Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Absence Makes The Heart Grow Fonder?

And so I return. I have taken a lengthy leave of absence and for that, I apologise. I could appeal to your sense of compassion by complaining how hard I have been working (recognised by the FT, at the expense of my own personal food blogging ambitions) but I suspect this might fall on deaf ears. And honestly, I worked hard for about 3 weeks and then did a bit of travelling around and eating around. Since I last posted, I have had a couple of great meals at Babington House in Somerset, a decent-ish meal at Dean St. Townhouse (I was a little fed up with the Soho House Group thing by then), an impeccable return to Lantana where not even slow service could put me off and finally, the loss of my St. John-inity, which was tasty and atmospheric but quite hard work. I feel like I can't update you on new places until I have at least brought you a little bit up to speed on the above, as well as some great culinary experiences in Morocco, so here goes:

Babington House

Where Londoners go when they want to feel rural and earthy, and are fortunate enough to be treated to an early Christmas present is to a smallish country house hotel to the west of London called Babington House. I am not sure exactly how far west - I think it delivers to inhabitants of West London what Shoreditch House does to those in the East. The distances are pretty similar. So a fast train and an expensive cab delivered us in under two hours to little-London-in-the-plain, a magical 18th century house, complete with outhouses that have been considerately and amazingly tastefully converted into a gym, a spa, a couple of pools (one outdoor one decadently heated to steaming level), a shop (naturally) and a tidy vegetable garden so urbanised it looked like an outdoor branch of Waitrose. The setup is faultless and the décor is offensively tasteful. And the food - simple and spot on. My meals ranged from perfectly cooked roast chicken for two, roast beef with thick bloody gravy, and the best eggs benedict of 2009. The menu changes every day and despite only having the classic 5 starters and 5 mains set up, prompted rigourous and pensive self-analysis before coming to any meal decisions.

The breakfast was probably the highlight for me. We didn't have lunch on Saturday. It was that good. The room was laid out in the way that Londoners like to think that all country folk eat their breakfasts: a big farmhouse table in the middle of the room with lots of earthenware jugs, eggs with feathers stuck to them knocking around, piles of newspapers and a man to top up my coffee and orange juice any time they approached 1/4 empty. Amid this backdrop, things just tasted sweeter. The fruit compote that dolloped on top of the yoghurt was like nectar, the butter was soft and buttery and the cooked breakfast was superbly tasty. And the final garnish on the eggs benedict was provided by non other than celebrity love rat and former Glasgow Rangers reject Gordon Ramsey, treating his scorned family to a luxurious instalment of his guilt payments. Happy families indeed.

My main concern about the place was only its authenticity. One morning I woke up to the see the gardener carefully raking the leaves around the big old oak tree in the garden into a perfect circle around the base. And there was I thinking they just fell like that. However, authenticity ain't all that. This is the best English country house I've ever stayed in.


Wow. Lantana got busy. Whilst I clearly wish places like Lantana (independent, great food, nice people) every success in the world, I do get annoyed when the world encroaches on your discovery. And so it was with Lantana. The same old story: Boy finds antipodean breakfast spot, boy loves ABS, everyone else loves ABS, ABS wins Time Out Café of the year, boy goes to ABS and can't get a bloody table. But on this Saturday, I decided enough was enough. I would wait. As long as it took. I didn't care. I was prepared to stubborn it out to experience what I potentially think is the best breakfast in London. As it happened, it only took fifteen minutes. Although about two months have passed since this visit, I still remember it fondly. The food in Lantana is so good. All the ingredients they use are incredible. The menu is so original compared to anything else you find in London (I hear it copies Bill's Café in Sydney but I don't care - I don't get to go to Bill's) and much like Babington, forces you into agonisingly long choices between corn fritters, bacon sandwiches, eggs benedict and my old basic favourite of poached eggs, bacon, tomato and avocado. I stuck to what I knew whilst she went, somewhat more exotically, for the Spanish baked eggs. I can't remember exactly what it tasted like, or looked like, but I know I haven't had a better breakfast since. As always, we saved some room for their French toast which had some deliciously rich sugary topping like frosted caramel. We waddled out of there, an hour and half after arriving, fatter, healthier, and perhaps only thirty quid poorer. I should say it's crap, so I don't have to wait fifteen minutes, but that would be selfish. It is brilliant. Go there. And if you see me waiting with my eyes boring into your back, just tell me "it serves you right".

Dean St. Townhouse

I don’t think I can really do this place justice. It really was an awfully long time ago. And we went during their cheapskate-not-really-open-food-at-half-price fortnight, so the service was a bit slow, and the food wasn't perfect. But clearly, because of their parent company (a phrase that was repeated to me a number of times by the staff - Soho House are starting to remind me of Taco Bell in Demolition Man - soon there won't be anywhere left to eat in London) it has great potential and the feel of the room is bang on. They have borrowed heavily from J Sheekey's (in the stylistic sense; the "Group" owns it so they could have borrowed out the till but I suspect they won't need to) and it is all deep red and black and white and trendy photos. The menu is long and exciting in a Wolseley-type way, and a city can never have too many restaurants doing this sort of thing. I don't remember a lot except that we argued about whether to have the trifle and the apple pie that we ended up ordering was sublime. The pastry was so light that it dissolved in my mouth in a satisfying sugary appley goo. I'll go back soon and give you a fuller download. But in the wanky way that social commentators like to make big predictions for places, I would like to group myself there by saying this place is "One To Watch" for 2010. I bet the Group will be chuffed with that.

St John

Now this was a place that had the weight of expectation behind it. Accompanied by two old friends, we tried out St John for our annual pre-Christmas dinner. Due to the nature of the celebration, I will no longer be able to recall all the minutae that I know you pore over, so I will instead recount my highlights and another lame promise to return. The whole feel of the place is that food is in charge here. No frills. Our waitress even drew a cow on the paper tablecloth so she could point to parts of it to highlight cuts we had never heard of. Not in a "this is our thing, we do this for all the punters" kind of way, just because it made sense. I ate their famous marrow and parsley starter which was very nice but a bit of a phaff. However, the reward for picking, scraping and scooping justified this, and the four generous shanks of bone you get to scoop out of yield plenty of the sweet stuff to lob on to some nicely grilled toast and vinegary parsley salad. For main course, I had duck and swede, which was just that. A breast of duck, decorated with a confit leg of duck, and a pile of swede mash. Simple. Lonely. Poignant. Okay, so maybe I take it a touch too far, but it was gratifying to have such a simple plate of perfect ingredients well prepared. It was tasty, but I lost this course to my two dining partners, who had elected to share the steak and kidney pie. My memory only takes me that far. Time and booze are the enemy of the forgetful blogger.

And with that lofty thought, I will leave you. Dream of Marrakech, for that is what the next update will be about.

Babington House
01373 812 266

13 Charlotte Place
020 7637 3347

Dean St Townhouse
69 Dean Street
020 7434 1775

St John
26 St. John Street
London, EC1M 4AY
020 7272 1587

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