Monday, 30 May 2011

I only wanted some sauce…



The Three Cornered Cross, a pub in Wimbourne, Dorset, has the boldness to serve lunch throughout the afternoon on a weekend, unlike the more ‘traditional’ pubs nearby which stop serving lunch at 2pm (I know! I have barely got my appetite by 2pm – it seems very old fashioned). Anyway, The Three Cornered Cross turns out fairly decent fare, but much to my consternation, my lunch there was marred by a total overbearing slavishness to ‘Health and Safety’. Every time I hear this phrase, my eyes start to roll into the back of my head, as it usually signifies some way in which to curtail enjoyment or spontaneity.

My friends and I sat outside in the garden to enjoy the good weather and all ordered fish and chips. Always, when I order this dish, part of my enjoyment ritual is to slather everything in masses of vinegar, over several intervals, plus a liberal serving of ketchup on the side, and tons of salt. The reapplication of vinegar throughout is crucial, as I believe that its power wears off after a few minutes. I know other people that enjoy the same ritual, as weird as it sounds. Anyway, the pub served up a very handsome looking plate of fish and chips, but I could see no sauces on the table, so I requested them. We waited a few minutes, during which time I tried to contemplate eating my food without cutlery or salt and pepper, as we were still waiting for these too.

Eventually, a young member of staff appeared at our table wearing a starched white apron and holding aloft a narrow, horizontal tray with 10 china pots. He asked what sauces everyone would like. We requested vinegar and ketchup, expecting to be given two pots for the table. But oh no. We were solemnly presented with the pots and tiny spoons, which we had to pass round the table dosing our food with little dabs, before having to give them back to our waiter. Oh no, this would never work, I thought.

I asked: “Could we keep the vinegar on the table please?”

He replied, “Sorry, I need it back I’m afraid.” He looked a little sheepish.

I said: “But what if I want more vinegar in a minute? I need lots of vinegar…and will possibly want more ketchup too…”

“Sorry, it’s for health and safety reasons, we can’t leave the sauces on the table.”

“I beg your pardon? Health and safety?”

By now, this young man looked tired, and possibly a little afraid of me. I wasn’t giving up – this was ludicrous.

“We need to keep the sauces refrigerated. Which is why I can’t leave them here.” By now, he was edging away. Don’t hurt me, crazy lady

“But vinegar never goes off! And ketchup is also very vinegary, it would take ages to go off…” (Vinegar is a preservative, FFS…)

By now my husband was kicking me under the table. Leave the poor guy alone, his eyes were saying. I took a deep breath and smiled. “Never mind. We are finished with the sauces,” I said, even though I was ready to scream. Our friends looked down at their plates and their small dabs of ketchup.

I watched our waiter scurry off with his platter of sauces, whereby he retreated to a small wooden shed at the side of the pub garden. I saw him crouch down and open a fridge, no doubt refilling his little jugs with more fridge-cold condiments, ideal for making your food go chilly the moment you sprinkled them on. It looked like an immense palaver. I bet he questioned his job and got asked this question about the sauce situation over and over again.

I wasn’t finished with my ranting, especially as the acquisition of cutlery had also been a mission (but I’m not going to go into this now). As I shovelled rapidly cooling chips into my mouth (their heat loss hastened by the chilly vinegar), I exclaimed: “What a RIDICULOUS system! It’s totally mad not leaving the sauces here…” and so on for the remainder of our meal. In my mind a scenario of surreal and inescapable proportions was unfolding itself, a bit like Russian dolls, where you open one to find another lurking inside. 

“What if a table of eight people sat down and all wanted different amounts of sauces and took ages serving themselves, and then another table of six sat down moments later, and also wanted sauces at the same time? There is only one sauce waiter…” I was in full flow. “…and then, one table wanted more ketchup because someone had forgotten to request it at the time, but the sauce waiter was occupied with the newly arrived table? And then, another table wanted mustard, but the sauce waiter was busy refilling his tiny pots in the shed?”

Dear God. This had really got my goat – it was ‘Health and Safety’ gone completely up its own arsehole!

Anyway, rather than calming down, I continued to scrutinise the poor sauce waiter as he made his dismal trajectory around the pub garden, his pots of sauce clinking ominously on his wobbling tray. It seemed like a laborious waste of time.

And this, dear readers, is where The Three Cornered Cross lost all my respect as a diner – humiliating their waiter into this bizarre ritual of sauce Nazi-ism, and frustrating their vinegar/mustard/ketchup hungry public. Just give us a selection of bottles of sauce that we can help ourselves to, or at least a basket of sauces per table like any normal pub, and don’t fob us off with silly rationing, as it makes you look incredibly tight-arsed.

