Thursday 30 June 2011

Not 'Basement' behaviour.

So, can you believe ‘E’ and myself have been running ‘The Montpelier Basement’ supper club in our home since October last year? errr what’s that? *counts slowly on fingers* eight frigging months! Unbelievable. Surprisingly for us, (as I’ve just counted the dates up), tomorrow’s ‘Basement’ will be our 23rd. Therefore I thought it was high time that I wrote about it a bit, and you know…. spill my guts in a sharing fashion.

First of all, utilising all my fingers, and some of my toes, I can tell you that we’ve had nearly 400 people pass through our doors and eat our food. Incredibly, considering that number, nearly all of these people have been absolutely amazing individuals. They’ve been no problem whatsoever, they’ve loved what we’re doing and in return, we’ve loved them dearly. *blows copious air kisses, mwah mwah fashion*

But, it hasn’t been all rainbows, cuddles and snuggums. A couple of people have, quite frankly, been very bad guests. But, only a couple, out of nearly 400, that’s actually quite amazing. Nevertheless these few individuals have blighted our ‘Basement’ with their presence, and we curse their collective memories.

The most ghastly of our few rubbish guests descended on our subterranean lair a few months back. Lets call her ‘Sharon’, (errr because that’s actually her name). ‘Shazza’ was basically the supper club guest from hell.
She came on her own, which isn’t unusual in itself, lots of people do and that’s fine. She was in her late 50’s I guess, and she seemed a little bit pissed when she arrived. She ended up sitting on a table with 4 other people who were in their early twenties. It wasn’t long before we realised that she was completely dominating the whole table’s conversation. She was one of those awful people, with a loud voice (slurred) and an opinion on pretty much everything, all of it backed up with a winding longwinded story. The rest of the table were sitting there stunned, in a complete verbal vacuum. Mere puppets as Shazza held court in the most awful fashion.

But, our guests are adults, they can deal with this…. Thought I naively, until ‘E’ came into the kitchen aghast, and told me that ‘Shaz’ was now regaling her new dining companions with a cheery tale about her friend who had apparently committed suicide. As you can imagine, they quite literally looked like someone had died. Four pairs of eyes pleading for help and framed by expressions of exquisite misery greeted me, as I was physically ejected by ‘E’ out of the kitchen and into the dining room with orders to ‘change the subject’.

I decided the best approach was to engage Sharon in conversation, and draw her away from the others so they could best make their escape. Coming, as I do, from Essex, I have much experience of chatting to drunkards and felt assured that I could deal with this confidently. Try as I might, I can’t remember exactly what I said, or what Sharon said in response. I can only conclude that part of my memory has been blotted out, in what is no doubt some kind of primal brain defence mechanism which I am confident will see me awaking in years to come bathed in sweat and screaming.

But, the main thing is, I took one for the team. I changed the subject.

The evening progressed, and Shazza hadn’t seemed to cause any more real trouble. Apart from provoking the odd look from other guests. She’d taken to moving around the room, sitting at the other tables chatting, and helping herself to wine. Eventually at the arse end of the evening, myself, ‘E’ and two other women who happened to be young Doctors were left drinking and chatting. They were lovely, extremely funny and quite obviously had enjoyed a great evening, which made us happy. Shazza was still floating around, and by this time was steaming drunk. She offered to ‘help with the washing up’. We politely declined. She looked restless. A couple of minutes later, I looked around and realised she’d wandered into the empty kitchen. As I got up to she where she’d got to, she came stumbling out mumbling incoherently. The Doctors, bless em, had at this point realised what a problem Shazza was and whispered that they’d take her with them when they left.

I could only admire their skill, obviously honed to perfection in dealing with troublesome patients as they expertly shepherded our ghastly guest, cheerfully crying ‘C’mon Shazza, you’re coming with us’. Somewhat surprisingly she obediently accompanied them up the stairs to the front door.
As the unlikely trio departed into the night, we relaxed and breathed a sigh of relief. Immediately resolving that Sharon would never be coming to ‘The Basement’ again.

