I had a very odd experience at Bird of Smithfield the other day. I dropped in after checking out the Charles & Ray Eames exhibit at The Barbican — I am obsessed with good chairs — and it was a bit on the later side but the restaurant website and all the Internet AND the sign out front assured me that the bar was open ALL DAY LONG.
There were a few people already inside when I entered. A startled but very glamourous (glamazon?) hostess approached me. “Can I help you with something?” For a moment, I looked around, confused. Was I in a hardware store?
“Um…I’d like to have lunch please. The bar is fine.”
The glamazon looked confused. “You want lunch? We’re not serving lunch…”
“But the sign outside says…” I started. Plus, the other people in the bar seemed to be eating something, or at least, finishing eating something.
“Let me check with the kitchen.”
I stood around for a few moments and then she confirmed that they were indeed serving lunch and I could take a seat. I picked a table and never saw her again.
A little while later, another server arrived to take my order. I ordered one (just one) steak sandwich and a green salad and left it at that. There was no set-up on the table (fork, knife, napkin) so I requested that and she brought it over.
She put the napkin down on the table. I picked it up and put it on my lap. She looked at me, annoyed, and asked “What are you doing?” And then proceeded to storm away, get another napkin, and purposefully and slowly place it down on the table along with the fork and knife as if trying to tell me “I am going to do this slowly so you understand how things are done here.”
I wasn’t sure what I had done wrong. I like to put my napkin in my lap when I sit down in a restaurant.
Someone else came to the table. “Do you want green salad or chips with your sandwich?”
“I already ordered a green salad so I think that should be fine.”
My server seems confused. “So you want the sandwich, a green salad, and a green salad on the side?”
“Um, no…unless what you’re saying is that the sandwich comes with a green salad or chips? I don’t think it does. I mean, if it does, I guess I’ll have the green salad and you can cancel my side order…”
“The sandwich doesn’t come with salad or chips.”
“Um, ok. Then I’ll have the green salad that I originally ordered.”
This server disappears and I never see her again.
The server that was annoyed by my use of my napkin appears with my sandwich. “Do you want any sauces with this?”
“Perhaps some steak sauce would be nice?”
“We don’t have any steak sauce. We have ketchup, mustard and mayo.”
“OK, I guess that’s fine. Just bring me those.”
I open the sandwich. It’s covered in mustard.
I eat my steak sandwich, poke around at my green salad, and leave Bird of Smithfield, sated but confused.
At some point in 2008, I had a brilliant idea. While I was on holiday, I would get other bloggers to write guest posts for me on my blog. I’d also force them to promote my site too because there was a prize for the guest post with the most traffic! The reward was dinner with me at Foliage in the Mandarin Oriental, overlooking the shipping containers and construction in the backyard. These were the days before Dinner and Bar Boulud. I can only imagine that those shipping containers were the early signs of what was to come.
Young Douglas Blyde won my 2008 contest and he joined me for dinner with his — if you can believe it — 5 megapixel camera phone! That was a big deal back in 2008. (Today’s iPhone 6s by comparison has a 12 megapixel camera.) Over our multi-course dinner, he ate his soup properly (away from him) and passed the salt and pepper together. He also used A LOT of big words. Big words have always been Douglas’ thing.
As part of my 50 Coffees with 50 People project earlier this year, I reached out to Douglas because I hadn’t seen him since some point in 2010. Too busy, too busy. We couldn’t find a date.
Delicious bacon and scallop butty
But there he was all these years later in 2015! At 5:30 am at Piggy’s Cafe at Billingsgate Market, serving us all bacon and scallop butties and steaming mugs of tea. “I got dressed in the dark” he told us, when we commented on his amazing trousers.
We were there as part of an excellently organized social media event — #MuscadetMagic. A tour of Billingsgate, money to spend on seafood, and a prep session with CJ Jackson, CEO of Billingsgate Seafood School and author of Leith’s Fish Bible. Afterwards, we were shipped off to Old Street in minicabs and set loose on a prep kitchen with all of our seafood and a bountiful larder of produce. Ah, and a lot of Muscadet. A lot a lot. In fact, #MuscadetMagic had started a few days before, when this bottle of Muscadet arrived by special delivery…
I was totally down with the Muscadet elements of the day but I was a little worried about the food angle. When A Girl Has to Eat invited me to the event, I had warned her: “I just want to make it really clear. I really can’t cook. You should really consider inviting someone else if you really want to win.”
