27 February 2009

An Occasion to Dine For

Nature Boy sums it up best with its perfect lyric. You know the one: the greatest gift we ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.

Mind you, food is a close second.

If you ever needed an illustration of why food is almost the greatest gift, then you should have been at Vinoteca last night for the Dine With Dos Hermanos event. Great food, great wines courtesy of Casa Leal - Douro is now, officially, my current addiction - and great company all brought together by a love of stuff on plates and the writing of those marvellous Brothers Majumdar. They've taken a hobby and turned it into a way of life and, indeed, a writing career for Simon. Best of all though? They share the foodie love, as last night's event showed.

The marvellous Vinoteca was the venue for this joining of minds and bellies, where Simon and Robin had excelled themselves in terms of food, fermented grape products and an astonishing number of goodies to giveaway from Jelly Belly Beans to an exceptional bottle of Solera 1847 Oloroso Dulce which I suspect will be coming with me to Scotland. Well, a man's got to have a little pre-dinner snifter, right?

The evening kicked off with a wine tasting from Casa Leal, before the food started rolling through. First up, a selection of shared starters, including a vibrant salad of oranges, tea-smoked duck, an exceptional squid and harissa pairing, cold meats, a delicious mutton pie, an unctuous pork belly topped with beautifully golden crackling, a cheese course, a parfait made with tea from The Rare Tea Company and a buttermilk sponge topped with rhubarb.

WIth the next event already in the planning stages - hello Casa Brindisa - I heartily suggest you keep an eye on the Dos Hermanos site or join the Dine With Dos Hermanos Facebook group. You'll thank me for it.

26 February 2009

Why Mums Go To Iceland...

Because they want really unhealthy, obese children?

I've just seen an ad for Iceland, the chav-friendly High Street chain. They're celebrating the fact that you can buy a load of additive-heavy reconstituted crap for a quid, so you can block the arteries of your entire family for less than a fiver. Bargain. They then have a shot of Coleen Nolan opening a bag of something that looks like stuff you'd put in a bird feeder but is, apparently, mince. Minced what though? Still, if you want a bag of mechanically recovered meat-like pellets for £2.50 for a coronary-sized bag... you know where to go.

24 February 2009

On Its Own Merrett

If there was ever a week that screamed "gym membership" this is the week. To be swiftly followed by the week after next.

And that's probably as good a time as any to mention the forthcoming Scottish trip. On March 6th, I'm taking delivery of a BMW 730d for review purposes. That sadly means I have to give it back some 10 days later but also means that I get to travel in style to Wick, on the North Coast of Scotland... via several luxury hotels and a handful of Michelin-starred restaurants. It's not, it must be said, the toughest assignment I've ever been given. Assuming that the several luxury hotels have wifi, I'll be blogging about it as I go so stand by for a blow-by-blow commentary. Until, that is, I'm too fat to sit at a desk...

Sadly tonight's gathering got canned but that's probably just as well. Tomorrow is pizza night with some soon-to-be-hitched friends, Thursday is the eagerly-anticipated Dine With Dos Hermanos event and then Friday sees the Family Lambshank hit The Montagu Arms in Beaulieu... and then driving to Cotswold House for dinner on the Saturday. Dear David Lloyd Centre: I'll be ready to sign up by Monday. If I can waddle out of the house.

Just to add to the belt-threatening week, last night I was part of a little posse that hit Paul Merrett's new venture, The Victoria, down in Sheen. The overall impression? It's nice. Given Paul's reputation I was perhaps expecting a little more although given the thinking behind this pub venture, perhaps I was also expecting a little less. Or, more accurately, something less fancy and more "pub grubby". While everything we sampled was well executed - and the starting taster of sashimi in a shallot & chilli crunch was several notches above that - what could have been a very fine pub-eating experience came across as a perfectly decent restaurant. Just like many hundreds of other perfectly decent restaurants out there. Still, it's relatively early days and the history suggests Paul will find his feet. The chips, while a little inconsistent, were pretty good though, particularly when dipped in Putney Sauce.

