8 September 2011

Glitterball in the Forest 
End of the Road Festival has grown up but still enchants 
Deep among the undulating Quantock Hills, difficult to find and obscure of music lies the last festival of the summer. End of the Road at Larmer Tree Gardens has been thrilling hardy festival goers since 2006 when its free spirit and exclusivly non commercial attitude excited a group of music fans exhausted by the mega-fest of Glastonbury, disappointed by the mainstream festivals or new to the whole festival thrill.

Gruff Rhys shows his appreciation
As someone falling into the last category it was exciting to find a festival restricted to relatively small numbers (about 5,000 at the first one), with good food & beer options and the sort of bands that appealed to my left-field mindset. Richard Hawley, British Sea Power, Brakes, Josh Ritter, Howe Gelb, Guillemots, and I'm From Barcelona were amongst the eclectic mix at that first EOTR, none of them liable to crack the charts any time soon, but all of them quietly fantastic.

And so six years on the festival has grown, over the years we have seen other thrilling acts, Fleet Foxes, Midlake, Super Furry Animals, Calexico, King Creosote, Seasick Steve, Yo La Tengo, Wilco, Conor Oberst, The Felice Brothers, plus the wierd such as Bob Log III and the hauntingly lovely The Low Anthem, Lanterns on the Lake, The Accidental, Bon Iver, The Unthanks and yet more Richard Hawley.

This year a lot has changed, with a new stage where toilets, showers and tents once stood, a different entrance, rejigged car parks and a new comedy stage deep in the woods. With it have come more people, there must be over 12,000 now and it shows in the way that everything is just a little more crowded. I'm not complaining however, it's still a wonderful festival, free of commercialism and with some wonderful touches.

Tony Law lets the kids take charge on the
Comedy Stage in the woods
That comedy stage is a tiny, permanent, wooden and canvas structure, halway down a hill open to the elements, in the forest. At last all the people who want to see the performers can, perched on straw bales or sitting on the leaf litter. Joanna Neary's neurotic, illustrated explanation of how to spice up the marriage bed was beautifully acted while Tony Law's willingness to have his set overrun by tiny children wanting to sing nursery rhymes was brilliant, as he ran with the moment. The Balconettes comic songs had great punch lines while Phil Kay's long, scatalogical, improv, folk was a real tour de force.

Grooving at the Secret Disco
Talking of fun in the forest, out past the Healing Fields and Dish Cafe is the Secret Disco. I'd tell you more but I really dont want to encourage more people to go. But if you can imagine DJ's perched in a wooden boat playing soul, R&B, indie-pop and boogie woogie hits while a grinning crowd dances on a small stage under a deep green, illuminated, forest canopy, complete with glitter ball you get the idea.

Food plays an important part in the festival experience and again EOTR has it right, there is nothing overly branded or brash. Many of the vendors are local, mostly using organic produce. The one disappointment this year was Pie Minister who had run out of Matador (beef, chorizo, olives, butter beans & sherry) pies by 5pm on Friday (despite my Tweeted requests before and during the festival). I was looking forward to that nearly as much as I was to seeing Midlake!

Foody find of the festival was The Story, smoked pork and beef platters, warm and tender, packed with flavour, just right for a chilly evening. A special mention too for The Tea Stop and their double decker bus, great toasties and real china.

Midlake concentrate hard on growing
their beards
So what of this year's crop of bands. Beards as ever played a prominant role for those on stage, especially amongst the men. Midlake were the beardy beauties of Sunday evening, thankfully ditching the two flute attack from earlier in the year for a more festival friendly, almost Neil Young, guitar heavy approach amidst the harmonies and tales of the dark woods. The Fall showed that sticking single mindedly to what you do best and ignoring the audience while relying on a pounding beat with incomprehnsible vocals is as exciting as ever. Lykie Li should be a big star: Adam & the Ants driving, heavy drums, goth outfits, Siouxsie vocals and soaring choruses with looks to die for make a wonderful live show. Gruff Rhys helped the sun come out on Saturday afternoon. Laura Marling benefitted from a full band, bringing her glorious voice alive, while Okkervil River played an unexpectedly full-on country rock show.

Find of the festival were Megafaun, rootsy, harmonies, humour and musicianship, just the thing for a Sunday afternoon at the Garden stage. While Lanterns on the Lake shimmered with their dream pop cross between Mazy Star and The Cocteau Twins and Beth Jeans-Houghton's mellow voice belied her funny, acerbic lyrics.

But its not all about the music at EOTR, its the attitude of all the festival goers, chilled, relaxed, happy and tolerant. It's the 3 year old's in Half Man Half Biscuit T-shirts, the Somerset Cider Bus, the views over the hills, the peacocks and Victorian folley's, the elderly couple rocking out to Brakes and the gentle sound of rain on the canvas of your tent to accompany the pluck of  Joanna Newsom's  harp.

30 August 2011

du Vin Value Meal

Hotel du Vin Bistro offers good value with its £35 Food for thought deal for two

Exhausted from a weekend of entertaining and cooking for guests, the Henley Henley Hotel du Vin's offer of £35 for 2 courses, including a bottle of wine and coffee for two people seemed like a great option for dinner.

Henley on Thames now has numerous cafe's, bars and restaurants most of which offer some kind of deal during the week. Pizza Express, Zizzi, Cafe Rouge, Brasserie Gerard, all the chains are working hard to build and retain custom. Hotel du Vin is no different in many ways, however it does provide a much nicer ambience and sophisticated atmosphere in its Henley Bistro, while the food in the limited Food For Thought menu is mainly a cut above the average.

In a surprisingly full dining room for a Bank Holiday Monday evening, service was still attentive, though slightly unctious from the sommelier, despite our choice of the 'deal' option. This restricted menu with four starters, mains and puddings still has a nice range including Vichssoise and Moule Marineres as starters and Onglet Steak and Risotto amongst the mains.

