Archive for the ‘Restaurant Reviews’ Category

The Malt House Fulham

Sign of the times

I remember coming with my uncle, a dedicated football fan, to what’s now the Malt House back in 1972. It was a popular pub pre-match and I sat outside (in those days children were not allowed to run riot in pubs) and while fighting off pederasts, sucked on my Pepsi and munched my cheese and onion crisps while uncle downed a few pints of beer inside. Then preceded by a gust of pub air – a heady blend of best bitter, Embassy Regal and urinal cake – he took me to the game.

Back then area was a lot less posh of course; in fact it was almost a London suburb. Soon afterwards men who went in for rugby shirts as casual dress and wives in publishing, took over and while there are still pockets of poverty around, check out the flammable tracksuits and gangrenous hoop earrings down the Broadway, it’s generally gentrified.

What my uncle would make of the Malt House now is hard to imagine. It is still technically a pub, but it’s not one where you’d hang around the bar pre-match unless on your way to a corporate box. Tables and eating are the real deal here and the chef is a proper restaurant chef, not a burger slinger. Every bit of wood in the place has been painted cream and the niff of Farrow & Ball is still slightly in the air.

Claude Bosi, he of Hibiscus fame and some infamy, has done to this pub what he and brother Cedric did to the Fox & Grapes in Wimbledon, which is to rather throw the baby out with the bathwater design-wise. It seems a shame to swiftly paint over a patina built up over centuries. but then they’re French. All they probably saw was a smelly old pub with a sticky carpet, not years of glorious British history and hooliganism.

Headless chefs?

But what of the food? Chef Marcus McGuinness has come over from Bosi’s 2 star Hibiscus and the menu occupies the ground between fine dining and what we used to call gastro-pub. Thus a bowl of plump, sea-fresh mussels semi-submerged in an oil-slicked broth was delicately flavoured with wild garlic and teensy-tiny pieces of smoked bacon. One mussel was refusing to grin, so I stuck it on the subs bench, but the rest were perfect and the broth a good reboot of a bistro classic.

J’s curried root vegetable soup arrived as mirepoix cubes, before the waiter poured over the soup in fine-dining stylee. This might have been labelled a puree as it was almost thick enough to stand the crusty bread up in. J liked the fact that the spicing was only in the vegetables so that the soup was a contrast in texture and taste and sparkled with bursts of lime set against honey

My main of roast Cornish cod with celeriac and lovage came in another broth, making it rather too similar to my starter. This could have been mentioned on the menu as you can only drink so much broth. That caveat aside the fish was gorgeous – sweet chunks, bone-free, generous in quantity and cooked properly so that it languidly slid apart down its fault lines when prodded. Celeriac cubes brought in the unique flavour of the world’s ugliest root vegetable; you could imagine it threatening Doctor Who, while the lovage, also a celery flavour, added tonal value and specks of colour.

Simple but elegant

Through the serving window I’d earlier watched the disembodied mid-parts of tattooed chefs slice pork belly from a larger piece, presumably sous-vided, and take it off to be finished. It now arrived glistening with crackling and with a puddle of roasting juices and apple puree lapping at its sides.

J’s first attempt at cutting through the crackling resulted in a noise like a rifle shot, closely followed by the sound of pork fat ricocheting off a far wall. He turned it upside down and found it a lot easier to deal with. Plenty of flavour -packed meat from a happy pig and we shared al dente seasonal purple broccoli plus some triple cooked chips, decently crispy but slightly oddly-flavoured.

And so to pud. A malted vanilla ice cream the shape and almost the size of a rugby ball, with ever so on trend salted caramel, for J, and an excellent forced rhubarb Eton mess for me. This was the best mess I’d had for ages, the tart/sweet rhubarb really shining through against gooey- crispy meringue.

Times change and pubs are dying. Conversion into the sort of place the Bosis have created seems the only way to avoid demolition or conversion into flats. J’s set lunch cost £19.50 and my a la carte, around £30, both easy to digest prices for above average cooking that could easily make this a regular haunt for locals. All in all quite a result for Fulham and clearly premier league stuff.