Heroes On The Half Shell

After a strange career "wobble" last night - Monday's are never a good day to dwell on old stuff - today was a timely reminder that, when it comes to "work", I'm a very, VERY lucky bastard. That was certainly the expression that sprang to mind this lunch time when sitting in the "Wipers", as the charming Ypres Castle Inn is known to Rye locals. A pint of Harvey's shandy in hand (spot the driver), the always entertaing Simon Majumdar for company and, in front of us, 13 - yes, count 'em, 13 - freshly caught scallops, all with roe intact: three in parma ham, three in lime and chilli, three in tarragon and butter, and four sitting juicily atop densely meaty discs of black pudding. As Simon divvied them up with the precision of a surgeon (see forthcoming entertaining tome Eat My Globe for details), and the wafts of wood smoke reached us from the fire, and the sun tried to break through the clouds above the Romney Marshes, and the (admittedly diluted) Harvey's worked its magic, it was definitely one of those "life is good" moments. The taste of the scallops - particularly those in the ham and those riding the black pudding - took it up a notch too.

We were in Rye for the seventh annual Rye Bay Scallop Festival, a celebration of this charming Sussex town's fishing business, its admirable (and plentiful) local fish stores and, particularly, the accidental discovery some 30+ years ago of well-stocked scallop beds. Now, while some 90% of the catch sadly goes to the other side of the Channel - because they haven't got all squeamish and pathetically removed from things in shells that still pulsate as you cut them free - the Rye locals that choose to partake are spoiled for choice.

With festival organiser Lorna Hall to guide us, Simon and I received a quick lesson in opening scallops from Market Fisheries' main man Russell Drew and a history lesson - and some stunningly good hot-smoked salmon - from Rye Bay Fisheries' Tony Isted. Then, after a walk around this pretty Cinque Ports town and after popping into the excellent-looking Webbe's Fish Cafe to watch their constantly over-subscribed fish cooking class, it was time for lunch and a surprisingly easy drive back into London.

The Festival finishes this weekend so if you can spare a few hours - it's an easy two hours from London - I'd heartily recommend a visit.

22 February 2009

Grease Is The Word

Sorry, I'm going to swear two days in a row but why is so much fast food so fucking awful?

Yesterday I was driving back from Stoke and stopped at a couple of service stations. The food options? Bags of sweets, more of those fucking awful Walkers Crisps (see yesterday), the full range of Ginsters products or Burger King / KFC at what appears to be three times the usual price. A couple had branches of M&S which was vaguely encouraging but you're still only talking about mass produced sandwiches, Millionaire's Shortbread or some odds and sods to cook with at home. If you're peckish there and then, you really are stuffed. So why? Even Budgens have woken up to the idea of locally sourced food so why can't Welcome Breaks and their ilk? Hell, one of the service stations was near Melton Mowbray: would it really be so hard to get a few decent pork pies in?

The thing is it's not just the Motorways that are a problem. You can include Victoria in this rant. There I was at some godforsaken time of a Sunday to collect Mrs Lambshank from Victoria Station. Thanks to a slight delay, I had about an hour to fill so went to get a coffee. Given that the "pay and display" would be more accurately described as "mortgage and display" - £2 for 20 minutes? Are you having a laugh? - my choices were limited to whatever the station could privde. Still, a modern central London terminal (and effectively the Gatwick gateway remember). That should be a reasonable source of eating surely?

All I can tell you is that Coffee & Co. make some of the worst coffee I've ever tasted (I guess "Crap & Co." while more accurate wouldn't be quite as marketable) while Aussie franchise Oporto needs to be Deporto. Fast food? This was more slow shit. How do you fuck up an egg and bacon roll AND take five minutes to make it? Rubbish bread, fatty, flabby bacon and something reheated and rubbery that maybe once had a yolk but now might require an autopsy - its or mine - to confirm. And all smothered in some sort of brown sauce. I'm no snob when it comes to breakfast calories and have an ever-expanding soft spot for the hangover curing properties of the Sausage & Egg McMuffin (I like to think a team of expert research chemists spent months perfecting the perfect beer-absorbing combination of carbohydrate, protein fat and whatever the hell that "cheese" is made from) but one powdery, greasy bite of this abomination and I decided I'd rather be hungry than keep eating. Utterly vile. Kick them out, nuke Coffee & Co., and give the franchises to people who can actually provide something worthwhile.

21 February 2009

Do Us A Flavour? Do Me A Favour.

