#12: Into the Emerald City

Kaspars at The Savoy, London. 06/09/15

  
For every buzzing city there’s an ever-changing list of places to eat. I suppose it’s what keeps restaurant critics in trade. But there are other establishments that stand firm against the changing tides of restaurant fashion and become icons.

The Savoy definitely holds its own in this category. From its Escoffier beginnings it’s been up there as the place to eat, diners enticed by the quality of the food and the starriness of the clientele. Oozing old-school glamour as enjoyed by Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, but still current enough to attract George Clooney and Taylor Swift, its class is without doubt.

Which makes you feel a bit of a fraud when you’re dining on a Groupon voucher.

  
Walking under the infamous sign, dwarfed by green marble it felt like we were entering Oz…with added limousines.

“Toto, I don’t think we’re in Norfolk any more.”

The best thing about posh restaurants though is that they know their superiority and, unlike places/people that are insecure of their status and act like arseholes as a result, they have a relaxed polishedness that means everyone gets treated with respect, whether waving an American Express Centurion card or a voucher printed off the internet. Ok, maybe George and Amal get the very best table and a plethora of waiters all to themselves, but the fact that we were eating from an internet offer made not a jot of difference to the service or the standard of the food.

The dining room was stunning: art deco elegance centred around a beautiful bar. 

  
The emeralds had given way to teals and golds. We were sat with a view over the Thames, but inside was so beautiful there was no need to gaze outside.

The menu was a dilemma, but only because  so much of it sounded truly tempting. Right to the basics, if it’s a seafood and grill restaurant, how are you meant to choose between ‘seafood’ and ‘grill’? So I did what I usually do in such circumstances: I went for my I-always-choose-it-but-that’s-because-I-love-it choices of scallops, sea bass and chocolate. I’m so predictable! But it was also a very good choice.

  
  
  

 

But often it’s the smallest details that stand out the most. For Husband, a birthday lollipop with marshmallows on sticks as a bonus treat (even though his birthday was nearly 2 months before – the vouchers had been a present).

  
For me, a compliment on my dress by a man in a very dapper suit. 

  

I channelled my inner-Monroe after that, floating my way to the loos with a big smile on my face, even though I could still hear the click of my heels on the marble floor.

Oh to be excessively rich  – I’d have happily have moved out of home and into the hotel to live a life of fine dining and compliments. But instead we had tickets for the opening night of Nicole Kidman in Photograph 54, which was probably for the best whilst my head and stomach still fit through the doors. I’m not sure Groupon do vouchers for long-term stays.

  

Throwback: Cake vs Corset

Lynford Hall, Mundford. 21/08/2004.

When it comes to weddings, so much hangs on finding The One. The partner, obviously, but also the dress, the cake, the venue.

I knew the dress I wanted as soon as I saw it in a magazine. Very very plain – a simple silk a-line dress with an internal corset to hold in my wobbly stomach – 12 years later I feel no shame when I look at photos (well, not of my dress; my hair, make-up and accessories I’d do differently now…apart from my shoes – you can’t ever go wrong with Jimmy Choos!).

  
The venue I knew on sight too. Despite plans for a summer wedding, we visited on a winter’s day, just after Christmas. Snow lay thick on the ground. Husband and I toured the hall and discussed menus with the wedding planner whilst the twins frolicked in the grounds under the guidance/free reign of my dad, rolling down the snowy slopes. I knew we’d found the right place when we entered the bar to find two pairs of dripping kids’ socks hanging to dry over the log fire and a bemused look on the barman’s face.

  
And as for the cake, there was only one contender: a four tier-triumph of chocolate Sacher torte by Purita Hyam. I drooled over image after image online, felt sick at the idea of paying so much for a cake, but I knew it was the cake for us.

  
 The florist let us down with the decoration – I wanted a cascade of roses spiralling around the cake…they made me a topper that stuck out at a ridiculous angle with zero amount of cascading. But the cake itself – Oh. My. Days!

  
We travelled a 300-mile round trip to collect the cake, the twins and my sister and I. We sat in standstill traffic on the M25. We got horrifically lost finding the location and had to call from a pub car park to ask for directions. The cake supplier had never heard of the pub. We drove the most careful journey ever, terrified that a badly-executed turn or overenthusiastic use of the brakes would destroy the mirror glaze. Meanwhile the twins sat in the back eating crumbs and off-cuts donated to sustain our drive home. Every single mile of that journey was worth it! 

