Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Rapha: The Cafe for the 2012 Mid-Life Crisis

Once upon a time, men having a mid-life crisis would buy penis extensions - sports cars and motorbikes, firing up the A1 wearing a leather jacket, listening to 'Born to be Wild' and cursing the fact they didn't get to shag more girls in their twenties.

Now however, things are different. What with it being the 21st century and all, with middle aged men routinely doing such things as changing nappies, cooking at home and using moisturiser, they buy bicycles.

Not just any bicycles though, bikes made of such things as carbon fibre that cost more than their child's university fees. These are the new (lightweight) penis extensions of 2012. Stiffness is paramount apparently, as is lots of gears for smooth transmission of power (good in an older man), and hardness (even better) in the tyres. 

To ride on these bikes, they need special 'kit' of course, made of very expensive merino wool (presumably the bits leftover from what China doesn't want) and 'technical fibres' (?) which carefully blend dour hi-tech seriousness with romantic retro nostalgia. It's the ageing intellectual hipster version of wearing a 1966 England shirt. Think grainy black and white pictures of grizzling old farts riding their bicycles up mountains. Fifty something AA Gill weekend wear.  

Now, in order to buy this they need a brand. No good popping down to Sports Direct and buying some chavvy Adidas kit. No no no, these guys are more used to shopping in Paul Smith. What they need is a brand finely tuned to their refined tastes, something that hides their insecurities and presents them as the taste conscious sexy active man they spent years trying to convince their wives they were before she gave up being sexy herself and started wearing flat shoes. 

Thankfully they have a brand. This brand is Rapha.

Rapha this year opened a little shop in Brewer Street, stocking all the gear a neo-metrosexual, badger-greying, sensitive new old-man bicycling boy could want. Scented bum cream, man-bags, little hats that look like their old public school caps, the lot. And as is the fashion nowadays, they have put in a little cafe. I mean, who can go more than two minutes these days without needing to stop for an artisan coffee?

So, on reading a few blogs and tweets (such as Faerietale Foodie's post and The Perfect Trough's post), and being not far from the apex of SWOHO ('South-west Soho' - yes, I've heard it referred to as that) Quadrant 3, where of course I do all my shopping in Wholefoods with the sprightly Californians buying colon-cleaning kits,  I decided to pop in and see what it was all about.

Well, the staff are very friendly, the owners seem to have read the current 'how to open an urban artisan cafe' (don't worry, my post is coming) checklist, plenty of wacky, carefree girls and gentle beardy menfolk who are keen to help. I asked what was good and had a beef brioche bun thing, which sounded great but turned out to be a brioche (what else?) bun alright, with a tiny smear of some kind of beef stew inside it. It was suggested to be served with ketchup, (which I think may have been Wilkin & Sons, which everyone knows tastes like Heinz that's been left out all night). I was glad of the posh ketchup, as once I'd finished the measly smear of beef gravy I needed something to moisten the bread. A cup of tea helped (I nearly nicked the cool cup and saucer, and at £2.50 I wouldn't have felt guilty). I probably ordered the wrong thing and everyone will tell me I should have had the nice looking focaccia type sandwiches or the 'dunking biscuit' instead, but I was going on recommendation by the staff! 

They are obviously very serious about coffee (as everyone seems to be these days, Australian accent or not) and offer only espresso which for the 'special' at £3 for a single shot is quite a lot in my opinion. I mean, it's only a few coffee beans, isn't it? How expensive are they? And studying the menu, a double is £3.50 (not £6? I don't get that, are we saying it costs £3 to construct it?) and milk is a further 50p, making a cup of coffee potentially £4.

Anyway it's so bourgeois to be moaning about the price. Pah! You can't put a price on quality, integrity, design, location etc right? And no-one who comes into Rapha gives a shit about prices, especially when you've just spent £200 on some paunch-reducing lycra cycling shorts and titanium hair-loss cream.

Food tastiness & value for money 4/10
Coffee seriousness 9/10
Staff quirkiness 8/10
AA Gill's Christmas stocking suitability 9/10
85 Brewer Street, London W1F 9ZN020 7494 9831

Rapha Cycle Club on Urbanspoon

Monday, 17 December 2012

The Horror of Being the Only Foodie at Christmas

I received an invitation for a pop-up dinner on 25 December in my home town. It's lucky because I was going home anyway.

The setting is witty take on the 1970's home counties suburban dining room. It's Abigail's Party meets Terry & June. I flick a wry smile at my fellow diner, who looks a bit like my great aunt.

A 1960s Heals sideboard produces matched sets of woven reed table mats and individual coasters.

After declaring 'it's SO nice to get out of London', I realise that when I boast about getting a table at John Salt within a week of it opening, nobody knows or cares what I'm talking about (you understand what I'm dealing with now). So I quickly throw in some celebrities' names to impress.

