Category Archives: restaurants

A Gaul-ing time in Paris

You know when you’re standing in front of the mirror issuing toe-curling put-downs to your reflection but wishing you’d actually thought of them during the argument you’ve just lost? It happens to me all the time. And last weekend, all that practice finally paid off when I found myself giving icily cool ripostes (in French!) to a particularly stereotypical maitre d’ in a Parisian bistro.

I was heartily looking forward to my trip to Paris with the Spaniard, imagining long, romantic walks punctuated by rummages in bobo bric-a-brac boutiques, and topped off with hefty, rewarding meals. I didn’t yet know that we’d chosen the coldest weekend of the year to visit one of the most overpriced capitals in the world and would return to London with dry, scaly cheeks bitten raw by the arctic wind, an empty wallet, and a firm resolve never to return. So I did some research, bought the guides, made hit lists of good restaurants and booked them in advance in my best French.

On our first night in the city, we draped ourselves in thermal vests, polo necks and thick coats and scarves and braved the plummeting temperatures to walk across town to Itinéraires. As requested when I booked, I’d called back earlier that day to confirm my reservation, but had had to leave a message because no one was answering the phone.

After a half-hour walk we arrived bang on time and pushed at the door with numb fingers. Once inside, the trouble began. The head waiter cocked his head, looked us up and down and enquired, ‘Messieurdames?

‘Hello. We’ve got a reservation.’

‘Ah oui?’ He gave the booking list the briefest of glances. ‘Mais non madame, you didn’t call back, so we had to let your reservation go.’ He crinkled his eyes and drew his lips back to reveal his teeth. ‘Je suis désolé.’

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The other French paradox

On Tuesday I spent the night with AA Gill talking about French food. OK, so it was him, me, and about 100 other people, and I didn’t utter a single word, but it was still an unmissable prospect – my favourite writer on one of my favourite subjects. Anyway, it’s only really his mind that I’m after (and of course his job).

The event was a debate staged as part of the London Restaurant Festival, with the motion that ‘French cuisine is a spent force’. I desperately wanted Le Gill and Jonathan Soames – who were valiantly tempting us to believe that French cuisine is as relevant and well-regarded as it ever has been – to transport me back to my rose-tinged experiences of France and remind me of the good times: finishing my breakfast with a flourish before turning excitedly to thoughts of lunch. However, despite their bullish good humour (“We know with absolute certainty”, Gill began archly, “that no one in France is sitting in a room debating whether English cuisine is a spent force… these are the preoccupations of a developing food nation”), I came out of the theatre in the same frame of mind as when I entered.

I’m surprised at myself for even typing this, but it’s true: this summer, on holiday in Provence, I didn’t really smack my lips after a single meal. It could be that, following a French degree, two spells as a British ex-pat in France, countless trips to L’Hexagone and a job spent immersed in food, my expectations are higher than they previously were. It might be that we were in a particularly touristy part of France (although the village of Tavel had never before crossed my radar). It could have been sheer bad lunch. Whatever it was, France does seem to have gone off the boil slightly – only to a rolling simmer, mind, but off the boil nonetheless.

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On the gradual decaffeination of life’s pleasures

One evening this week, at dinner with a friend, the waitress cleared our plates and asked us whether we’d like desserts. Since we hadn’t been too impressed by the food, we decided to go straight to coffee. And for the first time in my life, I ordered a decaf.

There’s something BC/AD about opting for decaf. The first time you do it, you’re mentally bisecting your life, cutting what is to come adrift from your devil-may-care, stimulant-fuelled past. You’re making a statement, and that statement takes many forms, the most anodyne being, ‘I need to get a good night’s sleep tonight’, with more cynical interpretations including, ‘It may be only 10pm, but I’m already thinking about getting home and going to bed’.

For me, the message was, ‘I’ve reached that age where my body now partly dictates my lifestyle’. Which is a daunting admission that elicited a raised eyebrow from our waitress.

It’s part of growing up – and growing old – this gradual shift to moderation. At 18, I’d wake up on Sunday mornings feeling bright and dewy, despite having gone out the night before. Of course, I’d affect a hangover for form’s sake, but in private I naïvely assumed I was someone whose system just didn’t bow to hangovers. Reality set in with each passing year, and now, within reaching distance of 30, I’ll drink only one glass of wine more than usual at dinner and find myself the victim of a stealth attack hangover that leaves me staggering around, miserable and uncomprehending, for two days. As a result, I’ve learnt to eye all alcohol from a respectful distance.

