Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Lunch at Grain Store

I hadn't seen Hari since I had both hands, but we became re-acquainted via Facebook, where he posts prolifically about Eighties pop - Kate, Siouxsie, Madge - and his indestructible dog, Delius, a beautiful blue whippet. Since Hari is a purely north London phenomenon and I am strictly Sarf, I suggested that we meet on middle ground, round the back of King's Cross, in the redeveloped bit I'd not been to yet, where Bruno Loubet has Grain Store, a vast restaurant in an old warehouse (that stored grain). I had been looking for an excuse to visit since it opened a couple of years ago.

Hari is a busy man, but gave me a couple of open windows in his hectic schedule, which I cross-referenced with Grain Store's online booking system to secure a table for two at 13.30 on 24.11.15. They sent e-mail confirmation, a reminder on the day before, and phoned to check the reservation, too. Phew! I guess that's the way they do things, these days, and it did turn out to be a rainy day, but I was surprised to see any vacant tables in what is a cavernous - but not necessarily carnivorous - space equipped with a long bar and a bustling open kitchen.

I go way back with Bruno Loubet, to the first feature I wrote in one of the early issues of seminal Eighties men's mag, Arena: 'Three Fresh Chefs'! One of the three was Marco Pierre White, then strutting his stuff at Harvey's in Wandsworth; Bruno was another, then cooking at Raymond Blanc's greenhouse restaurant in Oxford (was it called, The Greenhouse?) The third fresh chef was AngelaDwyer!

The same age as me, Bruno is a thoroughbred Haute Cuisinier. From the Médoc, with the claret birthmark of those born 'under the kitchen table,' his talent was spotted as a teenager and he attended a special High School for the gastronomically gifted. They do that in France. Loubet did his National Service in the Navy, where he was given an honorary officer's rank so he could dodge all that tiresome drill and concentrate upon cooking for the Admiral's table, commandeering a vehicle and driver to transport him to the markets in the early mornings while his fellow recruits were on parade. It may be no more than superstition to say that Monsieur Loubet is a natural born cook but, more than that,  Bruno is a French Chef. Cuisine may be the claret the runs in his veins, but it is also an organising principle of the culture in which he was raised.

From Le Manoir, Bruno came to London as Head Chef at the Four Seasons, Inn on the Park, running a big hotel brigade and winning the crucial Michelin star within a year. Then he did his own thing at Bistrot Bruno, Soho, in 1993, going on to open L’Odeon in 1995, located on the first floor of a terrace in Regent Street, where Veeraswamy is now. Having become such a grande fromage on the London restaurant scene during the Nineties, some were surprised when Mr Loubet abruptly quit for Australia in 2001, as he turned forty, taking his young family to live in the sunshine down under for a decade. He returned to reunite with a former mentor, Pierre Koffmann, who came out of retirement to run a near legendary pop-up restaurant in a marquee on Selfridges roof for one heady month during the summer of 2009. Actually, Bruno also returned recently to cook at Le Manoir, closing Blanc's series of Diners Des Protégés, with chefs who came through his kitchen en route to their own careers. Bruno Loubet's job these days, though, is Executive Chef to the The Vetter Group.

Grain Store is in the Granary Square development of old warehouses behind King's Cross. "Bagleys is going to be the part of the next phase, next door to St. Martins," Hari informed me, referring to the scene of many a warehouse rave in our youth. I gave myself plenty of time to get there, but the place was easily found from the Tube, so I had half an hour to kill, wandering around the site which includes a campus for CSM, Central St. Martins and the new UAL, University of the  Arts, London. As it was lunch time, art students clustered around the door to their studios, smoking in the manner that only those who have no concept of  their mortality may. I noticed how much they look and dress like students, these students, these days. Cleaner than we were, but still smoking. Some of the smokiest parties I can recall from when I was their age happened in Battlebridge Road, a stone's throw from where they're stood, in the badlands behind King's Cross, which is  re-developing at a rate that rivals the E&C, where plans also include UAL. Sigh. London, eh? Be nice when its finished.

