Miscellany and detritus, from the writer of Is This Mutton?com

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Benares delivers a treat for the senses

Atul Kochhar sprang to national prominence in the TV show The Great British Menu, where he provoked anguished debate among the judges about whether or not his food was truly British cuisine.

Now, having dined at his Michelin-starred London restaurant Benares, I can say it very definitely is British cuisine but with the delicate touch of a spicing master. The menu was mercifully bereft of the onion bhajiis, rogans, chicken tikka massalas and biryianis. Instead, Benares serves up a short but saliva-inducing menu of classic fish and meat dishes with that extra spicy something.

I went a la carte and started with spice crusted seared scallops with grape and ginger dressing. What made this stunning was the fact that the grapes were served at just thawed temperature. The coldness and the crunch with the ginger was, as Michael Winner would say, historic.

Next I couldn't resist the star of his Great British Menu submission. Battered John Dory with crushed garden peas and Gorkha tomato chutney. We shared a side dish of water chestnut, baby corn and courgette tossed with crushed coriander. The batter and fish was sublime, the batter light and crispy, the fish tender and juicey. The only disappointment was the chutney which was quite bland.

Benares has a fine selection of teas - such an underrated drink - and I enjoyed the delicate but robust flavour of the Benares special blend.

The restaurant was pleasingly busy for a lunch time and has a relaxed ambience with plenty of room between the tables. I think more could be done with the decor: the initial walk up the stairs and the marble sweep into the restaurant is spectacular, but once inside the ceiling is quite low and the wall covering - what appears to be smooth obelisks of Polyfilla - could be visually more exciting.

The only thing that jarred was the service. It was very much executed to a script with none of the intuition and anticipation that waiters display at restaurants like Le Gavroche. My companion's napkin was taken away when he went to the lavatory (why?) and the waiter insisted on describing exactly what we were eating, when it arrived, which seemed silly when we knew because we'd lovingly read every word of the menu. We weren't asked if we wanted to replenish our bottle of water, and uneaten poppadoms were almost removed before we had finished.

That aside, I certainly noticed the difference in spicing when I went to our usual Indian restaurant later that weekend. It's a perfectly acceptable restaurant, but somehow everything lacked clarity and unctiousness after Benares.

The wonderful wiles of the voting public

Wasn't the Strictly Come Dancing results show terrific last night? I had already predicted Kate Garraway would be saved and expected Kenny Logan and John Barnes to be in the dance off. So I was amazed, nay gobsmacked, as was the rest of the nation, when it turned out to be Mrs Logan and Penny Lancaster.

I certainly didn't get indignant or angry at the result, so I'm bemused by the fact the BBC website went down as people tried to complain about Gaby and Penny being in the bottom two. It's only a game, folks! Besides, serves the show right for under- estimating the voting British public. Having sanctimoniously decided that the judges will decide which of the bottom two goes, therefore removing the public's right of veto (even though we're expected to spend at least 25 pence on the call), I thought it was very droll that the public still continues to wield the power.

And as readers will know, I couldn't stand Gaby anyway and it seems neither could the rest of you. I have to say, I felt she danced better than Penny last night (she still looked ungainly and wobbly to me), but I didn't want Ian Waite to go out so it was a good call all round.

And great that the EastEnder boy is starting to shine. I feared it was going to get boring if Alesha and Kelly continued to dominate each week.

Finally a word to UK Gold. Sack whoever is doing the editing. I've been recording "Dancing with the Stars" every Friday, keen to watch the progress of Jane Seymour, Mel B and Marie Osmond. Last week's show was very entertaining: Marie famously fainted and Jane's rumba was divine, yet she ended up in the bottom two. In the US show, the public still decide who goes. But the editing of the show! It's appalling. After Marie fainted, we went to an ad break; we returned to find her fully recovered and waiting for her result - and then the result wasn't shown, because they shot ahead to the next couple! And this happens throughout the show. Very poor. The results show is abysmal, it seems to go on for hours, and instead of having all the couples together and doing the elimination in one go, they do it two couples at a time.

It doesn't look as if Jane Seymour will be in for much longer, which will be a shame. I am simply amazed at how good she looks for 56. She has the figure of a girl half her age, and none of the lumps, bumps and back fat that blight the middle-aged, even the slim middle-aged. Hurrah for a true English rose!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The elusive goal is reached

At the weekend we were in Amsterdam for the marathon, John's 16th and the penultimate marathon in his world's top 10. This is a list compiled by Runner's World and now he has only Chicago to run, next year.

