Friday, June 20, 2008


What a marvellous bunch TAP airways are. First there was the 'incident' with the puking woman (I won't write about that here, as it could be serious), then the lost bags... what could go wrong on my way back to Dakar?

Well it started well, when they insisted at Heathrow that I'd never travelled outbound in the first place, and that I'd cancelled. Luckily I had my old boarding pass tucked into my diary to prove my existence as a passenger to the surly woman at Terminal 2. A delayed take-off from London was, I'm told, because of the outgoing George W Bush (our paths keep crossing this year... whats his problem eh?), leading to an unplanned 24 hours in Lisbon.

Fortunately the hotel (Arts Hotel - VIP Executive it says) we were stranded in was half-decent, in a slightly worn-out boutiquey kind of way. And with 24 hours in Lisbon to kill, what else was there to do but eat?

TAP had given me vouchers for breakfast, lunch and dinner at the hotel, so I bowled down to the breakfast buffet with high hopes. It wasn't bad I suppose. Scrambled eggs were buttery, but bacon was too fatty (yes, I just said too fatty). Breads were good, but the little hotdog sausages looked suspicious. Best of all were slices of Flamengo cheese, a new one for me, and not bad on a buttery roll. Of course, this was about my 150th hotel breakfast this year, and if things continue as they are with work I've got about another 100 to go before Christmas, so I'm blase about it all these days.

I decided to work a little at the hotel in the morning, before taking lunch in the hotel restaurant. Rather than go in for the three course deal I was entitled to I just ordered the pork main (Feeesh or pork) so I'd have a little time to explore Lisbon. The waiter placed me in a freezing airconditioned corner with all the other TAP refugees, facing the wall which was thoughtful, and poured me a glass of Portuguese red while I waited for my 'Pork'. The wine smelled OK, but its astringency screamed across my tongue. Urgh. Stick to the water.

And so to the pork, which turned out to be loin and looked fancy enough stacked on top of hash-brown-lookalike potato cakes with a big puddle of gravy and two halves of cherry tomatoes arranged like nipples on top, just to make it look kinda classy. It came quickly, as it had clearly been made a while ago, possibly last Easter, and left in the sun to keep warm. Total lukewarm rubbish. The gravy would have been ok had it not being on the verge of congealing. I left quickly.

Resolving not to eat my dinner in the restaurant that evening I took the metro downtown in search of an alternative venue, clean underpants, and a poke around the town. Lisbon seems like an attractive enough city, and I did my usual thing of walking in random directions and seeing what turns up. A film crew shooting something or other. Some people selling salt cod. Lots of Portugal flags hanging from apartment windows in support of the national team's efforts in Austria. Not quite as many tourists as I'd would have imagined. Monuments and all that. Normally I love wandering around a new city, but today wasn't right. I didn't have the company of the (handy Portuguese speaking) Mrs Jiffler, and I really wanted to be back in Dakar, sleeping in my own bed for a change.

With new underpants procured I set off to weigh up the best of the curbside cafes. My criteria were:
-Plenty of locals
-nice grilled-fishy smells from the kitchen
-not too pricey, but not too cheap

Finding one which seemed popular with Portuguese men (a sure sign of either large portions, or attractive waitresses, or both) I settled down, ordered some water and chose grilled swordfish from the specials menu. Given that Portugal is right nextdoor to Spain, where they know a thing or two about food, and also on the Atlantic, I thought that eating out bistro-style would be a safe bet. Well, I was right about the portions, and the waitresses, but not about the safe bet. Carrots and green beans came boiled to buggery, while a large portion of potatoes needed a healthy slick of (very good) olive oil to make them worth noticing. The swordfish wasn't bad, fresh tasting at least. It all came to about €10, which is what you'd pay in a bog standard British pub for a similar standard of badly cooked shite.

A gang of British backpackers piled in to the bistro as I was finishing, scattering luggage everywhere and ordering cokes. Looking on, I started to feel old all of a sudden... Remembering bumming around in Liguria a few years ago when I was younger, and thinner, and more fashionably dressed; eating langoustines and drinking too much wine. Mind you, I got offered marijuana twice in the street today, so I must still look a bit young and studenty.

Back at the hotel I was all packed up, showered, and sporting fresh underpants, when it occurred to me that there was still time to see what the restaurant offered for dinner, maybe taste a little, and see if things had improved.

This time I was greeted by more professional waiting staff, placed a little better. The menu was the same as lunchtime though. I avoided the salad (lettuce leaves with white dressing), soup (odourless brown liquid) and went for the fish. Which was salmon. From Scotland. Overcooked, therefore undereaten.

So what gives? I get 24 hours in Portugal and the food is mediocre. I was hoping for something a bit more worthwhile to see me through transit. Perhaps I just had bad luck. Any suggestions for a place to eat next time TAP screw up?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Weekend in the UK

After nearly 24 hours in the Kenya Airways Bermuda triangle, and nearly as long on the circle line to Euston, I finally surfaced blinking in the sunlight in London. Too late for a dash down to Canteen on the South Bank for a breakfast, I had something generic and utterly forgettable in a place called 'Eat'. The name of the place sums it up really doesn't it? Somebody should open up a shop and simply call it 'Shop', or 'Buy', and sell really generic, slightly rubbish things. A bit like Muji.

