Friday, April 28, 2006

With this Independent photographer, you are really spoiling us

I don't know what impression of me this blog gives - I fondly imagine that anyone who reads it thinks I am a devil-may-care carouser with a bulging address book and borderline alcohol problem. How this mythical reader would square that with me having enough time to write 1000 words of fatuous commentary on my life about twice a week I do not know. But for one week only, let me tell you, I am living the dream.

Yes, that's right, I've had two meals out this week. Hold on to your hats, for I am a fully-fledged gastronome, the Giles Coren of SE16, only less miserable and not even a tiny bit Jewish. (Neither will I include the phrase "he began to plan a relaxing afternoon wank" in my debut novel.)

Last night's destination was the Ambassador on Exmouth Market, which the Man of Taste & Substance chose, having read a glowing review in the Metro by Marina "Yummy" O'Loughlin (on the web here).

The fact that we were on the gastro cutting edge was reinforced when we turned up, late and slightly pie-eyed (in my case) and were shown to a positively spartan table and chairs, the French wooden curvy-backed ones that numb your buttocks within seconds and usually have one dodgy leg. Despite the fact there was clearly a cloakroom, no one offered to take our coats. Had we done something wrong? Were we not cutting edge enough? I was wearing a pencil skirt and stripes, goddammit. Man of Taste and Substance was wearing a flowery shirt! Did we smell uncool?

The reason for the staff's distraction soon became clear, however. "I hope you don't mind," the waiter said sheepishly, "but there's a photographer from the Independent here tonight." I looked round - ah, of course. There he was, lining up his lens directly at our table, in order to get the best shot of me shovelling reasonably-priced bistro food into my gaping maw. Thank God no-one reads the Independent.

I can only assume the Indy snapper's presence indicated that the culinary bandwagon was drawing up outside. The day before, the Standard's Fay Maschler had given the Ambassador four stars. This was looking hot. And Marina had found herself in thrall to the rabbit ravioli, apparently, and I was looking forward to feeling the same.

As it turned out, it was not to be. You see, this is one of those places with five or six options for each course which change regularly. And rabbit ravioli had been cruelly displaced by squid and pig's cheek casserole. Ho hum.

But the pared-down menu seemed logical, given the surrounds. This is that rare and successful creation, a restaurant that knows what it wants. It's all about good, fresh, seasonal ingredients and nothing else. The cuts of meat on offer - such as pork belly and the aforementioned cheeks - are relatively cheap, but repay long, slow cooking by becoming melt-in-the-mouth delicacies. I like this in a restaurant - as Anthony Bourdain put it, any chimp can fry a steak or boil a lobster. Even I can at home, really. Making something edible out of the offcuts is proper cooking.

"Yes," agreed Man, tucking into the foie gras and chicken terrine (this choice, followed by the veal, meant he had plumped for the No Ethics Special). "It's peasant food, isn't it, for people who are time-rich and cash-poor?"

Hold on, I thought, that's me. Why I am not at home, sweating some scrag end? Because, crucially, I am still frightened of weird meat. We were very much a chicken breast and pork chop kind of household, so as a child my only encounter with the outer fringes of meatiness was Dad's yearly purchase of andouilette and tete de veau on holiday. Well, andouilette smells of poo, and tete de veau is a horrific concept. It has taken me years to recover, and although I enjoyed the bone marrow salad at St John, and even a piece of pigeon so rare blood oozed out of it as I cut it, I still have a problem. Only last year I bottled out of cooking pig's trotters when I realised I would have to shave them first.

Anyway, it's not just lesser known cuts of meat that the Ambassador gives an airing, but vegetables too. "Shit. What's an endive?" I hissed behind the menu.
"It's a root vegetable, um, one of those ones with leaves and a stalk," said Man. "I think it's one of those ones that's, er, thicker at the base."
I sniggered like the fourteen-year-old boy I am inside.

The starters arrived almost freakishly fast. I can understand the speed of the terrine's appearance, as I'm sure they just chop a slice off a big slab in the kitchen, but I would have thought the pig's cheek and squid casserole might have taken a bit more time. But if they did just bung it in the microwave (which I'm sure you can't do to squid) you couldn't tell. I snaffled some of the terrine - outstanding - before returning to my own starter. My major problem with squid is the way it looks, and this looked like a plate of arseholes.

