The Frontline Club

On an otherwise unremarkable street near Paddington Station lies DonQui’s home away from home in London…

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…this is the Frontline Club.

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On the ground floor at 13 Norfolk Place, London, W2 1QJ, is the excellent Frontline Restaurant which is open to non-members. While most of this part of London is given over to quick eats and the occasional good Middle Eastern or Malaysian establishment, Frontline offers excellent modern British cuisine. Fresh ingredients are often sourced from the Suffolk/Norfolk borderlands not far from DonQui’s home paddock of Southwold.

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The menu is relatively small with a few standard classic dishes and an ever-changing array of more interesting choices. Tonight DonQui opts for a deliciously simple dish of gnocchi with wild mushrooms and pecorino cheese. It is utterly delicious and quite satisfying, the cheese adding a lovely tang to the velvety mushroom sauce.

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Upstairs is the cosy members’ clubroom and bar. It is a perfect place to sit back, relax, have a drink or three and do a bit of work at the same time. DonQui is not the only one with his lap top open and a pint of Adnams beer (brewed in Southwold) by his side. There are also a number of rooms and it is in one of these where DonQui will rest his head tonight.

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William H. Russel’s boots and gloves from the Crimean War

The club was founded by war correspondents and caters particularly to journalists who have worked on the ‘frontline’. The restaurant and club are decorated with iconic photographs of war and  conflict while the members clubroom housed bric a brac brought back by journalists from the Crimean War in the 1850s to modern Afghanistan and Syria.

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One of the iconic war photos adorning the walls – this from the Vietnam War

As DonQui has a bit of a history trotting around various war zones with the media he feels quite at home here. You do not have to have had such experiences to become a member. If images of war and conflict put you off your dinner, however, you may not feel quite as at ease here as DonQui does.

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The Frontline hosts an interesting series of talks, screenings and workshops which are also open to non-members.

In 2010 Vaughan Smith, the Frontline’s founder, offered refuge to Julian Assange of Wikileaks. This caused quite some consternation amongst many members, DonQui included. Fortunately the Club distanced itself from Vaughan’s personal support for Assange. This did not prevent the American journalist James Kirchick from slagging off the club in The Spectator, as place “where members preen like latter-day Hemingways amid lovingly curated war-reporting memorabilia.”

Maybe DonQui fancies himself as a latter-day Hemmingway. Whether true or not he rather likes the place.

Good eating in London

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It is easy to eat well in London if one has lots of dosh.

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It is even easier to come away from an eating establishment feeling either ripped off or having had to make do with sub-standard food of dubious origins and even more dubious cooking techniques.

If you know where to go, this wonderful cosmopolitan city offers an incredible variety of fantastic foods influenced by every country around the globe.

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DonQui is a bit of a francophile and if push comes to shove, he has to admit that French food and style are almost always his first choices. There are plenty of good French restaurants in London, partly down to the hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen and women who have made London their home in recent times. This is not a new phenomenon. French exiles came to London in their hundreds of thousands at the time of the Huguenot exodus in the 17th century. Kettners in Soho (which sadly closed earlier this year after 149 years) was founded by Napoleon III’s chef in the 1800s while the French House, just around the corner, was the unofficial headquarters of de Gaulle and the French resistance during the Second World War.

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For a simple, high quality, meal in the west end of London, Prix Fixe is DonQui’s first choice. On Dean Street in the heart of Soho it offers French brasserie style food and ambiance at very reasonable prices. The pre-7pm menu has 2 courses for just over £10 while the later fixed menu has 3 courses for £25. DonQui has eaten here many times in the past and tonight he is delighted to find that the quality and ambiance remains as good as ever.

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Being a notorious gourmand, DonQui opts to shell out the £3 supplement for the foie gras terrine starter and he feels that it is worth every extra penny.

