Dining in Crete

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This past week my partner in culinary crime and I were on the sunny island of Crete, and as usual in the aftermath of a trip abroad, we are bringing you the culinary highlights and lowlights of our adventures across the seas.

Screen Shot 2018-06-03 at 20.54.22Some general comments on Cretan cooking: portion sizes are astronomically large, with starters the size of main courses, and main courses the size of small buffets. The food is also dense and very heavy. It is not advisable to attempt to swim in the aftermath of a Cretan lunch or dinner.

The size of the portions is made more problematic by the fact that the restaurant proprietors seem genuinely upset by the sight of any food left on your plate, and the chef in family run restaurants will sometimes roll out of the kitchen and enquire why the 10th potato on the plate hasn’t been finished.

Screen Shot 2018-06-03 at 20.55.00At the end of every meal we were brought small cakes “on the house”, as well as a small flask of ouzo and two shot glasses. I warmed to this tradition, and by the end of the trip was looking forward to knocking back my shot. But on to the restaurants.

Taverna Petra, Kissamos – 3

We were recommended this restaurant by the Lonely Planet Guide. People stopped buying the Lonely Planet guides back in the 1990s when the internet made them redundant, and ghastly, holiday-sabotaging recommendations like this one will not win them back any readers. We pulled into this restaurant after we had finished trekking down into the breath-taking Balos Lagoon, and had worked up a considerable appetite in the process. No degree of hunger however, could make what they served up appealing. I ordered a pork gyros with chips, which was like a bad kebab but without the bread. The meat was tough and fatty, the chips cold and stodgy.

Screen Shot 2018-06-03 at 20.55.08My partner in culinary crime ordered a lamb kebab with cream, with the meat burnt more severely than some of the British tourists we’d spotted smouldering on the local beaches. She ate so little of her meal that it was actually embarrassing to face the friendly waitress, and so she cut off some large chunks of the kebab and surreptitiously slipped them to a stray dog who was marauding around the legs of our outdoor table. The tough little bastard – no doubt used to eating out of bins – swallowed both pieces, but did so without any real relish. I could swear that he gave us a slightly hurt look as he lay back down in the sun to digest. Avoid this restaurant, no matter how hungry you are.

Akrogiali, Chania – 4

Screen Shot 2018-06-03 at 20.25.38We were recommended this restaurant by the Daily Telegraph, who commended it as serving the best seafood in Chania. I can only assume that whichever food critic the Telegraph dispatches to Crete has had a successful and complete amputation of his taste buds, because no one with a working mouth could possibly recommend this place in good faith. They served us a bowl of mushrooms that were prehistoric in their texture, as old and leathery as a well-worn flip-flop. My partner in culinary crime ordered a swordfish which was bland and dry. I was served a bowl of calamari. The waiter described them as, “fresh.” I don’t know if there’s an equivalent of the Trade Descriptions Act in Crete, but if there is, I would certainly be due some legal redress. They may have been fresh some time last year, but not in May 2018. Avoid this place, regardless of the Telegraph’s burblings.

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The Well of the Turk, Chania – 6

Screen Shot 2018-06-03 at 20.26.06Set in the old Turkish district of Chania, the Well of the Turk served up good food, and was a welcome break from the tourist trap restaurants that littered the seafront in Platanias. I had an Armenian pizza, known as Lahmajoun, a thin piece of dough with minced lamb, onions, tomatoes and parsley laid loosely across the top of it. It was light and tasty, the lamb warm and salted, the onions adding crunch to the dish. My partner in culinary crime had a well grilled shish kebab, the chicken well bronzed, but still succulent. We finished off with a murderously delicious cake, appropriately named Death by Chocolate. It was dark and sweet, with fruity undertones shot through it. It would certainly be a pleasant way to go.

The restaurant is delightfully situated, with a small, leafy garden for al fresco dining, and the place is surrounded by historic buildings and narrow, winding, cobbled streets. It is the probably the best place in Chania for a meal.

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To Pigadi, Rethymno – 6.5

Screen Shot 2018-06-03 at 20.24.46The pick of the restaurants in Rethymno. Again, beautifully situated on a small side street, with a gated garden full of creeping vines, frescos on the rustic walls, and a little water fountain acting as background music. I had a zesty, succulent tuna, which was wonderfully light, and set off beautifully by a subtle lemon sauce. My partner in culinary crime ordered a lamb cooked in a ceramic pot, which was literally bubbling with flavour when it landed on the table, a crisp top of pastry concealing a cauldron of lamb, potatoes, artichokes in a thick stew. It was tasty, heavy food. This is certainly a good spot for a sunset dining experience, the picturesque streets a romantic backdrop to well-made food.

