The Hand and Flowers

what manner of benighted arcanery takes a perfectly innocent black pudding and liquifies it into sludge?

A favourite restaurant of mine was awarded a Michelin star not so long ago. For me, and I suspect for many, this is an irrelevance. Although not quite. For once an establishment becomes a member of the club, as it were, then both it and its clientele change. Michelin puts you on the gastronomic map – a view reaffirmed by Spanish food critic Julia Pérez Lozano. Within the industry Michelin-awarded chefs becomes Names. They gain renown and prestige and often, regrettably, their own TV show. Their restaurant becomes a destination. These are all things that naturally appeal to the competitive nature of practically any professional chef – how could they not?

With this implied improvement in quality of dining experience usually (but not always) come the attendant upsurges in price, public expectation and pretension. Michelin-starred restaurants begin to look and taste exactly the same, according to Adrian Gill: oleaginous service; verbose menus; ridiculous pomp; food complicated beyond appetite and all at ridiculous expense. And in certain kitchens and for certain chefs Michelin becomes the ultimate godhead: better to cook for the Stars than for dumb punters who know nothing. If this is the case then something, surely, has been lost rather than gained in such restaurants.

It is this nebulous concept of what Michelin is – michelinese – that causes consternation. Nobody is able to pin down with any certainty what ‘Having a Michelin Star’ actually means. What exactly is Michelin-starred food? You probably have a sort of idea: something Masterchef-y maybe, perhaps eaten somewhere a bit “posh” or “stuffy” (“not for the likes of me” in other words). Michelin’s definition does not exactly help: “a very good restaurant in its class”. Great, thanks.

Most of all Michelin stars are not very… well they’re not very ‘British’, are they? Food is eaten in our self-image so Brits would probably all prefer it to be no-nonsense, apologetic and free of any gratuitous pleasure. And in many places up and down the country it most certainly is. You see, it just doesn’t do to luxuriantly indulge in and effuse over the contents of one’s dinner plate. Eating as carnal and sensual pleasure? That’s what the French do isn’t it?

So posh, stuffy and French: and you would almost certainly be right. According to the 2012 guide there were 594 restaurants in France with varying amounts of Michelin stars. Italy had 295. It is plainly bonkers for anyone to suggest that the food of Italy is only half as good as, or even half as worthy of recognition as that of its neighbour. Not only is Michelin accused of consistent and blatant bias in favour of French-style gastronomy it has had to fend off more allegations of corruption than a Metropolitan Police chief constable. To some the organisation is little more than an echo chamber narrowly represented by a coterie of untouchable chefs whose position is sacrosanct and who consistently retain their Two and Three Stars come what may: a veritable Cosa Nostra of antiquated French establishment wax work figures. And here in the UK too, the self-celebrating, ego-driven reality TV boys’ club of ‘slebrity [sic] cheffery is a not too distant memory when it comes to the world of Michelin-level dining.

It is perhaps not surprising that the Michelin Guide comes under fire from the critics. Not just the characteristically intractable Gill (“in both London and New York the guide appears to be wholly out of touch with the way people eat nowadays”) and Lozano but the equally renowned (and French) Gilles Pudlowski who claimed only last year that Michelin had “lost the plot”. But chefs? Frederick Dhooge of ‘t Huis van Lede in Belgium recently handed back his star with the calm self-possession of a man who truly knows his own and his restaurant’s worth, a chef who wanted the freedom to cook simple, authentic Flemish dishes without any need for Michelin’s endorsement. He probably has the sympathy of every chef in Italy.

So wouldn’t it be good if the very best bits of British gastronomy were rewarded in this way? Somewhere unfussy; modern yet nostalgic though without being mawkish or twee; great and British, as opposed to The Great British.

