Month: September 2014

Merry Maid, Highgate

I have never been in a prison communal area, though I imagine one to look very similar to the dining room at The Merry Maid. The false ceiling is low and holds in the monotone coverage of the Sky Sports from the mounted plasma screen. A heavily chipped wall shows the quality of darts played here in yesteryear, whilst locals compete at pool from the other end. It’s not the place I would feel comfortable about my girlfriend coming without me. And that has nothing to do with the pub, its dubious location in Highgate, or its subsequent locals. I just don’t want her getting better than me at pool.

But, occasionally, it makes no difference whether the dining room looks like a prison communal or a Venetian palace. Sometimes the food is so good that word-of-mouth takes over and you find yourself in the vast corners of society to get a fill, like in Highgate, where even the stray dogs walk around in pairs. And here, on a damp Tuesday evening, the dining room is packed with those in the know, willing to make the pilgrimage.

The short menu has a few curries, from which we tried two: A butter chicken was an artery thickening joy, which made me wonder why anyone looking towards the milder side would choose a tikki masala over this, and a chicken kahari, a pungent thing of beauty, punctured with plenty of fresh green chillies. Both were keenly spiced, offering levels of flavouring above your standard curry fare. The accompanying peshwari naans were supple and avoided cloying sweetness.

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It’s not the curries that are the main attraction here, as testified by 90% of the dining/pool room. They come here for the meat; marinated, impaled, and plunged into a seriously hot tandoor. The result is a charred meat, full of meaty flavour and as tender as a newly singleton. All of it; the tikka chicken breast and wings, the shish kebab, the lamb chops, are simply impeccable. Eight pound for the small mixed grill is enough to feed three. Eleven quid will get you the large portion sufficient for a table to feast on. Little wonder they are always full.

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It’s hard to take in that the best tandoor cooking I have tried is a few miles from my door, and harder to accept that I have taken so long to find it. I don’t care that my beer choice is limited to the piss poor Carlsberg or Stella, or that the food is served on kitchen tissue. For once I don’t care for which farm my chicken comes from, or what grass my lamb is eating. The food here makes everything irrelevant when it arrives at the table. Others have been eating here for a while knowing this. I cant wait to join them again.

9/10

Merry Maid Grill and Bar on Urbanspoon

Restaurant Bugenvilla, Cavtat, Croatia

Cavtat is a small harbour town situated 45 minutes boat ride from the white walls of Dubrovnik. If you have ever had the pleasure of visiting Dubrovnik you will have certainly skimmed the roof tops of its buildings on the flight in, before briefly passing it on the coach ride out of the airport. It’s doubtful that you will have noticed it. For that you will have missed out, because as spectacular as Dubrovnik is, Cavtat has its own unique charm. There is a harbour hoarding some of the worlds super yachts’ in crystal clear waters, a great little food market where you can purchase ripe melons and a nudist beach where you can peruse melons that have seen better years. Oh, and it has a seriously good restaurant.

The restaurant in question, Bugenvilla, takes central stage on the harbour front. The sparsely decorated outdoor tables are shaded from the midday sun, whilst the smartly dressed waiters buzz in and out from the open kitchen. Chefs occasional peer around the corners to check that the food is being well received. They needn’t worry.

There is a quiet confidence about the cooking here. Our waiter, with his singular white glove, lays down the truffle and prosecco soup before me with the knowledge that I will like it. He’s right. It’s a deceptively simple looking thing, all murky brown in colour, save for the slathering of sliced summer truffles that rests atop. The flavour, too deep to be purely truffle at this time of year, has good quality mushrooms at its core and a trace of booze at its finish. It’s one of the best things I’ve eaten this year. Another soup, albeit a chilled green gazpacho, was an exercise in restraint. The delicate lettuce and cucumber notes were still identifiable amongst the garlic and chilli flavours. It was Mediterranean summer by the spoonful.

truffle

gazpacho (1)

A pea risotto has accurately cooked grains bound in a vivid green purée. As good as it is on its own, it needs the nuggets of pecorino and blobs of mozzarella to provide salt and comfort. When everything is taken together it transforms into another very good dish. The other main, a large hunk of ox cheek braised slowly in red wine, was a fine thing. The accompanying broccoli purée and turnips gave it freshness. The potato mash would have benefited from a slab of butter, rather than the glug of olive oil it received. It requires a chef of considerable skill to take a dense piece of slowly cooked animal and make it summery. They have such a chef here.

gazpacho (2)

ox cheek

Desserts were a teeny scoop of sorbet. A cop-out in some eyes, but would you really want more when its pushing 35 Celsius outside? Maybe, yes, were you as greedy as me. As far as flavoured ice goes, these succeeded in being melon and mojito sorbets that tasted of melon and mojito.

melon sorbet

mojito sorbet

So, a successful lunch in every respect, made all the more so by the bill. Four lunches, four cocktails and glass of very good local wine totalling approximately £82. That’s right, you’re reading it correctly; eighty two quid for four people for food of this standard. Dinner is a different proposition where the bill could easily reach double that, though the evening menu does have butter poached lobster and a orange/liver parfait tribute to Heston, so it’s still staggeringly good value. Get to Cavtat, take in the sun and beautiful views, and book yourself a table here. You won’t regret it. It’s almost worth the airfare alone.

8/10