The Old Man and the C*** – The Hunter S., De Beauvoir, N1

Coming on like first time parents dead set on out-doing their peers, the folks behind Victoria Park’s The Hemingway agonised over it for long enough they saw fit to baptise its baby sister pub, The Hunter S. . Instantly familiar if you know the former but blessed of a better space and some amazing touches internally, God it’s a shame about the name. I mean, I get where they’re coming from, running with the writer thing, the onus evidently being on ones with a rep. But, while I know he was a piss head and a pugilist and used to knock around with Nat King Cole, at least Hemingway’s catalogue carries a bit of the man’s own considerable weight. Landmark though Fear and Loathing… is/was, as far as this generation’s concerned Thompson is all about the excess, and probably now mined mainly by the sort of shithead also taken with Howard Marks.  I don’t know, maybe it shows an appreciation of their audience, being in De Beauvoir and all. Maybe all these staggeringly pretty people would be here anyway if they’d just kept it simple.

Otherwise this is an excellent boozer. There are some near things in this part of town – The Talbot and The Scolt Head show glimpses, for example, the Duke of Wellington is solid but scruffy – but the Hunter S. is the most complete. It wins out, really, by combining a fancy yet functional aesthetic with some genuine application around good bar product. There’s enough of the safe and sound – Landlord and a superb Sharp’s Cornish Coaster –  to offset the comparably kitsch – Lowenbrau, anyone? – and a concise cross-section of the current – bottled Brooklyn, among others.  But the look and feel is also great. The ceiling has the most incredible copper leaf recess from which hangs the showiest of chandeliers. The handsome over-kill of stuffed animals lining the walls are too many not to presume they aren’t deliberately overdone. And the toilets, the Gents anyway, are a reason in themselves to pay a visit here. Fear it, though – if you’re anything like me on a hangover, the ‘art’ in there is likely to have you re-emerge feeling fruity and with renewed focus.

As it happens I was in the grip of hangover whilst there, hence hankering after Fish and Chips. Easy on the eye in terms of a plateful, a largely lovely take on the classic was hamstrung rather by the kitchen’s determination to do chips differently. Not so much hand cut as hand carved, they were robust enough that even triple-cooked they’d have been brittle. There was enough right with it, however, and enough else about the menu to go back for. Service wise it’s a little laid back, and intermittently icy at the bar, but generally well-intentioned and you get a good sense of who’s in charge. At least if the guy I’m talking about isn’t already, he absolutely should be.

Yep, really decent addition to East London’s pub landscape, this. And don’t people seem to be acknowledging that? Sunday evening and, for anyone who landed much after us, there was a distinct shortage of somewhere to sit. With that in mind the management could probably afford to be more economical with the practical population of what’s truly a fantastic space. Not only would it make commercial sense, but would help preclude the sort of slovenly, full length, feet up behaviour brought by one trendy prick ostensibly set on converting a smart settee into a chaise. Oi, Ratface? Yeah, you. Would you do that at home….? 

Wishing y’all a long hot Summer.

Sorry it’s been a while…

Photos not lifted from elsewhere for once. Arse courtesy of Crowy.

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Cold Tap – Tap East, Stratford, E20

Pat was ‘in oil’ and worked away a lot, often in some truly miserable places. Like Kazakhstan. He once told me one of his favourite pubs was Murphy’s, an Irish bar in the middle of Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, his favourite terminus. I think the word he used was ‘brilliant’. A ‘brilliant’ pub. Faintly ludicrous praise for what in truth, and knowing Pat, was probably just a passable travel amenity. Sure enough, having later been laid over between flights connecting to Cuba, CrowsFeet and I found Murphy’s to be exactly that; a pub in an airport.

Tap East is a pub in a shopping centre. Incorporated into the Great Eastern Market precinct of Stratford’s spanking new Westfield, it offers an experience no less transitory. The ambient temperature when we were there didn’t help, a product of the high, open dimensions and glass walls of the retail space it occupies as much as the weather outside. Even if it hadn’t actually been freezing in there it would still have felt cold. But it was freezing and as a consequence Tap East has barely been able to trade beyond 7pm whilst we remain in the grip of Winter. The air in there, they admitted when notifying the ether of early closing, was ‘colder than the beer’. I’d say it was about even.

