La Trappiste

my personal torment would be being water boarded by a ruddy-faced Bavarian wearing nothing but lederhosen, stockings and his Wehrmacht epaulettes

Just occasionally in life you encounter places that capture the imagination like nowhere else. For good or for ill, there will be these isolated little moments in time that leave an indelible mark on the imagination, an ineradicable footprint on the sands of memory for all time. Oh sure, there will be all those irresistible stirrings brought on by the usual reveries: The Sounds Of Radio Four Coming From The Kitchen Of An Avuncular Great Aunt Living In Devon; That Kiss In The Park By The River On That Summer Afternoon; Vomiting Down Your Shirt In A Packed Bar…

Truth be told, it’s probably not in anyone’s interests to try and turn their lives into a Proust novel. But there are two occasions I can think of in my life where I have tried to retrace my steps somewhere but have simply been unable to do so, second or any subsequent time round.

Both places are restaurants. First was a little trattoria in the side streets up in Paris’s 18ème arrondissement. It was my first time in La Ville-Lumière. 1995, a Sixth Form French trip. It was lunch time, we lost our teachers for the afternoon, found this little place and ordered pizzas and beer and smoked Marlboro Reds. After scraping our money together we hadn’t quite enough to pay but the owner wasn’t the slightest bit concerned. We stayed for hours. And I have never managed to find this place since  – I don’t know if it still exists even. I realise this must say something about me as a seventeen year old, the fact that one of my enduring adolescent memories is enjoying an ad hoc yet rather civilised (surprising, considering the company) extended lunch in Paris.

The second and more recent occasion was a place in the centre of Munich and for the life of me I cannot remember what it was called. All I know is that it was a stone’s throw from the Marienplatz. I’ve tried putting every conceivable combination of words into Google – ‘German restaurants Munich city centre’, ‘local restaurants in Munich’, ‘Bavarian offal fetish dungeon hell hole’ – but all to no avail. The place does not seem to exist on Street View either. And I so desperately wanted to find this place again, really just to see if it actually exists and I haven’t just invented the whole thing.

Since I have no details of the place: name, location, anything at all to point to it actually existing outside of my own mind I can’t therefore review it, as was my intention. It would be like writing a review of The Krusty Krab. So instead I shall adopt a persona – let’s say this character’s name is S Truffle – and write a narrative piece in the first person perspective about the experience of visiting a restaurant in Munich.

***“In the evening I went looking for a restaurant. This is often a problem in Germany”. The words of Bill Bryson in actual fact. And as I was to find out, never truer words spoken. Finding somewhere to go for dinner was such a monumental trial each and every time I began to wonder whether I, S Truffle, was merely a character in somebody else’s mind – a chimera existing solely for somebody else’s amusement. Perhaps their plans for me would be my eternal languishment in a tartarus of Bavarian cuisine right here in Munich. Was being held fast, buried to my neck and slowly drowning in a quicksand of weisswurst and pickled lung stew my nightmare or somebody else’s? Never mind being burnt to death with a lighter or being spoon-fed bits of my own body until there was nothing left, my own personal torment would be being water boarded by a ruddy-faced Bavarian wearing nothing but lederhosen, stockings and his Wehrmacht epaulettes.

Suddenly I was no longer alone. I had a companion. We chose a restaurant. I say ‘chose’, it was more like finding you’ve been entered for Shirley Jackson’s lottery. As we pushed open the door, parted the heavy draught-excluding curtain, I think I actually exclaimed aloud, “Oh Jesus Christ”.

The only free seats were at a large communal table. I thought we had mistakenly stumbled into a private party. Pine-panelled walls, mounted animal heads, various Tyrolean curios and memorabilia all gave the room an ominous mien. Was this in actual fact some clandestine Austro-Bavarian masonic lodge meeting? Everyone in the room was middle-aged, well-to-do and ruddy. They definitely all harboured extreme right-wing views. Maybe they were cannibals? It crossed my mind. The woman seated directly opposite was particularly intent on staring me out. Surreptitious whispering heavy with glottals and menace came from all corners. I’m sure everybody was now licking their lips. We were not welcome here. At all.

A menu nevertheless arrived. As feared it was a veritable biopsy table of internal organs and bits of digestive system. I was able to pick out the schweinehaxe which I somehow knew was a regional speciality of pork knuckle. My companion settled for liver dumplings, whatever the hell they were. If I hadn’t navigated as judiciously as I did the task of rendering what German I have into English I know for a fact that plates of quivering udder and boiled colon would have been placed in front of us. For some irrepressible reason I had the compulsion to order, in English, in a comedic ‘Allo ‘Allo German accent though was begged not to. Our food arrived. Needless to say every mouthful was terrifyingly, nerve-shreddingly horrific. I heard myself scream. I woke with a start. Around me was a sea of leering, ruddy faces. I was held fast in quicksand up to my neck. A faceless man wearing only stockings and Wehrmacht epaulettes advanced upon me with a tray of quivering udders and assorted boiled colons. I began to scream before waking with a start.***

But If I could finds this place to review it would score a perfect ten. Ten for the memories and minus ten for everything else.

chips were of the school dinner variety – pale, flabby, fat and greasy

And so to Canterbury’s titular La Trappiste and the most unwelcoming, uncongenial establishment encountered since S Truffle went on holiday to Munich by mistake. It is a Franco-Belgian themed brasserie and bar in the old city centre, practically under the shadows of the cathedral’s splendid western façade. I still love Canterbury. It manages to be a surprisingly young city thanks to it being home to two universities and countless overseas students.

La Trappiste occupies an impressive and roomy space at the intersection of four streets. It really could not have asked for a better head start in the battle for the hearts and minds of the city’s inhabitants. It can be approached from all angles. If you are going to or from the cathedral you will probably walk past it. An attractive bar provides the centre piece. There is even an on-site bakery whose wares are displayed in the window. It is a damn wonder the space wasn’t made into a Prêt or a Starbucks. It is also a damn shame as well…

On our first visit one summer evening we didn’t even get to try the food. Being shown to an outside table was the last we saw of anybody. After decanting us to our seats and sloping back inside, the waiter then resumed his duties of busily standing by the bar. We didn’t even get menus. I should of course point out that the place was actually empty inside. Plenty of staff though. So industrious was their bar-propping that their elbows must have worn deep furrows into the counter. What the hell was their problem? After a Best-of-British, hand-wringing fifteen minutes of apologetically telling each other “don’t worry they’ll be along in a minute,” I thought about going in to say “look, I’ll cook our meal. Do you mind if I pour myself a Leffe?”

I did go in to ask what was going on. The shift manager’s response was to spit: “right, so are you gonna leave then now, or what?” in the same tone a chap might employ for requesting another chap’s presence outside for fisticuffs.

And that was that.

I just knew I had to go back again. This time for lunch, labouring under the misapprehension that things couldn’t possibly be any worse. Once more I was shown to a table but this time hidden behind a pillar and to get to it I had to squeeze between it and the next table, depositing my scrotum – accidentally, I hasten to add – into their food whenever I passed by. The table was so tiny it would have been more comfortable eating off my lap.