But my sorry tale doesn’t end there. The next day, whilst tidying up the wreckage in the kitchen, I found an envelope stuffed behind the radio. It was Shazzer’s payment envelope. Confused, I ripped it open. Instead of leaving the suggested donation of £25, she’d left £15, and hidden it. This despite raving how good the evening and the food was, necking a load of leftover wine and ruining the evening for her entire table with her complete boorishness.
Shazza, you’re a piece of work. If I ever see you again, it will be far too soon.To all our guests that night who may have been mentally scarred. We're truly sorry.

No one else has even come close to Shazza for sheer awfulness. In fact, as I said previously, we’ve been extremely lucky that nearly all save for a tiny minority have been an absolute pleasure welcome into our home and cook for. We love you all ‘Basementeers’.

So that’s our worst ever supper club guest.
I’d be interested to hear what’s the worst behaviour you’ve witnessed at a supper club, or even a restaurant for that matter.
Go on share.

PS: If you fancy coming along to a future ‘Basement’ (No Shazza – we promise – drop us an email at

Saturday 18 June 2011

Momofuku ginger spring onion noodles

I must have been living under a rock, because until I was sent a copy of the Momofuku cookbook a while back, I’d never heard of the New York restaurant group or David Chang, the chef and owner.
As regular readers know, I absolutely covet a cook book, and I had a quick flick through, thought it looked fairly interesting, but as is common with me – got distracted by other new shinier things, it went on the shelf, and I didn’t go back for another look.

In the meantime, as is often the way, Momofuku (Lucky Peach translated from Japanese) had registered on my consciousness and I started to notice it cropping up again and again, on Twitter, on the interweb and once on TV where I saw Anthony ‘Kitchen Confidential’ Bourdain eating his way through a whole shedload of their interesting looking dishes whilst chatting with David Chang, the chef.

I’m notoriously slow on the uptake, but eventually, with enough of this drip, drip, Momo drip Fuku drip feed bouncing off my skull, something had to give. Last Sunday, it was pissing down, torrentially, all day, without respite. With absolutely nothing better to do, I pulled the Momofuku book off the shelf for another, proper look.
It’s brilliant.

For starters, David Chang is brutally honest; about his food, his shortcomings as a chef, his business and the way he set it up. It makes for some fantastic and very funny reading. Chang has a real no nonsense, straight to the point style, much of it liberally sprinkled with ‘fucks’. It’s definitely not your average cookbook. I found it utterly compelling.

Then there’s the recipes. The Momofuku style is an incredible mish-mash of mostly Japanese and Korean food, sometimes mixed with a more classical cooking style thrown in with whatever seems to take Chang’s fancy. It’s almost impossible to define, with Chang himself describing his style hilariously as ‘bad pseudo-fusion cuisine’.

A lot of the recipes involve a fair bit of work, there’s often no real dumbing down or dilution for the home cook. But surprisingly it’s not off putting, as the technique and the thinking behind the dishes is what makes it all so interesting.

But, there is one recipe that is instantly accessible. It’s simple to make, it’s cheap, it’s bloody gorgeous, and I’ve made it three times this week.

Ginger Spring Onion Noodles.

It’s basically noodles, any noodles (I used the cheap ass ramen packet noodles you often see in Chinese supermarkets, 45p a pack), tossed with a sauce of finely chopped fresh ginger, sliced spring onions and soy. On top of this, you can add what you like – I piled it up with yet more sliced spring onions, oven roasted broccoli and cauliflower florets, fried beanshoots and more soy.

The basic recipe is this…

Ginger Spring Onion Sauce

250g Spring Onion – thinly sliced
50g very finely chopped, peeled fresh ginger
4 Tbs Neutral Oil (I used Vegetable).
1 ½ Tsp Light Soy Sauce
¾ Tsp Sherry Vinegar
¾ Tsp coarse Sea Salt

This makes enough for about 3 portions. Mix all of this up in a bowl, check for seasoning. It’s at its best 15-20 mins after making it, but will be fine for a day or two in the fridge.

Then, you cook your noodles (Chang recommends 170g of Lo Mein, rice noodles or Shanghai thick Noodles per person).
While the noodles are hot, spoon in 6 Tbs of the Ginger Spring Onion sauce, stir and then pile with Bamboo shoots, roast cauliflower, fresh veg, more spring onion, sliced chill and more soy, whatever you think works.

For my taste, I think the basic recipe itself has a bit too much spring onion in it, and not enough soy – so chop and change it as you see fit. As I said, I made it a few times this week, the first time following the actual recipe, and the other couple of times more in ‘the spirit’ of the recipe, and it was bloody nice each time.