Her: “No no, you’ll be fine!
Me: “Really, I am not lying. My cooking skills are non-existent. I am not being economical with the truth here. I am really bad and my knife skills are non-existent too.”
But still, she took me on. During the day, I watched, mainly, as she haggled her away around Billingsgate, successfully securing A LOT of hand-dived scallops.
Do you know what I learned that day? Two things:
Opening scallops is hard work. Really hard. Surprisingly hard.
They call them razor clams for a reason. (Ouch!)
At the prep kitchen, A Girl Has to Eat put me in charge of cleaning the razor clams, which sounds a lot easier than it was. I had to judge the shell (if it was broken, we had to throw out the clam), open the clam, remove the stomach, make sure the clam was still alive, and then if it was alive, cut off the top and tail. There were A LOT of razor clams. This took me forever.
While I was at it, A Girl Has to Eat whipped up a shellfish stock and cut up all the veg, the scallops and the (very in demand) chorizo. I was then put on garlic toast duty and managed to burn my hand by picking up a hot pan. Like I said, I am not very good in the kitchen.
Our “Australian Stew”
Afterwards, we sat down for a big communal meal with the other teams while the judges tasted all our dishes and rated them. My only regret is that we didn’t make more food. We made a fairly small portion of what we dubbed our”Australian Stew” and it was lunchtime and I was starving. (I picked up some Chinese on the way home.) Thank God for the team that made the stacks of oyster po’boys.
Plenty of Muscadet
Douglas kept the winning dishes to himself as he conducted our Muscadet tasting. We hit four wines in total, with #4 being the one that I would love to have with all my seafood and #2 as one I would consider as a more everyday kind of wine.
Côtes de Grandlieu, Guérin 2014 (Waitrose, £7.99)
La Nantaise Réserve 2014 from (Laithwaites £9.99)
Les Gras Moutons 2013 from Domaine de la Haute Févrie, (Berry Bros & Rudd £11.95)
Le Pallet 2010 from Les Dix du Pallet (Majestic, £14.99)
By the time we finished lunch and the tasting, we had been up for eight hours. At it was only 1 pm! Really, an excellent day out. Although our Australian Seafood Stew didn’t win, my thanks to Douglas for organizing #MuscadetMagic and to A Girl Has to Eat for taking a chance on me in the kitchen. And now that I’ve written this post, I’m going to crack open that last bottle of Muscadet…
Sometimes, I wake up in the morning and say to myself, “I wish I could have Chinese food for breakfast.” I consider heading to Chinatown to see what’s open. I know Royal China on Baker Street opens at 11 am on Sundays but that is too late.
Enter Chinese Laundry on Upper Street! They will be open from 8:30 am during the week! And they’ll serve Chinese breakfast! Like Chinese pancakes. And buns! This seems like the answer to my prayers, but yet…only MY prayers. Will other people want to eat Chinese pancakes so early in the day? (Particularly the denizens of Islington?) I am not so sure. I would love to see the market sizing on this one.
Right now, the restaurant is in soft launch mode, and the only thing they are serving is all day Chinese breakfast. If I were a real restaurant critic, I would not write about a restaurant in soft launch mode. But I’m not a real restaurant critic am I? So there you go. I dropped in at 12 on a Thursday and despite many people staring at the menu in the window, I was the only one in the place. I had a pleasant table looking out onto Upper Street (and all the people staring in the window) and guess what? I had the Chinese pancake. And a pork belly baozi, which was absolutely huge and a little too bready for me. But the Chinese pancake was delicious and whoever fried that egg knew what they were doing.
I like the idea of Chinese Laundry, and I like the kitschy decor. I’m just not so sure other people will like the idea of Chinese Laundry. I guess that means more Chinese food for breakfast for me, but I hope I am not their only customer.