My Chicken Liver Salad had soft, tender livers with a light balsamic sauce while the Smoked Mackrel Tian and Potato Salad was very rich, packing a proper fishy punch. A main of Grilled Hake with Curly Kale was overcooked and lacked any sauce, making it dry and bland, though the application of lemon juice helped. It's vapid smear of something brown and sauce like on the plate wasnt enough. A good, simple butter and lemon sauce and properly cooked fish would have improved the dish out of all proportion. On the other hand Sausage and Mash boasted two fat herb filled pork bangers with creamy mash and a rich gravy that barely touched the sides.

The House Merlot was perfectly palatable and despite some confusion over a side dish of Green Beans that were replaced, unasked for by Brocolli (any one who knows me would know that I would never ask for Brocolli) and an espresso that apparently isn't the coffee they mean when they say coffee included, it all represents great value for money, especially in comparison to Pizza Express, Zizzi and the others, where the wine can be both poor and expensive, even in the meal deals.

New Riverfront Cafe
The old Henley Tea Rooms, on the riverside in Henley has been taken over and transformed into The Chocolate Theatre Cafe. A picture window into the kitchen is supposed to provide a view onto the chocolate making process while pale green decor, a few comfortable sofas and chairs plus a plethora of cafe tables, make it a comfortable and friendly room. More expensive for coffee and a pastry than Cafe Nero with coffee not as rich and well presented as Hot Gossip in Friday St. nevertheless it is a welcoming place to be. I'll pop in again for lunch one day and report back.

15 August 2011

Wilderness Festival

Music, Food & Swimming

Charlbury is a pretty little village just outside Woodstock in Oxfordshire, it happens to be home to the vast estate of Cornbury Park where over the weekend the first Wilderness Festival took place.

What is known I believe as a “boutique” festival, i.e. it’s fairly small and not overrun with pissed teenagers, Wilderness had a compelling mix of music, food, discussion, workshops and a lake to swim in! Highlights on the main stage were Gogol Bordello’s gypsy punk, Mercury Rev’s complete run through of Deserter’s Song, the beauty of Laura Marling’s voice and the low-fi sweetness of the Low Anthem.
But it was the unexpected that sticks most in the memory: French 3 piece We Were Evergreen on a tiny outside stage under an Oak tree playing pop/folk tunes to the delight of everyone seated on the grass around them; coming across a crooning reggae singer at 2a.m. on an even tinier stage outside, on the hill above the lake making the small crowd smile and dance; a choir singing Beatles tunes, a honky tonk piano amongst hay bales in the middle of the site; an hilarious cricket match complete with Test Match Special spoof commentary.
Lucky enough to be friends with the couple who live in the gatehouse we camped outside their house with 12 other friends, enjoying bacon sarnies each morning, washed down with Rum & Coke. With access to the grounds of the estate, Russell our host was kind enough to provide a taxi service practically to the main stage. In fact at one point Mandy and I became terribly confused when we found ourselves backstage, able to join in with Gogol Bordello if we’d wished!

Amongst this weekend of highlights was the wonderful idea of having a feast each day, provided by a first rate restaurant. Friday was Thomas Hunt, Saturday, Moro and Sunday, Michelin Star Skye Gyngell of Petersham Nurseries. Mass catering, for 300 odd people (that’s odd in both senses, it is a festival after all) can be difficult as I’ve mentioned before, but when you have a reputation for excellence it really does get put on the line. Petersham Nurseries however don’t need to worry. This was one of the most enjoyable and memorable meals, with unexpected twists, just like the rest of the festival, in interesting company and all with the sound of the Guillemots playing in the background.
Sharing plates while sitting on hay bales, Parma ham on melon with feta and rose syrup not only looked beautiful, with rose petals scattered on the dish, but tasted of a Mediterranean summer. A very good Buffalo Mozzarella with finely sliced courgette and dried chilli cleansed and pleased in equal measure. Then while discussing the best places to live in London whole grilled sea bass with aioli arrived, looking impressive, to be followed by chunks of sirloin with horseradish and chimmichurri sauces. The steak was perfect, the fish delightful. In fact all the dishes were delightful, especially in the context of the occasion.

Nice too at a festival to have a good bottle of wine, a Spanish Verdeho, and to throw in a surprise at the end with some salty pecorino drizzled with honey.
Wilderness is a lovely festival, great bands, quirky stages, plenty to do and an excellent banquet.  Great food and music seem to go together it would be great to see more of this initiative at other small festivals.

Join the Caravan

Small plates of pleasure in London’s Exmouth Market

Working in Farringdon over 20 years ago I used to pay the occasional visit to Exmouth Market, especially when a greasy spoon was called for. This was in the days before The Eagle, around the corner, created the gastro pub, when the Quality Chop House on Farringdon Road was in sad decline and the best thing in the market was a fabulous little off-license selling very old single malts and Polish Bison Grass vodka. Since those drab days Exmouth Market, alongside its neighbours in Clerkenwell, Smithfield and Farringdon have been transformed. Twee furniture boutiques, shops that sell hand crafted greetings cards and of course restaurants now dominate the street.

Sam & Sam Clark’s Moro is largely responsible for the Exmouth dining transformation, towing other entrepreneurial restaurateurs in its wake. One of the latest is Caravan. Describing itself as a cafe, bar and coffee roastery, the premises sit on the corner of Exmouth Market and Farringdon Rd, and on a warm summer’s evening, make a superb early dining location prior to a trip to Sadler’s Wells a few minutes away. Tables spill onto the street, large bi-fold doors expose a clean efficient but warm dining room with cheerful, friendly and heavily tattooed staff (as is the modern way). Sitting outside amongst the trendy bustle of the street with a menu combining dishes and flavours from around the world our party of five chose a selection of small plates.

