Thursday, 20 October 2011

Beers for Souvenirs

Beer. Such a small word for such a wonderous and varied beverage. From crisp, refreshing lager to dark, creamy stout. From deep, nutty bitter to sweet, sickly fruit beers. I like beer. Clare likes beer too. So, when I received an email about the Nottingham Beer Festival, and as neither of us had been before, we had to get tickets.

The Nottingham Beer Festival has been going for, well, as long as I can remember. Formerly hosted in a leisure centre near the city centre, for the last few years it has been held in the grounds of Nottingham Castle. As mentioned above, we'd never been to the Nottingham, or indeed any Beer Festival, before. The mere words conjure up images of thick woolly jumpers and thicker, woollier beards. Years ago, the thought of such a thing would have filled me with horror. Nowadays it sounded remarkably compelling and both Clare and I were thoroughly looking forward to it.

The day of the festival arrived, and a gloriously sunny Autumn day it was too. Pre-festival food consisted of stodgy, alcohol-soaking-up burgers, courtesy of a well known chain of 'restaurants.' No Michelin-starred tomfoolery today. Today was strictly spit and sawdust.

Upon wondering up to the street outside the Castle we were greeted by a very long queue, even though it was still before 13:00 and the festival had only been open a couple of hours. Upon inquiring however, it turned out that this queue was for people without tickets. We already had ours so scurried round the corner to join a shorter, though still sizeable, queue. The aforementioned tickets afforded us entry to the festival, a commemorative glass and 10 beer tokens each. The queue was full of myriad different people. Yes, there were beards and jumpers. There were also sportswear-clad youths, a group of gents that wouldn't have looked out of place watching a polo match, stag and hen night groups and a sprinkling of students. A diverse bunch indeed.

After a short wait we finally entered the festival proper in the Castle grounds, received our glass and tokens, picked up a programme and went exploring. The festival was split over two main areas. On the lower level by the Castle grounds entrance was one large beer tent, a live music area and a number of different purveyors of food, from sausage cobs to paella to pie and faggots (bleugh). Higher up, on the field used for jousting during the Robin Hood pageant, was the main beer tent. As well as beer, lots of beer, was more food, souvenirs and a CAMRA stall - but more of that later. As we'd already eaten, we dived straight into the beer!

Even the smaller of the two tents had an almost overwhelming number of ale-filled barrels. The choice was vast and bewildering, with beers of all shapes and sizes. Well, colours and names anyway. Clare opted first for a golden ale called Wellow Gold, while I chose a stout whose name escapes me now (and that I can't find in the programme). A third of a pint cost two tokens. Both ales were pleasant if not amazing. Once these had been quaffed (it is impossible to write about beer without saying 'quaffed') we wondered up to the main tent to sample more.

This tent was even bigger and crammed full of intriguing barrels. At the entrance was a CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) stand at which we duly decided to become members. This task done, it was time for more ale. While queueing we'd noticed a sign for a wonderfully named brewery called Dancing Duck. They had a mini-bar in the main tent so we decided to try this next. This time Clare had some Nice Weather 4 Ducks, which was a coppery coloured summer ale. I had a Dancing Drake, another dark stout but this time with a fantastic burnt toffee flavour which conjured up thoughts of Bonfire Night. This was probably the nicest beer we tried all day.

Round the tent we walked, sampling chilli-infused chocolate on the way, before trying a couple more beers. Cherry Stout was Clare's beer of choice this time. Definitely a stout but not particularly cherryish. I plumped for a Berry Blonde which was meant to have raspberry notes, but they were lost on me.

Both feeling a bit merry now, we decided to up the pace by trying a couple of the many ciders which were also on offer. Things start to get a bit hazy from here. I know my choice was called Stoke Red and it was delicious, though not red. Sweet, soft and, at 7.5% ABV packing a decent punch. I can't remember what Clare had though I know it tasted a bit sharper. Alas the cider proved to be Clare's undoing and, not wishing to make herself ill, she curtailed her drinking early. This did mean though that I got to use her tokens...

And use them I did, on another cracking stout called Sgt. Pepper Stout, brewed with black peppercorns which added a pleasantly mild kick to the taste. The final drink was called Lurch's Liquor, whose name lingers longer than the taste did. Tokens all used up, we enjoyed a sit down in the October sunshine before staggering off for the bus home.

All in all the Nottingham Beer Festival was a fantastic day and we'll definitely be going next year. I may even grow a beard and buy a woolly jumper in anticipation.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Indian (food) Summer and a Special Anniversary

Oops. Apologies everyone for slipping back to bad habits and not blogging regularly. I do enjoy it - honestly - but just never seem to find the time. But Saturday 1st October 2011 was definitely well worth taking the time to blog about.

Those of you who read my last blog may remember that at the end of it I alluded to seeing Phantom of the Opera in October. This wasn't just any showing of Phantom however, this was the 25th Anniversary performance at the Royal Albert Hall. Never having seen Phantom live before, and never having been to that particular venue before, it's fair to say we were more than a little excited. Even more so because two of the lead roles - The Phantom and Raoul - were being played by two of our favourite musical theatre performers: Ramin Karimloo and Hadley Fraser respectively.

