Monday, 29 December 2014

A very London Christmas - Part I

Was it only I who went into this festive season feeling that it had somewhat lost the lustre of previous Yuletide experiences? Gone, it seemed, were the butterflies that assembled in the stomach and the electricity that seemed to shiver down the spine as the first few bars of Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’ echoed around department stores and malls across the country. 

I felt somewhat indifferent, in the past I was either euphoric with joy (sugar induced perhaps?) or down in the doldrums of self pity, licking wounds... and probably drinking too much (although I think that's a theme of countless Christmases since I turned 16). This year I felt as if I went through the motions, some fantastic Christmas parties were offset with some boozy evenings with friends at some boozer or another. 

I literally tore up the town through a mist of Estrella lager and Johnny Walker on the rocks. The days were filled with sickly treats and the repetitious jingle-jangling of ‘Driving Home for Christmas’ and ‘I believe in Father Christmas’; the nights were full of oaken bars, the roar of the office party and Cafe Creme cigars punctuated by the flickering of strobe lights and the sound of clicking knees, precariously trying to negotiate the dance floors of Central London. Yes, this was probably the least highly-anticipated Christmas I have every had but, you know what, it was the best one I have ever had. 

The clock struck 12:00pm on 24th December, heralding the culmination of business (officially) at my office for 2014. With a great sense of relief the five remaining staff in the office traipsed across the road to a perennial favourite, The Queens Arms. A very agreeable lunch of roasted leg of lamb with forestiere potatoes (fine green beans and chanterelle mushrooms) and lamb sauce was seen of with a very well appointed pint of Truman’s Bold as Brass, a delicious end to a fab first six months with the company! Ahead of the trip back to Wimbledon, where I would be based throughout the holidays, I dipped into the ever wonderful Rippon Cheese, one of the best fromageries that I have ever stepped into. At this emporium, I decided that I would opt for a little tour of Northern France, purchasing: a petite Munster, a Maroilles, a Morbier and a young Mimolette.  

Partway through the painfully slow journey back from Victoria to Wimbledon Park on the District Line, I became slightly confused as to why the carriage was starting to clear around me, baffled why commuters were parting to the very corners of the carriages like the red sea and Moses. I then cast my nose downwards and was met with the rather pungent aroma of Munster and Maroilles sweating away under the heat of the train’s efficient central heating. One fellow passenger was blunt in their criticism: ‘I think someone has farted’, casting an evil glare in my direction. Desperately I tried to distance myself from this new found, if rather delicious, albatross around my neck, but to no avail. For the rest of the journey, I had to endure all manner of filthy looks cast-aside faces all in the name of gastronomy. 

I finally made it back to Wimbledon, where the cheese was quickly zip-locked into a cold bag and stored in the garage overnight. We were expecting guests that evening and after pouring myself a generous gin and tonic I set to helping my mother cutting cocktail sausages, shaping smoked salmon sandwiches and apportioning asparagus rolls. Just when we thought we had got everything ready, with Champagne in the freezer, Christmas jumpers donned and the first batch of snags in the oven we were greeted by some constructive criticism by the house’s self-appointed Nicky Haslam... my brother. 
“You cannot have a bottle of Bells on display behind the decanters, people will think that terribly naff. I think we should hide that.” I think I emitted a resounding sigh. Thankfully, the waterford spirit decanter was close to hand, and into this worthy fellow the malt liquor was decanted, a style crisis was avoided (although I am sure one reader will find a spirit decanter very retro). 

Guests arrived, guests bantered, hoovered the food, quaffed the chilled Champers and took their leave. It had been a pleasant start to the vacation and soon my brother and I were hunkered down to a few stiff G&Ts, a plate of cocktail sausages and a very unimpressive round of Scrabble, in which neither one of us did any justification to the furtherment of English language. I sadly lost in a battle to the bitter end, yet the family wordsmith manage to trump me with a tactically brilliant but totally banal piece of play! ;-) 

the wearying tides of sleep beckoned as I drifted off on the sofa, it had been a good, balance start to the season and I couldn’t wait to see what Christmas Day had in store. 

Keep your eyes peeled tomorrow for more on Christmas chez Henry Rubinstein...

Saturday, 22 November 2014

A beacon of light in SW19

It seemed Wimbledon was doomed to lag behind other peripheral, affluent London boroughs in terms of gastronomy. While trendy eateries were popping up all over North London and as far as Chiswick or Catford, SW19 seemed somewhat neglected.

Of course there were a number of pretenders to the culinary throne throughout the years, promising so much and yet either delivering so little or, worse, being so damn inconsistent. When I was younger Tootsies was as glamorous as it got, with its smothered chicken, crinkle-cut fries and carousel of burger relishes. Other hotspots included the vast Chinese restaurants Bayee Village and Confucius (I’m actually quite fond of the latter) and the thoroughly dated and outrageously priced San Lorenzo Fouriporta (said to be a favourite of Boris Becker – he’s obviously never been to Riva in Barnes). It is fair to say that the borough was a plethora of Young’s pubs and, if not a desert, a very dry savannah in terms of restaurants.
Such was the sorry case, and in my mind a rather puzzling one. Wimbledon has always been a well-off area (especially around the village and the top end of the broadway) and one would think that a restaurateur would have seen the potential of setting up a great local restaurant in the style of Chez Bruce. Perhaps it’s to do with the overheads, or maybe the palettes of the local clientele are just not that sophisticated, who knows. It’s certainly not hard to find artisan and luxury goods, with purveyors like Bayley & Sage, Vallebona and Wimbledon Wine Cellar catering to high-end buyers with a very high credit limit – The platinum AMEX or Coutts card is the weapon of choice in these places, brandished with deadly efficiency like a Japanese shuriken.

I am being both a little indulgent and equally unfair. In the last few years, a couple of places, such as the Lawn Bistro and the Fox & Grapes have popped up. The latter has become a local institution and I have given it a good review on this blog, however it has three distinct problems: inconsistency in cooking, almost Michelin-level prices and it lacks atmosphere. I have eaten very well there but I have also eaten very badly. Sometimes its sloppiness, sometimes it’s over-ambition, occasionally just a little of both. It leaves one thinking that there is nowhere in the neighbourhood in which one can regularly get great plates of food on a daily basis… of course, this would be wrong.

The Lighthouse is a restaurant located on a busy thoroughfare known as the Ridgeway, which leads from Wimbledon Village through the vale, down to the A3. It has been going for quite a few years now and is the unsung hero of the local restaurant scene. I am personally surprised that I do not see it more in critics’ reviews or the local Archant/Zest Media glossies.

The cooking is modern European, very accurate and quite often excellent. To my mind it is the best restaurant in SW19. My most recent meal there? a couple of weeks ago, and I think that the menu that evening (on which I celebrated my 27th year on this planet) was testament to the sterling work that is going on in their kitchen and the quality of the ingredients that they use.