Thankfully, it tasted like squid, all squeaky and fresh, but cooked just right with a little bit of bite, which perfectly complemented the falling-apartness of the cheek meat. And it was just the right size; my bouche was certainly amused, but I was still keen to get involved with my main: Grilled Charolais Rib-eye Steak with Swiss Chard and Bone Marrow Gremolata.

With a certain don't-fuck-with-me stare, I had ordered the steak rare, and by god had they taken me at my word. Thick slices of beef had a brown rim but plenty of red, glistening core, slathered in meaty, snotty breadcrumb and marrow mix.
"What's that, then?" I said, forking a celery-like structure underneath the beef.
"That must be the Swiss Chard," said Man.
"And that would be?"
"Well, it's celery stuff, I suppose," he continued, and looked at me appraisingly. "It's, um, thicker at the..."

But I had already started snickering in a juvenile fashion again, and I swear I even heard a click from the photographer. Shit.

My humiliation was complete, but not the meal. The dessert menu arrived - some sort of chocolate tart, panna cotta ("Bollocks to panna cotta," said Man, fervently) and quince and apple pave. "I'm not having that," I said - thinking, in for a penny, in for a pound. "That sounds too much like quim." So we both had the cheese course.

Bizarrely, they brought the cheese (or rather, three cheeses) out to show us, before whisking it away and returning with three small chunks of it on a plate. I can understand the point of bringing a trolley for you to choose from, but this seemed pointless. "It's like showing you the instruments of torture," mused Man. At any rate, it was good cheese - I would love to tell you what it was, but the young man who had briefly shown us the cheese had mumbled the names too quietly and quickly to discern anything. One of them was clearly Roquefort, the other Brie-ish, and the third some sort of hard cheese which gave off a thrillingly ammonic whiff but turned out to be reasonably mild.

I suppose at this point I should report back on the bogs, seeing as they've become such a hot topic. The ladies' were red. Unpleasantly red, like being trapped inside a strawberry. And all the doors looked the same, so it took me some minutes to get back out. What about the gents? "They've got mirrors on facing walls. You can see yourself reflected an infinite number of times." No agreement on whether this a good or bad thing.

Including service, and a bottle of wine more expensive than was strictly necessary under the circumstances, the meal came to £90. So go quickly if you want to, because I hear the clattering hooves of the culinary bandwagon on the approach, and it might well do a Galvin and be fully booked until the end of time soon. And that would be shame, because buttock numbing and affection for humorous vegetables aside, it was very good.

A humorous vegetable, yesterday.


Blogger galatea said...

It may be some time before I post again, because I need to watch Ok Go's A Million Ways video another five thousand times.

(You can watch it here, but I warn you that you may never get anything productive done again as you and three friends try to master the 'Matrix' bit.)

4/30/2006 5:16 pm  
Blogger Aidan said...

The most, er, "weird meat" (nice phrase) I've eaten would probably be lamb's tongues, which sound unutterably repulsive but were actually very tasty...
Mind you, I was so much younger then, I'm... ever-so-slightly older than that now... and would have to opt for the Linda McCartney-approved Quorn "Fun-Tongues" or somesuch...
Restaurant reviews, though. Enviable always. Unless you're sat opposite la Marina, perhaps.

5/03/2006 2:16 am  
Anonymous lb said...

I'm still trying to get my head around the fact that the top of my "No Ethics Special" veal was actually crunchy. Unless they'd given me prok by mistake and I was just incredibly unobservant.

Very impressed that there was a Cahors on the wine list, though...

5/03/2006 7:24 am  
Anonymous lb said...

Er, that should have been "pork", obviously.

5/03/2006 7:25 am  
Blogger galatea said...

Apparently Antony Worrall Thompson (host of the hilariously amateur Saturday Morning Kitchen) is obsessed with lambs' tongues. So Notting/Kew Grill could probably sort you out.

And perhaps the crust on your No Ethics Special was no more than the crystallised tears of all those tiny baby cows, trapped in that nasty lorry without the love of their mothers?

5/03/2006 12:58 pm  
Blogger leflange said...

Boris Johnson lovers go here for a video of the ENgland Germany legends game

5/04/2006 11:41 am  
Blogger galatea said...

My friend was telling me that he rugby tackled someone in a game of football. Is this true?

5/04/2006 5:15 pm  
Blogger leflange said...

Well, I mean, honestly. Why don't you just watch the video on the link I sent you?


5/05/2006 10:00 am  
Blogger galatea said...

Oooh, you're mean.

5/06/2006 1:43 pm  

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