As the Royal Albert Hall is in London, we took the chance to partake in a nice lunch. This time we decided to revisit a restaurant we'd been to previously; a wonderful Indian tapas bar called Imli. On our first visit we had a really nice set lunch. That didn't seem to be available this time, so instead we plumped for four tapas dishes; two smaller ones for starters and two larger mains, with rice and a naan bread as accompaniments.

For our starters we went for the Kheema Pav and Spicy Chicken Satay. The Kheema Pav was a wonderfully spicy dish of minced lamb, potatoes, peas and chillies served with pieces of lightly toasted bread. The Satay Chicken was what you'd expected, thin chicken strips and a spicy coating, served with salad and a delicious beetroot chutney. The chicken was beautifully flavoured, hot but not overpowering, and left a really nice tingle in the mouth long after eating.

Our main course choices were the Honey Grilled Duck and the Palak Methi Chicken Curry, with the aforementioned rice (pilau) and naan (cheese and coriander). The duck was sweet, lightly spiced and tender, served on some fluffy and tasty turmeric mash. While not overdone, the duck was not as pink as we'd have liked, but that's only a minor criticism. The chicken curry was wonderful; strongly flavoured and pleasingly hot, with tasty thigh meat rather than often-bland breast. The naan deserves special mention too, tremendous with coriander flavour and molten cheese.

We enjoyed this meal even more than our first visit, and would definitely recommend Imli to anyone that likes Indian food with a bit of a difference. It is slightly more expensive than a typical curry house, but the extra money is definitely worth it for the quality of food and service on offer.

Food devoured, we set off for another usual London haunt of The Porterhouse. We're both big fans of this place which has an excellent atmosphere and an extensive range of draft and bottled beers. As well as one of their own-brewed stouts each, Clare had a bottle of honey beer (delicious) while I had a pint of strawberry beer (nice but sickly). Then after a quick sit down in Tavistock Gardens and a wash and brush-up at the hotel, it was off to the show.

The Phantom of the Opera needs no introduction. Sir Andrew Lloyd-Webber's creation has been wowing crowds worldwide for 25 years now, though, as said before, this was our first time seeing the show. It's fair to say we were impressed! From our seat up in the Gods we still had an excellent view of the lavish set, which included boats, bridges and the famous chandelier.

The casting for this production saw Ramin Karimloo play The Phantom, as he had done in the West End production of the Phantom sequel Love Never Dies. Christine Daae was played by Sierra Boggess, who had also played the same role in the sequel, and the main triumvirate was rounded out by Hadley Fraser (whom you may recognise from my previous blog) as Raoul. All three of these performers provided stunning vocals and presence. Ramin and Sierra's rendition of the title song was spine-tingling stuff.

The rest of the ensemble were also excellent, including Wynne Evans as Piagi. Don't recognise him? Picture him with a stupid zigzag moustache signing a VERY annoying song about comparing prices and he might become more familiar...

After a fantastic performance, we received a few extra-special surprises. Sir Andrew Lloyd-Webber himself gave a speech about the show, and was then joined by producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh who added his own choice words. Then, in a wonderful finale, the original Christine Daae - Sarah Brightman - treated us to a rendition of a couple of the most well known songs, accompanied by four Phantoms including Colm Wilkinson and the current wearer of the famous mask, John Owen-Jones. Brilliant stuff and a fitting end to the evening.

So, another fun weekend is now at an end. What to blog about next? Considering the goings-on at Nottingham Forest today, it might have to be that.....

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Cold Soup, Coconut Beer and French Resistance - Another Weekend in London

Clare and I had first been to see the wonderful Les Miserables in May of 2010. It's fair to say we were pretty impressed. Hooked in fact. We soon treated ourselves to the soundtrack CD and the DVD of the 25th Anniversary show at the O2 arena. This DVD introduced us to an amazing singer called Alfie Boe, who plays the lead role of Jean Valjean in the show. So, when we found out that the aforementioned Mr. Boe, and also Matt Lucas (who played the comedic but villainous innkeeper Thenardier in the 25th Anniversary show) were reprising their roles in the West End, we just had to get tickets.

Never ones to miss the chance of a bit of posh nosh, we decided to tie the visit in with a lunch at a nice restaurant. A bit of internet scouting led us to choose L'Atelier Robuchon, a 2 Michelin starred restaurant near Covent Garden who were offering a very reasonably priced set lunch menu.

The big day got off to an interesting start with us bumping into CJ De Mooi (of TV show 'Eggheads' fame) in Nottingham station, then turned annoying as a half-size train with no buffet cart turned up. Upon arrival in London there was a moment of alarm as the tube from St. Pancras station was closed, but this was due to nothing more sinister than overcrowding caused by engineering works on other lines. It did mean we had to walk to our hotel, but no harm done really (apart from to Clare's feet!)

After checking in and freshening up we headed off to the restaurant. L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon is part of a three-story trio of restaurants close to Covent Garden. L'Atelier makes up the ground floor, with La Cuisine on the first and a bar and terrace on the second. L'Atelier however is not set up like a traditional high-end restaurant. Instead it is inspired by the Japanese 'counter' concept, where tables surround a central cooking area so diners can see what is being prepared for them before their very eyes.