I kept things as simple as possible by ordering Steak Frites and a beer, a Grimbergen Bruin. It was tart, brown and fizzy and pretty damn good, and sadly the only thing to scale the lofty heights of above average. The steak, a sirloin, was requested medium-rare but arrived torched to oblivion and devoid of any kind of discernible characteristic that may have identified it as sirloin steak. All essence and flavour must have been surgically removed before it left the the kitchen, thus leaving it with less taste than the guests at a Jeffrey Archer dinner party.

Chips were of the school dinner variety – pale, flabby, fat and greasy – and bore not the slightest resemblance to any French or indeed Belgian Fries I’ve come across in my lifetime. In fairness though an accompanying Béarnaise sauce was decent.

La Trappiste is utterly half-arsed and breathtakingly arrogant to boot. I cannot decide whether management don’t know how to run a café restaurant or simply don’t care. It cannot be stressed enough just how much this place has everything going for it. Even the affected interior rough-and-readiness really does look like that of a continental café. And by god, Belgium really does know how to produce stuff people love to eat: fries, mussels, chocolate, waffles and seemingly innumerable varieties of really amazing beer. But sadly not here. Canterbury: so close to Belgium yet so far.

Opinion: 2/10

La Trappiste
1-2 Sun Street
Canterbury
Kent
Tel: (01227) 479111
Website: http://www.latrappiste.com

Shoryu Ramen

the stock in trade of Shoryu Ramen is vigorous, noodle-slurping, informal comfort food

Shoryu Ramen!! Said aloud, or even just written down on paper, the name of this Hakata-influenced ramen bar is more like a battle cry from a revolutionary early 90’s combat arcade game that people of a certain age (i.e. mine) will no doubt recognize. Which is why, when I first heard of this place, my first reaction was “a-ha! I know what shoryu means!” (It means ‘rising dragon’ by the way).

First things first though: I know absolutely nothing about Japanese cuisine. To me it is a twilight world shrouded in intrigue and secrecy, a whole other alien universe. A demi-monde everlastingly shut-off from the prying and greedy round eyes of the Gaijin. The concept (for it is undoubtedly a concept) of Japanese ‘high eating’ is built around etiquette and ritual and takes its roots from the country’s ancient tea ceremonies. The manner in which one eats, the aesthetic appreciation of a shared meal, is as much part of the experience as the eating itself, maybe more so. And this is something that does not really square with our own occidental world view of food and what it means to eat.

Only when a peep behind the noren into the ryokan is permitted do we see the sheer breadth of Japanese cuisine. And it is staggering. Sushi and sashimi for instance, both utterly different (though often thought of as one and the same by us westerners), yet each their own distinct universe. How many ways of serving tuna or mackerel can you think of? Well you could probably walk down an – apparently – unmarked alley just off the Shibuya in Tokyo into a bamboo shed with space for only five only to find it is a triple Michelin Starred alter at the temple of sashimi. Here, a single fish might be cut, sliced, prepared and served in about five hundred different ways before your eyes. A haiku in epicurean form where meaning and connotation vary from city to city, region to region.

Society changes. And so do our palettes. And as these both change so again does the world around us, driven as it is by our bellies. Foreign, or gaijin food probably now comprises the majority of what Japan puts into its mouth, and interestingly, this what it now exports back to the rest of the world. Since Imperial Japan kicked off in 1868 with the Meiji Restoration, rapid economic growth and industrialisation coincided with contact and trade with the previously shunned outside world. This of course brought gaijin food to Japan. Fast forward to now and Kobe (Wagyu) beef is Japan’s ubiquitous foodie export to the world. It may be sought after as an exorbitantly overpriced bovine delicacy on high-end menus the world over but steak is western food sold back to westerners. They are even doing it with whisky – what is Japanese whisky, as bloody brilliant as it is, if it isn’t basically just Scotch?

A great deal of Japanese food today is in fact Chinese in origin. It is Chinese noodles and broth that form the beating heart of modern day eating in Japan. See that steaming bowl of ramen and those tempting gyoza? As Chinese as child labour. And that is exactly what is served at Shoryu Ramen on Lower Regent Street, just off Piccadilly.

Dispel at once any notions of delicacy, obscurity or refinement; the averted-gaze-and-shy-giggle-behind-the-hand; the imperial-military-severity of tsukemono or hamachi restaurants. The stock in trade of Shoryu Ramen is vigorous, noodle-slurping, informal comfort food.

As you may or may not have guessed ramen is ‘noodles in broth’. Any Japanese-ness attributed to ramen is of course the fact that there are an utterly bewildering number of iterations of the dish, be they regional or ingredient based. Shoryu Ramen specialises in only one type and that is the tonkotsu (not to be confused with tonkatsu, something totally different). Not only that, the tonkotsu ramen served here are of the Hakata variety – specific to the Hakata district of the city of Fukuoka.

Tonkotsu means ‘pork bone’. The resultant broth is made from boiling down pork bones, fat and meat over many hours. Miso this is not. This variety is currently popular back home plus there are already two others in London: Bone Daddies and the eponymously named Tonkotsu, with many more due to open soon. If the craze for ramen restaurants takes off big time in the capital, well, you read it here first.

Immediately upon entry I was assailed by a strangulated shout of “Irasshaimase!” Not knowing what was going on around me my instinctive reaction was to block the anticipated ball of energy about to slam into my midriff. (You can’t duck underneath, remember, and leaping over would leave you open to attack from a well-seasoned World Warrior – eh, kids?). But no, Irasshaimase thankfully turns out to be a greeting yelled to all and sundry who step over the threshold.

Shoryu Ramen is a compact space. Lunch time diners fit elbow to elbow along a single row of tables although there is also an area of communal tables and benches at the front by the window – probably the best place to sit. Walls are of the ubiquitously à la mode bare brick variety save for some decidedly retro swirling motifs. Browns and oranges are the dominant colours. It certainly didn’t put me in mind of something I’d expect to see in downtown Hakata. More like a cafeteria in a Scandinavian airport in the 1970’s. The overall effect was not as suicide-inducing as it sounds. It worked and looked stylish. My visit was also accompanied by a background soundtrack of post-bop jazz that put me in mind of writer Haruki Murakami for some reason. 

I found my first few appetisers to be a waste of time sadly. Pickled cabbage was really just flaccid curls of raw white cabbage soaked in Sarsons. It was as every bit as hair shirted as it sounds. Yamitsuki Asian cucumber was equally as unforgiving. Though dressed in sesame and sea salt it looked (and tasted) like it had been buried in North Korean sand.

Luckily, things kicked up a gear with the arrival of a plate of Gyoza dumplings and Shoryu Ramen immediately got back to what it does best: pork. If badly done, I find that the pork mince in gyoza can have a distinctly nasty, bummy quality. If done well they are one of my favourite things in the whole world. A fine line if ever there was one. These, thankfully, were the real deal: each one maddeningly addictive and superbly succulent. A hirata pork bun, a supple, pillow-soft steamed bun filled with yet more pork – slow cooked belly this time – further drove the point home: I would not be leave here hungry.

There are variations of the Tonkotsu ramen on the menu ranging from the typical (with added chilli, wasabi or char siu barbecue pork), to the more off the wall: piri piri, yuzu and the intriguing ‘dracula’ that adds caramelised black garlic and balsamic vinegar. A recent addition to the menu is the Hokkaido curry ramen which includes crispy fried kara-age chicken and mini fishcakes.