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Another supplement (£6 this time) lands him with a main course of entrecôte steak frites. Ordered medium rare the steak is beautifully seared on the outside while remaining pink and juicy in the middle. The frites are proper French fries — thin and wonderfully crisp while still soft on the inside. DonQui’s only complaint (and this is his finicky taste buds rather than a mistake in the kitchen) is the mustard dressing on the lovely green salad. Unfortunately DonQui has a near allergic reaction to mustard.

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Washed down with an excellent glass of Côtes du Rhône and finished off with an adffogato (an Italian classic rather than a French one) DonQui once again enjoys a wonderful meal in a relaxing atmosphere while watching the streets of Soho come to life as night falls.

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When it comes time to pay the bill, DonQui feels that he has had great value for money. He will come again.

The Perfect Country Pub

DonQui has been rather quite of late and for this he apologises. With summer approaching and various other tedious distractions now behind him, he resolves to get back to the important  business of living life to the fullest. He has some travels coming up soon but on this English holiday weekend he decides to stay firmly on home ground.

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After all he does live in a corner of Suffolk favoured by tourists so why put up with crowded airports and traffic jams when he can simply trot out of his paddock to enjoy what others travel far to experience.

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Nearby Southwold will be overrun with tourists so instead of venturing into the coastal town he heads a bit inland to one of his favourite country pubs — The Star in Wenhaston.

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It just so happens that the Star has a beer festival running over the weekend. With live music, barbecue and a wide selection of beers and ciders on offer for £3 a pint it would be foolish to pass it up.

Now DonQui has previously expounded his philosophy of what makes a good pub. The Ship and Shovel in London is a perfect example of a really good urban pub. The Star at Wenheston is a truly great country pub.

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The sign on the wall says it all. The Star is a proper old fashioned pub of the kind which is becoming increasingly difficult to find as so many are taken over by chains, given a gastropub make-over or otherwise turned into identikit versions of each other.

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In autumn and winter there is a roaring fire in the bar which makes it a great place to escape the damp grey of the colder English seasons.

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One night a month the Star hosts “spin a disk” where you can bring samples of your vinyl collections to play on the record player (younger readers may need to look that up). One might hear anything from traditional jazz to cheesy pop, interspersed with a bit of Led Zeppelin, Bowie, or The Who. It all depends on what people decide to bring with them.

bric a brac.jpgRun by Carl and Virginia, The Star remains quirky and resolutely independent.

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The wonderful bric-a-brac decorating the walls are reflective of the fact that The Star has not been designed by marketing consultants and long may it remain thus.

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The Star is a free-house which is rare in the heart of Adnams country. Not that DonQui has anything against Adnams beers, which are brewed down the road in Southwold. It is just that every once in a while he enjoys trying something else and most pubs in the area are tied to the Adnams brewery.

beer bar.jpgFor some reason, DonQui does not enquire why, all the beers on offer at the beer festival are from Yorkshire rather than Suffolk. Taking a half pint glass he samples several of them and is pleased by the variety of tastes from citrusy pale ales to more malty darker ones. One of his favourites, from Kelham Island Brewery is ‘London Calling’ — an odd name perhaps for a Yorkshire beer, complete with a cameo of The Clash on the barrel. Dark, full of deep flavour and good hoppy bitterness DonQui thinks it makes a great beer to sip and savour. A close runner up is Atlantic Crossing which apparently was originally a joint venture between York’s Rudgate Brewery and the Hogshead Brewery of Colorado USA —hence the name.

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The sun is shining, the music is good (mostly) with a variety of performers playing an eclectic mix of folk, blues, jazz and rock.

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The barbecue provides a steady supply of burgers, sausages or steaks during the lunch and supper hours.

Goulash cooked in a large pot over an open fire provides sustenance in-between.

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Sampling yet another beer, DonQui decides that there are worse ways to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon.

No Tarts in Bakewell

DonQui has been travelling around quite a bit this past week. On Saturday he found himself in Bakewell — gateway to the Peak District if you are coming up from the south.

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It is a pretty town with an ancient feel to it although DonQui learned that the many grey stone buildings only date back to Georgian times when they replaced the old medieval timber framed houses. The bridge over the River Wye is, however, truly old. It dates back 700 years and is built on Roman foundations.

