This is my birthday week but it begins with Sunday’s unprecedented closure of Turnham Green Terrace, a Together on the Terrace initiative to help revive business on the Terrace. We have a newly restored fountain with new benches by the edge of the Green and today is the unveiling of what turns out to be a splendid Peter Blake work, a celebration of the Chiswick Empire, opened in 1912 and demolished in 1959. What a collection of artistes performed there; from Liberace to Tommy Steele (my childhood hero), collected Sargent Pepper-style, a great pastiche. All the shops plus others have stalls set up in the middle of the road.
The Barrister and I are out to lunch with my brother and family who are up from Cornwall delivering my nephew to his new life as a student at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. We make an early visit to the Terrace where I see Rodney (Macken) with his arm in a humungous sling helping set up a spit for his hog roast. Mackens is open for business and I order up two grouse (my Desert Island meal) for supper and six to be ready to collect on Friday. The Terrace is alive with activity but we have to be on our way to get to the City Barge, down the towpath to Strand-on-the-Green. We bump along on our bikes having shopped at the Farmer’s Market (mistake, by the time I get home the plums I bought to make jam are turned to mush, so jam-making goes on hold). It turns into another fabulously hot day and the towpath is chokka with other cyclists, walkers and sightseers, making the journey edgy and lengthy. We arrive early though, hoping to nab an outside table but brother’s party is already there, making a claim on one of the best riverside tables. It really was very hot and my brother’s choice of lime-cured salmon with oriental seasonings was probably the wisest choice. The B and I were both seduced by soft-shell crab (deep fried in batter) and avocado burger (a mistake) with skinny chips.
Cycling back was tricky; the river had suddenly and dramatically risen and storm clouds gathered. We got wet and irritated but had roast grouse (dressed for the oven with streaky bacon, stuffed with thyme and piece of lemon, cooked for 15 minutes at 220C/gas mark 7, rested for 10 before serving) to look forward to. It was superb, perfectly pink but ‘set’, so not bloody. Thank you Rodney. It was delicious with little roughed up par-boiled new potatoes roasted crusty and golden, gravy sweetened with blueberries and buttered cabbage with lemon juice. Oh yum.
Lovely sunny day, so quite a treat to have lunch with an artist friend (www.marilynhallam.com) at the Chelsea Arts Club and to be able to eat in the garden. We both started with roast red pepper soup (which prompted me to shop for ingredients on the way home so I could make it later) which was served with strips of soft white bread, oiled and roasted with 3 little cherry toms that were perfectly soft. It looked like traffic lights stuck at red and didn’t particularly go with the soup but was very nice. Maria, the doyenne of the dining room, recommended the day’s fish, a fantastically plump roast plaice served over a big pile of spinach with little brown shrimps in a creamy sauce poured over the top. It came with a few little roast potatoes and everything was perfectly cooked; a lovely plateful.
Thoughts of supper didn’t really interest me after a pneumonia jab at the doctor’s surgery this morning, now beginning to really hurt as I tried to get enthusiastic about the William Blake exhibition at the Tate. I’ve always loved his work, his fine detail and madly muscled subjects but with some exceptions was most interested in his hand written and illustrated poems. My appetite perked up as I grated cheese for what emerged from the grill as a soft, swollen, lightly burnished cheese frittata served with leftover roast tomato halves.
It’s my birthday today and The Barrister is taking me out to dinner. I don’t know where. We meet at a groovy hotel on Berners Street, somewhere I haven’t been for years, probably since I was a very young bird, working for Campaign magazine at Michael Heseltine’s Haymarket Publishing (when the Saatchi brothers were what was called a ‘hot shop’ and as the editor’s secretary, mistook a young David Puttnam for the press day messenger). Rag trade land has smartened up and www.editionhotels.com is definitely a useful spot for a drink and the restaurant, I discover later, has a great reputation. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. This morning I collected my friend www.laetitiamaklouf.com who has eagerly agreed to come and advise The B’s mother on her impending garden makeover. This is what she wrote on her weekly TinyLetter:
‘I spend a glorious hour in a tiny, very long garden in Notting Hill, whose owner is about to renovate but wants some outside advice before she presses play with the people she’s hired to do the job. The house is an astonishing one, converted from a garage sandwiched between two lovely townhouses in the seventies, it’s like walking into a tardis and finding my childhood – I remember houses like these – some of my friends lived in them. They were open plan, carpeted wall to wall, and had riserless stairs. This one is particularly brilliant, not only for its location, but also the fact that so much has been fitted into such a tiny space. The architect dug down to create a kitchen and downstairs loo, and there, at the other end, are the doors and big windows that look out onto the garden…exactly what we all want today, only forty years ago. The garden is overgrown and shaded by a huge tree which she needs to lift. Otherwise it is full of beautiful plants that need lots of love and care and attention. All except the aucuba…the aucuba can frankly do one. YUCK – WHY do people plant it? WHY?’ Thank you Laetitia, you were quite brilliant and much appreciated. In fact you were my birthday present!