I started with very clean plate of their homemade gravadlax, very fresh and delicate with a slightly mustard sauce, a perfect calling card and not to overpowering. With a cold, crisp glass of viognier, a few pieces of this and this starter was a welcome introduction ahead of the more gutsy main courses.

I chose the rump of lamb, three thick, medium-rare slices of meaty heaven with a beautifully caramelised top, producing a wonderfully meat flavour. This was paired with a smooth potato and pea puree and some lightly cooked cos lettuce and a lamb jus. I cleaned my plate!

To finish a surprisingly light, no frills treacle tart with citrus undertones and a generous dollop of cold, clotted cream. I’ve not got a big sweet tooth but this was an exception. I paired it with a glass of grappa which, the pure alcohol cutting through the sweetness perfectly.

Rounding off the meal with a cup of well made coffee, something so rare to find, I thought to myself that it would be nice if we could have more places to eat like this: full of creativity but without the pretention.

If you find yourself in Wimbledon and feeling peckish, you could do far worse than come to this lovely restaurant. 

Sunday, 19 October 2014

No irony required: Phil Collins is inducted into the Bloody Good Chap Hall of Fame

It’s somewhat surprising it has take me so long to write this post given that everyone who knows me is aware of how much of a fan I am, but i think the time has come for Phil Collins to be inducted into the Bloody Good Chap Hall of Fame! Taking his place alongside such illustrious figures as Nick Nolte, Barry Gibb, Captain Haddock, Jane Grigson, Daryl Hall and many others!

I can hear the collective cheers for this piece countered by a chorus of groans and moans. For many Collins is a marmite figure, you either love him or you hate him. Whatever people may think, there is no denying that he is a musical force to be reckoned with, heard daily across UK radio waves and living on through rhythmic samples so popular with modern rap and R&B artists. As you’ve probably guessed, I think he’s great! For example, nothing quite brings a smile to my face in the office as when one of his tracks is played on Absolute Radio whilst penning a press release or profile piece for some client or other. 

I was first introduced to the magic of this modern-day Mozart by my parents on the long car journeys we used to make to the south west of France on summer holidays when I was growing up. The cassette of Serious Hits Live! (1990) was played so much that we had to replace it twice it was so popular - although we also had to do the same thing with Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms (1985) and Tina Turner’s Foreign Affair (1989). 

Each listen takes me back, from the dynamite xylophone intro of ‘Who Said I Would’ (superior to the studio one) and the sublime take on his 1985 duet ‘Seperate Lives’ through to his barnstorming, extended version of ‘Sussudio’ and crowd-pleasing drum-fest that is ‘In The Air Tonight’ (with some amazing guitar licks to boot). I am always impressed by artists who can put together a solid collection of chart-toppers and top 40 classice. A bit like Elton John, The Eagles and Queen’s first set of Greatest Hits, each song is a winner, all killer and no filler! Anyway, I digress. 

The enduring appeal of Collin’s music is its originality and diversity, although I am sure that I will find plenty who think exactly the opposite! A musical polymath, aside from his own output he put his stamp on Genesis, produced some cracking albums in the 80s (August by Eric Clapton is a personal favourite) and was a session musician for the likes of Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Robert Fripp and John Martyn. He also found the time to perform in a jazz fusion band, Brand X! His back catalogue is truly vast and there is something for everyone in it. 

For me, his best moment will always be his most enduring album, No Jacket Required. A tour de force in every sense, his most enduring masterpiece, if you will, from a time when Collins most certainly ruled the pop music roost. 

Some might be reading this thinking that I have written it with the ever-so-slightest touch of irony and I would like to assure them that nothing could be further from the truth! He is truly my favourite recording artist and I am only sorry it has taken me so long to get him in this hall of fame. So, in his honour, here are my top ten collins moments (in no particular order):

  1. Sussudio - One of Collin’s best tracks... ever. It has it all, drum machines, brass sections and a thoroughly catchy chorus. The accompanying music video is also a stroke of genius!
  2. In Too Deep - Many will remember this from American Psycho and for others it might be a bit to saccharine, but for me it is a brilliantly constructed love song and one of Genesis’ best.
  3. I Missed Again - Written in the aftermath of his acrimonious divorce and pushed out as one of the singles from his debut album, Face Value (1981), this is a funky tune with great hooks.
  4. August (1986) - The whole album, which is an Eric Clapton one. He produced this underrated collection of tracks on which he also played all the drums. Cuts like “Run”. “Bad Influence” and “Behind The Mask” are well worth purchasing this record for. 
  5. Mama - This Genesis track from their eponymous shapes album (1983) is stark, stripped-down and has one of Collin’s best vocal performances. 
  6. I Could Not Love You More -  From John Martyn’s masterpiece Glorious Fool (1981), Collins produces and provides drums and backing vocals - Eric Clapton even steps in to give a killer guitar solo
  7. Easy Lover - What happens when you take a drummer from South London and cross him with Earth, Wind & Fire’s lead singer? Easy Lover, that’s what! 
  8. Tonight Tonight Tonight - The live version of this ten minute epic is something else. From Genesis’s world-dominating album Invisible Touch (1986)
  9. Two Hearts - Yes it’s a little bit cheesy but this is a great love song from the 1988 soundtrack to the less impressive Phil Collins film, Buster.
  10. Take Me Home - Having Sting on backing vocals is one thing, but to also have Helen Terry and Peter Gabriel is just indulgent. The closing track to No Jacket Required is an incredible soundscape and perfect for rounding off this top ten!

Sunday, 12 October 2014

More notes from a blue corner: Whoops apocalypse!

As the dust settles on Clacton and Heywood and Middleton and attentions turn toward Rochester and Strood, I think it is a good time to reflect on this “earthquake”. Being the sad politico that I am, I have read the contrasting views of the pundits and caught up on the coverage. I must say that the whole thing casts a very dim light on the quality of our politicians from across the party spectrum, including UKIP. 

The nadire of the whole thing came when the lightweight Greg Hands MP and the chippy, cracked-record Michael Dugher MP started slugging it out over the UKIP swings in Heywood and Middleton. It was like watching two adolescents in a ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ competition, full of excuses and dominated by Andrew Neil’s loaded questions. If the main parties was to communicate to the country they need to do better than these turkeys. Why are they not putting their most charismatic, eloquent and media-savvy spokespeople in front of the camera to play this down and rubbish the speculation?

For example, if I had been David Cameron, I would have sent my chief whip down to defend his record (this thing after all happened under his watch) and to offer a shot across the bows for any other Conservatives looking to defect. From a Labour perspective? They should have someone who can effectively communicate the party’s policy and stop Tory-bashing with hollow soundbytes rather than concrete reasoning. I want to see some courage and conviction from an authoritative government and a strong, feisty opposition. Sadly I didn’t see this that night. 