John has been training hard to reach a particular goal. He runs five days a week and his schedule includes runs and races with the Orion Harriers, half marathons, a training week in the Algarve and losing a stone.

He didn't achieve his goal in Boston, back in May, although he came close. In fact the weather conditons were so bad that the elite runners were all slower than their normal times.

But in Amsterdam, the goal was achieved. It was a great moment sitting in the Olympic stadium and receiving his excited phone call as he crossed the finish, and then seeing him jumping for joy among the thousands of plastic clad finishers as they milled around in a haze of embrocation.

It's a huge personal success for him because he's had to change his mindset and the way he runs a marathon, plus he's getting older. The training he did in the Algarve this year was instrumental in the change. He learnt how to monitor his pace instead of his heart rate.

I've followed him around the world running various marathons - Berlin, Stockholm, New York, Honolulu, Rotterdam, Paris to name a few. I've seen him at quite a low ebb after poor performances in Stockholm, where he ran although he was unwell, and Berlin, where it was very hot. So it was great to see him jubilant and joyful. He seemed to recover much faster too. I've seen him walk down staircases backwards in the past, and limp at the airport, but after Amsterdam he was even quite chipper when we had to walk back to the hotel (30 mins).

Now the goal is achieved I don't think he will stop running for one minute, and I wouldn't want him to because running keeps him fit and stress-free, but at least the pressure is off in terms of personal bests. Next up is London, hopefully, if he gets a place, followed by Chicago in the autumn. And I'm trying to talk him into Tokyo.

Have I ever thought about taking up marathon running? No chance --- the runners are generally small and wiry, built for speed (which is another reason why it's harder for John as he is tall and well built). Plus I couldn't contemplate dragging myself out on a cold or rainy dark night. No, it's the swimming pool for me and my beloved aqua sessions!


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Willie freed

We watched Strictly Come Dancing yesterday (Monday) after returning from Amsterdam. I was surprised to see John Barnes in the dance off, but it seems the GMTV loving public are going to keep rescuing Kate Garraway in the way they did with Fiona, so as long as she's saved from the bottom two she will dance again. A bit of a travesty of course because she was much worse than Willie Thorne or John Barnes. I bet the judges are spitting a pillowful of feathers that their ploy to save the better dancers is failing.

Anyway, it was a foregone conclusion that Willie would go because John Barnes does have a lot more natural rhythm, and in his black outfit, looked much more like a contender than when he was wearing lurid orange. He looked as if he'd shed a stone and a half.

The wardrobe dept was kinder to Letitia Dean too. Last week's purple dress was horrific but this week she looked good (and slim) in a full-length gown, and her dreadful hair extensions were out of the way on top of her head.

Poor Penny looked like a prancing cart horse but as they all said, the jive is very difficult for tall people. Ian Waite somehow makes everything look very light and natural, despite being tall, but he is wonderfully in proportion and has been dancing since he was six.

Kelly Brook and Aleesha Hamilton are still looking the stars, although it was good to see one of the boys, the kid from EastEnders (I forget his name) coming through. I thought Gethin was appalling: he looked like a plastic model from Thunderbirds. Talk about a frozen turkey. Kenny Logan continues to look like a terrified Shrek, and Gabby Logan, while technically OK, continues to grate. She will not last once the public get the chance to boot her out.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Sex and the City - don't do it

I have, in the words of Mrs Fussey from the immortal film "Carry On Camping," got sore misgivings about the forthcoming film of Sex and the City.

It's three years, though it seems longer, since we last saw Carrie and co. Now I was a great fan of SATC, but I'm less than enthusiastic about the prospect of The Film. The photos we've seen so far, which are apparently dream sequences of weddings to throw us off the scent (though they probably really are wedding scenes) just show how the girls are ageing, badly. Carrie, in a wedding dress, looks so thin her bones are jutting out. Ewww. I can't help thinking the whole thing is going to be a pale imitation of the original series, sadly played out but played by the girls to get one last crack at the dollars.

I can write the story of the film now. Carrie, reunited in Paris with Big, finds out he really is a shallow shmuck and ends up marrying someone else very quickly (Aidan?). Samantha probably dies (I read someone does). Miranda gets her long awaited happy ever after. Not sure about Charlotte. More of the same I suppose, with her solicitor husband and adopted children.

