I spend a lot of my time thinking about food. Specifically daydreaming about the eventual conversation I’ll have with Ed Gamble and James Acaster when I find my way onto their podcast, Off Menu.
For those who are unfamiliar, Ed and James sit down with actors, comedians and the occasional national treasure to run through their dream starter, main course, side, dessert and drink (not necessarily in that order). When E and I first started dating, this was not only an interesting way of learning about each other’s tastes but also an opportunity to both stretch our previous misadventures with food.
Still or sparkling
I’m going to have to go with still. I’m not even fussy so it could be direct from the tap. I bloody love water. A lot of the time, if I don’t feel right, it’s something that necking a pint of water will fix. As we are in the Dream Restaurant, it’s also important that I have a bladder that doesn’t reach capacity because I am ready to imbibe!
Poppadoms or bread, Paul Schiernecker! Poppadoms or bread!
Bread. It has to be. As much as I would like to be mother (see Tim Key’s episode for this reference), bread is the life force. My life is bread and circuses, to paraphrase the Roman poet Juvenal. I’d like fresh, warm rolls which take a bit of work to rip apart, served from a bread basket, possibly with the Genie Waiter present. Alongside it, I’d like several of those little circles of butter, covered in Maldon sea salt (the greatest of all the salts) and warm enough that it’s not going to tear my bread apart when I try to spread it. The basket can stay for the duration.
Just to put James’ mind at ease, I am very much a Dessert Boy. I have to say though, starters feel like a treat and I do tend to get involved. E has taught me the wonder of ordering multiple dishes and having the option to share. We usually split things (in my favour if there’s an odd number) so the starter course becomes more of a small plates affair. Given this, I’m going to bend the rules and order multiple starters under the guise of it being the way we would do things. First things first, a very seventies prawn cocktail. I’m talking lots of fat prawns, in Marie Rose sauce, served in half an avocado and with some shredded gem lettuce in there. A sprinkle of cayenne pepper over the whole affair and some slices of lemon on the side. This dish doesn’t have to be from anywhere in particular but my mum does make a pretty good one, which reminds me of the starter we would have on Christmas morning. We even had specific plates for it. These kind of kidney dish-looking things from a set that my parents were bought at their wedding. We used to call them the scratchy plates because they were made of this unfinished heavy clay(?) and any interaction with cutlery made a horrible scratching noise like nails on a chalkboard. I want that.
In addition, I’d like a portion of nachos, maybe from Miller & Carter, the vegetable tempura starter from Ozen in Westcliff and a dozen oysters from Le Dome. Given the amount of seafood in there, I’ll have a bottle of Gavi to go with it. Heads up – this is going to be quite a boozy meal because there’s nothing better than eating and drinking to excess with the people you love.
It might seem like an odd choice to specifically go for nachos from M&C but there is a reason for it. They fry their own tortillas up and it means you get these fat chips that have a lot more structural integrity than a brittle shop-bought nacho. They also pile on the toppings as well.
Ozen is one of my favourite local places and I love taking people there. Honourable munchion to their sushi platter which they serve up in a wooden boat as well. Their tempura is so light and crispy and every time I eat there, I marvel at what they are able to do.
And the oysters. Well, that’s pure indulgence. I’ve really got into oysters recently and loved Rob Brydon’s story about the way Tom Jones took the lead when they went out for oysters. What a man!
This might seem a bit basic, and it’s worth remembering that I’m a lapsed vegetarian/vegan in the mix of this. I’m going for a steak. I think the best I’ve had was at Goodman in Mayfair. Seeing how I’m not paying, I’m going big and I’m going fillet steak – medium rare and with plenty of peppercorn sauce on the side. With it, I’d like some triple cooked chips with truffles, a big flat mushroom, grilled tomatoes and peas.
I was never into red meat when I was a kid but I went through this weird phase where I was severely anaemic and doctors recommended I get into stout and steak. It’s safe to say I’ve never looked back. It therefore makes sense for me to have not just a bottle of red wine but also a pint of Guinness for this to go down with. I’m not too fussy about the red wine but I’d like the Guinness to be poured in Dublin and carried across. I had a pint at the Storehouse that changed my life.
There was so much room for honourable munchions in this space. There’s a Jalapeno cornbread that Caravan do that is ungodly. I’ve tried to replicate it at home, with varying degrees of success but you cannot beat theirs. I could also get on board with some escargot from La Coupole. It’s not necessarily a side but the rules are made to be broken. The amount of garlic and butter they load into theirs makes it, and I’ve still got my bread basket on the table to mop that up with.
My actual choice though is a macaroni cheese I had at Glastonbury, maybe a decade ago. I was absolutely hammered and we had stumbled away from the headline slot to get some food. I found this mac n cheese stall where they had this huge skillet and were batch-cooking in a way that I had never seen it made before. They cooked off the macaroni in the one giant pan and then as the water evaporated, they added in milk, stirring it the whole time. Then in with the cheese. I now make it in the same way but I watched it for about ten minutes. There may have been external factors impacting my judgement but it was enthralling to stare at. They then offered up different toppings and served in in those little cups you’d get ice cream in. I had chilli peppers and cayenne on mine and it just caught me in that moment as the best thing ever.
Alongside the bottle of red, the bottle of white, the water and the Guinness, my drink of choice is an Old Fashioned. Again, an indicator that I am a Dessert Boy. The silver medal goes to a charcoal Old Fashioned I had at Bull in a China Shop in Shoreditch. You think of an Old Fashioned as being a particularly smokey cocktail but this just elevated it, and it felt like I was drinking someone else’s dark thoughts. Would recommend.
The winner, and this is quite a recent one, is the Brown Sugar Old Fashioned I had on Bourbon Street when I was in New Orleans. We had got into the city late and I went wandering all down the neon-lit streets in search of just the right place. At the end of this run of depravity, I found Bourbon “O” Bar where there was a band playing old jazz songs. I sat at the bar and didn’t know what I was going to order until the guy next to me asked for an Brown Sugar Old Fashioned from the Specials menu. Absolutely that. I think it was the moment. The music. The space. I was also thrown because we had just travelled from New York by train and I was slightly out of sorts. They drop a giant circular ice cube in, add this sugar syrup and whiskey and it’s just incredible. I should go back.
I have a real sweet tooth. My friend Benjy once taught me about his theory about the additional stomach that we have for desserts. He called it “the chockle pockle”, and I use that quite a lot as a reference. I can always smash a dessert. I love a tiramisu, profiteroles, a jam roly poly, just a bar of Wholenut even but there’s one dessert that has the top spot in my chockle pockle.
That’s cheesecake. There are so many variations to it so I’m always a little wary when ordering but obviously the best is a New York style or Jewish cheesecake. I’ve had to learn to make it because I can’t get my fix often enough and I rate the version I make. It’s mad how long it takes to make. It’s nearly a kilo of cream cheese in there alongside everything else and then a slow bake followed by eight hours in the fridge with a sour cream topping. The best cheesecake I’ve ever had though was at Junior’s in New York. I discovered it a few years ago and now wouldn’t go to NYC without a visit. It’s so thick and rich. Just the best. I am going to go with the strawberry because I can at least then trick myself into thinking that there’s some fruit involved.
I’ll finish that off with a double espresso or maybe an Irish coffee, depending on how pissed I feel. And that’s it. Unbeatable. Dream menu.
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