Archive for April, 2006

Food

The Hungry Monk

THE TIMES – April 8, 2006
Ginny Dougary

“It’s hard to have high expectations of a restaurant whose culinary claim to fame is banoffi pie”
 
 
Last week I was pootling around the Cots­wolds, being a professional eater and an amateur antique-hunter, visiting churches and gazing into estate agents’ windows. It was lovely, of course, but did give me intimations of… well, certainly of old age. Which should be fine since old is the new young or will be if the great mass of us baby boomers have anything to do with it when we get really long in the tooth. As a metropolitan middle-youther, however, there is something about villages and the countryside that feels alien – or, at least, makes me feel like one.

Could this be to do with a suspicion that there is something innately conservative – a sort of sepia-tinted, myopic nostalgia – about rural living? Or perhaps it’s because of the people one encounters in the restaurants. In Allium, reviewed last week, it was mildly disconcerting to be sitting adjacent to a young man who so resembled David Cameron, it was tempting to check whether he was wearing Converse trainers. (The diner, it turns out, was a local Conservative councillor.)
 
At the Hungry Monk, closer to home in East Sussex, the conversation booming from a nearby table was distracting in a different way. A florid-faced gentleman, of advancing years, seemed keen to present himself as a sophisticate – with his extensive knowledge of wine and ability to conduct a conversation in French (which he demonstrated, loudly) – but his views on race relations were rather less cosmopolitan: “I don’t think black men should marry white girls.”

There were two women sitting with him: the more sour-faced was one of those pinched Christians who bring to mind Maggie Smith doing an Alan Bennett monologue: “A lovely man – of course, I knew he was a Catholic… I will serve her a slice of the banoffi pie after Mass which she will appreciate, although she really shouldn’t with her waistline… I’ve stopped going to that swimming pool because I got a verruca there [doubtless some dubious proletarian cross-breeder was to blame]” and so on.

There is something satisfying about ful­filling your earthly pleasures by eating a well-prepared meal and walking it off in the contemplation of somewhere quietly uplifting. I’ve always enjoyed a good graveyard, and the one attached to St Lawrence’s Church in Lech­lade is a beauty. It’s famous for promp­ting Shelley’s poem (A Summer Evening Church­­­­yard, Lechlade, Gloucest­er­shire) with the lines: Here could I hope, like some inquiring child/Sporting on graves, that death did hide from human sight/Sweet secrets… And it was a sweet surprise to hear infant voices from a school bey­ond the graveyard, singing a celestial-sound­ing version of Robbie Williams’ Angels, as I wandered through the crumbling tombstones with the hopeful primroses pushing through.

The Hungry Monk has its own connections to St Andrews up the lane, which has a peaceful atmosphere and a violent Saxon sculp­ture – so primitive it looks like the work of a gifted but troubled child – of Christ, one hand almost defiantly placed on his hip, the other plunging his sword into the mouth of a beast.

The restaurant was originally four monks’ cottages built in the 14th century which were knocked into the one building at some point… I can’t tell you when as the longtime owners, Sue and Nigel Mackenzie, do not go in for history-milking brochures or modern-day marketing malark­ey. (Although they do have a website.) The monks were attached to a monastery which used to stand opposite the church which was built by the Saxons during King Alfred’s reign.

The monastery was founded in the village in 1344 and closed by Henry V111 when he dissolved the monasteries in 1538. The one historic angle the Mackenzies are keen to promote is their mid-Seventies invention of the banoffi pie; there is even a blue plaque commemorating the event. It is just about possible that there are readers who are not familiar with this absurdly popular concoction: pastry base, toffee made from boiling a can of condensed milk for five hours, bananas, a topping of coffee-flavoured whipped cream.

In the early editions of one of the restaurant’s bestselling cookbooks, the recipe for BP appeared without any health warning. Subsequent versions alert the reader to the potential dangers of the recipe: “If they are allowed to boil dry, the cans will explode causing a grave risk to life, limb and kitchen ceilings.” Too right.