It’s lovely stuff, and it feels incredibly virtuous to eat. Although it obviously isn’t quite as healthy as it seems with all the oil and the soy I tip over it. But what the hell. It’s superb and cheap.

Closing thoughts. Make this dish – and buy the
Momofuku book. You wont regret either decision.

Monday 13 June 2011

Riverford Field Kitchen - Devon

Ahhhhhh Devon. *gulps in a huge lungful of air* beautiful verdant lush Devon. Land of cream, custard, cider and the beast of Exmoor. (Not necessarily in that order). I loves it, at least I do now. I’d never been there until just a few weeks back. Being from Essex, which, geography fans is the complete opposite side of the country, almost the entire South West of the UK was a complete mystery to me, just names on a map. But now, I’m gradually filling in the blanks and *wise knowing look* I can say things like, ‘Devon knows how they make it so creamy’, with the most complete and utmost conviction.

I was recently given the opportunity to get my arse to Devon, for a look around the farm of vegetable box purveyors, Riverford Organic (Which, I might add, was incredibly impressive if you like swaying fields of beautiful organic vegetables, rolling countryside and the heady strident whiff of farmyard animal shit). But what I want to talk about is their restaurant, or ‘Field Kitchen’, which is slap bang in the middle of the farm and, for the most part uses the organic produce that is grown in the surrounding fields. It won an Observer Food Monthly award in 2010 for Best Ethical Restaurant. I’ve quite fancied a visit for some time.

‘E’ and I arrived in Devon separately from the other invited bloggers and hacks making their way over from London, who were scheduled to arrive much later that evening. So when we were offered dinner at the Field Kitchen while we waited, it wasn’t too taxing a decision to accept.

The restaurant itself is a surprisingly modern stand-alone building, with something of a Scandinavian look about it. It’s nestled in a natural bowl in the surrounding landscape. ‘E’ and I made our way down the steps, through a herb garden to the entrance, intrigued by what we would find inside.

The Field Kitchen turned out to be a large, high ceilinged room with an open plan kitchen at one end, and communal tables and benches throughout. Interestingly, for us, as we run The Montpelier Basement supper club along the same lines, you sit at a table with strangers and the food is served on shared platters which are then passed around the table by your fellow diners. It was interesting to experience this from the ‘punters’ view for a change. It works well and encourages strangers to chat and interact with each other.

The menu itself, written up on a chalkboard, is set – apart from desserts (More about that later).
On the night we visited, the menu read as follows…

Antipasti to share
Hot smoked salmon, dill, beetroot and roasted buckwheat
Potatoes in a bag with wet garlic and thyme
Broad beans, lentils, spring onions and mint
Spring greens and red pepper sauce
Spinach gratin
And a vegetarian option of Tomato and courgette parcel

I don’t know about you, but that reads like a cracking menu – perhaps it could do with a bit more meat, but for £26.50 a person….Hello.

‘E’ and I took our places at our bench and almost instantly fell into conversation with the two lovely women who were sitting immediately next to us. We waved and introduced ourselves to the rest of the table. It turns out, a surprising number of the table were veggies, ‘more meat for me’ thought I.

The food started to appear from the kitchen thick and fast, antipasti of homemade bread, sliced meats, crab bakes, shrimp & potato blini, cheese panzarotte and a selection of dips, olives and pickled mushrooms. The crab bakes in particular were bloody delicious.

I immediately sensed competiveness with a couple of the guests further down the table; they were a bit ‘grabby’ and seemed intent on ‘getting their fair share’. Which in one sense was kind of ridiculous as there was so much food…but I also kind of understand. I readily admit to having something of a voracious wolf like glint in my eye where it comes to eating, perhaps they realised this. Perhaps they eyed my predatory ‘eating build’, my just a second too long hungry glances at the arriving platters or perhaps my custom made- over-sized cutlery that I often produce from under the table when I’m competing for grub. They were right to fear me. I’d eat it all; mine, theirs, yours and I’d wash it down with their booze…any booze in fact, given half the chance. But for now I affected shocked and polite indignation for the benefit of my fellow guests at the grabby couple’s amateur posturing, whilst muttering meaningless platitudes such as ‘Anyone want the last one of these?’ as the aforementioned item was already halfway into my gob.