17 Vanston Pl, Fulham, London SW6 1AY

A bit of fizz at lunchtime -tasting Nino Franco Proseccos at Hawksmoor Air

February 26, 2013 Leave a comment

His name is on the bottle- class

The thing that makes Prosecco such a strong contender for lunchtime drinking is, oxymoronically, its lack of strength. At an average ABV of 10% it’s perfectly possible to drink the stuff for hours on end and still not need helping out of the restaurant afterwards. This is a rather good thing as the stairs at Hawksmoor Air are the sort ready to trip up anyone whose vision and depth perception have become impaired,  I actually fell up them when arriving..

Not being a fan of steak or burgers, they’re okay but monoglottal (© AA Gill) I had actually come to meet Primo Franco, patriarch of Nino Franco Spumanti, a Prosecco producer founded in 1919 in Valdobbiadene at the foot of the Prealps in the Venetian region, by his ancestor Antonio.

There was also the big lure of seafood on a menu created by Mitch Tonks, who is to the Guardian and Observer what Mark Hix is to the Independent. The fact is that seafood and Prosecco is a cosy symbiotic relationship, and as Primo had brought with him examples of his product, the best thing to do was tuck in while he talked

First out of the trap was his Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Brut, served up with Queenie scallops  fried in a light batter and with lashings of tartar sauce, plus scallops on the shell roasted with white port and garlic. The queenies were a trifle over shadowed by the batter, but the scallops on the shell were magnificent. The coral had crisped slightly, which was good, and the main meat was butter soft and drenched in the pungent garlic sauce.

Turning Japanese

Here the Prosecco’s creaminess echoed that of the scallop and notes of apple added a slight astringency to offset the richness.  Primo explained between mouthfuls that since he took over in 1982, he had invested heavily in more modern production techniques and set his sights on a more premium product than the simple country wine it had been. Far greater care was now taken over every aspect of production: from grapes to fermentation and all the way to marketing.

Lobster bites were next and better than I expected, not usually finding lobster all that exciting myself -the shellfish equivalent of fillet steak i.e. pricier than its flavour justifies. A jug of melted butter to pour over was ridiculously luxurious though and it was a very good lobster, even better though was the Brixham crab on toast supported by great gobbets of thick mayonnaise. The only downer here being the occasional tooth-threatening shell fragment that had slipped through the net.The Prosecco up at the oke this time was Vigneto Della Riva di San Floriano 2010 a fruit packed heavy hitter that had the structure and long finish to help the crab scuttle down a treat. The fizz, which lasted a long time in the glass, cleansing the palate like a benign pressure washer.

I’d heard a bit about Hawksmoor’s Turbot, cut into thick strips and grilled over charcoal, and what I’d heard was right. This was an excellent bit of fish, ‘bloody’ excellent as female bloggers like to say. The firm meat of turbot can happily take the intense heat of a grill more usually employed in searing steaks, and the resulting smoke really punched in flavour. Served like this turbot takes on the grandness of monkfish, but for a lot less. Janssons Temptation served alongside didn’t do it for me – it had anchovies instead of pickled sprats – and was more a buzz kill than a temptation.

Dead soldiers

The Triple Cooked chips were overcooked; this mania for triple cooking chips has to stop – it’s no substitute for Properly Cooked. The buttered greens though were just as I like them, barely cooked at all. For this last main Primo brought out his big guns; Grave di Stecca Brut and Primo Franco 2013. I loved the former’s steely dryness that soon mellowed to a smooth aftertaste with peachy overtones while the Primo Franco from the high hillside Glera grapes was a tad too sweet for my taste, a result perhaps of 30 grams per litre residual sugar compared to 10g in the Rustico.

Finally, and with a plum and Bramley apple pie of heart-warming simplicity, came Superiore di Cartizze 2012 a wine with pronounced minerality, in fact Primo pulled some sample stones he’d picked up from the steeply sloped, high altitude vineyard  from his pocket and explained that this hard, slatey material makes up large parts of his terroir.

Prosecco really is much more than Poor Man’s Champagne, not least because of the varieties available. Nino Franco may not be widely available here yet, but as I floated back down the staircase I could only think that when it is, it’s going to be a winner.

Links to importers here do not guarantee that the particular vintage mentioned is available. Hawksmoor Air serves Nino Franco Proseccos.