Turning to Clacton, the Conservatives seemed lacklustre, with none of the soapbox sparkling of yesteryear. Of course it was un-winnable, Carswell is a highly popular, local MP who has a very convenient, UKIP sympathetic demographic and has invested a huge amount of his personal time building up support for his cause. However, I think it would have set a good example to have fought the election tooth-and-nail despite the pre-destined outcome, rather than simply saying ‘oh, it’s a by-election, the results will be different in 2015’ - maybe, but this kind of complacency is so deeply unattractive and slightly insulting to the people who want to see the party given the respect and recognition it deserves. 

In my last post, I wrote that we needed to take our message to the doorsteps now, wee beed to have a clear, coherent and thoroughly defiant message. If we believe the Conservatives are doing the right thing by the country, let’s enunciate it through actions as well as words. We should have been all over Clacton, making public statements and vilifying a turncoat, showing that the party machine was prepared to mete its full force on Clacton, in a similar vein to Newark. 

Carswell’s defection reflects the feelings of his voters, the result shows it and he is an intelligent fellow. However, when asked to elucidate his view it was something of a car crash (although no-one probably noticed). His interview with Mr. Neil was spent sparring with the deeply unimpressive Hands and then offering vacuous rhetoric filled with platitudes and the word ‘change’, yet I was left wondering ‘what change’. His speech on re-election was even more devoid of content - then again, isn’t that representative of his new party! Anyway, I had better stop before I am accused of ‘negative campaigning’! 

Rochester and Strood will be a tough one for us, but we (The Conservatives) could win! We need to pull our collective fingers out and dominate the area, the media output, everything! The big hitters need to be seen in the town centre, on the doorsteps, in the supermarket and beating UKIP in the battle of both personalities and ideas - we have so much more to offer, let’s get better at selling it! Let’s stop being complacent about these by-elections. In the words of my old chum, Eric Pickles, “Let’s get campaigning and let’s get cracking.”

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Notes from a blue corner: post conference blues...

Rest assured, dear reader that I will be posting on the second half of my trip to Vienna soon. I just felt, as a fellow interested in the political welfare of this green and pleasant land, that I would commit some thoughts to the web casting in another penny to the eternal fountain of the misinformed and the misguided.

So far it has been quite the conference season with Ed Miliband apparently forgetting his lines and David Cameron offering a barnstorming, pre-election rally cry for the rank and file… Of course, this has been punctuated by scandal and defection. It seems that the usual, healthy dose of power, corruption and lies is alive and well in our democracy! 

On the face of it, there is good reason for some optimism from my very much blue corner. Strong policy statements were made, coupled with some tough economic proposals, which directly benefited the rank and file Tory voter. It’s no wonder that Osborne got a standing ovation; with calls to freeze working benefits and to abolish taxes on pension pots it’s the bread and butter that delegates lapped up with glee.

It all sounds so good but, having been to a few Conservative conferences and having worked on the last election campaign we once again risk sacrificing common sense and hard campaigning for a few buzzwords and a large dollop of style over substance.

It has been a tough five years and although I started it on the inside, I have spent the large part of it as an observer in the private sector - at the lower end of the professional pay spectrum for that matter! The Coalition was built on ‘such high hopes and great expectations’ and has, for the large part, been a government of unrivalled reforming zeal, tackling social institution in dire need of fresh thinking and a kick up the arse.

However, it was as much a poison chalice, as reality bit the main actors have found that their popularity has decreased and inherent problems in the system, from weak border administration to failing IT networks, have come to bite them in the goolies through either voter apathy or outright opposition. With the election looming and the threat of fringe parties biting at the heals the main players, especially the Conservatives are desperately looking for fresh appeal! 

As such this seemed to be a conference where the powers that be were intent on making amends with the grass roots and UKIP waiverers for some of their more unpopular policies, offering a portfolio of bread and circuses for those less inclined to the ‘softer’ side of their recent policy making.  

While there was a great deal of nostalgic posturing throughout the conference on past achievements, it seemed that there was little focus on selling it to make a convincing case for the next five years.  At least, that’s how it felt to liberal, middle class muggins like me! I wanted to hear grand strategy, scare-mongering, and some of the dirty-hands ‘ticking tax time bomb’ rhetoric of the days when they employed the likes of the Saatchi’s and Lord Bell – a bit of street fighting. I was in no such luck.

It is also a case that much of the scant tough-rhetoric is a little too late, why wasn’t our leader saying this for the past five years, seeding soundbytes and policy snippets into the hearts and mind? Perhaps as a nation  we are too lilly-livered to hear a few home truths, or maybe we have no taste for it.

Perhaps it has something to do with Cameron’s distinct lack of warmth as a speaker. I do not doubt his conviction, although it is quite idiosyncratic and subtly dogmatic, but he does not express empathy and a robust personality. I think him rather socially blasé (masked by a thin and wearying veneer of  worry and concern) but, I am realistic, he is very much the lesser of three evils. He speaks competently but not engagingly, he’s an intelligent man but, like most intelligent men, he is no salesman and it is this latter quality (backed by sound advisers) that the party needs.

I want to see a charismatic, ruthless leader with some fire in their eyes. This sallow lot don’t have it, at least not yet. I want to see some emotion come to the fore, a leader storm off the stage in disgust, unhooking the microphone using some expressive body language to make their point. All I see at the moment is off the rack M&S suits, hideous one-colour ties (purple or nuclear green – take your pick) on white shirts, nervousness and a distinctly patrician air. Where are the colourful characters like Heseltine and Clarke or the sagely minds of a Whitelaw of a Hurd to back them?

I don’t know about you, but I am sick of seeing Dave, George, Boris and co in high-vis jackets on building sites or pootling around urban centres looking like morons. Right now I want to see them on the soapbox convincing the public why the Conservative way is the right way. It seems not to have hit home yet that Miliband could very easily be elected on default in May 2015 with the appalling Harman, Balls and co as his inner counsel.

Lads, for once can we avoid another f*%! up and make sure we seal the deal on this one once and for all? I’m hopeful we’ll see sense, but don’t bet your money on it! 

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Before sunrise - Vienna part I

Until this point in my life I had only every heard of Vienna through the somber Ultravox chart topper and Richard Linklater’s masterly film ‘Before Sunrise starring a young Ethan Hawke and Juliette Delpy. If anything it is through the goggles of the latter that I liked to imagine this romantic city, full of history, baroque grandeur and mystique. I must say that from my recent trip I was not disappointed, although I had a little more cashola than the two protagonists of that film of fleeting ecstasy and youthful carefree. 