Tom Kerridge’s fabled The Hand and Flowers might be that Eden diners and critics alike have been waiting for. A humble boozer, the only in the UK, to be awarded two Michelin Stars for its food. That is something unique and special right there: un table excellente qui mérite le detour, rubbing shoulders and swapping spit with the rarified likes of Le Gavroche or Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley, though with none of the attendant pomp and flummery.

How can this be? Has Michelin actually lost the plot this time? A pub? Does the cheese trolley have to navigate around the pool table and fag machine? Perhaps they do a meat raffle between courses? The most cursory glance at any of his TV programmes shows Kerridge is in fact the new Nigel Slater rather than just another boring, blokey, bloke’s bloke. He quite simply cooks exactly what you want to eat and appears to love doing so. Just imagine: pub grub with not one but two – two – Michelin stars. It would be Proper Lush – wouldn’t it?

Located in the well-heeled Buckinghamshire town of Marlow The Hand and Flowers does indeed look like any other pub as you draw near. Sadly, the whole thing is an exercise in how Michelin can get things so bafflingly, hubristically wrong. The Hand and Flowers comes with massive hype, massive prices, timed tables – for which it was necessary to book one 15 months in advance, and do not even think about making a reservation if you object to having a £100 deposit snatched from your purse. This was not how it was supposed to be. Plus ça change, mon brave, plus ça change

We arrive 40 minutes ahead of time in order to check in to our room and have drinks in the bar. Within this time they managed to put on a clinic in farce. Everything was of the Fawlty school of absurdity: miscommunication, misdirection and missing drinks. One person asked as if we would like to check-in – this did not happen. Another asked us if we wanted a drink – this did not happen either. We were given the bar menu and promptly forgotten about. There were only about four other people in the room. Both room-checker-in-er and drink-offerer repeatdely said over the course of the next fifteen minutes “someone will be along in a minute”. “In a minute” they kept saying. Why ‘in a minute’? We’re here; you’re here. I don’t understand. The air hung thick with impending Blithe Spirit style tragedy: mine, I suspected. I guess this is what it must feel like to be ignored to death.

After sitting there with our coats on and drink-less for twenty minutes we were eventually whisked off to our room. Bags dumped, back to the bar. “Hello there, will you be dining with us this evening? Can I take your names please?” No…what?…no, no we already… The person who had this instant taken us to our room was standing by during this humorous little exchange. “Oh ok then, would you like a drink? If you would just like to take a seat and someone will be over.” Ten more minutes of sitting. I was eventually able to catch the eye of a barman with flag semaphore and drinks were ordered.

Call time (still no drinks) and we were led into the crepuscular gloom of the dining room. It was pleasant enough, though one that Matthew Norman of the Telegraph described, accurately it must be said, as “generic Home Counties gastropub”. Another fifteen minutes passed and still nothing. Every atom of me so dearly, so profoundly – from gout-tormented toes to receding hairline – wanted to march back into the bar, fuming with as much bunch-backed indignation as I could muster, and scream “A gin and orange, a lemon squash and a scotch and water, PLEASE!!” Oh, if only.

Well dear reader; we got our gin and tonics, even if it did take an hour…

First up, an appetizer to share of floured and fried whitebait in a paper cone and a snappy, sweet-sharp Marie Rose sauce. A great touch. This came with a thick crusted and wonderfully spry homemade sourdough, about as good as you will find. And about as good as you are likely to encounter in this dining room too.

Potted artichoke with truffle and cured pork was full of promise. This was a dish that foretold of the fat, sybaritic pleasures of Gascon farmhouses. It was not to be. There was that pleasingly heady fug of truffle on both nostrils and palate, and the pork, a single slice of cured lardo draped indulgently over the top was high and sweet but none of this was enough. Quite literally. It was ridiculously tiny. The pork, once disturbed with the prod of a fork, shrivelled and rolled instantly to nothing like polythene and the whole thing was less than a mouthful. Potato ‘risotto’ (their quotation marks) with ‘baked potato stock’ (mine) was just odd. Neither of us had the foggiest what it was trying to be. It was a couple of spoonfuls of potato-y granule-y bits with a large wedge of cep mushroom squashed on top – very much like Monty Python’s Foot of Cupid in fact.