Clockjack, Soho

February 10, 2013 Leave a comment

14 Denman Street, Soho, London W1D 7HJ

It’s a wind up

Walk through any French outdoor market and you’ll find someone selling spit-roasted chickens from what looks like a modified fairground ride. These machines cook chooks twenty or thirty at at a time, rotating in a hypnotic synchronised dance as they slowly acquire a deep, golden crispy tan.

Walk through any English ASDA and you’ll see much the same thing; golden chickens with tasty promise. So if French itinerant traders can do it, and the green fleece of ASDA can do it, why can’t Clockjack?

The first thing that made J and I, both of us bird fanciers, twitch was the sight of the cooked  birds suspended in a glass case rather like museum exhibits and with the deathly pallor of a Streatham crackhead – pasty, ill-looking and worth reporting to the police. From across the room you could see the skin had all the crispiness of a wet flannel. We debated leaving there and then but decided that maybe these weren’t  the chickens we’d be eating. God knows what made us think that, blind optimism probably.

Seated at the clearly expensive wooden bar and perched unsteadily on natty stools, we were treated to the sight of a server plucking one of the fowl exhibits from its mausoleum and taking it to bits with poultry shears just inches from our noses. The smell of chicken fat was overpowering, the spectacle unappetising. If it were my restaurant I’d have the chickens dismantled well away from the punters’ gaze and done with noisy theatrical clean blows from a cleaver, not the squelchy sound of shears.

The room could certainly do with some livening up because at lunchtime it was mostly empty. No sounds, no atmosphere just the sight of the Brittany chickens morosely roosting and no doubt wondering what they had done to deserve such a fate. The rotisserie didn’t even have any chickens in it, just naked gas flames wastefully jetting into nothing and warming us globally.

We ate a whole chicken in ten pieces for £17.95 served with a selection of sauces shamelessly squirted into their bowls from plastic bottles behind the bar. Yes it happens in every restaurant, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but why not do it out of the customers’ sight for heaven’s sake?

The chicken skin was, as we guessed it would be, terrible. Greasy, lank and tasteless. Fit only to be peeled off like a soggy condom and as quickly discarded. The unseasoned meat was moist, verging on wet, and tasted of not much at all, not even chicken. The menu boasts that Clockjack’s marinade is a special secret recipe. The secret may possibly be that it’s just tap water.

We gamely ate it anyway; it was lukewarm but it was at least safely cooked through. The sauces were okay if you like synthetic tasting sauces – the chilli sauce was wussy and the Caesar was definitely not fit for an emperor. The chips were decently crispy but they tasted of fish for some reason, perhaps the oil needed changing, or maybe the bloke in charge of the fryer did.

And off we went, having paid £35 for a bird that didn’t fly, some so-so chips and two bottles of beer. For that money we could have done a lot better almost anywhere else in Soho.

This trendy fowl-up may get some innocents flocking in to spend their money, but it shouldn’t get the real bird spotters in a flap. The next time I fancy roast chicken I’ll wait until Sunday and cook my own, or go to ASDA and get one of theirs. At least I know it’ll be roasted right instead of being totally clocked..

Frying tonight. Madrid tapas tour

January 27, 2013 Leave a comment

San Sebastian may have all the headlines when it comes to food, but Madrid can still make the grade. And when you get tired of tapas, there’s the museums and art to graze on. With Gastronomica Madrid 2013 now in full effect, Nick Harman hit the city streets to see what’s on offer.

Oh to be young again

Do you like football? Do you like tapas? Then you’ll love Puerta 57 in Madrid. Pass through the busy Barra Cibeles, redolent of garlic and the after shave of well-dressed Madrilenos, into the Salón Madrid and you’re gazing down at the floodlit ground of the Real Madrid stadium. Way down there epic matches have been fought and the sainted feet of Beckham once regularly twinkled over the hallowed turf. Up here your only struggle is to decide which of the premier league tapas on offer to put in the back of the net next.

Crispy prawns

I ate a Russian salad that would have made Lenin turn capitalist and plump prawns robed in a delicate web of dry, crispy batter. A plate of cutely shirt button sized clams, briefly steamed open, drenched in garlic, butter and oil and whisked over to diners from a stove just ten feet away, were sweet and nutty. I could have stayed all night.