Screen Shot 2018-06-03 at 20.25.11And thus, it comes to an end, another culinary expedition complete. I certainly wouldn’t place Crete anywhere near the top of my list of places to go for food, but, like pigs hunting for truffles, we did manage to sift out some decent spots. If you do go, avoid restaurants in heavily touristic areas like the plague, order light, and enjoy your ouzo responsibly!

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Ladurée

Address: 1 The Market, WC2E 8RA 
Bookings:  Walk in
Day:  Friday
Meal:  Dinner
Price: £££
Rating: 4/10

Screen Shot 2018-04-29 at 17.34.13People living in London are almost tragically grateful for the merest hint of warm weather. Particularly at this time of year, when we have been hibernating under hats, coats, scarves and gloves for the preceding seven months. Like starving people unleashed on an all you can eat buffet, the population of London floods into parks and beer gardens, strolls along the bank of the Thames and fights for space on wind-blasted rooftop terraces.

We at Life at the End of a Fork are no better. When, a few weeks ago, London was warmly embraced by a one week micro-summer, we surged out of our respective offices in search of somewhere to dine al-fresco. Exchange Square was dangerously crowded, every single blade of grass either sat or stood on, and hundreds of people snaking around the block for the right to buy a pint of cider for £6. Rather than risk being stampeded by sun-crazed city workers, we travelled down to Covent Garden.

Screen Shot 2018-04-29 at 17.29.15London is bereft of many good outdoor dining choices, which is understandable, given the miserable weather. The few slices of pavement that you can eat on normally sit in the shade of some vast building, which obliterates any wan ray of sunshine which may have penetrated the clouds.

One exception to this is Covent Garden, where a number of restaurants do allow for sun basking. We found ourselves in one of these: Laduree. It is a strange place. The staff are so incompetent that at times you wonder whether they are actually playing an elaborate prank on you, that this is not a restaurant at all, but part of some slapstick social experiment designed to see how far a diner can be pushed before he or she finally suffers an apoplectic fit.

One example from the start of our meal will give you a flavour. The couple next to us had been served coffees, and asked staff if they could have some sugar. A grinning waiter returned five minutes laterwith an enormous pot of mayonnaise, dumped it on the table and departed before they could register protest.  We offered them the sugar that sat on our table, at which point the clownish waiter returned, grin still fixed ear to ear, and transferred the mayonnaise to our table. Coffee and mayonnaise…? Perhaps that’s all the rage in the Parisian bistros that Laduree apes.

Screen Shot 2018-04-29 at 17.29.47The food was tolerable. My partner in culinary crime continued her life-time ambition to eat smoked salmon in every restaurant she sits down in, and declared Laduree’s offering to be “pleasant enough”, although you’d probably want praise more extravagant than that to justify an £18 price tag.  I had a cheese board and a tiny little roll of bread that would have been too insultingly small to throw to one of the many pigeons that were marauding around the square.

We both ordered the lobster roll in brioche buns for a main course. These were decent enough, slightly inferior to the sort of thing you’d get for half the price in a Burger and Lobster.

Screen Shot 2018-04-29 at 17.28.53The dining area is directly next to the space in Covent Garden that is given over to magicians and various other ‘comic’ performers. During the hour and a half in which we sat there we saw a man performing some basic tricks on a yo-yo (whilst heckling the audience for not applauding enthusiastically enough), and then some break-dancers in tracksuits, who rolled around on the floor and jumped over each other a few times. I thought of suggesting that the waiters and waitresses of Laduree offer themselves up as entertainment. Their serving skills were certainly more comical than the gentleman and his yo-yo.

Any humour however, was removed from proceedings when the bill arrived. It was comfortably north of £100. I started to feel as if I was suffering from sunstroke.

Stay away from Laduree, whatever the weather.


Rules

Address: 34-35 Maiden Ln, London WC2E 7LB
Bookings:  Booked
Day:  Friday night
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7/10

Screen Shot 2018-03-26 at 20.52.46I think it’s one of the marks of a civilised society that people find things more interesting the older they are. But as a student of history, I’m probably biased. For me, a room is a more interesting if interesting things have happened there, if fascinating people have walked through it and talked in it. Places are enriched by their stories.