I opted for the basic, or ‘signature’ ramen. It was quite the distillation of everything porcine. The broth was concentrated and cloudy, almost milky in colour. All flesh, bones, collagen and more flesh and bone. But naturally enough it was lighter and cleaner on the palate than expected while still being satisfyingly rich. Toppings were yet more sliced pork (too dry) and kikurage mushrooms. A generous shovelling of noodles, plus bean sprouts, spring onion and nori seaweed provided the body of the dish, while sesame and ginger provided the seasoning. The soul was undoubtedly the pork broth. As for the manners? Well they were distinctly Chinese: slurping is most definitely the order of the day. No self-consciousness here, head down, get on with it. Filling, myriad flavours, wonderfully satisfying. Ramen are hardly a novelty but this did feel like something entirely new.

All this was accompanied by a wonderfully invigorating genmai, or brown rice tea. The drinks menu also offers no less than thirty varieties of sake if you feel like going at it but alas, time, for now, marches on… So I finish up. Funny to witness the chap who was to take my seat flinch in terror at the incoming “Irasshaimase!”.

Shoryu Ramen, while maybe a bit Too Cool For School for some of you squares – they’ve even flown in the chef from Hakata – is welcoming, different enough while still being familiar enough, and is a great introduction to Japanese lunch time culture. Dozo omeshiagari! And indeed, Shoryu ken!

Opinion: 7/10

Shoryu Ramen
9 Regent Street
London
SW1Y 4LR
Website: http://www.shoryuramen.com
Twitter: @shoryuramen

Corrigan’s

the sense that green, muddy, hearty Ireland had been supplanted by warm, fragrant, luminous Southern Europe

Hey, I’ve got a joke:
“Waiter, waiter your thumb is in my soup!”
“Don’t worry sir it’s not very hot.”
Or how about this:
“Waiter, waiter I want to complain to the chef!”
“I’m afraid his dinner break has just started. He’ll be at the restaurant next door as usual”.

These pearls of comic genius may not trigger Tanganyika-esque levels of hysteria but they do at least shed light on the accepted truism about chefs being an inherently humourless bunch. And always skinny.

You’ll doubtless be aware of the aphorism Le chef mange ici along with the old adage entreating you to ‘never trust a skinny chef’. Well if you happened to be thinking of Richard Corrigan then you might conclude that he does indeed mange ici and that his trustworthiness would be beyond reproach. Somebody like the tiny-in-real-life Michel Roux Jnr on the other hand probably has all the integrity of Fagin. (In this context, I hasten to add. I’m sure he is a perfectly lovely man in reality).

To me, the expression le chef mange ici brings to the fore images of fat chefs – men big in both body and spirit – all sweating brows and bulging whites waddling around kitchens and bustling over stoves of bubbling sauces. Probably French, these men belong to an evocative culinary heritage of yesteryear. Ironically, much like Michel Roux Jnr’s father Albert. And they enjoy their grub. The food they cook and enjoy, though stylish and sophisticated, always manages to be big-hearted: rich, heavy reductions, lots of butter, mostly meat. They most certainly have their dinner break at their own restaurant. And they most certainly have gout as well.

I am interested in the alternative and modern restaurant scene and its evolution. But even so, there’s something inherently reassuring about a chef whose frame might not look out of place on a Botero canvass. You’d think, “yeah, I want this person to cook for me; they look as if they’d actually enjoy it.” Who wouldn’t prefer early-years Nigella (before the ascent to mainstream popularity and the descent to self parody) lasciviously whipping up some gooey, creamy dessert like a sort of high-born Hampstead reader’s wife, as opposed to Gillian McKeith’s desiccated Gestapo officer force feeding you some linseed washed down with a mug of warm vinegar before having a poke around in your poo? I do know some people who would opt for the latter but they’re not particularly fun to be around.

But what of the personality profile of the modern day chef? They tend to belong to one of two distinct camps. They tend to be barely literate, violent, narcissistic, criminal psychotics who routinely work eighteen hour shifts without sleep and perform Bishop’s Fiver Finger Fillet on themselves and colleagues for fun. Alternatively they are autistic obsessives, meticulously fixated with detail, order and routine to the exclusion of, you know, normal things. Either way, they are barely-functioning human beings. You certainly wouldn’t want one as a friend.

And if once again you just happened to be thinking of Richard Corrigan you might by now be scratching your head. Not only slightly cuddly, he is also most definitely the sort of man’s man you might want as a mate. Much in the same vein as television’s James Nesbitt (is it an Irish thing?), he is the sort of bloke that other blokes would go for a pint with and talk about manly things, like car engines or sawing wood, or whatever. And since he is big in the culinary world, so to speak, you know you would also have genuinely interesting conversations about the optimum time beef should be aged, or how to make the perfect beurre noisette. He would laugh uproariously at your jokes about waiters but also crack his own. So: not skinny; likes a laugh. Probably not much cop as a chef then…

Michelin Stars earned at Stephen Bull and Lindsay House, a successful buy out of iconic London landmark Bentleys and being awarded ‘AA Restaurant of the Year’ for his newest venture, the Mayfair dining room Corrigan’s (opened in 2008), would suggest otherwise. Oh, and he has also won BBC’s The Great British Menu no less than three times.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that eating at Corrigan’s is representative of not just the man but of the background. Born and raised in rural County Meath, he has always stressed both the importance and value of land, sea (the snotgreen sea), good husbandry and honest farming. Just as Joyce’s Leopold Bloom gourmandised “the inner organs of beasts and fowls…thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs and fried hencods’ roes” then so too does the menu at Corrigan’s place an emphasis on heartier, wilder fare. A gratifying sense of terroir unites dishes such as wild rabbit through Cornish crab to artisan Irish cheeses. In-season game features prominently as do wild fish and oysters – West Mersea and Carlingford. But there are also plenty of surprising flourishes which exhibit a lighter, defter touch: a shellfish ravioli with sea vegetables; veal sweetbreads paired with morel cream; nutmeg ice cream with spiced fruit.

Designed by Martin Brudnizki, the interior manages to capture pastoral and hunting themes, albeit in a rather pleasing tongue in cheek fashion (bird foot lamps). The overall impression is actually that of a rather elegant 1930’s transatlantic liner with blue banquet seating, immaculately gleaming table linen and dark wood counterbalanced by the cosy, orangey glow of lamplight. Half of the space is devoted to a stylish marble-topped cocktail bar and the rest is the open plan dining room.

A recent dinner conjoined the robust with the subtle in a similar fashion.

A plump miniature sausage roll made with expertly buttery, crumbly pastry was the mischievous highlight of an introductory plate of amuse bouches. A starter proper of grouse and winter vegetable soup proved unusually delicate. Finely diced assorted root vegetables, pleasingly undercooked, coalesced with the slenderest slithers of grouse in a light broth. When one thinks of game birds paired with wintry roots it’s hard not to think of big ballsy flavours. This was way more refined than might otherwise be expected.

Rump of Elwy lamb with Heirloom tomatoes was similarly atypical in the sense that green, muddy, hearty Ireland had been supplanted by warm, fragrant, luminous Southern Europe . In this context the use of lamb makes utter sense; it is a ‘warm meat’ made alive by spice and sunnier climes. Here it was cooked medium rare, perhaps a tad under, and perhaps a bit, just a bit, tough. The tomatoes were as sweet in taste as in colour – vivid red to florid yellow – and the dish was rendered complete by the nut-like Ratte potato.
Dessert was a stand out by a mile orange and Grand Marnier soufflé elevated by its sharp clout of boozy citrus. A great soufflé is always a deeply indulgent moment d’intimité, kind of like receiving an out of the blue love letter, so a doff of the hat to the kitchen for that.

