Guess who's coming to dinner?: Tracey MacLeod and John Walsh take the Come Dine With Me challenge
Every week, John Walsh and Tracey MacLeod dish out scorching reviews of Britain's top restaurants. What happened when they cooked for each other?
Saturday 14 May 2011
TRACEY MACLEOD RATES JOHN'S COOKING
* Jersey Royals, smoked haddock, beetroot, avocado, and horseradish cream
* Sautéed lamb neck fillets with butternut squash and apricot couscous
* Poached pears
As this magazine's resident critics, John Walsh and I sit in judgement every week on some new restaurant or gastropub. Casually, we find fault with dishes we'd have absolutely no idea how to cook ourselves, laying waste to the hopes and dreams of highly-trained professionals, before breaking off to open a can of beans, or defrost a pizza. Clearly, as critics, we can dish it out. And now, for this special food issue of the Independent Magazine, our editor wanted to find out whether we could also take it.
So the decision was made for me and John to put our cooking skills to the test, and prepare a meal for each other. In the great tradition of Come Dine With Me, the long-running and wildly popular Channel 4 series which re-stages the suburban dinner party as TV bloodsport, we would expose our homes, our kitchens, our cooking and even our loved ones, to the merciless scrutiny of our opposite number.
At least that was the idea. But as anyone who has seen the programme knows, the defining quality of Come Dine With Me, now in its 20th series, is nothing to do with cooking, and everything to do with the staggering, spectacular rudeness and outlandish behaviour of the weirdos – sorry, members of the public – who appear on it. As colleagues and friends, John and I have far too much respect for each other to subject each other to that kind of ridicule (don't we, John? John?) Nor would it be appropriate, sadly, to score each other's efforts, and take home a £1,000 prize.
Otherwise, we were good to go. Harry and I would entertain John and Angie for lunch, and the following week, we would visit them for dinner. As the Radio Times billing might have read, "This week, reluctant hostess Tracey and her partner, Scottish freeloader Harry, trade hospitality with flamboyant bon viveur John and his partner, trainee therapist Angie..."
From the moment we arrived at John and Angie's flat, in a mouth-wateringly leafy and stuccoed part of west London, it was clear they had played fast and loose with the rules. John may have been wearing a (rather showy) set of chef's whites, signed by Albert Roux, but he had obviously enlisted the services of an unlicensed sous-chef, in the form of Angie.
She stood behind him, murmuring calming advice, as he returned to the stove, cursing and sweating over the lamb he was browning over a very high heat. Not the most relaxing way to kick off the evening, what with the spitting fat and occasional yelp of pain from the self-basting chef. Soon we were ushered from the kitchen (we never did get a glimpse of the dining room) to the safety of the terrace, for nibbles (cashews, olives) and Bloody Marys.
After a particularly piercing "Damn damn DAMN!" ("He's burnt himself," Angie chuckled fondly), John joined us, looking, in his snugly-filled whites, every inch the mein host of some provincial bistro. But no chef ever talked as much as this one. His first anecdote kicked in at a generous seven minutes, and I began to worry for the lamb. The qualities we all admire in John as a writer and conversationalist – brilliance, speed and an enormous frame of intellectual reference – are not necessarily of benefit to a host, at least not one who is also meant to be preparing dinner. "The guests are waiting, but John seems keener on drinking and talking than cooking..." as the sarky Come Dine With Me voiceover would have put it.
The starters were already on the table when we took our places in the kitchen. It's a room obviously much used for entertaining; relaxed and a little bit bohemian, with its framed film posters and bright Panton-esque plastic chairs. A sound system, surrounded by piles of Bob Dylan CDs, boomed out the latest album by Elton John and Leon Russell, and a statue of Keith Richards peered out from the small jungle of fresh herbs growing in pots beside the posh range cooker. A little bit Country Living, a little bit rock and roll...
John's starter (or should I say, John and Angie's starter?) was bang on-trend; every modern British restaurant has a version of this kind of earthy, seasonal dish on the menu. Scrubbed Jersey Royals, smoked haddock, beetroot, avocado, and horseradish cream; a sensible, some would say safe, combination, properly prepared and nicely presented. Someone, very possibly John, had gone to the trouble of lining the potatoes up so they all faced in the same direction, and the horseradish, while not freshly grated (as I established through forensic questioning), nevertheless had a good kick. John confessed that he had originally planned to use smoked trout, but couldn't find any. In fact, we were given to understand he'd spent most of the day fruitlessly shopping for radishes, rather than fulfilling one of his many urgent deadlines.
Returning to his cooking duties, rings flashing like Jennifer Paterson, John seemed to be making frequent reference to a cookery book propped open on the counter. I asked what it was. "Today's Special by Anthony Demetre," he replied, adding, "the Arbutus guy."