Upon arriving at the restaurant we were shown to our seats. Not, unfortunately, right by the counter, but still close enough to see what was going on. We'd already chosen to go for the set lunch so the only decisions left were what to have for each course, and whether to have the wine accompaniment. I did. Clare went instead for a glass of bubbly.

The customary amuse bouche took the form of a large spoon of filleted tuna with a sliver of Melba toast. Akin to a spoonful of posh tuna mayo. It was very tasty but caused some confusion over how to eat it. I shovelled it into my mouth in one go while Clare took more refined nibbles.

For our first courses, Clare chose the egg cocotte topped with wild mushroom cream, while I went for the tomato gazpacho with cucumber jelly. Clare's cocotte was a light, foamy dish topping some rich woody mushrooms and very pleasant indeed. My gazpacho was delicious. Not something I'd usually choose, it was thick, rich and beautifully seasoned. The cucumber jelly added a touch of refreshment and the accompanying goats cheese toasted gave crunch and sourness.

We both plumped for the main course of chicken ballottine and it was definitely a good choice. The chicken was tender and almost smoky in flavour, with the skin left on too. It was stuffed with caramelised onions and served with crunchy beignets of aubergine. It also came with a delicious side dish of carrots, cooked in butter and flavoured with cumin.

After choosing the same main course we differed again on the desserts. I went for a 'cheesecake' of cappuccino ice mousse topped with Mascarpone cream and tangy summer fruits. Very tasty indeed with a nicely subtle coffee flavour. Clare, having spotted another diner ordering it, chose the selection of tarts. An inspired choice! The quintet of small tart slices included lemon, chocolate, coffee, cinnamon and pistachio and almond. The three I sampled (the last three) were all delicious, with the cinnamon in particular standing out.

Service was, in general, good, though one of the waiting stuff seemed a little aloof and reached across to top up my water glass while I was still eating, which I found slightly unprofessional. It would also have been nice to have been given the chance to sit by the open counter as there was room. These were minor faults however and certainly didn't detract from the overall experience. The lunch was excellent value and I'd definitely recommend L'Atelier to anyone who'd like to try fine dining with a bit of a difference.

Following lunch we headed back to our favourite bar in Covent Garden, The Porterhouse. After sampling their deliciously creamy Plain Porter we thought we'd try something a bit different, in the form of a bottle of Mongozo Coconut Beer. Sounds odd, and it was quite, but refreshing and not too sweet. You definitely couldn't drink too many of them though. A very quick shopping trip, snooze at the hotel and change later and we were off to the Queen's Theatre for our evening watching Les Miserables.

As mentioned above, we'd first seen Les Miserables in 2010 and really enjoyed it. This time was even better, because we now knew the story and songs and so could concentrate more on enjoying the performances. This was further helped by our seats which were on the very front row - though off to one side. Being so close to the stage and performers added a whole new dimension to the show and meant we picked up things we'd missed the first time.

I won't go into the story as you'll either know it already or can go and find out. Instead I'll mention a few of the standout performers, and where better to start than with Alfie Boe as Jean Valjean? The most stunning voice I've ever heard live. Listening to him belt out 'Bring Him Home' was something to behold, and it was good to see that his actual acting seemed to have come on in leaps and bounds since the 25th Anniversary show.

Hadley Fraser as Javert was also brilliant. A young man playing a role suited to a much older one he pulled it off amazingly. Another beautiful voice and a sneering, broodingly menacing performance - which was totally at odds with how nice he was off stage!

Craig Mather and Liam Tamne as Marius and Enjolras respectively were both excellent, strong voices matched with impressive performances. The female roles were a bit more of a mixed bag. Zoe Doano as Cosette was fabulous and worked really well with Marius. Lily Fraser's Eponine was good but not ballsy enough.

Finally a special mention must go to Matt Lucas as the scheming innkeeper Thenardier. Not a professional singer by trade, but not out of place at all. If you didn't know he wasn't a full time West End singer before seeing the show, you wouldn't know any different afterwards. Good singing and a great performance, really making the most of the role.

I have nothing but admiration for the performers. Putting such energy and intensity into a show once a week would be hard. These guys sometimes do it twice a day; combining singing live and acting with emotion and all with no clapperboard or shouts of 'CUT' to save them. We were lucky enough to meet a few of the cast members after the show and they were all charming and happy to take time out to sign autographs and pose for pictures. They also seemed to genuinely love what they do - overpaid and arrogant footballers please take note!

So, another great weekend done. Now when's the next one? Anyone for a spot of Phantom in October.....?

Thursday, 14 July 2011

No Roman No Fly

For many people, the annual holiday abroad is one of, if not the, highlight of the year. It is something to look forward to; from the moment it's booked to the second that the first, ice-cold beer is downed by the side of the swimming pool. It's an event the excitement for which builds and builds as the departure date grows ever closer. It is the same for me too. However, as well as the excitement building for me, the dread builds as well. Because as well as being a source of excitement and fun, for me the annual holiday abroad is also a source of anxiety and fear. Why is this? Because I'm afraid of flying.