DonQui had heard that Bakewell was famous for its tarts. This made his ears perk up until he learned that they were of the baked variety and even then they were not properly tarts at all. In Bakewell the almond paste, jam and pastry confection is a pudding. According to the Bakewell Pudding Shop the original recipe was a mistake when a cook, making a strawberry tart, poured the egg mixture over the jam instead of mixing it into the pastry.

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To be truthful Bakewell puddings or tarts are not high on DonQui’s list of favourites. He was in need of something a little more refined. Stopping off at The Peacock for an afternoon pint of the local ale he ascertained that he would not be having dinner there. Although the food looked good the prices did not. He thought that £15 for a burger would make even a Panama accountant’s eye’s water.

On his way back from strolling along the river, by happy chance he passes Riley’s Restaurant. Menu looks interesting. He sticks his nose inside the door, Nicely decorated. It is mid afternoon and the lunch crowd has long moved on. A pleasant young man comes over and asks if he can help. DonQui decides to reserve for dinner.

IMG_7128.jpgLater that evening DonQui had one of the best meals he has had in a long time. A bowl of muscles in a delicious coconut lime broth to start, followed by a most exquisite dish of sous-vide lamb rump with a medley of spring vegetables.

DonQui has heard of the sous-vide cooking method before but has never tried it. Basically it seems to involve putting the meat in a vacuum sealed bag and cooking it for many hours by immersing it in moderately hot water. The result is evenly cooked, tender and utterly delicious. The medly of vegetables included asparagus, sprouting broccoli, pea shoots, peas and finely sliced radishes. Together with the juice from the lamb it had a wonderfully fresh, crisp, spring-like taste.

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Duchess had half a lobster which was also delicious.

DonQui liked the ambiance and he liked the staff, all of whom were friendly, cheerful, helpful, and clearly proud of their establishment.

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The chef also has a good sense of humour. DonQui considered trying out ‘Spam in a Can’ but didn’t— maybe next time.

The Other Don Qui

DonQui Oaty is quite excited. He is in Stratford — the ‘upon-Avon’ variety, not the east end of London, nor Ontario for that matter — and he is going to see a play with carries a misspelt version of his name as its title.IMG_6864.jpg

He is reliably informed that the original (a book not a play) was written by a Spanish chap who died 400 years ago in 1616. Apparently another person, quite famous in Stratford-upon-Avon, died that same year. The story is all about a donkey called Dapple who goes off on all sorts of adventures accompanied by two fairly hopeless humans called Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.IMG_6857.jpg

Duchess treats DonQui to a delicious pre-performance dinner at the theatre’s Rooftop Restaurant which, at £19.95 for two courses or £24.95 for three, is excellent value. The staff keep an eye on the show times and hold desert for us to enjoy in the interval washed down by a snifter of calvados. IMG_6862.jpg

DonQui has a great seat right against the stage which juts out into the audience.

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He thinks the play is great fun: imaginative, witty and moving, with great acting, well timed comedy and some ingenious puppetry. Sancho Panza (Rufus Hound) is a great crowd pleasing showman. Don Quixote (David Threlfall) a Gandalf look-alike, anti-hero, switches from being completely bonkers to holding himself with quiet noble dignity in face of adversity. The Duchess (Ruth Everett) chillingly floats around the stage like a Dalek, her false smile hiding her cruel intentions. Even the horses have hilarious character, the actors taking turns to give them different emotions ranging from downtrodden to cowardly to camp.

The only criticism DonQui has is that the Donkey hero Dapple (who saves Sancho Panza near the end) should have had more lines.

Don Quixote is on at the Swan Theatre Stratford-upon-Avon until 21 May.

Rules

Before going off to see the antics of Nell Gwynn and Charles Stuart, DonQui thought it would be a good idea to have a proper lunch.

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And what could be more appropriate than Rules — possibly London’s oldest restaurant although the title is contested by Simpson’s Tavern and Wilton’s.