It was this magnetism of the past that drew us to Rules, London’s oldest restaurant, founded in 1798 by Thomas Rule. Over the next several centuries it has hosted some of the world’s greatest actors (Laurence Olivier and Charlie Chaplin were regulars), Charles Dickens scribbled ideas for his novels at its cramped tables, Edward VII held secret meetings with his lover, Lillie Langtry, in its private dining room, and a bomb fell on it during the Blitz. There has been much water under this bridge since it first started hawking oysters 220 years ago.

Screen Shot 2018-03-26 at 20.52.56Does that make its food taste any nicer? Not really. If I was judging Rules purely on the basis of culinary quality, I wouldn’t shout its name from the rooftops. It serves heavy, solid food in the classic British style, the menu rich with hare, deer, pheasant, pigeon and quail, anything that can be shot in a field essentially. Indeed, Rules sources much of its game meat from the Lartington Estate, which is owned by John Mayhew, also the proprietor of the restaurant.

I ordered a middlewhite pork terrine to the start, which came with piccalilli and toast. It was a big wedge of meat, thick and tasty. But it wasn’t bursting with the earthy, farm-rich flavours of the very best terrine. There was something subtle missing from it.

Screen Shot 2018-03-26 at 20.53.19My partner in culinary crime had smoked salmon with scrambled eggs, which in most places would have been considered a hearty brunch, but at Rules is just a tantalising warm-up for the main event.

For my main-course, I had a grilled leg of lamb, spiced up with some curried spinach, big boulders of potato, and minted yoghurt. Think British country pub meets India. The lamb was good quality, but slightly burnt, and then served freezing cold, which was an unusual combination: as you bit into the chilly flesh the charcoaled flavour gave a taunting reminder that once upon a time this meat must have been hot.

My partner in culinary crime ate a Gressingham duck breast, bathed in a beetroot puree. She reported it as delicious, on a par with the legendary duck we were once served at Comptoir Gascon, opposite Smithfield Market, so many moons ago. For once, size was what let Rules down. My partner in culinary crime was left searching the plate in vain for a final morsel of duck.

Screen Shot 2018-03-26 at 20.52.33Finally, we shared a bread and butter pudding, with prunes and custard. It was simple, warm, familiar and comforting, nothing extraneous or extravagant, made just as bread and butter pudding should be.

And all this is served in a unique set of surroundings, creaky old stair cases, faded, frayed carpets, thousands of paintings of long-dead grandees wearing monocles or hunting foxes, stuffed pheasants glaring from the walls, and a rather alarming, more than life-sized, mural of Margaret Thatcher as Britannia triumphantly standing over the Falkland Islands. This is a proudly British restaurant, with a legendary past, a vibrant present, and occasionally suspect food. A little bit like the country then.

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Dining in Mauritius

Screen Shot 2017-11-24 at 01.35.20Life at the End of a Fork is broadcasting from the sunny beaches of Mauritius this week. After visiting the island in 1896, Mark Twain said: “Mauritius was made first and then heaven; and heaven was copied after Mauritius.” This may be a bit of an exaggeration. Heaven hopefully has a much smaller population of flies, better drivers, and pizzas that don’t come topped with processed turkey ham. But Mauritius is certainly very beautiful, full of gently sloping green mountains and turquoise waters lapping onto quiet, sandy beaches.

Rather than review restaurants individually and in great detail, we decided to summarise four good restaurants that are worth visiting on the island during a visit, providing micro-reviews in the body of the blog below.

Palais de Barbizon
Address: St Anne Road, Chamarel village, Southwest Mauritius
Bookings: no booking required
Day: Saturday
Meal: Lunch
Price: £
Rating: 7.5/10

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We dropped into this little orange-washed restaurant on the way back from the Seven Coloured Earths, on the Chamarel plain. Having been let down by the Seven Coloured Earths (in the name of honesty they should be renamed A Couple of Shades of Brown Dirt), we were then uplifted by Palais de Barbizon. It is presided over by the garrulous, chuckling Rico I’Intelligent, who also happens to be the village mayor, whilst his wife, who looks like she has spent a lifetime both cooking and eating delicious food, works magic in the kitchen.

Screen Shot 2017-11-24 at 16.09.58The menu is simple and fixed: five bowls of various vegetables, rice, and a choice of either fish or chicken. We ordered up both, and everything brought to the table was wholesome, satisfying and bursting with flavour. For dessert we had banana flambé. It was all washed down with a homemade concoction of beer, rum and lemonade. The four of us left with a combined bill comfortably under £50. Suffice to say that I’ve paid ten times the amount for worse food in Michelin-starred restaurants in London.

