Monday, 25 June 2012

The Chequers: Back to the past

A beautiful village pub. Perfect for a night's stay.

Do you remember the days when pubs were called "inns" and you could leave your horse in the stables? Do you remember how every "inn" used to have a spitting can at the bar and a drunk local with his head in a trough? Of course you don't, that's mix Lord of the Rings and Back to the Future III.

And even though that sounds like heaven, there aren't many cliched inns in this world any more. In fact, until two weeks ago I wasn't even sure there were any. Then, I tried to cycle to Brighton.

We left it a bit late. In fact, by 3.30pm we were still within the M25, stood at an ESSO garage eating flapjacks and nursing cramp. But we couldn't turn back. Not before we'd left the city we started in. So we saddled up and rode off into the already slightly setting sun. By 7.30pm the cramp was almost unbearable. We were still 17 miles from Brighton, the temperature had dropped and the rain had begun to fall.

Then, out of the gloom appeared this warm orange glow. Rising like Hotel California out of the Surrey countryside came the Chequers. From the open door poured gentle acoustic jazz and the sound of warm, friendly folk chatting, and the clink jugs on worn wooden tables. You could practically see the stable, hear the horses' hooves and the drunk man gurgling from the trough.

From the moment we stepped into the Chequers the cold, rain and tiredness seem to drip of us. There was a warm fire, a grand piano, sofas and books and old clocks. There were locals and couples, parties and quiet drinks. I walked up to the bar and uttered a line I had always wanted to say:

"Good evening barkeep, I was wondering whether you had a room spare for the night? It's awful cold outside and the horses need feeding"

Or rather:

"Alright mate, have you got any rooms spare. Also, where can we lock our bikes?"

His reply was affirmative, although the sheen was slightly tarnished by the fact that my housemate and I would have to share a double bed. Suddenly it all got a bit more Brokeback Mountain than Back the to Future but given how stiff I was (leave it) we had little choice.
After a quick shower we headed back downstairs and chose a table by the fire. Our matronly waitress brought us a hearty ale each, disappointingly in standard pint glasses. But that was where the disappointments ended. The Chequers, by all accounts, is a brilliant place and a beacon of hope for foodies. The starters were nothing to write home about - a decent Stilton and broccoli soup and scallops, but my friend had an excellent rib-eye steak with hand-cut (by which they mean knife-cut, unless Bruce Lee faked his death and now works in a Surrey pub) chips. But it was my main, billed as "posh ham and eggs" that was truly amazing. Expecting some nice cured ham in a honey and mustard glaze, what I actually got was a glorious, enormous slow-roasted leg of pork with a perfectly sweet sauce and a poached egg on the side. I would have the preferred the yolk more runny, but I was so engrossed by prodding the pork and watching the moist meat almost drip off the bone, that I hardly gave it a second's thought.

I was truly, utterly and brilliantly stuffed and, after the exertions of the day, very drunk on the rioja we'd bought. But, just as I was considering bed, I spotted the homemade sticky toffee pudding. Now, I have a real hate of anything claiming to be homemade. For a start, it's rarely homemade. It's made in the restaurant isn't it? Sure, it;s shorthand for "not pre-packaged", but often it says something about a restaurant that it has to make that distinction clear. But I am never a man to turn down a sticky toffee pudding in a pub. And I was right to risk a stomach rupture. It did all the things a good sticky toffee pudding should - burn your mouth, stick to your teeth and touch your soul. And with that I headed upstairs.

Sated I fell into bed with Alien playing on our room's flatscreen TV. Strange dreams plagued me that night: of legs of pork bursting out of my stomach while John Hurt cycled round and round drinking rioja from a jug. I have lost count of the number of times that I have googled "country pub London". They never come close to my idyll. The Spaniard's Inn comes close, so does the White Horse. But they are nothing to the Chequers, to the real thing, which joyfully hit every cliche at each time of asking (except the horses). This pub is worth the quick train, especially on the way to Brighton. 

Middle England was fun. I hope to join it one day.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Made in Camden: Made in Heaven

Brilliant. Brilliant. Brilliant.

Playing at the Roundhouse at the moment is the brilliant "Oh Fuck Moment".

I had my own moment downstairs in the venue's café, Made in Camden. It may sound like a desperate channel 5 ploy to cash in on the pretense and stupidity of Made in Chelsea, but there are no cameras and certainly no egos. The food, presented as a global take on tapas, is often experimental, but never in a smoke-and-mirrors Heston way.

You can tell the chefs were once students of Yotam Ottelenghi. The list of ingredients is dizzying, the fusion of cuisines baffling and the range on offer intimidating. But it's all layered expertly. The complex-sounding and delicate-looking dishes are so punchy, so satisfying, so perfect, that they left me speechless. I was a baby eating solids for the first time; I was kid eating chocolate money; I was reliving the first Double Decker I ever ate. Some dishes were so moorish that I might as well have been eating Walkers Thai Sweet Chilli Sensations.  If you ever have ambitions to be obese, this is surely the way to do it. Made in Camden's food is simply addictive.

My friends and I couldn't communicate. Like cavemen and women we moaned and grunted at each other, reached out to grab fistfuls of food, unable to articulate thanks or graces. I floundered and stuttered, pointlessly trying to explain to my all-to-aware guests just how good the food was. And so the random swearing started. I think it was the endive and sweet potato crumble with slow-roasted tomato salsa that did it. It started with satisfying crunch, then a wash of creamy sweet potato, then a slap of salty endive and was finished by the mouthwatering zing of the salsa. 

Or maybe it was the calamari, deep fried in what looked like diamonds, dunked in chilli aioli then smothered with pumpkin jam. It was alternately sweet, then spicy, then salty; soft, then springy, then crunchy. I mopped up the aioli with the squid like it was just bread and soup. 

Of course, it could also have been the crispy, oily hake tempura, served with a sweet and sour Kaffir lime sauce and grilled broccoli. I know it's tapas and the portions are meant to be small, but goddamnit I wanted more Hake.

That's not to say the portions are stingy - the only dishes on the menu not meant to be shared (apart from the soup surely, because that's just silly) are the desserts. And those portions are by no means mean. My chocolate mousse was like a decadent sweet brick on the plate, and came with a coffee and mascarpone tart. I felt somewhat cheated by the term tart, as really it was a scoop of coffee flavoured cheese in slightly stale pastry, but oh my days the mousse was effing fantastic.

In fact, my dinner at Made in Camden was a litany of expletives. I was like an excitable (slightly bearded) child with tourettes. Sadly it wasn't all for the right reasons. Given how empty the restaurant was, the service was pathetic. Unless they were hiding a rowdy and demanding party in the back room, three cocktails should not take 20 minutes to make – and if they are missing an ingredient for one, they should tell the diner immediately, not after delivering the first two. Given how few orders must have been put through the till, they shouldn't have added a glass of wine and half a wheat beer to our tab. More importantly, when we questioned this, they should have been a little more trusting of a party that has just spent £120 on dinner.

But nothing could spoil the work of the chefs. To turn three educated people into dribbling wrecks, without plying them with alcohol, is no mean feat, and I for one was speechless at how wonderful the food was. When you have tasted good food, you realise it is more addictive than the additives that are meant to hook us. It's proof that psychological addiction is stronger than chemical.

Made in Camden on Urbanspoon   Square Meal