Amongst the excellent were Aubergine and Onion Bhaji, Tomato Jam and Yoghurt; soft, warm, slightly spicy. Delightfully salted, very tiny Sichuan Pepper Baby Squid had me elbowing my friends out of the way to mop up the last few. Serrano Ham came with smoked almonds, ginger wine figs, and the richest spicy La Bandiera olive oil, the whole dish melting with sweet, salty combinations. Those dishes that were still well executed yet not particularly memorable were the enticing sounding Deep-Fried Duck Egg, Capers, Olives and Anchovy Toast, a good rich egg but the olives and toast didn’t add much. A gypsy bun filled with Hoisin Lamb was pleasant as was the grilled tomatillo, feta, chilli, kikones and cumin. (Kikones by the way are salted corn kernels).

What made us all smile, apart from the sweet Camden Town Brewery beer and a lovely Pinot Blanc was the melt in the mouth Braised Beef Cheek with rich Espresso Mole sauce, Rosemary, Polenta and Plantain; the incredibly affable service, beautiful big bright green olives and quite remarkably lovely Cornbread.
Caravan 11-13 Exmouth Market, London EC1R 4QD
Tel: 0208 78338115

Dancing Fela lacks the Afrobeat

 Fela has been much praised and garlanded with awards and I can see why. Lively, colourful, a mixture of music, dance and politics, Fela tells the story of Fela Kuti, Nigerian  Afrobeat pioneer, polygamist and thorn in the side of the ruling regime. There is an awful lot of fantastic dancing. There is not enough of the music. Snatches of songs played by a superb band, tease the audience prior to dancing erupting once more. Frankly its a bit exhausting. I know its Sadlers Wells but songs like Zombie deserve to be heard in full, especially when leading man Adesola Osakalumi is so compelling as Fela.

27 July 2011

Upturn and downgrade

The Three Tuns in Henley re-emerges as the foodie pub the town needs, while the Mountain View fails to see the writing on the wall.

Henley diners have been given a few more options of late with La Barca opening down by the riverside, The Three Tuns emerging from a period in the doldrums and the rebranding of Henley institution The Himalaya.  
This last shouldn’t occupy us for long. If anything the newly named Mountain View has downgraded. While it may have a new sign, carpet and whitewashed walls the budget, of which there wasn’t much in the first place, obviously didn’t extend to spice. Quite possibly the blandest Tandoori mixed grill and Sag Aloo I’ve ever had. Best I think to let the place die a quick death. Henley has too many Indian restaurants, this is by far the worst in so many ways, it’s never busy, apart from Henley week, and would do us all a favour if it disappeared.
I’ll review La Barca properly in a few weeks. I’ve been a few times since it opened and apart from a decent glass of white Rioja haven’t been very impressed. I hear the quality of everything has improved so will visit again shortly.
The Three Tuns in Henley’s market place, next to the region’s best butcher, Gabriel Machin, has had a varied history over the last 10 years. From drug filled student dive to profit guzzling landlord it was transformed around five years ago to a respectable gastro pub with an excellent menu. That venture was disappointingly short lived though, as was the most recent option which had very passable rustic French food but was rarely open. It must be a difficult space to make a living, there aren’t quite enough covers, the bar is in the middle of the room, separating the space in two; three if you consider there is a huge fireplace in the small dining room concealing a few more tables. Then there are the virtually outside ancient loo’s and a barn like space, well hidden in the back garden, plus a tiny kitchen.
So hats off to chef Mark Duggan and his wife Sandra who are working their butts off to make the place work, ably assisted by the their son who must be the politest barman in the business. There are different menus for bar and dining room, though that shouldn’t stop you ordering whatever you fancy in either room. On the bar menu it’s the homemade bread and pies that really impress. Foccacia with Cherry Tomatoes was beautifully salty and oily, while both the Chicken & Mushroom and Steak & Ale pies are meaty with rich sauces that perfectly complement a lovely mash, rich in olive oil. My only criticism of the pies is a lack of accompanying vegetables even as a garnish.
In the dining area I have only tried the Rib-Eye Steak with Café de Paris butter and this was pretty late in the evening so top marks for accommodating us with a charred yet still tender hunk of cow. The chunky chips were not the best. Sandra explained there was a problem obtaining the right quality of potatoes at this time of year. It’s a problem that needs fixing but I can’t imagine it won’t be.
The wine list has had a bit more thought than most pub’s and its pleasing to see both affordable and interesting options available by the glass as well as the bottle. The Rare Vineyards Pinot Noir, Vin de France is a good example of a regional French Pinot, with elegance, cherries and spice while the Argentine Etchart Privado Malbec, Valle de Cafayate is exactly what you want from a deep, plumy Malbec at a great price point.
A great deal of hard work is going into making this difficult space a success. It’s not flashy gastro food, but it is exactly what you want from a good local pub.
The Three Tuns, 5 The Market Place, Henley on Thames RG9 2AA 01491 410138

18 July 2011

Leiths Food Writing Course - Pantry Newsletter

For 12 weeks this spring & summer I attended a weekly writing course at Leiths School of Food & Wine. One of the results is the newsletter Pantry, compiled and written by one small group of us.

You may notice that a couple of my contributions have previously appeared on this blog.

Many thanks to Lulu Grimes for leading the course and to Morgan, Lindsey, Angela and Jenny for making the collaboration such fun.

Pantry Leiths Newsletter

Peruvian lamb goes off with a bang

A few years ago I had the pleasure of walking the long way round to Machu Pichu and the Inca Trail following the Salcantay Trek. This piece describes one of the highlights of the walk.