My first and only attempt at The Banoffi ended in disaster when Den­n­is Pott­er’s then new TV drama Pennies from Heav­en proved so mesmerising, I forgot all about the bubbling cans. Just as Bob Hoskins was circling the actress’s nipples with lipstick, there was a massive crash from the kitchen; then the sound of molten caramel shooting through the air. For months afterwards, we found traces of hardened goo in the back of drawers and cupboards. But at least I did not suffer the ignominious fate of being blinded by Banoffi.

Now, to be quite honest, it is hard to have high expectations of a restaurant whose culinary claim to fame is the banoffi pie. In the first cookbook in 1971, there is a recipe for salmon, bacon and bananas on rice – and my initial fear was that this unwinning combo might be indicative of the menu today.

The most recent of the eight books, The Temptations of the Hungry Monk (2001), shows that the kitchen is not set in Seventies aspic. But fusion muddles such as “English lamb stuffed with hoummus roasted in prosciutto and served with Moroccan aubergine sauce”, suggests that the monkish chef has confused pick’n’mix electicism for modernity.

Last orders are at 2pm and we arrived 20 minutes late having got lost, but there wasn’t a trace of sniffiness from Corinne, the French front of house, or any of the staff. There are several oak-beamed rooms in which you can sit on comfy sofas by open fires. Fresh flowers which look, appealingly, as though they’ve been picked from someone’s garden. On the downside, one of the rooms smelt faintly of damp. And there is something dated about the decor, by which I mean 1970s not 1370s. It would not have been entirely surprising, for instance, to see a Mucha or Max­field Parrish poster in the loo, although obviously nothing as overt as that other favourite of school dormitories from the Seventies: the lissom tennis player scratching her bum.

Upstairs, there are half-a-dozen private rooms (which you can book for no extra cost) painted in shades of bottle green and puce, not very nice tartan chairs, old-lady wallpaper in the loo and what looks like a wartime swirly carpet on the stairs. It is, in other words, a style-free zone. And you know what? It just may be that this very unreconstructed quality is part of the higgledy-piggledy charm of the place, and I say this as someone who is normally a slave to Conran.

The dining room was still full when the two of us were seated at a large table. Attach­ed to one of the low beams was a sausage-shaped cushion thoughtfully provided to prevent the unvertically challenged from banging their heads when squiffy. We had been recommended various dishes by a foursome of friendly, vaguely arty-looking couples as we had our pre-Sunday lunch drinks. (The accompanying mini-quiches were suitably retro, but crumbly and buttery and delicious.)

The goat’s cheese mousse, which came with my beetroot and ginger salad, was as light as powder snow on the outside and densely rich further in. I liked the colour of the salad and the earthiness of the beetroot with the sugary bite of the cystallised ginger (scattered among the peppery green leaves), but it did make me think it was about time I stopped ordering goat’s cheese in restaurants. The other starter was layers of smoked salmon with artichoke (more pleasing earthiness) and a hollandaise which was rather thinner than expected but light and refreshing.

The mains were an unequivocal hit: straighforward, honest and with none of the tarty tricksiness of that fusion number. I had crisp breast of Norfolk duckling which was a swooning pleasure of melting flesh and crunchiness, with a small serving of cassoulet spiced up with the addition of chorizo. The Sussex lamb was pink and juicy and had an ace sauce; a hint of a Moroccan lift from harissa, good chicken stock, subtly laced with the sweetness of marsala and balsamic vinegar.

Neither of us cared for the canary-yellow wodge of polenta dotted with red peppers; there being a very good reason, in my opinion, why polenta was one of the shorter-lived foodie crazes of the last decade. I wouldn’t normally bother to mention the vegetables, but they were fantastic. A big serving of spinach – “Excellent… excellent… Oh man!” (from my fellow luncher). Perfect roast potatoes. And the celeriac purée was so gorgeous (tasting as though a vat of butter and cream had been added, when it was only the vegetable itself and milk) that we felt compelled to order another portion.

We finished with the lighter end of the desserts: coconut and lime mousse (a bit like polystyrene jelly for me, but “a delight” for the person who ordered it) with guava sorbet; a selection of home-made strawberry and papaya sorbets, vanilla and pistachio ice-cream.

There’s nothing cutting-edge about the Hungry Monk and I wouldn’t drive from London to go there, but the food was good, and it’s old-fashioned in a reassuring (with the exception of the odd Alf Garnett customer masquerading as Terry Thomas) way.