More and more food arrived; all of it piled high, most of it obviously grown in the surrounding fields, beautifully presented in a nice rustic fashion and all of it bloody good. There was more than enough to go around, even with a stomach on legs like me seated one side of the table, and an almost equally scary consumer of food in the shape of ‘E’ seated on the other side.

Finally, when even we, ‘Team Guts’ were declining the last few bits and pieces and shifting uncomfortably in our seats trying to balance the extra weight, the waiter arrived to usher each table one at a time over to the kitchen counter where a whole selection of desserts were assembled to select from. Trifles, tarts and puddings. Custard or cream. It was all here, present and correct.

Knowing that the head chef, Jane Baxter had previously worked at the River Café, and spying their infamous Chocolate Nemesis amongst the puddings on offer, (The recipe for this in the River Café cookbook is notorious, as it doesn’t work), I had to go for that, as I’d never seen it done properly. It was bloody superb, but so rich it almost send me spiralling into a staggering mumbling food delirium.

At this point, our taxi arrived to whisk us away and not a moment too soon. I was stuffed silly, and not a little drunk.
Myself and ‘E’ had a cracking time. It was a lovely evening with some fine company, a lot of booze and some excellent food. And at that price, it’s a complete bargain.

Amazingly, it didn’t end there.
The next day, after our scheduled tour of the Riverford Organic farm with our fellow bloggers and some professional hacks, hosted by the surprisingly affable owner, Guy Watson, we were ushered back to the Field Kitchen for lunch.
The other tables were full already with paying customers and once again, the lunch we had was exactly the same as what they ate.
Happily, this time the menu contained some meat;

Roast and confit duck with turnips
New potatoes cooked in a bag with wet garlic and thyme
Roast asparagus, rocket, pistachio and orange
Spinach gratin
Spring greens, red pepper dressing
Broad beans, lentils and spring onions

Another cracking menu, and this time, as it was lunch – an even more bargainous (and rather strangely priced) £19.90

Exactly the same format as the previous evening, shared benches, huge platters of beautiful organic rustic food. Absolutely belting.

The ‘school dinner queue’ format for puddings was also the same. Once again I engaged my sly and cunning brain to help me make a selection. Knowing that the head chef, Jane, who as well as working at the River Cafe had also worked at The Carved Angel in Dartmouth, which used to be famed for their sticky toffee puddings, that’s what I went for. Jackpot! Quite possibly the best sticky toffee pudding I’ve ever eaten, and I like to think that I’ve eaten a hell of a lot to compare against.

So, there you have it. Dinner and lunch at the same restaurant, and absolutely cracking both times.
Both ‘E’ and I really enjoyed it. The communal seating and shared platter format adds a great deal to the experience. The prices are ridiculously cheap when you consider the quality of the produce and how much of it you actually get to eat (Even if you’re competing with people like me). The food is plentiful, seasonal and really quite lovely. If you’re in the area, the Field Kitchen is something of a must visit.

I don’t think I’ve ever written about a free meal on the blog before. I’ve been offered a few, but have rarely accepted them, mainly because it’s hard to write about something you’ve been given for free – your objectivity is called into question if extra care, attention and dishes are lavished upon you, making the experience you may have had entirely unlike the meal an average punter would stump up for. Therefore, I thought long and hard before writing these meals up, but at the end of the day, it was quite obvious that the dinner and subsequent lunch we had was exactly the same as the paying diners. The communal nature of the field kitchen experience ensured this. So, in this case, I don’t really have problem writing about it.

Riverford Field Kitchen
TQ11 0JU

Telephone: 01803 762074

‘E’ has a copy of the rather superb new Riverfood Farm cookbook ‘Everday and Sunday’
, which has been signed by both Guy Watson and head chef, Jane Baxter, to give away on her blog.

Thursday 2 June 2011

The Gilbert Scott - London

I used to work in Camden. Well, that’s what I used to say when I was infrequently asked where my sometime office was located. The elicited response was more often than not ‘”I love Camden”. But really I knew it was telling a bit of a fib. My office lair wasn’t in the funky, rough and ready, but in parts surprisingly genteel Camden that most people know. No. I was based in a strange arse-backwards, unglamorous netherworld between St Pancras and Camden. Bordered on four sides by a former tropical disease hospital/coroners court, a Travis Perkins, a veterinary college and a strangely anonymous Ted Baker office, (save from it being somewhat bizarrely decorated by a giant red lobster). It was precisely 20 minutes walk, in any direction, from anywhere of use, and I hated it. Bitterly mourning my exile from the much more central and cool Clerkenwell site every single day.