Wines: An O Rosal and a red Sancerre, both very decent and noteworthy alternatives for fans of Albariño and young-ish Burgundies.

At Corrigan’s you get a touch, just enough, of Mayfair grandeur but most importantly you get an unpretentious menu created for people who enjoy eating enjoyable food. It is telling that Richard Corrigan and his food seem to be universally liked by the critics. There exists genuine goodwill. Corrigan puts this down to the fact that he is doing the right sort of things for the right sort of reasons, purely and simply. I am very much inclined to agree.

Opinion: 8/10

Corrigan’s
28 Upper Grosvenor Street
London
W1K 7EH
Tel: (0)20 7499 9943
Website: http://www.corrigansmayfair.co.uk
Twitter: @CorrigansFood (Richard Corrigan)

Tommi’s Burger Joint, MEATliquor

there is room for 25 only. It is always full. There is a classically retro stool counter and bare-ish brick walls save for some Johnny Cash and Sopranos posters. Dylan was playing

The humble hamburger. Never has such apparently humdrum grub been the subject of so much discussion. The main reason is that 2012 was the year the hamburger arrived here in the UK. But it is a truly divisive thing. Everybody’s favourite equine-tainted meal perpetually teeters between authenticity and mockery. It is the great culinary uncertainty principle. Schrodinger’s Cow, you might say. On its own terms a burger can be seen as something authentic, real, honest. But is it really just artificial and ersatz?

The very earliest burgers were simply rough slabs of ground, salted beef flavoured with whatever spices were at hand, occasionally eaten raw, and probably about as appetising as their cheaply-made progenies stacked high in freezer cabinets the world over today.

The US Library of Congress ‘officially declares’, with great, Orwellian Ministry of Misinformation chutzpah that Louis Lassen of Louis’ Lunch, a small lunch shop in New Haven, Connecticut sold the first hamburger in 1900 by taking left-over meat, bashing it into shape and serving it between slices of toasted bread. It is a dish that is still served to this day (and one that would go down a storm in Shoreditch, no doubt).

In numerous moribund backwater towns the length and breadth of the USA there is the obligatory local ‘historian’ proclaiming said town as Birthplace of the Burger, along with some annual festival, probably with lots of dungarees and competitive eating. A particular example: so certain are residents of Seymour, Wisconsin of it being invented there in 1895 they have dubbed the place ‘Home of the Hamburger’. There is also an annual festival which includes a burger-eating contest. So not far wrong, then.

My personal favourite: the first burger was, according to an article entitled Welcome to Hamburger Heaven in Oklahoma Today magazine, “placed between Grandma Fanny’s yeasty buns” – you think I’m making this up? – and served on Grandpa Oscar’s (Oscar Bilby) farm in 1891, Tulsa Oklahoma. True to form, a parade of local writers and historians affirm with no shortage of Old Testament certainty that Tulsa is the “cradle of the hamburger”.

Horses for courses or a load of old pony? Nobody seems to have the foggiest whether any of the above is actually true or not. But it is heart-warming to think that maybe dear old Grandma Fanny’s yeasty buns played their own small part in bringing Ronald McDonald into the world. 

So just how does one go about critiquing a hamburger? Well there are so many tweeters and bloggers on the subject these days, so you tell me. Nuance and ostentation are obviously out. No cheffy bullshit either – it isn’t about the ego. Either it is good – it is proper – or it isn’t. Simply put, is it authentic? The words of Josh Ozersky the highly-regarded Time food writer, restaurant critic and founder of New York based food blog Grub spring to mind. “Burger purists have a historical mind…thinking about old-time, classic hamburgers. There’s a kind of poetic idealism to them”. To him, a potentially, perfectly authentic burger “deserves a kind of Shinto-like approach…purity of simple objects. It is a gastronomic end point.” 

That is stateside. Except us Brits have never really ‘done’ The Hamburger: Casey Jones (remember them?), Little Chef, motorway services – all unspeakably vile. It also suffers from an image problem. It is a vulgar thing. It is the default food of any larg gathering of hoi polloi where the cloying reek of The Burger Van is the only option available, and where more often than not it will be assembled from grey, faecal dollops of offal and pressure-hosed remnants of eyeball and bollock. And from a cow if you are lucky.

So it comes out of leftfield to those not privy to the London foodie blogosphere that the thing in London in 2012 was not in fact The Olympics but The Hamburger. And continues to be so to this day. Venues often started life as pop-ups and residencies but soon became permanent. 

The raw materials: high quality, aged, organic beef sourced directly from boutique farmers and suppliers. The process: no sharp practices or dubious ingredients, butcher to burger in an instant. As ethical as it gets for those who don’t bridle at the prospect of eating them. The experience: a desire to embrace the aesthetic of a kind of culinary cassette culture, reproducing as faithfully as possible that perfect burger. The venue: the burger restaurant – something the capital has never previously had. 

Icelandic in origin, Tommi’s Burger Joint (owned by restaurant and hotel entrepreneur Tomas Tómasson) arrived in London last summer with the opening of its first UK site in a Marylebone pop-up.

The brief was to be the ultimate lo-fi American-style burger joint. The indie-stylised minimalist ethic is immediately evident from the exterior of plain black paint – no additional adornments save for some brown paper bags stuck to the door with the opening times on them. Likewise the interior of recycled, vintage seating and a few more hand-scribbled signs, including the menu. I say menu, it is more a Hobson’s Choice (burgers and fries only). Everything is served in yet more brown paper bags from an open kitchen, you can pick up extra condiments (including pickles, which are free – a nice touch) if you wish, and if you want a drink (not free) you just grab it from the fridge. There is room for 25 only. It is always full. There is a classically retro stool counter and bare-ish brick walls save for some Johnny Cash and Sopranos posters. Dylan was playing.

Tomasson claims to have eaten one of his burgers every day for the past eight years, a claim the staff here at London’s outpost – impossibly thin, elfin, gorgeous and skinny-jeaned: kind of like a Scandinavian master race – could not possibly make. In fact, I bet they are all vegetarian.

nobody wants vegetarians in whiffing the place up, do they?

The meat is organic, outdoor-reared and sourced wholly from London’s HG Walter, and ground from bespoke cuts of fat-on ribeye, rump and fillet steak. Cooked at a default medium-rare and squidged between a glazed brioche bun, Tommi’s was fatty, salty and unusually highly flavoured. It should not, cannot, be any other way. A good amount of fat is vital for texture and flavour and for ensuring the meat remains moist and ‘juicy’. And salt, lots of it, is required and nothing else. High quality meat did the rest. As basic as the surroundings but delicious.

The fries were unremarkable, no more than average. Does this matter though? I am of two minds. They are after all a means to an end. And here at Tommi’s, a decidedly no-frills one – in the fryer, out again, there you go. Drink? Well Coca-Cola, obviously.

MEATliquor is an altogether different beast. Also in Marylebone, it is hidden away down a back street with no immediately visible signage, or any indication whatsoever that within the neo-brutalist concrete exterior there is an institution that offers sustenance.