Flying is something I didn't first experience until quite late in life. As a child and teenager my family were never really well enough off to holiday abroad. Mablethorpe was our usual destination of choice. After that, for many years I never had the need to fly. Then finally in 1999 a football trip with work took me to Dublin and my very first flight, aboard a 50-odd seater twin-propeller plane. I loved it. And the return flight too. The sensation of power as the plane gathered the speed required to lift off, the view of the clouds underneath me. The novelty of it all was great.

Then, in November of the same year, my friend (and eventual Best Man) Tim and I booked a late deal holiday to Fuerteventura for a week. The outward flight again was fine. This time it was longer (around 3:30 hours) so I had my first experience of a TV on the plane (gasp!) and was fascinated by the updates on our flight, speed and distance to our destination.

All good so far, until the return flight. We were seated near the back of the plane. The faint smell of aviation fuel hung in the air. There was no TV close enough to watch. No MP3 player to distract me. And it was windy and rainy. Not 'items falling out of overhead lockers' windy, but still 'seat belt lights on and stewards/stewardesses not allowed to walk round' windy. It was my first experience of turbulence and I didn't like it one bit.

Tim - an experienced flyer - didn't help matters by cheerily informing me that the seat belts on planes are primarily to keep the bodies in one place should the plane crash into the sea. The Captain's announcement of 'we're just flying into some 90mph headwinds' didn't help much either. Time seemed to crawl. The plane bobbed up and down like a dinghy on a choppy ocean. The sky was grey, so no hint outside of how far we'd traveled or still had to go.

Then, finally, it was over. I don't remember much about the landing other than feeling profound relief. The Pope at the time - John Paul II - used to kiss the ground upon arrival in a new country. I sincerely felt like doing the same.

Since that one flight I've never enjoyed the experience. I've suffered it where unavoidable (three flights in a day once to travel to Latvia for another football tournament), but I've also avoided it where possible (a 24 hour train journey from London to Krakow for Tim's Stag weekend). I went several years without having to fly, until meeting and marrying Clare meant a return of the need to be airborne. Initially on our first holiday abroad together to Menorca, and since then on our honeymoon to Egypt, and subsequent holidays to Majorca, Benidorm, Salou and - most recently - Cyprus.

As bad as it is for me, it's not much better for Clare. For days before the flight I'll be withdrawn and moody. Clare, who is naturally caring and attentive, finds it hard to leave me be, when all I want is to be alone with my thoughts. Tablets have helped somewhat (I have been tempted to have BA Baracus style drugged hamburgers), but I'm just never comfortable up in the air. The feeling of relief when we touch down safe and sound - as we have done every time of course - is wonderful. As another friend once put it: 'it's like someone switches you back on again when we land.'

I'm sure I'll fly again, and I'm sure I probably won't enjoy it, but for a few months now at least the need to fly is put aside.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Rolling in it (The Deep, that is)

So, Adele, you've released a fantastically successful album which has sold millions of copies and made you a very wealthy woman, and now you're not happy that you have to pay so much tax. Well, I'm not 100% on this and I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure that nobody really likes paying tax. However, pay it we must and get on with it we must and that is the way of things in this country.

Now, if I were to be interviewed by a national publication (unlikely), and complain about having to pay so much tax, nobody would bat an eyelid. That's because I'm a normal person, doing a normal job, earning a normal wage and paying a normal amount of tax. You, however, are different.

You have a God-given talent of writing very good songs and delivering them with a striking, soulful and emotive voice. You have chosen to make this talent into your career - and that is to be applauded. The majority of us do not have this talent, and therefore have to do normal jobs. Others may have a similar talent but due to whatever circumstances, they may be unwilling or unable to make it their calling in life. Such people as this may choose other jobs, such as being teachers, firefighters or nurses. These people may also have bought your records.

How will these people feel then, to read of you deriding the industries they put their heart and souls into, working very long hours for nowhere near the rewards that you enjoy? They pay their taxes too and I'm sure they don't enjoy it either. You chose your career, a career that brings great privilege. But, as the saying goes, with great privilege comes great responsibility. One such responsibility is paying a higher amount of tax.

Of course, these other people also have responsibilities in their jobs; things such as bringing up the Nations' children to the best of their abilities. Or saving lives perhaps. Or healing dangerously ill people. Trivial things maybe, compared to making good songs.

So, next time you see your tax bill, consider how much you've earned to be paying that much. Consider also the feelings of the people who put you where you are. The teachers, firefighters and nurses that bought your records. Then do us all a favour and save your breath for your singing. We'll all enjoy it a lot more.

Saturday, 30 April 2011

A very special day

I'd been looking forward to Friday April 29th 2011 ever since the special event was announced. An occasion to bring people together in a common interest, and for all those involved to rejoice and be happy. A day to spend with your comrades to celebrate the best of all things British. Yes, that's right, it was the annual trip to the World Snooker Semi-Finals in Sheffield. Did something else happen on that day? I didn't hear about it.