Mt. Salcantay seen from the south
The Andean sun set lit up the snow on the mountains behind us in a glow that spread through the lush glaciated valley mid way between the peak of Mt. Salcantay and the spectacle of Machu Pichu, still 3 days walk away. As the heat faded from the day and the aches from our exertions crept through our muscles, sweet hot chocolate and fresh popcorn, proffered by our guide Michael, brought the warmth back into our cheeks, while we awaited a special dinner.

Two days previously we had stepped out from the rambling village of Mollepata, with Michael, his 7 year old son Pedro, 4 horses, a cook, his assistant, two porters and two wranglers. The numbers sound excessive to support just the four of us novice trekkers, however tourist income plays a valuable part in the economy of the local villages and their teamwork, cheerful chatter and dedication was very welcome when arriving in camp just as the clouds burst, seeing tents already erected and hot drinks waiting.

The previous night we had slept in the lee of Salcantay, listening to the creaks and groans of the great glaciers adjusting themselves. Dinner had been very simple, pasta with a tomato sauce, some fruit and chocolate. Tonight in this beautiful valley would be different.

Following a day which included a crossing of the great mountain's saddle at 4,640 meters, a height where steps are necessarily slow, with altitude sickness a real danger, followed by a menacing dance down a moraine filled escarpment, we arrived to find the campsite erected and the cook and the two porter's busy digging a shallow hole.

As we removed our steaming boots, hot rocks were taken out of the fire and placed in the trench. Jose the cook emerged from his small kitchen tent moments later with half a lamb, coated in oil, garlic, chilli and fresh herbs. He placed the lamb gently on top of the rocks, before covering that in bundles of long grass scythed from the surrounding hillside. On top of these he placed large dark local potatoes before covering the whole mass with divots of turf.

It was Christmas Eve high in the Andean cordillera, a special night for the people of the region; the night when a feast is made and visitors welcomed. Having donned extra fleeces and thick socks to ward of the chill we all gathered around the fire pit, only 30 minutes after the lamb had been buried to see what would emerge. Before long shovels were produced, the divots removed and the first steaming black potato's uncovered.

Potatoes of course owe their origins to this part of the world and the varieties to be seen in the markets of Cusco and at the shacks along the roadside are fascinating. Huge purple tubas the size of a melon next to tiny black or dark blue varieties show what an eclectic vegetable the potato is. Their flavours and textures vary too, from the earthy to the sweet, though colour doesn't seem to have a bearing on texture or taste. I wonder how we managed to make our every day potatoes so bland when there is such a rich variety to be found at their source.

Shortly after the potatoes the lamb was pulled from the ground and deposited on a nearby rock that served as a table. Hot and steaming, Jose demonstrated just how well cooked it was by pulling it apart before serving on our battered camp plates. As we gathered around the camp fire there was one ritual still to be performed, a toast to Christmas and the Gods with Pisco Sour as the liquor of choice. Pisco, a colourless, strong grape brandy with a squeeze of lemon juice to make it slightly more palatable. Down in one, and when the nose had stopped burning and the eyes watering it was time for the tenderest lamb.

Huge chunks of soft flesh exuding tantalising aromas sat on our plates. With the sky fully dark but a dazzling display of stars above, we pulled our hats over our ears and resorted to our fingers rather than cutlery to extract the best from the meat. It transpired that the Jose had been marinating the carcass twice a day since before the start of the expedition with his own blend of ingredients, so it was incredibly tender having absorbed the flavours of the herbs, garlic and chilli during its journey up and down the mountain.

The meat carried an unexpected depth of flavour, packing a small punch with some intense chilli. The crumbling purple flesh of the potato added earthy notes to the meal while the occasion and setting intensified our enjoyment. As we all wiped the grease from our faces Jose had one last trick up his sleeve. Jesus (pronounced in the Spanish way Hey-zuus), Jose's assistant emerged from his tent carrying a bundle of homemade fireworks. It seems Health and Safety has not arrived in the Cordillera Vilacabamba, as one by one Jesus held the rockets by their sticks as Jose lit the touch paper, only to hurl them in the air where after briefly fizzing about they exploded with booms that reverberated around the valley.

With only one horse bolting during the pyrotechnics, the meal and entertainment were considered a huge success by our considerably refreshed crew. So it was with much giggling, following more Pisco Sour's and with the smell of the best lamb in Peru on our fingers that we slipped unsteadily to our tents happy that the Inca Trail was waiting for us in the morning.

Hey wine waiter, leave that bottle alone

In my kitchen, at home, I am lucky enough to have a small wine fridge, it holds 12 bottles, though, with careful management a few more can be squeezed in. I am equally lucky to have a cellar in my house and while not large, alongside the broken bicycle and things I can't bring myself to throw away, it stores a small collection of interesting reds. At dinner parties, on a Friday or Saturday evening or come that rarest of things an English summer's day I enjoy sitting at my table sipping happily, having chosen something suitable to match the coming meal, considering the complexity or otherwise of the wine, geekily reading the label and scolding, or with luck congratulating myself on the fabulous choice I have made.

I like to do the same in a restaurant, especially when I could buy a pair of Jimmy Choos and a Mulberry handbag for the wife for the price of the restaurant bottle that I can buy in Waitrose for £7.99. It's not the mark up however that I object to. I understand there are overheads, staff costs, electricity, lighting and rent to be paid for, not forgetting the small matter of profit. I don't mind any of that. But if you are one of those establishments where the sommelier waves the bottle in front of my nose, makes a big deal of uncorking, or just as likely unscrewing the cap, offering me a taste and then whisking my bottle to some far corner of the room I will become extremely agitated. Leave the bottle on my table please.