When has the film of a series ever been any good? I can't think of any instances. Star Trek? Noooo. Bewitched? Definitely not. Dr Who? (Has there been a film of Dr Who? Oh - I read that's another one in the making).

Still, there's always the possibility the SATC film may still get shelved. Apparently Sarah Jessica Parker and Kim Cattrall are at each other's throats again, so one of them may have a hissy fit and walk out. Or, I suppose, the rushes could be so bad it goes straight to DVD.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Gaby's face was a picture

It really was. When the Alpha Female Mrs Logan realised she wasn't in pole position with the judges, she gritted that jutting jaw and said fiercely she would be even better next week.

I'm talking week two of Strictly Come Dancing of course, when the ladies were unleashed on us in all their finery.

They really are going to be a tough act to follow. The boys seem a lacklustre, uncompetitive lot, content to clown around. But among the girls, it's very difficult even at this stage to separate Penny Lancaster, Aleesha Dixon and Kelly Brook. You then get category two - hugely determined to succeed at all costs (Gaby Logan), but likely in my view to be voted out by the public as soon as she gets a poor vote from the judges. Category three are the no hopers: Kate Garraway and Stephanie Beacham. Beacham looked great for her age. Her face was so immobolised by botox it was hard for her to show any emotion. She performed commendably well, but give her a Latin dance and she'll drown. Letitia Dean is a category two: she could do very well but she lacks confidence. A bit like Carol Smillie. And she does have lovely legs, slim all the way up, lucky girl.

I hope that Penny Lancaster wins: she's a nice gel and Ian Waite is a nice bloke, and they look wonderful together, and it's fun to see Rod looking proud. Kelly Brook is too darned perfect for her own good - though it will be interested to see if she's still with Billy Zane by the end of it. He's looking balder and more dull by the passing day. And weren't they supposed to have been married this summer?

As for Gaby, she's a dead ringer for Gollum and I'm sorry but those desperate-to-win athletic types do not perform well with the voting public. That's assuming if any of us are voting. With all the scandals I for one will not be going anywhere near a phone.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sorry Brian

I must have put a hex on Brian Capron with my prediction that he would do well in Strictly Come Dancing. Ejected after the first show! And what a shame for Karen Hardy, last year's winner.

I do believe, and I'm not the only one (muttered darkly), that Brian was unfairly evicted. He was a better dancer than "Desperate Dan" Kenny Logan, who lummoxed around the dance floor like Nelson's Column on castors. However, I believe he was saved because of the corny couple storyline that they're determined to milk for as long as possible: the rivalry, the jealousy, yawn yawn.

The Logans do nothing for me: I can never bear the overly ambitious female sportswomen who "have" to win. I'm afraid I was already prejudiced about Gaby simply by the fact that she "had" to lose her baby weight super fast and then write a book about it, just to make ordinary mothers feel bad.

Poor old Stephanie Beacham was the only lady not to have any comments made after the group dance. Or, as John put it, "the old bag is the only one no-one's mentioned."
She was briefly seen carping at Kelly Brook in a manner that could only be interpreted as bitchy and jealous. Stephanie, if you want to win some votes, the Carringtons are a bit old hat these days.

After seeing "Take Two" last night, I'm now backing as no 1 Penny Lancaster. She seems really nice too. Nothing to dislike there. And having Rod and a few stepchildren in the audience can't do any harm. He isn't creepy like Billy Zane.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Nice bit of tail at The Clerkenwell

Restaurant review: The Clerkenwell, 69-73 St John Street, London EC1M

I have been fancying a bit of tail for such a long time now (ever since it got banned in the UK following the BSE scare, and its subsequent re-introduction). I refer of course to oxtail, and today oxtail ravioli was my starter of choice at the exquisitely lily scented The Clerkenwell dining room.

The oxtail melted in the mouth amid a pleasing and soothing blend of scallops, mizuna and red wine jus. I would have liked even more oxtail as it was just a fleeting taster. Mercifully the cauliflower that was mentioned didn't seem to materialise.

Next up I chose sea bass with scallops, risotto of fine herbs and champagne veloute. Superb. The sea bass was perfectly cooked, tender and flaking, and the risotto under stated but smooth and delicately flavoured.

Normally I try to pass on pudding. But the chocolate tart with caramel sauce, pistachio mousse and ice cream was too tempting. Oh my. Crumbly buttery pastry and a swoon of molten chocolate. The ice cream was only a bit player, pale green and fairly bland - I was looking for it to pack a little more punch. But a divine tart and mousse.