I'm offered an aperitif by the sommelier, who strangely, appears to be my own father. The Osborne Sherry is brought out, or even worse, Bristol Cream. Sorry, where's the Amontillado? That barrel-aged vintage sherry I had at Pizzaro with mountains of Iberico ham last week? And more importantly, where are the Negronis?!

Then they wheel out the Buck's Fizz. Made with Sainsbury's Cava and smooth orange juice, from a carton. Don't they know I only drink grower Champagne now?

I've been standing around for half an hour and there are some sad looking Crespo olives in a bowl. Is that it? I ask the waitress, sorry, my mum, where the canapes are. My mum looks confused and hastily puts some KP salted peanuts in the bowl - where is the chilli popcorn, the crostinis, the sushi?

We're called to the kitchen. By voice, how vulgar. Where's the bell to call us!? The table layout is a 5/10 at most. The wine glasses have stems, there is no cucumber in the table water, there is no smoked Maldon salt on a minature slate (luckily I brought my pocket sized Maldon, which you can get from the US here).

The table is a fully stretched out draw-leaf mahogany number, it's convivial dining. Very now. Places are laid, I notice Queens pattern cutlery and silver napkin rings. I squeal with delight at the nod to the past 'Just like Hoxton!' I imagine.

Confusingly, the chairs are a matched set of reproduction Sheraton revival . Another ironic red herring I presume..

A Spode Italian sauceboat sits on the table. I can only assume that it will contain some sort of jus.

My mum asks me to stir the gravy. I reckon that'll be huge in 2013, being allowed to help out in the kitchen. It's one step on from the chef's table. Hang on, gravy?! Where's the jus, reduction, glaze?

She brings out the steaming platter of sprouts. And god, they're actually steamed. Not even served with lardo or chorizo.

Speaking of ingredients, where are the truffles in this affair? Not even any truffle oil? Upon asking for truffles, my mother looks troubled and brings out the Lindt (they were supposed to be for after pudding, she stresses).

The cranberry sauce isn't even from Fortnum's - and served straight out of a (not Kilner) jar. On a saucer with a *shudder* doily underneath.

The sous, I mean my dad, after much nagging from the head chef, I mean my mum (no arguments in the open-plan kitchen, please), carves the turkey. On closer inspection, it's not free-range, organic or from my local butcher. They might have got it from a *whisper* supermarket.

The stuffing is pretty basic. The mouth-feel hasn't got anywhere near enough fracturability. I think it's bought. Fuck's sake.

Christmas pudding is ok. Unimaginative serving, and it doesn't appear to be deconstructed in any way. It's taken the pastry chef, I mean my dad, five minutes to light the bloody brandy it's drowned in at the table. You wouldn't get this at Bubbledogs.

Afterwards, I ask to see the list of seasonal teas. 'It's Tetley's or nothing, love', says the waitress. I mean, mum. I take hot water and lemon. Probably safer.

I wait at the piano expectantly. There's probably some kind of after-dinner entertainment.

To my surprise, the rest of the staff, I mean, family, retire to the living room to fall asleep in front of the TV.

I sigh, and listen to Nigel Slater's latest podcast, alone.


Monday, 10 December 2012

Dos and Don'ts of Ordering Wine

Working as a waitress and going to restaurants, I see both sides of the wine-ordering process. It's tough. Unless you actually know about wine, a list of names doesn't really mean a lot to you so it can be embarrassing. I get that feeling from a lot of people who come into the restaurant I work in. They don't really know a lot so they just sort of blag it, but they just end up looking like knobs. This is a list of things to do and what you definitely shouldn't do when ordering wine!

Image from
On initial viewing of the wine list, don't get your mate to hand the wine list to you and say 'Dave, you choose. You're the wine expert.'. Just because you watched Sideways, you are not a wine expert. Expect the waitress to roll her eyes. A lot.

Don't peruse the list for at least ten minutes, not even pausing to look at the food menu, and you don't need to assert your extensive knowledge of wine by asking the waiter overly niche questions about wine that he probably won't know. There's no need - it just embarrasses all parties and makes you look like a tit.

Don't just choose the second- or third-cheapest bottle of wine, because asking for the house wine is just too cheap. If you want to ask for the house wine, ask for the house wine. A good waiter won't sneer at your choices. 

Don't pretend your eyes aren't sliding to the right hand side of the wine list. It's obvious you're looking at the price and not the wine.

Do give the waiter/sommelier your budget when you ask them to recommend a wine to you.  They won't ask for it otherwise. 

Don't assume sophistication is synonymous with the longest name. And don't try and impress your mates by trying (and possibly failing) to pronounce it in an over-the-top European accent.