It's impossible to avoid the Walkers ads at the moment. To give them some credit, it is a great marketing idea and there's always room for a new handheld snack in my world. But have you tried any of the six options? The words that spring to mind are "jeeeeee" and "sus".

I baled at four so it's possible that Duck in Hoisin Sauce and, er, Chilli and Chocolate are the two greatest crisps ever made. But I doubt it because the others - Builder's Breakfast, Onion Bhaji, Cajun Squirrel and Fish & Chips are fucking awful and it seems Walkers have thrown all the money at the marketing rather than the production.

Let's have a look at 'em one by one. Builder's Breakfast. Yum. Bacon, sausage, beans... yeah, we've been there before on the crisp front, so that's got potential. And then egg. On a crisp. When is that a good idea? And did I imagine the buttery toast? I'm sure someone from Walkers was on Chris Evans' show discussing the buttery toast flavouring and there is a hint of it. But why bother? If I want a buttery toast flavour I'm going to get it from buttery toast because it's cheaper and isn't swamped with a load of things that taste like arse.

Onion Bhaji is a damn fine idea. Onion and potato works well, there's a deep fried connection and what better celebration of a new British flavour than a look towards our favourite imported cuisine? So where's the flavour? The first one tasted of nothing. The second one tasted of nothing. I ate three, four and five together to see if they'd pack more of a punch combined. They didn't and so crisps six through to approx. 33 went in the bin.

Fish & Chips. Er? Chip flavoured crisps. Fried fucking potato flavoured crisps.With added fish and a bit of vinegar. Next...

And so to Cajun Squirrel which deserves to win because, unless you're a toothless inbred called Jethro it's very unlikely you'd have tasted Cajun Squirrel so there's no point of reference. In reality it tastes like more shit bacon flavouring with a hint of spice.

Dear Walkers. A great idea but insulting execution. Pass me the Kettle Chips...

19 February 2009

Marlow Can You Go?

Gastropubs are ten a penny these days. Gastropubs with Michelin stars however... can't be many of them, right? So when the opportunity to sample the delights of Marlow's The Hand & Flowers, particularly in my birthday week, it was very hard to turn down.

While the overall quality of the place wasn't quite the tongue-dazzling experience that Michelin recognition suggests, and while there were some obvious flaws in the seasoning and the odd misfire, we had to agree with The Guardian's 2005 review: it was still very hard to dislike.

The kitchen is run by Tom Kerridge, a man I'd happily stand alongside any day. I've often said I don't trust thin chefs which is, to be fair, a joke. As someone who can put on a stone thinking about a profiterole, I'm j
ust jealous of anyone who can stay whippet-like when surrounded by calories in their loveliest forms. But Tom is a big man, a huge, convivial soul and you get the impression that while the star is nice to have, it's not actually his driving force. He'd be cooking this kind of food anyway - and packing them in regardless. The place was heaving, which isn't a surprise when there's a set lunch deal of three courses for £13.50. Indeed, the dishes coming out for that - a steaming bowl of crab bisque, a lovely pork pie with homemade mustard pickle, steak, egg and chips, coq au vin - looked every bit as appetising as the dishes on the a la carte.

While the main courses - rump steak with triple cooked chips and bearnaise sauce, saddle of lamb, with bacon, pearl barley and laverbread - suffered from zealous salting, and the complimentary bread and whitebait were only fair-to-middling - the starters were excellent. Potted crab with dill and pickled cucumber sang across the palate, while my glazed omelette of smoked haddock and parmesan was divine. Arnold Bennett himself would have been dancing along the riverbank, frankly. The puddings were lovely too, although the rhubarb crumble souffle, while elaborate and very clever with the stem ginger creme anglaise, could happily have been replaced with a straightforward rhubarb crumble. No such complaints with the apple tart and caramel ice cream. That was all big flavours and lovely pastry and I'll leave it at that before I get all Greg Wallace and stuff.

17 February 2009

...Arriving Even Happier.

Now THAT was a bloody good sandwich...

Travelling Hopefully...

What do they say about it being better to travel hopefully than to arrive? Well, we're about to find out. Last night I roasted off a load of tomatoes, peppers and onions in order to attempt the Gaucho chain's take on a Marie Rose-esque dressing. During a cookery lesson there (see previous post), Ryan, the strapping head of operations, explained that they roast the aforementioned vegetables and then blend them with tabasco and orange juice to make a fantastic smoky, sweet and hot sauce for one of their prawn dishes.