MEATliquor is the brainchild of Yiannis Papoutsis – purveyor of London town’s finest burgers, according to 2012’s Twitter devotees. Now regarded as something of a kingpin and maven in the Dirty Food scene, business started in 2009 with the launch of the Meatwagon. Yes, a burger van. But next came #MEATEASY, a pop-up above a pub in New Cross.

And now MEATliquor. It boils down to one question only. How much time do you want to devote to eating a Hamburger? What is it really worth? Eating here will usually involve standing in the type of queue usually only seen for the loos when Keith steps up to the mic at a ‘Stones gig – no fun in January, or indeed any other time. No bookings, no phone calls, no mercy. In truth I suspect the enforced queuing is nothing more than a gimmick. MEATliquor’s way of creating a bit of buzz.

Arriving at 11.55 am for midday opening there was a tailback already. So how to describe the interior? Variously: a gloomy New Orleans brothel; a Gonzoid swamp blues speakeasy; a Deep South meth den; a Bogota police station hosting a student party; a seedy, industrial 80’s Berlin nightspot; the cenobite’s lair from Hellraiser doused in shock graffiti. Everything in fact, except a west end burger and cocktail restaurant.

As at Tommi’s, no cutlery, no plates – they’re for squares, right? – just some supermarket kitchen roll. The menu is Dirty South meets New York City and is divided into ‘birds’, ‘bulls’ and ‘rabbit food’ but don’t worry though, anything that remotely looks as if it was grown in the ground is slathered in a batter exoskeleton. The menu favourite is the the chilli bacon cheeseburger. There is even a Phili Cheesteak – the doner kebab of Brotherly Love.

I had a house speciality of two burgers, ‘secret-recipe’ sauce, cheese, lettuce, pickle and minced onion known ominously as the Dead Hippy (Nobody wants vegetarians in whiffing the place up, do they?). Remind you of anything? Yep, the ‘Hippie is a pimped-up Big Mac – the ultimate, though somewhat dubious, hamburger homage. The meat was cuts of 35 day aged steak, ground, slightly bloody. The result was a sloppy mess but beejebers it was wonderful. Basically what a Big Mac ought to taste like. The meat didn’t have the depth of flavour it did at Tommi’s but the overall experience was superior. 

This was ordered with onion rings. These were monstrous things indeed – worryingly large, ‘American’ large. And as batter goes, everything you could wish for with tangy darts of both salt and sweet, no rancid oil taste, and as downright dirty as you would dare go without needing a doctor’s note. An additional side of deep fried pickles (yet more batter) and dip was a great Deep South twist.

Drink had to be the New Cross Negroni made with craft-distilled gin. Yes, yes, very über-trendy. Bit small though.

Both Tommi’s and MEATLiquor certainly pack the punters in at lunch and throughout the evening. The point of it all must solely be the quality of the food. Both Tommi’s and MEATLiquor deliver insofar as the brief is met – a hamburger comme il faut, a decent stab at gourmet junk food and an equally decent stab at authentic expression. They do the job and are as good as they need to be. Perhaps a little too knowingly arch for some tastes. Plus on the bright side you are not likely to overdose on phenylbutazone or ketamine either.

Opinions:

Tommi’s Burger Joint 7/10

MEATLiquor 7/10

Tommi’s Burger Joint

57 Marylebone Lane

London

W1U 2NX

Website: http://www.burgerjoint.co.uk

Twitter: @BurgerJointUk

MEATLiquor

74 Welbeck Street

W1G 0BA

Website: www.meatliquor.com

Twitter: @MEATliquor

Maze

serious question, why would anybody pair chicken with orange? Or liver with orange? Why?

Mars Bars, New Years Eve, popular mainstream TV sit-coms, politics, political leaders, Ricky Gervais, genuine fast bowling, smoking, Margate, journalism, The Times, McDonalds milkshakes, the economy, banks, the Top 40, Glastonbury, A-Level exams, cartoons, funding of the arts, drummers, hip hop, snooker, wars, polio, Quality Street.

Clearly, the above is a list of Things That Aren’t As Good As They Once Were. It is by no means a scientific snapshot – it is purposefully flippant and light in tone – but it is pretty hard, I think, to refute the position of any of the above items on the list. At one time or other, the quality of any one of them could justifiably be described as ranging from Very Good to Excellent. And now – well none of them are quite the same, are they? There are degrees of course: some have gone completely down the pan; others, more just a nagging, gnawing awareness of the fact that a certain élan has faded, some characteristic otherness has been lost.

Take smoking as a particularly facetious example. Throughout the decades, cigarettes have variously epitomised ethereal silver screen allure. Light up, and one transforms into Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman. James Bond, even. Smoking came to characterise completely Left Bank café culture: try and picture Hemmingway, Joyce, Camus or Sartre not wreathed in Gitane smoke at Les Deux Magots.

Smoking was proletariat solidarity. It was intellectualism and the avant garde. It was being a member of the band. The de facto description of the coolest jazz club in town was always ‘smoke-filled’. Non-smokers were always prissy, fussy, uptight and un-sexy. Yet fast forward to now and anyone who still smokes is a social misfit and a pariah of the underclass who carries with them everywhere a carcinogenic miasma of poverty, hopelessness, boredom, dole queues, stupidity and UKIP. Were a bar to be described as ‘smoke-filled’ these days it would sound about as alluring a prospect as an abscess. You don’t suppose it will be long before the last remaining smokers are bricked up in their bedsits for good and left to die the death they deserve.

So there you go: fags – once great, now rubbish.

And variously, political leaders: our game show host-alike deputy admits to wearing a onesie. Snooker: well it’s hardly the Davis-Taylor Final these days, is it? Ricky Gervais: sorry mate, what happened? Quality Street: why are over half of them either the strawberry one or the orange one?

Another thing that might now find itself on such a list is Maze. It really Isn’t As Good As It Once Was…

Maze is in the Grosvenor Square Marriott Hotel and forms part of the stateside television celebrity/occasional chef Gordon Ramsay stable. It was also the home of the very highly-acclaimed Jason Atherton, who, until 2010 was the executive head chef. There are probably few restaurants in London that boast such a grand location here at Mayfair’s periphery. Just minutes away from Oxford Street, the dining room overlooks the mock-Georgian Square’s gardens, that elegant, surprisingly austere and scrupulously maintained 49th parallel across which the American and Canadian Embassies face off.

My first outing to Maze was for dinner some while ago. I went with Charlie for my 30th  and everything, all of it, was a sublime sequence of elegantly assembled Belles-Lettres. The best thing? Just the sheer irreverence and humour on display in such dishes as deconstructed ‘BLT’ and ‘Peanut Butter and Jam Sandwich’, both now Athertonian trademarks.

Soon after Ramsay’s newest venture opened its doors in 2005 Atherton found himself le nom célèbre du jour; his carte at Maze the hottest ticket in town. He has an internship at Spain’s holy of holies El Bulli to his name, where, as you know, instead of a menu they had a surrealist manifesto. In place of courses, a series of hypnagogic non sequiturs. The toilsome drudge of mere eating was elevated to a Dali-esque realm where mechanics, states, flavours and forms were stretched beyond reason. El Bulli marked a kind of gastronomic endpoint. Where does one go from there?