And don’t get me started on our epic wait for cutlery, and the salt and pepper pots that were delivered in an ornamental tin watering can, I’ll bore you to death! Harrumph…

The Three Legged Cross
Dorset BH21 6RE

Friday, 27 May 2011

The Pear Tree




Tucked away down a quiet side-street in Fulham is a hidden gem of a pub called The Pear Tree serving wonderful food – but it wasn’t ever thus. The management (cheery bar staff wearing cute vintage attire, a fresh-faced chef) took over running things not so long ago. Before the change of guard, this was a gloomy rough boozer where (according to one local) you were likely to ‘get stabbed’. So dodgy was its reputation that my mother-in-law, a Fulham local, had never dared set foot in the place in all the 10 years she had lived here, and looked aghast when we said where we’d been! We will have to take her for a visit…



Don’t be put off by the eyesore temporary scaffolding that covers the front of the building – once inside you will be charmed by a magical space that has a little flavour of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ to it. Quirky lampshades, mis-matched furniture and yummy vintage crockery – all serve to create a lived-in and characterful atmosphere. It feels like an artistic aunt’s living room where you want to hang out for a few hours with a good book and some plonk. An interesting mix of people were in attendance on our Sunday afternoon visit – old geezers enjoying their pints, young families tucking into roasts, friends meeting up for a gossip.

The food is absolutely delicious. First of all, before you even make your menu choices, an enamel tub of rosemary-sprinkled foccaccia bread is placed before you, with dipping oil and vinegar. Light dough, fruity oil and herby rosemary - like crack cocaine for a bread-head like me:



Then to the main courses:

A tasty roast pork loin stuffed with leeks and apricots, served with perfectly cooked carrots, asparagus and green beans (well-cooked veg is so rare in a pub!):



A very tender duck breast, with similar exemplary veg:



Outstanding steak with pepper sauce and chips - holy moly:


Our puds were a bit less successful – a lemon ricotta tart didn’t actually taste of anything, and had stodgy pastry, but no matter – some good coffees cheered us up. My husband was wowed by the quality and immense generosity of the cheese plate – a great variety of British cheeses, and so plentiful that we had to take some home with us in a napkin…

We shall return! Perhaps for one of their knockout brunches...

The Pear Tree
17 Margravine Road
London W6 8HJ

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Going for bloat

It’s no secret that I love to eat well. I don’t do midget-sized portions and I like things to be generous on the plate. But despite all of this, the US of A nearly brought me to my knees on my recent visit with its gargantuan serving sizes in restaurants.

Anyone with half a brain will, of course, know to expect big portions in the States. But for some reason, I was surprised almost every time with the surreal over-abundance of the food servings when eating out. Plates were piled high to the rafters. It was, at times, almost nauseating. I tried various tactics to surmount this – ordering the smallest sized burger or sharing a plate of food with my husband. But sometimes you want different things on the menu from each other, so sharing doesn’t always work. And if you’re staying in B&B’s, you can’t always take the leftovers with you. Nor would you want to take certain types of leftovers home – I mean, who wants the rubbery cold eggs from brunch, a soggy sandwich or the wilted salad from lunch?

A few examples:

A taco salad. I thought this was going to be lettuce, tomatoes, avocado, crispy bits of taco and maybe some sour cream. I fancied a light lunch. Instead, I got a dog-bowl sized dish with a few bits of lettuce drowning under a sea of chilli con carne, garnished with a family pack of nachos, cream and a half tonne of cheese. I struggled to even get half of the way through (and I was hungry):




Brunch pancakes with maple syrup and bacon – the food was delicious, but why a WHOLE plate of bacon for one person, and three of these hefty half-inch-thick pancakes? I could barely finish two of them, and the bacon was far too much:




This salt beef bagel – also delicious, but check out the inches of filling! You can barely get your jaw around it!




The result of all this eating made me totally lose the sensation of hunger at various moments on the holiday, despite my best efforts not to over-stuff myself. It was almost impossible not to overeat, though, because everything had lost its sense of proportion on the plate.

What all of this made me wonder is where this over-the-top portion generosity hails from? Why the need to go overboard with everything? My father-in-law said to me that it stemmed from a desire to show that the USA is the biggest and the best and that people would feel cheated with anything less on their plate. My step-mum-in-law is a New Yorker and she says that city residents generally have tiny apartments, often with limited kitchen facilities, and they take the leftovers to eat at home in lieu of cooking. But not everyone in the US has a small living space. Our friends from San Diego say they are regularly ‘shocked’ by the food waste they see.