Don't pick a word halfway down the wine list and say that instead of what the wine is actually called. For instance, I'll go for the Laungedoc' or 'We'll try the French one, please'. The waitress will only have to say, 'Which French one, Sir?' through gritted teeth. Stop being filled with middle-class embarrassment and order the bloody Chardonnay if you want it. It's not 1999.

You don't need to squint at the tasting notes for a good minute whilst the waiter presents the bottle. When tasting, don't give it a good swill round, sniff and gargle with it, then consider it and wrinkle your nose. You look like a dick.

Instead, do just give it a sniff. You don't need to do all that stuff to tell if it's corked or oxidised. If you don't like the wine, that's your problem. You ordered it. Just make sure you know what you're doing in this instance - if you give it a cursory sniff and say it's ok when it's not, you're stuck drinking the whole bottle of wine. They gave you the opportunity to send it back and now it's yours.

Don't pass it to your mate for a second opinion. If you don't know what you're talking about, why the hell did you order and offer to taste the wine?

Don't address your friends when expressing how pleased you are that you lucked out and chose a nice wine. It's rude.When the waitress comes round to pouring yours, don't mutter 'keep going' if she stops short of what you wanted. It makes you look greedy and it makes her feel silly. Just drink some and top it up when she's not looking.

Do end all stories with '… and we were all very, very drunk', in the style of Rowley Birkin QC. Because it's funny.

Friday, 7 December 2012

J Sheekey Review

I was reading Restaurant Magazine the other day and came across an article on cookbooks. The publishers are churning them out in time for Christmas and quite frankly, I'm a teeny bit bored of them. How many times do I have to read 'My grandmother's secret recipe...'? I'm sure she's a wonderful cook but isn't everyone's grandmother?

What it does point out is you need a USP. Correct. They're all the same. The current fashion is simple subjects, redefined.  But how many more opinions on fish/meat/baking etc can there be?

Cookbooks these days fall into three camps:

Romantic, rustic and full of background
Egotistical chefs' masturbation manuals
Design-led coffee table lifestyle ornaments.

Great of course that the Watersones book of 2012 was Polpo, but sad really that it won because of the spine design, praising its tactility and reliance to the threat of digital downloads. None of the judges actually mentioned the recipes inside.

I think what we need is something different, something that's not been done before. When was the last time you bought a cookbook and actually really used it?

The books listed in this article were Nathan Outlaw (another book about fish), The Square, Faviken (described as a coffee book table - says it all. It looks beautiful though), Space Trip and J Sheekey. J Sheekey won't win any awards for originality - it's a classic fish restaurant that's put out a cookbook about classic fish cooking. But it reminded me, and that's what a restaurant cookbook's partly about. That's why I decided to go there yesterday.

I had a great time and I think one of the reasons was is that it's been around for such a long time, no-one's trying to be cool or innovative. It's old-school, traditional and it's been there for yonks. And looking around, it's full of first dates and senior citizens. There was a ridiculously posh table nearby which we observed with glee as they got more sloshed.


Things I liked:
  • The oysters and their gorgeous, tangy shallot vinegar (£14.25 for 6). I could eat hundreds of them but I won't because then they wouldn't be special (and I'm not a millionaire). There was some nice rye bread served with it. I wasn't really sure when I was supposed to eat it so I used it as a kind of palate cleanser.
  • Their shrimp and scallop burger. Ordered purely for how-does-that-work factor. It was delicious and it was a bit different. Couldn't finish it because it was quite rich. But I would eat that again.
  • They overheard it was my friend's birthday and piped 'happy birthday' on her dessert plate. It was a nice touch.
  • The Spotted Dick (snigger). It was great comfort food. I'm a big fan of steamed puddings. Can someone bring them back, please?
  • When they said that they hoped to see me for my next birthday, I felt like they really meant it (it's nice to feel that they're not just going through the motions).
  • Gravlax. It's cured salmon, but it was great nonetheless.
Scallop & Shrimp Burger

Things I didn't like:
  • Initial shambles at reception. They've been doing this for years - haven't they got a better system?
  • Squid was chewy and it didn't taste of much except the charred pepper (a pet hate of mine) so I had to slather on quite a lot of the sauce. I know squid is often chewy, but I expected better from a fish restaurant.
  • The iced berries. I mean, it was nice, and the chocolate sauce was lovely, but it reminded me of the frozen mixed berries my mum used to get from Iceland to put into a crumble. Not a dessert.
  • As the room filled up (and we drank more wine), the room got warmer, but initially, the room  was chilly.
J Sheekey
28-35 St Martin's Court  London WC2N 4AL
020 7240 2565

J Sheekey on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Top Ten Cult Movie Food Scenes

This may have been done before, I know, but I love films and wanted to make a connection between films and cooking without the obvious choices.