Where am I going with this? Well. For years, on the long walk to work, I used to pass through the gigantic building site that was St Pancras, and wonder what would become of the derelict former Midland Grand Hotel. An absolutely beautiful and sprawling gothic construction designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, which in it’s heyday, during the late Victorian period was considered one of ‘the’ places to be seen. It finally closed in the 1930s, due in part to a completely Victorian lack of newly fangled central heating and plumbing, (300 fireplaces had to be constantly supplied with coal) and the rooms, which had been designed without bathrooms required a chambermaid to fill and wheel a bath into a guest’s room at the ring of a bell, while an army of servants were employed to discreetly dispose of chamberpots.

Whilst passing every day, I gazed at this boarded up relic and thought how amazing it would be to see it re-opened and how incredible it would be to have a great restaurant on the site. (One thing St Pancras/Kings Cross truly lacks is a really decent restaurant).

Well, no one was more surprised than me to hear that just a couple of years later, The Midland Grand has been completely refurbished, and has re-opened as The St Pancras Renaissance London Hotel and Marcus Wareing has opened a new restaurant on the site, named after the hotel’s architect ‘The Gilbert Scott’.


In something of a surprising move, considering Marcus Wareing’s classic French, Michelin starred restaurant background, The Gilbert Scott’s menu is resoundingly British, but with a bit of an historical slant. Unusual long forgotten British dishes feature heavily. Victorian culinary stalwarts, Mrs Beeton and Eliza Acton would no doubt approve.

I’ve been gagging to visit, and when I found I was going to be back in London earlier this week, I booked a table straight away.

Arriving for lunch, it seemed strange to be entering a building that has been off limits for so long. Following signs for the restaurant, ‘E’ and I gasped at the incredible Victorian gothic interior, rich crimsons and golds, heavy elaborately carved stone archways, beautifully tiled floors and intricately painted ceilings. As is often the case with many grand Victorian buildings, it has something of the hushed calm of a cathedral about it.

The dining room of The Gilbert Scott itself is absolutely gorgeous. Flooded with natural light from the large windows running down one side of the curved room and decorated mainly in mustard yellow, flanked by polished limestone pillars and with crimson leather banquettes, the former Midland Grand Hotel dining and coffee room has come up an absolute treat. In fact, it may quite possibly be one of the most beautiful dining rooms in London. It has the air of a grand Parisian bistro about it, but with a definite British feel.

Idly munching on some rather nice bread and butter (particularly the caraway seed), and glancing down the menu, my first thought was how well it reads in it’s simplicity and it’s seasonality. It’s without a doubt the most British menu I’ve ever seen, and somehow it makes me extremely proud to see so many cracking, but often overlooked, or in some cases, entirely forgotten, dishes on a fine dining menu. The whole thing actually hangs together surprisingly well.

Acting on a recommendation, I started off with a bowl of Quail Mulligatawny, decorated with onion rings. I’ll say this right from the start. Quail and me have never got on. In fact, it features in one of the worst dishes I’ve ever eaten. Basically, I’ve never eaten a decent quail dish ever. But this was something else. A revelation, sweet curry spice and the most delicate crunch from the onion rings, with incredibly moist and tasty pieces of quail at the bottom. It was superb. The first truly great quail dish I’ve ever eaten. The only problem I had was a brief flustered moment when deciding which cutlery to employ to eat it. (For the record; spoon, then knife and fork for the bird, and finally my fingers to pick at the bones…you cant take me anywhere).

‘E’ also having been tipped off by a friend, ordered the rather royally titled Queen Anne’s Artichoke Tart. It was a beautifully presented dish. I managed to duck in and pinch a taste, and it was bloody gorgeous. Creamy and rich, infused through with the vegetal green subtlety of globe artichoke. Chalk this up as a massive success.