John Lewis for a new suit and a few bits and pieces, and out of curiosity I thought I'd nip to the basement food hall to see if they might have some choice pickings for a picnic lunch in Finsbury Circus with my oldest friend. I didn't realise quite how dangerous it would be until I found myself standing in the cheese area staring into the middle distance, just breathing in the cheese. Its been a long time.

Lincolnshire poacher was procured, nice and crumbly, cut into picnic sized chunks by a friendly woman at the cheese counter. Luckily she did it swiftly as she might have returned to the till to find me with my mouth stuffed with Idiazabal, and Barkham blue all over my chin, looking both anguished and sheepish. What else..? Potted Shrimps from Morcambe where an absolute buttery delight, posh bread, smoked Scottish salmon, plums, apricots, a 500ml bottle of Beaujolais, and some pork and pickle pies as requested by my friend. The pies came from Marks and Spencers, where I had to snatch the last packet before other marauding picnickers got to them.

Don't let me go into that shop unsupervised again.

At our picnic, my friend told me about spending hours in John Lewis with his fiance choosing flatware for their wedding list. We were both a bit surprised that we knew quite so much about flatware and cutlery. Not only that, but I'd actually stopped to browse the flatware selection on the way to the food hall. I'm a bit of a traditionalist, prefering a heavy English design with a French style edge on the knife, whereas I think he's modern-traditional...


At long long last... a place has opened in Kigali that can (almost) be enjoyed as a restaurant in its own right, rather than being 'not bad for Kigali'.

Wondering into the reception area of Heaven for the first time we were greeted with smiles and a cheery, if slightly cheesy, "Welcome to Heaven". I had to force up an eyebrow in an attempt not to look too impressed, but the sense of pride our greeter took in making us feel welcome made me crack, grinning like a a giddy schoolboy. At last, this looks like a real restaurant.

The dining space at Heaven seems at first to be of considered and precise taste. There is a touch of a luxury safari camp feel to the decor, with a bit of a modern edge. Everything has a quality look, but once you get below the surface there are a few cracks that need looking at. Cutlery is a little lightweight, and already starting to look worn, while the the floorboards vibrate annoyingly as the staff (usually the mincing husband-owner, but more of that later) trundle around the restaurant. However, artwork is varied (and for sale) but doesn't detract from the overall space, and even the tiles in the toilets seem right, reminding me of the lining in a Paul Smith suit.

I should say that this review is based on four visits, or maybe it was five, with different friends and colleagues, ordering differently each time. Since the menu is pleasingly short - one A4 page - unlike the tedious telephone directories on offer elsewhere in Kigali, I've seen most of what the kitchen can do.

Waiters are friendly (I rather like Boniface), and take drink orders swiftly and efficently, although I asked for an ashtray for our table 6 times one night, and the smokers ended up standing their dead cigarettes on end like a line of little white soldiers. Cocktails are well mixed, and beers are draught, but the wine list is mediocre given the price (100%+ mark-up on the Supermarket opposite Chez Lando).Drinks come with an amuse of chapatti chips for dipping into a tahini-like paste, the same thing every time I've been so far, but thanks anyway.

The menu goes into some detail about using ingredients from Rwanda etc etc. I'm sure this will impress visitors, but I'm a bit jaded by all this local sourcing chin-stroking, which is very much de rigeur back in the UK (more of this in future blogs). What Heaven can be proud of is that it takes this limited range of locally available produce, and turns out a creative menu of main courses that stands out from other menus in the city.

Starters are a bit samey-dippy-chapathi-yawny-yawny-didn't-we-just-have-this-as-an amuse-bouche. There is a soup, but its a bit on the sweet side. Mostly its a bit beige. Throw in a few limes and chillis here and there and we might allow ourselves to get excited.

Burgers can be the test of a chef, and at Heaven they come beautifully rare (as ordered) and herby. A triangle of local gouda rests on top. Thick-cut chips are miles ahead of the usual insipid french fry offerings, and the salad has been cut with care, with nothing wilted and manky hiding down below.

Filet mignon: Very good, and cooked to order. Cassava leaf sombe-type sauce somewhat pointless, but full marks for having a go.
Pork Ribs: Very tasty, but too small a portion. A pointless slice of pineapple.
Fish: Directionless.
Chicken: Good apparently, but this is the one thing I haven't tried.
Vegetable crepe: Large, filling, but its for the vegetarians right? Since they don't have any palate, who cares about what they eat?
Pepper stuffed with lamb and rice: my favourite, although I'd still like to see more on the plate.

Nice sorbets. But I don't really do puds.

Don't get me wrong, Heaven is a good place. The food is good. Thank heav.. I mean thank god somebody has opened up a place like this in town. But: Heaven is not as good as it thinks it is. Not yet at least. The owner, Mr Heaven, (although I suspect his wife is the real force behind this), needs to chill out a bit, or get off the shop floor. All that self belief looks a bit dumb next to the amateur waiting skills and charmlesss arrogance. I don't like to get personal in a review, but the last thing any restaurant needs is some over-confident berk flouncing around trying to be Mr Bigtrousers. Mrs Heaven does decent enough work on the floor because I suspect she cares about owning a restaurant, not about being a restaurant owner. Good luck to her.