I arrived in the old city at 11:30 on a sunny September morning and proceeded to check into my hotel, located on the edge of Old Vienna. The Hotel Am Parkring was immediately welcoming and, after having grabbed a quick shower I hit the streets to find something to whet my growing appetite (I had neglected to partake of breakfast). Fortunately, for a comparative ‘rube’ a friend who resided in this fair city gave me a recommendation. Cafe Korb, located just off the main square Stephensplatz promised to offer the finest Wiener Schnitzel in the capital (that is flattened veal escalope, breadcrumbed and flashed fried). Served with a potato salad dressed in vinaigrette and accompanied by a crisp, hoppy beer I wolfed it down enjoying the deliciously crisp, savoury flavour of the meat against the sharp, clean flavour of the potato salad. It was a perfect introduction to the holiday and gave energy for an afternoon of getting to know the city. 

The centre of Vienna is characterised by an imposing, Gothic church. It’s an ornate building, not much to my liking but inside is a different matter. Some of the most amazing carvings can be seen in there, my favourite and one which is touted rightly by the guide books is a charming depiction of the cathedral’s sculptor which cheekily pokes out of one of the walls to give a more human face amongst the grim agonies of the saints getting martyred and the holier-than-thou saintliness of the blessed virgin. 

Of course going into a cathedral is thirsty work, especially when you have followed it up with the garish and flamboyant interior of Peterskirche just round the corner. In need of a refresher I found a very agreeable bar opposite this latter location. Le Cru is a lovely little bar come shop specialising in Champagne and Champagne only. Buying from both the big names and from the smaller, boutique supplier you can be sure of an original vintage and something a little different. It’s not the cheapest place with a flute costing between 8€ - 14€ depending on what you go for but, of the two I tried I must say that I couldn’t fault the quality or the temperature served.To make matters better, as I was ruminating on the culture I had taken in, I was served by a young lady who was rather reminiscent on Vanessa Paradis - another blessing indeed! 

Much like Rome, Vienna’s streets are a museum in themselves with amazing carvings, moulding and plasterwork arresting the visitor’s attention endlessly. It was then that I happened upon the inevitable cigar shop - damn how they seem to appear like oases to me in these far flung locations. It was then that I thought that I could take advantage of the fact that you could smoke in most establishments in the city, especially coffee shops. It them became my mission, after purchasing a very smooth, Partagas No. 3 I chanced upon a lovely little place on Franziskanerplatz, a pretty little square about three minutes down from the bustling centre. 

Kleines Cafe was full of locals enjoying an afternoon coffee, and, as is my custom, I like to try and blend in, steeping myself in the local culture (albeit with a massive cigar as opposed to the Lucky Strikes that everyone else seemed to be chain smoking). The outdoor seating was filled so I opted for a seat in the small front bar with vaulted ceilings, glass tables and worn leather banquettes. It was one of those places you could imagine the great turn-of-the-century intellectuals, philosophers, artists and poets crowding around, enjoying a glass of Gruner Veltliner (a popular Austrian white wine) debating the hot topics of the day and fermenting ideas. 

I opted for a strong black coffee and a glass of fire water, the local apricot schnapps and the perfect foil to the rich taste of the cigar. I positioned myself where I could see when the next table would become available outside and as soon as one freed, with the deft leap of a jungle cat, I pounce securing a spot to puff merrily away on my stogie as I enjoyed the afternoon sun. 

Pangs of hunger were not too far away and, after a very badly made Old Fashioned at Kruger’s American Bar, an experience saved only by a conversation with a charming Danish lady from the pharmaceutical industry, I returned to my hotel, showered, shaved and donned a jacket in readiness for dinner for one. 

There is something strangely enjoyable about dinner for one, especially in a foreign country and, being a Friday night I drew a lot of looks when I took an outside table at the very pretty little restaurant around the corner from my hotel called Zu Den Drei Hacken. The evening was balmy and although I had been making beer my drink of choice on that day, I decided to go with a chilled glass of Austrian riesling which dry and crisp. I started simply with some slice ham with horseradish on black bread which was tasty if a little unexciting but given that this was a traditional restaurant I wasn’t too surprised and anyway I was holding out for the piece de resistance the deep fried and breadcrumbed calf’s brain. 

When i told people after the event that I had sampled this delicacy, I was met with incredulity and warnings of CJD and BSE yet I would urge you to try one if you regard yourself as a foodie. So inspired by the great Stefan Gates I embarked on this organ adventure. When I ordered the dish I was imagining the dish as prepared by the Italians, chopped into delicate little morsels coated in a crispy shell. The waiter looked rather surprised as he took my order and asked if I would like it fried or roasted. I plumped for the former and wasn’t disappointed. With a flourish the waiter produced the dish, a whole brain on a plate, it was huge, the size of a small victoria sponge. I ordered an Austrian Chardonnay to go with it and it came with an acidic potato salad and some dressed frisee. 

Now, before you balk, brain is delicious and I urge you to give it a go. It has a soft, creamy texture which I can imagine would put people off but has a buttery, delicate flavour and is incredibly rich. The salads were a perfect foil cutting through the offal’s fattiness. My clean plate and full belly at the end of the meal was testament to how good it was but I found that I had not the room for pudding so I finished the meal with a glass of schnapps and a strong black coffee. 

I found a suitably appointed little bar for a nightcap and drowsily contemplated my next day. It seems that brains are a good narcotic as I slept like a log that night!

Thanks for reading. In a few days I will publish part two so stay tuned!

Thursday, 4 September 2014

You can’t start the fire without the spark... literally!

Bruce Springsteen, back in 1984 waxed lyrical about dancing in the dark and that fires need to be started with that initial spark... how very true he was. Before you wonder why I am taking apart one of his most successful chart hits I had better bring this post to the point... Tinder, or the dampest squib of an app I have had the misfortune to sign up to and use. 

Of course it is rare to find a tech based post on the pages of this blog but this supposed dating, socialising and porking ‘phenomenon’ has been as much of a curse as a blessing to poor naive fools such as I who have been beguiled and subsequently disappointed by this platform that offers so much promise but delivers so little. 

For the uninitiated I will give a brief overview. Tinder effectively allows you to judge people on their appearances within a certain radius of your choosing. Using a simple swipe method you can choose from a selection of tastefully appointed photos to ‘like’ or ‘not like’ a person using a simple swiping method, right for yes, left for no. On occasion you might get a match, meaning that you have both like each other or, more likely they have fallen for the charms of your quite flattering and utterly charming photos. The match allows you to start messaging each other and here, supposedly the magic starts to happen, casual sex aplenty, a future spouse, blah, blah, blah. 

Now, before I am cast a terrible old cynic by readers I do have it on some authority that Tinder has worked for some people, I am yet to be convinced. Call it a case of sour grapes if you will some might say that I only have myself to blame - photos displaying my crows feet and prominent jaw or an honest photo that indicates my five foot four inch stature might not be everyone’s cup of tea. However, I have had a few matches in my time and it is through these that I have found the flaws in Tinder, at least where I am concerned. 