My new life — if you can call it that — means new things. It means cooking things, on occasion. This is a big deal for someone whose tag line on Twitter used to be something like “American in London. Likes food but not cooking.”
I now love cooking Asian things most of all. I could eat jasmine rice all day long. So no one had to twist my arm too hard when Amoy invited me over to a lovely kitchen in Waterloo to hang out with TV chef and personality Ching He Huang and watch her cook with all sorts of Amoy products. Ching is seriously one of the nicest and sweetest people I’ve ever met. I am now a HUGE FAN and I am very grateful that we all received a copy of her cookbook Wok Yourself to Health in our goody bags after the event.
Amoy is part of Kraft Heinz. Everyone thinks Kraft bought Heinz but here is what really happened. Brazilian private equity bought Heinz and slashed costs. Then the same Brazilian private equity teamed up with Warren Buffet to buy Kraft and merge it with Heinz. Boy am I glad I don’t work in Accounting or HR at either firm.
Work…I have been working a lot lately. So I have been very remiss at writing up anything about anything really, and particularly this wonderful and lovely event. The kind PRs have been knocking at my door quite frequently, gently, oh-so-gently reminding me about the wonderful event I attended on their dime. As always, I admire all the bloggers out there who can so quickly write up an event! How do you do it?? Please teach me. (The event was September 2nd.)
During the event, Ching whipped up a couple of dishes. My favorites were the popcorn chicken, a great starter that is highly addictive, and also the bacon chow mein, which although on the saltier side, is definitely a crowd pleaser. I am such your friend my dear readers because look! I am giving you the recipes for my two favorite dishes! Thank you, Amoy and Haygarth PR!
I am seriously thinking about the popcorn chicken right now and my mouth is watering as I write this. Amoy has created a video of Ching going through how she made this. You should watch it and then you should make this addictive stuff for your next house party.
This is the bacon chow mein. Excellent. I will make this again. Not that I made it the first time, but you know what I mean.
And then of course, here is a lovely photo of all the things in Amoy’s new range. (I did not take this photo, obviously. It’s too good. Look at that depth of field!) What’s new to the range is Amoy’s cooking sauce pouches. The new range features Thai Green Curry, Malaysian Laksa and a Thai Massaman Curry in 300g pouches, all made in Thailand, Suggested retail price of £1.49. Now that’s an exciting price point! Particularly exciting for someone like me who really doesn’t have too much time to cook because you know, I’m busy WORKING. (But do you know what’s even more exciting? I AM GOING TO THAILAND NEXT YEAR. Where I am going to take some time off from working.)
This was a great afternoon out. To the people at Amoy and Haygarth PR, I am very sorry it took me so long to write this up. Thank you for being so wonderful and thank you to Ching and thank you for the wonderful goody bag. I am very grateful.
A few months ago, one of my former colleagues said something like, “Hey, we’re thinking of taking the ferry to France for the weekend. We’re taking the car. Do you want to come along?”
I am the worst person to say these things to.
Because I always say yes.
And before you know it, I’m off to Portsmouth with my friends A and C and we’re driving their car onto the quite large and substantial ferry. If you like logistics and operations like I do, this is pretty damn amazing. ALL THESE CARS. Squeezed onto this one ferry. Off to France! Across the sea. Amazing.
We booked cabins on the ferry and I had a spacious four-berth room to myself. It was tiny and pink and clean and neat. Not luxurious at all, and I slept like crap down in the bowels of the ship, but it was not bad, all in all. (I really cannot imagine sharing this room with three other people though, unless they were my children and even then, it would be hard.)
As soon as we got onto the ship, A. hustled us to the posh restaurant and procured a corner table. I am laughing as I’m writing this because guys, it was a real restaurant, with real food! Quelle surprise! The service was very French and very lovely. I had the poached sole and we drank Champagne out of tiny bottles and capped our night with some Muscat and the dessert bar, where we may have eaten all the Tiramasu and all the cheese. Lactose intolerant, we are not.
Bright and early the next morning, we arrived in the medieval city of St. Malo. They have ramparts there. For the next 36 hours, we drove around Brittany and Normandy and drank all the wine and ate all the oysters. A perfect weekend, really.