However, one day before the birthday, I didn't fancy fish. I fancied meat. So, at this point in the evening, I have a bottle of Vasse Felix Cabernet Merlot 2005 breathing away, a Flour Power ciabatta sitting in the kitchen, a lovely beef tomato awaiting slicing, some wild rocket... and a lovely, tender slice of sirloin marinating away in the fridge. And a huge bowl of the Gaucho-influenced sauce ready to be slathered on as necessary.

OK chaps... I'm going in...

16 February 2009

Roast With The Most

Or, indeed, a host with the most. The setting? A flat in Camberwell. The occasion? Corrie, a Neal's Yard legend, is leaving London to make her way back to Australia - via Wales, Europe, Asia, etc. The company? Excellent. If there's one thing Neal's Yard Dairy has managed over the years it's the employment of lovely people. Like me, obviously. Sitting around a makeshift table with a dozen or so cheesemongers and others was more like a family gathering than a bunch of workmates. Whether it's that shared love of food or the fact that whatever gene it is that makes people provide fantastic service also makes them good dining companions I have no idea, but it was a great lunch and I was sorry when I had to push back north.

I'd always smirked a little at the idea of Camberwell Green, mainly because it made me wonder if there were other London districts called Trampton or Chugley. I used to be a regular visitor to the area after my mate Al introduced me to the garlic-dripping joys of Pizzeria Castello. Since that closed, I've avoided the area: even the hilarity provided by a bright pink shopping centre can't encourage me to do anything more than drive through as quickly as the jams allow. Things look to have changed though. Camberwell appears to have some bars and eateries worth checking out (comments anyone?) and the colossal Dragon Castle also looks interesting.

But who can beat a roast o
n a Sunday afternoon? Particularly when it looks like the all the piccies here, and is followed by a lemon and ginger cheesecake with rhubarb? Nice one Corrie, and I look forward to the day our paths cross again...

15 February 2009

The Single Life

No, it's not a reference to domestic problems chez Lambshank. That's all fine and dandy. So fine and dandy, perhaps, that I forgot to mention another lovely event that took place somewhere between those complimentary chips and Eric Chavot's plates of sheer bloody genius: a food matching event to mark the launch of Whisky Month.

If you haven't seen the info already, you will in the coming months, as 2009 is the year of Homecoming Scotland. More on that another time - probably as part of next month's BMW test drive / jaunt to Wick (and more on that will follow too). Suffice to say, it's a huge celebration of all things Scottish and that ob
viously has to include the true amber nectar. Indeed, May has been given over to mark the joys and variety of whisky. If you ever needed an excuse to visit Scotland (and you really shouldn't need one), this is as good as any.

To mark the event, the good folk of Visit Scotland brought Sheila McConachie & Gr
aham Harvey down to Roast to show off some off some single malts against some of their dishes. Sheila & Graham are the team behind Craggan Mill, the award-winning restaurant in Speyside, and the award-winning book The Whisky Kitchen. Rather than the standard approach to cooking with whisky - splash a couple of shots in, call it a whisky sauce - Sheila and Graham approach matters slightly differently. In their capable hands, whisky becomes a genuine ingredient, adding depth and carefully thought out flavours to a variety of dishes, from a winning and warming haggis veloute laced with 15-year old Glenfarclas, to their celebrated Glen Moray Truffle Torte.

Surprisingly, the stand-out dish of those sampled was a spoonful of crab with salad onions and cayenne. On paper, its subtleties would appear to under threat from a splash of tabasco and its lacing of Tomatin 12-year old let alone the accompanying tumbler of the same, however the underlying spice of the whisky bolstered the flavours and heat of the dish superbly. The pork belly with a 12-year old Cragganmore in the apple sauce rocked too.

So there you have it. I'll blog more about today's lunch tomorrow - nice one Corrie! Nice one Abel & Cole! - and sleep soundly knowing the single malt shaped gap has been filled...

13 February 2009

A Capital Idea

Where did that week go? Mind you, a couple of encouraging things happened by not posting, namely several e mails, calls, texts and the like asking why I haven't blogged since Sunday? To paraphrase Sally Fields - this is meant to have a hint of film-related stuff, after all, plus it's award season - does this mean you like me, you really like me?

