Wednesday 30 January 2013

Tea? It's taking the pee!

We are led to believe that our nation was built on cups of tea.

We are supposedly a nation of tea drinkers and yet (I feel) there is something very wrong with the reality. If you visit a Costa or Café Nero or (god help you) Starbucks you are met with a never-ending list of choices when ordering a coffee. Cappuccino, mocha, latte, macchiato, Americano etc. before you even get to what type of milk you want and what flavour you want added. I must confess that I sometimes enter a coffee shop un-prepared and get that panic when you just don’t know what you want so end up ordering a cappuccino. Do I want it grande? No, I just want a big one, speak properly.

So that’s coffee, but what about tea?

If you are lucky you might be able to order a different blend of tea, maybe a Ceylon or a Darjeeling instead of a standard English Breakfast. Whilst this is good (as each has a very individual taste) I have a problem with the serve. No matter how much it costs you (average of £1.50?) it is 99% of the time just a tea bag, with a cost of a few pence and absolutely no attempt to add value into the experience you get. If I pay that much for a cup of tea I want it to be made with leaf tea. I can’t make a coffee at home as good as a barista can but there is no difference when it comes to tea, it is exactly the same product made in exactly the same way.

In continental Europe it is most often a different story. I remember a particular example of sitting in a frankly crappy café in Kiev, Ukraine and ordering a tea. A fresh pot was made with leaf tea there and then in a beautiful transparent teapot and poured into a cup for me to drink. Great taste, great bit of theatre and something I don’t often replicate at home.

The large Coffee chains in the UK will tell us the reason is that generally older people drink tea and are less discerning whereas coffee is all about affluent, sophisticated young people. Whilst I accept that is must be skewed that way the reality is that millions and millions of younger people drink tea every day and want something better.

I surely can’t be alone in this? Rant over!

Monday 28 January 2013

Cheese club 24-01-2013

When my company was based in Chelmsford we had a cheese club. We met once a month to compare cheese, based around a ‘who can find the best brie’ sort of thing. We would score the cheese on a number of different criteria and award a winner, but basically it was an excuse for a few of us to grab a room and eat some cheese! We are trying to resurrect the idea in our new office in Hemel Hempstead.

I was supposed to be in Amsterdam last week and promised that I would bring back some Dutch cheese so we could have an impromptu cheese club meeting. Unfortunately my flight was cancelled because of the weather but we all brought cheese anyway, mainly from Tesco, and of a few different types. Five of us scored five different cheeses.

The results are below but they are sort of meaningless as we aren't comparing like with like, but fun all the same! The one thing we did agree upon was that the Worcestershire Sauce cheese looked disgusting, but smelt and tasted good! The winner was a classic, simple Norwegian Jarlsberg.

So, going to take the club a little more seriously in 2013 and introduce a proper competitive element, where like products are compared. Also planning to compare chutney and other accompaniments, so watch this space.

Just for the record, I'm pretty pleased with my 'Fight Club' style logo!

Sunday 27 January 2013

My daughter’s birthday tea

It was my daughter Olivia’s fourth birthday on Friday, so this afternoon we had two sets of grandparents and my brother-in-law, sister-in-law and nephew round for tea and cake. As it was a special occasion, I thought I would make a little more effort than the standard cake fare.

Firstly, key lime pie, a firm favourite in my family since visits to the Florida Keys in the 1990s. Sometimes I remember the pie being essentially a regular lime meringue and sometimes it is more like this, a much simpler (but tastier) recipe with no baking needed whatsoever. There is a whole pint of extra thick double cream in this and a can of condensed milk so it tastes amazing, the juice and flesh of three limes balances the sweetness. Today’s addition was the meringue on top, a different type of meringue from the norm. The egg white and sugar was whisked over a bain-marie and then piped onto the top, with slight colour provided by a blow torch. The addition of the meringue really makes this key lime pie something special.

Secondly, a raspberry gateau. This is my tried-and-tested Black Forest gateau recipe from Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course book (first published in 1978!) and like everything else in the book is 100% fool proof. I couldn’t get nice enough cherries so raspberries were substituted and the gateau amended. The chocolate cake tiers had raspberry syrup added, as did the whipped cream inside to give an intense raspberry flavour. Layers of raspberry jam (from Tiptree naturally) adorned each face of the chocolate cake tiers. I decided to further ‘pimp’ the gateau with a chocolate ganache topping. I loved this gateau and I think that three tiers make a cake special in a way that two just doesn't.

