is top drawer, really interesting and its a cracking place to while away an afternoon or evening drinking unusual concoctions.
the kimchi burger, despite smelling a bit ripe is bloody incredible, so much so I almost ordered a second one later in the evening. Hawksmoor’s
original burger is in my opinion probably the best you can eat in London – I can’t give higher praise than saying that the kimchi burger is equally as good.

Go, Go, Go!!!

11 Langley St.

Telephone: 020 7856 2154


Tuesday 9 November 2010

Polpetto - London

Good Morning to all of you.
The beautiful, intelligent and amazing people who no doubt make up the readership of my blog.

First, an apology.
I know that lately, it seems that all my spare time has been taken up with ‘The Basement’ supper club and as such; I just haven’t had the chance to write about the restaurants I’ve been eating at. I want to share, I really do – but I just seem to spend my time running around like a headless chicken.
*Sad puppy-dog face*.

But suddenly, what’s this? A free day to fall out of bed, lazily scratch my generously proportioned genitalia*, yawn, and then slouch around in my pants like the slovenly bum I am, drinking tea and generally doing whatever the hell takes my fancy?
Hell yes....YES.

Today is that day friends. And I’m going to write about Polpetto, (Baby octopus) the newish (Opened end of August) tiny offshoot of the extremely successful and significantly larger Soho restaurant Polpo (Octopus). Ahhhh see what they did there? Clever.

Polpetto follows the same format as its older, more established parent, in that it’s modelled on a Venetian ‘Bacaro’ a type of working mans pub, specific to Venice where small plates of snacks, known as Cicheti are served.
It also shares the same rather fantastic interior design, which is a kind of semi industrial, shabby, 1930’s New York chic. It’s very nicely done, and creates just the right kind of furtive atmosphere I like when I’m dining. Mark me down as a fan.

So that’s the similarities covered, what about the differences?
Polpo isn’t a massive space but compared to its baby offshoot, it feels cavernous. Unusually for a restaurant, Polpetto inhabits a single room above The French House pub in Soho. It probably seats no more than 20 – 25 diners. Access is by a side door, with a brief glimpse of the busy pub bar, as you climb up a few flights of stairs, through a doorway to the dining room. All of this adds something to the almost speakeasy atmosphere, a hidden back room restaurant only frequented by those in the know, rather than the Soho media darlings, movers and shakers who were in evidence on the lunchtime ‘E’ and I visited. (OK, if you simply MUST know we were sitting between the celebrated author Sebastian Faulks on one side and the finance director of Hakkasan on the other. It goes without saying that ‘E’ and I had no idea who they were until it was pointed out to us later).

Another major difference is that, unlike Polpo at lunchtime the dining room is flooded with light from the large windows running one whole length of the room. With the lively hustle and bustle of Dean Street just outside, on a nice sunny day this gives the room an extremely airy and open feel, which goes some way to detract from the diminutive proportions of the restaurant.

Enough about the interior design and the atmosphere lets get on and talk about the food!

First, and most importantly some alcohol – we both ordered a spritz with Aperol to sip on whilst we perused the menu. This is a sophisticated drink for sophisticated people. I was of course, in my element.

‘E’ and I decided to mostly bypass the Cicheti, not wanting to be detracted from the main dishes. But, we just couldn’t resist a nibble of smoked swordfish with lemon and dill ricotta. I found it pleasant enough, the contrasting flavours of the smoked fish against the light, herby lemony tang of the filling worked well, but I think the ricotta filling was perhaps too cold dulling the taste somewhat.

Moving on, we ordered a selection of side dishes to share.
A portion of really superb crispy based Pizzeta Bianca with a delcious, slightly gooey, onion and cheese topping.

A bowl of some rather nice shoestring zucchini fries.

And, a standout dish of warm lentils with basil, topped with a mound of Burrata (A soft Italian speciality cheese similar to mozzarella, but much more creamy and delicate). This was bloody delicious, both ‘E’ and I liked it a lot.

As a main, I’d ordered Osso Buco with saffron risotto and despite being unlucky enough to get a veal shank that was solid bone with no marrow to speak of, it was frigging superb, The rich velvety meaty texture of veal against the creamy perfectly cooked saffron risotto was just out of this world.

‘E’ had chosen the soft shell crab in Parmesan batter with celeriac slaw, and despite it being perhaps a less aesthetically pleasing plate to look at than some of the previous dishes we’d ordered, what little I got to nibble on tasted impressive. ‘E’ devoured it greedily and gave it the thumbs up.