I have filled up a wine glass on many occasions and while I appreciate it being done for me I don't always need the help of a professional, especially when the bottle will be despatched to the wilderness after each pour. There have been occasions when I know full well there is wine remaining in the bottle at the end of the meal, wine I will be paying for, wine that you are making difficult for me to drink. And of course I know I should just ask for it to stay on the table or walk over and get it, but I'm an English male of a certain age so feel uncomfortable causing a fuss. You don't remove my plate after every mouthful so don't remove my wine, let me read the label, let me wallow in my choice, let me pour my wine; please, leave it on my table.


12 July 2011

Henley Regatta & Festival June-July 2011

The very end of June every year sees the five day festival of rowing that is Henley Royal Regatta, followed a week later by Henley Festival of Music and Art. These two wonderfully diverse events constitute the pinnacle of the Henley season. One, with high class competitive action on the water, accompanied by astonishing bouts of gluttony and inebriation off it; the other boasts elegance, charm, music and art in a truly unique setting. The Festival too has its fair share of gluttony and inebriation, but somehow when it's middle class and in a black tie or evening dress it seems charming rather than offensive.

Thoughts about the food on offer at Henley Royal Regatta.

The Stewards Enclosure is the exclusive area reserved for members and their guests. It covers the last 300 metres or so of the rowing course, with immaculate lawns, bars and dining opportunities, all under acres of white canvas.

Taking up a good 100 metres on its own is the Stewards Luncheon & Tea tent. It must have capacity for well over 1,000 people and has two sittings for lunch every day of the 5 day Regatta, followed by 2 sittings for tea. In fact it would be quite easy never to leave the Luncheon tent! Unfortunately the catering and seating arrangements reflect the public school and university refectories where the majority of members spent their youths. Seated at enormously long benches, albeit ones with white linen, the service on the first day of the Regatta for our party of 6 was slow and disorganised while the food was disappointing. A dull terrine, unexceptional smoked salmon, overcooked cold roast beef and a paltry portion of strawberries & cream just didn't work. They all smacked of the mass catering kitchen they had come out of, which at £36 per head before wine, was underwhelming. Worse than this tap water was not offered and when asked for led to an unpleasant exchange in which the caterer insisted we couldn't have any. Of course we did in the end.

Another day and Fish & Chips from The Codfather, a mobile chippy parked a further 500 metres down river alongside Upper Thames Rowing Club, and very definitely outside any enclosure. Hot and crunchy, but no discernible evidence of fish in the batter. Still it had fine alcohol absorbing qualities. And talking of Upper Thames, the club made a valiant attempt to do something new this year to attract more rowers in to use the bars. This was a great idea executed badly, principally because the bars were badly stocked and run, while the beautiful new clubhouse was left empty. Upper Thames can do better than this and if it wants to profit from HRR should seriously examine its planning and operations.

While broadcasting on Regatta Radio there wasn't much time to eat, however I would like to mention the quality of the bacon baps at Cafe Regatta, incredibly welcome before a four hour stint of hangover laden commentary, and very well done.

The other catering facility that stands out for praise this year is in Remenham Club. Similar to the luncheon tent in the Stewards Enclosure but without so much of the pompousness, the caterers HH Clarke show how it should be done. A club for members of 7 of the metropolitan rowing clubs, Remenham has used Clarke's for many years and their experience shows, at just £32 per head. Duck Parfait, Braised Rump Steak and Lemon Posset all worked well, without betraying their origins in a tented kitchen. To cap it all, their wine list though necessarily short showed flare and imagination, especially an exceptional value Raoul Collet NV Champagne at £33 a bottle.

Henley Festival: has it fallen on the sword of populism?

Henley Festival is an awkward animal, a pushmepullyou of an event. Claiming on the one hand to bring world class music to Henley yet on the other giving into the blatantly commercial in order to turn a profit. Now in its 26th year the Festival started as a way of giving something back to the town after the hectic week of regatta. And to begin with it had the relaxed garden party atmosphere, accompanied by popular classics and reasonable prices that the town was looking for. As the festival grew so did the calibre of artist. Jose Carreras, Kiri te Kanawa, Willard White, Bryn Terfel & Nigel Kennedy have all performed from the stage built into the river. These artists are of course expensive to book so ticket prices have grown. As prices have risen more bars and catering outlets have appeared, none cheap and with this the charm has faded as the corporate sponsors have moved in. This year the Festival didn't even bother to pretend it was about classical music. Gone are the days of Beethoven recitals, Porgy & Bess and Vaughn Williams. Welcome Tom Jones, Jools Holland, Abba tribute and an X-factor winner (more of her later). As someone who has been going to the Festival for nigh on 20 years I find it sad that the organisers have succumbed to the overtly commercial and in doing so have become just another festival (albeit a posh one with black tie and a Roux Brothers restaurant).

The catering offering is now uniformly good. In the big tent deemed to be Cafe le Soir, 3 types of salmon, cold beef and lemon tart hit the right buttons, with the beef being exceptionally good even if the pastry in the tart had gone soggy. The best catering however is homemade, while the best part of the festival is being on the river. This is where it still has magic as hundreds of boats of all sizes and vintages moor up alongside one another to listen to the music, gossip and share food & wine prior to enjoying an exceptional firework display.

Back to the main stage. On the final day of the Festival I was invited to join one of the sponsors to see Rumer & Alexandra Burke. Unfortunately Rumer cried off with a sore throat to be replaced by Mica Paris. Always be wary of an artist who is available at the last minute. She has a great soul voice, with which she murdered Summertime prior to belting out her hit...My One Temptation from 1988. She was good in her own way but her set was entirely wrong for a crowd of middle class, middle aged, black tied, slightly pissed, Sunday night hedonists. I had the impression she was a bit desperate to please, as though she couldn't see where the next booking was coming from.

The X-Factor winner Alexandra Burke could and should be the British answer to Beyonce. If only she had the songs, she's certainly got the looks, the moves and the dancers. But performing to backing tapes is just wrong and continuing to ruin Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah should be made a criminal offence. The crowd seemed to love her but I got the feeling that far from being on her way to Beyonce like superstardom she is our next Mica Paris!

