The Charles Lamb, Islington

It’s a curious thing. Mention the Charles Lamb to anyone familiar with Islington and you get one of two reactions. It’s either an immediate grin and an ‘omigodilovethatplace’, launching into stories of sneaky after work pints and lazy weekend lunches, or blank. Nothing. 

To those of you in the latter camp, you really should give the Charles Lamb a try. It’s tucked away behind Angel but utterly removed from the madness of Upper Street.

We went in on a Saturday – the obviously named Map room (also known as the Cheese room, as the lead glass window once served as a shop front from which cheese was sold) and the bar itself were empty when we arrived as everyone sat outside in the sunshine. We walked around reading the art works, lots of typography pieces including some from New North Press, and Steven Kenny’s Please Don’t Feed Mascha signs.  They refer to the resident dog, whose art dealer owners have curated the wonderful collection on the walls. I liked the magnifying glass provided to properly examine the map of 1890s London poverty.

Darren, the very affable manager, talked us through the menu of the day and also told us a little more about their suppliers. They buy locally (including Exeter St Bread and McKanna Meats)  and seasonally as much as possible – many of the vendors they use call them on a daily basis to tell them what’s been caught or is good that day and they plan menus accordingly. As a result, the menu changes frequently and it’s a ‘first come first served’ mentality but their bar menu has some constants too. 
I started with a Fentiman’s Ginger beer as we were hot and sticky after the walk there, and the boy went for that traditional hangover vanquisher, the Bloody Mary. Turns out they liven it up with a dash of Caol Ila, which got the thumbs up – can’t bear tomato juice myself.
 
We started on foccacia with a delicious fruity olive oil, waiting for the first course. The Chicken liver pate from the bar menu was a very generous portion, and when we cracked the disc of buttermilk coloured fat on top there was warm, unctuous, velvety pate waiting underneath which came with heaps of cornichons and wedges of toast.
 

I went for the Raw candy beetroot, mint and feta salad (£6.50) while the boy ordered the Salt beef sandwich (£8) which had tongues of translucent pickle slices hanging out the side, and thick slices of juicy beef. The plan was to divide and share as usual but I found myself hanging on to the salad – this sort of thing doesn’t normally happen. The boy had a pint of the rather good Harviestoun Schiehallion to go with it – it won Best pilsner 2010 and was hoppy, rich, reminded me of a San Francisco craft beer.

We were persuaded into desserts, the pannacotta was particularly popular and when it arrived it was a full wine glass with glorious speckles of vanilla bean showing through. It emerged that I still hate pannacotta but I wouldn’t have been able to wrestle it away from the boy anyway and he really wouldn’t have had a look in at my frangipane tart with the sharpest imaginable red fruit coulis on top, which cut the sweetness perfectly.
When we were in there, a couple of lost tourists who’d presumably come up from the nearby Regent’s Canal came in and asked what local beers they had.  Darren replied  almost innocently ‘Well, pretty much everything in here is local’.    Then a woman came in saying she was looking for ‘Daniel and Charlie’ – Darren said he hadn’t seen them yet. Turns out she was referring to one of the regulars and his spaniel. We quizzed him about whether they do private hire (at the time we were looking for a pub to hold a party after our wedding) and he explained that as they are a local pub, and in a residential area, they only close the pub for regulars or neighbours. That way, he explains, if someone asks why they were closed on Wednesday night, he can say ‘Oh, No 15 were having a birthday party’ which is acceptable apparently.  All I can say is, Elia St and its nearby residents are very lucky indeed.
Thanks to Hannah at Story PR for arranging for us to visit.

Charles Lamb
16 Elia Street
Islington N1 8DE

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Jamie Oliver: Fifteen London and Recipease

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve had the pleasure of running into some of the very wonderful Jamie Oliver crew.  A couple of weeks ago we gathered at Fifteen, lured by the promise of what turned out to be, frankly, the finest Hot Cross Buns known to man.

There they are in all their sticky glossy gloriousness. We had the privilege of sitting with the lovely Kenny, master baker at Fifteen who’d also made delicious candy-coloured rhubarb and ginger jam which we piled on high, before I proceeded to pillage the vast brunch menu, and order….