After a glass of champagne in the huge, relaxed and comfortable Edition Hotel on Berners Street, The B tells me we are having dinner at Rovi, the latest restaurant from my hero Yotam Ottolenghi. It’s a quick stroll around the corner in FitzROVIa (ha ha, it took a moment to work out the name), and the joint was hopping! The B knows I love bar eating and had booked us seats at the huge oval bar. It’s beautifully designed, cool and elegant but comfortable yet modern with stunning napery, china and glassware and plenty of staff. There is a two-tier system at the bar; you order your meal from the bar staff who stay put and then it arrives from the kitchen, brought by someone else. It’s hard to know where to start with the menu; it’s not that it’s overly long, it’s just that everything sounds so interesting. In the end, from small plates, we shared tempura stems and herbs with Szechuan, watermelon and lime leaf vinegar; a plate piled high with very crisp and knobbly tempura battered stems and herbs of no obvious distinction. We also shared piattoni beans, goat’s cheese, peach and smoked almonds and hot tomatoes (very, very tasty) with cold yoghurt (we love hot and cold), Urfa chilli and oregano. We also shared a (so-called) large plate of grilled halibut, smoked fish butter curry, coconut and einkorn roti (dear little crisp and knobbly pancakes-cum-bread). The waiter explained that the idea is to free up the fish then make pancakes with fish and all the other ingredients; lovely messy finger food with a bit of fork help. Everything tasted quite wonderful and it was a fabulous choice. Thank you B and thank you YO. We will be back.
Bit of a slack day today. Had roast red pepper and tomato soup for lunch and scoured the deep freeze for something for supper. Found one fillet of smoked haddock and another of cod, the remains of my Newlyn delivery. With out realizing it, I sort of copied an amalgam of the fish dish I’d cooked recently from Sardine by talented Alex Jackson and what I’d had for lunch at the Chelsea Arts Club. So, both fillets snuggled into oven-proof small frying pan over a few sprigs rosemary and dregs of white wine (about 150ml) pour over the top with a knob of butter. I pan-flopped 200g spinach in butter in my favourite glass-lidded Le Creuset giant frying/sauté pan, served the skinned fish in big chunks over the spinach with leftover roast tomato halves on the side and quickly reduced the buttery, winey juices to make a sauce to pour over the top. Yum.
I love the Bridge Theatre and tonight we are off there to see Two Ladies. We arrange to meet outside the tube at Tower Hill but I’m uncharacteristically early and looking for a pub, stumble upon what turns out to be another very special modern hotel. citizenM Tower of London feels as if you’ve wandered into a groovy youth hostel; the bar/reception area is a huge space divided up into coffee lounge, light snacking but mainly comfy sofa bar sitting, with drinks bought from a comparatively tiny bar hidden at the back of this vast space. I’ve no idea what the rooms are like but it’s heavying with all types of people, from young families to middle aged and quite elderly groovy New Yorkers. It’s a perfect place to meet because no-one bothers you, it’s comfortable, fun and there is plenty of space.
The play was terrific and not too long, so we were back on home turf in west London in time for a late supper. Both of us fancied a club sandwich with chips and they do a very good one at High Road House, the Chiswick branch of Soho House. I’m a sucker for a Club sandwich, particularly if the fried egg yolk is soft and there are frites on the side and a couple of years ago, we had a particularly good one here, thickly sliced avocado, griddled chicken and winter tomatoes with the usual crisp lettuce and mayo. It needs malleable, lightly toasted soft, floppy bread to hold the filling together although mayonnaise liberally smeared on the toast helps stop the tomatoes sliding off. I promptly developed a recipe for it and here it is. It will get messy. Sadly, the chef who invented that excellent variation on a club sandwich has moved along – someone once told me that this Soho House is training ground for other branches – and a more conventional club sandwich, neatly stacked and trimmed. It’s good too but I prefer the messier version below.
CHICKEN AND AVOCADO CLUB SANDWICH
Prep: 15 min
3 chicken thigh fillets
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 ripe but firm avocado
½ (half) lime or lemon
1 winter tomato (preferably ridged and knobbly)
4 slices thick, soft bread
handful of torn iceberg lettuce
2 eggs, preferably Clarence Court Burford browns
Place the ridged griddle over a medium-high heat. When smoking hot, place unfurled, lightly oiled chicken on the griddle. Reduce the heat slightly and leave to cook for a good 5 minutes. Turn and repeat. Transfer to a chopping board and rest while you run a sharp knife round the length of the avocado, cutting to the stone. Twist apart, remove the stone and carefully remove the shell. Place flat-side down and slice 5 lengthways strips. Nudge lightly to expose the slices and squeeze lime or lemon juice over the top. Season lightly with salt, generously with pepper. Core, halve and thickly slice the tomato. Heat remaining oil in a non-stick frying pan and fry the eggs while you lightly toast the bread. Spread the toast liberally with mayo. Place one slice on 2 plates. Top with tomato, add sliced chicken, avo and lettuce. Add an egg and gently press the lid in position. Serve immediately with knife and fork or cut in half first (through the egg).
Tonight I’m celebrating my birthday with my sons, so we are six for dinner and I’ve bought Secret Smokehouse London cure smoked salmon (delicious, despite off-puttingly livid colour), crème fraiche (full fat) and mini blinis to have with a glass of champagne and ordered grouse from Mackens. The birds are neatly prepared for the oven with a generous criss-cross of smoked streaky bacon and I stuff them with masses of thyme and a sliver of lemon. I couldn’t face making game chips, so par-boiled potatoes for roasting in small chunks and managed to pick up some sprouts (from www.lemonandlimes.co.uk in Turnham Green Terrace). It was a busy morning getting everything organised, milk for the bread sauce prepared, sprouts done etc, so lunch was my super-simple roasted red pepper and tomato soup which you’ll find in Recipes, here on the website. The Barrister discovered his new decanter bought in Rye (actually a French cider flagon) holds three bottles. It wasn’t enough.