The pilgrimage to the Home of Snooker - The Crucible Theatre in Sheffield - has become something of a tradition now. For the last four or five years, a group of us (my friends Tim, Mike, Paul, Pete and Aidan) have made the short train journey from Nottingham (or the somewhat longer journey from London and Exeter in the case of some) to watch the Friday morning and afternoon sessions of the World Snooker Semi-Finals. It just so happened that this year, the trip coincided with the Royal Wedding. I'm neutral as far as the Royal Family goes, but this worked out great - it meant we didn't have to book the day off work.

Snooker day takes a familiar form each year, which looks something like this:

  • Meet at The Cosy Teapot near Nottingham train station for the biggest breakfast they offer
  • Get the 08:45 train to Sheffield, arriving at 09:38
  • Take the short stroll from Sheffield station to The Crucible for the 10:00 start
  • Watch x* amount of frames in the morning session
  • Have y** amount of drinks at The Brown Bear and a curry from the curry stall in Sheffield city centre for lunch
  • Watch z*** number of frames in the afternoon session
  • Get the train back to Nottingham (or the hotel in Sheffield for those staying over)
You may have noticed a number of variables in this schedule. Let me explain what effects them all...

x* is an integer between 0 and 8 (the maximum amount of frames in a session). It is influenced by the following factors: time of arrival, players playing, interest level of snooker and thirstiness. When we first started going to the snooker, x would always be at least 7. As time has gone on, this number has gradually declined. In fact for Pete yesterday, x was a big fat 0.

y** is an integer between 0 and theoretically infinity, though it is usually around 3-4. This also has several determining factors, namely: duration of morning session, length of queue at bar, number of attendees, hungriness and thirstiness. The Brown Bear is, putting it kindly, a spit-and-sawdust pub just round the corner from The Crucible. It is, however, ridiculously cheap (just over £11.00 for 7 pints) and serves a decent pint of Sam Smith's.

Finally, z*** is an integer between 0 and 8 again. Its influences are similar to those of x*, but replacing time of arrival with time leaving The Brown Bear. It is also influenced by y**, and by strength of bladder.

Over the years we've seen a number of the greats of snooker at The Crucible. Standout matches include a couple of ruthless destructions of Stephen Hendry at the hands of Ronnie o'Sullivan, and a thrilling match between Peter Ebdon and Marco Fu. This year's protagonists were, in the morning, two first-time Semi-Finalists in Ding Junhui and Judd Trump. The afternoon session was contested between two Crucible veterans: Mark Williams and John Higgins.

I was excited by the morning match as I've not seen either of the players play live before. Unfortunately the snooker didn't live up to the billing. It started well, with Ding winning the first frame with a 91 break. That was as good as it got though. The following frames were scrappy and of poor quality, with neither player making the most of their chances. This led to an early departure to the bar and, in my case, an x score of 5.

There was no total escape from the Royal Wedding. The bank of televisions surrounding the Betfred booth near the Crucible bar was showing the ceremony. Well, on one of the TVs anyway. This gave us the slightly surreal image of Kate and Wills on one screen, and the 11:15 greyhound race from Walthamstow on another. The greyhounds took top billing in fact.

The morning session dragged on an awful long time, which meant lunch and beer time were significantly reduced. There was still time though for the aforementioned curry, a spicy Polish sausage in a bread roll, and for y to equal 2 this year.

The afternoon session was much better, as the nervousness of the younger players was replaced with the assuredness of Williams and Higgins - both multiple World Champions. This match ebbed and flowed but again without either playing showing fully what they were capable of. The lateness of the first session and the subsequent delayed lunch meant we missed the first three frames of the afternoon, giving a z total of 5 as well. Spotted in the afternoon crowd were CJ de Mooi of Eggheads fame, and World Cup Final referee Howard Webb.

As it stands as I'm writing this, Trump overcame Ding 17-15 to reach his first World Championship Final; congratulations to him on that fantastic achievement. Higgins is leading Williams 15-14 in the other Semi-Final which looks like it could go down to the wire. Should make for an interesting Final whoever gets through. Whoever it is, snooker day will return next year - and we will be there.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Clare's Birthday (Hawksmoor and Love Never Dies)

*Dusts cobwebs and removes tumbleweed from blog*

Oh, hello there. Forgive my inactivity on the blogging front recently. It's not that I don't like updating it - I really do. It's just that I find it hard to think of subjects to write about. I usually end up using the crutch of food to inspire my writing, which, funnily enough, is what I'm going to do now.

My lovely wife Clare turned *mumbles age under breath* on April 2nd and we decided to spend the day in London. Clare wanted to see Love Never Dies, so I dutifully booked tickets and transport, while Clare herself arranged our lunch at a restaurant we'd not tried before called Hawksmoor.

The day finally arrived, presents were unwrapped and a taxi trip and train journey to the Smoke were undertaken, all thankfully without hitch or delay. A short hop on the tube to Covent Garden took us to the unassuming street where the Hawksmoor is located (along with Pineapple Dance Studio and the Royal School of Film).