(Post Script: The New Times - a national newspaper in the Orwellian sense - ran a piece on Heaven. The reviewer stated that the name is a misnomer since they serve alcohol. Perhaps this is what passes for humour with the cretins at the New Times. Or perhaps they're just kissing PK's tee-total ass as usual)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

More Filler

Part 1 in another pointless series of 'How to...' type things.

How to... Check the cork

Sometimes waiters hand you the cork in restaurants after opening a bottle. I used to do this when I worked as a waiter at an overpriced restaurant in Anglesey as a student. The owner worked front of house and was a bullying shite of the highest order. His red faced wife ran the kitchen and wasn't much better. This place, Anglesey's so called 'best kept secret', served overpriced slop to customers who didn't know better (used car salesmen, corrupt local councillors, estate agents and and other such bottom dwellers) and disappointed tourists.

Despite the microwavable menu and kwiksave winelist I was required to wear a bow tie (elasticated), differentiate between glasses for male and female drinkers (a stemmed glass for the lady's half of Carlsberg Export...), wrap drip towels around the wine, service from the right, and present the customer with the cork for their inspection.

Most punters would simply smile, put the cork down, take a sip of whatever Australian pish they'd ordered (Back in the 90s: about £14 on the menu, £2.30 wholesale), nod, and smile to indicate that it was drinkable, if somewhat disappointing... and that was that. On the odd occasion you might get some ignorant berk with a bad moustache who would go as far as to sniff the cork expertly. I once served one chap who got through three corks (including a plastic one) in an evening, much to the confused amusement of his dining companions. By cork number 3 no amount of mascara and pouting could disguise the look of bitter hatred and rage in his wife's eyes.

So why look at the cork anyway?

To check for heat damage. Wine should ideally be stored at about 13C, but often these temperatures are exceeded and cause 'heat damage' to the wine. One way of checking for heat damage is to look at the side of the cork - if there is a little trail of wine that has soaked up the side of the cork then the chances are the wine has expanded due to extreme heat, and tried to make its way out of the bottle. The wine will have oxidised, at best losing some flavour and color, at worst: tasting like a pub carpet.

Also, check if the cork is dry, brittle, or rotten, check the insignia if you're ordering high end. If you find these problems, and the wine smells or tastes off, then the wine needs to go back.

Smell the wine not the cork, unless you have the nose of a customs dog.


I remember one customer, who took exception to the "look" I was rocking at the time (sideburns, Eric Morecambe glasses... bowtie...) and set about loudly abusing me all night. His "Cocktail of prawns" came with a good helping of jiffler-phlegm. His "Steak" "bearnaise" was passed to the child-labour waitress for a gobbing before the sauce went on. His stella artois came with a measure from the drip tray, and when I asked the kitchen porter what had gone into the apple crumble and "creme anglaise" he mopped his sweaty teenage forelock aside and told me something genuinely shocking. You really, really, don't want to know.

I left the restaurant after a few weeks. Throwing my dicky-bow at the owner and calling him a 'repulsive toad' in front of two elderly female customers (well, I didn't want to swear in front of old ladies). I couldn't stand the local customers anymore either. I used to spend my shifts willing the passing tourists to keep walking by, not to be taken in by the menu. According to recent reports the place is still an insult to food, crockery, cutlery and flatware, and the owner is still a cock of the highest order.

Incidentally, if you want to know where the good restaurants are in Anglesey, ask a local teacher - they are the ones in the know. Teachers tend to be sociable people, open minded and curious, with just enough in the paypacket to afford a decent night out. They also eat school dinners all week, so they need some inspiration come Friday night.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Some Filler

Part 1 of an occasional rant about restaurant nonsense.


Sometimes it useful to know where a steak comes from; the weight, how long it has hung for, the cut etc are all key to the eating experience. In some ways its also nice to know that scallops are diver caught, or that fish is line caught, that the lamb is Salt marsh. Its a reasonable assurance that the animal was treated well, before cooking at least.

However, I can't see the point of current restaurant practice of naming the farm where the lamb comes from. Neither do I wish to know the name of the goat that produces the cheese (I once ate cheese from a goat called Ethel, apparently). How am I supposed to know if Hefin's farm produces the finest lamb for miles? And perhaps Ethel is a skanky old beast who brings misery and suffering to other goats... Or perhaps the farmer has 200 goats, all called Ethel. Except for one called 'Lucky Dave'.

Where should it stop? Perhaps they should list the voting preferences of the producer, so I can choose not to support anyone who might have tory leanings:

"Blackleg chicken raised on a diet of cashew nuts and owl spit by farmer Bob Blackshirt of Felton Chimp, Lincolnshire. Farmer Blackshirt is a lifelong Tory voter, and likes to spend his leisure time doing jigsaws and dogging."

Er, OK. I'll have the fish then.