Mediocrity reigns when away

I spend a lot of eating time away from the kitchen and always wonder, “could I do better?”. Have to say the answer’s often a grumpy “Yes” and today was no exception.
Marooned in Taunton’s Holiday Inn – on the same car/park industrial/shopping/estate on the edge of the town as the Express by Holiday Inn – I had a least enjoyed the excellent pool. There didn’t seem much prospect of eating anywhere that wasn’t a taxi ride away, and I have had not bad experiences at other HI’s including Bradford and Calais (well, I know it’s in France ….).
At least the blackboard of ‘specials’ suggested that some of it wouldn’t be boil in a bag, head office designed cooking. Wrong.
Ok, I chose ‘rough pate’ thinking no one can muck that up, and rough at least means it won’t be ‘Brussels Smooth and Pink’. Wrong. The three kinds of bread were interesting, but fridge cold. Butter, when provided, practically frozen. And the pate, well cold, tasteless and yes, Pink.
My chalky, handwritten special was described as “Whitby Scampi in a sweet and sour sauce on a bed of fragrant rice”. Now that sounds like a delicate enough thing, fresh pieces of scampi in a spicyish sauce with rice and a side salad.
Now imagine: a microwaved pile of rice that lost its aromatic qualities – if it ever had any – some time earlier; a pile of breadcrumbed fishy pieces of doubtful provenance – Whitby, not likely – deep fried to an inch of their existence; an even larger pile, a monstrous pile, of previously frozen peas; a tiny dish of sweet and sour sauce that had been zapped. And a typically thrown together side salad of wet lettuce, cold peppers and onions.
What’s to complain about? It was what it said – just. Each item was edible – just. It filled a hole – just.
So it didn’t meet my expectation, who’s fault’s that? Mine I suppose for imagining that £20 bought you a decent meal, not one that was just ……..


Eating on the run, never great …

When travelling, days can go by on grabbed sandwiches and indifferent meals out. Monday was to be a case with end-to-end meetings and the last session finishing at 9.30 pm in Worcester – so a stay over needed.
I got a head start with the food, being warned there would be nothing from when I left till bedtime, by taking a brown baguette stuffed with home-made pate (see earlier). This was eaten greedily and in haste after quickly booking in to the Travelodge in the centre of the town. (For those in need ok – big rooms, dull, dull, dull, mine had great view of the Malverns over a forest of air conditioning units for the local shops. Expensive parking.)
Next door there is a Pizza Express open ‘till 11 pm, so look no further. I’ll skip the detail ‘cos here’s a more than detailed review of someone else there recently. For me it was too small, too bland – and that was the Diavolo! – and the only atmosphere that provided by well-oiled take awayers. The staff were efficient and charming.
No, the best pizza we’ve had in a long time was in Mali Velinj in Croatia: sitting on the side of the harbour, fish at our feet, literally. The dough was so good they sold it plain to eat with olive oil. The fish topping … well it hadn’t been dead long. They do take outs …..
At home we’ve settled on Jamie Oliver’s recipe for dough that includes semolina – not flour, the real thing. And a very fine crust it produces. More difficult to adopt his Italian, more is less approach: we’re in the British school of the more the better. Both view points worth exploring by trial and error.

Eating in Brussels classical style

Those who know me, know that I like food. I had always intended to keep a food log – but in its absence (do I hear a sigh of relief out there?) I will at least review some of the meals I’ve had. Being in Brussels means there’s lots of choice to eat and as usual on a RIMSAT review visit the happy team went out together. This time it was the ultra elegant L’Alban Chambon Restaurant that is part of the Hotel Metropole.

The high ceilinged room, morning-suited staff and huge and elegantly set out table should have been a clue or three: this is French/Belgian classical approach to food. Our printed RIMSAT menu promised four courses – with a choice in the middle. But first, a plate of three amuses: an anchovy curled on a tomato resting on a caviar sauce; a tiny quennelle of white crab meat (where did all the brown meat go?); and a perfect miniature tureen of tomato cream. Three big hits of taste and we hadn’t really started.

The fish course was a terrine of sea bass and baby leeks wrapped in more leeks, the whole resting on a jus of  vegetable/leek stock and fromage frais topped with more deep fried leek ribbons. It was delicate and served in a most generous, main course sized portion. Next choices: soupe de poissons de roch with croutons and rouille (mine) or gigantic trees of white asparagus with sauce mousseline. The soup was no petite tureen this time – a hungry person sized plateful. Getting full.

The main course meant the death of several small piglets – or conchon de lait as they are called here abouts. A fist sized loin complete with its crackling and a bed of courgettes. All accompanied by a little (relative word at this point) dish of haricots. The suckling pig was perfectly cooked, plainly delivered so that the meat’s taste could come through. I just managed ….

Then the pudding: a carpaccio of pineapple and roasted figs with a sorbet of limes. Knockout tastes. Defeated after half. I managed a few sips of chamomile tea. The others told me the coffee and sweeties were v good.

So another RIMSAT review survived, another exceptional dinner. (Don’t get the idea that all this European gallivanting is fun – only the meals relieve the grinding work. That’s my story.) This meal was proof for me that classic traditions, carefully updated can still deliver powerful food. Big tastes, big portions, big surroundings. Big result. Dominique Michou and his team deserve their toques.