"Yes, I know who he is," I snapped back, "I love Les Deux Salons."
"Wild Honey is one of my favourite restaurants," John sallied.
"Lovely guy," I retaliated.
At which point the voiceover would have kicked in. "All right, I know you two are both restaurant critics. Just shut up and enjoy your dinner."
With some kind of sauce or reduction being prepared for the lamb, the stove-side sizzling and cursing resumed, with mutterings from John of, "Am I doing this too early? I'm doing this too early, aren't I?" and soothing interventions from the super-chilled Angie.
John needn't have worried. His main course was superb. Sautéed lamb neck fillets – bold, to use that unfavoured cut – given a complex and intriguing flavour by a marinade that included pineapple juice and fennel seeds, and a fantastic, colourful couscous, spiked with butternut squash, apricot and other unidentifiable but maddeningly delicious things, came together beautifully in a dish I would have given full marks to if I'd been served it in one of Anthony Demetre's restaurants. "I hate couscous, but this is great," Harry grudgingly conceded.
Our glow of enjoyment was enhanced by the fine bottle of claret – Chateau Lynch Bages 1996 – that John generously cracked open for the occasion, which would probably have swallowed up the entire £125 budget Come Dine With Me contestants receive to cover all food and drink expenses.
There were other wines, too, many other wines, which is why my memories of the end of the evening are a little fuzzy. Unprofessional, by reviewing standards, but very much in keeping with CDWM tradition, where getting plastered seems to be the order of the day. My notebook isn't much help, recording just two words: "cheese" (I dimly remember some kind of runny stuff, Époisses maybe, that we ate with spoons) and "pear", poached, as I recall, according to a Jamie Oliver recipe.
What I do remember, though, is a lot of laughing, some weapons-grade gossiping, and mercifully, no singing – amazing, given that John is a man who would happily perform an Irish rebel song at a job interview, and very probably has done. I also remember thinking that only a very confident host would consider Janis Joplin's greatest hits, played loud, suitable background music for a dinner party. But then, John clearly is a very confident host, eschewing my own feeble attempts at one-upmanship (see John's review), in favour of just having fun.
Most episodes of Come Dine With Me leave the viewer staggered about how rude people are prepared to be about each other on camera. Our dinner with John and Angie left me feeling quite the opposite – warm, fuzzy, and determined to throw (and go to) more dinner parties. Oh yes, and firmly convinced that John and Angie are our new best friends. We didn't get home till gone 1am (on a school night!) and when I woke up the following morning, I was still wearing my contact lenses.
I know we aren't meant to be scoring each other – it's just a bit of fun, right? But using our traditional rating system, it would have to be food: four, hospitality: five, atmosphere: five. Even if it was chefs: two.
JOHN WALSH RATES TRACEY'S COOKING
* Burrata with toasted coriander seeds, fennel and blood orange
* Roast spatchcock poussin, rosemary garlic potatoes
* Poached rhubarb with friands
Regular fans of the television show Come Dine With Me will know that it deals, not just with food, but with less tangible things: snobbery, affectation, exhibitionism, social leakage, nosiness, mutual hostility and outrageously over-the-top flirtation. The Independent Magazine's version of CDWM lacked, I'm afraid, many of these tasty ingredients (there wasn't even a mocking voiceover) but made up for it in warmth and flavour.
Tracey MacLeod, TV presenter, businesswoman and the Independent Magazine's prize-winning restaurant reviewer, and Harry Ritchie, novelist, journalist and radio broadcaster, occupy a stylish apartment in fashionable St John's Wood, a north London suburb immortalised in the Rolling Stones song "Play With Fire" ("Your mother she's an heiress/ Owns a block in St John's Wood/ And your father'd be there with her/ If he only could").
It has always been name-checked in literary works, as shorthand for characterful poshness: Irene Adler, the only woman Sherlock Holmes ever fancied, lived there, as did Count Fosco, the chuckling, mouse-stroking villain of The Woman in White, and Bertie Wooster's friend and Drones Club co-member, Bingo Little. It's a very cool area. This did not stop my old friend Harry welcoming us by pointing out, with dramatic flourishes, the remarkably high incidence of armed robberies and drive-by shootings that currently feature in his road. One might almost have thought he was trying to dissuade us from moving in next door.
Though everyone knows it as the home of Lord's cricket ground, few know St John's Wood's connections with gastronomic bliss. That's because it doesn't have many. Admittedly, Clarissa Dickson Wright, of Two Fat Ladies fame, grew up here. The Beatles probably ate several epic snacks while recording at nearby Abbey Road studios. Foodies come from miles around to shop at Panzers for bagels, smoked trout and chopped herring. But when it comes to fine dining, at the moment Tracey and Harry have the field to themselves.