One small lunch in London

Amongst all this i found the time for lunch in Arbutus in Frith Street. Now well established and part of the group that runs Wild Honey and Les Deux Salons I was not particularly impressed. The food was Ok but no better than that, perhaps the winner being slow cooked lamb breast with minted spinach. Soft and falling apart, packed with flavour, a very good dish. However I wasn't thrilled. Go to Les Deux Salons its where all the energy and imagination seems to be.

20 June 2011

The Revolution Starts at Opening Time

Tapas amongst the bright lights and booming music of Westfield

Tapas revolutionA lot has already been written about Spanish Chef Omar Allibhoy if the Tapas Revolution website is to be believed. He is, apparently the Spanish Jamie Oliver, set to cause a sensation with his fresh cooking and Flamenco personality.
In which case the decision to site his first British venture in the temple of consumption that is Shepherds Bush’s Westfiled Shopping Centre would seem to make sense. Everything here is brash and bright, overtly commercial but guaranteed to have most diners rushing for the exit…if they can find it.

The food is cooked fresh and delivered quickly from behind a curved bar area where the Plancha and meat slicer are located. There is a fine selection of Spanish charcuterie including Jamon Iberico de bellota Gran Reserva, yet from the start you cant miss the fact that you are in a shopping centre and all around you is the din of conspicuous consumption, lost children and shrilling ring tones.

My Calamar a la Plancha were soft and well grilled, though way too heavy on the garlic, Pinchos Morunos were beautiful tender cubes of beef, marinated in paprika and red pepper sauce served on the spike while Esparragos con Manchego combined the saltiness of the cheese with the zing of the asparagus.

Not a lot wrong with the food, its just the wrong place to eat it. Perhaps I was unlucky to have chosen the day of a film premiere with Tom Hanks eliciting squeals before Sophie Ellis-Bextor gave it her best shot beneath the acoustically appalling atrium.

The menu has other appetising items, Pulpo a la Gallega, octopus with potatoes and paprika or Carrilleras, braised pork cheeks in sherry for example, plus a good looking selection of Bocadilos, however the atmosphere is all wrong. Loud and intimidating, despite the quality of food I couldn’t wait to leave never to return.

Not even a very acceptable glass of El Muro Carinera could calm things and with head throbbing I paid the completely extortionate sum of £25 for my 3 small dishes and glass of wine, and left.
Perhaps if Omar can open in a couple of high streets he will have a hit on his hands but in Westfield the Revolution is wasted. 

2 June 2011

Pollen Street Social

PSSThe buzz around Pollen Street Social has been so acute it has even reached the backwaters of Henley on Thames. So on an excursion to the capital with Mrs HT, that also took in a light lunch at Books for Cooks in Notting Hill, saw us on the off chance wandering into PSS, (as it shall now be known) in the early evening.

As Olive magazine pointed out this month, go early and choose the day of a major sporting final. So thanks to Barcelona and Man Utd we were happily seated in the bar at 5.30 enjoying a couple of cocktails, with a table ready for us when the kitchen opened at 6pm.

PSS is divided into two large oblong rooms. The bar area with comfortable modernist brown leather sofa’s and chairs with stools at the long bar is discreetly decorated with modern artworks against pale walls and a lowish ceiling. The dining room is slightly larger, decorated in similar fashion with dangling futurist globe lighting. The unusual feature is the dessert bar at one end, borrowed from the New York trend. Where, in other restaurants you might find a seafood bar, here you can perch on a stool, stare longingly into the adjacent kitchen, with its huge glass wall and Star Trek like sliding glass door, and engage the dessert chef in conversation about what to have.

Seated happily where Mrs HT could watch all the machinations in the room, service was exemplary, knowledgeable, friendly and at the right level between discreet and familiar. It is this affable service  that makes a visit to PSS such a pleasant experience. The other is of course the cooking of Jason Atherton.

Famously named by Faye Maschler as the best chef in the Gordon Ramsey empire at Maze and with a self financed stint at El Bulli also in the bag, Atherton cooks with intelligence and obvious passion, you can taste it in his unusual but precise dishes. Out straightening chairs in the bar when we first arrived he obviously cares too.

Almost every dish on the menu prompts a question. This is a good thing, not only providing intrigue it allows the waiting staff to raise your desire too with neat descriptions of all the dishes.Sated with information but not yet by food, my starter of Squid with Cauliflower Puree, shards of Cauliflower, Squid ink puffed rice and roast squid juice looked pale and interesting on the plate and was soft and comforting in the mouth, but given some depth and crunch by the rice, which of course isn’t rice at all. The idea of cutting the squid into tiny pieces and serving almost as a risotto is inspired.

The Full English Breakfast bore virtually no resemblance to that served at a greasy spoon, yet tasted exactly how you want it to. An egg poached  for 1 1/2 hours topping earthy mushrooms and roast tomato puree is unctuous but puts a broad grin on the face.

It is possible to have half portions of the main courses and turn the whole menu into a tasting menu we went tradtional though. Ox Cheek, Tongue and Sirloin was good without being exceptional, unlike the Roasted Halibut with a remarkably rich and moreish paella, steeped in ham fat, which was just wonderful.

Our request to sit at the dessert bar was happily accommodated, though I imagine later in the evening it might not be so easy. Watching Atherton at work through the glass was fascinating as was the conversation with the pud chef over the merits of full portions over mini tasters.

None of the descriptions, Ham, Cheese & Herbs, Sangria or PBJ do justice to the micro menu’s selection of light, delicate flavours prepared in front of us. Suffice to say that the ham is made from water melon and the herbs are tiny pieces of candied basil and sage, which the chef kindly told us how to make.
Pollen Street Social has been praised to the hilt since opening, with good reason, it is the most relaxed and entertaining dining room with some of the best food in London and top quality staff to match. Go while it’s still new.