There's several places to eat in Granary Square that I'd definitely check out if I lived locally and could afford them, you know. Dishoom is styled after the classic Bombay cafés run by Zoroastrian immigrants from Iran and apparently has four locations across London; Caravan is a coffee roastery and café with an eclectic, tapas-like menu that includes plenty for veggies. Grain Store, is 'a unique restaurant inspired by chef Bruno Loubet’s extensive travels and years dedicated to his beloved vegetable patch.' Which is not to say it's a vegetarian restaurant, but one where 'the humble vegetable is elevated to the starring role (although many dishes also feature fish and meat).'

In menu terms, this means that garnishes are listed before before the fleshy components of dishes, so that vegetarians reading them have their appetites whetted, then expectation is dashed as they discover that the starter salad of dehydrated crisp vegetable, fruit & mushroom salad in prune vinegar dressing is strewn with extraneous wood pigeon. I mean, I get it. Bruno has banned beef and put an emphasis on game and fish, but that still means that I get excited by the thought of beetroot gnocchi with broccolini & shallots, but let down to find it comes with a piece of griddled silver mullet. Hot seaweed sushi, glazed pak choi, black garlic purée, all sound fantastic, but they are the garnish to a piece of hake, which is also cooked 'à la plancha'. Still, in too many London restaurants, 'vegetarian' is taken to mean, 'may eat fish' and, indeed, while being basically vegetarian, I will eat fish under certain circs.

Grace Dent - or The Delectable Grace Dent as she is also known - put her finger on it when she reviewed Grain Store's impetuous sibling, Grain Store Unleashed  last Spring, when The Zetter Hotel dining room hosted a pop-up spin-off: '...the concept, even to a five-a-day obsessive, might still seem a bit woolly. Here is a ‘vegetable restaurant’ that isn’t really for vegetarians. The menu contains wood pigeon, wild sea trout and meat-based stocks (which can be removed). Was there a market for weirdos like me who eat steak, but get het up over kohlrabi and broad bean ravioli? Yes. Turns out there are tons of us.' See, Ms Dent was once veggie, but now eats meat, whereas I am coming from the opposite direction. A note on the menu does say that many of Grain Store's dishes can be rendered in veggie versions, so we're not short of choices.

Pic by Maddie Mooves
That said, the two main course options denoted as 'vegan' are Loubet's versions of classics that you will find at any provincial veggie bistro: 'chilli con veggie'; and a 'risotto' made with a different grain, in this case Farro wheat, with jerusalem artichokes, leeks & chestnut mushrooms (which does sound divine!) The token vegetarian dish on swanky menus is often raviolis containing pumpkin, or sweet potato or, as here, butternut squash. Several menu items have a wine glass symbol next to them, indicating an optional but recommended beverage accompaniment. For only an extra £4.50, I washed my squash raviolis (left) down with a glass of pumpkin juice. They were plump and sweet, with mustard apricots and a commendable absence of sage, arranged on an oblong plate strewn with wilted rocket & pumpkin seeds. I could have eaten me a few more of them.

I had plenty of time to decide what I wanted to eat because Hari was late. Then, upon eventual arrival, the first thing he ordered was something I had been ogling at an adjacent table: deep-fried balls served on fir twigs. Wild mushroom & Montgomery cheddar croquettes, truffle salt  turned out to be balls of cheesey shroomy joy with bosky truffle on the finish. I asked Helen, our Server, if I might try the vegetarian Scotch egg that I'd heard so much about, from the other, All Day Menu and Hari immediately wanted that, too. Cleverly, Mr Loubet concocted a blend of dehydrated vegetables with secret herbs and spices that does indeed taste a lot how I remember chorizo and he's used it instead of a sausage mixture to coat his egg, which is probably from a free range hen with which he is personally acquainted. However, it's still an egg, so it's not vegetarian, in my definition. Which brings us back to Grace Dent's point about the woolliness of the 'demi veggie' concept.

David Sexton of The Standard - whom The Delectable Grace Dent must call, 'colleague' - decided in January 2015 that Grain Store was too 'self-consciously innovative and stressfully entertaining' for his tastes, but I do declare, I loved it. I'd been looking forward to Dried fava beans & kishk (a soft cheese) soup, pomegranate molasses and it was as good as I'd hoped: hearty and slightly tart, with sweet molasses zig zagged across the surface of the soup. Similarly, 'Baked beetroot 'carpaccio', fermented beetroot dressing, spiced labneh' (strained yoghurt - like the Greek) did not disappoint a beetnik such as I. Although, I must admit, I did begin to imagine how this beet salad might compliment certain stinky cheeses, supplied here by Androuet. Yes, I am back on the cheese and not always strictly in a gourmet way.