Maze quickly became the most popular of Ramsay’s venues as Atherton’s training appeared distinctly unRamsay-like in every conceivable way. Ok so he wouldn’t be blindsiding diners with edible punctuation and nor would their menu choices be performed on Moog synthesizer to them. What he did bring with him was technical nous and creativity.

The food is ostensibly modern European with pan-Asian influences. “Uh-oh, it’s a passé fusion joint”. Luckily though, it is (was?) nothing of the sort. You choose several courses, between five and eight, that come in roughly tapas-sized dimensions. The idea being that you create your own tasting menu. While there may not be the traditional demarcation between starter-main-dessert, and all dishes are the same size, the menu is fashioned so that you start with lighter plates, progress through more robust fare and finally have as few or as many puddings as you can fit in.

…But the main conceit of this review remains: Maze is Not As Good As It Once Was. There is the palpable sense that something has gone awry. A recent lunch only served to confirm this.

Some rather fundamental questions arose relating to a pressed chicken terrine and parfait with orange and hazelnuts. Why would anybody pair chicken with orange? Or liver with orange? Why? Fridge-cold liver parfait was sandwiched between slices of pressed terrine – which to be fair was good and probably should have arrived on its own – then accompanied by a tangerine segment cut into a single wafer thin slice. No really, why? Experimentation is one thing, but I fear putting liver with orange is a clear violation of the Nuremberg Code.

A pork dumpling, daikon and wild mushroom broth was a far more harmonious affair, a love affair to be precise. Pork slow-cooked in just enough anise, five spice and ginger and reduced to inky stickiness got seriously good once the dumpling slowly melted into the delicate yet muscular broth.

Blade of beef, pomme purée and shimeji mushroom which, though perfectly fine, simply served to emphasize again the mis-match between what was on the plate. The braised beef, neatly and impressively fashioned into a perfect square was meltingly soft and the pomme purée quite wonderful. Shimeji are teeny-tiny Japanese micro-mushrooms, and oh-so delicate – the pixies of the fungus world. And so they found themselves not just drowning but utterly engulfed under a burly, brawny beef and potato tidal wave. The faintest barely-there dusting of piquant Japanese togarashi spice proved equally as futile.

Similar thing with pudding of apple terrine with rhubarb and custard ice cream. The terrine was like baby food; all saccharine, gummy, stewed apples. The ice cream was utterly fabbo in a zingy, summery afternoon sort of way.

But I did enjoy a very respectable indeed New Zealand chardonnay. An area where Maze has always scored well is its excellent selection of New World and by-the-glass wines. Here, you know that should you opt for a Californian Pinot Noir (I have, it was one of the best wines I’ve ever drunk – 30th birthday, see above) or a Chilean Riesling you be well catered for.

So the killer question. And pretty much in the same way you would ponder to yourself after stumbling upon an old lover you haven’t seen for years and who has aged really, really badly: “What on earth has happened?”

The point we are labouring over is that Maze is not as good since Atherton’s departure. It is less interesting, lacking that spark of true inventiveness. The kitchen is simply not as good or as experienced. And less fun. Therein is the nub. Maze needs to be a fun place to eat, it needs to rediscover that something that makes you exclaim “oh wow, look what they have done here!” when your food arrives, and not “oh my god, what the hell have they done here?”

The tasting menu idea still feels unique, so kudos for that. Here’s hoping that Maze doesn’t end up as a directionless, noughties Ramsay nostalgia act – ‘that passé fusion joint’ – at a time when the capital’s restaurant scene is as exciting, original and fast-moving as it has ever been.

Opinion: 6/10

Maze

10-13 Grosvenor Square

London

W1K 6JP

Tel: 0207 107 0000

Website: maze@gordonramsay.com

Cibo!

one occasion you will have just about the most dreamily perfect forest mushroom ravioli, the next you will be served calamari that resemble knicker elastic

Name some things that Oxford lacks and you might, for instance, come up with a decent shopping centre that isn’t a ghastly and outdated monument to post-war town planning. Have you been to the Westgate Centre and its environs of late? It is genuinely difficult to think of a more unattractive place, both inside and out. It is full of people aimlessly shuffling from Poundland to Shoe Zone just because that’s all there is to do on a Saturday. Or any other day for that matter.

You might just as well suggest a town centre road system that isn’t a chaotic mess. Does anybody actually understand the reasoning behind the road layout at Frideswide Square by the railway station? Who does it actually benefit? Certainly neither road user nor pedestrian.

In fact, that vast swathe of Oxford city centre bookended by Park End Street at the railway station over to the west and Thames Street where it joins St. Aldates towards the south is singularly dismal: nothing but a metropolitan wasteland, at once empty yet full. Full of concrete and car parks, ring roads and blocks of flats; empty of promises. Everything is fifty shades of grey. Although these particular hues would be more akin to a quick feel up by the bins round the back of Netto.

And what of Queen Street? The main pedestrian thoroughfare is also found oddly wanting. Apart from a few mobile phone shops and, curiously, two branches of Prêt about 150 yards from each other, I doubt it has changed much since the 1970’s. This is in fact an accusation that can be levelled at all of central Oxford thanks to one man. The place has remained in a state of cryogenic stagnation since 1972 to be exact; this, the date when Douglas Murray’s Westgate Centre opened its doors to the world. All you ever seem to see from the city’s south western urban wilderness is the arse end of the Westgate. You, like me, no doubt consider this man to be singlehandedly responsible for ruining an entire town. And you, like me, should never forgive him for it.

I suppose all this makes Oxford sound about as welcoming as nearby Aylesbury or Swindon. And it would be were it not for several world class museums and that famous thing that has been there since 1096.

Universitas Oxoniensis. Ever since Henry II threw a strop and banned the newest intake of freshers from going on the lash to Paris (or something), and a bunch of students received a sound thrashing from some knuckle draggers down the pub then promptly ran off to open their own university up in the Fenlands (or whatever), the city has not really been ‘just a city’. Yes it still manages to have all the crappy municipal bits as well, like random violence and branches of Costa, but Oxford proper – the real, genuine, bona fide Oxford is its university campi. Most university cities are the other way around. Oxford is its university. Gown totally rules. Luckily, Murray didn’t get round to messing up the likes of the Radcliffe Camera or Tom Quad, or erecting a multi-storey in the gardens at Trinity.

Civic issues aside, another thing that Oxford lacks is a truly first-rate Italian restaurant. You know what I mean: that splendid, cosy, friendly, little neighbourhood joint that is intimate, has been there for aeons, has checked table cloths, does steaming bowls of pasta and a bloody lovely house red, while the moustachioed Maître D. who looks like Go Compare Man hovers with a giant pepper grinder.

Cibo! is in the more salubrious, leafier Summertown end of the city and might be a contender for the title of first-rate neighbourhood Italian. Might be…

You walk in and the interior is bright and spacious: contemporary with clean, straight lines. No cosy nooks and dim lights (or moustachioed Maître D, thank god). The neighbourhood aspect of Cibo! Is its main selling point. Open around the clock, you can drop by for coffee from 10am while food is served from 12 ‘til late. Local and passing trade is therefore always brisk. Booking therefore essential at weekends. The menu is home to the habitual staples of British-Italian high street gastronomy: a selection of appetisers, pastas and pizzas, along with seafood and grill dishes.