Yeah. The fruit plate and the porridge. I was obviously having some sort of healthy epiphany (short-lived, natch) but it was actually very good and here’s where I think Fifteen scores very highly – it does a proper brunch. By that I mean there are decent Bloody Marys – ok, not unlimited but let’s not run before we can walk here –  and a wide range of food options from sweet to savoury with the traditional hangover cures in the middle. I did slightly wish I’d followed Louis‘ example and had the eggy brioche though because actually, I think anything coming out of Kenny’s kitchen is going to be superbly good and just having his sourdough bread toasted and spread with jam and salty butter all morning would have been an absolute treat.  We lingered through to almost lunchtime – we’ll go again and it would be great if the breakfast was served longer at the weekend. For weekdays, they have free wifi too….

I lived around the corner from Fifteen when it first opened and Jamie Oliver started spreading his mission about getting ‘hard to reach’ young people into professional kitchens and training them to be fully qualified.  It’s hard to believe that that was ten years ago.  Now the empire spans Cornwall and Amsterdam too. Jamie’s passion for cooking, and equally food education is legendary. Recipease is another part of his mission.

Uyen and I went down to take a knife skills class (apparently the most popular class they run at the Clapham Junction location). The rather brilliant Annegrete, a professional chef who used to work at Fifteen, put us through our paces for the two hour class.  This was after having a good mosey around the very well curated selection of homewares and merchandise in the shop – you really could drop serious cash here.  The classes are reasonably priced – £30 for ours including cooking our own lunch, and a glass of wine thrown in, plus you get 10% off in the shop afterwards.

What were the most important things I took away from the class? Well, apart from how to prepare prawns properly which was a bit of a bonus, there was the following:

  • how to properly and efficiently sharpen knives – dull equals dangerous
  • move the hands and the blade, keep the food steady
  • make sure the food is stable and set in place
  • place a damp kitchen towel under your board to keep it stable
  • how to rock chop, tap chop and cross chop safely (no slap chop necessary here thank you)

Some on Twitter asked how basic the class was.  Well, the skills are basic but I think a lot of us who consider ourselves competent in the kitchen are probably not as fast or indeed as efficient as we could be in terms of knife skills.  We all thought we’d progressed pretty far during the class and then Annegrete proudly told we’d done well, and with six months’ practice, we’d be great. Gulp.

Being able to cook is such a fundamental life skill but where do most of us pick up the basics? Well, probably at home, if we’re lucky, or we pick up things from books, blogs and TV. I did suffer through a couple of years of home economics in secondary school but I can guarantee they never let us near anything useful like knives. In Jamie’s Dream School currently showing on Channel 4, he seems to be doing his own, more useful take on home ec – i.e. here’s how to chop properly – so that you can cook a meal that’s faster and cheaper than a take away. That’s real home economics to me. Bless Jamie. Long may his mission continue.  (Watch his chopping demo here)

The Trattoria at Fifteen London is open for breakfast and brunch 7:30am to 11:00am Monday to Saturday, and 8:00am to 11:00am Sunday.

Recipease, Clapham Junction, Battersea, 48-50 St Johns Road, SW11 1PR

Thank you to the fabulous Hannah Norris at Nourish and the crew at Recipease for inviting me.

Clarence Court Eggs and the Heston Hidden Orange Christmas Pudding

What could be better than having Mark Hix expound personally on why he recommends Clarence Court eggs at a select tasting in the private dining room at Hix Soho? Better than doing a blind comparison of three egg brands via steaming plates of creamy scrambled and perfectly presented boiled eggs? Better than the eggselent* three course eggy menu that was served up to us afterwards?
The answer is “Taking home 2 doz eggs in an Orla Kiely goodie bag”. BRING IT ON.

Mark Hix talked to us about why he’s a Clarence Court Ambassador (partly the vivid yellow colour of the egg yolks – as he said, you eat with your eyes too), chattered about the modern art (all of the art in the restaurant was specially commissioned) and we had Tonnix wine to drink (a collaboration between him and Mitch Tonks, conceived over a lunch at their mutual Portuguese wine merchant, label designed by their mate Tracey Emin) and tried different a trio of egg dishes.  I loved the posset which surprised me – usually not a fan of that type of dessert.