Monday was a bit of a no go on the food front - a grabbed burrito from Benito's Hat aside - and a complete no go on the movie front thanks to the really dull Gigantic, a low-key, low-budget film of zero appeal. It was one of those meandering, pointless, not-as-clever-as-it-thinks-it-is efforts in art wank. Avoid.

Tuesday improved a little, not in terms of the eating, just in terms of the conversation. I got to spend 30 minutes with Michael Caines MBE of Gidleigh Park and Saturday Kitchen fame. Over tea, we had fine chat about the recession, his new restaurant venture - he's executive chef of Bath Priory - and assorted other topics. I'll be off to Bath when it reopens in due course and will report back.

And then the food really started to flow. Not that flow is a word that springs to mind when discussing breakfast at Bethnal Green's Nico's Restaurant - or "resturant" as the sign charmingly has it. It's a London Transport favourite, apparently, and as the pics below will testify, for fairly obvious reasons. Chips are complimentary with just about every dish, from the "flillet" of cod to the big breakfast. I'm not going to argue that it's the best breakfast in London or the first stop in my scrambled egg hunt but a fiver for double egg, bacon, sausage,
chips, beans, mushrooms, tea and toast? Sometimes the cheap and cheerful plateful is all you want. It certainly stopped any need to eat the rest of the day.

Ironically, the next meal was the diametric opposite of Nico's: the double Michelin-starred joys of The Capital. Eric Chavot's restaurant seems to be one of London's best kept foodie secrets. It's tucked away on a back street near Harrod's and, while it appears in the relevant guides, it seems to have escaped the notice of the average punter whose knowledge of Michelin-rewarded eateries begins and ends with Gordon.

On a day that was already memorable - I interviewed Michelle Pfeiffer and, unlike the last time I met her, was able to construct a sentence this time - Chavot provided an astonishing finish from the Assiette Landaise - foie gras and duck in assorted forms - to the chocolates, via the venison (how do you serve such delicate medallions so uniformly pink when they're so elegantly charred on the outside?) and the cheese (oh god, such cheese). On the other side of the table, the d'Anjou pigeon was similarly breathtaking, especially the accompanying truffled macaroni gratin. You'd admire the flavours however they were served, but the presentation, the delicate vertical arrangement into a perfect cylindrical stack? Just lovely. This is event dining where everything just clicks, from the efficiency of the friendly staff to the genius in the kitchen. The room's a little odd - you'll know you're in a hotel dining room - but then the food will make your eyes roll so far back in your head you'll forget the surroundings. Going out on a limb, I'm saying top five of all time. Plus £63 for four courses? Can anyone find fault with that?

8 February 2009

Let's Get Ready To Crumble

Aha. The BAFTAs have just lurched into the predictable bits. Ledger's just won, for chrissakes, while the overrated Slumdog's already got about 87... expect Winslet, Rourke, Slumdog and Boyle to get the remaining big prizes and go and do something less tedious instead... like discussing crumble.

Sister Lambshank was up for the weekend, for meat, wine, borrowed bears - we like to offer our guests every service - a wander around Ally Pally Farmers Market and a planned roast chicken lunch before we packed her off home. Last night's lamb was good, the wine flowed, the cheese rocked (it was cheese, it does that) and the sleep was good. Well, except for me: I seem to have picked up some throat infection which has left me snoring like a warthog.

The chicken though went in the freezer for next weekend and, instead, we had a cupboard clearing smorgasbord, topped up with some bits from the market, including an excellent fidget pie: ham, cheese and apple in good pastry to provide a glorious, simple comforting dish. Throw in some ham, some roasted peppers and aubergine, the remains of the goat curd, some Giggly Pig sausages (ginger and spring onion, a great combo), a couple of spinach bourek, some winter salad from the plot, some steamed leeks and a chorizo and green bean stew from the freezer. That was followed by a home made crumble, also from the freezer: we stuck it in there uncooked a couple of months ago when a dinner guest surprised us with an enormous cake.

Here's the thing. The crumble was excellent, the best we've created in our kitchen. And the bean and chorizo stew? Even better than when it was first made. So what happens in the freezer? Is there a scientific answer? Is it just a time thing? Either way, I think I'm cooking all my food three months early from this point on...