There was only one problem: my dress + 3-course wedding breakfast = no space for cake! Served with coffee after the meal I took a bite or two of rich chocolatey heaven and realised there was no way I could eat it. Damn and blast my beautiful dress and its corsetry! Why weren’t brides encouraged to wear something elasticated?!?! I went off to chat to some friends, had some photos taken and went back to finish it off…but it had been cleared away! Nooooo!

  
But not to fear: more cake was to be served with the evening buffet. I’d eat some then. What I didn’t appreciate was how busy it is, being a bride. Mingling, chatting, dancing, photos. I didn’t get a drink all evening and I also didn’t get a slice of cake!

The next morning I went to reception to collect all of things left from the night before. There was no box of cake! “Errr, I don’t suppose there was any cake left?” I asked, hopefully, thinking it might have been stored in the kitchens. 

“No, it all went,” was the reply.

I think I wanted to cry.

Once home again, the feeling of ‘what now?’ settling in, Johnny and Dee popped round.

  
“Amazing wedding. Fabulous cake!”

“Oh, good. I’m glad you liked it. I barely got any, but it tasted so good!”

“Oh, really? We liked it so much we took extra to have for breakfast this morning.”

I think I wanted to cry again.

And then Indy piped up: “I took some too. I’ve still got it. Do you want it?”

  
Oh my god – yes! Yes, I absolutely do want it! Yes!

“No, it’s yours – you have it.” I heard myself say.

And to think I didn’t even win Mum of the Year that year! 

And thus I have craved Purita Hyam’s sacher torte cake for the past 12 years! I contemplated buying a single tier as an anniversary present that Husband and I could gorge on by ourselves. But I couldn’t justify another 300-mile journey for a single cake…

Except, in the interests of this post I’ve been doing a little research and it turns out Purita does anniversary cakes that can be delivered at a price that’s a lot less than a tank of petrol! Whoppeeeeeee! I was already having doubts as to what to get Husband for a lace wedding anniversary present but now, problem solved! This time I definitely won’t be wearing a corset. Bring on the elasticated trousers!

# 11: Say Cheese

Alimentum, Cambridge. 21/08/2015

  
Marriage is hard. Not always in the big ways, but those little habits that’s just grate…like eating or leaving the toilet seat up or breathing!

Husband is a noisy chewer. He takes too big mouthfuls and then struggles to breathe. So every mealtime it’s a muffled “nom-nom-nom” that accompanies the food. Every. Mealtime.

*Starts to twitch.*

But, thank heavens for anniversaries, because do you know where the edge is taken off bad dining habits so that they don’t even register? Michelin-starred restaurants, that’s where!

It could be the atmosphere – here slick and modern. The clinking of cutlery, the background hum of chatter. 

  
It could be the people watching (“Oh my God, that couple have not shut up about their baby all night! They’re even telling the waiter about it! I wouldn’t be surprised if they had a Skype link to it sleeping in its crib, less they miss a nocturnal fart!”). It could be the alcohol. Maybe I should start drinking more at home. Although it does bring out my inner-bitch, so maybe not. (Plus alcoholism to blanket out munching noises might be a step too far.)

Besides, it could be the stunning stunning food that distracts from whatever’s going on across the table. And it was truly stunning. Beautifully presented dishes of food that was just exquisite.

Scallops with curry, apple, cumin dahl, coriander and yoghurt
Stone bass with cauliflower, langoustine, goats cheese and Pedro Ximenez

 

Chocolate gateau with passionfruit.
 
It could also be the portion controls that mean Husband’s entire meal would be gone in a mouthful if he ate like he does at home. 

(Although I will take issue with anyone who reckons the portions at fancy restaurants leave you hungry. The food is so rich you don’t need to eat huge platefuls. This is decent dining, not man vs food. Plus there are the amuse bouche extras, which are always a bonus. I have never left anywhere hungry and appreciate not feeling bloated.)

  
Mind you, we did eat more than most. Because after 11 years of marriage, Husband knows that I’m a three-courses girl, but I also struggle over choosing between a sweet dessert of a cheeseboard. As a rule, if there’s chocolate I’ll go sweet, but otherwise the cheese has it.

The chocolate called to me. But then we saw the cheese trolley! Husband suggested we add it as an extra course. After all nothing says 11 years of marriage like a tempting a night of weird cheese-induced dreams! Besides, we a) didn’t want the night to end and b) had never got to pick cheese from a trolley brought to our table. 

I’m so glad we did! The waiter was amazing  – enthusiastic and passionate about cheese  – and we ended up with a sharing platter of  eight cheeses, plus chutney and crackers, all arranged in a recommended eating order. 