I’m already a fan of Clarence Court’s Burford Browns, and as it happened we’d just shopped so I was looking at a fridge containing 36 eggs. It’s not that big a fridge. First off, a luxurious Saturday breakfast of boiled duck egg and sourdough toast. (if only we’d had truffles too we could have tried to recreate our favourite Tristan Welch starter at Launceston Place) After 5:40 mins precisely as mandated by Delia, they were little pools of yolky sunshine and my only complaint was I hadn’t been offered two of them. The chef pointed out that they’re bigger than chicken eggs. I  tried to nick some of his and had to make do with purloining toast.

I’d contemplated making quail scotch eggs but on an evening when I knew I had to use up 500g of mince, the boyf had an inspired idea: thanks to his flicking through Nigella’s “Kitchen“, we ended up with Meatloaf.

Rather than the chicken eggs which she naturally suggests, I used one duck egg to bind it all admirably and nestled 10 hardboiled quail eggs into the centre of the meat. It works a treat as every slice has a reasonable allocation of egg throughout.

Finally I decided to attempt my grandmother’s custard to finish the eggs – I reckoned it would be the perfect accompaniment to something else in the fridge – the Heston from Waitrose Hidden Orange Pudding. I’d been thrilled when Waitrose sent me one and then hesitated to open it. My Dad *loves* Christmas pudding and I knew I’d be very popular if I brought it home.
Like “home”, home.
To Ireland, for Christmas. That was a month away at that stage.
Boo. Then Helen kindly said she had lots left over in her fridge and gave me some, and I get to be awarded the “Best Daughter” prize. Win!!

I have to admit, I really liked the pud. Mainly because it smelled just like the one my Mum makes, so it was going to be a winner, though Mum’s pud has certainly never strayed anywhere near an orange, and it’s honestly nothing like a Sussex Pond Pudding (one of my colleagues pointed out that that was where the inspiration probably came from) but I like the whole nuts and the sweetness – it was rather less stodgy than Christmas pud can regrettably be.  Famously, it sold out and there wouldn’t be any more on offer as they take too long to mature.  That makes feel almost churlish saying how well it went with proper egg custard, made with one of the last Burford Browns.

Ingredients

  • 1 Burford Brown egg yolk, at room temperature.
  • 10 g sugar
  • 100ml whole milk
  • 1 vanilla pod or vanilla essence to taste

Method

  1. Mix the milk and sugar in a saucepan
  2. Put the vanilla seeds or essence into the mixture to infuse and then bring it slowly to the boil
  3. Beat the egg yolk
  4. Slowly pour the hot mixture over the egg yolk , beating constantly so the yolk doesn’t curdle
  5. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and whisk constantly while heating gently until it coats the back of the spoon.

Now it’s on to a dry January, and a vast stacked of Post-It’d book marks.  Lots of new recipes to try this year.

Fernandez and Leluu + Unearthed = Action Against Hunger

Imagine being a small or artisan food producer – possibly a family firm, making a product you believe in, to what’s probably a tried and tested recipe. Something you’re passionate about and believe in, and want to be able to focus on perfecting.

Or a committed foodie, a consummate party-thrower, someone for whom “fun” is inviting thirty strangers over to your house three times a week and producing dish after dish of marvellous morsels to an unknown audience.

Simon Day created Unearthed Foods as a way to not only showcase but to distribute fantastic regional continental foods in the UK. With links into major retailers, they can get great exposure for smaller brands and allow the manufacturers to concentrate on production. Importantly, they also operate a robust supply chain so that the logistics make sense and they can import goods from a number of different locations in Europe efficiently. That makes more goods affordable for the consumer here too, and helps support the company’s aim of introducing regional specialties to this market. I guess that, technically, coordinated shipping reduces the carbon footprint too?