La Dorada (obvs)

But the essence of tapas is to taste and move on and so fuelled by Rioja it was off to La Dorada. A seafood place (a dorada is a sea bream) with an ancient wooden bar running deep into the gloom at the back, it has a more informal vibe. The fact that it couldn’t be further from the sea, Madrid being pretty much in the dead center of Spain, doesn’t stop the fish here being first class.

Anchovies. Or whitebait. I don’t know.

Whitebait, or possibly fresh anchovies, came in light batter and in heavy profusion together with seared cubes of dogfish, or rock salmon as we sometimes call it in the UK.  It’s a relative of the shark (the barman resorted to miming Jaws to explain this) and fried it has pleasingly solid texture, almost like monkfish. A plate of fried eggs slipped on top of matchstick sized battered and fried fish was my favourite here, the egg broken as soon as the plate landed so as to ooze out into the fried fish and make a delicious mess.

Plastic chillies, not so hot

Io restaurant was next, my progress now a little slower owing to the amount of fried food I’d taken on board, not to mention all that Rioja. Deep in the financial zone of Madrid, Io looks the part – smart, shiny, sleek and modern and with a bouncer on the door. ‘No I’m not!’ corrected the hombre, ‘I look after people’s cars as the parking’s a nightmare around here.’


The tapas at Io are advertised as modern; meatballs arrive on dinky white mini-plates along with delicate croquetas of jamon and salt cod with a bath of mayonnaise for them to be plunged into. A little lacking in atmosphere in the evening, Io is probably livelier at lunch when the local businesses pop in.

I’ll have three of those

I swung by the Mercado San Miguel in the old town, built in 1916 this was once one of the city’s main covered market places but today it’s been refurbished to be a more modern home of tapas bars and food shops. The original cast iron pillars soar up to support a roof of wooden planks and its location near to Madrid’s main square makes it popular at all times.

Messy eating

There are over 30 food stallsand a great cookbook shop here by day, but at night the tapas bars spill out to occupy any spare space. It’s crowded all the way up to closing time and like our own Borough Market it’s a bit touristy and pricey, but for at least an hour you can happily wander about, shoving through the good-natured crowds and grabbing a bite here and a booze there.

The chef, not bothered by my gastric reaction to his ‘tortilla’

And finally to Estado Puro. Based in a hotel, this is nowhere as bad as that might suggest. The decor is designery and it’s convenient for a post Prado museum stop. They do a modern tapas menu here, but for me the mussel ‘meatball’ went too far and hit the gag reflex. The chef is ex El Bulli, so that means some creative ideas are on offer. Sliders were overly salty, but then you shouldn’t really go to Madrid to eat that kind of stuff anyway. Much better was ‘21st century tortilla’ which came surprisingly in a glass, the potato foamed on top of a runny yolk with some fried onion. You had to down it one and, tasty though it was, I began to get that familiar Fat Duck/El Bulli sense of queasiness coming on, although I suppose after four hours, lots of fried food and big glasses of red wine, it may not have been entirely the tortilla’s fault.

Olives on sweet pastry. About as unpleasant as it sounds

And so to bed, barely scratching the surface of Madrid’s food offerings, and regretting rather the Spanish people’s seeming suicidal disdain for green vegetables in favour of meat and fried things. But then who doesn’t like fried things, and let’s face it you can always eat salad tomorrow!

Madrid’s Gastronomica festival  ‘for the five senses’ runs from 19 January to 3 February offering tapas routes with a signature tapas and a bottle of local beer for €3, as well as selected restaurants serving special set price menus at € 25 and €40. There are also six selected ‘super’ restaurants at €75, one of them being cheffed by our own Simon Rogan from L’Enclume.

Yay chorizo!

The full Madrid Gastronomica programme can be seen here.