Right off the bat some calamari is too much like knicker elastic with a vaguely piscine aftertaste. Luckily their freshly made pasta is much better. A wild mushroom ravioli is a dream: impressively well made with a full-on deep and meaty sauce. The linguine vongole, that timeless staple of trattorias and Italian mummy’s boys the world over is another classic that is done admirably here, its pasta maintaining a pleasing al dente bite.

Main courses are so-so. Tagliata steak was decent, saltimbocca alla Romana was not, and not at all like the real thing, the classic version of the dish made from veal wrapped in Parma Ham, sage, then cooked in butter and Marsala wine. A decree passed down from the Roman gods of gastronomy maintains a Saltimbocca can only be a Saltimbocca if it contains both sage and prosciutto. This failed on both counts. Three in fact as it was made from pork. It was a dismal effort: its meat was little more than some bedraggled streaks of emaciated bacon, or perhaps the ears of a starved dog. Still, at least the Marsala sauce was good.

A blackboard special of seared tuna and rosemary potatoes arrived with half of it not actually on the plate. Between kitchen and table, either the chef or waiter mislaid the potatoes. When asked, the waiter breezily brushed the matter aside with a wave of the hands and offered bread instead. Business picked up with puddings. Homemade gelato nocciola (hazelnut ice cream) was delightful as was their affogato. Like so many of life’s foremost pleasures, this Italian classic is effortlessly simple. And you cannot get much more Italian than that.

Cibo! makes for a decent local Italian. It is as much café as it is restaurant and is there for student pizzas or Barollo-soaked blow out lunches. It can also be maddeningly inconsistent. Eh, that is a bit harsh. It is a local place and it is fine. Vivi e lascia vivere and all that. So Oxford remains on the lookout for that truly first-rate neighbourhood Italian then. Cibo! is probably the nearest thing to it.

Opinion: 7/10

Cibo!

4 South Parade

Oxford

OX2 7JL

Tel: 01865 292321

Website: http://www.ilovecibo.co.uk

Dinner

the very essence of cucumber distilled and multiplied thousandfold. Cucumber in excelsis

To say that people’s expectations of Dinner were in the stratosphere is something of an understatement.

Heston Blumenthal is one of the finest and most adroit British chefs to have donned whites in the past twenty plus years. His other establishment of international renown, the Fat Duck in the Berkshire village of Bray, is one of only four restaurants in the country to hold three Michelin Stars. As a chef, Blumenthal is spoken of in the same hushed tones as Arzak, Ferra and Gagnaire. And here he now is: in London, at the Mandarin Oriental, Knightsbridge, with a brand spanking new restaurant, the robustly British-sounding Dinner. Waiting time for a table is already beyond the hope and aspirations of most mere mortals and there is the not altogether trifling matter of it already being ranked 9th best in the world by Restaurant Magazine. So not too much hype then?

We are all, of course, accustomed to hype nowadays. It is simply consumption’s companion. And we are all, of course, taken in by it so there is no shame in it really. Ok maybe that is not strictly true. Feel free to embrace a warm frisson of smugness by pointing and laughing at anybody you know who has ever been panicked by bird flu, camped out overnight for a new smartphone, purchased anything in HD DVD or decided that Tony Blair was the answer to their prayers once upon a time. Oh, so that’s everybody then.

Perhaps that is all rather cynical. Expectation is harmless enough. It is fun. It creates a sense of buzz. And there is no better feeling than a fevered sense of anticipation. It actually felt like a genuinely momentous occasion when Dinner opened; really and truly, it felt big. And right on cue, hype exploded into hyperbole the very moment the doors opened to the expectant media circus hammering away outside.

“Is Dinner already the best restaurant in the world?” wondered one critic, days – days!– after opening. Dish after dish was bestowed with the most ludicrous of histrionics: “Astonishing!” “The greatest show on Earth!” “I had an orgasm that lasted for half an hour!” Ok, ok, I admit, I made that first one up.

So just what has been going on at Dinner to have caused such frothing at the mouth and elsewhere? Has Blumenthal been spiking the Perrier with LSD before serving his already rather trippy absinth and dildo jelly? (That is an actual thing by the way – Google it). Tell you what, he would have had much more luck serving that to bemused Little Chef diners rather than thyroid gland hotpot.

Memory and reminisce is the whole rasion d’être of Dinner. If not to create a favourite meal but to remind you of one. Now though, the emphasis is on the collective rather than the personal.

Blumenthal has worked alongside food historian Ivan Day developing the restaurant’s menu which was inspired by actual, documented British recipes from various points in history. The idea is a riff on the meaning of, and the ingredients that would combine to make ‘dinner’ in times bygone. On the menu each dish is dated along with a brief description of its background. The most primordial delicacy can be traced back, it is claimed, to the year 1390 and the country’s first ever written compilation of recipes, The Forme of Cury. No, the surprise under the cloche isn’t Black Death but a dish entitled Rice And Flesh. Another, Meat Fruit, dates back to Henry VII and is really just a playful send-up of Late Middle Age feasting: a perfectly formed mandarin complete with aromatic, dimpled skin masquerades as a chicken liver parfait (or is it the other way round?). More instantly recognisable would be the prime rib of Hereford Beef (c 1830), tantalisingly cooked over 72 hours.

Now obviously there is poetic licence. The food is modern restaurant recreation of historic British cooking – albeit immaculately choreographed. Anybody expecting a history lesson is missing the point. And there are no molecular shenanigans either. The menu is straightforward and simply offers three courses.

As is currently the trend, the kitchen is open-plan to the dining room so all diners have the best seat in the house when it comes to viewing head chef Ashley Palmer-Watts and his team put their meal together. It’s not the best or most atmospheric room, hotel dining rooms never are. To be honest you could be walking into the breakfast buffet of any smart-ish hotel.

So what of the food? Poached Lobster & Cucumber Soup (c 1730) was a thing of beauty. The lobster was sweetness itself along with an uncommonly good herb salad: zingy, light, bright and fresher than a lemon enema. The true revelation though was the cucumber soup poured around it; the very essence of cucumber distilled and multiplied thousandfold. Cucumber in excelsis. And the colour: a wonderfully lurid green.

The much hyped Rice & Flesh was a saffron risotto studded with strands of calf tail and red wine. It was another visually striking dish – vivid yellow this time. A very al dente risotto of pure saffron sounds so wonderfully decadent a dish and so it proved with haunting eddies of the smoky, iodine spice insistent thoughout. The Meat Fruit was, as was hoped for, an exemplary liver parfait.

That the main courses could not quite match the starters was frustrating. Shame, I was just starting to buy into the hype(rbole).

Pigeon with Ale and Artichokes (c 1780), and the Chicken and Lettuces with Spiced Celeriac Sauce (c 1670) were ordered. The pigeon, cooked rare, was ferrous and livery and came with a sauce every bit its equal. Again, that clearness, that intensity of flavour just sings. Everything up to now being economical and precise but with the volume and contrast turned right, right up. So Heston.

The chicken? Not so much. Well, it was a chicken breast. The lettuce? Well you all know what lettuce is I presume. Sometimes it is never quite possible to glean from a menu just what exactly might arrive from the kitchen. Chicken and lettuce might be some innovatively deconstructed variation on a theme… or, it might be a chicken dressed with a wisp or two of lettuce. Apologies for labouring the point but it all seemed rather inadequate compared to what had come before.

