Thursday, 3 February 2011

A day with the folks

It was a funny old day yesterday. When my pre-Christmas cold gifted me a hacking cough, it was decided that the usual pre-festive trip to my parents would have to be delayed.

Not only did it seem crass to risk giving them the same cold, but the weather made the prospect of sitting on a frozen platform, waiting for a delayed train and constantly coughing, all the more possible.

So, after a busy start to the year, I finally made it to deepest, darkest Surrey yesterday morning – albeit after complications of a transport variety.

My parents had booked for lunch at a local restaurant: it saves my mother spending hours in the kitchen and gave us all time to sit together.

The restaurant, which they’ve been to a number of times and which they’ve taken me to once before, is El Nido in Wallington.

A family-run affair, this brasserie-style eatery may be Spanish-influenced, but much of the menu – even with Spanish names – is classic French.

I started with the country paté and toast: nice, thin toast, while the paté was pleasingly robust, with a nice hit of brandy in one bite.

Then it was on to the sole meunière (see what I mean about the French dishes? My father was having duck with orange and my mother had selected chicken with tarragon).

It was nicely cooked, albeit not the most special piece of fish I’ve had, but I didn’t really feel like one of the big meaty dishes on offer. The tiny potatoes, carrots, courgette and mange tout were all cooked very nicely too.

To finish, I selected a piece of lemon meringue pie – something I haven’t tasted in years, and which was tangy and rich and light all at once.

It’s an odd restaurant, though. There are hints of Spanish cuisine on the menu – paprika, a little chorizo etc – but it seems to me to be Spanish Very Lite (combined with French Pretty Lite Too) for people who haven’t really eaten Spanish food – or French food, for that matter. Which would certainly describe my parents. There is, then something peculiarly suburban about the culinary experience.

It’s essentially simple cooking, done decently. The service was excellent – the staff we met were delightful.
But what was most surprising was the cost: it’s barely any cheaper than Bistrot Bruno Loubet – a quid or two for most main courses, for instance, although some were considerably more expensive.

Given its setting and (presumably) the intended clientele, it does what it says on the tin and does it very nicely. But it really did make me realise, yet again, what stunning value Monsieur Loubet offers. And indeed, the ‘con’ of the price of food in this country, with the concomitant belief that really, really good food requires a second mortgage.

I don't want to slag off this place in any way – not because of the food, but because the service in particular was genuinely charming. And because local areas really need places like this.

But the prices were – to me at least – really quite surprising.

However, the foodiness of the day was really quite novel: food now offers a safe conversation ground for my mother and I (she seems to have set aside her “we eat to live, not live to eat” mantra), but my father has, more than once, described me as “obsessed” with food.

It’s an indicator of how lowly he sees food: he would never dream of saying anything similar if we’d spent an entire day discussing football or politics, but then again, food is not something that he is personally interested greatly in.

But he refrained from any such comments and I even got him talking a little about his own childhood in a Cornish village. I knew his parents had had their own chickens, but I didn’t know that they bred rabbits.

My paternal grandfather had made his son a little trolley so that he could take the rabbits to the market. It sounds a thriving little business – particularly during the war. But there were six rabbits, he added, who were never eaten but were “pets”.

We exchanged presents later: my mother had overcome her own feeling that it sounded a “bit peculiar” to get me Nigel Slater’s Toast, while she’d also spotted Green and Black’s Chocolate Recipes: From the cacao pod to muffins, mousses and moles, which she thought might be of interest. She was right.

There was further rail disruption on the return journey – but not too much. Before that, I’d done a piece of DIY for my mother – she’d been waiting for me to visit to do that: it’s been that way for well over two decades.

Not only can I increasingly handle a pan with some skill; in our family, I’ve always been the only one who really knew what to do with a screwdriver as well.

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