Puerta 57, Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid. Access from Gate 57 in Calle Padre Damián

La Dorada, Orense 64, Madrid, SpainIo, Calle Manuel de Falla 28036 Madrid

Mercado San Miguel, Plaza San Miguel, Madrid, S Open until 10 p.m. Monday to Wednesday and until 2 a.m. Thursday to Saturday

Io, Calle Manuel de Falla 28036 Madrid

Estado Puro, Plaza de Canovas del Castillo, 4, Madrid, (Centro, Cortes / Plaza Santa Ana)

Spanish Tourist OfficePO Box 4009London , W1A 6NB

Chez Gerard -Bishopsgate

January 16, 2013 Leave a comment

64 Bishopsgate, London EC2N 4AW

Tres Braz

Many years ago I’d ride the creaky lift at Covent Garden station and my eyes would fall on an advert that never seemed to change. ‘Chez Gerard,’ it said, ‘ best steak-frites this side of Paris.’

I’d never actually eaten steak frites in Paris, so had no idea of the size of the gauntlet being thrown down, but the claim was intriguing.  I meant to go and find out, it sounded tempting enough, but other meals got in the way and so Gerry had to make do without my custom.

And then of course I was too late; the Chez Gerard group was bought in 2011 by a division of Raymond ‘Voila!’  Blanc’s empire, to be rebranded as Brasserie Blancs. However some kind of change of heart has taken place and after a big revamp the restaurant in Bishopsgate is determinedly and proudly a Chez Gerard. Time to check out that steak boast.

It’s very City inside – J and I being the only people in the restaurant not wearing ties. Downstairs is a busy bar while upstairs there’s a la carte on offer. It’s a bit of a climb up there as the lift only takes one person – presumably it was designed by the same people who make the escape pods for Bond villains. Read more…

Flatiron steak, Soho

December 31, 2012 Leave a comment

17 Beak St, Soho, W1F 9RW

Covetable chopper

I’m not the world’s biggest steak fan, it’s what people who don’t normally eat in restaurants, eat in restaurants. It’s my distress purchase in a country pub, because whatever else ‘chef’ may foul up from the freezer you can be fairly confident that he can cook a steak, or its minced equivalent the burger, adequately well.

What I would dearly like to rediscover, like lost innocence, is the steak restaurant of my youth, the Tavern in the Town in Croydon. My 11 year old self loved it in there – the faux Tudor decor, the big steaks with the cross-hatch grill marks, the lavish chips, the frozen peas, the tinned slippery mushrooms and the great big grilled tomato. Oh you may curl your lip in middle class disdain, but it was just great.

Which brings us to Flatiron, Soho where a steak is £10 with salad, if you can call a glass of mache a salad and they do. It comes ready sliced on a board, thus negating the need for the very stealable mini cleaver provided as a knife, and flatiron is a New Yawk cut of meat not all that well known in the UK although apparently called a Butler’s Steak over here.

Cut from the shoulder it’s a bit tougher than your average steak and so Flatiron sous vide it.  Now sous vide is a tricky thing, it’s very useful in professional kitchens as a means of prepping food in advance, but the resulting meat desperately needs to be finished over or under a flame, otherwise it comes out with both the texture and allure of baby food.

Bring your own cushion

I like to wrestle with a steak, shirts off like William Shatner in Star Trek, the hard-won bits are where the flavour is and that’s why onglet is so good. Flatiron’s steak is butter smooth, you could cut it with an airline spork, but they do a pretty good job of getting some texture and caramelisation on the outside, so saving it from being anodyne but it needs a bit more. Of course getting in a Josper or a charcoal grill would be expensive, but a hotter pan would probably do just as well.

The chips are rather good, the tasty crispy bits lurking at the bottom of the tin dog bowl they’re served in indicative of the real deal. The market greens of savoy cabbage steamed and served in another tin bowl are wrong, it’s school dinner cabbage even though it’s not been boiled to death in the approved manner. The steak sauces meanwhile are serviceable.

Seating is at funky tables with fixed wooden disks for seats that you swing your leg over as if mounting a culinary motorbike. There are no single tables only group ones, but then you’d hardly be coming here for a romantic meal would you. Wines come in specimen flasks of various sizes, which is handy, and they’re good enough for steak.

The decor, menu fonts and other style elements borrow magpie-like from the scenester mono glottal restaurants – your Polpos, your Meatliquors, your Pitt Cues, etc. – but pinching other people’s proven ideas isn’t such a bad idea if you’re looking to steer a safe course.