 

The Hungry Monk, Jevington, Polegate, Sussex (01323 482178)

Food

Allium

THE TIMES – April 1, 2006
Ginny Dougary

“One associates the slogan ‘Relaxed Fine Dining’ with middle-aged men in Pringle golf sweaters”
 
 
Congratulations are in order. I’ve been ban­ned from a restaurant. This has been achieved without becoming paralytic and throwing up over a table, dancing on top of or passing out underneath one. I have not asked for my meat to be prepared well done or ordered HP Sauce to be served with my foie gras. I have not been caught Beckering in a broom cupboard. 
 
To put this in some perspective, it took a ledge like A.A. Gill five years of full-time restaurant reviewing and umpteen awards to reach this point when Gordon Ramsay fam­ously threw him (accompanied by Joan Coll­ins) out of the chef’s eponymous restaur­ant in 1998. That was in retaliation for a review in which Gill had described the chef as a “failed sportsman who acts like an 11-year-old”, his Aubergine restaurant as “utterly forgettable” and the menu as “utterly tasteless”.

And what withering prose has led to my recent banishment? “Due South has fantastic views, understated decor, and the food is local, organic, free-range, meticulously sourced and – oh yes – delicious.” A devastating put-down that continues to be used as a form of self- flagellation on Due South’s website. But there was much more offensive material where that came from – I said that it was likely to become my favourite local restaurant in Brighton (and in a later column that it did); that I had taken many guests there, from elderly matriarchs to adolescent boys and that they had all loved it.

What seems to have aggravated the owner, an imposing man in a leather jacket who goes by the name of Rob, was a small complaint that the booking set-up was a bit shambolic (answer-machine directing you to book by internet which, in my case, was not responded to anyway) and the fact that I never seemed to be able to get a table even when the place was half-full. This was also the case on the day when I was instructed (accompanied by much James-Bond-villain eye-twitching) never to darken the door of the owner’s establishment again. And they say chefs are temperamental.

So it was off for a restorative break in the Cotswolds to see whether I could be thrown out of any more restaurants. First stop was the Lygon Arms in Broadway, where I had intended to rise to the occasion and go for the five-course, or even the seven-course, gourmande, sorry, gastronomic menu. The most memorably happy meal I’ve had was at Tetsuya’s in Sydney which was a mad-sounding 12 courses; it was a cool setting, with two of my best friends, and tiny portions of expensive ingredients adorning intense-tasting reductions of this and that, which kept on surprising your tongue in the most delightful, rather sexy way.

Tetsuya’s would have been a hard act for any restaurant to follow, but the Lygon Arms menu, read in the comfort of my room, did not turn me on: sweet potato and red pepper velouté with creamed goat’s cheese, tian of crab with crayfish dressing, venison or beef, followed by two puds, passionfruit mousse, hot-chocolate fondant… just seemed a bit blah. (Possibly more suited to a senior citizen’s tooth-challenged palate.) Then I discovered that the chef had departed suddenly that week, and the previous maestro had been lost four months previously (what was it Oscar Wilde said about carelessness?), and it didn’t really seem fair to review the kitchen anyway.

I’ve been coming to this hotel since I was a schoolgirl boarder in nearby Chelten­ham, and so it is freighted with memories. It’s always been an odd mixture of gemütlich and kitsch, weighed down with its own illustrious past – opening its doors to both King Charles I, who met his supporters in a room that retains its original 17th-century panelling, and Oliver Cromwell, although not, presumably, at the same time (hidden spiral staircases notwithstanding), since that might have had rather different historical consequences.

My most recent stay there was a few years ago, when it was owned by the Savoy Group. They fixed a fantastic picnic to go to an open-air concert at Sudeley Castle but the room was ghastly, almost sub-Fawlty Towers, with depressing decor, damp stains, the lot. I’d been offered a free night as compensation, and it’s to the new owner’s credit – Paramount Hotels – that they still honoured it. I must say that the designer, Diana Sieff, who was hired by the Furlong family (post-Savoy, pre-Paramount) did an amazing update keeping all the lovely old paintings and antiques and wood, but going for bold, slightly bonkers textiles to cover the chairs.