 Most couples will recall shared moments  from their relationship. Moments of fondness or incredulity that bring them together with a common ground that binds the relationship and makes it stronger. “Remember when…?” Ours has become “Remember when we ate cheese at Alimentum?” 

Every couple needs something that gets them through. Ours is cheese!

  

#10: Making a Perfect Day 

At home. 09/08/2015.

I’m making today a perfect day for you

I’m making today a blast if it’s the last thing I do

For everything you are to me and all you’ve been through

I’m making today a perfect day for you.

– ‘Making Today a Perfect Day’ from Frozen Fever.

  

There’s a fundamental paradox about children: you want them to grow and develop, but as you see them do just that you want to pause time, aware that maybe they’re growing up too fast.

Birthdays bring it home hard. Parties evolve from afternoons of family and parent-group friends with the biggest draw for the mini guests being smashed cake and bubbles. Then come the early school years of complex classroom politics, party bags and organised games. And then in a heartbeat they want sleepovers and pizza and the window for cute themes and magic is gone.

And so it was with Amy. She was turning 8 and I knew that although she’d asked for a Frozen Fever party, it would be the last big party. 

  
Kids’ parties at this stage are also a massive, expensive pain in the arse. Usually I run myself ragged baking, creating, decorating and preparing enough food to feed a small army. I then jump around like a maniac for 2 hours keeping everyone entertained (whilst also cooking the sausage rolls and photographing the whole shebang) and then slump in the corner when everyone’d gone home.

I decided for once to be able to sit back and actually enjoy the party. Amy wanted Frozen Fever? She’d get Frozen Fever! 

 

 
I booked Elsa! Princess impersonators can be hit-and-miss, but I hit the jackpot: the girl had worked on the Disney Cruise as a range of princesses, had the biggest eyes known to man and had an authentic Arandelle accent (ie North American! Is it a coincidence that my biggest Disney-fan friends also have the worst grasp of geography?)
  
The house got festoned with sunflowers and balloons as I tried to recreate the castle-based party in my delapidated terrace.  

 
 I commissioned a friend to replicate the cake and set about making a buffet that would do a princess proud.

  
And oh my God: what a cake!!!
  
I didn’t tell Husband how much it was all costing me! Fireworks would have been great…but not that sort! I hadn’t spent so much on sponge and icing since our wedding. But it was exactly what Amy hoped for. 

  
It was the BEST. PARTY. EVER!!!

Amy knew it was a Frozen Fever party, but I hadn’t told her that Elsa was going to show up. So it was a massive surprise to her to find her favourite Disney princess sitting in our living room. The whole hour was adorable. I was worried that I might be pushing the boundaries for falling for the enchantment, but I needn’t have.

    

Even the adults were cast under Elsa’s spell. Just look at my sister’s face above!

  
OK, we were all pretty smitten!

And the food went down a treat too. Besides an abundance of sunflower-topped cupcakes to match the main cake, the biggest hit was jelly shots. Vodka-free, but just as appealing to the kids as the alcohol-filled versions are to teens with fake ID. There may be trouble in years to come!

 
 Usually we can scoff leftover sausage rolls and dried-up sandwiches for tea once all the guests have gone home. This time we had to order a Chinese – there was nothing left!
The next day it was back to normality…with Amy rollerskating around the house in her pants! Only a day older than the day of Disney magic…and yet at the same time so much older.

 
But for that one day, when we had Disney royalty in our living room and gorged on blue cake? Disney has the power to pause the clock at childhood for us all.

   

Throwback: The Walrus

J Sheekey, London. Many years ago.

 

The members’ room at the V&A isn’t the only place affected by self-important customers demanding the world revolves around them and nobody else. To be fair, you can get arrogant customers anywhere (even in the most basic of fast food joints, people should surely have the courtesy to clear away their mess and it hurts no one to be nice to the server as they’re certainly not being paid enough to put up with the vileness that comes out of some people’s mouths). But there’s a certain, identifiable vein of entitlement that comes with the territory of top restaurants.
  
I can’t remember why we were eating at J Sheekey’s. There was a time, post-wedding, but pre-babies, when Husband and I would stay in hip hotels and eat in posh restaurants far more often than we do now (although far more often than once-a-year isn’t hard). I can remember aspects of trips – the rooftop infinity pool at the Gran Hotel, Barcelona; the marble lobby of The Four Seasons, New York; the Henry VIII four poster bed at The Portobello Hotel; the taxidermy boxing kangaroo in the dining room of the Zetter Townhouse… – but the reasons behind these trips and thus the specifics of them blend into a blur. 