6 February 2009

I'm Gonna Get You Wabbit...

On the subject of meat, I am indebted to a Mr William Leigh of this parish, for finding this vegan blog page.

Ignoring the apparent irony of the joys of vegan cooking - insert your own jokes here, but I'd recommend the "why are so many of them made of meat?" one myself - have a look at the counter on the left. It shows the number of animals killed by the meat, dairy and egg industries since you opened the page.

Some will look at this and say "ooh, it makes you think, doesn't it?" Am I the only person who looks at it and thinks "ooh, I think I'll eat more rabbit then"?


Dear animals. Sorry. But hey, if you will be so damn edible...

So yet more shitty weather - is there anything more miserable than slush? - and for me that means comfort eating. Yes, I know sunshine, rain, good moods, bad moods, birthdays, Tuesdays etc., generally also mean comfort eating but I needed a lead in and some vindication for the sheer quantity of animal bits consumed in the last couple of days.

Yesterday afternoon was spent in relaxed style with the laptop, some film notes and a couple of pints of Timothy Taylor's while waiting for the lovely Petra from the WEST brewery. It looks like St Mungo's is ready to explode into the UK and that is a VERY GOOD THING. It is an astonishingly good beer: crisp, clean, refreshing and with an amazing lingering malty finish. I'm looking forward to a Friday next month when I shall be firmly ensconced in the brewery and supping the rest of the range.

As anticipated, Petra, her other half and the convivial Giles of Coach & Horses fame got on like the proverbial flaming residence and, as anticipated, the Scotch eggs, chips, herring roes on toast, deep-fried pigs cheeks and, particular, the black pudding hash warmed the cockles and filled collective bellies.

The hash was brought to mind again this morning with a similarly constructed haggis breakfast at Roast. The Ramsay of Carluke haggis is a thing of sheepy beauty, and the bubble and squeak and fried egg accompaniment make this probably my favourite breakfast at the moment. Well, until the next one. I had intended to take a photo of this succulent stack but it's impossible to resist. Next time...

3 February 2009

The Full Irish

I am LOVING snow days. The last couple of days have felt like a bonus, an extra weekend where all you can do is stay at home and either do nothing (which can be lovely) or do loads of errands that you've been putting off (which can be lovely). Yesterday it was all about the rest but today was a fine blend of the relaxed and the interesting. And, because the capital's transport was back to (almost) full power, the interesting was 30 minutes with Richard Corrigan.

Corrigan is a bit of a food hero and my favourite kind of chef: one who looks like he actually eats and enjoys it. After a nervy start - due, it transpired, to him not seeing himself as worthy of interview - he gradually relaxed into the bon viveur and fascinating character I hoped he would be. A transcript (or a link to the Irish Post feature) will follow in due course... Mind you, I can't wait to eat at Corrigan's. Those Dos Hermanos boys have been raving about the place since it opened, Corrigan's previous restaurant Lindsay House is in my Top Five dining experiences ever, and my set lunch at Bentley's last week was also rather impressive. And the menu? Oh boy... If you're reading this blog on a regular basis and you've just clicked that link you can see why I'm excited. It's birthday week soon. I think a lengthy lunch - or even a trawl through several starters - will be very much in order.

2 February 2009

You Sexy Thing

As a friend has just pointed out, today was a day to stay in and drink hot chocolate. So I've just made some. And she's right... 'night all.

The Remains of the Snow Day

If there was ever a day to encourage the eating of leftovers and cupboard raiding, today was surely it. Snow is one of those things that I like to look at from a distance rather than experience first hand. The gardens looked pretty, the car had damn near disappeared from view and, aside from a short walk to look at the igloo a neighbour had built - no, really - it's been a day behind closed doors. Happily, there was still a portion of Jalfrezi in the fridge, the remains of the NYD cheese - the Montgomery is so good it'll make your eyes hurt - and a stack of chocolate from the other day. Mind you, on a day like today, you'd also be hard pushed to beat the lunch. A slice of homemade bread, a sprinkling of Kirkham's Lancashire and a sliced shallot. Throw that lot under the grill, serve with cup of tea... bliss. Particularly when you consider a mate's dilemma of being forced to write nice things about Little Bay's new policy of paying what you think the meal is worth.