Then there was grouse, black pudding purée, cherry ketchup, game pie and frosted almonds. Though intrigued I admit I struggled to see how this Mystery Bag Challenge of ingredients would piece together. The struggle continued once the plate arrived, even with two of the things (game pie, almonds) missing altogether. (I concede, the forgotten game pie was brought out later). What arrived initially was hardly Babette’s Feast: two grouse breasts (which are tiny) and some slicks of brownish sauce for a penury inducing £35. Accompaniments of chips and kale had to be purchased separately. Why could it not have been, say, grouse with (actual) black pudding, kale and chips along with all the embellishments and swirls you might expect? What is wrong with that? And black pudding purée: what manner of benighted arcanery takes a perfectly innocent black pudding and liquefies it into sludge? It was thoroughly unpleasant and did nothing whatsoever to serve the dish. Neither did the game pie which was unidentifiable ground-up stuff and blisteringly over-powered with cumin and allspice of all things. The grouse was also raw. Quivering, purple and as raw as anything you might find on an autopsy table.

“It is grouse and it is a very dark meat,” said the floor manager, jaw set. “I know.” “It is served rare,” said with jaw set even more. “Yes, I know”. Then came the punch line: “It probably isn’t undercooked, it’s just that the lighting is very dim in here…” You’re telling me. “…and you probably can’t see properly”. Her jaw had now taken on a positively granite-like solidity. What another delightful piece of farce. There is neither espirit nor escalier in the world of sufficient magnitude to even begin to think up a retort and I do not think I ever shall. The offending plate was whisked back into the kitchen with the cold brutality of a child abduction. Moments later she brought the same plate back with a challenge-me-if-you-dare glare and instructed me that “chef is happy with it.” We Know Best Here was the not so subtle message. The rudeness on display was like a spiteful and unexpected kick to the shins, though really it was just more of what was played out in the bar earlier. It was pitch perfect passive aggression intermingled with unintentional comedy and so very provincially British. After what seemed like an age: “Well we could flash it quickly in the pan for you.” “If you would, yes.” “It wouldn’t be a problem,” a parting shot hissed as if I requested the building be moved slightly to the left.

this is what it must feel like to be ignored to death

Our other main of beer roasted chicken and maple glazed squash and truffle came with a blow-by-blow explanation of how the bird had been brined and then sponged down in a water bath (sous vide) yet oddly nothing whatsoever about any actual roasting. Now eating roast chicken is one of the most instantly and hotly satisfying things you can do with your mouth so you desperately want it to be done well. Here it tasted of spam, minus the flavour. It was weirdly, off-puttingly mushy, was barely warm and was like eating papier-mâché babies. There was no hot, fibrous meat you wanted to tear off and gnaw, no golden crispy skin. It was moist as a result of the sous vide but only in the same way a wet sponge is. “I can’t finish this, it’s really unpleasant. It doesn’t taste anything like roast chicken at all.” I had to agree. Again, odd.

“Well,” I reasoned, “perhaps the Michelin stars were awarded for the their puddings?” And I was almost right. Chocolate and ale cake with salted caramel and muscovado ice cream was a winsome, seductive thing. Especially the ice cream. It was all I could do not to “ooh” and “aah” through every mouthful the way Robin Askwith might if ogling a negligéed housewife through her bedroom window. That this was a thing of such finesse was so infuriating. Why couldn’t everything else have been this good?

I need not have worried. Just as no good turn goes unpunished, a pistachio cake and melon sorbet was unwaveringly average in its ambition. “Quite nice, I guess. Nothing special. The cake was nice and moist but none of it really goes together.” “Odd?” “Yes, incredibly odd.”