Another point in The Clerkenwell's favour was its excellent service. Each dish was presented to the right person without a word, the hallmark of great waiting. Pleasant relaxed atmosphere; good acoustics (no straining to hear what was being said) and tables nicely distanced from each other. Too many City restaurants have tables crammed close together which is hardly conducive for business meetings.
So, in summary, highly recommended for a business lunch. Quality food, imaginatively presented with a trademark "paint swirl," and excellent service.

Monday, October 01, 2007

It's back! Strictly Come Dancing!

The return of Strictly Come Dancing is one of the few reasons to feel good about autumn. My spirits soared as the familiar music rang out on Saturday, even though it was only a preview show. It's just fabulous. I love it!

Without having seen one step yet from the eager new intake of celebrities, I'm willing to take a gamble and give you my tips for the top. The horses I'm backing, if you will permit me to mix my metaphors, are: Brian Capron, Alesha Dixon, Penny Lancaster and Matt Di Angelo.

Capron is a more mature participant, but he looks in good shape, he's an actor and actors/actresses traditionally do well, and I can imagine he's going to be quite light on his feet.

Alesha Dixon danced a bit with Misteeq and she looks very energetic and bendy.

Penny Lancaster has been photographed dancing and showing off her endless legs in many tabloid pictures, and she will look stunning with the tall fair haired Ian Waite, so I think she'll go far provided she's got a bit of a competitive streak. I fear she may be too nice.

Matt Di Angelo seems very confident and I'm backing him for no other reason than that!

I personally think (and I may of course be proved wrong) that "Hollywood actress" Kelly Brook will be wooden in the vein of Carol Vordermann, and an early casualty.(Hollywood actress? She's appeared in a few flops, mostly with Billy Zane, that went straight to DVD).

Kate Garraway will probably be better than poor old Fiona, and I hope she does well because Anton Du Beke is so lovely and he's never won SCD.

I'm stifling a yawn over the prospect of the double husband and wife pairings of Kenny Logan and Ola Jordan, and Gaby Logan and James Jordan. The sports people are always a turn-off for me in SCD because they're so damned competitive.

As to my prediction of who will get knocked out first: I would say either Willie Thorne or John Barnes.

Oh - and I couldn't resist taking a peek at the new series of Dancing with the Stars, the US version of SCD, on, of all channels, UK Gold. It must surely be the only "new" programme they have, and sits uneasily amongst endless re-runs of Only Fools and Horses and Fawlty Towers.

I wanted to see Mel B from the Spice Girls and Jane Seymour, two English roses. Oh, and Marie Osmond.

Mel and Jane both performed superbly, a credit to the UK, and both looked amazing. Mel, you go girl - I hope Eddie Murphy and his latest fiancee were gutted to see you on such sparkling form. And Jane Seymour, at 56 - how does she do it? (Yes I know, Botox and fillers probably, but she still has the figure of a woman in her 20s and that's very hard to get, even with surgery). Marie Osmond was OK. She's a good example of how botox and fillers can make you look a bit odd (Kylie is fast heading in that direction: Danii went down that road a long while ago).

Check back for regular updates!!

UK warms to home cooking?

A story in today's Times made my heart leap. Well, two stories actually. Steady!! I must say that switching to the Times has done wonders for my blood pressure. They genuinely do have the odd good news story.

Anyway. "Mothers warm to home cooking" was one story that made me joyful. Apparently all the shock TV and newspaper reports about soaring levels of obesity have at last led to a rise in the number of women cooking from scratch.

But it's probably a bit premature to hang out the bunting. The survey was carried out by RaisingKids, a parenting website apparently, so I would imagine that its readers are far more well disposed towards healthy eating messages and doing the right thing for their kids than the general population. The organisation claims that the response of 2,500 is an accurate reflection of the views of the UK in general. If so, that's good: I had begun to fear that people were completely impervious to messages about children dying before their parents and so on.

The other good news today, which is widely reported, is that the smoking age has risen from 16 to 18. I don't suppose it will stop many kids from getting their hands on ciggies (I doubt if the shops will ask for proof of age) but it's a start, and following on from the ban in public places, a very useful start. In 50 years' time we'll look back on smoking as some strange antiquity. Having seen my dad die of emphysema, I can't wait to see smoking banned once and for all.
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