By this stage we were absolutely stuffed silly, but still managed to fit in a nice little glass of tiramisu to share.

I absolutely love Polpetto. It has a wonderful buzzing atmosphere with an artfully decrepit yet secretive vibe and outstanding rustic food. What more could you want?
As with Polpo there’s a no booking policy for dinner, but you can book for lunch. Go!!!


Upstairs at The French House
49 Dean Street

Telephone: 020 7734 1969


I just HAVE to say that - them's the rules, I don't make em.

Monday 1 November 2010

Fame at the Basement!! (And our 2nd Supper).

The dining room is darkened. Silence.
The sudden low electrical hum as a spotlight suddenly appears in the centre of the floor, dust pirouettes lazily in the glow.
An appreciative gasp from the audience as I stride into the limelight, contemptuous of the stir I've just caused. I strike a pose, and hold it. Clad head to toe in a body hugging black Lycra catsuit, my athletic dancer outline broken only by my leg warmers and the stick I use to beat on the floor for emphasis as I spit out "Fame costs, and right here is where you start paying"...I strike a 'jazz hands' position. The audience gasps, then hushed silence as strange rhythmic music, played on a bongo begins to drift out of the darkness.
I begin my routine with a daring crotch splitting high kick and spin...

*Sound of a needle skidding across the track*

No silly people.
Not the 1980's TV Show 'Fame'!

The fame that comes from having a recipe from Montpelier Basement featured in Xanthe Clay's column in The Telegraph. And, if that wasn't enough, Fiona Beckett the new Guardian wine columnist (and food writer) coming to our second supper and giving us a stonking write up on her blog, kind of fame!
To say 'E' and I are chuffed silly would be a complete understatement. Cheesy grins, high-fives and backslaps all round.

Although, not quite as good as me dancing gracefully in a body hugging leotard I think you'll all agree, but it's up there.... it’s certainly up there.

So, the second supper was superb (has a nice ring to it don’t you think?)
As you can see, the final menu featured pumpkin in every course (as it was Halloween...err...almost), but it was all quite subtle.

The Montpelier Basement - Saturday 30th October.

Sherry served with Gorwydd Caerphilly, thyme, chilli and pumpkin dust gougère

Bertinet rustic rye bread with West Country butter

Pumpkin and sage soup with deep fried sage, brown butter and chilli

Baked Cornish haddock with pumpkin crust, leeks and white wine sauce.

Onglet with pumpkin jam and polenta chips
Mushroom and Old Demdike tatin with thyme, chestnuts and squash

Spiced pumpkin and pecan cake with mascarpone, honey and toasted pecans

And finally,
Gorwydd Caerphilly and Bristol Beer Factory Milk Stout Rarebit

Quite an adventurous menu I'd say, given that we only have a domestic kitchen to crank it all out from. We had all eleven guests seated at one table stretching the length of the room, rather than split up onto separate tables. The problem with this arrangement is how to get eleven plates of food out all at once, and all hot with only limited hob and oven space. But with careful planning, flow charts, pie charts, spreadsheets and a white board, 'E' managed to drill into my dense skull exactly how this could be achieved. But more about that later.

Before our guests arrived, we'd laid the table, lit the wood fire which was roaring away, throwing a nice warm flicker around the room, lit the candles and finally - as it was Halloween (well almost) we'd borrowed a projector and had old black and white horror films playing on one of the dining room walls. It worked really well and added a really superb atmosphere to the dining room.

First up - the Gorwydd Caerphilly, thyme, chilli and pumpkin dust gougère, which we served as nibbles with sherry. The basic gougère recipe I've blogged before here, but we substituted Caerphilly for Cheddar, added some Thyme and dusted with chilli flakes and blitzed toasted pumpkin seeds.

After some beautiful Bertinet rye bread, we served a small portion of pumpkin and sage soup ('E' now has her own blog, and has helpfully put the recipe up here). We decorated this with chilli flakes and deep fried sage leaves .

Next, we were both especially pleased with the baked Cornish haddock with pumpkin crust, leeks and white wine sauce. It looked really elegant and tasted incredible (we made an extra portion for ourselves). It was actually a bastardised Gary Rhodes recipe from my old favourite 'New British Classics'. He uses Halibut and serves it in much bigger portions.

We had one vegetarian diner, and 'E' had made them a superb Mushroom and Old Demdike tatin with thyme, chestnuts and squash. We'd used a mixture of chestnut mushrooms, Portobello and for added luxury (it was an alternative to steak after all) sliced fresh ceps. This was layered through with Old Demdike cheese and thyme. We served it with the same pumpkin jam (Made the previous night) and polenta chips that we served with the Onglet.