And that was that. No offer of after dinner drinks or coffees. Not even a nice little dish of homemade chocolate truffles or petits fours. I thought all Michelin starred chefs enjoyed flaunting themselves with these little flourishes and edible curlicues. For once I wanted the pomp and the flummery. Even my local Indian gives you a dish of cash’n’carry own brand After Eights. Nothing. Not even a suggestion of an offer of a post-prandial back in the bar, though to be honest this came as something of a relief.

It was just a massive let down in every way possible. Even the (very small) side order of Hand and Flowers Chips were feeble, greasy things. And the best thing about breakfast next morning was the Nespresso machine back in the room. More slow and haphazard service carried out through gritted teeth included a twenty minute wait for a single glass of orange juice and a curt “it will be along in a minute” when asked of its whereabouts. A Tom Kerridge bacon buttie could surely not go wrong. Even this turned out to be the meanest, stingiest bacon sandwich I have come across. Ever. No, really. The thinnest bacon rashers ever looked as though they had been individually counted out, fussily arranged and snipped into shape. This was bean-counter food, an accountant’s breakfast assembled by the Swiss Inland Revenue.

Everything was off. Nothing clicked. This was the only time – ever – that I have had to send food back. Service always felt like it was too much of an effort. It either wandered about lost and forgetful like an old man with Alzheimers or it was replete with tuts and sighs. The food was nothing that would tax a good ‘gastro’pub and even at times a pretty lousy one. There was no love, no largesse. Dishes did not work. There was no intent to provide pleasure or sense of occasion. None of the seduction and drama that high-level Michelin dining invariably tries to impart. Was this just a bad night or are there much bigger problems? The double star may be baffling, but worse than that nobody seemed to care.

The Hand and Flowers is an ass of a restaurant – Buridan’s Ass to be exact. It is neither pub food nor fine dining; neither one nor t’other and seems incapable of deciding which it should be. Thus it ends up doing neither, badly. It presents the Aristotelian dilemma of what something should be. It is Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. Yet here it is possible to be both. In any case we departed feeling utterly deflated. This was not Proper Lush.

Opinion: 2/10

Details:

The Hand and Flowers

126 West Street

Marlow, SL7 2BP

Tel: 01628 482277

Web: www.thehandandflowers.co.uk

Email: contact@thehandandflowers.co.uk

Twitter: @HandFMarlow

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Brasserie Harkema

you will forever feel as if you are eating dinner in a 60’s built university refectory, or a prison canteen – albeit a well lit one

I spent the summer of 2002 travelling around Europe. Spain mostly. My travelling companion at the time was, and remains, a good friend. He goes by the name of… actually, in order to spare any blushes and protect his anonymity, let us call him Rick.

The plan was to saunter down to Paris, put ourselves about a bit there, hack our way down to Spain on the sleeper, circumnavigate the Iberian Peninsula before returning north for a romp through the Netherlands like a pair of dashing, sixteenth century Habsburg Holy Roman Emperors, finally finishing up in Amsterdam.

Naturally, things started off with a booze-fuelled sprint across the Fifth Arrondissement at midnight in order to catch our connection at the Gare d’Austerlitz. I say ‘fuelled’, I meant ‘hindered’. Thanks to an evening long blend of Sorbonne Guinness, wine, Southern Comfort and cheap, student-grade weed, ‘dashing’ was more akin to being a passenger on frantically scissoring stilts over which I had no control. My vision span before me like the altimeter of a nose-diving plane but we made it – just; the train practically pulling out of the station. 

Waking up in the early hours with a hangover that felt like my ganglia had disintegrated into jelly, I did not reckon on discovering the journey had terminated not in Spain but Toulouse. Which was lucky in a way. Had Rick organised we probably would have found ourselves pulling up in Stavanger about now.