Upon entering, we were led downstairs into an impressively stocked bar where we ordered drinks to take to our table. A sweet but tasty Porter for me, and a marmalade cocktail for Clare (which tasted very marmaladey indeed). Drinks duly ordered and received we went through to the main dining room. It seemed to be located in an old warehouse, with bare-brick walls and concrete pillars, but was still quite open plan. With our early sitting the restaurant wasn't full, but the room gave the impression that during a busy serving it would have a cracking atmosphere.

Our waitress asked if we'd been before (we hadn't) and explained how things worked. You choose your cut of steak, the size and your preferred method of cooking. They do the rest. We went for the Porterhouse - a bone-left-in combination of fillet and sirloin - done medium-rare, with a number of sides (Bearnaise sauce, beef-dripping chips, flat mushrooms and grilled bone-marrow).

The food arrived promptly, and even if it hadn't, it would have been worth waiting for. The beef-dripping chips were deliciously crunchy on the outside but with fluffy innards, like mini roast potatoes. while the mushrooms were large, succulent and flavoursome. The Bearnaise sauce was wonderfully creamy and rich, but not too much so. As for the bone-marrow: erm.....interesting. We'd not tried it before and probably won't again. This isn't a slight on the cooking, it was just rather strange and gloopy and not what we'd expected. The bone-marrow that is - not the cooking.

And so to the steak. Wow! In fact, WOW! Easily the best steak we've ever eaten. The outside was charred and crusted to perfection, while the middle was the pink, squishy embodiment of medium-rare that we'd requested. The seasoning was spot on as well and the plateful didn't stand a chance. Every slice was devoured with gusto and thoroughly enjoyed. The meal was a real carnivore's delight. The only greenery on view was in the sauce.

During the meal our waitress came over and presented us with complementary drinks (another Porter for me, and a charmingly named cocktail called 'Corpse Reviver No. 2 for Clare). She said that a little bird had told them it was Clare's birthday, though we were at a loss as to how this was. Turns out it was via Twitter. Fantastic use of social media and a lovely addition to the already great experience.

All in all we had a fantastic lunch and would definitely recommend the Hawksmoor to any steak-lovers out there. It wasn't cheap (though that was mainly due to the amount we ordered!) but was worth every penny, and the little touch of the free drinks just added the icing to the succulent, meaty cake.

So, from the lunch it was on to the theatre (via a quick drink at a charming little London pub called the Nell Gwynne). As mentioned earlier, we were booked to see the matinee performance of Love Never Dies, the sequel to Phantom of the Opera. Set ten years after the original Phantom, it tells the story of what happened to the Phantom as he fled from Paris, and what became of Christine and Raoul.

I don't want to talk too much about the story in case any of you wish to see it, but I can certainly mention the performances, which were breathtaking, and the production, which was dark, brooding and wonderfully atmospheric. Christine and Raoul were played by Celia Graham and David Thaxton respectively, with Christine in particular standing out. Her rendition of the title track was something to behold.

The lead role of the Phantom belongs to the wonderful Ramin Karimloo, who we've championed since seeing his portrayal of Enjolras in the 25th Anniversary of Les Miserables. Ramin as the Phantom was magnificent, subtle, menacing and tortured yet powerful. Also noteworthy were Haley Flaherty as Meg and the young boy who played Gustave. The performances, music, songs and production were all first-rate and we thoroughly enjoyed the show, though there was much snuffling and sobbing at the end (I won't go into why...)

Following the show we took a quick wander into Covent Garden to sample the Oyster Stout at The Porterhouse, which was as creamily satisfying as I'd remembered from previous visits. Then back to St. Pancras for a drink at the longest Champagne bar in Europe. A fitting end to a fantastic day.

Happy birthday Clare - and roll on next year!

Thursday, 3 March 2011

One too many ingredients on the plate.

I was determined to do a non food-related blog this time, but have been sadly lacking in inspiration. I did go and see an 'interesting' interpretation of Carmen by Opera North lately, but, though I like opera, I'm certainly no expert so that's a bit too far out of my comfort zone. Not that I'm a food expert either, but I've eaten more food than I've seen operas, so that's good enough for me.

Alas, since our wonderful visit to Hibiscus we've not been lucky enough to sample any more food of that quality. A trip to the local curry house after Carmen, while nice, was not worthy of its own blog. So, instead of a food blog, this is a food TV blog. It's about MasterChef.

I first stumbled across MasterChef quite by accident a few years ago. Actually, that's not quite right. I knew of the Loyd Grossman hosted programme that used to be on Sunday afternoons and was all very stuffy and formal. The new version was different however. Although it was, technically, reality TV (of which I am the sworn enemy) it was different to that too. For a start, the competitors wouldn't be clogging the music charts with bilge for years to come. There were no telephone numbers to save our favourites, nor pantomime-villain judges. There wasn't even any prize (apart from a trophy) - just ordinary people trying to use their passion for food and cooking to launch a career.

The format has remained pretty much the same since I really took interest: an invention test to wheedle out the unimaginative, tests on ingredient knowledge and a series of challenges before we finally get our winner. All presented by top chef John Torode and ingredients expert Gregg Wallace, and delivered for the main in punchy, half-hour episodes.

