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What’s it all about then?

If you know me then you probably know about my little obsession. Welcome to my version of train spotting!

It started over 15 years ago. I was working in New Jersey at the time, and taking maximum opportunity of being on expenses. I found myself in some memorable places for nosh. I specifically remember the night out at the The Frog and The Peach in New Brunswick, a University town in New Jersey, and also being taken to Tribeca Grill (owned by Robert De Niro) in uber chic downtown Manhattan, and being blown away by how lucky I was to be going to all these cool places.

At this point I found myself creating a little spreadsheet to note things down and tell Mum and Dad when I got back…….and the rest as they say, is history. So, 15 years, over 2000 meals @ 1,500 restaurants, and a grand total of £45K spent (and only £14K on expenses) and here is the latest incarnation. This database is the cause of constant ribbing by many (you know who you are Ian) , but that said, I regularly get phone calls: "What’s the best Indian in Marlow", "Can you recommend anywhere in New York" Well - it’s all “web self-serve” now (as they say in my world!)

What’s your favourite restaurant?

I’m often asked what my favourite restaurant is. Tough one. As you will see, I rank the meals both on the food, and also the overall experience for that evening. Funny thing is – when I look back at the stats, I’m not sure I agree with myself. One things for sure – favourites are all relative. What I used to think makes a great restaurant I’m now not so sure. OK, so I do like posh nosh, but posh expensive shite nosh is a no-no. There are plenty of places where you can get really great food without paying the earth. In fact, rather amusingly, Lou and myself left a pub in the West End recently having decided to go to TGI's for some ribs (hey – I’m no food snob. I also like a cheeky Fillet'O'Fish). We couldn’t get in, and so started to walk home. In doing so we passed the Ivy. Why not? we thought – we’ve tried it before, and got in, and tonight was the same. Granted, it was the small table in the corner as you go in – but the Ivy nether the less. I had the Ivy burger. One of the finest I have eaten, and I’m sure much cheaper that TGI where we were planning to go to. The point is great food does not have to have inflated prices, and there are lots of gastro pubs around the country that need to remember that.

So, off the top of my head – memorable meals. Well absolute top was definitely the first time at the Fat Duck. Now I know this sound contradictory, given the expense (£200), but a couple of points help me justify this. Firstly, this is not a meal in any obvious sense of the word. Heston Blumenthal is fundamentally a scientist. If you think about what your eating, if you care about how it comes together, if you are happy to spend all night simply discussing the amazing things that come onto your plate – then this is the place for you. I'm not going to spend any time going on about Egg & Bacon Ice Cream – that’s all been done. What I will observe though – is that despite the food being ‘gimmicky’ – it all tastes amazing. Heston would not put anything ‘strange’ on the menu without it really tasting excellent, and it does. Check out this about El Bulli and you’ll get the idea. The other reason I’m happy to state the Fat Duck as being my favourite meal, is that I’m also happy to state it’s been a source of disappointment. I’ve been back a few times, including with Lou for her birthday, and we ended up stuck in a drafty corner near the kitchen entrance. Much of the tasting menu was the same – three years later. Snail Porridge is not so great third time around and when you are paying £230 a head for the privilege!

So, as I’ve said it’s not all about poncy meals. To me, the great places to eat are that unique combination of food &  atmosphere. Whilst working in Jamaica I used to regularly go to a small jerk place on a main road in Kingston called Our Place. I loved it – plastic tables, dominos and amazing Jerk food. I had my leaving do there and the locals were amazed at my choice. I also remember fondly Francs in Chester. A great French bistro and one day they came up and said “Please choose your cheese now. We unfortunately have to store it in the fridge, but that’s too cold to enjoy cheese. So, choose now and we can let it come up to room temperature. No commitments – if you don’t want it – don’t have it”. Great – proper dedication to food. Not sure why I should remember that - but it struck a chord, and I still remember it when I get crappy or indifferent service in non-descript places.

The Elaichi has to get a mention also. The most amazing curry restaurant turned up one day in the parade of shops where we used to go to school. Proper cuzza in High Wycombe. Who’d of thought! I also love St John and St John's Bread and Wine. Fergus Henderson is a genius. Simple, white washed room in an old bakery, and a bowl of roasted rabbit and baked garlic to smear over it! Proper eating.

Anyway – there’s plenty more favourites, so take a look.

On a different note – I can state that the worst meal was at The Old Forge in Worthing for one of Mum’s birthday’s. It was due to be a great family occasion – but was totally ruined by terrible ‘pub food’ and indifferent service. I remember arguing with the waiter and Mum in tears…..not good – so don’t go there!

Well – there we go. Have a look – see if you can find yourself, or where you’ve been – and drop me a line if you have any comments.

Cheers Steve

PS: Yep I know my spelling is terrible!

PPS: I found myself working back in New Jersey a few years ago. I decided to pay a homage to the place that kicked it off - The Frog and The Peach in New Brunswick. It wasn't a bad meal - but I'm buggered if I actually remember it. Maybe 15 years, over 2,200 meals & £45K does that to your brain!

PPPS: Anyone happening to read this and can see that I obviously have a passion for restaurants and can get me a table at El Bulli - then please please please drop me a line :o)