Dorset Jugged Steak followed. Consisting of braised featherblade, pork dumplings, port and redcurrant jelly it was presented as a massive lump of meat, topped with more meat in the shape of the pork dumplings, surrounded by a glistening slick of port and redcurrant gravy. I heartily endorse meat on meat action and was actually grinning like a madman as I took my first bite. Bloody hell. Imagine the richest stickiest, tastiest beef stew you’ve ever tasted. That’s the closest comparison I can think of. I absolutely loved it. Combined with a side dish of colcannon made with a possible nod to the Joel Robuchon School of creamy spuddage. I was transfixed.

Meanwhile, ‘E’ was admiring the incredibly even and neat herb, lemon and nutmeg crust on her dish of seatrout, another blast from this nations forgotten culinary past, Tweed Kettle. A strikingly beautiful looking plate of food. It was an extremely well cooked and executed dish with top-drawer ingredients but perhaps lacked something of the expected eccentricity that such an unusually named dish conjures up.

My pudding of an incredibly moist and sticky Eccles cake paired with Cheddar cheese ice-cream was exceptional. The puff pastry exterior was syrupy sweet, almost in a baklava style and the fruit filling was rich and heavily spiced. I was intrigued by how the ice-cream would taste, It seemed to be more like a honey flavoured ice-cream topped with cheddar cheese shards rather than tasting of cheese throughout. In any case, the whole thing was frigging awesome.

‘E’ had gone down the less traditional route and ordered warm chocolate in a pot, with cornflakes, topped with a dollop of mascarpone. She thought it incredibly rich, almost like the gooey interior of a chocolate fondant, but combined with the crunch of the cornflake topping and the sweetness balanced by the tartness of the mascarpone. Her opinion, delicious.

Perhaps cheekily, as it was right in the middle of the lunch service, we asked for, and were happily given, a kitchen tour. We were led downstairs to the surprisingly spacious, immaculately brand new kitchen and spied Marcus Wareing himself working on the pass. It’s incredibly interesting to watch a respected chef at full tilt and it was immediately obvious how entirely focused he was on the job in hand. A couple of things struck me. The first was how incredibly quiet and calm the kitchen was. No shouting at all. Secondly, and perhaps more oddly, Marcus Wareing looked like he was wearing some rather expensive grey trousers, the sort that might partner a suit and not the kind you’d cook in.

Tour over, we headed upstairs to settle the bill, but at the suggestion of our host decided instead to order coffee and drink it in the bar.

Bloody hell.
The Bar is beautiful. Full Stop. It’s an almost cathedral like space, with large windows at each end allowing the light to slowly play across the daytime shadow of the room. The ceiling is painted, huge gilded archways lead back to the restaurant. It’s a fantastic space, which somehow puts me in mind of an Italian or perhaps Turkish palace.

Our coffee was served from a rather nice proper set, which led us to think ‘Hello, how much is this going to cost then?’
I had three cups, and upon checking the bill, it was £3. That’s right…an almost laughable three pounds! So, hanging out in St Pancras? Heading to Paris on the Eurostar? Laugh in the face of the coffee chains and their stupid paper cups, head here and act like you’re a Victorian Lady or Gentleman. Read your broadsheet, drink coffee served to you by smartly clad waiters from a proper service in an absolutely gorgeous room. What a frigging bargain. I really can’t think of anywhere nicer to hang out if you’ve got time to kill.

So, in conclusion I liked The Gilbert Scott a hell of a lot. The menu is endlessly fascinating to me. There are British dishes here no one has seen on a menu for probably a hundred years. It seems, at least from what we ate, that Marcus Wareing has refrained from tarting them up too much, and they are, more or less, the original honest dishes, just made with exceptional ingredients and skill. The restaurant itself is absolutely gorgeous, and housed in the most incredible building. The superb bar is the icing on a cake. I’m so excited to see a fine dining British restaurant with a big name chef, attached to a railway station. The last time we had anything remotely like this in Britain, was probably when Queen Victoria was on the throne.

Price wise, lunch for two came to £106, that includes a glass of wine each, coffees and a tip. Which all things considered, isn’t bad at all. Although £4 of the total was a cover charge, which on top of the 12.5% service is kind of taking the piss.

Nevertheless, The Gilbert Scott is cracking, and certainly lives up to the weight of expectation from being housed in such a grand setting. I’ll certainly be eating there again.

The Gilbert Scott
St Pancras

Telephone: 020 7278 3888