The beer selection itself is current and varied, if not quite so broad as expected. We drank San Diego’s Stone Levitation at an arguably inflated £6 a pint. I say inflated because I’ve had it elsewhere in London for less and would prefer to think that if one place could afford to offer it for £5 (still a lot but competitive with the $8 you’ll pay in California), so could they. I don’t pretend to know the specific purchasing/pricing considerations of either outlet, it’s just that ever since my one and only visit to Tap East’s parent Rake bar I’ve sensed a sort of righteousness about the way they operate. A feeling that because their set-up rather pre-empted a proliferation of like-minded outlets across London, that their shit somehow smells sweeter. About twenty per cent sweeter. That said, I paid a lot more per pint yesterday and am also increasingly open, it seems, to times being what they are and to the fact that if you want imported draft it’s going to cost you.

The food offer at Tap East consists of Pork Pies, Cheese, and the like. All good in essence. However it’s an area in which the administration evidently has little clue. Or fosters little care. I remember being in Barcelona a few years ago and our guide warning us off the places that would advertise their food with photographs. And not unlike when Chinese takeaways place plastic incarnations of items in the window, Tap East’s attempts to sell up their sandwiches involves plating up a cheese one, with garnish and a few crisps, and leaving it there amidst an unimaginatively merchandised cold cupboard as a measure of what one might expect if one ordered one. Why, when catering to a clientele whose discernment you depend on, would you presume to excite their senses with stale bread? I ask you…

I don’t know what to expect from 2012. Make no mistake, I think the Olympics will be great for Britain. They’ll give the economy a much-needed shot in the arse and, so long as the organisers resist trying to light the torch via another ill-fated River of Fire, the decade or so they’ve had to prepare really ought to reveal Seb & Co. actually could piss it up in their own brewery. At the same time the prospect of a World event on home soil seems to have put our sense of perspective all out of whack. You know? Like, all of a sudden anyone whose bedsit commands a view of the velodrome thinks they’ll be able to rent it out for the duration of the Games and then retire on the proceeds. Not only that, specialist beer pub proprietors are inclined to set up shop at the Mall. Maybe the rent there is as reasonable as anywhere else they’d weighed up, the square footage ample enough that they might economically trade and brew from the one spot. But it’s not a commercial pitch for somewhere that’s niche, and come October time, when everyone bar the local residents forgets where Stratford is, I’d guess they’re going to be relying heavily on their wholesale output if the enterprise is to have legs.

Photographs courtesy of www.ravengarcia.com and food.uk.msn.com

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February 19, 2012 · 6:37 pm

Sound Thinking – Doc’s, Bainbridge Island, Seattle, WA

Perversely – or not, really – it seems all one has to do to encourage traffic to one’s blog is stop writing it. I’m telling you, viewing figures here have never been so healthy. Certainly not as consistent. Even back when I was convincing myself there might be real mileage in writing as a full-time pursuit. When I would tell myself I was honing my style, confident that time spent in the field, plus a track record of modest success in the industry, might qualify me to comment broadly on contemporary hospitality. And thinking people might give two shits. Even then my readership was never really ripped. Or regular.

So, what? Why cut short the sabbatical? Few reasons, actually. Some more obvious than others. Firstly, it seemed a shame to just down tools. Particularly now search engines, even via terms as tenuous as ‘shaved cock public’ , are sending unsuspecting suckers my way. In line with that, and with the above, it would make sense to give them something to go on. If only to demonstrate I’m not dead. Also, I’ve made friends because of this blog. Some in other countries. I rather feel like I owe them this much. But more than anything, the other night, and it was sparked I think by a photograph on Facebook of Seattle in the snow, I got nostalgic for an environment I’ve had a diminished appetite for in recent months. Professionally and socially. And actually. I got crook over Christmas and only now find myself minded, and still only in moderation, to get back amongst it. Pint here, pie there. I’ve never physically seen Seattle in the snow, but I have been. I spent a boozy week there back in 2009. The majority of my time I spent downtown doing in drip coffee and just-caught crab sandwiches, hanging around Pike Place, going to gigs and, yeah, royally pissing it up. But then there was also a weekend spent on Bainbridge Island. Wow. If you’ve any notion of what the Pacific North West in its pomp should look like, or if you’ve read any Stephanie Meyers (which I haven’t), it looks a lot like this. Trees, sky, and God’s own mood lighting. The quiet roads there shine with rain that only seemed to fall when you weren’t looking. I gather I was lucky with the weather.

Doc’s is right on the harbour. I don’t know what I drank. Save for some snack food I didn’t really eat there either. It doesn’t matter. I just know how it felt to be there late on a Sunday afternoon, college football on the ‘tube’, a vista of tethered boats through the window, fading light. Beers. Pretty special. I recall checking myself and registering that in the context of a trip on which I’d felt most at ease when in transit between places, this was probably as relaxed as I’d been when in one. A proper moment. I like thinking about it. So I thought I’d write about it.