Feeling a bit bird cold-ish, I wondered about the legitimacy of reviewing room service, but struggled to the hotel’s brasserie, the naffly-named Goblets, and didn’t really enjoy the fish soup (too insipid) or the goat’s cheese salad (too tart), but loved my friend’s haddock, mash and poached egg, which was perfect nursery-comforting flu-food.

Our destination restaurant the follow­ing day was Allium – winner of various accolades last year (Good Food Guide, Les Rout­iers, and so on) – in Fairford. I liked everything about it, apart from its slogan “Relaxed Fine Dining” which, like “smart-casual”… aaarrghh, one associates with the sort of middle-aged English men in Pringle golf sweaters who tend to stay in groups at the Lygon Arms. (Since the Americans gave up travelling.)

Once inside the Grade II-listed building, the first impression is of an extravagance of creamy space. There’s a huge open fire, charcoal-grey sinking leather chairs, a soundtrack of jazzy female vocalists, good olives. Into the restaurant itself, which is even more spacious; the owners (Erica Graham, front-of-house, and her chef/husband Nick Bartimote, both of whom seemed reassuringly well-balanced) having taken the decision to reduce the number of covers from 60 down to 34.

In the bar, we had been presented with an amuse-gueule of mini-cornets stuffed with a local goat’s cheese spiked with sweet peppers – tasty but more irritating really than amusing, as it was impossible to avoid sprinkling yourself with cornet unless you stuffed it all in your mouth at once. Another pre-starter was served in the dining room – a small bowl of rabbit broth with boudin of loin: gamey, sweet and savoury. This hit the spot – like a classy version of buttered toast and Marmite – and made me want to order a hot-water bottle and curl up in front of a fire.

Our starters arrived, which woke us up with what turned out to be something of a bittersweet leitmotif of the menu: fillet of John Dory with crab and citrus salad and ballotine of salmon with cucumber and seaweed. My friend was in raptures about the former: “So fresh, alive… like eating spring and sunshine”; I loved my dollop of caviar, the cucumber was Japanesey and the ballotine came with horseradish mayo and an unadvertised large poached oyster (perfectly executed, but didn’t do it for me because of my mucusey state… enough said).

I had a taste of two other starters – the veal sweetbreads with braised lentils and a Sauternes froth, looking disconcertingly like dirty foam on a beach, but tasting considerably nicer, and the terrine of chicken and foie gras, with a sweet shiitake mushroom accompaniment and pousse (baby spinach leaves to you and me).

The star performer of the mains was the plate of Eastleach Downs organic pork. This was an exciting dish that showed off the chef’s inventive skills, as well as the restaurant’s commitment to using local producers. Four different parts of a very tasty Babe, delicately presented and succulent. The first was a trotter on mash: my American pal (who does still travel) said: “Oh, very, very good. Almost as good as a hot dog.” I thought it was fabulous, too – but fortunately not for the same reasons. I wouldn’t have thought it possible for anything to get close to Marco’s version of Pierre Koffman’s, and this did. There was a fillet that came with a splodge of apple sauce, belly with sauerkraut, and Bath Chap (cheek and head) which made one feel like Hannibal Lecter, but was worth it. My brill was brill, and I liked the linguini, sea kale and monks beard, which had more of that bitter tang thing going on – possibly some preserved lemon chopped into the pasta.

Another selection of variations on a theme for the best dessert. (A tiny niggle: I wish they wouldn’t call it an assiette – like the “fine dining” line, an unnecessary bit of twee pretension, throwing out quite the wrong message.) This time it was a blood orange being made to strut its stuff – as a dark almost aubergine ice-cream and a jelly, a fennel and orange salad (fantastic) and a pale tangerine mousse with sugared rind. I’d go back just for that. The Valhrona chocolate tart, with Guinness ice-cream and Pedro Ximénez, was as different as could be – intense, brooding, and ultimately too much for me.

Allium is an unalloyed pleasure, and I’d like to recommend it heartily, but obviously I can’t since that might get me banned – and I’m not prepared to take the risk.

 

Allium, Market Place, Fairford, Gloucestershire (01285 712200). Three-course set dinner: £32.50