  
(These were also largely pre-Facebook/Instagram days, back before we started taking photos of our food for all to see, so it’s harder to check on the details too.) But it’s funny what aspects stick in the mind.

I remember J Sheekey’s as being very old-school. Dark walls, crisp linen, the desire not to drop crumbs or spill anything. I can’t remember specifically  what I ate – scallops to start? And then sea bass or sea bream, I’m sure (because if it’s fish then I’ll almost undoubtedly choose those and I’ve never been let down). But I do remember it being delicious. I definitely remember it ending with chocolate fondant!

  
We sat at the end of the row of tables above, me sat on the banquette, because I dislike having my back to a room, especially in a restaurant, and Husband in the chair opposite. Next to me a rotund man dined alone. Clearly of money and a private education that brought a sense of entitlement, he reminded me of the Walrus from Alice in Wonderland.

  
Which seems appropriate seeing as how we were in an oyster restaurant.

This man was ahead of us with his meal and the night was drawing on for all of us. He was clearly sated on fine wine and seafood. And then he uttered the following words with such self-regard that it’s become a catchphrase between Husband and I when we become aware that we’re being a bit wanky:

“Waiter! Waiter! Move my table! I need to get up!”

Husband and I just stared at each other aghast. Who is so bloated on food and self-importance that they need serving staff to move furniture for them?!?! 

And thus, of all the memorable snippets of meals, that is the enduring one of J Sheekey’s. I would like to go back, to remember the food better, to soak up the gentleman’s club vibe. But, maybe I’d be disappointed if it lacked The Walrus. Although I also vow never to become The Walrus. May I never need my table moving! May I always eat little enough that I can get up myself!

#9: The Room of Requirement

V&A Museum Members’ Room. 30/07/15.

  

Membership to the V&A museum in London may have been one of husband’s most inspired Christmas presents. My little membership card entitled me to free entrance to the exhibitions, discount in the shop and exclusive use of the members’ café. The open-to-all tearoom is absolutely stunning. The members’ room therefore had to be a joy to behold then, right?

   
It had been rendered even more enticing as it seemed the museum had hidden it away. On my previous visit we couldn’t find it! The museum is labyrinthine in its design and despite 45-minutes of searching and directions provided from Ann Hegerty’s sterner sister we hadn’t found it. It seemed the museum had devised its own version of Hogwarts’ Room of Requirement…except then I should have found it as I’d really really required a coffee and a slice of cake!

This time I was determined though. I drooled at the shoes in the Pleasure and Pain exhibition…

   
…and squeezed in with the crowds at the breath-taking McQueen exhibition.

  
Hungry, thirsty and in need of respite from hoards of people I definitely needed to make use of the perks of membership.

I knew the café was on the fourth floor…but in an annexed part of the fourth floor. (Our rookie mistake the time before.) I still managed to go up and down in the wrong lift, so instead decided to take the stairs, which actually was no bad thing as a) it off-set the calories, and b) I got to gaze at the beautiful Chihuly chandelier hanging in the museum entrance too. 

  
I can’t tell you the excitement though at finally seeing the words ‘Members’ Room’ above a hidden(ish) door in a mirrored wall at the end of the Glass corridor. 

 Oh my God! So it does exist!

My pace picked up along the parquet floor and I excitedly pushed the door ajar. This must be how Harry Potter felt!
  

And…oh. Rather than a spectacular space full of interesting art/objects/Rowena Ravenclaw’s Diadem it was all rather ordinary. Ordinary and full of people! 

  
I queued for a falafel wrap and found a plastic chair and table on the mezzanine. Next to me a woman bashed frustratedly at her laptop whilst loudly speaking on her mobile:

“Yah – hi. I’m in the members’ room and can’t get the visitor wifi to work. Can I have the password for the staff wifi?”

I’m guessing she was denied because:

“Yes. But that’s surely for normal visitors. The museum is rammed and I’m a member and trying to WORK. I have to meet my mother in half an hour. Why can’t I use the staff wifi?”

… (I’m guessing a response along the lines of “because the staff wifi is for staff so they can do their work and you are a visitor, albeit one with a membership.”)

“But I’m a member. This is unacceptable. I insist you put me through to your manager…Well then, get her to call me back.”

And then she kicked her shoes off and reclined along her leather sofa at the very stress of it all whereby she called her mother to loudly complain about her wifi struggles. I left.