The steak presented us with something of a problem. How to cook eleven massive slabs of Onglet, and then rest them.... to serve all at the same time, hot with only four hobs. Helpfully, the head chef at Source Food Hall & Cafe presented the solution to us. Pre-sear the Onglet first, and then whack all of it on a baking tray, covered with foil into the oven and cook until medium rare. A technique that worked beautifully. (Source incidentally supplied us with both the freshest Cornish Haddock, as well as the superb Onglet and Ceps).

Unfortunately, not everything was as easily worked around. The Polenta chips that we served with the onglet were a hell of a lot of work to flour, egg, and coat in panko then fry in small batches. But with head's down and working methodically we ploughed through it.

With the polenta chips fried, me frantically slicing the now rested steak and 'E' artistically smearing the plates with pumpkin jam and plating up, we managed to get the hardest course out. High Five!

Breathing a sigh of relief, and knocking back a celebratory glass of red we plated up the beautifully moist Spiced pumpkin and pecan cake with mascarpone, honey and toasted pecans which 'E' has made the previous evening (recipe here).
I drizzled with honey and artistically scattered toasted pecans whilst 'E' expertly shaped the mascarpone quenelles.

Pudding served we left the confines of the kitchen to sit with our guests, drink as much booze as we could lay our hands on and generally relax a bit and enjoy the atmosphere, with just a brief visit back to the grill to make the final course of Rarebit.

Everything, (surprisingly) had gone extremely smoothly, no tourette like streams of swearing, no panicked shouting and no screams, all of which have so often been the hallmarks of my dinner parties. Just fairly calm hustle in the kitchen.

With the majority of our guests waving unsteady goodbyes at around 1:30am, 'E' and I declared the second supper a bloody good evening, left the mess to clear up in the morning and crawled drunkenly upstairs to bed.

If you fancy attending a future supper at The Montpelier Basement, or would like to be added to our mailing list then send us an email at

We have at least two more dates planned for 2010, the 13th November and 27th November. (And possibly one more date in early December).
We’d love to see you.

Sunday 24 October 2010

This and that, bits and bobs etc…

What with all the work involved in The Montpelier Basement, I’ve found it pretty hard to find time to keep up with the blog posts. Seems this supper club gig is really time intensive!
But rest assured, in the background I’m still ‘out there’ doing all the same foodie stuff, eating in restaurants, cooking at home and falling out of bars…a lot – I just haven’t been writing about it as much…. which come to think of it, is no fun for anyone dammit, you want…no, you DEMAND to know what’s going on…. and I hear you, my beautiful, intelligent readers…. For indeed you are all beautiful and extremely intelligent and I am listening, like an unusual Essex-bloke-shaped radio antenna. I hear your plaintive cries for information reaching my furrowed brow, bombarding my brain with pleas…. I am attuned, and I’m going to give you what you want! Oh yeah, I’m going to squash a load of stuff into this post…. pack it, squeeze it all in until something breaks, or I get bored…and we’re off!!!!

First up, the next Montpelier Basement supper is being held on Saturday 30th October. The inaugural event seemed to be a massive success (*taps nose* check out Xanthe Clay’s column in The Telegraph next Saturday – say no more, say no more). We’re sold out already. However, we’ve worked out some future dates for the diary; Saturday 13th November and Saturday 27th November. Both dates are being booked up fast, so if you want to come, email montpelierbsmt@gmail.com

What will we be serving up at the next event on the 30th?

Here’s the menu….

Arrival drinks and nibbles

Bertinet bread and West country butter

Pumpkin and sage soup with deep fried sage, brown butter and chilli

Baked Cornish haddock with pumpkin crust. (Vegetarian option tbc)

Onglet with pumpkin jam, greens and polenta chips
Mushroom and Ogleshield tatin with thyme, chestnuts and squash

Spiced pumpkin and pecan cake with maple mascarpone, honey and toasted nuts.


As it’s Halloween weekend, we’ve tried to feature pumpkin in the menu a fair bit. Mainly because it’s orange and errr scary.

Moving on…..