Like any good argument, let me give a few case studies to prove my point, although I am sure it will probably make the readers think that the fault is entirely with me, my acquired personality and rugged looks! 

Tinderette #1: A nice girl, the only person at fault was me. I was too overbearing and completely fudged it with nervous texting like a gambling addict on a one arm bandit. Here I could not blame Tinder. However, I liked the lady in question’s slight when she let me down gently. ‘I’m not sure your personality quite fits with mine’. 

Tinderette #2: Again someone who seemed very nice and we ended up sharing rather a passionate kiss or few after what I thought was a very successful date. Message comes through but days later to let me know that after a serious relationship she was not sure if she was ready, apparently I had opened her eyes to the difficulties! Oh well! 

Tinderette #3: This was a neuroses and paranoia overload. Very nice but the need for self assurance became overbearing. I must say that I was attracted, enjoyed the company etc. but the amount of messages asking me to justify why I was interested became bizarre. Surely her personality, her looks and the attraction were enough. Sadly it wasn’t meant to be but at least we parted after 3 or so dates friends. 

Tinderette #4: This was truly the pits. A good looking girl started messaging me following a match and expressed an interest in meeting up. Great, thought I  and asked where a good location might be. Well, came the response, I live in Sussex and you live in London. I then suggested that we meet in Guildford, bearing in mind that for me it was a good 1 hour journey there. However, spurred by curiosity and the messaging that had taken place I was intrigued and, having no plans on a particular Saturday night I suggested a few cocktails at one of the city’s chicest bars: MKB. Having arrived there on a sultry spring evening I proceeded to order a double Canadian Club on the rocks, smooth I thought a real player’s drink. The bar was empty at 7:00pm, obviously Guildford hadn’t warmed up yet, the sizzle of nightlife hadn’t quite caught on yet. So fifteen minutes went by and then a text telling me that my date would be 15 minutes late. Fine, I thought, saw off my drink and ordered another. 30 minutes, 45 minutes... I was starting to get a little irate, tapping my flat, loafered foot on the polished floor of the club. People were starting to look at me with a tragic pity... oh dear. After 60 minutes of naive waiting I soon realised that this date might not materialise and that I had come down to the jewel in the home counties’ crown on a fools errand. Sure enough an hour and a half later I got a text telling me that she was ‘tired and frankly couldn’t be bothered’... delete (followed by an hour’s commute back to London!) 

Tinderette #5: This was most recent and the one that really inspired me to write this post. This particular person made first contact, became attentive and on my suggestion was keen to meet up for a drink. We had arranged it for this week and it seemed that two attractive people were going to meet for an evening of, if nothing else, amusing banter and interesting conversation. Alas, as I looked on my phone this morning I found that I had been de-matched by this particular person for who knows what reason - i had not been in touch since arranging the meet, maybe there was my error. Thank goodness I did look, or I would have been at a loose end around the South Bank for a long time (sometimes I live in far too much hope!). I was more put out by the method than anything else. I felt it rather cowardly, can people not confront it head on, I certainly wouldn’t have been offended if I had been shot down flames... I’m used to it! ;-)

Anyway, five examples for you to make what you will of this rather inconsistent app! Let’s put it this way, when they ask me at regular intervals for feedback I feel less than charity and perhaps because that I am too keen, a jack russell personality if you will, for the app. It’s hard to gauge anything through mere texts and perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at my success rate, but it’s difficult not to feel a little chagrin. 

Will I stop using it? Ask many of my friends who I oft complain to about the general disappointment of Tinder. No, of course not, it has its fun and, unfortunately, like so many of its users, I live with a slight hope that something good might somehow, someway come of it! 

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The Return: Cloudy with a chance of...

Welcome back my faithful readers, I am sorry that it has been so long! I have been enjoying a leisurely summer break from the keyboard of my faithful Macbook Air; but now I feel, as the weather starts to turn and people are dousing themselves with buckets of ice water that I should make a return to the world wide web and offer another healthy dose of practical advice to you all. The first is a real treat…

Who doesn’t love a good meatball? I’ve yet to meet someone (excluding non-meat eaters) who cannot help but salivate when presented with a plate piled high with spaghetti and meatballs. 

Before my Italian readers flair up that this is very much an American thing and, contrary to popular relief they are meant to be served as an appetiser alone or at a push, with rice.  Let me just ay that this is how I like ‘em and I ain’t going to change it for no-one’. 

Of course meatballs have had a long association with the movies from lending their name to a Bill Murray comedy to the charming animation ‘Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs’. Perhaps the most famous, and my favourite, is that of Clemenza from The Godfather. 

In a classic scene where he teaches Michael the finer points of Italo-American cuisine right before he instructs him on the best way to take out a corrupt copper on the take. Here he gives a definitive recipe for meatballs. 

I’m afraid mine is much less elaborate and only uses two meats (pork and veal) opposed to the traditional three (the other being beef).  Anyway, here’s my take and I’ve yet to have any complaints so, you could do worse than give them a go. 

For Meatballs

300g pork mince
200g veal mince
2 rashers, unsmoked streaky bacon, minced
2 handfuls of dried breadcrumbs
1 red chilli finely diced
1 clove of garlic minced
handful of parsley, oregano, thyme and chives finely chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp light soy sauce
1 handful grated Parmesan
1 tsp white wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

For sauce

1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, roughly chopped
6-8 ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 large glass of dry white wine
2-3 springs thyme
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste

  1. pre-heat the oven to 200C. 
  2. Combine all meatball ingredients in a large mixing bowl, incorporate thoroughly with your hands and leave to rest for 30 minutes in the fridge. 
  3. While the mixture is resting, soften the onion in the oil until translucent, add the tomatoes and cook until the tomatoes start to break down.
  4. Add thyme, bay leave and pour in the glass of wine, and simmer until all of the alcohol is cooked-off, season and remove from the heat. 
  5. Shape the meatballs using your hands, creating 20-25 equally-sized patties and place in a lightly-oiled, pyrex/china baking dish, leaving a gap between each one. 
  6. Pour sauce over the top of the meatballs and place in the oven for 20-25 minutes. 
  7. Remove and serve immediately with al dente spaghetti or rice and plenty of Parmesan.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Notes from the Blue Corner: Thoughts on the reshuffle...

What a week it has been! The knives were out and many a distinguished cabinet and government minister felt the cold steel pressing against their back as they were flung, Lucifer-like, to the inferno of the back benches or shuffled sideways and downwards into lesser posts – nearer the salt cellars as opposed to the mustard pot, on Cameron’s dining table.

