Today I read an article by Jay Rayner (in case you haven’t noticed by the number of times I’ve mentioned him before, he’s my favourite) that spoke right to the heart. From the first paragraph it had me nodding along, by the last it had me waving my copy of The Guardian Weekend in the air and shouting ‘I FEEL YOU JAY’ (this was of course a mental waving of The Guardian Weekend and shouting of ‘I FEEL YOU JAY’, because I was in the office and it was Monday morning and for all I know there could be someone called Jay in the office and that would be very unsettling for Jay. But this article really spoke to me. It was about the communal preparation of food, it was about how you get to really know your friends when you share the very personal experience of cooking a meal together, but most of all it was about being driven bloody mad by your cooking companions grating the cheese at a fucking snail’s pace and having to lock yourself in the bathroom to stop yourself from shouting ‘JUST LET ME GRATE THE GOD FORSAKEN CHEESE’.
My kitchen is a dictatorship. Jay writes that he dislikes the feeling of being a dictator and so rejoices when he finds a cooking companion that does everything without direction – I am yet to find that companion, and so openly admit to my dictatorial kitchen regime. Scrambled eggs being beaten and not folded, pasta being left to boil until flimsy and waterlogged, salmon being lazily left to slowly dehydrate in the oven and fill the room with the guff of sad withering fish; these are the things that make my skin tingle and my eyes twitch with anxiety as I see them happening before my eyes but feel it would be rude to say ‘please let me take over you have no clue what you’re doing’. NB if you see my eyes and upper limbs twitching, I’m not having a seizure – you’re probably just burning something.
This is why, when it comes to dining with friends, the preferred option is either to invite them round and do everything myself, remaining adamant that ‘no, you don’t have to do anything, please don’t do anything, please just sit down and DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING’, or dining out somewhere; this brings me onto what I actually wanted to talk about – my recent trip to Minnow in Clapham (can you tell that I started on a tangent this week rather than slipping into one like I normally do and so had to bring it back by means of the clumsiest segue ever? You probably have now).
After having received some great reviews from The Evening Standard and Time Out, I was expecting big things from this tiny little picture-perfect restaurant on Clapham Common. And it was indeed 100% picture-perfect; from the mint green exterior with wrought iron table sets for balmy evening date nights to the pastel wall panels, flower boxes mounted on the stone walls of the tiny little intimate courtyard garden lit by fairy lights, to the downstairs cove for ultra intimacy and the counter top seating if you fancy watching the kitchen sweat away to produce plates of octopus and pigeon and other romantic, dainty things (because God forbid you show a proper appetite on a first date). I would share all the pictures I took with you, but I dropped my phone down the toilet yesterday. Elegance/romance isn’t my forte, but luckily Minnow were built for Instagram and so there’s no shortage of photos on the web.
The drinks menu, like the food, was concise, to say the least. Probably to allow the numerous first daters who walk through the doors the ability to scan the menu as quickly as possible to avoid that awkward silence as you find yourself bombarded with 10 different wines in each colour and 5 different beers, all over £6 a glass/pint and therefore none that stand out as particularly appealing (price obviously being the only defining feature, white is white and red is red unless one is £4 a glass and one is £9, no?). No beers or ciders meant we both went for the house white and rosé – both over the £6 mark, definitely not a place to go if you’re attempting to impress your date when even the train ticket there made you wince.
And in keeping with the theme of ‘yes, it’s nice, but-‘, we found that every dish was, yes, nice, lovely even, but everything lacking something. The crispy chicken skin I’d been thinking about since I looked up the menu online days before (I can’t comprehend how people can resist doing this, I’m pretty sure I’ve memorised and can recite the menu more accurately than the waiters by the time I get to the restaurant) was salty and crispy and fantastically greasy, but the aioli it came with tasted almost sour, not meltingly rich and mellow as I had expected. My squid with lemongrass, lime and ginger was perfectly tender and sharp, but with zero trace of either ginger or lemongrass. Boyfriend’s starter of cured duck breast, apricot and pistachio was nicely presented (when it eventually arrived, 5 minutes after mine, which confused us seeing as his was cold and mine was warm), but lacked any seasoning, the pistachio puree in particular, meaning it was just mellow flavour on mellow flavour on mellow flavour.
The mains – slow cooked beef shin with black mooli and pork skin for me, pigeon with pickled cherry, oats and celeriac for him – carried on in a bit of the same vane, even if we enjoyed it all the same. My beef shin was tender enough for a geriatric to chew, and sat on a pillow of THE creamiest mash you could ask for. So far then, a proper good cottage pie. But what separated it from a proper good cottage pie? 2 meagre slivers of pickled mooli – a fantastic addition, the sharpness and crunch of the vegetable complementing the richness of the meat gloriously – but why give me only 2 wafers? We may have had shortages of ice burg lettuce, NHS workers and houses in the UK, but mooli, as far as I’m aware, isn’t being rationed at this very moment. Give me more, it tasted fab. The pork skin – a huge bubbling curl of pork crackling – was a triumphant addition, kind of like a massive meaty prawn cracker (a meaty meat cracker?) to scoop everything onto – but did it really elevate my posh cottage pie to more than a posh cottage pie? Not without my mooli. It was still a posh cottage pie, now with a big piece of pork scratching. And a lack of seasoning (my bitchy side is coming out now).
The real disappointment, however, was in boyfriend’s main. Every flavour on the plate complimented the pigeon brilliantly, even the slab of malt loaf hidden beneath everything else that I was forced to take onboard due to his coeliac (difficult as it was, I, of course, persevered and polished off said malt loaf because I bloody love Soreen and Soreen smothered in parsnip puree and meat juice is no exception to this rule). The only jarring element was the addition of a number of strange, hard pellets buried in the pigeon’s flesh. I watched as he took 6, 7, maybe 8 of these small black pellets out of the pigeon and asked ‘d’you reckon they’re peppercorns or something?’, before taking one and examining it for myself, realising that no, they weren’t a novel way of seasoning the meat; they were the shots. All 8 of them. Surely if you’re going to serve a breast of pigeon riddled with shrapnel, you should warn your customers of the potential dentistry work that might need to take place afterwards? Some might argue that it feels authentic, a harp back to the good old days before factory farming, to pick the pieces of lead out of the cavities that once were your teeth and marvel at the fantastic work of the good sport who took down that pigeon for your supper. I, however, prefer my dinner metal-free, and for my teeth to remain intact.
We decided to finish up with a cocktail, for me probably the culinary highlight of the evening. It was called the Natsume, and it tasted like a vanilla Mini Milk. Not that it was meant to; it was meant to taste of sake, ginger and green tea, but this somehow all melded together to make a creamy, mild, completely inoffensive drink that I definitely could have drunk until paralytic, had it not been almost a tenner.
So that was the evening. Seriously pretty interiors, cottage pie, Soreen and mini milk for £80. Plus our daily requirements of magnesium. I feel I’m being overly harsh, but when one of the last restaurants we went to was Temper (specifically, that Thai larb), our tastebuds were prepped for a slightly more vicious assault.
NB I was severely disappointed with the toilet situation. It was like they had run out of money decorating the rest of the place and thought ‘shit, okay, lets buy an antique looking mirror and DIY the rest, we’ll call it ‘rustic”. I was not fooled.