Previous forays into Europe had seen Rick variously drive a hire car off a cliff; be pursued from Greece all the way to Italy by a mob of Greek lads who, for reasons still unknown, were baying for his blood; wake up one morning to find himself in a garage lock-up belonging to a gun-owning Rastafarian and have a policeman climb into bed with him, naked, in a hostel in Bruges. Yet it is utterly beyond me how he manages to become ensnared in these often ludicrously comical, occasionally life-threatening situations. And if I happen to be with him then I end up as an accessory. As an example, we have both been banned indefinitely from the bar at Calais ferry terminal. Perhaps one day I shall find out why.

Yet you would meet him and wonder how any of the above could possibly be true. He is not some tiresome, thrill-seeking Party Boy and neither does he suffer from personality-altering psychotic episodes. He wears cords, is softly spoken and looks like a 1970’s sociology teacher. He would never dream of seeking out conflict or confrontation yet he just finds a way of attracting the kind of people and situations where it is all but inevitable. He is also the ultimate free spirit. You would call him up wondering if he wanted to go for a beer only to find out he was in Cambodia somewhere – probably by accident. On that occasion you do go for that beer together you end up on a stage in one of Soho’s most boisterous gay bars, as is what happened recently. Either that or you will wake up somewhere next morning only to find yourself trapped inside a Wicker Man.

So now, here we were; seemingly off on holiday by mistake and finding ourselves adrift somewhere in the south of France. Ok, so not exactly the Darién Gap, you’re probably thinking. But we received no satisfactory answer as to why the train would not be going any further. So instead we got onto a coach. The wrong coach as it turned out – very wrong indeed. It wasn’t even a coach. Or a bus. In fact it was just a bloke with a minibus and we clambered into it. And here we were now heading in completely the wrong direction up into The Pyrenees. So: in a van, with a man, going up into some mountains. You see? These are the sorts of things that happen when you are with Rick.

Somehow we made it to Barcelona. For me, it is exactly the kind of city that you could arrive at again and again. It was everything I wanted it to be at 23 years of age: warm, endlessly sunny, bright, vivid, colourful, bars everywhere. This was the first time too that I had ever sampled Churros con chocolate on the beach front. Or real Jamón Serrano costing a pittance in the Barri Gotic. Naturally enough we didn’t hang around. Tarragona a few miles down the coast was our next stop. It was here, knocking back seemingly endless tiny glasses of rough, local tinto overlooking equally as endless sea views we both wasted no time in concluding that we could do this for, well, eternity. Yet such halcyon interludes cannot last: they never do.

Valencia next, and like an Eastenders Christmas lunch, things unravelled in spectacular fashion. We somehow ended up out of town in the sort of neighbourhood where you would reasonably expect to have tyres thrown over you and set alight at any moment. The abridged version of events is that Rick had a breakdown during the night amid all the gunshots, knifings and gang warfare that was taking place both inside our hostel and out. He then proceeded to contract a baffling and rare tropical virus so thought it prudent to return home sharpish. Although not before he had the opportunity to flood a bathroom, bring an entire breakfast service to a standstill, get lost in somebody’s back garden and be chased by a territorial peacock along a busy dual carriageway.

I myself ambled and rambled contentedly around central and southern Spain narrowly avoiding general strikes, terrorist attacks and bankruptcy before we joined up together weeks later and set about the Netherlands with renewed vigour, yet falling just tantalisingly short of our goal of Amsterdam. We didn’t make it. It was no good, we were both spent: financially and every which way. Our plan of swimming across a lake to the parliament buildings in The Hague and clambering in through a back window sadly never came to fruition. It was time to go home.

But I did manage to get to Amsterdam even if it was a decade later. The place is brilliant quite simply because it is clean, safe and endlessly picturesque, and as an added bonus there are no cars. Clichés of Romford stag weekenders and gormless groups of ganja tourists do the city a great disservice, truth be told. Yes, Amsterdam is great fun but it is hardly the Sybaris of popular reckoning. Although that said, it does have a fantastically graphic museum dedicated to Inquisition-era torture. You really should go, well worth a visit. And if after a hard day poring over Judas Cradles and Breast Rippers you fancy getting pilled off your head in a transsexual fetish bar then you will be spoiled for choice on that front as well. But if that is not your cup of tea either there is a superb art gallery devoted entirely to cats.