Of course, pundits were out in force offering their penny’s worth about this ‘monumental shift’ in the dream team, and, as a Conservative myself, I thought I’d throw my own coppers into the fountain and give my thoughts to anyone who will listen.

Following the announcements on Monday going into Tuesday, hyperbole flew thick and fast. Words like ‘shift’, ‘earthquake’, ‘sea change’, ‘tidal’ were bandied around, and it all got a bit dramatic. Some were in praise, others were in dismay, especially at The Daily Mail.  Carrot-topped hammer-thrower of the home counties, Simon Heffer claimed that the outcome was ‘simply terrifying’ especially when, apparently, a government advisor thought that a ‘clone’ of highly uninspiring Jeremy Hunt (Health) would be perfect in Education. Nicky Morgan is yet to prove herself, and the question will be whether she carries on Gove’s brave and necessary revolution of our education system.

I’ll come to this more in a second, but firstly, let me pin my colours to the mast and say that I am rather dismayed by the rashness of the reshuffle and they way that it was propositioned to the public yet I am not willing to pass judgment on its ability to govern as it is yet to be proven. It does worry me however, that cabinet ministers who had really mastered their brief over years have been cast aside for a younger, fresh-faced and more glamorous collective.

Of the newbies to cabinet, Esther McVey has been lavished with praise, she did a good job as a minister and has never been afraid to make a controversial statement – will her fire be translated into the new role? Time will tell, but it is usually the convention that a place at table requires a certain degrees of quiet loyalty and curbing of the more pugnacious elements of the spirit. This is something that a personal favourite, Michael Gove, found to his detriment when Cameron was drawing up his new look. I look forward to watching her over the next year in the run up to 2015 and, given her impressive presence on television and radio, used extensively as a party figurehead.

Gove has been the most brilliant Education Secretary in modern times, unraveling the mess made of our system since Harold Wilson decided to tinker so disastrously with the lives of Britain’s youth. This is not to say that his predecessors are any different: the lacklustre National Curriculum (1988) of Lord Baker, the disastrous interventions of the Blair/Brown years and the continual, passive treatment of the NUT have all played their part in seeing our education system sink into the doldrums. Gove’s vision, his combativeness and his desire to see a cultural shift has been one of the most impressive and exciting aspects of this Government.

You cannot force change without opposition and of course, the National Union of Teachers, the darlings of the wishy-washy, liberal left have tried to block reform at every turn. Their cynical campaigning and briefings have culminated in the removal of one of the most dynamic figures in British Politics, consigning him to the role of Chief Whip. It all feels like a desire from Downing Street to placate another professional minority to squeeze out a few more votes.

It’s a terrible waste. I am sure Gove will be brilliantly effective in his new role but his talent for policy will surely be missed.  Will Nicky Morgan, his successor and Osborne apparatchik continue with his reforms or will they be shelved in yet another move to placate an outdated and introspective trade union, it all smacks of ‘In Place of Strife’!

William Hague was another departure yet I’m not lamenting this, a highly intelligent man I always felt he was wasted in the Foreign Office in an age where the Prime Minister focuses more on global and less on domestic issues. Announcing his intention to stand down and probably pursue a far more rewarding career, could we see him doing a Portillo? Maybe touring around Yorkshire in a hot air balloon for ITV? Or perhaps in a cameo in Brangelina’s next blockbuster? My old favourite Quentin Letts assures us all that he is back in his element as Leader of the Commons where he will be able to enjoy himself in a more junior cabinet post, letting him indulge in deliciously-wicked despatch box banter.

Max Hastings summed up his replacement Philip ‘The Hamster’ Hammond well: an accountant who displays the warmth of an undertaker and less personality than most laptops. He is a shrewd operator though, and I will watch his tenure in the office with interest, especially on his stance towards the EU.

My political hero, Ken Clarke, has finally gone but what a career! His balance and advice will be missed but, in the words of Francis Urquhart, ‘Nothing lasts forever…’. I hope that he will still be a vocal voice from the back benches and continue to offer his refreshing approach to the European debate and the financial approach of this government.

Owen Paterson was much lamented, he’d done a good job and was on top of his brief. Alas, his right-wing stance seemed rather distasteful to our dear leader and his ruddy, man-from-the-shires look seemed woefully out of touch with focus group findings. He might be gone but I can see him making quite a stink from the back benches, especially as he will now be able to exercise free-rein over his anti-European views.

Of course I could go on and one, but I cannot cover all the changes in such great detail otherwise the blog would stretch to pages and pages of text, but I do think that the appointment of Michael Fallon was a master-stroke. One of the Government’s most media-savvy performers, his performances at the hands of the BBC attack dogs are always entertaining and his stonewalling is a lesson in departmental discretion. A staunch right-winger the Defence brief seems suited to him and I look forward to more passive aggressive performances on the goggle-box in the coming year.

Summing up, I don’t buy this silly ‘Pale and Male’ argument that is being bandied around in some quarters. Perhaps there was some element of positive discrimination but who cares? The Proof will be in how well they perform and, until I see all the new appointments in action, I cannot possibly pass judgment on their ability to do the job.

The most important thing now is to get behind the party to ensure that we edge over the line in 2015, if we in the party keep sniping internally we’ll get nowhere. One thing is for sure, we must at all costs stop the heir to Michael Foot, Ed Miliband with his brand of concrete and breeze block politics getting anywhere near Downing Street. It will be an exciting battle, but I believe we can do it, and, as much as it pains a large section of the party, we need to get behind this new cabinet and offer our support to ensure we get that majority next year. 

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Lash and Lacplesis 2: Turning and turning in a widening gyre

‘Shit’ I muttered to myself as I woke up, looking at my watch. It was midday and I felt like death. This was not an usual feeling on high days and holidays, in a recent trip to Hong Kong I had rarely surfaced before four in the afternoon to spend most of the nice punishing wallet, liver and innocence. As with any night of drunken debauchery brief glimmers kept coming back to me. Did I really get up on stage and give a rendition of Mark Morrison’s 1996 classic ‘Return of the Mac’? Did I really pay the equivalent of £20 on a round of Rigan Black Balzam for a twenty strong group? Was I so convinced some new ‘friends’ found in one of the bars were pick-pockets and forced my travelling companion and I to depart rapidly? Did I really pass out at 9 in the morning and wake up on the cold parquet floor? Well… the latter I could answer easily enough as that was where I found myself as I tried to piece the previous evening together from a jumble of hazy mental pictures.

The bars came thick and fast and the beers, vodka red bulls and shots of Black Balzam flowed freely. We met all and sundry, from the foreign exchange students to the middle aged British couple who claimed that they had disovered this Baltic gem years before the rabble descended. Seemingly as a reward, or more a punishment for the scintillating banter that I inflicted in this latter couple, a former electrical engineer and his wife with a complexion like David Dickinson polished with a can of Pledge, they brought me a shot. In fact it was a double shot of Jaegermeister… just filthy, and it was a true test of my gag reflex to keep that foul mixture down. The only consolation was that at least is was a little better than the filthy Black Balzam that seemed to be everywhere.