Fernandez and Leluu are long-time favourites of mine and they were a great pairing with Unearthed.  Simon  Fcame up with some fantastic combinations, using Unearthed products along with original dishes – sweetcorn soup with chorizo oil drizzle above. The first course included unctuous rillettes from Le Mans, not unlike the ones I had when I spent time in that city as a teenager. Nothing you could have told me as a seventeen year old would have convinced me that a couple of decades later I’d be wolfing them down, I loathed them then. But paired with oyster mushrooms cooked in wine and butter, and they were unbelievably moreish.  This was probably my favourite course of the evening – or was it the pears poached in champagne and vanilla? The broken rice was damn good too. As were the flamenquines.  We were also treated to Campo Viejo wines and both the Rioja and the cava went down really well.

There was such a buzzy crowd, the chatter was so loud we were on the verge of yodelling at each other, while cooing over each successive course as it appeared before us. Conversation and consumption aside, there was actually a more important reason for us all to be gathered together.

Action Against Hunger.  They’ve moved on from their ‘Fight Hunger Eat Out‘ campaign in September and October to focus on ‘Fight Hunger Eat In’. You see where they’re going with this.  I’ve had many fabulous meals in supperclubs for a donation of about £35. That’s roughly the amount of money that’s required to treat a child for malnutrition which is pretty sobering. Providing tools for a family costs around £20 (and if you donate online and are a UK taxpayer, boost your donation with Gift Aid).  Unearthed will donate 1p from all sales, and they’re aiming to support a project in Zambia for grandparent-headed families, where parents have died (mainly due to AIDS) and the children are now the responsibility of elderly relatives who may be unable to work or support them.

Check out Fernandez and Leluu’s great tips on entertaining, stock up on Unearthed tapas if you don’t want to cook and get some friends around.  Cook for them and ask them to make a donation to the charity as ‘payment’.  If you’re allergic to kitchens perhaps consider buying the charity lunch – donating the same amount as your next restaurant meal. It really is all in a good cause.

Thanks to Fernandez and Leluu, Unearthed, and Wildcard.

Vive La Cheese: La Fromagerie

At a recent Vive Le Cheese event we tasted both French cheeses and the concepts of bien vivre – or how to live well.  For me, as for many of the people who’d call themselves “foodie”, I suspect, quality of living and food are inextricably linked. Yeah, I pretty much live for food, it seems. That’s why we not only look for interesting dining experiences, but we are willing to hunt for obscure ingredients (or get friends to track them down abroad), make space for any number of unusual kitchen gadgets at the risk of skewering ourselves every time we open a cupboard, and plan holidays around restaurants bookings. Having spent time in France as a teenager I was always entranced by the amount of ceremony around mealtimes and eating there, even for everyday dining.

Bien Vivre is Vive Le Cheese’s way of convincing us of how a little effort can be disproportionately rewarding: if you must eat at your desk, then clear a space and put down a proper cloth napkin and have a china plate to eat your Pain Poilâne with some perfectly ripened Brie de Meaux, with a dressed salad.  It’s an admirable concept.  I’m not saying I always manage to do that – of course I don’t – but I do make an effort to cook meals from fresh ingredients.  Is that enough?

Even among those of us who claim a real interest in food, I suspect meaningful engagement is still patchy. We cook when we have time, we like good restaurants, but we also buy ready meals, takeaways and, often, choose restaurants on price rather than quality. The genuine ‘foodie’ hardcore: those people who cook every day, using local, seasonal non-supermarket ingredients; and who always eat at similarly conscientious independent restaurants, is how many? A few hundred thousand people nationally? That isn’t a criticism, incidentally. Britain’s food infrastructure is against us. Who, here, realistically, could completely boycott the supermarkets or Pizza Express, even if they wanted to?

The Kitchen Counter Revolution, Guardian Word of Mouth

I guess I don’t qualify as foodie by the definition above –  I don’t buy ready meals but I mix local retailers along with basic supermarket shopping for a variety of reasons including time and cost. (I’d be Waitrose and Ginger Pig all the way if I could but sometimes the pennies just don’t stretch.) Sometimes organic and Fairtrade are crucial, other times you dash to Tesco. But when you find those shops and retailers who specialise and enthuse about ingredients, and who are willing to share that knowledge, that’s when the true value of a relationship with a retailer comes into its own.