I know that Americans are generally much better at asking for doggy bags and taking leftovers home that we are in the UK . But still – there is a mammoth amount of food waste. Time after time I saw half-full plates being cleared from tables and not reappearing as doggy bags. The stuff that gets thrown out must be shocking. It would probably be enough to feed several impoverished nations year-round. One evening we ate in a seafood restaurant in Cambria called The Sea Chest, where the waiter saw the hesitation on our faces, and asked us if we wanted to share one course together. I asked if the portions were huge and he said “Yes. Enormous. We have to throw so much away. And it’s totally our fault for offering it in the first place.” We took his advice and shared our fillet of mahi mahi and it was the perfect amount for two.

Anyone else been stuffed to the gills on a trip Stateside? What are your thoughts on the food waste in the USA ? Am I over-reacting?

Monday, 9 May 2011

Robin’s, Cambria



I was a huge fan of Twin Peaks in the early 90’s. This being my first extended trip to the States outside of New York, I was fascinated to discover a gorgeous little town in California that had a real Twin Peaks flavour to it - obviously this train of thought was conducted entirely in my own head, much to the amusement of my husband when I told him about it. Cambria is a small beach town halfway down the coast between San Francisco and LA, which on my visit was semi drenched in fog, giving it a slightly eerie atmosphere. It had quaint little shops and restaurants built of dark timber. It was picturesque without being twee, and everything looked homely and peaceful as though it hadn’t changed since the 1950’s. The locals were delightfully cheerful, and I half expected Agent Cooper to exit a coffee shop carrying donuts with a spring in his step. I’m sure he would have loved this restaurant we discovered, called ‘Robin’s’.

We ate one of the best meals of our holiday here. The food is absolutely delicious – the owner Shanny Covey calls it ‘handcrafted local cuisine’, and the chefs pride themselves on using lots of local produce. The dishes are sophisticated, yet rustic and unpretentious. You can get a curry, a stir-fry, some local fish or Mexican food, all done to a super high standard. The ambiance feels like a cosy living room at a friend’s house, and the staff are so welcoming.




Light, crispy calamari served with an aioli dip and pea shoots:



A velvety salmon bisque – a Robin’s ‘classic’:



Outstanding lobster and cheese enchiladas. There were so many flavours going on here – the lobster was delicate and sweet, the black beans were spicy and flavoured with cinnamon, the salad had a dressing with a taste reminiscent of curry leaves and the guacamole hidden underneath was fresh and creamy. I would never have expected lobster baked in a cheese sauce to have worked, but everything on the plate tasted amazing. 


Fillet of local bass served with giant pea shoots, Russian kale and black rice – super fresh fish, and a myriad of spicy herby flavours going on in the rice and salad. Delicious.




I had been fantasizing about eating a good carrot cake all holiday, and this was possibly the best ever carrot cake I have eaten in my life – the sponge was light and perfumed with spices and chunks of crystallised ginger, there were shreds of coconut and juicy raisins, and the cream cheese frosting wasn’t too sweet. We couldn’t finish it,  but it was too good to leave behind, so the staff put it in a pretty little box:





4095 Burton Drive
Cambria, CA 93428

Friday, 6 May 2011

American coffee: so darned good

It’s amazing how easy it is to get a really good coffee in the big American cities. I’m not talking about going and getting a latte the size of a pillarbox in a Starbucks or an over-stewed filter coffee in a diner, but instead getting a proper fresh brew in one of the indies – the small cafes that pepper the streets of the places that I visited on my recent trip. It quickly became apparent to me that the Yanks take their love of coffee to almost evangelical heights – sometimes it’s quite amusingly serious and beardy! And each coffee shop has its own personality and quirks, as you shall see below…


Here is Ninth Street Espresso in Alphabet City (East Village), New York:




Stern-looking baristas with beards and trilby hats served us; the clientele comprised of people tapping away silently on iMacs. Shhhhh!



The perfect shape atop a deliciously strong and milky flat white:


The hilarious house rules – woe betide you should come here with children, as the bottom bit of the sign says: ‘Unattended children will be given an espresso and a free dog’ (ha ha):



Cafe Pedlar on the Lower East Side is a beautiful ‘artisanal’ coffee shop where the beards and the brews are strong:






They use a local brand called Stumptown Coffee, produced in Brooklyn. I wish I had brought some beans back, it was delicious, as were their cakes – behold this slab of ginger cake and olive oil sponge:




In San Francisco, the coffee scene is fantastic. You can go to indie cafes run by trendy hippies, earnest anarchists, sexy arts students and grizzled old intellectuals.