Opening in 1798, Rules is probably the closest one can get to a restaurant of Nell’s time, not that they really existed back in the 17th century. Nell would have frequented taverns but the concept of a ‘restaurant’ did not really come into being until after the French Revolution. One theory is that in the revolution the chefs of headless aristocrats found themselves out of work and therefore started to set up on their own.

Started as an oyster bar by Thomas Rules it then expanded to include more substantial fare. Contemporary writers mention ‘rakes, dandies and superior intelligences who comprise its clientele.’

Just the sort of place for me’, DonQui thinks.

Serving proper food such as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, rack of lamb, pies and a wide variety of game, Rules is not the sort of place to bring a vegetarian, some Californian on a weird faddish diet, nor someone who is in a hurry. It is the sort of place to go to if you are looking for a long leisurely meal and old-school atmosphere.

DonQui booked in for a late lunch at 3:30, leaving plenty of time to build up an appetite before, and plenty of time to linger afterwards. He was surprised that even at this hour the place was full, with waiters in black and white weaving their way around tables of casually well-heeled patrons.

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With a lovely glass of bubbly Crémant de Bourgogne to sip on while he contemplated the menu, DonQui sees that meat from rare breed, slow maturing cattle is on offer. With Duchess on hand to help out, rib of beef for two seemed just the ticket.  After an appetite warming partridge salad to start with, DonQui was ready for the main event.Rules 4.jpg

Although he was well aware that Rules tended to go for old fashioned large portions, he was not quite prepared for just how much food arrive at the table.

It certainly looked good. So DonQui took a sip of Côtes du Rhône to fortify himself, girded his loins, and prepared to do battle.

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The beef, served along with the bone it was carved from, was delicious with a nice charred, salty outside while remaining rare in the middle. Ordered medium-rare it was on the rarer side of medium which was fine for DonQui but a little too visceral for Duchess. Fortunately there were sufficient outside pieces of greater doneness which suited her tastes. The Yorkshire puddings were magnificent as were the accompanying spinach and dauphinoise potatoes. DonQui is not keen on horseradish but Duchess, who is, assured him that it was creamy with just the right amount of bite.

Service was professional, helpful yet unobtrusive and the bill was… well… as magnificent as the food. Even by London standards Rules is not cheap, but then it is an experience as much as a place to eat.

Resolutely old-fashioned and English, in DonQui’s opinion Rules is a wonderful respite from the modern world’s obsession with the new, fast and transient. It is well worth saving up a few shekels for the occasional visit.

Nell Gwynn

DonQui is most pleased to have snaffled a couple of tickets to see the play Nell Gwynn which has just opened in the West End. So he and Duchess find themselves making their way down Shaftesbury Avenue to check it out.

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The story of Nell Gwynn and Charles II strikes a sympathetic chord with DonQui’s attitude to life. As the blurb from the theatre says:

Welcome to England, 1660. The Puritans have been sent packing as Charles II makes his triumphal return to London following the restoration of the monarchy. After years in France, the King brings with him an appreciation for the bawdy and the boisterous. Meanwhile, the young Nell Gwynn is selling oranges on Drury Lane. Nothing will ever be the same again.

 

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DonQui thinks the play is great fun, well cast, well acted and well directed. There is just the right amount of humour and raunchiness interlacing the true story which is delivered with touches of real emotion.

The fully packed house love it, as does DonQui.

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Gemma Arterton is utterly fantastic as Nell, fully living up to the original Nell Gwynn’s stage performance as described by Samuel Pepys:

But so great performance of a comical part was never, I believe, in the world before as Nell do this, both as a mad girl, then most and best of all when she comes in like a young gallant; and hath the notions and carriage of a spark the most that ever I saw any man have. It makes me, I confess, admire her.

 

DonQui must also confess to admire Gemma Arterton, even since watching her in the excellent re-make of St Trinians.

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The character of Nancy is also brilliantly played by Michele Dotrice, best known as the long-suffering wife in the 70s TV series ’Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. DonQui thinks that she delivers one of the best comic moments through perfect timing and just a look.