If you haven't come across Little Bay, it's a very cheap and these days slightly-less-cheerful chain that does simple, stodgy grub for bugger all money. It used to be good and cheap. More recently it's just been cheap: amazing how many places lose sight of the difference between offering good value value and being low-priced. The idea of Little Bay now cutting even more corners in order to justify this novelty promotion is rather worrying as the place has basically become Gregg's with cutlery. The only people it's good news for would be Jus-Rol. MInd you, the chance to go along, stock up on calories and pay what it's worth - I'd suggest about 6p a course - is very probably appealing to wannabe marathon runners on a budget.

While there are bad things associated with Snow Days - such as the likelihood of having to rearrange my interview with Richard "the legend" Corrigan tomorrow as well as dinner with the team behind Gaucho - it's also a good chance to catch up with DVDs and recorded TV. Did anyone see Hunter the other week? It's the best British police drama to hit the small screen since the hey days of Cracker. Get thee to iPlayer forthwith.

1 February 2009

Chaat Room

With the weekend nearly over, it's time to sit back, hands on stuffed belly, and contemplate the last 72 hours of consumption. And consumption is a word that fits.

The most conspicuous act of it took place in a back street of Mayfair on Friday afternoon, with a second stint judging at the Academy of Chocolate Awards. Which is about all I can tell you about that. Standouts were few and far between but that's not a reflection on a plethora of average chocolatiers, more a reflection that the majority of bars were of a similar quality. Against each other, they may appear average but compared to yer-common-or-garden off-the-shelf chocolate? It probably bodes well for the state of the industry as a whole. Individually some had hints of burnt beans, or too much cocoa butter, or assorted other flaws but cast your mind back just five years or so and would you have found so many people at least attempting to produce something better than Cadburys, etc.? I think it's all vaguely encouraging.

Anyway, can't go into specifics for reasons of confidentiality plus, of course, it was a blind tasting session: we won't even know the identities of the bars tasted until the winners are announced in due course.

So, after four hours of chocolate - and 54 bars, if memory serves - I was a little "stoned" and, in true "munchies" fashion, the bag of Neal's Yard Cheese I'd picked up pre-judging more than hit the spot. As a former cheesemonger, I'm rather biased towards NYD's product but, at the moment, there are a few tasting as good as I've ever had. The Tunworth, for example, is joyously cabbage-y and creamy, and the Dorstone is fresh and rich. Over in the Montgomery's stable, life is even better than normal. I'm a great advocate that you should try everything on the shelf - Lincolnshire Poacher, the Mull, Keen's, etc - because, on their day, they can beat the Monty's. However, where Monty's scores so highly is the consistency. Even on an average day, it's very good. When it's in the kind of form you can now get at NYD? There's nary a cheese to touch it... Something good happened to those cows in late 2006 then. Mind you, the Beenleigh Blue at the moment is, frankly, astonishing - and a joy to cook with.

Right. The news you've been waiting for. Possibly. Or at least the news I've been waiting to bring you. I made a curry: a chicken jalfrezi. Admittedly it was from a kit but hey, it involved fresh(ish) spices and was as good a starting point as any for understanding a few flavours. Somewhat inevitably, it tasted a lot better today once the flavours had had a chance to fester but it wasn't bad at all and the homemade naan's were excellent - although I can't take any credit for those.

Perhaps the best bit about the Indian feast was the chance to hit Meera's Xpress. Ignore the slightly annoying missing vowel - and, indeed, the latin test text still plastered on the website - but this small chain does vegetarian snacks of some quality including two things I am addicted to: puri and chaat. What is it about these things I adore? The flavours? The chance to throw unlimited chutneys on a plate? The contrast of textures and sweet and sour flavours? Tell you what. I'll have another plateful and let you know.

Finally, I think I may have a new mission. While the the heroic foodie duo of Dos Hermanos are seeking the best burgers in London and proper fish supper, and I can't make up my mind what constitutes the perfect chip, I realised today that there is a dish I can pontificate on. Scrambled eggs. Soft doesn't mean uncooked. Butter is not an optional extra. It is not a health food. There is no excuse for cheap eggs. Yep. Scrambled eggs will be my Holy Grail for the foreseeable - and, as a by-product of that, I might just have to sample a few brunches as well. Oh dear...