Total cost for 2 Cocktails, 2 Starters, 2 Mains, 3 mini puddings, 1 bottle Chilean Haras de Pirque Cabernet Sauvignon: £153.56 inc service.

Pollen Street Social, 8-10 Pollen Street, London W1S 1NH 020 7290 7600

26 May 2011

The Olde Bell Inn, Hurley

A ringing endorsement for robust seasonality

Olde BellThe  interior of an old country inn, that from the outside looks unchanged and unchanging, is the last place I would expect quirky decoration in a dining room. Huge wooden benches with very high backs wrapped in rough blankets held on with leather straps. Glass carriage lamps on the walls, heavy pewter plates, a mixture of antique chairs and heavy oak tables all make for an unexpected charming atmosphere on a warm May evening.

Redecorated by interior designer Ilse Crawford in 2009, who includes Soho House, New York in her portfolio, the dining room is a lot of fun and not the only surprise. The menu is resolutely seasonal, including spring flavours and textures at every turn.  Head Chef, James Ferguson, trained by Ramsey and Hartnett with time spent in the kitchens of Fergus Henderson and Marco Pierre White at L’escargot has crafted a menu quirky enough to match the decor, but not too outré to put off the casual diner.

What it isn't is old fashioned country hotel dining, it is very modern even if the flavours are rooted in the fields, seas and gardens of England. Smoked ham hock terrine with spiced courgette chutney or whole quail , English peas, gem lettuce and mint couldn't shout louder about their terroir if they tried. My starter of fresh channel island crab, rock samphire and cucumber delivered a sweet seaside subtlety in the meat offset by the earthy note in the samphire and held together by the long strips of cucumber.

English asparagus, Ragstone goats cheese and elderflower cream, left the asparagus to do the talking. The cream a delicate mix of the Herefordshire unpasteurised cheese and local elderflower was a little too subtle and too creamy for my philistine palate and while delightful on its own didn’t actually enhance the fresh, zingy asparagus.

A main of saffron braised squid,fennel and grilled truffle potatoes delivered a rich sauce to accompany the delicately spiced and perfectly soft squid. The big surprise were the potatoes, not something you often get to say. Blue, black roughly textured tubers halved and topped with a garlic cream, I hadn’t seen the like since visiting Peru and thoroughly enjoyed the novelty, one I’d like to see more of on menus.

The Tamworth pork cutlet with braised chicory, white beans and smoked bacon packed a much bigger punch, a  right hook compared to the squid’s gentle jab. Its wonderfully hearty bean stew, oozing a saltiness from the bacon would have made a complete meal on its own without the huge pork chop on top. But what a piece of pig, thickly cut, golden on the outside but still moist and full of flavour, it was a piece of meat that genuinely put a smile on my face.

A short list of puddings spoke of seasonality and English comfort classics, treacle tart, orange marmalade sponge or rhubarb pavlova all sounded good but the garden sorrel pannacotta with strawberries from the Olde Bell’s garden was all we chose; that pork really didn’t leave room for much else. Perhaps the sorrel was way too refined for me. While it was a very well executed and creamy pannacotta I just couldn’t detect the flavour. The strawberries were a mixture of tiny intensely flavoured home grown fruits mixed with some larger berries that pretty obviously didn’t come from the garden. They would all have been quite happy on their own with the pannacotta so didn’t need the strawberry syrup which somehow managed to dominate the other flavours.

A minor gripe in an otherwise excellent evening.

Total cost for 2 starters, 2 mains, 1 pudding, 1 bottle Albarino £100.69 inc. 12.5% service

The Olde Bell Inn, High Street, Hurley SL6 5LX 01628 825881

12 April 2011

Hidden French Flies the Flag in Henley's Food Wilderness

With such a rich restaurant scene, boasting Michelin stars and creative chefs within 10 miles of the centre of Henley, it is a real suprise that the town itself has such a sorry culinary landscape.

In Bray you can't move for Michelin stars and Heston's gastro pubs. Marlow has the Hand & Flowers and Danesfield House where Adam Simmonds has just won a star. It also has the inspired but under rated Vanilla Pod. In Maidenhead you can visit The Royal Oak, also now boasting a star. Even just outside Henley there are excellent and thoughtful restaurants, Orwells in Shiplake Cross,The Olde Bell and the Black Boys in Hurley, stand out as does Ruchetta in Peppard Common.

Yet in Henley itself there is a series of chains, Hotel du Vin and a couple of independents, that are complacent and/or tired. Hotel du Vin is a perfectly servicable French bistro and does a very good Sunday lunch but always plays it safe. Two Italian's resting on their comfortable laurels in Villa Marina and Antico are competent but dull and expensive to boot. As for the Spanish tapas bar/restaurant La Bodega, all I would say is that it helps to have downed a few drinks first then you won't notice how poor an interpretation of tapas it is, or indeed how much you have somehow spent. Finally in this litany of sorrow I have never forgiven The Little Angel for trying to tell me a sorry pile of shredded lamb in gravy was lamb shank. It wasn't.

Sad then that one of the few places in the town itself that was trying to produce interesting flavours with some wit, the Three Tuns, seems to have closed. Yet the scene is not an unrelenting tide of gastronomic mediocrity filled by Brasserie Gerard's, Strada's, Zizzi's and Cafe Rouge, though God help us we have them all.

