Monday, July 20, 2009
A Tale of Failed Diets
Despite the fact that in five week’s time I’m due to get married in a sleek cream suit still a size too small for me, this week I broke my diet three times. I blame the rain: our summer of sun morphed into dismal October, so Jo and I decided to try out some local restaurants to warm ourselves up. First we went to Southern India: or at least to Newcastle’s quayside.
Now I know a bit about South Indian food. I cooked my first proper curry on a deserted beach in Goa, years before the place had been ruined by hotels and tourists. My girlfriend, shortly to become wife, and I parked up our VW camper van for a few weeks solitude and befriended a young man climbing a tree for coconuts. He introduced us to his family, and his mother taught me the secrets of the Goan fish curry: the dish that smiles at you with its coconut milk before its spices blow your head off.
The principal reason for heading South was to visit an army base. We couldn’t resist the polite invitation from the commander of the Marathas, India’s most famous light infantry regiment. Jilly’s father had served as a junior officer in India during the war and he’d written to his old regiment saying that as we were touring the country, could we please pop in for a cup of tea. The result was a two thousand mile detour.
Imagine the scene: battered old camper van arrives at the smart security gates; inside, two hippy Brits, one with a scraggy beard and torn jeans: neither had touched a bath for two months. The sentry snaps to attention; a bugle sounds. The base commander, resplendent in full dress uniform, marches up and ushers us into an open topped jeep. Jilly and I look at each other in amazement.
A military band leads out the entire regiment and, for a glorious moment, I find out what it’s like to be the Queen as we take the salute. It’s only when the commandant addresses the troops that the penny drops. “We are so honoured to have the daughter of Colonel Barber with us today”. “Colonel? I thought he was only a Captain”, I hiss beneath my breath. “He was”. Captain Cecil Carrington Barber was a delightful man, but colonel-in-chief he most certainly wasn't. Nevertheless the chap in charge droned on about the brave colonel's extraordinary leadership qualities.
I thought about halting the proceedings and to explain the mistaken identity. But I thought it would have been rather mean to let them down, particularly as they'd made such an effort. Particularly after they led us to a maginificent banquet in the officer’s mess. “Our chef is from Kerala”, they proudly tell us. Kerala: God’s own country, the lushest, most educated state in India. It also has the best food – fish cooked in tamarind, coconut and the freshest vegetables.
And, amazingly, we have our own Kerala in Newcastle. The Tyne doesn't have a great deal of culinary expertise to recommend it. Great ingredients, mediocre cooks. But if you're ever in town and you want to know what good curry really tastes like, go to Rasa and order their kingfish and tamarind curry with a side portion of black-eyed beans simmered in yoghurt. Rasa trains its chefs in its own cookery academy back in India and, so long as you order fish and vegetables, you won't be disappointed. It’s simply the best in town. Rasa, run by a delightful chap from Kerala called Das (who I believe had a hand in Jamie Oliver's wedding feast) has several branches in London. And, for some bizarre reason, Newcastle. Thank God.
By contrast, my two other diet-breaking diversions were less successful. I’d been warned about National Express and I can now confirm the catering on the East Coast line has been truly wrecked. Tough little steak sandwiches are no substitute for fresh meals in the restaurant car. I feel sorry for the catering staff, who used to be so proud of their culinary offerings at 125 miles per hour. The smoked fish used to come from Robsons of Craster, the beef and lamb was Northumbrian, and everything was cooked fresh and served with panache and good silver. Now there's no reason to go by train. It's usually twice the price of the plane, and you can't even enjoy a leisurely meal. The sooner National Express is stripped of its franchise the better. From now on it's Terminal 5 and Gordon Ramsay's Plane Food for me.
But Seaham Hall’s restaurant still has a Michelin star, so I was looking forward justifying the damage to my waistline by an evening of exquisite flavours and skilled cooking. I last went two years ago with a former Michelin inspector and we both reckoned it was on its way to its second star.
How have the mighty fallen. I don’t expect to pay £80 a head for a square of overcooked salmon the size of a thumbnail in a menu of bland, uninspired predictability. From the rubbish-strewn entrance to the over-familiar service, Seaham seems to have lost its way. What a letdown.
We went on Saturday for Joey's birthday. I was positively willing it to be great (not just because of the price: it was a rare baby-free evening and I really wanted Jo to enjoy it). We went for the tasting menu and course after course relentlessly arrived. Now I go to Michelin rated restaurants to be blown away by imagination and skill. I've flown to Rome to enjoy Heinz Beck's architectural creations; next month Joey and I are driving 8 hours to visit America's finest, The French Laundry in Napa. I'd go anywhere for a good meal. But not to Seaham. I don't think there was a thing on the menu I couldn't have rustled up at home without a recipe book. All beautifully presented, of course. But all somehow...dull.
It wasn't just the unmemorable food. As we drove in, there were plastic bags strewn over the drive (a fox had probably been in the bins the previous night and noone had bothered to pick them up); the place looks somehow tatty compared to when I last saw it: even the garden is lazily pruned rather than artistically pampered. Worst, the head waiter came up and interrogated every new arrival. "How has your day been?". The man couldn't be satisfied with "Fine, thanks": he had to ask us what we'd been doing. I felt like a six year old being forced to be polite to an annoying aunt. And if I he'd uttered one more "That will be no problem at all" in response to a request for something on the menu I think I'd have hit him with glass vase thing which substituted the need for fresh flowers (presumably because the gardener hadn't bothered to grow any). Seaham Hall changed hands since we last went. To the wrong hands, no doubt.
Ah well, vent over. Back to the diet.