Moving from bar to bar we eventually ended up at a really unsavoury club that was bursting to the gunnels with people spilling out onto the cobbled pavement. It was here that the evening really took off into another galaxy and where, much to my friend’s embarrassment, I gave a rather passionate three song set covering the New Jack Swing/R&B genre of the early to mid-nineties. Needless to say, we fell back through the door of the bolt-hole the wrong side of 8 in the morning and waking three hours later on the wooden floor I took the somewhat foolish decision to get up, get dressed and talk a walk around the town as much to pull myself together for another day of riotous fun as to get some food and a much needed can of Coca Cola to sop up some of the booze that was still floating about my system.

I soon found salvation in a lesser known fast food retailer, Hesburger, the Scandinavian equivalent to Burger King, serving such interesting offerings as Ruis Burger (in a rye bun with onion rings) and Sausage Potatoes (chopped sausage and gherkins on chips) and the dubious kebab burger, which I opted for in my still drunken stupor. Two flabby patties of seasoned lamb were sandwiched between a soggy pita and garnished with excessive amounts of raw onion and Big Mac sauce. I took two bites and felt distinctly nauseas. My friend opted for a safer ‘Double Burger’ but was more intrigued by a group of squat, hirsute gentlemen who had walked into the joint.
'Definitely Israeli special forces’ he said, as if Riga was some spring resort for members of Mossad, ‘yes, most definitely, that guy over there could snap your neck with his index finger.’ I took his word for it, they looked like hard-boiled fighters and in my soft-boiled state, I was in no hurry to befriend them.

The Israeli theme that seemed to creep up on our lunchtime recovery was from over as, having finished the burger and chugging down Café Crème cigarillos in an attempt to shake the Black Balzam that was ravaging my innards I came across a Russian doll shop specializing in world leaders, or, in fact three themed collections: US Democrat presidents, Glasnost Politburo and hard-line Israeli Prime Ministers. The latter was both hilariously offensive and on special offer, I couldn’t resist – it would be the perfect present for my brother! The woman behind the counter gave a chuckle as I purchased the doll and duly informed me that this was one of their ‘best-sellers’, maybe this was, after all a popular destination for Israeli special forces!

Of course, buoyed by the purchase a beer soon followed and, of course a shot of the villainous Black Balzam. I instantly felt better, there was indeed some black magic in this liquor! And so began a bar crawl throughout the afternoon, punctuated by the FA Cup final and various groups of middle aged men sinking pints of Guinness and getting up to all sorts of vulgar shenanigans in the name of the lads! It was in this vein that we limbered up for yet another evening of debauchery, which I will be covering tomorrow in the third and final part of this epic trip! 

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

A very guilty adventure: Guilty (1980) - Barbra Streisand

There was a brilliant article in the telegraph a month or so ago by Anne Billson on the subject of guilty pleasures, referencing its use in the film industry and how it is something of a ‘henious cliche’ and a ‘yellow-bellied euphemism’ to mask the fact that a viewer might enjoy a critically dubious film on its own merits.

I would like to take this a step further and apply it to the world of music, especially music that came out of the ten year period between 1975 - 1985, and for the purposes of this article one album in particular... Guilty (1980) by Barbara Streisand. It is an album that I am extremely fond of for nostalgic reasons, but which now reigns supreme as the king of camp kitsch.

When I was growing up in the early 1990s (I was born in 1987), cassette decks were still the norm in cars up and down the country and the personal CD player was still very much in its infancy, clunky and prone to skipping if moved a mere fraction from a dead flat surface. It was also a time where petrol stations also doubled as rudimentary record stores, selling a patchy array of contemporary and no-so-contemporary albums for ‘bargain’ prices. It was from these purveyors that our Saab’s music collection was formed, albeit a limited one.  The main stars of this lesson in 80s pop music were: No Jacket Required by Phil Collins, Foreign Affair by Tina Turner, Brother’s In Arms by Dire Straits, No Parlez by Paul Young and of course Guilty by Barbara Streisand. 

Of course, all the above albums share the same thing in common: in their day they were best-selling records (some with more critical acclaim than others) and all of which now seem to draw sniggers and derision from numerous different quarters. However, there is one that sticks firmly in my memory, taking me back to those long car journeys down to the Lot-Garonne region of France where we used to holiday and that is Guilty. It's a now critically overlooked gem in the career of one of America’s most successful recording artists. 

Guilty was born out of a very astute judgement of cultural trends in the late 70s and early 80s and also the pairing of two acts who were riding a crest of popularity. Essentially it was the combination of USA’s original diva (Streisand) and the world’s most popular group at the time (The Bee Gees). If there was anything to be said about Streisand her business acumen should not be underestimated, especially her decision in 1979 to approach Barry Gibb to compose and produce the songs for her next album, the project which would subsequently become Guilty. 

The Bee Gees ruled the radio waves in the late 70s with killer albums like Main Course (1975), Children of the World (1976), Saturday Nigh Fever OST (1977) and Spirits Have Flown (1979). All albums contained a string of global chart toppers, positioning the band as one of the top draws of the time. Masters of harmony and crafting gloriously lush pop songs they were a perfect fit for Streisand who was in need of some reinvigoration by 1980. Using a crack team of musicians and engineers they created an album which appealed to Barbra’s powerful voice, drenched in soaring strings, silk Bee Gees background vocals and full of the rhythm heavy feel of the time - this is up their with Benson’s ‘Give Me The Night’ as a wonderful snapshot of the musical zeitgeist of the time. 

The title track opens the album with a seductive, understated drum roll that descends into a slow, funky and distinctly naughty tempo. Essentially it’s a Bee Gees track, but the duet, which she performs with Barry Gibbs cannot help but bring a guilty smile to the face of the listener... it glistens with tackiness, one of the most ironically un-seductive tracks ever written but yet one of the best produced, best written and best performed duets of all time... the I said it! Guilty as charged. It would definitely be on my Desert Island Discs! 

‘Woman In Love’ is the most famous track of the album, a chart topper in 1981 and garnered a number of awards. It’s another great Bee Gees song performed by another artist, up there with Dionne Warwick’s ‘Heartbreaker’ or Diana Ross’s ‘Chain Reaction’. The song is heavy on the Fender Rhodes and gives Streisand a chance to flex her vocal chops. 