We spent a great evening at La Fromagerie, or Cheese Heaven as it should probably be known.  Vive Le Cheese and Patricia Michelson came together to introduce us to the best of French cheeses along with wine matching and a visit to the Affineur Room to find out more about exactly what happens to cheeses to make them perfect for consumption.  One of Patricia’s firm rules is not allowing people to buy too much cheese.  Yes, really.  Not that there are quotas in operation, but as she explained, sometimes it’s just not the best way to experience food. Cheese is not long-lead. Rather than shifting kilos, she advises people to buy smaller amounts and return to replenish. That way they’re getting the freshest cheese in best possible condition – and unlike many shops, Patricia’s staff spent a lot of time getting the products to the optimum conditions for eating, and promptly.

We tasted a quartet of recipes, made up in La Fromagerie’s kitchen.  You can find all of them here. I was lucky to have snuck into a group with Katrina Alloway and Lucy Bridgers, both wine experts. The William Fevre 2008 Chablis AOC – 100% Chardonnay, was my choice for most of the dishes and Lucy remarked on how neutral and therefore versatile Chardonnay can be, and it complemented the eggs in the divine souffle, the pastry of the tart and the quiche, and the Reblochon fritters.

:: Roquefort PDO and Walnut Soufflé with Spiced Pear Chutney ::

The Chateau Coutet Sauternes-Barsac AOC 2004 was deemed ‘syrupy but in a good way’ when paired with the French Camembert and Fig Tart with Hazelnut Parsley Vinagrette which would make a fantastic dessert for those without a sweet tooth, if that makes sense.

We spent a chilly but entertaining half hour in the Affineur room, where JP talked us through how they prepare and essentially temper the cheeses. Most of the conditioning work is done in the Highbury shop, where they’re brought to temperature and moisture is added, washes are applied as necessary and so on. Affinage is essentially ‘putting your own stamp’ on it.  JP described it as having ‘a little bit of common sense, and a lot of love, for the product’.  Remember the concept of ‘terroir’ or territory when combining food and wine – items from the same region normally do well together as they come from the same ground, like serving Epoisses Affiné with a strong red Burgundy.

When storing cheese at home, double wrap in wax paper or put into Tupperware, and keep it in the fridge drawers or door.  La Fromagerie supply 89% of the London Michelin-starred restaurants and train the employees on how to maintain and maximise the cheese – trim them at the end of the evening, and store on a marble slab that’s cooled from underneath.  Again, they advise that they buy smaller amounts more often.  But don’t forget to use common sense when deciding how long you can keep cheese for – trust your nose, ultimately.  And you can always throw those parmesan rinds into soups or risottos.

The final part of the evening (sadly a little hurried) was tasting 10 different cheeses with Patricia.  I will be going back for the last ones we tasted, the Saint Nectaire, the Epoisses, Fourme D’Ambert and Vache Porte D’Aspe.  Absolutely sublime, particularly the blue. Patricia said that everything in the shop revolves around cheese (I should have asked her what to do with these) and it’s clear how passionate she is about it. This is where the benefit of local or specialist knowledge gets you excited about food again and you start planning dishes, dinners, ingredients sprees.  Her shop was one of the first of its kind and it’s enticing and inspiring. It also made me think about a French cheese tour this summer…

We left with dairy-fuelled glowing faces, and clutching recipe cards to remake the souffles and the rest at home. Next dinner party is definitely going to involve a cheese course. If I let the stuff leave the kitchen.

La Fromagerie, 2-6 Moxon Street, Marylebone, London W1U 4EW 020 7935 0341

Thanks to Patricia and all at La Fromagerie, Vive Le Cheese, and Katrina Alloway

Brunch Extreme at the InterContinental Park Lane

At the beginning of brunch at the InterContinental London Park Lane yesterday, someone from the hotel asked me if I’d ever been there before.  A Park Lane hotel? No, not recently and not without a corporate event to attend. I imagine many London-dwellers are the same – generally when we want to go out to eat or drink, we don’t think of hotel restaurants or bars as a first option.  Those lovely Qype people folks arranged for a small group of people to go to the Cookbook Café and find out precise what they have to offer, and to see if we should reconsider.