I think that Libby enjoyed her birthday and I am looking forward to another reason to make some special celebration cakes!

Friday 25 January 2013

Burn’s night supper

It may look like something you’d step in whilst walking down Princes Street, but I love haggis. No-one else in my household does so it is a rare treat. Robert Burns shares a birthday with my daughter so haggis is also something I associate with her. Unfortunately not served wi’ tatties an’ neeps but a great dinner this evening, with a wee dram of whiskey to accompany it.

Not going to share the whole of ‘Address to a Haggis’ as it is far too long, but here is Robert Burns’ final stanza.

Ye Pow'rs wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o' fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinkin ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu' prayer,
Gie her a haggis!

No idea what that means, but sounds good. A deep fried Mars bar would have made a suitable dessert, but I don't have a deep fat fryer!

Wednesday 23 January 2013

The Gilbert Scott, St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel, NW1

The old 1868 Midland Hotel outside of St. Pancras station is my favourite building in London and for most of my life it was deserted. It was almost knocked down in the 1960s, but was saved by a campaign that was led by John Betjeman. It has been refurbished at great expense is now the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel, voted the best hotel in the UK by The Sunday Times in 2011! Having seen the prices prices for a night’s stay I can believe it. The hotel is amazing inside; I’ve been here for drinks a few times and had a couple of meetings in the lobby café area, it’s a treat just to sit there. The bar is called ‘The Booking Office’ and is (you guessed it) the old station booking office. It is super-cool, and serves some equally super-cool cocktails. There is an outside area where you can sit and watch the trains which (if you are a geek like me) is lovely, just below the massive ‘The Meeting Place’ sculpture by Paul Day.

The restaurant in the hotel is The Gilbert Scott, and is the brainchild of Marcus Wareing. As well as being a TV regular, Marcus Wareing is Chef Patron at The Berkeley (Harden’s best restaurant for 2008 and 2009, with 2 Michelin stars). I would describe the food at The Gilbert Scott as brasserie-style and modern-British, with some great twists on British classics. The menu is ever-changing and has an emphasis on seasonal food and small suppliers. On my first visit I was very impressed indeed. So how did it do last night?

Let’s go through each course one by one; apologies for the quality of the photography, the lighting is very soft!

To start I had the crispy pigs head (£8.50). This was served as little cubes that were covered in breadcrumbs with laverbread mayonnaise and cockles. I couldn’t have been happier with this choice, it was genuinely lovely. If I invented a starter full of the things I like to eat, it probably wouldn’t have been much different from this dish! Very deserving of a SUPER-DISH.

Main course was pigeon in a pudding (£19.00). The plate arrived with just a large Yorkshire pudding on it and then the waiter used a small saucepan to add the pigeon and vegetables (essentially a thick stew) to the middle of the pudding. A nice bit of theatre. Pigeon can be very tough and this was well cooked but not brilliantly cooked, but the flavour of the stew and texture of the vegetables more than compensated. Accompaniments were all nice, especially the onion rings and genuinely excellent parsnips. If you are reading this as someone who shared this meal with me and are wondering why you never tried a parsnip, it’s because they were so good I hid them behind my wine glass so that I could have them to myself. Sorry!

I chose cheese for dessert, which was the only choice I was a little disappointed with. The cheese platter for two people (£12.00) included Colston Bassett Stilton (with malt loaf and pickled pear), Clonmore goats' cheese (with walnut crisps and pickle) and Hampshire Tunworth (with oat biscuits and  port jelly). The cheese was excellent but the portion size, even for a high-end restaurant, was far too small and left me wanting more.

All in all, another great meal at The Gilbert Scott with only the portion size of the cheese to complain about.  We really have John Betjeman to thank for ensuring that this hotel was saved from the demolition ball and allowed to become something very special: a great hotel, a cool bar and a delicious restaurant. We thought we should thank him!

Go to The Gilbert Scott, go now, right now. It is hard to book a table at peak times but mid-week and Sunday night not a problem now that it has been open for a year.