Whether it is a safe course overall is debatable. Nothing wrong with the food at the price, but the same people who ‘bloody loved’ this kind of thing mid 2012 are now turning their butterfly minds to the next fashionable thought. But for non scenesters who just want to eat in a ‘clean, well-lighted place’ and not make a style statement, tweet  or take photos of their food then Flatiron has only a few wrinkles.

Photos-  Paul Winch-Furness.

The roof’s the limit. We go up to Skymarket.

October 10, 2012 Leave a comment

We’re all going a bit bonkers for street food right now, but what about roof food? Nick Harman thinks he may be in on the ground floor of a brand new trend.

God of small things

The wind buffets SkyMarket, five floors up over Tooley Street, and a large red chili tumbles off its shelf and rolls over to lie beside a fast growing puddle on the deck. The rain lashes down, occasionally finding its way in, and the sky fades to deepest black. In a few hours SkyMarket will open for the evening’s business and the chefs are prepping hard, oblivious to the wind and rain outside and positively basking in the warmth of the cooking range and the heat lamps.

Long way down

A small lift at the base of Magdalen House brings you up to Skyroom, an award-winning roof construction created by David Konn. It looks jerry-built but is in fact sturdy and secure and it’s a kitchen, bar, deli, art and craft gallery and performance space all on one rooftop.

Julian Bayuni is one of the creators of Platterform the company behind SkyMarket, along with Kevin Darcy. Originally both mixologists at Momo where they first met, Julian went on to manage West London’s Notting Hill Arts Club and worked in the Netherlands with The Fabulous Shaker Boys. Together they’ve  created plenty of cool pop ups and  Platterform itself picked up a Young British Foodies ‘Best Food Experience’ award earlier this year.

Spice of life

‘Platterform suggests what we do as a brand and events company –  large plates of food and a platform for  ideas, bringing together creative energy,  chefs, mixologists, artists, musicians and  performers,’ Julian explains. ‘Two years we worked a pop up at Hel Yes! during the 2010 London Design Week just off the City Road and that gave us our initial impetus. I’m used to working in the food world, but this is about more creative ideas and techniques for food and drinks. We want it to be fun and accessible and not intimidate people, but we want to challenge the traditional constructs of what people expect from a drinking or dining experience.’

No reservations

It certainly does that. When you walk out the lift and feel the wind gust you’re already a bit on the back foot but then a vibe familiar to anyone that’s ever been to Camden Market, or a traveller encampment, embraces you. It’s multisensory with four different musical sounds going on around and a wealth of aromas, some from the satay bar perched dizzyingly out over the drop and some from the range where the main dishes are being cooked.

It’s a local, family thing. Julian, who is half Indonesian and from a restaurant running family, even has his stepfather cooking some days, while meat and vegetables come from local suppliers like Maltby Street along with ethical foods such as jams being made in people’s kitchens from fruit that would otherwise go to waste. In season vegetables also come from the nearby St Mungo’s of Melior Street project and the market up here sells a mix of exciting spices and other stuff you won’t find in Tesco’s.’

Hot off the grill

‘We have six chefs in the team, two are Jamie Oliver trained at 15 and are doing a contemporary take on African and Caribbean dishes,’ Julian says as tables are set up. ‘The dishes are added to each week and they really suit the environment; we can’t seriously expect people to sit down for five courses on a rooftop so we keep a casual street food/tapas thing going along with the market vibe. This week has been Indonesian and Caribbean, next week we’ll be adding some Brazilian dishes. And our SkyMarket Bar takes inspiration from the changing food menu with the bartenders creating bespoke cocktails designed to complement the dishes.’

Nuno Mendes of Viajante is a friend they hope will get involved via his Loft Project, and Gok Wan’s been in a few times too. ‘He’s a family guy,’ laughs Justin. ‘He loves this place because it’s a family unit, my mum’s British, my dad’s Indonesian so I think Gok sees the similarities to his own life.  He even got my mum into hotel GB for lunch with Gordon!’

Evolving, and almost literally moving, all the time SkyMarket is a concept they hope to take to other spaces like railway arches. And more rooftops? ‘We’re certainly looking around,’ says Justin as I start to make my way down.