One of the massive benefits of going to a venue with Qype, apart from the company, is that you get the best service imaginable, lots of attention and often special access – in our case, Paul Bates, the executive chef joined us for brunch and talked us through the menu.  The vast, bottomless bellini’d menu.  That’s right, folks. Choose from five different type of nectar then add Crémant de Bourgogne, swirled together in a champagne flute til the cows come home. Or til 4:00pm, I suppose, when the brunch finishes.

You start off with the Market Table – a buffet which starts with a bread selection and cold meats, and homemade piccalilli and chutney. Then it explodes into more lunch-like salads (vast bowls of chickpeas, greek salad), fruit salad.  There are pastries, juices and coffee of course too. Round to the other side of the table and it’s filled with local cheeses and sashimi.

::  Tuna Tataki ::

:: Lucious pepper salad ::

:: Seasonal preserves ::

While the group made a trip – or two – to the buffet, Paul chatted to all of us about the inspiration behind the menus and the cafe itself. As the name suggests, it’s inspired by cookery books and at first they used to faithfully reproduce dishes from the books that are on sale around the room. Nowadays they occasionally use some of the recipes for inspiration, especially when catering for events but create the menus themselves.  On sunny day like yesterday, it felt bright and airy in there – well, air-conditioned of course.  We were sitting up at the rear of the room, almost on a mezzanine level which would be great to book out for a big group. The diners were a mixture of a sloaney young crowd who looked to have been staying at the hotel, possibly for a wedding, couples, tables of ladies who appeared to be there specifically for the food and who were making numerous visits to the buffets. Can’t blame them.

:: Eggs Benedict ::

If you fancy something hot along with the Market Table, you can move on to the Full Breakfast option. Eggs any way, hash browns, bacon and sausages, potato cakes or a freshly baked waffle.  Go for the waffle. Also available on the À la Carte, we shared plates of these and the American-style pancakes.  The maltyness, the light crispy texture, and the plethora of toppings (chocolate sauce, maple syrup, that instrument of the devil that is clotted cream, fresh compote, waxy pistachios) made it my favourite part of the menu.  Ok, of that part of the menu.

Sticking with the more traditional brunch items, we also ordered the eggs benedict and most of tried the Corn and Scallion pancakes with wild rocket and scrambled eggs, both very good with sunshine yellow yolks spilling out of the eggs which are sourced from Berkshire. Reducing food miles is a concern for the hotel – as Paul reasonably pointed out, food that is procured locally costs less, is fresher and is seasonal.

On to the lunch dishes.  Yes, that’s right. We were only halfway through.

:: Pinkly perfect lamb and implausibly creamy mash ::

:: Gently spiced Monkfish ::

:: Courgette tart ::

I never would have guessed that I’d choose the vegetarian option as by far my favourite of these choices. Sweet roasted vegetables and buttery pastry. It even surpassed the lamb and duck-fat roasted potatoes for me.

To finish, we felt it obligatory to try the desserts trolley (that makes it sound insubstantial, or a chore – it wasn’t.)  Ok, I admit it, I saved space.  Here’s the plate I liberated (to share, honest).

:: Desserts selection ::

Clockwiseish from top left: Nutmeg creme brulee, hazelnut brownie, chocolate torte topped with praline and nuts, baked cheesecake, champagne mousse with raspberry jelly, Bakewell tart. I particularly loved the cheesecake, it was creamy without being claggy, and utterly moreish.

We finally, reluctantly left the table – though we’d dined for almost three hours, and moved off for a tour of the kitchens (photos on Flickr) exiting through Theo Randall’s restaurant. You can see some of the spirits in his backlit bar above – it’s somewhere I’d certainly like to come back and visit. It was named Italian Restaurant of the Year 2008 in the London Restaurant Awards and I’ll also be looking out for his book Pasta, coming from Ebury in June.  We visited the 7th floor club and then said our final goodbyes before dispersing gradually back into the sunshine for the rest of the afternoon.