Lets talk about Elizabeth David. Rightfully considered to be one of the most influential post war food writers and cooks Britain has ever produced, she pretty much singlehandedly shaped the face of what we eat and in some ways still influences what we eat today. So basically as important as it gets. Aaaaaaand, until I started writing my food blog almost two years ago, I’d never heard of her. There I’ve said it! I didn’t know who Elizabeth David was; fellow foodies come hither and flay me with chains, then squirt me liberally with lemon juice (Sicilian of course).
I’d like to say it’s because I was just too ‘into Escoffier to have time for her man’, or something. But no, I was just blissfully ignorant. Yet, gradually I became aware of her and her works. As they were entirely text (and being from Essex I’m all about the pictures) I always just scanned them and never really took them in. Until a few weeks ago, when I was sent *drum roll purlease* ‘At Elizabeth David’s Table’, a collection of her more everyday recipes, all with glorious food porn photos of what the grub is actually supposed to look like. So now, when I’m knocking out a quick Perdrix a l’auvergnate, I know exactly what it’s supposed to look like.
The interesting thing about this book, for someone like me who is less accustomed to Elizabeth David’s work, is how ahead of her time she was and how obviously influential she has been. Nearly all of the recipes could have been written yesterday, and considering how hard the exotic ingredients must have been to source in a dreary, just released from the shackles of wartime rationing Britain, the book is not only a cracking collection of her recipes, but a fascinating insight into our country’s food heritage.

I cooked a couple of things from the book (had to try it out of course), and the results were pretty good. Although, a quick pasta dish, Fettuccine alla marinara was fairly unspectacular as far as pasta goes.

I was much more impressed with the coffee ice cream recipe (which incidentally is something ‘E’ absolutely loves) and the classic chocolate mousse. Results for both of these were good, and being Elizabeth David, the recipes are beautifully written.

But enough about the past, now let’s talk about the future, in the shape of Stevie Parle, who aged just 24 has managed to cram a ridiculously impressive list of restaurants onto his CV. He has recently been awarded Young Chef Of The Year by Observer Food Monthly, as well as running the London pop up Moveable Restaurant AND has now opened his own restaurant, The Dock Kitchen…. oh…in between this it seems like he’s travelled everywhere. As such, we should all hate him with a fixated jealous seething anger, but I was sent his cookbook ‘My Kitchen, Real Food From Near And Far’ quite a while ago, and this is the thing…. all of the recipes I’ve tried so far are frigging amazing! (Chana Masala, I’m looking at you baby). So he’s grudgingly forgiven, frigging overachiever that he is.
Anyway, we were so impressed we had a bit of an evening where we cooked a few dishes from it, all were new to me and all were superb.

Apart from the aforementioned Chana Masala, a chickpea curry which achieves the rather enviable double whammy of being both delicious and cheap, we also made Avial, which was one of the weirdest things I’ve ever eaten; a thick coconut, yoghurt and vegetable paste, it looked utterly bizarre but was strangely tasty.

While we were at it, we made our own chapattis from a recipe in the book, which were surprisingly simple to knock up. Finally we made a fresh ginger and tamarind pickle. This particular accompaniment seemed to involve a hell of a lot of work for the end result of a small pot of pickle, but wow! It was bloody gorgeous. The strange thing is, when I tasted it, I realised immediately that I’ve encountered versions of it before in a hundred Indian restaurants, but I’ve never known what it was and it always tasted disgusting. Not this though, it was fresh, vibrant and punchy – I can’t recommend it enough.
So in conclusion, if you don’t have it – Stevie Parle’s book is really worth picking up.

Finally, the other night ‘E’ and I attended a Bristol supper club run by Sam J Leach. We’ve visited before and I wrote about it here, the food was cracking and when we heard he was holding another event, we signed up straightaway.

As before, the food was superb, and now having had a go at running our own supper club we have a bit more of an appreciation of how much bloody hard work it all is. There were a couple of truly standout courses, the duck heart, smoked mash and beetroot was delicious and beautifully presented, but what really blew me away (and everyone else it seemed), was the dessert.

A toffee apple hollowed out and filled with custard. Sam had cleverly worked out how to achieve this, and the ‘oooh’s and ‘ahhhh’s from our fellow diners that filled the room as everyone broke through the outer caramel shell and discovered the custard filling in unison, were a delight to hear. Stunning and extremely clever. Bravo.

There’s a hell of a lot more that I’ve eaten, cooked and drank lately that I’d love to share with you, (An excellent lunch at Polpetto in Soho, a not so great burger but great beer at Draft House Tower Bridge and a book launch at Moti Mahal spring to mind) but I’m acutely aware that too much information and peoples attentions start to wander. Yes I’m talking to you at the back.

So until next time, and do come to our supper club if you can, we'd love to see you.