The Gilbert Scott, St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel, Euston Road, London, NW1 2AR

Monday 21 January 2013

Indian vs. Chinese

In my house I estimate that we spend a little over £500 a year on takeaway, as we have a takeaway on average once every two weeks, costing roughly £20. I think that half the time we order an Indian, with the rest made up by fish & chips, pizza, Chinese and occasional others (mainly Thai)…

Nothing especially remarkable about that, but if you consider the number of each takeaway types in the UK there is a discrepancy. We hardly ever have a Chinese despite the fact that Chinese takeaway’s must be as numerous as Indian’s, possibly more so? I should probably point out at this point that whilst Indian is preferred, I am a big fan of Chinese food in all its different guises. We do have a good Chinese near us (although they don’t deliver, you have to collect, which is a pain), Zenz Oriental in Old Harlow. We must have tried at least ten other Chinese takeaways near us over the years and they all had something in common: they are generally rubbish. Indian takeaways on the other hand are generally great so my theory is this…

9 out of 10 Chinese takeaways are bad, whereas
9 out of 10 Indian takeaways are good.

Bad might be a bit strong, maybe disappointing is a better word? No idea why this would be, I just think it is interesting. I don’t think this is a local-to-me issue, as this has always been my experience elsewhere, even overseas. Possibly there is something in the fact that the stronger flavour of the spices in Indian cuisine will mask the quality of the ingredients better than a Chinese meal would, which sounds logical to me.

Anybody experience the same thing, or would you disagree with my theory?

Saturday 19 January 2013

Taco Bell, Lakeside Shopping Centre

Not a big fan of shopping at Lakeside, however I find the prospect of a visit very exciting for one important reason: the fact that one of only three Taco Bell restaurants in the UK can be found there!

I have been to Taco Bell quite a few times in the USA, and love it. I really think that Mexican food lends itself very well to fast food so a gradual re-launch of the brand in the UK (it failed the first time around and all closed in the 1990s) is a truly great thing. Possibly I have my rose-tinted spectacles on and enjoy it more because it is still something of a novelty? If so, long may it last.

One of the best things about Taco Bell are the nachos. With sour cream, salsa and guacamole they are great; and for 50p extra you can have chilli beef on top too! It is a monster portion.

I also really love the fact that there are four different types of hot sauce that you can add to your meal. These are Mild Border Sauce, Hot Border Sauce, Fire Border Sauce and Spicy Salsa Verde. You have to get one of each as they have very distinctive flavours. I seem to remember that in the USA you can get more sauces, including a Jalapeno Sauce for sure and I think one or two others also.

I had a couple of quesadillas for lunch today, one chicken and one pork, both were excellent. Incidentally, that is my daughter to my left and she had lunch from KFC, still hoping that she will broaden her culinary horizons and graduate to Taco Bell soon, other than stealing my nachos when she thinks I’m not looking!

Taco Bell makes Lakeside a favourite destination of mine; honestly not sure I look forward to any other meal more. Incidentally, the other two Taco Bell restaurants in the UK are in Basildon, Essex and at the Arndale Centre, Manchester. Technically there are three more Taco Bell’s: at the Strategic Air Command and at USAF bases at Mildenhall and Lakenheath but unfortunately you will need security clearance to visit!

You need Taco Bell in your life.

Taco Bell, Unit 426, Lakeside Shopping Centre, Essex, RM20 2ZQ
Taco Bell, 4 Eastgate Centre, Basildon, Essex, SS14 1AF
Taco Bell, 25-27 Arndale Centre, Manchester, M4 3QA

Friday 18 January 2013

Beat the buffet!

Recently discovered a show called ‘Fresh Meat’, about a bunch of people experiencing their first year at university. It’s brilliant, if you haven’t seen it? One of the characters, Howard, is a bit of an oddball and this scene in which he talks about the best approach when visiting a buffet restaurant is just pure poetry.

Very, very funny and actually some great advice here, I adopt exactly the same strategy with my first plate of food! And remember...

A buffet is always a challenge!

Thursday 17 January 2013

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

I have just started re-reading the James Bond novels, I'm on the third as I write this. The more observant readers will have noticed that this isn't a cook book, or a book about food! Actually, this is a book that is obsessed with food and drink, so obsessed that a whole chapter is given over to deciding what to order for dinner! Why?

Casino Royale (the first James Bond novel) was published eight years after the end of WW2, in 1953. This was austerity Britain at its height, with rationing of many products still in place. Winston Churchill was the Prime Minister for a second time and we were still six years away from Harold MacMillan telling us that we had in many ways “never had it so good”. It was a tough time for most of the UK’s 50 million or so inhabitants. So, it is a simple question of escapism. Readers were enthralled by stories of intrigue in exotic overseas locations, high-stakes card games and thrilling car chases. This was not the norm for 99% of people, and neither was the food and drink that James Bond consumes on his adventures. Exotic food was incredibly alien to people and was every bit as exciting as what we would today identify as the typical ingredients of an adventure. Seems strange today, in a world where most people have at some point had access to most food.