There are of course the old classics that everyone will bring up. Big Night, Delicatessen, Chocolat etc, but they are more about food, and with the exception of Ratatouille, I think my list is hopefully more interesting because the films have different subjects. So here is my list of top ten Cult Movie Food Scenes.

10. Sexy Beast - Calamari
A tricky toss-up between this and the incredibly intense breakfast at the 'Grosvenor' with Ian McShane. Two sun-dried retired expat crooks and their wives meet in a southern Spain restaurant. The atmosphere is fraught. A mysterious phone call has been taken. Don Logan, the most feared, psychotic London villain they've ever met (played by Ben Kingsley) has summoned Gal (Ray Winstone) to do that one last job. And he's coming to ask him in person.
"I'm gonna 'ave the calamari" Says Gal. Nervous doesn't even come close (No YouTube embed available for this one).

9. Ratatouille - Goats' cheese & mushroom smoked on the chimney
OK, so this film is about cooking, but it's so stunningly well done I couldn't possibly leave it out. There are too many scenes to mention, but the best for me is the slow cooking of the goat's cheese with the mushroom, using the chimney for smokey heat. The way they visually describe the combinations of flavours using fireworks - Fabulous.

8. Blues Brothers - Dry White Toast, Four Fried Chickens & a Coke
Is there a cooler duo in the history of cinema? Er, no, basically. When Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi are on their 'Mission from God' their diner order of 'four fried chickens and a coke, and some dry white toast' is recognised instantly by long-lost band member Murphy. Queue Aretha Franklin's super on-screen performance of 'Respect'. Great stuff.

7. Twin Peaks - Coffee & Cherry Pie 
Technically a TV series, this ultra-weird David Lynch spooky dreamy whodunitt-athon featured Kyle Maclachan almost every single episode ordering coffee and cherry pie in the local diner as he picked his way throughout possibly the strangest and longest murder mystery ever to be put on film. 'Damn good coffee.'

6. Lady & the Tramp - Spaghetti 
The most romantic food scene ever made in my opinion. How can you GET more romantic than a back street behind a trattoria, with the owner making you a little table, gingham cloth, breadsticks, candlelight, eating spaghetti from the same plate, and finding yourselves eating the same piece, your faces slowly brought together? 10/10.

5. Ripley's Game - Truffle Pasta
More Ray Winstone, sorry. He's one of my favourite actors, maybe a little typecast, but which great actor isn't?
Here, he plays yet another thug, and in this scene he awaits a meeting in a Northern Italian restaurant, where a waiter shaves fresh truffle onto his pasta. The waiter stops, and Winstone continues to greedily and aggressively demand more and more, while we get more and more toe-curlingly uncomfortable. A great movie. Other great food scenes include the flicking of the egg yolk on John Malcovich's sofa.

4. Spinal Tap - Dressing Room
The legendary 1980s Heavy Metal spoof hilariously nails almost every cliché known to Rock, but the dressing room canapé scene delightfully mocks precious prima donnas brilliantly. The folding of the ham, the mini breads, the olives (some stuffed, some not), and the enthusiasm for tinned tuna - 'no bones!'. Brilliant stuff.

3. Goodfellas - Prison Scene
Was a difficult one, as Goodfellas also features such other classics as the dinner at Joe Pesci's Mother's house, and also the great paranoid 'stirring the sauce' Ray Liotta scene. But for me it is when all the mob are in prison, and their passion for cooking, technique and ingredients is hilariously brought to the fore. I particularly enjoy the slicing of the garlic with a razor blade.

2. Pulp Fiction - Big Kahuna Burger
Again, quite easily could have gone for John Travolta and the Five Dollar Shake, or the 'Royale with Cheese' car conversation, but this does it for me.
'Hamburgers! The cornerstone of any nutritious breakfast' - Samuel L Jackson quite possibly unwittingly sowed the seed for the current new-found fascination with burgers back in 1994 when he demanded some of his victim's 'Big Kahuna Burger' breakfast. I'd like to know if anyone can claim to eating a burger in the last 15 years without at least once saying 'Um-hmmm! This IS a tasty burger!'

1. Withnail & I - Sunday Lunch
The roast chicken on a brick (eat your heart out Hix and the rest of the current chef ponces) the day before should really steal this, but for pure joy, the simple pleasure of sunday roast with the hilarious, gradually increasing sexual innuendo of Uncle Monty, and the likewise increasing fear of Paul McGann as they prepare and eat lunch, this scene has to be No. 1.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Food Trend Clock

If you're a trendy restaurant/pub/bar and you're unsure of what to put on the menu next month, just use my handy clock to ensure that you don't leave any trends out!


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