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DonQui thoroughly enjoyed himself and highly recommends trying to get hold of tickets.

DonQui puts Gordon Ramsay to the test

DonQui is rather pleased to hear that Gordon Ramsay has recently opened a new hostelry in his old stomping ground of Battersea.

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London House opened last year in Battersea Square. With Duchess joining him in London for a few days, DonQui thinks that they should try it out.

Various reviewers have complained that the decor is naff “a bit like Travelodge gone to heaven,” proclaims the Evening Standard, while Time Out says it is like “a trip back to the ’90s.”

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Well, DonQui quite enjoyed the 90s. He appreciates the way the restaurant is laid out with comfy, distressed leather sofas at one end of the room for relaxing with a drink before or after dinner — or both. The decor may be a little fin de siècle but DonQui likes the spacious, open feel and the refined yet casual atmosphere.

The youngish, well-dressed staff are friendly, knowledgeable and the service is faultless. When DonQui does not need them they are nowhere to be seen. Then when he does want something they seem to magically appear just at the right moment.

So what about the food?

Utterly superb.

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As is the wine – after a pinot noir and a grey goose vodka cocktail as aperitifs DonQui orders a very tasty Chinon.

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DonQui finds the light reds from the Loire, such as Chinon and Bourgueil, are the perfect accompaniment to a meal with a mix of dishes. In his view they go equally well with rich red meat as well as lighter foods. He wonders why they are not that well known outside France.

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To start DonQui has wild mushroom scotch egg. The egg (probably a quail’s given the size) has a perfectly runny yolk and solid white — just as it should be. The outside is crispy and full of gorgeous mushroom flavour. It is served on a bed of finely shredded pickled Japanese artichoke, a root vegetable that DonQui has not encountered before. It reminds him slightly of sauerkraut but with a more delicate taste and it goes very well with the scotch egg.

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Duchess has goat’s cheese curds with honey which is served with a bundle of thin homemade grissini. The waiter warns that it is just a small nibble but it is what Duchess wants. She is after something that has flavour without being too filling and it does the job very nicely indeed.

Then there is the bread. The most gorgeous crusty sourdough — so good that it is devoured before DonQui can think of taking any photographs. The waiter asks if he would like more and although he does, he thinks it best to pass as otherwise he will have no room for anything else.

The two main courses are wild fallow deer with a nutty herb crust served on a bed of pearl barley with caramelised swede and curly kale; and chicken breast with sweet potatoes and polenta.

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Readers will probably guess that DonQui goes for the venison. It is tender, juicy and rich without being gamey.

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The look on Duchess’s face tells him that he should try her chicken breast. Now chicken breast is not something DonQui normally would go for as he prefers his meat dark and juicy. However this is without a doubt the best chicken breast he has ever tasted. With crispy skin it is moist and full of flavour that DonQui would not normally expect to find in a relatively simply cooked piece of chicken.

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Feeling slightly greedy extra polenta sticks and savoy cabbage are ordered to go along side. The savoy cabbage does not quite live up to DonQui’s expectations. Poached in milk with bits of bacon the taste is fine, however the two big lumps of cabbage cut in half do not really appeal to his senses.

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For desert DonQui has passion fruit posset which is delectable. Duchess goes for the chocolate eclair which is a disappointment. The pastry is rock hard. The waiter is most apologetic and produces two glasses of the most glorious Muscat in compensation which more than makes up for it.

Mistakes can happen but if they are dealt with graciously then everyone remains happy.

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After a little espresso and a fine calvados to finish off DonQui is feeling very happy indeed. This is dining as it should be, he thinks — unstuffy, cheerful and thoroughly enjoyable.

DonQui and Duchess opted to go a la carte which was not cheap, but neither was it outrageously expensive by London standards. However one does not have to spend a fortune to dine at London House. There is an excellent set menu offering two courses for £22.50 or three for £28.00. Given the quality of the food and ambiance of the restaurant this is very good value indeed.