What Amsterdam seems not to have is restaurants. Problem is, nobody really has a clue what the Dutch eat – even they themselves do not seem to know which is probably why every other place is Indonesian. Great fun when the menu is in Dutch. Most people would struggle to name something other than chips, waffles and Gouda. In fact most people would struggle, full stop. There is of course the worryingly anatomical-sounding bar snack Bitterballen that bring to mind capsules of emulsified animal slurry and boiled earwax, and there’s Erwtensoep, a thick, gelatinous pea soup also known colloquially as Snert which looks (and sounds) like the by-product of decongested nasal passages and tastes like a cure for Witchcraft.

And with that, we find ourselves in Brasserie Harkema. Brasserie Harkema is in the Nes area of central Amsterdam not far from Dam Square. Located in a converted flour mill the dining room itself is huge – seriously huge – and high-ceilinged. It is the kind of cavernous open space that can only ever really find its true calling in life as a part of some high capacity, high density institution so you will forever feel as if you are re eating dinner in a 60’s built university refectory, or a prison canteen – albeit a well lit one. To be honest, it is an effortlessly stylish and impressive room crying out to be something better and cooler than it is. When we arrived it was empty. The main reason for this was that everyone was squashed into a tiny waiting area off to the side. I had no idea why. I think we were supposed to stand around and have a drink but the sheer weight of seething humanity along with the prevailing atmosphere of mass panic put me on edge somewhat. It felt as if we were evacuating a burning ship rather than going out to dinner.

Brasserie Harkema professes to be Amsterdam’s answer to the “modern brasserie” although the menu is a time-worn mash up of Business Class Bland and Chillax International: all Pinot Grigio glamour and All Bar One lite. It is the tasteless, in both senses of the word, culinary lingua franca of Pan-Asian-Mediterranean – everywhere yet nowhere. You just knew that everything would taste of the background thrum and hiss of generic house music and Ikea showrooms.

An oriental chicken broth was good though: fresh and sharp but not enough ginger or chilli. Shrimp croquettes were flabby and amounted to very little under their Findus-y crisp carapace. Smoked beef carpaccio with Truffle Mayonnaise and Rocket had all the charm of a Dutch Uncle. Mains included rib-eye with béarnaise while the highlight was a tuna steak with yuzu, hoi sin and five spice – that was brilliantly and deftly seasoned. However duck breast in black bean sauce came with water-sodden bok choi and was nothing to shout about. Pudding choices comprised the customary, generic room service selection of Chocolate Brownie and Apple Pie with Ice Cream. Both were probably average, I just don’t recall.

I’m being harsh here but with very good reason. If Brasserie Harkema ever found itself in London it would be in somewhere like Hoxton or Dalston, would have a bang-on-trend menu, serve only micro-brewed beer, and the beard quota of its patrons would be upped considerably. No, I’m serious. In other words, a dynamic restaurant scene and discerning clientele would never allow it to exist in its current guise. Instead it would find itself languishing at Westfield Stratford or Gatwick’s south terminal. Look, everybody knows the Netherlands is no gastronomic nirvana, and the point is it hardly matters. What is infinitely worse than Snertballen, or whatever it is, is this sort of created-by-committee, dishes-by-numbers fare that you find in airport hotels the world over: food for people who don’t care about food and who care even less for travelling.

Opinion: 4/10

Brasserie Harkema
Nes 67
1012 KD Amsterdam
The Netherlands

Tel: +31 (0)20 428 22224
Website: http://www.brasserieharkema.nl
Email: reserveren@brasserieharkema.nl

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)

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

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