Here are my favourite dishes from Casino Royale, which make an epic four-course meal…

Paté de fois gras.
Broiled lobster with butter.
Tournedos sauce Béarnaise. (Beef tenderloin, sometimes called fillet mignon.)
Fraises de bois. (Small, wild strawberries native to France.)

And here is the recipe for James Bond’s classic vodka martini, a cocktail of his own invention (which he calls the “Vesper”) as it first appears in the seventh chapter of Casino Royale…

Lillet (pronounced lee-lay), is a French Aperitif made from a blend of wine, liqueurs, fruits and herbs. I made this cocktail this evening and it blew my socks off. Nice as a treat, but would turn you blind in a week if drank regularly!

I wonder what the modern literary equivalent of James Bond’s food and drink escapism is? Somewhat depressingly, it is probably the latest offering from Rick Stein or Jamie Oliver!

James Bond will return.

In fact, he does so in Live And Let Die (1954) and eleven pages in he is enjoying “Soft shell crabs with tartare sauce, flat beef hamburgers, medium-rare, from the charcoal grill, French-fried potatoes, broccoli, mixed salad with thousand-island dressing, ice-cream with melted butterscotch and as good a Liebfraumilch as you can get in America.” What James Bond describes as “American cooking at its rare best.” Love that sentence, perfectly patronising!

Sunday 13 January 2013

Pink Spice, Harlow

According to Trip Advisor, Pink Spice is the best restaurant in Harlow. That’s a bit like being the tallest dwarf, or the fastest tortoise. It’s not exactly a great claim given the limited competition, but when every one of the seventeen reviews of Pink Spice have awarded the top score (5/5) it should be good.

We went for lunch today with the kids and some friends and had the Sunday buffet, never exactly the best opportunity for a restaurant to show its quality. The words ‘great’ and ‘buffet’ are not normally heard in the same sentence. But, guess what? It was.

Firstly, the poppadum’s we ordered were accompanied by some lovely, fresh dips. Dips are important. There were seven of them, three different types of sweet chutney, mint yoghurt, coriander salsa, tomato salsa and a dry coconut powder. All lovely.

Then there was the wide range of dishes available, you can see from the labels that these change constantly. Instead of the normal chicken tikka masala and one other, there were four main course dishes available. As well as the main dishes there was Bombay potato, onion bhaji, rice, nan bread, chicken tikka and mushrooms. And the quantity of dishes didn’t mean that quality suffered. All excellent. And I don’t mean buffet excellent, I mean actually excellent! Great, fresh flavours from all the dishes and a nice range of heat, from mild to genuinely hot.

Highly recommended across the menu and very deserving of a SUPER-DISH; at £8.90 for the buffet this place is great value for money too. A lot of people who are local to me will wax lyrical about Vojan on the A414 between North Weald and Ongar, I challenge you open your mind and visit Pink Spice instead.

Pink Spice, Commonside Road, Harlow, Essex, CM18 7JB

The perfect Christmas cake takes a year!

Last night I made this year’s Xmas cake, from a Mary Berry recipe that I used for 2012 that was fantastic. Last year the cake was made in November 2011, so it had thirteen months to develop the flavour. This year, only eleven months so hopefully my laziness won’t make a difference to the flavour for 2013.

I think a good Xmas cake is an important part of the whole experience so it is something to be taken seriously. At the moment the cake is well protected, wrapped in a layer of baking paper in another layer of baking paper in a layer of tin foil inside an old Quality Street tin. Every month it will be opened, un-wrapped and ‘fed’ with cherry brandy so it will be very moist and very boozy by December!

I really can’t wait to eat it. Time to start thinking about the Xmas pudding?

A favourite dish from a long closed restaurant, back from the dead

When I was a teenager my parents bought an apartment in Sandgate, near Folkestone in Kent. We would go down there nearly every weekend, and when my dad retired they moved to Folkestone permanently.