Earlier this year, trailers for the new series started to appear. 'New format' they said. 'See the auditions' they declared. Naturally this had me intrigued. Surely this would make an already great programme into even more compulsive viewing. Well..... no, not really. We're three weeks in now and what have we had?

Week 1 was the aforementioned auditions. Clare and I settled down to watch with eager anticipation. But what was this? Cook whatever you like? Where was the invention test? Where were the no-hopers who grate butter thinking it's cheese? WHY ARE THEIR FRIENDS AND FAMILIES WATCHING? We don't want to see close-ups of them blubbing, or hear about their deceased relatives. THIS IS MASTERCHEF!

Week 2, in fairness, was better. Down to the last 20 contestants, an invention test (hurrah!) got rid of some more, before a task involving cooking a three-course meal for previous winners and runners-up knocked a couple more out, leaving us with the final 10.

Then this week, the contestants were split into two teams, given some of the finest Scottish ingredients and told to design and cook a two-course lunch for contenders in the Highland Games. The winning team would get to cook at a banquet under the watchful eye of Michelin-starred chef Tom Kitchin. The losers would be sent back to MasterChef HQ to cook for their survival. And in the losing team, one of you will get fired. Oops, wrong programme.

But that's entirely my point. In trying to change and evolve, MasterChef seems to have taken a leaf out of the books of other successful reality TV shows. The emotion, the loved-ones looking on with anxiety, the drawn-out process of losing one contestant in one show a week. In doing this, the makers of the programme are, in my opinion, doing the old format a disservice. It didn't need the added glitz - it worked and viewers loved it.

I'll continue to watch of course because, well, it's MasterChef! But I really hope that the programme goes back to its roots again next year. After all, cooking doesn't get tougher than that.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Top Quality Service

Those of you who read my last blog (or have seen my waistline) will know that I'm passionate about food, and in particular fine dining. It was not always so. The flame was kindled in no small part by some of the recent food-related television programmes such as Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, Great British Menu and the excellent MasterChef.

These programmes all focus squarely on the food side of the experience. But, as anyone who's waited over half an hour for a starter will know, there's more to it than that. I'm talking about the service. So it was with great interest that - a few weeks ago - I spotted a trailer for a new BBC2 programme called 'Michel Roux's Service.'

The premise of the show was familiar: eight contestants going on a journey of training and self-discovery over a number of weeks, with a potentially life-changing prize on offer at the end. This prize was no recording contract though. It was the possibility of two sought-after scholarships to the Academy of Food and Wine Service (AFWS). One for a sommelier and one for front-of-house.

So far so reality TV you may think. But this was different. Firstly, the show focussed not on the cooking but on the serving, a side of the industry that is often overlooked, even looked down upon. We only usually remember bad service. Good waiting staff should be unobtrusive; always there if needed but barely visible if not, so as such even great service often goes unnoticed. Secondly, the trainees were a break from the norm. Not a bunch of self-indulgent wannabee Lady Gagas or Justin Timberlakes; these people were all lacking something in their lives: self-esteem, a career, a sense of direction. And they were young - ranging from 18 to 23.

Their journey was not always smooth, taking them from high-street chain Zizzi to Michel Roux's own two Michelin starred restaurant Le Gavroche. In the early episodes there was more spitting feathers than silver service, so-much-so that one of the trainees was removed from the process due to his attitude. This proved a turning point as the rest of the group bonded much better without him. Each week a new, more difficult challenge awaited, under the ever-watchful eyes of Chef Michel and his wonderfully charismatic right-hand-man, Fred Siriex, maitre'd of a top London restaurant.

The one thing that made this programme such compulsive viewing was watching the change in the trainees as the weeks went on. Nikkita - a single mother at 16 with little self-confidence - didn't know anything about wine or even like it. Yet she showed such an affinity for it that in one task she was mistaken for the real sommelier. Ashley - a young man from Yorkshire who left school and acquired an ASBO at 14 - blossomed in a five-star country house hotel. Each of the candidates had their own strengths and weaknesses, but the change and growth was visible, and astonishing.

So it came to the final decision and there was no telling who would win. What was clear though was that none of them would truly lose. The sommelier position went to Danielle, the youngest of the candidates but one who showed tenacity and charm all the way through. Michel couldn't decide who to give the front-of-house scholarship to from two outstanding candidates, so they both received one. James, the eldest trainee who seemed born to such a role, and the brilliant Ashley, who probably changed the most during the whole series. And in one final twist, maitre'd Fred offered another of the apprentices - Brooke - a position in the bar at his restaurant.

My wife was in tears at the end of the show, I was pretty choked myself. It was that kind of programme. Even if you're not interested in the industry it was difficult not to be touched at the reaction of the winners, of all the apprentices in fact. Service has been one of the best things on TV in a long while.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Masters Saturday and Hibiscus

Well, my New Year's Resolution of blogging on here more hasn't got off to the best start, seeing as today is the 16th and, until now, I hadn't made any entries at all. But then I hadn't really had anything to blog about until the weekend just gone. For that was Masters Weekend!