Open cooking class or presentation every Tuesday lunchtime between 12pm- 4pm

Experiential drinks brand events including workshops and masterclasses will take place every Tuesday evening at 6.30pm

The Skyroom, 5th Floor Magdalen House, 148 Tooley Street SE1 2TU

Ashdown Park Hotel.Foraging and finding luxury.

A very nice house in the country

With a flourish the waiters whip off the cloches to reveal the meal beneath, a sight not seen in London since barrage balloons wobbled in the sky and Evelyn Waugh wobbled out of Whites. You can only imagine what some metropolitan critics would make of this; gleefully sharpen their pencils in preparation for stabbing the restaurant through the heart, no doubt.

It tastes better in silver

Things are done differently in the country though, they hunt things, they kill and mostly eat the things they hunt, they are comfortable with corduroy and welly boots and mud. Here at Ashdown Park Hotel and Country Club part of the same Elite Hotels Group as The Grand Eastbourne.  some things are still done pretty much as they would have been done thirty years ago.

A bit of swag

The hotel is, as are so many, a converted country house but it’s a converted convent really. In the 1920s an already pretty large place was bought and added to by rich nuns, grand wings sprouted from both sides and a chapel was tacked on. Then came a spell as an American ‘university’, then a training college for a major high street bank. Finally, around 1993, it became a hotel, club and spa.

It’s size means our journey from reception to suite takes forever; the endless fire doors that encumber each and every corridor making it seem longer. The suite’s smart though; a double aspect sitting room looking out onto rolling downs and a lively fountain. This and a large bedroom furnished with genteelly distressed furniture makes it feel like we were spending the night at Downton as family guests of the perennially sad Earl. Only the flat screen TVs in each room break the spell.

Try and ignore the telly

We’re here for the  annual Sunday mushroom foraging and lunch, but on this Saturday evening it’s also a chance to try the restaurant too, so we yomp the corridors, descend the wonderfully creaky grand staircase and enter the 2 AA Rosette restaurant; Anderida.

Except I don’t. Sir is wearing neither tie nor jacket and is swiftly intercepted. “I told you!’ hisses the wife. The Maitre d’ is good about it, he produces a jacket, ‘carry it over your arm,’ he advises, ‘then hang it on the back of your chair.’ Am I enraged by this? No I am just a bit embarrassed as, after all, it was clearly stated beforehand both on the website and in the room. I am not an iconoclast and when in Rome, or when in East Sussex, one does what the Romans do.

And they’re off

Like the cloches, this is a hangover from a better age, one when a gentleman did not need to be told to dress properly for dinner. It may make trendy young, and not so young, Londoners choke over their napkins made from kitchen roll,  but from the look of the packed restaurant with its heavy drapes, warm candlelight and tinkling piano, it doesn’t upset anyone else.

Sadly inedible

The food looks the part, once cloches are removed. Head Chef, Andrew Wilson is not serving dinner from the dark ages and my Supreme of Local Partridge, Leg Croquette, Creamed Parsnip, Potato Terrine (complete with authentically crunchy bits of shot), is well-cooked and presented with bags of flavour. This was good as the starter of Sweet and Sour Duck Terrine, Crispy Won Ton and Pineapple Textures had read well but lacked sufficient seasoning and distinct tastes. P’s Salmon and King Prawn Filo Parcels, Fennel Purée, Aioli could have had the power turned up too, especially on the aioli, but her 38 Day Aged Fillet of Beef Wellington from Lamberhurst, with Dauphinoise Potatoes, Roasted Shallots, Aubergine Purée was very good, suggesting chef works best when he works using good local produce.

Off to enormous bed we went then next day down to a breakfast looking out onto the vast grounds and golf course. We have mushrooms with our full English, just in case, then boot up for the coming search under the expert guidance of groundskeepers and mushroomologists.

Can’t eat these either

It’s fun. The secret of ‘shrooming is to keep your expectations as low as your gaze. Adults and small children alike rummage cheerfully around the ferns and foliage as we wander in a group through bosky woodland, grassland and lakeside.

Mushrooms are found but at best are inedible, at worst dangerous. ‘Dinner or death’ our guide cheerfully remarks. The weather has not been kind this year but remains of the sought-after cepes can still be seen, a clue that it mostly depends on luck, although many mushroom hunters hunt by the phases of the moon.