One of the best things about weekend trips to Folkestone was an Italian restaurant called Emilio’s, where we would have lunch on most visits. The guy who ran the place was in charge of a modest, wood panelled restaurant that served simple Italian fare where a bad meal was never once experienced. He pretty much ran the whole show single handedly and we would often see him turn customers away when he had decided that (at 50% capacity) he could cope with no more tables! Unfortunately, Emilio’s as it was closed somewhere between 5 and 10 years ago, but is still an Italian restaurant.

I would nearly always order chicken cacciatore, which was absolutely divine. It was simplicity itself, chicken that was cooked in a sauce of tomato, basil and garlic.

Last week, I recreated this for dinner in as near to that served in Emilio’s restaurant as possible. Chicken with mozzarella in the middle and wrapped in bacon, served in the simple sauce along with some baby leeks and asparagus. Baked for about 90 minutes on a medium heat.

Served with creamed spinach and roasted sweet peppers it was an epic weeknight dinner, and transported me right back to Folkestone in the 1990s and early 2000s. A much missed dish from a much missed restaurant.

Thursday 10 January 2013

La Perla, Charlotte Street, W1

I had a couple of meetings in Soho today so got a chance to have lunch at La Perla, a Mexican place I have been to once before. Opened in 1976, it is a restaurant setting that has a compromise feeling, two thirds restaurant and one third fast food maybe? There is live music in the evenings so suspect that it has much more a bar feel to it after dark. Apparently it was rated one of the best 50 bars in the UK!

I ordered the special chicken burrito (£9.50), which was served with savoury rice and black beans. It was possibly a little too much for a quick lunch between meetings but very quick and very enjoyable. The chicken was moist and full of flavour but the best bit was the beans, which were great. I can also recommend the street tacos (£13.50), with six different varieties to try.

The high point of a visit here for me is the salsa that is served with the nachos the second you sit at your table. Nicely spicy and very fresh, the lime juice and coriander balancing and complementing each other perfectly. I remember being suitably impressed with the salsa on my first visit.

This place is never going to win a SUPER-DISH but does what it sets out to do very well. Would I go again for lunch? Yes, yes and yes! For dinner? Not so sure, but highly recommended all the same.

La Perla, 11 Charlotte Street, London, W1T 1RQ

Wednesday 9 January 2013

We love this website in our (generally very hungry) house and have been using it for about six months or so. I think it must be pretty popular nowadays as I know a few people who use it regularly, and they can afford to advertise on the idiot’s lantern! In case you don’t know what it is, it’s very simply a takeaway portal, linked to individual takeaway restaurants. The beauty is the fact that you can order your favourite dinner without having any contact with a human being at all!

If I type in my postcode I immediately have access to 23 different takeaway restaurants. Why is this website any better than just picking up the phone? Arguably it really isn’t and probably takes a little longer, but we use it for three resons…

  1. All of the takeaway restaurants are rated by users of the website. A takeaway is very often a lottery (especially where I live, it seems) so this helps sort the good from the bad without me needing to spend £20 to do so.
  2. You can pay by card. If you phone my favourite pizza place, you cannot do this, which is a pain if you are terrible at ensuring you have cash in your wallet. This seems more ethical than raiding one of the children’s piggy banks also.
  3. As you add things to your basket you have the option of adding who it is for. At the end you get an itemised bill, very useful if you have a bunch of friends over for dinner and want to split the bill accurately.
My only complaint is that it can sometimes be a bit slow, but for me the three positives more than make up for this one negative. Give it a go!

Monday 7 January 2013

Pizza Hut… better than Pizza Express?

Well, no, obviously. But I think it’s a bit more complicated than that.

I spent a lot of time in Pizza Hut growing up so have a fondness for it, and now with my own children it is a regular haunt. It’s one of those places (on the same list as Harvester and Beefeater) that does what it says on the tin, i.e. acceptable food at an acceptable price.

A recent visit got me thinking that the quality is much better than once it was. I would say that five to ten years ago Pizza Express was very easily twice as good, or 100% better than Pizza Hut. Possibly even more. And whilst Pizza Express has arguably stood still in terms of the restaurant offering, Pizza Hut have adapted, updated and caught up in a very real way. If you haven’t been to Pizza Hut for a while you should see the menu, whilst it isn’t amazing it’s a long way from what it once was and the quality has improved dramatically. This is very subjective, but I reckon that if you choose well at Pizza Hut, Pizza Express nowadays is only one third, or 33% better. It’s still better, but nowhere near as much as it once was. So, it becomes a question of value for money…