Their flat is coolly furnished in neutral tones, against which some striking objets can be appreciated. A portrait by the British surrealist Eileen Agar regards us with bracing sternness. A battery-operated Jedi light sabre beside the sofa, by contrast, suggests a liking for adult role-play when the children are in bed. Four of the tiniest sherry glasses ever seen in the history of drink hint that we may be in an Edwardian-vintage scenario. Many of the participants in Come Dine With Me enjoy a themed evening: it's their opportunity to hurl themselves into pantomime-dame costumes, matador outfits or S&M bondage gear. Will a theme announce itself today?
A copy of Mrs Gordon Brown's recent autobiography, Behind the Black Door, lay on the coffee table as we discussed super-injunctions. I picked it up and idly flicked through it. A bookmark thoughtfully directed me to page 197 where I found, 12 lines down, Sarah Brown's reference to Gordon taking his children to the movies "with his Scottish friend, and fellow Raith Rovers fan, Harry". How subtly our host had drawn attention to his elevated social acquaintance! (Personally, I abhor name-dropping of any kind, as I was saying to the Duchess of Northampton only yesterday.)
The restaurant area is a small, light and gorgeously cosy room, designed to resemble a library. No, hang on, it is a library. It's crammed with books on all four walls, perversely arranged in chronological or subject order. But on walking in, one is most struck by the forest of prizes that greets the eye. You can't walk a yard without noticing (with an envious grinding of teeth) our hostess's awards for food writing: the Glenfiddich, the Guild of Food Writers, the Michelin... I lost count. Actually, I was distracted by the presence, over the mantelpiece, of a gigantic challenge cup, the kind that gets waved around at Silverstone. Tracey won it for a charity news quiz a few years ago. Nearby stood a music stand with sheet music resting on it: "Selected Flute Pieces – Grade 3". Bloody hell – was this Tracey's too, or one of the children's? The grinding of my teeth became audible. How could I compete when it was my turn to impress? Where were my awards, prizes, cups? Where's my name-check in any political memoir? I haven't even any track medals from school Sports Day to show off. Could I dig out the certificate I won for Grade 2 Piano at the Guildhall when I was nine? Might it seem a little desperate?
The meal began with one helping each of burrata, that mozzarella-with-cream hybrid that features on every Italian restaurant menu these days. (Not long ago, Tracey wrote a review that included the line, "Burrata – coming, very soon, to a dinner party near you". She seems to have taken her own hint.) It resembled a substantial, though freakishly white, bosom on a plate, and needed some flavours to balance its essential milkiness. Tracey had gone for sliced fennel, coriander seeds and – a brilliant touch – orange segments, whose citric blade cut decisively through the prevailing lactatiosity. It was wonderful, but filled me up like a 3am feed.
The main course was spatchcocked poussin, one whole bird each. This is a dramatic dish, the tiny birds splayed out as if fallen from a great height, and cruelly impaled with long pointed sticks, spearing them at right angles. Tracey had roasted them whole, to perfection – the skin goldenly crisp, the legs succulent. It's easy to feel a faint echo of rustic infanticide when you're eating poussin – the white flesh is so innocent and melting, a whinny of guilt can be heard from the region of your conscience, as you wolf down the pristine, meaty thighs. To add a gutsy counterpoint, Tracey served potatoes roasted with garlic to a lovely ochre constituency, and roast fennel, the joint tang of aniseed and garlic assaulting the taste buds in a flavour duel.
Ms MacLeod is a considerable foodie. You can tell, without asking, that the salt on her table will be fleur de sel, not Saxa. If she includes lemon in a recipe, you know it's from Amalfi, not Asda. She's just as choosy with wine, and she clearly sought high and low for the magnificent Italian red that accompanied the chicken – a Sangiovese Antica Enotria. The blood of Jove! Sangiovese has a fabulous bouquet, a fume of plums and cherries with a large hint of spice. I was still going on about it when the pudding arrived – poached rhubarb, sweetened to nectar, accompanied by tiny, light-as-air cakes called friands, similar to financier pastries.
We ended the meal with a trio of Irish cheeses, in honour of my Galway and Sligo ancestors, and a succession of perfect tracks from Tracey's iPod: Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe", Adele's version of Dylan's "Make You Feel My Love", Nina Simone's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free". You know that feeling you get, when you discover a great new restaurant, and you feel you could stay there all day, talking, browsing and sluicing and trying new things? That's how our lunch ended.
I'd completely stopped the teeth-grinding and envy about her awards, and took myself to the bathroom. There, resplendent on the cistern, was my family memoir from 1999, The Falling Angels. Just sort of... left lying around. And I realised that the theme of today's lunch had been Leaving Things Around For Guests to Find. Except for the food, of course. There's absolutely nothing left to chance at the Tracey'n'Harry restaurant.
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