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Just passing judgement

Every time I pass my local McDonalds and glance into the new-look dining room, I can’t help but marvel at the cold, flinty genius behind their most recent advertising push.

You know the one – all these average Joes who were ‘just passing by’ – people from all walks of life, all tucking happily into their burgers. Your subconscious prods you excitedly: they’re just like me – that could be me in there! God, I take the gherkin out before I eat a cheeseburger too! The spoken poems come at you like a train, tickling you internally with their catchy rhythm and, slowly but surely, against your better judgement, McDonalds manages to endear itself to you just a little. (More than the soft-focus footage of children frolicking amongst hay bales ever did anyway.)

I’m curious as to which particular store the company used to study and capture the antics of these average McDonalds customers. Not the one around the corner from me, that’s for certain. Had they come to my part of town, the narration would have run rather differently…

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A bit of gushing (apologies)

Recently I’ve been so busy tucking into my food that I’ve hardly stopped to tell anyone about it. But I’m back on track now after a summer of being borderline obsessed with sourcing beautiful old kitchen paraphernalia, travelling around England in search of new places to eat and celebrating becoming the Spaniard’s prometida.

It was during a weekend in Brighton with the sensitive gluttons that I finally managed to get to the foodie treasure trove known as Lewes. Over lunch at Bill’s Produce Store we steadied ourselves for the Aladdin’s caves that lay ahead.

Working up an appetite in the queue at Bill's

Working up an appetite in the queue at Bill's

Everyone wishes they had a general store like this in town...

Everyone wishes they had a general store like this in town...

Some pretty summer squash for good measure

Some pretty summer squash for good measure

Then we plunged headfirst into the antiques shops, hungry for bargains.

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Fondue or die

I can remember with cut-glass clarity the most extreme consumption I’ve ever subjected my body to. Early contenders include the 13 slices of pizza I ate as a child and the all-you-can-eat buffets in vast hotel dining rooms that I hungrily re-re- and re-visited nightly as a teenager. Close runners-up comprise the six-month homesickness-induced binge that was my gap-year work experience placement, and almost every Christmas of my life. America, the continent, I remember as a blur of physically exhausting confrontations with mega-meals – I emerged from the other end of that trip a changed woman, mechanically topping up my stomach to the very brim every time my body contrived to create a little bit of room in there. But things never really got beyond uncomfortable in the States. No: it was in France that I went a forkful too far and where stomach rupture loomed as a near-inevitable end to my evening. And the perpetrator? Fondue.

The thing about melted cheese is that it’s the stealth plane of food. It slides into the gut undetected and lurks behind your stomach walls, trying to pass unnoticed. It’s saltily and oozily moreish, and cunningly surrounds itself with an array of tempting tart and tangy crudité accomplices, the better to disguise its richness. So you dip into the cheese, mix things up with a juicy gherkin, return cravenly to the cheese, try a crisp radish, dip another radish into the cheese… and before you know it, you’ve slumped to the floor drenched in sweat and are clawing at your distended belly, while your red-faced friend asks, ‘Excusez-moi, est-ce qu’il y a un hôpital près d’ici?’.

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Joining the Breakfast Club

This week was my turn to cook at The Breakfast Club, a pop-up restaurant run by the oft-mentioned Rachel. It was also the hottest week of the summer so far, with temperatures topping 30 at the weekend.

It was late on Friday evening when I wondered whether I could stand the heat – and if not, whether I should get out of my kitchen. I’d dried the tomatoes for hours in a warm oven. Said oven was now heating up again, this time to welcome my Portuguese custard tarts. I was boiling kettle after kettle of water to turn into iced tea. And everything I touched was starting to melt.

Such was the intensity of the heat that at one point, an apparition came to me. There, at the far end of my kitchen, a mirage appeared, and out of the haze stepped Gregg Wallace, wearing nothing but a white towel and an ugly grin. I’ll never forget what he told me (mainly because he repeats it so often on MasterChef that it’s the next most natural thing to him after breathing). ‘Cooking doesn’t get any tougher than this,’ said he, portentously. ‘Yes it does you ridiculous little man,’ I replied sternly. ‘Now get out of my kitchen before I report you to Hello magazine.’

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