I warn listeners looking for an upbeat listen that slow tunes dominate. In an interesting interview with Barry Gibb a few years ago he claimed that during this period the band wanted to be seen not just as a disco act but also recognised for their soulful music and ballad - there is a preponderance of the latter: ‘Run Wild’, ‘The Love Inside’, ‘What Kind of Fool’ (with Barry Gibb), ‘Make it a Memory’. They are all great songs and showcase the song writing abilities of the Bee Gees, as always they are full of strings with rise and fade into the firmament, inflected by the occasional, mournful guitar solo. 

My personal picks, outside the title track are, firstly, ‘Promises’, an unashamedly camp dance song with one of the most brutally dated synthesiser riffs every committed to record and a distinctly disco-esque bassline. One feels that there was a conscious decision to include this track on the album for club play as it is the only cut that would sit comfortably on the turntable... It’s no slouch for that though, it’s a very infectious number.

Last but not least is ‘Never Give Up’, a filler track it may be but it’s one of the best, overlooked tracks on the album... it’s never mentioned in any reviews! It’s corny, uplifting and not the most challenging of numbers but it never fails to lift my spirits. It’s also got some of Barry Gibb’s best backing vocals on it, his refrain on the chorus is gold dust... I could go on...

Kitsch though it is, I cannot recommend this album to music appreciators enough, let’s put it this way, it wasn’t Streisand’s best-selling album for no reason. For that I feel it needs an urgent reappraisal, guilty pleasure or not! I like to think that it will still have a pride of place in my record collection to afflict on any future family I might have in years to come!

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Chez Bruce... a truly epic dining experience

There are some meals that linger in your mind long after you have eaten the last morsel and quaffed the last drop of wine. Such was the case with the meal that I had at Chez Bruce last Friday lunchtime. 

As with all memorable meals, it was a celebration. I had recently secured a new job and my success was being toasted by my family with gusto. I had been to Chez Bruce a couple of times before over the years so I was already familiar with the excellent cooking that comes out of the kitchen in this legendary South London restaurant. Arriving early I supped a half pint on Sambrook’s excellent Junction and cast my thoughts to the treat that was in store for me. 

Of course, there have been plenty of reviews of Chez Bruce over the years, a lone Michelin Star in what was the veritable gastronomic desert of South West London (having grown up in Wimbledon and Southfields this is no understatement). Established on the same site as the legendary Marco Pierre White venture Harveys (1987 - 1993), Chez Bruce was opened in 1995 by Bruce Poole, a chef who has an incredible pedigree across many of London’s top restaurants during the early 1990s. The food, to my mind is a modern interpretation of European classics, supported by one of the most interesting and inventive wine lists of any restaurant I have been to. 

Chez Bruce has been very popular since its establishment and the fame of its kitchen has spread across the country, but it still maintains the feel of a local institution. It is not an overly large restaurant and its position on Wandsworth Common gives it a welcoming, village feel. 

One o’clock soon came around and I entered into the cool, contemporary dining room with good acoustic and a clean feel. Usually I am not a particular fan of silver service and fine dining but Chez Bruce deliver it well without being intrusive. There is something quite pleasing about a crisp white linen table cloth, good quality napkins and sturdy cutlery, and I am pleased to write that the restaurant delivered on all counts. 

I was the first to arrive and whilst I waited I enjoyed a well-chilled glass of Meantime’s very reliable London Lager and some home made cheese straws, flecked with poppy and toasted sesame seeds. It was not a long wait and soon my mother and a very good family friend arrived to present me with a box of ten Montecristo No.4 cigars! Very nice indeed, the first of the box would be enjoyed post lunch, to aid the digestive progress. 

As it was a celebration a bottle of Champers was ordered with immediate effect. The Gratiot-Pillière, Tradition, Brut slipped down smoothly and was a much better foil for the cheese straw than the beer. I’m not a regular Champagne drinker but this was exceptionally good with a lovely light colour and a dry edge which lightly stroked the tongue rather than stripping off the tastebuds. 

Starters were ordered and and were thankfully presented after a reasonable gap, to allow us to enjoy our first drink. It is refreshing in an age where restaurants harry customers through their meal, so they can fill as many covers as possible throughout the day that, at Chez Bruce, you do not feel rushed in the slightest. The atmosphere was relaxed and the staff seamlessly glided through the restaurant being unobtrusive but also available at the diner’s request. 

My starter of crispy pig’s head with poached loin, celeriac, apple and sauce ravigote was very tasty. The unctuous croquette of pigs head with its meaty, slightly gelantinous texture disappeared quickly. The delicate, thinly slice loin was countered by a silky smooth quenelle of celeriac puree and some crisp matchstick of apple tossed through with Ravigote sauce (a vinaigrette with capers, herbs and cornichon), giving an acidic note to cut through the richness of the pork. My mother had a marvelously fresh chilled tomato consommé which was textbook in its preparation and held the concentrated flavour of fresh tomatoes, a spoonful of which would transport you to a cottage garden on a hot summer day. Our family friend had the Fishcakes with cmoked Haddock and clam  chowder, pancetta, pickled cucumber and chives, I didn’t try this but was assured that it was excellent. This was accompanied by more Champagne. 

We all chose Plaice fillets with beurre noisette, capers, warm charlotte potato salad, samphire and shrimps and accompanied this with a bottle of 2011 Soave Classico, La Rocca, Pieropan. What can I say... the head chef,  Matt Christmas and his team pulled out all the stops for this dish. It is definitely one of the best fish dishes I have ever, ever had. The plaice was so fresh that it reminded me of the quality of the catch served at the Hotel Atlantique in Wimereux. A more-ish beurre noisette (brown butter sauce) was dotted with sweet little shrimps and scattered with al dente samphire giving some pleasantly salty notes alongside the occasional caper. It was a triumph and it was all that I could do to resist licking the plate clean. A perfectly proportioned place, it was not too little and not too much, like baby bear’s porridge in that classic fairy tale, it was just right! 

I usually have something sweet for pudding but this was one of the rare occasions that I went for the cheese over Chez Bruce’s excellent Creme Brulee (to my mind, it’s by far the best in London). A plate of époisses, cerney and chällerhocker, was presented with some Membrillo (quince jelly), grapes and a basket of homemade fruitbread and oat biscuits. A lovely selection cheese, I am particularly fond of epoisses and this one was ripe and pungent, well offset by the hard chällerhocker which was somewhat like a Manchego and a surprising cerney, which is a creamy goats cheese and worked well on the fruit-bread. Oh and I finished of half of the velvety creme brulee my mother couldn’t manage, so it was a win-win situation. 

Coffees, homemade truffles and featherlight shortbread that melted on the mouth. What a brilliant meal. If you have the chance, make sure that you head down to Wandworth Common for some of the best food in the capital, cooked with skill and aplomb. As I sat in my garden afterwards with a cigar and a glass of Bruichladdich I ruminated on the meal, the perfect balance of the dishes and the convivial ambience of the restaurant. This was definitely a meal to remember!