Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Chain Reaction

My gut reaction (quite literally) to chain restaurants is normally that they are a complete waste of precious time and calories, given the choice of independent restaurants available. However, sometimes in the interests of time, saving money or not being the tool in a large group moaning about going to somewhere average, I am prepared to frequent them. 

Despite all of that, you will see in my restaurant reviews I will occasionally refer to the Pizza Express Test (PET). Now, Pizza Express is the example of the perfect chain: you know exactly what you're going to get, it's going to hit the spot, and its not going to break the bank. And that's a standard that every restaurant should adhere to. So, the PET is simple: a restaurant fails if you feel that for value for money and general satisfaction, you'd have been better off hitting Pizza Express.

Anyway, I digress. We weren't intending to go to Pizza Express, we were intending to go to a delightful little pizza joint in Ealing called Santa Maria http://www.santamariapizzeria.com/

Unfortunately, they had run out of dough. I am not likely to be passing through Ealing again (not that we were on this occasion), any time soon, which seems a shame since it looks jolly good and has won plenty of awards.

Some in our party were prepared to drive to Chiswick to Franco Manca; for some, when they get a pizza-on, it just needs to be satisfied. However, they were overruled by the masses and we ended up in the nearby Côte.

It was a Sunday night and it was pretty empty. We were met by a grumpy waiter whose demeanour and down-the-nose expression made it clear he was the genuine French article. Our request to sit by the window was met with a sigh and remonstration that he would need to check whether this particular table (which had not been laid) had been booked. He returned to confirm that surprisingly, despite the vast crowd of about 4 other diners, it had not.

After this inauspicious start, things turned better. We were allocated a smiley, non-french, not-unattractive waitress who seemed positively excited to be serving a large group at 9.00pm on a Sunday night. In fact, so enthusiastic in the face some bad 'group diners' behaviour of rowdiness and general inertia that I did wonder what she was on. Turns out it was probably something in the 'complimentary filtered water' she provided to us in ceramic bottles with while we refused to decide what to eat. Still, she was unfailing cheerful, even responding to one of the party's query as to whether the ceramic bottle was also complimentary with the quip "I guess...if you take it when I'm not looking".

Service ran smoothly through some decent reblochon and thyme pissaladières and the main courses. Most of the table plumped for the Breton Chicken, which was nicely browned and coated in garlic butter. The seafood pasta was decent, though I've had better, and the steak hache cheval (with an egg, not an actual horse) was wolfed down in about 3 seconds flat so I can only assume it was tasty.

However, this was all a prelude to the real reason I am actually bothering to post a review: a divine special dessert of torte au chocolat. This was in fact a square block of chocolate, unadulterated by things such as pastry, topped with creme fraiche. The texture was like butter, and the flavour took itself to the edge of being too rich, but just fell divinely short. In fact, I dread to think about how much butter and cream was in this. It was seriously the best dessert I have had in a restaurant for a long time.

The bill was a very reasonable £20 a head, partly due to the weekend special price on the chicken, which inexplicably seemed to be the same price as it normally is. I think Côte just about passed the PET, mainly because of the dessert, but also because it was a cut above Cafe Rouge, and better value for money than Brasserie Gerard. And did I mention the dessert?

Cote on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 2 October 2011

The Perfect Pint (or 37)

If there's one thing the Yanks do well, it's choice. For someone who often agonises over picking a sarnie in Pret (which, let's face it, really comes down to average v. slightly disappointing v. salt and fat attack), eating in the States can be a truly bewildering experience. There's that familiar exasperated look of a waiter/waitress after you've asked them to explain what exactly is in ranch dressing, or requested for just brown bread.

However, where this choice comes into its own is with beer. Walk into any local bar and you'll usually see a vast array of taps, offering an excellent selection of lagers and ales. Perhaps because the country is so vast, there seems to be a greater appreciation of local or regional brews which are offered however salubrious or unsalubrious the establishment. I've no doubt that some of this is seen through the rosy-tinted spectacles of a tourist, and that your average beer-swilling all American guy drinks Bud most of the time, but hey, that's what holidays are for.

A good example would be this gem found in Charlotte airport in North Carolina. Looking for a place to kill 3 hours between flights, I stumbled across the North Carolina Beer Company, which had their full range on tap, plus a rotating seasonal beer.

We indulged in their tasting option - a roundle of 5 small (less than half pint) glasses, filled with their 4 standard brews (a blonde, with the fifth glass empty to be filled with your favourite. Genius. Especially compared to what you are likely to find at the Wetherspoons in Stanstead.

In the UK, despite a long brewing history and fervent activists like CAMRA, we've not achieved the same kind of wide-spread availability of a good range of beers. The slow creep of the Belgian beers into the market means that in a decent pub you can now at least get a Leffe, though sadly often in bottles not on tap. However, there's nothing more disappointing when perusing the taps to find a bland choice between one or two ales amongst the bog standard Fosters, Becks Vier and a Peroni if you're lucky.

Happily, the landscape is changing and there has been a recent trend of speciality beer houses cropping up. One such is the Craft Beer Co in Farringdon. I went along in its early days before it barely even had a website up and running save a statement that they had 37 beers on tap, which was a good enough description to tempt me there.

As well as their keg and cask ales, they also have over 400 bottled beers. Despite it being a heaving Friday night, the staff were knowleagable about what they were selling and willing to give you a try - again, a rare pleasure this side of the pond. The pump labels had descriptions of the beers and some background info about the brewers. They also do great bar snacks - pork pies and scotch eggs, though it is a bit of a shame they don't do a full food menu. Normally, I would be very happy with a simple pint and a pork pie (see About Me) but since we were enjoying ourselves too much working our way through their beers to leave for sustenance, we were forced to follow the lead of fellow punters and bring in some Chicken Cottage. Needless to say, not an experience I had ever anticipated having and one I am unlikely to ever repeat.

I hope the 'craft beer revolution' continues in full force and starts to move beyond 'speciality' venues into local pubs. The day I don't have to settle for a half of peroni I'll be happy.


Beer : 9/10
Chicken Cottage: 0/10

Other places where you can find a decent range of beers include:

The Bull, Highgate  - I haven't checked this one out yet but Time Out's early report looks promising

The Spaniards Inn, Hampstead Heath - in the same neck of the woods, The Spaniards has a good selection, with European beers on tap and a good range of US bottles, such as Sierra Nevada

The Clifton, St Johns Wood - The Clifton is a great example of my ideal pub; it has an excellent  comprehensive range of European beers, especially on the Trappist side, as well as a good British ales selection. And all without publicising this as a gimmick.


 The City Beverage Company  - A great offy on Old Street which does a good range of bottled beers, including the full Brew Dog range (a brewer who prides themselves on being part of the 'craft beer revolution')



Friday, 30 September 2011

The Inaugural Post

It would be remiss of me to not begin this blog with homage to Bertie Wooster, who, (along with Giles Coren) is my epicurean hero. The sheer enthusiasm with which Mr Wooster approaches the consumption of food and, mostly drink is something I hope to emulate at most times. Sadly, other things like a full-time job and a mortgage sometimes get in the way, but I hope I am sufficiently successful in squeezing the most out of my weekends and evenings in this pursuit to entertain, without bankrupting myself.

So, to set the tone, here are a few of my favourite Wooster words for being a little worse for wear, which are guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.

Under the surface
Completely sozzled
Fried to the tonsils
A tissue restorer
Full to the back teeth
Suffering from magnums;
Mopping the stuff up
Primed to the sticking point
Tanked to the uvula
Tight as an owl
Under the sauce