This summer I went back to the V&A (this time to see their exhibition on 40 years of the West End and Broadway and A Brief History of Underwear – you’ve got to love a pun, especially when it’s about pants! Both  exhibitions were amazing). I didn’t bother to make a return visit to the members’ room, but instead we sat and ate lunch (and splashed in the pool!) outside in the courtyard.  

 

However, things are set to change for the better for the museum’s members. Next year is going to see the launch of a brand spanking new members’ room. One that is ‘a flexible and atmospheric space’ that ‘will reflect the spirit of the museum and cater to the needs of its growing membership base.’ (Does that mean better wifi?!) 

  
Im pretty sure I read in my member’s magazine that it has a hidden bookcase entrance!!! I may have to get Husband to renew my membership again just to give the new space a try. Here’s hoping I can find it!

#8: The One Where Susan Ate Everything

At home. 01/05/15

I have a couple of friends who are essentially food buddies. Although we met via an online mums group, these days we rarely meet up unless it’s without kids and it’s over a plate of food. As the kids include two with autism and a teenager who’d rather be dead than seen out with mum this is wise. It also means we rarely meet up, as life gets in the way, but when we do its invariably delicious.

Except Susan is unreasonably fussy. No matter the quality of the restaurant, the level of recommendation on TripAdvisor or local reputation she WILL find fault. Even when she’s the one to choose the location it was always better the time she was there before.

And by-and-large we let her choose because it’s scary picking on her behalf. In two restaurants the fish had too many bones (we ban her from having fish now), in many many places she’s criticised the decor, the temperature of the plates, the service. Invariably the night will end with a plate of food pushed to one side and an item deducted from the bill.

Both Maureen and I love Susan. And at times she’s been right. But it puts the pressure on unless we’re going somewhere very very familiar.

So, imagine feeding Susan yourself!!!

We hadn’t met up for a while and the only opportunity to do so, due to family and work commitments, was on a particular Friday night. But Husband had plans and I had two choices: bail or host. I chose to host…and then realised what I’d just offered: I was going to have to cook for Susan!!!

Now, I like to think I’m an ok cook. But the only consumer of my food is my family, and what if I’m not actually that good? What if they’re just really easy to please or if I’ve just worn down their palates?

And moreover, I’d diddled Maureen and Susan out of a fancy restaurant meal. Whatever I produced, I didn’t want them wishing they’d just left me behind and eaten out. Plus, if Susan complains about food cooked by those with training and professional knives, how many ways would she be able to find fault withy amateurish efforts?!?!

I have one recipe I can truly, 100%, rely on to be restaurant-worthy: Jamie Oliver’s prawn and pea risotto.

  
I’ve eaten the proper Italian version and have to confess I preferred mine. It’s the page that the book falls open on when I use it, encrusted as it is with splashes of stock and wine. It’s a recipe I’ve cooked often and never failed me.

(It also earned me one of my most treasured possessions: Jamie Oliver’s autograph, given to me by his niece who I was teaching to dance, after I’d asked her to pass on my thanks for his dish. I really really hope she gave him a big kiss from me.)

  
The only flaw is if someone doesn’t like/is allergic to prawns. Trepidatiously, I checked with Susan:

  
Phew! Relief!

I set the table with my favourite linen and bought cream roses. Everything looked lovely (or at least as lovely as possible in my shit pit of a house). But I still couldn’t relax the same way as if we were going out. I wanted the friends I loved to enjoy the food I loved.

  

 

The evening went beautifully, apart from Husband deciding he didn’t need to go out after all (what the actual f***…?! I could’ve gone out anyway?!?!). We drank – a lot! – talked the night away and the food was good. A charcuterie board to start (easy peasy – decant cured meats, cheeses and olives onto a board and done – plus it’s what Susan always serves us at her pre-Christmas evening, so it was a sure-fire hit) followed by the risotto and chocolate and Nutella melty muffins for dessert. And do you know what?

Susan ate every last mouthful!!!

It could have been out of politeness, it could have been the copious booze, but whatever, it was nice to eat and here nothing but yummy noises. 

It made my day to get a recipe request by text afterwards. 

  
Again, it may have been politeness, but Susan doesn’t tend to sugar any pills. I’d done it!

Maureen has since also hosted with equally edible results and our nights in are invariably more successful than our nights out. In fact, it’s been a while since we last managed a get-together. Perhaps I should hit Jamie’s recipes again and do it again. Just as long as I don’t serve fish.