Happy New Year.

Pictures courtesy of Jim Thomsen and and BeerAdvocate.com

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January 29, 2012 · 2:58 pm

Brunch, AXE – Venice, CA

I’d landed at AXE (‘ah-shay’) distracted. Which, when coupled with the fact I’m writing six weeks or so in retrospect, means a detailed overview of certain aspects of the venue is out of the question. I never used the bathroom there, nor poked my head out to appreciate what’s meant to be some splendid outside space. But I ate and I experienced and garnered enough of an opinion to be able to say, yeah, you’ve got to go.

Strikes me, if you’re going to have pancakes for breakfast, it might as well be theirs. There’s real goodness in this cake’s 9 Grain constitution, even after you’ve drowned that shit in syrup, and matter to its consistency to reassure anyone dubious about how far its $15, berry inclusive price tag might stretch. I couldn’t finish. Not since I’d already made my stomach complacent by pouring into it a large glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, a latte, and then ordered and eaten a side of crispy Apple Smoked Bacon aswell.

Contextually speaking, eating at AXE adds up. For breakfast for two, sixty bucks with service – while not a lot, really – probably represents proportionately more than you’d usually expect to part with. The costs, however, lie in the conscientiousness of the concept here. Produce is sourced ethically and deliberately and it shows. And the environment they’ve created is pretty cool. Vaguely Scandinavian in orientation, comfy it ain’t, but then commercially that probably aids and abets the need to turn tables over. The expedience of delivery from the kitchen is in tune with that. That from the floor, pitched today somewhere between laid-back and nonchalant, less so. It was hot outside, mind you, and not terribly well aerated inside, but then again I’d expect to notice that more than a native.

You’ll know if you clocked the Gjelina piece that I dig Venice, and in particular Abbot Kinney. Well AXE only adds to it. It could lose some attitude outwardly. I mean, don’t offer optional extras on the menu if they’re ‘out of season’. And definitely don’t inform me they are in a tone that suggests I should have known that. But it has a look and a theoretical approach to be commended and, crucially, the cooking kicks arse.

CrowsFeet. Anything to add….?

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Dad’s Mad – Father’s Office, Santa Monica, CA

Father’s Office is a decent operation. Purveyors of a sensational variety of craft beers, they employ proficient, informed staff to pour them, and offer tasty, uncomplicated food at value. Problem is, they do so, at least they did on this occasion, with such self-regard, such a sense of entitlement, that I’ve been smarting about it ever since.

But then maybe that’s as much because, while there, I made a cock of myself. It’s worth saying we’d arrived having spent the previous 15 hours or so in transit from London. I was tired and in no small part, probably, disorientated. Which wasn’t the fault of our hosts. Nor, really, was the degree to which I let their not-unreasonable or uncommon open-seating policy unsettle me to such a state of high fucking anxiety. I was spooned out, perhaps, by the way the dude on the door threw down the deal as some sort of gauntlet to run. The responsibility, I’m embarrassed to say, of being live enough to acquire the four of us the first available berth proved almost too much to bear. I broke into a fit of Englishness so awkward I was asked in no uncertain terms to ‘just relax’ by the nice girl who, under peer-pressure, I’d pestered for a provisional table share. When she and her friend indeed relinquished their spot to us, it was with a politely condescending, ironic hand on my shoulder she said, ‘It’s all yours, baby’. By ‘baby’, she of course meant ‘dickhead’.

Befitting of the format, and pertinent in the context of the unfolding story, the only thing you get served at Father’s Office tables is food, which you’ve to order at the bar. Although it’s not so much served as brought.  Beers you need to get yourself. Which is totally fine. There’s a long list to look at so it’s as well you do, frankly. Less conducive to a comfortable evening is the fact you’ve to eat under the close and intensifying scrutiny of a swelling mass of folks forced to play the game we just had. Boldness and a distinct lack of social scruples wins out here. Manners will only leave you malnourished. Except if you’re two quasi attractive girls, in which case the ‘maitre-d’, presumably in the hope he might score points and subsequently get some, may well assist in procuring you a table.

When the bill landed I opted to pay with what US dollar I had on me. Which is to say with enough to cover the cost of what we’d had and, on balance of an ok evening – company notwithstanding; my friends are awesome – a conservative tip. Knowing full well that would constitute less than, as far as I’ve seen, west coast wait staff expect as a matter of fucking course, I told our server he’d been excellent as I handed over the money. To say how he appeared to accept his share of the change was ungracious is to go easy on him. He clearly felt he was better than that. He probably had been, individually. Collectively, Father’s Office, on the strength of tonight, had not. It’d been intense. Rushed and uncomfortable. And, outside of us having been politely obliged what we’d asked and now paid for, no one had really extended themselves.