A bit of an ongoing tradition, Masters Weekend involves a few close friends and I watching the first Masters snooker semi-final at Wembley (first Conference Centre, now Arena). In years gone by when one of these friends lived in London, the weekend would inevitably end in a large amount of beer and a curry. Now, as one's tastes have become more refined, Masters Weekend has become an opportunity to sample some of London's nicest restaurants with my good lady wife.

It started a few years ago with a visit to Benares, continued last year by taking in Le Gavroche and this year involved a trip to Hibiscus, which I will talk about in detail later on.

The snooker itself this year was a little uninspiring. Marco Fu beat Mark Allen 6-4 to reach his first Masters final, coming back from 4-1 down and rattling off a couple of century breaks on the way. Neither player is dull in the Peter Ebdon mode, it just seemed like hard work to watch it. And yes, I did briefly nod off.

After the snooker was finished, the drinking buddies were waved on their way, a quick wash and brush up was had, and Clare and I made our way to Mayfair for our evening at Hibiscus.


I'm not one for leaving food (ask my wife), but the tasting menu at Hibiscus defeated me. It certainly wasn't due to the quality of the food - which was tremendous. There was just too much of it. Perhaps choosing the 8 course menu was a little ambitious, but I blame the big and unhealthy lunch and the packet of Space Raiders before we headed out.

Hibiscus is a 2 Michelin-starred restaurant in Mayfair. Blink and you'll miss it from the outside, as its frontage is modest and inconspicuous. The dining area is much the same, tastefully decorated in a mix of wood paneling and perspex pillars. The atmosphere is relaxed - there's no dress code as such. Nothing spectacular to look at then, but it doesn't need to be when the food served up is so good.

As mentioned above, we chose the 8 course tasting menu for our meal. On Fridays and Saturdays tasting menus are all you can choose; 4, 6 or 8 courses. The menu lists a number of the possible dishes, but you won't know exactly what you get until you get it. The charming maitre'd asked if we had any dietary requirements. Clare doesn't like foie gras. I do. He said he'd see what the chef could do...

Before the devouring proper commenced, we were presented with appetisers of parmesan rolls and crunchy balls of polenta with black olive. Both were delicious with crunchy outsides making way to gooey innards. A further appetiser followed; a mushroom and coconut veloute served in an eggshell. I'd not heard of coconut and mushrooms together since the sweets of my childhood, but this was great. Rich mushroom flavour combining with the sweetness of the coconut.

On to the first course proper, a tartare of Scottish langoustine with smoked black olive and passion fruit garnishes.  The fish (mollusc? crustacean?) was tender and tasty, but didn't blow us away. Things soon got better though. Next up was a delightfully cooked Scottish scallop covered with a hazelnut crust. This was served with pork pie sauce (yes, really) and pink grapefruit gel. The sauce managed to capture the essence of Melton Mowbray's finest, but without the crust and jelly. The whole dish was a joy, but the next one raised the bar further.

Egg yolk ravioli with smoked mash and dusted with crumbs of black truffle. Whoa mama - what a dish! A runny celebration of tastes with woody truffle mingling with smoky mash, all covered with glistening egg yolk concealed in a beautifully light pasta. One of the nicest things I've ever tasted, and that's saying a lot after the Space Raiders.

The following halibut with salsify and quince was good, but didn't quite ascend the yolky heights of the pasta. The fish (definitely fish this time) was perfect, the quince was nicely tart but the salsify didn't add much to the plate. It was at this point we started to flag, as the halibut portion was a generous one.

The first main was next, and the chef had remembered our earlier request. Clare received some sashimi prawns with a ravioli containing pigs trotter and liver. Unfortunately the sound of this was a bit disconcerting and only a few prawns were consumed (by Clare anyway - I ate the rest). My dish was glorious. Truly, truly glorious. A small slab of the lightest foie gras covered in rye breadcrumbs. This was combined with quince and szechuan spice for sharpness. I've had foie gras before and found it rich, but not this time. This even topped the ravioli.

By now we were both struggling and the next course bested us both. Saddle of hare cooked in truffle with leek. Delicious again but just too rich. The hare is cooked for 24 hours don't you know? To his and the restaurant's great credit, the maitre'd spotted we'd both left some of the hare and offered to give us a different course. Fantastic service. We politely declined and also turned down the cheese board which was to follow. This was knocked off the final bill - another gold star for that.

Our waitress kindly gave us a break before the pre-dessert, which revived and refreshed us in the form of pineapple sorbet with a pineapple salad. Dessert itself was ginger milfoy (flaky and light) with ginger salad (subtle and not over gingery), caramelised apple sauce (a blob of toffee apple like goodness) and puy lentil and lemon ice cream (more lemon than lentil but fine nonetheless). Eight courses turned out to be more like eleven in the end...

A couple more special mentions are necessary: the petit-fours which contained a wonderful milk chocolate with salted caramel, and the service, which was exemplary. Pleasant and attentive throughout; a slight delay in one course was acknowledged and apologised for, and making separate mains for both of us was a welcome surprise. Also showing the understanding they did when the hare had hounded us was exceptional.

The 2011 Michelin guide is out on January 18th. There's speculation that Hibiscus may receive a 3rd star. I'm no expert but I'd say it would be warranted. How much better can things get?