The Blazin’ Inferno is £8.95 at Pizza Hut and an equivalent at Pizza Express is the American Hot at £11.00. This means that you can get a pizza that is (again, my subjective opinion) 25% better and that costs 23% more, about right. However, they aren't the same size. I actually think that in terms of quantity the Pizza Hut pizza is 25% larger, so a corrected comparison would show that the Pizza Express pizza costs 54% more in real terms. So the pizza is actually quite a bit more expensive and the rest of the menu is pretty much the same story. A glass of Pinot Grigio at Pizza Hut is £3.10, whereas you will pay £4.50 for the same size glass at Pizza Express. Similarly, bruschetta will cost you £3.25 and £4.60 at Pizza Hut and Pizza Express respectively. So expect to pay 45% more for a glass of wine and 42% more for a starter. I’m not even going to mention the free salad at Pizza Hut, or the free refill soft drinks.

Pizza Express is better of course, that is a fact. However, if you don’t mind sitting amongst spotty teenagers on a first date then please consider revisiting Pizza Hut. If you can find one that has been renovated this century, go. The food is much better nowadays and for the price vs. Pizza Express it represents good value, especially if you have a family. I think a good rule or mantra is…

Pizza Hut for lunch and Pizza Express for dinner.

I do have some beef with Pizza Hut though, and unfortunately it is with the salad bar.

I love a free salad bar, and this is a big part of the Pizza Hut appeal. However, whilst the quality has generally remained unchanged over the years (i.e. acceptable), the potato salad and Thousand Island dressing have both taken a massive drop in quality. The former now tastes like it is from a supermarket tub and the latter is runny and tasteless. These two important parts of the salad bar are a problem for me so I am nowadays genuinely a little disappointed every time I visit. In terms of free salad bar quality, Pizza Hut could learn a lot from Harvester.

Sunday 6 January 2013

My first ever lamb kofte kebab!

A few glasses of cider and red wine in the pub last night meant that a kebab on the way home was inevitable, never in doubt at all. The pub was The Forest Gate Inn in Epping (great atmosphere, great homemade pea & ham soup and even greater homemade turkey broth) so the kebab shop of choice was Poppy’s Charcoal Grill on Epping High Street. This is an excellent place, a long way from the traditional ‘elephant leg in the window’ kebab shop that the 1990s version of me would spend a scary amount of time waiting around in. The food quality is excellent and all kebabs are cooked over hot charcoal so there is a great depth of flavour.

I always order a chicken or lamb shish kebab but (believe it or not) last night I had a lamb kofte for the first time ever and it was great. It had a very different flavour that came from the herbs and spices that are minced together to form the kebab. A small amount of chilli sauce wasn’t too overpowering, and the huge pile of red cabbage was great too.

I’ll definitely be ordering one again, £3.80 for small and £5.00 for a large kebab.

The Forest Gate Inn, 111 Bell Common, Epping, Essex, CM16 4DZ

Poppy’s Charcoal Grill, 142 High Street, Epping, Essex, CM16 4AG

Friday 4 January 2013

The Rainbow & Dove PH, Hastingwood

I’ve been visiting this pub for many years and I love it. Andy and Kate run a very friendly pub with low beams and a great atmosphere that was originally opened in 1645! In the winter there is a roaring log fire, in the summer the large beer garden is a great place to sit in the sun and the fireworks display (with insanely large bonfire) is something I always look forward to. A credible range of ale is served all year. And most importantly, it is the one place I know that can always, always, always be relied upon for great food.

The main menu isn’t especially large but it is good, and there is an ever-changing array of dishes on the specials board. However, it stands out for me for one reason…

The very best steak & kidney pie I have ever eaten.

The steak & kidney pie (£8.15) is homemade and is on the main menu; sometimes it is substituted for a suet pudding, as it was at lunchtime today. I think I must have eaten here fifty times, and have easily ordered the steak & kidney pie for 50% or more of those visits. It is best served with sautéed potatoes.

Like the pie, the pudding is a very generous portion (as you can see!) that is bursting with big, tender chunks of beef and just the right amount of kidney. Other than quality of ingredients, it is the ratio between the two constituent parts that I think makes a great steak & kidney pie or pudding. I would suggest that at the Rainbow & Dove the filling is 60% steak and 40% kidney. Perfect, and whilst the pudding is great I think the excellent short crust pastry means that the pie is just ahead. I’ll say it once again, perfect!