So, having gesticulated something to the effect of ‘mean, motherfucking son of a bitch’, our man turned back from the register to find me still there, proffering him plastic. ‘Couldn’t help but notice you didn’t seem too happy about what I’d left. If that wasn’t good enough, mate, take more off that…’. ‘What?’. He was irritated. Self-conscious, hopefully. He should have been. I’d explained my position; I’d just landed in the country. Not only was that all I had, it was all I was inclined to give. Which is why I paid him the compliment. ‘I appreciate you sayin’ that’, he said, ‘but, just so you know, that’s a lot less than we’d expect on top of a $120 bill…’.

Different culture, different pay structure; I don’t care. Unless there’s a hint of appreciation on the part of the person looking after us that the all round experience needs to have been good, and a sense that it’s been, in part, a pleasure to deliver it, you might as well be giving alms as leaving a tip. You expected more, did you? So did I. I wanted to make a point to this guy. Like, it’s not about money, it’s about attitude. So, after we left, I walked to a cash point, withdrew some more wedge and, leaving the guys at the car, went right back. ‘I want all of this to go in your pocket’, I said, handing over way more than our evening had been worth. ‘And for the record, when I leave a tip it’s a reflection on the whole thing’.

I don’t enjoy thinking about it. It makes me anxious and I’m coy about getting cross. And, far from getting my point over, he probably just saw it as him getting his deserts. But it remains the only time I’ve ever been chased out of a bar by staff and have gratitude hurled after me down the street; ‘Hey, Pal! Pal…! Thankyou!’. Whatever, boss. I didn’t do it for you.

Nice burgers, though…

Photos courtesy of those with the presence of mind to take them. And careless enough to post them without thinking about who might use them to their own end. Cheers.

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Lady Instead – The Lady Ottoline (prev. The Kings Arms), Northing Street, Bloomsbury, WC1

I once wrote somewhere here that part of the process of reinventing a pub previously dead in the water might conceivably and justifiably involve changing its name. Contentious, as a statement of intent, but carry-offable if you’re cute. If you’re good and your predecessors were especially bad.

I never knew the King’s Arms off John Street before new owners came in and saw fit to call it The Lady Ottoline. Probably wouldn’t have cared to, either. But without disputing the relevance of the title to this part of town, or indeed that the new administration’s general practice would knock that of the old King’s caretakers’ into a cocked hat, the planning department’s apparent insistence that outward evidence of the old name be retained – the windows are embossed accordingly – I’m not sure I wouldn’t have left well alone here. As much as anything because as pub names go, The King’s Arms is a good one, and The Lady Ottoline is not. It’s rubbish.

The overhaul they’ve given it isn’t rubbish. It’s perfectly tasteful, even if its approach is identifiable among a million and one other overhauls affected lately. The back bar configuration in particular, in all its grey-ish wood grandeur, looks expensive and reflects an attitude toward providing a high quality offer. Smart, extendable tables are spaced artfully and ergonomically, the lighting is set to ambient, and the music to a playlist founded in the Forties. Which works in a building whose character charm remains well intact in spite of the work it’s had done.

Fingers and I arrived there early evening and signalled our intention to eat. Knowing full-well there’s a separate restaurant upstairs I was surprised, given the girl who’d met us was dressed differently to her colleagues and apparently in charge, not to have our dining options broken down beyond being told what time the kitchen opened. No matter, we ordered beers – the ales among which were moody – and set our stall out at a table at the far end of the room. The Bar Menu was brought and yielded an infinitely accessible, appetising-sounding selection of everything you’d expect from a good one, priced exactly as you’d hope if it was to be decent. We went balls out for the Burger. A juicy, 8oz bastard with plum chutney, foie gras and truffle mayonnaise. Two of. Great; sounded, and proved to be, exactly what we wanted.