There is a little gem somehow concealed opposite Domino's pizza (and how I weep as I write those two words), Le Parisien, offering good quality French classics in a small former cafe flanked by Henley's book shop. Open now for more than six months, the restaurants darke exterior decor and discreet position on Bell Street make it easy to miss, which is perhaps why I haven't eaten there until now. Chef Patron Phillipe Brillant has worked in some top kitchens in his native France and in the UK, including Joel Rubichon, so has a very good classic pedigree. This shows in his simple execution and smart presentation.

As to the food I wasn't there to gorge myself just to have a nice Friday night supper, so I opted for the set menu while my companion chose from the A La Carte. An unexpected touch was the amuse bouch of artichoke and black truffle soup served in small elegant coffe cups. Full of complex flavours the earthy tones of the artichoke ofset by the truffle's richness it was a very pretty way to start the meal.

With only 20 covers that I counted, this is a restaurant that has to work hard to make its money, so on the Friday night that I visited it was disappointing that my partner and I were the only diners. This did lead to a certain amount of guilt on my part for though the maitre d', very French by the way, seemed happy to be there it still felt like something of an intrusion.

I can't imagine this happening in any part of London or even a few miles down the road in Marlow. Perhaps its a problem of marketing because its not a problem with the food, and they did tell us they were fully booked the following night.

Main courses of Confit de Canard and Emince de Boeuf with black peppercorn sauce, both served with saute potatos were good though I found the potatoes lacking crispness and was only happy once I had added extra seasoning to everything. Yet for all that this was still probably the best steak I have eaten in Henley, while the duck disappeared in double quick time.

A plate of four French cheeses followed. I confess to not knowing what they were, apart from a mildish roquefort, despite asking I just couldnt understand the answer from the maitre d' and was too embarrassed to ask more than once! However they were very good and helped us to finish an excellent value bottle of Cote du Rhone Villages.

So a very good French meal, served with class and care and unusual for the town of Henley. I am worried that Le Parisien won't last though. You just can't survive on 2 diners on a Friday night. From a purely selfish point of view please go and eat there and save us from chain food hell and complacency.

7 January 2011

No poncing about at Orwell's

It’s always disappointing when a pub you have enjoyed starts to go downhill, yet after a series of sorry changes typical of landlord’s Brakspear’s the White Hart in Shiplake Row was ripe for reinvention. Luckily for Shiplake a similar catastrophe had befallen The Goose in Britwell Salome, where the owner had deemed Chef Ryan Lamb’s food to be “too poncy” just weeks after winning a Michelin Star in early 2010. Opening Orwell’s with partner Liam Trottman in May 2010 the alleged “poncy” food has quickly become a favourite with both locals and Henley residents.

Named after the eponymous author who spent most of his childhood in Shiplake, the exterior has been spruced up while there have been few changes to the interior which retains the feel and atmosphere of a comfortable country pub, albeit one with white linen on the tables. The decor is simple with a few paintings and small sculptures provided by a local gallery and seasonal flowers placed on the tables. When we visited just before Christmas the bar was struggling as deliveries in the snow had been intermittent, so there was very little beer available on tap however the bottled ale was excellent (Brakspear’s Ferryman’s Gold), while the Bloody Mary making skills at the bar were exemplary.

Front of house is one of the elements that sets Orwell’s apart. I’m sure we all expect a friendly, warm welcome yet so often it is missing to be replaced by arrogance or indifference. Not so the case with Orwell’s where Michael and his young team genuinely seem to be pleased that you are their guests. Throughout the meal they are efficient, friendly and just as importantly knowledgeable about the food.

We were at Orwell’s for lunch to celebrate a birthday and would probably have welcomed a bit of “poncy food” however what appeared was far from it and all the better for that. Meat and veg are sourced locally wherever possible, with a daily delivery of fish fresh of the boat from Brixham. The local, fresh element was reflected in all of our meals such as the starter that two of us opted for, Rabbit Scotch Egg. This is an immaculate little ball of crunchy breadcrumbs, full of soft aromatic rabbit with a still runny quail’s egg at its core. Delicate and light this gem of a dish belies the heavy reputation of the Scotch Egg. Of our two companions one had a simple starter of smoked salmon on toast which looked and indeed was reported as being “very tasty”, while the other had a poached hen’s egg with watercress and an unidentifiable and possibly unnecessary green foam. All very simple, all full of flavour.

My Venison and Ale pie, served with very good crisp but fluffy chips was slightly, but only slightly, disappointing. I like a pie to be a pie with the lid an integral part of the dish, not an afterthought cooked separately and then placed on top. Hidden beneath this lid however was a rich, meat packed delight. Indeed I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such a high density of meat in a pie, and while relatively small it was thoroughly filling, with hints of rosemary and juniper amongst the deep flavours of the local deer. I could quibble that the species of deer wasn’t mentioned, as we know venison is not generic, however this is entirely forgivable.

The birthday girl also had pie, but in her case a very hearty, unctuous, rich and flavoursome Cottage Pie. Birthday girl’s partner had yet another version of pie, the steak and ale, it was after all well into the minus figures outside and internal heating was order of the day. Completely stuffed all of us were reluctant to view the desert menu, yet our weak wills and temptation prevailed. A smooth Burnt Cream (Crème brûlée) with the correct depth of vanilla was served with Chocolate short bread that was crunchy, crumbly, fresh and light.

Orwell’s is delightfully free of “poncy food”, it is in fact the complete opposite; good, contemporary and hearty, executed with skill while the service is warm and charming, all at a price point that will keep you coming back. Our meal for four including starter, mains and two puddings, with two beers, a G&T and a large glass of red came to £99. There is a short but good wine list, though as we had two drivers with us we didn’t indulge. Look out for Orwell’s offers too, currently a two course lunch for £10 and dinner for £19.95.

Orwell’s Shiplake, Shiplake Row, Binfield, Oxfordshire, RG9 4DP. 01189 403673 eat@orwellsatshiplake.co.uk www.orwellsatshiplake.co.uk