Pic by Angela Sam
Hari let me scoff a few of his cheesey shroomy truffle balls and gave me half his Scotch eggg, yet I felt I'd not eaten enough, so I got the Butternut squash ravioli, mustard apricots, rocket & pumpkin seeds while Hari had dessert. His eyesight's going, poor old bloke, but he's not yet reached the stage where he carries reading glasses, like me, so when he ordered Coconut & Kaffir lime green tapioca, sweet potato, banana crisp (right), the chances are he glanced over the word, 'tapioca.' But he wolfed it down any old way, chased by a cup of Earl Grey.

We drank water, freshly filtered and chilled, which is served by the carafe as an alternative to bottled water and spent thirty quid each, including a respectable cash gratuity, which I thought was not bad. I must return, one fine day, to sample the chilli con veggie and/or a poncey risotto.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

The Times I Saw The Clash #1, 11.11.77

The Clash Get Out of Control Tour @ Cambridge Corn Exchange


When two 11s clashed.
Ask what was the most impressive pop concert I ever saw and I don't have to think too hard. It was Prince & The Revolution at Madison Square Garden on the Parade tour in 1986. Amazing as that epic show was, however, it did not change my life. My life had already been changed by The Clash. The first time I saw the band was at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge, November '77. I had turned sixteen in September and was at boarding school in Stamford. We persuaded a liberal teacher to hire a mini bus and improvised a punk look. It wasn't hard, then: if you didn't have long hair & flared trousers, you stood out.
The collectable Clash badge set!

Going into the gig, a man on the door dispensed lapel badges that said, 'I Want Complete Control', which became a highly-prized trophy then and now, according to Robin from Clash City Collectors, 'the Complete Control badge has been copied a few times & should be quite cheap to pick up, but an original one would cost around £25 + P&P. Cheers,'

Complete Control was to be the gang's third single, written as an angry retort to their record company CBS and the latest of a kind of song in which The Clash mythologised their own experience as a band, which arguably started with Garageband. Charles Shaar Murray had quipped that The Clash were the kind of garage band who should be locked in with the car engine running, leading Strummer to come back with the immortal line, 'Back in the garage with my bullshit detector...' After some uhmming & ahhing and no little bullshit, The Clash had eventually signed to a major multinational record company in a move that the punk bible, Sniffin' Glue denounced as a sell out. Still, CBS had put out the emblematic first single, White Riot, backed with 1977 : 'no Elvis, Beatles, or Rolling Stones'! But then, the record company guys didn't know what to do for a follow up, so they picked the nearest thing their sophisticated ears could hear to a memorable tune from the epochal first album and put out Remote Control as the second single, without clearing it with The Clash. 'They said, we'd be artistically free, made us sign a bit of paper,' Joe ranted. 'They meant, let's make lots of money and worry about it later.'

First on the bill was a group of female French Lou Reed fans called, 'The Lous'. I was more interested in checking out the crowd, with its characteristic Seventies smell of patchouli. It was not quite my first taste of rock action, exactly, but might as well have been. Most were older student types with long hair & flared trousers, come to investigate this new thing called punk rock with its sneering & spitting. They stood back, kept a critical distance, leaving ample room for excited teenagers to get to the front of the stage, which was low and not large. I can't recall from this distance if I had previousy heard, Blank Generation, but I'll never forget the sight of Richard Hell & The Voidoids performing it, mere feet away.

Finally came The Clash. My memory has the Stuka backdrop, dive-bombing the stage, but it may be playing tricks. It would be an appropriate metaphor for their performance, though. The band kicked off at 100mph and accelerated through to White Riot at the end. Their version of Police & Thieves, midway through the set, offered little respite from the relentless fury of their music. Paul concentrated on his axe, lurking near Topper's drum riser and was not quite the upfront presence he later became. Mick, stage right in his zippered bondage strides, already had charisma & poise, not to mention riffs: "You're my guitar hero!" as Joe exclaimed on the new single.