Only then, though, when Fingers wondered out loud if we were required to re-locate upstairs to eat, did an in-earshot, suddenly over-attentive member of staff weigh in with the news that we might just be letting the best in life pass us by in settling for the Bar Menu, that there was a full a la carte card in operation on the first floor. Perhaps you’d have been better off advertising that before we’d chosen from the one menu you did decide to divulge, I thought, and represent the whole offer, rather than decide on our behalf that what was doing downstairs would see us right. The fact it absolutely did is neither here nor there. We could, for all they knew, have been a couple of proper high-rollers, ready to rinse 4 courses of their higher-end chow down with a couple of bottles of Domaine Mestre Michelot Meursault at £54.95 a pop. We weren’t, like, but, you know? At least give us the dime tour. Failing that, if there is a colour option on the burger, give us it. Not to is lazy, if the chef’s amenable – which, if he’s worth his salt he should be – and undoes an awful lot of the work I know the management have invested here to try, as I say, to lay the foundations of  a good gastronomic experience. Afters fell similarly short of the mark. A (deliberately) Burnt Lemon Tart with Lemon Souffle and Raspberry Jelly just about gave value at £5.95, the Cheeses, at £2.50 a go across four, did not. At all.

On the subject of the Meursault – not that I gave it a second look; drinking fat, expensive whites like this to me is like drinking melted butter – the wine list at The Lady O is a real credit to the place. Presented in hard back, it remains approachable, offers great value and variety, interesting Old World and niche among New, and specifically a punchy, more than palatable Cotes du Rhone for about £26. Took care of an uncalled for, extra glass with my short-change cheese too.

Try as it might, The Lady Ottoline is one of those places, one would guess, that will never be seen by anyone who ever knew it before as anything other than the King’s Arms. Which is not to say that it isn’t a mostly successful shot at boozer re-birth. The shop-fit stinks of quality craftsmanship, the cooking is cracking on this low-key evidence and its wine list is a winner. The beer was lame, however, which will need addressing should it ever aspire to neighbourhood status AND that as a destination dining room.  Over and above that, though, the wait staff – of whom I’d been primed to expect good things – will need to apply themselves a sight better to their theme than they did tonight before their rating as the latter is elevated beyond being just a decent alternative.

Bottoms up, Fingers. You’re golden, man. x

Photos courtesy of The Lady herself.

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Ruination IPA Day – Gjelina, Venice, CA.

Abbot Kinney Blvd. is a thoroughfare, man. Even accounting for the extent to which I’m inordinately impressed by almost everything out here, one could comfortably spend a whole day walking up and down it, inhaling its relaxed, retail/residential vibe, trying and failing to put into words precisely what it is that makes it feel so fucking cool to me. It represents a lifestyle, I guess. One to which there appears very little urgency but that, at the same time, inspires you to get busy living. Creating. And realising some goals. I’d love to feel as passionately about my high street.

Gjelina is at the corner with Milwood Avenue. Anthracite and angular on the outside, inside it’s utilitarian but with texture, functional but with lots of flourishes. It’s Monday and it’s humming. I’d been told to expect indifference from the hostesses but they were fine. Brisk but cordial, they advised us a wait of up to 30 minutes was likely before space would become available, and that it’d be at one of two communal tables that splay from the room’s island bar. As it turned out we were seated in barely 10, and at our own, but not before being furnished with drinks – a Bordeaux blend from Washington State’s Gilbert Cellars, and a Stone Brewing Co. Ruination IPA.

The menu’s a knockout. An object lesson in sourcing, there was loads about the largely vegetarian card to distract even the most rapacious carnivore. I’m an open-minded mutha, but the irregularity with which I eat out these days ( in the UK, anyway…) means that, given the option, I’ll more often than not regress to red meat. Such an obviously considered, cosmopolitan card as this though, is a real credit to the farmer’s market sensibilities of its creators. I could have pinned the tail on the donkey and been as unreservedly pleased with whatever I wound up with. Our approach was more measured than that of course, and the fact that what I ultimately wound up with was Meatballs, and then pizza with salami, is entirely incidental. K and I also shared a Tuscan Kale salad with shaved fennel, radish and ricotta, and the Squash Blossom pizza; a Cherry Tomato, Zucchini, Burrata and Parmesan number. I left thinking if only there were more high-end, accessibly priced places that could so effortlessly make green stuff look good, the healthier, more balanced diet I’d have, and the happier I’d be about the apparent need to pour pint after pint of IPA down after it.

This being LA, and Venice’s most boutique boulevard, the crowd at Gjelina was young and typically hip but with mature, well-to-do glimpses that continued to speak volumes as to its far-reaching appeal. And we met a vampire there. A charming Frenchman called Sebastien who played one on a TV show, anyway. Far from raving about a blue Niman Ranch, Flat Iron steak he’d just savaged, however, he was more batty about the Butterscotch Pot de Creme with salted caramel. Proof (in the pudding, of all places) that even bloodsuckers can bite down on something besides flesh and still feel the benefits.

Just the best night, this. I heart LA, and this one’s for you, Malibu xxxxx

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