Tipsy Cake was a sumptuous treat bordering on the erotic. A shamefully creamy brioche cake infused with headily fragrant Sauternes, baked with love and bad intentions and partnered by a wedge of tart spit-roast pineapple. Incredible. ‘Quaking Pudding’ (c 1660) would not, could not, be anywhere near as good. It wasn’t, but was still great fun. It was a marvellously old-fashioned blancmange pudding tasting of poached pears, caramel and spices that evoke Christmas.

There was of course the famous liquid nitrogen ice cream trolley, kind of like a cross between a Dalek and a Mr Whippy machine, though we didn’t sample its wares.

There were quibbles: service was enthusiastic but seriously clunky at times: you are always looking around trying to attract attention if you wanted anything while staff seemed to have been trained at the Stand In Groups Until Told To Do Something School of Waitering. And why isn’t there a tasting menu?! If ever a restaurant is screaming out for one, it is this one.

The history and dates schtick is really just window dressing for dishes that are mostly expertly put together,  even if they are a bit gimmicky for some. I didn’t think so. It is fun. It is a send up. And Blumenthal knows what he is doing. Does it live up the hype? Of course not. But neither does hyperbole ever descend into bathos.

So often too these days flavours can be muddied and imprecise. Things are lost in transmission when too much is happening on the plate. No such qualms here. Plus you really, genuinely  do want to try everything on the menu. Dinner is an eminently approachable restaurant where food cooked to exemplary standards manages to be innovative and historical, new and familiar all at once. It will endure, certainly… with just a bit of fine-tuning.

Opinion: 8/10

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal

Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park
66 Knightsbridge
London SW1X 7LA
Tel: 020 7201 3833
Website: www.dinnerbyheston.com

Sir Charles Napier

a genuinely bright light among the morass of dreary, charmless proto-rural ‘gastro’ pubs that pepper the English countryside

Relationships. All very different. And by which I also mean how a relationship might vary with the gradual passing of time: waxing and waning as we evolve. Indeed, think of somebody you may have known for some time – an old friend perhaps – and how that particular relationship has made the journey alongside you; sometimes triumphant and world-beating, other times thorny or just outright soul sapping.

Whatever their type, relationships can be short-sweet-ta-very-much-see-you-around or they can be enduring. You might unexpectedly stumble upon the lust of your life and instantly embark upon an all-consuming affair with much passion and fireworks, or you could be one of those pitiful souls who, ignorant of any better way, falters from one futile association to the next, doomed to make the same mistakes ad infinitum. Your relationships may be warm, secure, comfortable, or they might just combust spectacularly at any second. It might even be an entirely different sort of connection altogether. For example, it could be one of respect and reverence or of light-hearted fun. It could just as easily be one of cool detachment.

You are of course aware by now that what I am actually talking about is restaurants. Or at the very least the places we choose to dine out at, and our own relationships with these places in whatever form that happens to take.

Immediate first impressions might lead you to decide “no way mate, I wouldn’t touch it with yours” and that would be the end of that. Things likely to bring on this kind of resolve usually include but are by no means limited to: those places that have pushy waiters/salesmen posted outside (rest assured that quality levels encountered inside will be exactly inversely proportionate to levels of affability/intimidation encountered outside); places where menus contain any kind of description whatsoever (a rich and rustic doberman drizzled in tangy farmhouse battery acid) or anyplace where waiting staff are obliged to explain what the ‘concept’ is (the concept is we choose, we eat, we pay). Oh, and Garfunkels. And Jamie’s Italian. I always maintain that anybody who chooses to eat in these places of their own volition deserves everything they get.

My own relationship with the Sir Charles Napier has always been a happy and good-natured one. Initially, it was lust at first sight. Although nowadays the ‘Napier’ is like an old friend, one that has (thus far) remained loyal, cheers you up when needed and whose company you always seek for a decent evening out. Maybe not always the most exhilarating of friends but one that never takes themselves too seriously either and rarely lets you down. And that right there is probably the finest attribute in any association you might make, be it platonic, epicurean, or with barnyard animals if that’s what it takes. That and a somewhat off-beat sense of humour.

Situated in the charmingly bucolic-sounding Spriggs Alley, The Sir Charles Napier is hidden away in deepest, leafiest Oxfordshire high up in The Chilterns. Proprietor Julie Griffiths has run the place now for well over 30 years. During this time it has doggedly built up a well-justified reputation for culinary brilliance; a genuinely bright light among the morass of dreary, charmless proto-rural ‘gastro’ pubs that pepper the English countryside. From reinvigorating pub food through the early to mid 90’s during the gastropub boom years to earning a Michelin star in 2011, the Napier remains a destination venue. Only do not make the mistake of calling it a pub (it is a restaurant, clearly). You might very well find yourself on the business end of Julie’s rather sharp tongue which itself has a reputation of its own to maintain. Consider yourself warned…

You arrive in the beamed bar area which itself is more snug and welcoming than many pubs. Deep, comfy sofas – and in the winter months the warm, smoky haze of a log fire – welcome guests. Reclining here is a pleasure and something I could happily do all evening long, perhaps nursing an Islay Malt to the sound and smell of softly crackling embers.

The dining room is in the rear of the building. Ceilings are low with tables arranged in an informal hotch-potch. A sense of eccentricity prevails. Furniture is mismatched while a range of equally eccentric sculptures can be found either as table centre pieces or lurking in corners. Be sure to keep an eye out. It is definitely a dining room with a sense of humour.

Foie gras, corn bread and cherry jelly got everything off to a rip-roaring start. The fried lobe of foie was plump and devilishly, shamefully unctuous as oozy bubbles of cherry provided an inspired counterpoint.

Rose veal, polenta, morels and baby summer aparagus was certainly evidence of more polished, refined cooking. It was wonderful: everything, from the veal, youthfully soft, sliced thin and rare through to the warmly savoury morels through to the earthy green-ness of the asparagus. Confit duck with five-spice, carrot and yuzu just worked. Elsewhere, a surprisingly bold squab pigeon with imam biyaldi and lentils came with an exceptional pithivier of its liver that was all bold, musky offal. A generous hunk of pearlescent turbot came with samphire, sea greens and a cockle risotto.

For dessert, an imaginative assortment of ice creams and sorbets: sticky toffee pudding ice cream contained gooey chunks of actual toffee pudding and was a riot, while a Limoncello sorbet was so sweet – too sweet in fact – it pulled your gums back over your teeth. It was rather like overdosing on blue Smarties but with an additional kick of booze. But best of all was a perfectly baked, languorously melting blackberry and apple soufflé.

Service is unobtrusive and well-drilled and matches the food for quality. There is also a dedicated and well-informed sommelier to match a good, across-the-board wine list. Julie Griffiths clearly runs a tight ship.

Absolutely bagfuls of character and such good fun. But always steady. More than steady. This is one relationship that is certain to endure. Top notch, first rate food and the best restaurant for miles around. Oh, and if the fact that the Sir Charles Napier is Raymond Blanc’s favourite local restaurant doesn’t inspire you to pay a visit then nothing will.

Opinion: 9 / 10.

Sir Charles Napier

Sprigg’s Alley
Chinnor
Oxon OX39 4BX
Tel: 01494 483011
Fax: 01494 485311
Email: info@sircharlesnapier.co.uk