Somehere near is a llama farmer

Surreal site of the day is a herd of Llamas who wander over to to flick their funny ears at us, but thankfully not spit as they often tend to do. They look like aliens in the English countryside, a cross between camels and sheep, yet really rather sweet and endearing.

Not much for lunch

A pleasant hour or two passes as we walk and chat and listen to our expert guides. Then it’s back to the hotel for the grandgourmet mushroom lunch in the old chapel, our boots shucked off and most of us are secretly only in our socks under the linen laden tables.

Beneath a luminous fried duck egg and walnut oil is a thick carpet of mixed wild mushrooms on toast, a brunchy starter. The mush are slippery and varied, each with its own distinct flavour and breaking the egg and letting it puddle through creates a tasty mess.

Puffball. Inedible. Again

Next pot roasted ox cheek with mushrooms en croute and a truffle and parsnip puree. Some find the cheek too gelatinous for comfort, must be Londoners we snidely remark. The meat is tumbling to the fork, the truffle puree not too assertive. Then a suitably classic steamed orange and ginger sponge pudding with clotted cream ice cream and an almond tuile leaves us puffing in our chairs. And with coffee it was check out and car time.

Home James

The problem with these country house hotels is that as you return to London the increasing density of housing is depressing after the aristocratic acres. How, you wonder, can we live in such tiny places.

It may be all wrong for some that these grand houses were created in the first place, but they served society as a small world of employment, status and self-respect for all who lived and worked in them.

Now as leisure machines they do much the same thing, but in Ashdonw Park’s case, happily under cloches.

Ashdown Park Hotel  Ashdown Park, Wych Cross, Forest Row, RH18

Angelus, London

4 Bathurst Street  Paddington, London, London W2 2SD

Tres Francais, non?

The sight of a man eating alone in a restaurant is reassuring, one you tend to see only in French restaurants. A good French place is where the lone diner never feels like a sad loner; just someone having a meal. The staff treat him perfectly normally and chat cheerfully, knowing just how long to linger before letting him get on with his grub.

There are two single diners in Angelus when J and I come  in from out of a wet and windy night. Just a few hundred yards from Lancaster Gate tube, this restaurant created from a venerable old pub is cosily welcoming in a Brasserie stylee. A sense of cheerful informality but with steady professional staff at the tiller. The tables are close together, which is another good sign; I actually  like a Brasserie where you can have next door’s conversation as a backdrop and their elbows in your soup.

It’s Angelus’s birthday apparently; five years old and going very strong, and so they have a menu of revisited classics as well as dishes that the locals, and this is a very local restaurant, like to eat repeatedly. This is enough to tempt me out west.

It’s classic stuff. A starter of duck’s liver brulee is something you might find in the quack-obsessed Gascony region, or in Bordeaux’s brilliant La Tupina. The glaze of sugar shatters to reveal smooth, rich, cardiac-arrest klaxon creamed livers ready to be shovelled heavily onto fine bread studded with nuts. It’s as gorgeous as only something so simple can be. A glass of Pacherenc, so much nicer than Sauternes in my book, proves just the ticket to go with it. Read more…

Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder

September 29, 2012 Leave a comment

A little drip

An anti-malaria ‘drug’ in the 1840s, a favoured drink of artists and bohemians in Paris in the early 1900s, absinthe was banned in France in 1915 for reasons that vary. Some say it was because it was seen as containing dangerous hallucinogens, others that the powerful wine growers didn’t like its popularity – at the time of banning the French were drinking 36 million litres of absinthe per year, about six times their consumption of wine.

Whatever the reason, Pastis took over, it doesn’t contain wormwood, Artemisia absinthium, the bitter element and so was legal. Absinthe carried on being produced in Spain but the demand wasn’t enough and in 1960 they gave up.

It was never banned in the UK, mainly because we didn’t drink it anyway, but a kind of mystique grew up in the late 1980s as people brought back bottles of absinthe from the Czech republic and enjoyed the thrill of drinking, what many still supposed, was a daring, illegal quasi-drug.

And then in the 1990s it was imported properly and today it’s made once again in France by Pernod Fils, the big boys of pastis and the original makers in France of absinthe. Read more…