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Chez Tante Athalie
Address: Mon Repos, Route Royale, Pamplemousses, North Mauritius
Bookings: no booking required last order 14:30
Day: Friday
Meal: Lunch
Price: £
Rating: 7/10

Screen Shot 2017-11-24 at 16.01.50An open-air restaurant presided over by a Franco-Mauritian couple. It is less than a ten minute drive from the Botanical Garden in the Pamplemousses District, North Mauritius, and we twinned a trip to the gardens with lunch here. The food was French with a slight island twist.

Screen Shot 2017-11-24 at 16.11.35I ate a bowl of exquisitely fried calamari with a garlic, mayonnaise sauce , and a main of chicken in cream sauce, garlic sautéed potatoes perched alongside. My partner in culinary crime was in raptures over some elegant looking tuna carpaccio, a melting globe of lemon sorbet sitting incongruously in the middle of the fish. Unorthodox perhaps, but it worked, the whole plate a tart mixture of lemons, limes and the freshest of fish.

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For a main course she was appreciative of a steak, served rare, on a skewer. We ate to the accompaniment of a chorus of gorgeous birds, whilst swatting almost manically at the equally abundant flies. Vintage cars dotted the restaurant’s garden, and a beaten up old Cessna aeroplane sat in the shade of a tree, never to fly again.

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Domain
Address: Narainen St Grand Baie, Mauritius
Bookings: no booking required
Day: Tuesday
Meal: Dinner
Price: £
Rating: 6/10

Screen Shot 2017-11-24 at 16.11.42A divisive one at Life at the End of a Fork. The chilli lamb, served in a frying pan, was the single best thing I ate on the island of Mauritius.

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It was perfectly spiced – putting the tongue constantly on the edge of a nervous breakdown, but never quite pushing it over the edge – and came with a liberal dose of onions and peppers. I ate it at a frantic pace, accompanied by a delicious medley of fried rice, egg and spring onion. My partner in culinary crime was distinctly unimpressed by her fare, declaring a plate of fried chicken and seafood to be “upmarket KFC” (which sounds like a compliment to me), and her curried prawns to be dull and bland. The food was cheap, with 3 courses each and drinks coming in under £20 a head.

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Luigi’s
Address: Royal Road, Grand Baie, B13, Grand Baie
Bookings: no booking required
Day: Wednesday
Meal: Dinner
Price: £
Rating: 7/10

Screen Shot 2017-11-24 at 16.13.55A decent Italian restaurant near Grand Baie, given a touch of Mediterranean authenticity by the fact that the Italian lady who owned the place left the kitchen at one point to loudly berate and gesticulate at one of the customers, who sat sheepishly, holding the hand of his much younger Mauritian girlfriend.

Screen Shot 2017-11-24 at 16.10.19I had some mussels in a white wine and garlic sauce, which was a little meagre, but the mussels themselves were fresh and well-cooked. My partner in culinary crime had some gauze-thin tuna carpaccio, which was a delight, salted and seasoned, and tasted as if it had been swimming blithely through the ocean only moments before.

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The list of pizzas was extensive. I ordered up pepperoni and mushroom, which was solid and filling, if a little over-greased. My partner in culinary crime wolfed down a chicken and mushroom pizza. The chocolate brownie we finished with was the nicest dessert we found in Mauritius.

 

 

 

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Envy – Amsterdam

Address: Prinsengracht 381I, 1016 HL Amsterdam, Netherlands
Bookings: booking
Day: Saturday
Meal: dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7/10

Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 18.59.31Life at the End of a Fork has once again stretched its wings, this time finding itself in Amsterdam. Amsterdam is ridiculously easy to get to from London: we had barely taken our seats on our EasyJet flight at Southend-on-Sea – surrounded by utterly inebriated stag-parties dribbling on themselves and irritating the air hostesses – before we were being told to fasten our seatbelts for the descent. From the reception of my office in London to the door of my hotel room in Amsterdam, barely 4-hours elapsed.

Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 18.52.54Now, Amsterdam is not considered a centre of gastronomic excellence, but being food hounds we made it our business to try and sniff out whatever gems did exist. On Saturday night, we found ourselves in Envy, a long, dimly-lit restaurant that fronts out onto one of Amsterdam’s many canals. A small, eclectic menu consisted of tapas, our waitress advising 4 dishes per head. This seemed daunting, but we never need much encouragement to over-order, and so started demanding most of the things on the menu and she scribbled furiously to keep-up.

Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 18.53.07First to land on the table was a petite little steak tartare, with bell pepper and zucchini artfully arranged across the top of it. It was sharp and fresh, but it was impossible to eat this little purple disc of raw beef without having flashbacks to the full-bodied, ragingly flavoursome steak tartare we have had so many times at Otto’s, in Holborn. Otto’s has effectively ruined steak tartare by making lesser variants pale in comparison, a point my partner in culinary crime made as she mournfully ate her way through this lesser substitute.

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Next, we had a tomato, peach and pesto concoction, with shards of lime meringue on the side. It was inventive and delicious, the meringue a perfect scoop for the cool, succulent tomatoes and sweet slices of peach. This dish was partnered with a sort of egg soup. The egg, our waitress proudly informed us, had been cooked at exactly 62 degrees, before having artichoke and garlic added to it. The result was fantastic, as lovely to look at as it was to gulp by the spoonful.

Throughout the dinner there was an inventiveness and a panache to the cooking that I had to admire. The flavour pairings were unusual; the food looked bold; the kitchen throbbed with youth and energy. Sometimes they fell short: if I never again have a slimy nugget of foie gras wrapped inside a ball of white chocolate then I certainly won’t complain. Their lobster with mushroom, asparagus and citrus sauce was small, insubstantial and rubbery.

Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 18.58.35But I was never bored during the meal, and not only because of the sparkling conversation of my partner in culinary crime! I knew that whatever came out of the kitchen would be different, well-thought through. We finished with a plate of soft cheeses, 3 Dutch and 1 Belgian, 1 from a goat, 1 from a sheep and 2 from a cow. They lay in ascending order of flavour. Each was delicious, a credit to their respective countries and animals.

So, next time a long weekend beckons and you feel like stretching your wings, consider Amsterdam, and drop into this bold little hub of cooking.


Restaurante Paixa

Address: Ac. Particular 47, 8135 Almancil, Portugal
Bookings: booked
Day: Thursday
Meal: dinner
Price: £££
Rating: 6.5/10

Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 17.48.54With the golden sunshine beginning to lose its fierce afternoon intensity, we wound our way in a taxi through the leafy, tree-lined roads of Vale do Lobo, in search of Paixa, a Portuguese tapas restaurant that enjoys a considerable reputation in the Algarve.

Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 17.50.46Given the Portuguese habit for eating dinner in the middle of the night, we were the only people in the restaurant when we arrived at 8pm, and were ushered to our seats in the garden at the back. It was a lovely setting for dinner, perfectly manicured trees ringing the restaurant, a warm breeze dancing across the tables, and, as darkness fell, flickering torch light illuminating the scene.

Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 17.51.01The menu was a smorgasbord of delights, every line of it containing some tantalising dish that makes you wish for an ever replenishable reservoir of hunger: pheasant terrine, duck foie gras, fresh goats cheese with tomato and basil, salmon mousse, roast beef. Given our normal habit of ordering freakish amounts off the menu, eating ourselves into a food coma, and then cancelling all evening plans and crawling back to our hotel room, it took all of our self-discipline to order only 8 tapas dishes, which was still twice the recommended amount.

Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 17.49.41We kicked things off with a cup of sheep’s cheese, uncured and with the texture almost of butter, which we spread over bread studded with small pieces of chorizo. As an aficionado of pork scratchings, I ordered a side dish of fried pork fat, much to the horror of partner in culinary crime. They were delicious, the second-best pork scratchings I’ve ever eaten, ceding top spot only to A. Gold, an inconspicuous sandwich shop in Spitalfields Market that serves the best scratchings in London.

Meanwhile, my partner was tucking into some blue fish, which were sharp and vinegary, but ultimately a little disappointing, lacking that spark of the best tapas, and the meat a little thin and watery.

Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 17.49.09The mushrooms, stuffed with iberico ham and onion, were a highlight, the mushrooms buttery, softly cupping their contents.  A tuna loin with a crisped exterior, a melting heart, on a bed of tomatoes, was awesomely fresh, although we were starting to flag a little. An uninspiring side salad sat unloved on the corner of the table, a few green leaves and uncooked mushrooms not offering much that you couldn’t get from grabbing a handful of grass from the garden.

By this time, the restaurant was humming with people, both local and expatriate. The crowd was young, elegant and attractive, and we blended in with ease…

Screen Shot 2017-08-04 at 16.52.03All in all, Paixa is a good restaurant with a relaxing, convivial feel to it. It is certainly worth a visit if you’re in the Algarve. But the dishes lacked that killer twist that the very best tapas has. Everything was fresh, everything was done well, but nothing left us astonished, and writing this blog a few days later, no one single dish has seared itself onto my culinary memory.