Caffe Trieste, in the North Beach area, is where the beat poets (Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg) allegedly used to hang out, and is deservedly famous. It simply reeks (in a good way) of the atmosphere of a bygone era, and has been open for 50 years. People actually sit around reading proper novels by Jean Paul Sartre and John Steinbeck, and old and young mix with each other. The walls are covered in black and white photos of all the artists that have hung out here over the years, and the tables are decorated with funky colourful tiles. I drank the best mocha of my life here, drenched in whipped cream…while an old dude with a MASSIVE white beard sat next to me and hoovered down an enormous wedge of vanilla cheesecake in less than three minutes…happy days.


Mmmm mama!



Do not sit and read a trash mag in here – it’s strictly novels, poems and scripts please:




Groovy friendly ladies – Lory on the left came over to our table and hung out with us, sharing all sorts of tips on where to go in California. Lovely lady!




History is on the walls:




Cafe Divis in the Haight District served me the best decaff coffee I have ever drunk – it tasted way better than a lot of caffeinated coffee that I have had in the UK, and I am upset I won’t taste this fine brew again anytime soon:




So trendy innit! There were lots of cool young good looking people tapping away on laptops…but less beards than elsewhere.




And finally onto LA – where we went to Intelligentsia in Venice. The name should say it all, but it was SO UPTIGHT that I got the uncontrollable urge to giggle. Everything was very 1990’s – all brushed steel and glass, with everyone yapping into their BlackBerry’s and punching the keyboards of their laptops, talking about real estate and contracts (which in my imagination could only be about the movie business, of course)...


Achtung: do not spill anything, cough, sneeze or make a mess in here! And laughter shall not be tolerated:



See how beautiful my coffee is below? Well, it took two baristas to make it – a very amusing sight. Bearded earnest barista was in charge of grinding the beans and getting stressed with Blonde Barista, who just looked thin, bored and beautiful as she heated the water in slow motion, and then made the shape of the heart on the milk foam, sighing. They kept bumping into each other and exchanging cross whispers. Blonde Barista was clearly just slumming it here, as the job was clearly quite beneath her, and an agent was going to discover her that very afternoon and get her an audition for a pilot. Bearded Barista just looked incredibly stressed, and was dressed a bit like a farm hand. Bless. But the coffee was nice though!




And thus endeth my mini journey through the indie coffee shops in the States – if only I worked near a decent coffee shop in London (I don’t). All I can hope for is a cup of something not-too-bad from Pret or Eat…


Ninth Street Espresso

Cafe Pedlar

Caffe Trieste

Cafe DiVis

Intelligentsia Coffee

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Tartine, San Francisco




I fell completely in love with San Francisco. Walking along, I smelled great Mexican food mingling with marijuana, drank excellent coffee (it’s taken VERY seriously here) and blissed out looking at the psychedelic colours of the painted Victorian mansions in the Haight Ashbury district, once home to the Grateful Dead. I revisited my teenage years gazing at all the tie-dyed Led Zeppelin and Doors T-shirts in the shops – the very same ones that I used to wear – and went for pitstops in cafes run by earnest anarchists and hippies. 

And then I found Tartine – a wonderful bakery in the Mission district that churns out not only the famous San Francisco sourdough bread, but fabulous cakes and possibly the best toasted sandwiches I have ever eaten. Here, they call them ‘hot pressed sandwiches’ – great craggy slabs of sourdough holding gooey molten fillings, with crusty char marks on the outside. The portions are enormous – we managed to finish them off for breakfast the next day, and they still tasted great under the grill.

Unsurprisingly, Tartine is extremely popular – queues stretch around the block, even early on a Sunday morning. If I lived anywhere near this bakery, I think the unrelenting queues would be the only thing stopping me from getting Type 1 diabetes from over-consumption of their wares…

Here are those hot pressed sandwiches - ham and gruyere, with a side of delicious pickled carrots: worth every penny of the $11 price tag:




Fontina cheese with broccoli pesto and dry cured ham - super pokey:




For dessert, we had a ‘Tres Leches’ cake (light, creamy and coconutty) and a darkly sinful Valhrona chocolate and walnut drop cookie:




The rest of their wares – I was gutted not to be able to try absolutely everything:














The only chocolate they use in the cakes is Valhrona (Lordy!) and the co-owners of Tartine, Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Pruett, are revered as some sort of demi-gods on the American food circuit. Makes sense to me!


Tartine Bakery
600 Guerrero Street @ 18th
San Francisco