Stars *****

Yes, it was a treat but our experience yesterday made me reconsider looking into what London’s top hotels have to offer. The brunch at the Cookbook Café offers bewildering amounts of choice, with literally something to suit everyone. Take a group, get everyone to plump for the £39 Bubbles and Brunch option and linger for a Bloody Mary or Bellini fuelled catch-up session.

Thanks to TikiChris, Qype and the lovely Esther, Charles and of course Paul at the InterContinental

London Supper Clubs: Fernandez & Leluu and After Eight

Happily, it seems to me like Fernandez & Leluu has been around for ages – probably because we were lucky enough to first discover it back in November and have been back many times, including one of the best New Year’s Eves I’ve ever had. But they’re mere babes when you compare them to Jim Haynes, a seasoned supper club host with thirty-five years’ experience. I was thrilled when After Eight and Qype invited us to share an evening of dining, drinking and story-telling at one of our favourite east London (or anywhere) dining spots.

Not a typical supper club evening, in that it was buffet style rather than seated.  The After Eight mixologist in the corner was an excellent touch too, with four cocktails on offer.  No wonder I liked them all, as most were made with Tanqueray and I’m much better with that than vodka. The Bramble was tart, the Spring Collins was the choice of the night, the Rose Club one was surprisingly alcoholic (Niamh got the name of the liqueur which she thought would be perfect for bellinis, raspberry and rose I think) and the After Eight Alexander was creamy, minty, chocolatey, laced with cognac: I don’t usually like cream-based drinks but it was wonderful.  The barman was rather pleased with that because he wanted to keep the flavour of the chocolate itself, which he managed admirably.

Oh – the food? Prawns in a lime-citrus mayonnaise, a slab of dense terrine, springy fresh summer rolls, delicately fried spring rolls, crunchy chicken salad for starters.  Followed by perfectly cooked beef carpaccio, Uyen’s homemade foccaccia, mashed potato in potato skins, and marinated mushrooms that I would have sold my soul for.  Bread and Butter pudding – more like a crumbly little gingery scone – with Summer Fruits.  I bet you’d like to see a photo of that… um, yeah. It seems I mainly captured the guests.  So here’s some we ate earlier (ok, last year):

This time at Simon and Uyen’s it was as much about the company as the food, and listening to Jim explain how he’d initially opened his Parisien home to friends, then randoms, for over three decades (a house guest wanted to say thank you for his hospitality, and so volunteered to cook for a group of his friends: now it happens weekly, they accept 60 or more guests each Sunday depending on whether the garden space can be used and it’s a guest chef as often as Jim himself). We were all intent on inviting ourselves even before he (possibly maybe – not really) invited us all over to stay with him – yaaaay, I’m packing the bag and booking the Eurostar this evening!

He’s a natural raconteur with a genuine interest in people which helps to explain why he’s continued on with this for so long – and this is something he shares with Uyen and Simon.  Anyone who’s game enough to open their home to strangers on a monthly or even weekly basis not only has a passion for cooking but a great curiosity about life and fellow man.  Or is very, very brave. Either way I’m so glad, as supper clubs have provided some of my favourite meals over the past year.

What’s so exciting about underground restaurants, as much as the food, is being thrown together at a table with people you might never meet otherwise.  That could be risky, but to be fair we’ve only been to one supper club, elsewhere, with a ‘rogue diner’ who was rather painful, and demanding.  Though that can happen at anyone’s dinner party once the wine is flowing, or at any restaurant for that matter.  The pay-off is benefitting from fantastic hospitality – Uyen and Simon excel at this – with imaginative menus and the freshest ingredients.  We ate, drank and chattered until rather too late on a schoolnight Tuesday. Of course we finished as the After Eights were being passed around (a stalwart of childhood Christmas times.  As proven the other night, the correct way to eat them is to daintily nibble off a corner, and then post the rest of it into your mouth like a Lego man into a VHS player).  We stumbled home very happily (him: the cocktails, me: uncomfortable shoes).  Roll on the next night!

Thanks to Fernandez and Leluu, Qype, and Jo Seymour Taylor/After Eight