So, make a beeline for the Rainbow & Dove and order the steak & kidney pie, I literally cannot recommend it highly enough, the first SUPER-DISH of 2013. If you fancy a starter I would also recommend the smoked salmon & prawns with horseradish & lime vinaigrette (£6.15).

The Rainbow & Dove PH, Hastingwood Road, Hastingwood, nr. Harlow, Essex, CM17 9JX

Tuesday 1 January 2013

Chip shop wisdom

I think that if you get a truly great fish & chip shop, it is better than any other takeaway offer. Yes, even Indian in my opinion. The best thing about a chippie for me is being able to drop in just for chips. I reckon we do this every other Saturday for lunch, and simply combine with some ham and eggs (or something equally simple) for a great lunch.

It seems to me that most chippies will automatically ‘up-sell’ and give you a large portion of chips as standard; I find this annoying, I remember a time when there was just one portion at one price. In my local we either buy one large portion or two small portions of chips for our lunch (between four). This got me thinking about value for money, the breakdown of the choice is as follows…

The prices are correct at time of posting and the weighing of the portions took place within the last few weeks. We are all familiar with the ‘bigger pack, better value’ philosophy when shopping for food but this appears to be inverted here. A small portion of chips is £3.84 per kilo, whereas the large portion is exactly £5.00 per kilo. This is a 30% increase, all wrong. So the choice is clear, buy two small portions, which is 61% more money for 93% more chips. Let me just say that again…

93% more chips.

Almost double, which can only be a good thing!

My ten favourite meals of 2012

I ate a lot of food last year, bad and good. Here are my ten favourite meals from 2012, many of which were a DISH OF THE WEEK, and would no doubt all qualify as a SUPER-DISH if consumed in 2013!

The seafood platter at The Company Shed is simply amazing, and of course it is very famous with many appearances on TV over the years. They only sell fish, shellfish and a single salad. Everything else you have to bring yourself (wine, bread, butter and mayonnaise are on my list). For £11.50 I genuinely don’t think you can buy a better dish anywhere. Equally good are the oysters and the rollmops. I will definitely write a fuller review of this excellent place in the coming months.

The John Barleycorn PH is a staple in my house, always good; the ham hock starter was a high point for me and the homemade piccalilli (something I detest out of a jar) was immense.

The Smokehouse (from Mark Sargeant) in Folkestone is my favourite fish & chip shop and the salt & pepper squid is to die for. I very nearly cried on my last trip when they had run out!

Le Blanc Nez in Sangatte, France is a regular haunt and never, ever fails to disappoint. The seafood platter here is great, especially the way it is served in a little boat! A great day-trip destination, only 10 minutes drive from both the Eurotunnel terminal and the port of Calais.

I spend a lot of time in Dublin for my job and like to stay at The Fitzwilliam Hotel on St. Stephens Green whenever I can. The full Irish breakfast is a great way to start the day, with both black and sublime white pudding.

I was lucky enough to visit Australia on business last year, and managed to squeeze in lunch at Doyle's, which is something of a Sydney institution. Fantastic oysters (Australian oysters seem small, more like our own native variety than the bigger, more common rock oyster) and a great view!

When it comes to bar snacks, Benelux countries have it sorted! The bitterballen at the Taverne Central in Ypres, Belgium were great. I know that my Dutch friends will be shocked that a Belgium bitterballen dish was chosen over one from the Netherlands!

I love a pie and The Newman Arms PH in Rathbone Street does the best in London. Steak & kidney pudding is my recommendation for lunch in a pub that was once frequented by George Orwell.

Germans do sausages at least as well as we do here, albeit in a very different way. The currywurst in the raucous Bavarian Beerhouse on City Road (just next to Moorfield's) is a great accompaniment to all those steins of beer. They also sell some great spirits with a sort of sherbert powder that you drop in and mix. Dangerous!

Amsterdam seems to be full of steak restaurants. The entrecote and the sirloin steak at Rancho Argentinian Grill was the best I had all year.

Start as you mean to go on!

A dirty McDonald’s breakfast is a great way to start the year, and for me sets the tone for things to come in 2013! The Sausage McMuffin is good but the Sausage & Cheese Bagel is better. Not a massive fan of the hash brown, but when dipped in the syrup that came with my son’s pancakes it becomes suddenly palatable.

As always however it is the cheese that lets McDonald’s down. They really need to improve this dramatically. Whilst tasteless rubber may be acceptable in the USA, it isn’t in the UK. Come on McDonald’s, sort it.