Strummer himself was the focus of my attention, riveted by the intensity of his performance. Although mere feet away, he seemed to be in a different world, possessed, separated by a force field of energy that was palpable if not quite visible, except perhaps via ultra sensitive photography. I have a screen-printed poster made from an iconic photo of Joe, taken maybe a month later, that I regard as an avatar of righteous rage and keep to remind me of those indignant teenage feelings chanelled by Saint Joe.

I've looked around online for a set list and been disappointed, as some of the songs I've seen listed speculatively weren't written until later, but basically it was the first album: Janie Jones & Protex Blue. Joe inhabited the songs, acting out, Career Opportunities by flapping his arms, beside himself with frustration at being offered dull jobs. But then came Garageland, with its bullshit detector, hinting at the possibility of breaking from mundanity and articulating one's truth.

When I say this gig changed my life, I mean, it was inspirational, hinting at a life much larger and more vivid than my cosseted schoolboy's existence. I wrote a delirious review that was printed in the school mag, to the headmaster's reported displeasure. Within a year, I was expelled from boarding school after hitch hiking to Cambridge to see another punk band at the Corn Exchange. We got stranded and were out all night. The day after they kicked me out, I remember, I consoled myself by buying a  copy of the new Clash single, (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais in a pink paper sleeve, with the sub-Lichtenstein pop art label.

ADDENDUM: (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais was released in the same week that I was expelled from school, in June 1978. I had hitch hiked to Cambridge to see The Vibrators and The DPs, aka The Depressions, who were truly awful punk also-rans. I mean, The Vibrators were old men, but at least they had a tune or two, the title of one of which had been appropriated by Stiff Little Fingers. I wasn't too enthusiastic about this gig, but I had been assured of a lift home from a graphic designer who worked in an office in Stamford that I had started cleaning as a part-time job, after school. (I inherited the job from a girlfriend who had gone to college.) The dude boasted about having been the original drummer with The Vibrators, so this was a chance to call his bluff. I guess it was a bluff, because he set off without us, leaving a note to say he'd see us there. But he didn't show up. Stranded, we had to walk home, most of the way, me and my mate. We walked from Cambridge nearly to to Huntingdon and dawn was breaking when my mate eventually called his Dad, who lived not far away, and he came out to rescue us. Limping ito the boarding house at five in the morning, there stood my house master, grimly.
'The police of three counties have been looking for you,' he declared. 
'Then why didn't they find me?' I wondered.
'I think you'd better go upstairs and pack,' he said.
'You're joking,' I said (he wasn't). 'I'm going to bed.'

Anyway, back at Hammy Pally,  Dillinger, Leroy Smart and Delroy Wilson, the Cool Operator, headlined an all night reggae rave - "midnight-to-six, man" - that also featured Ken Booth, "for UK of pop reggae" with "backing bands & sound systems." But, Joe Strummer was disappointed to discover, that "it was Four Tops all night" with synchronis-ized dance routines along the lines of those perpetrated by the 4/4 Motown innovators, who also invented Norther Soul. Smiling performers would dance off and then dance on again "with encores from stage right," which I Jah Man Strummer found strictly silly. He had wanted and expected a militant rasta vibe, not close harmonies and syncopation.
In the lyric of the ensuing song, Joe compares the commercializ-isation of the reggae scene, as he perceives it, with what's going on in his own corner of the musical universe, where the new groups of the short-lived Power Pop craze were not concerned with what there was to be learned from grizzled punk veterans, but were busily wearing Burton suits, if you please, and - in an echo of the title of George Melly's seminal analysis of pop culture, 'Revolt Into Style': "turning rebellion into money."
"All over, people are changing their votes, along with their overcoats," objected Joe. Eric Capton, the guitar god, had made some drunken racist remarks onstage and inspired the formation of Rock Against Racism. Our beloved David Bowie, fully coked-up in Thin White Duke mode, when met by a massive crowd upon arrival at a London railway station, had stood up in the back of an open-topped car and thrown what looked a lot like a Nazi salute. "If Adolf Hitler flew in today," sang Joe, "they'd send a limousine anyway."