Sunday, 27 October 2013

Star struck as a London icon serves up a treat

Marlene watching over me
Once upon a time – and it feels a mightily long time ago – I did an awful lot of theatre reviewing.

I didn’t get paid for it, but I got tickets, which were a form of gold dust anyway. And I got to pen reviews that were published in the UK’s smallest national daily newspaper, The Morning Star, where I eked out a meagre daytime living as, first, an advertising salesperson and later, as a sub-editor, sports editor and duty chief sub-editor.

It paid lousily, but it was a proper, old-fashioned way of learning a trade – and there were always those theatre tickets.

On a couple of occasions, I was taken out to dinner after a show by the exceptionally charming and generous Clive Hirschhorn, the long-time film and theatre critic of the Sunday Express, to whom I’d been introduced by the Star’s then film critic, Jeff Sawtell.

Clive (and partner) took pity on a hackette with renownedly piss-poor pay and no expenses, and carted me (and Jeff) off after a show I cannot recall to eat at Joe Allen’s, just off The Strand.

Since this was in the days before I started to really enjoy culinary matters, I remember nothing about the food. But I do remember sitting at one of the circular tables in the centre of the basement restaurant, with Alan Rickman right behind me, almost back to back, and having the devil’s own job not to melt into a pile of goo just hearing that voice.

And at some point, Su Pollard announced her arrival with a Hi-di-Hi-like holler as she entered.

It was love at first celebrity sighting.

I went back with a friend on a few occasions, sitting in a corner and nursing a salad starter and a glass of wine because that was what I could afford, but relishing the atmosphere. I remember huge amounts of walnuts and cheese in vast bowls of leaves; the late-evening piano and face-spotting as actors came in after their own evening's work, and the red brick walls covered in Broadway posters.

And thus Joe Allen’s – a legendary place on a far wider scale; open since 1977 and under new ownership this year – became a legend for me.

But that was a long time ago and, despite my best intentions, I had never revisited and The Other Half, for all my waxing lyrical over it on more than one occasion, had never been at all.

On Friday, however, we were booked into the Vaudeville to see The Ladykillers. And since we needed to eat, I was contemplating dinner in the vicinity.

After musing over the possibility of going to Orso, a rather nice Italian restaurant in another basement nearby, it struck me that this was the perfect chance to try Joe’s again.

There’s always a danger, when you nurse fond memories of something, that revisiting will ultimately spell disappointment. And even more so when you’ve burbled on about it for years to someone else and they’re now going to experience it first hand.

And anyway, what would the food be like?

Crab cakes and apple slaw
I started with a cocktail – a mint julep, since we were, after all, in what is an American diner meets a brasserie, and since I had, only a day earlier, been listening to the late, great Robert Preston singing that it was the eponymous Mame who gave his own “old mint julep a kick”.

I am not usually a whisky person, but this mix of bourbon, mint, sugar and water was very pleasant and refreshing.

From the South, it was a step up to New England for crab cakes and an apple slaw, with fries and a portion of buttered spinach on the side.

Oh my, oh my. The crab cakes were pure crab, flecked with red chilli that cut delightfully through the rich sweetness of the meat.

The slaw, which was on a bed of endive, was bitter and fresh and light – and far more than the garnish I’d rather expected (hence the order of spinach). There was also a little light rose marie sauce on the side, while the fries and spinach were equally top notch.

What do you follow that with?

Well, it was back down south for a slice of pecan and cranberry pie, with a quenelle of whipped cream – cue Family Guy jokes about Stewie’s pronunciation of ‘whipped’ – with a little cinnamon powder on top.

Pecan and cranberry pie with whipped cream
Seriously rich and naturally sweet, like the fruitiest fruit cake ever, with cream that was light as a feather, it was a superb end to a superb meal.

The Other Half opted for a steak, followed by a chocolate brownie and ice cream.

Mind, we stayed on this side of The Pond with wine – a glass of red for him and white for me – both from the Languedoc.

Joe’s is not a traditional diner with gingham tablecloths and red banquettes, but a very classy venue with a very classy take on some classic American cooking.

Oh, and the decor is wonderful for any theatre buff – we were watched over by Marlene’s lidded gaze.

There may not have been any face spotting to be done in our part of the room and at that time of evening, but the atmosphere is comfortable, the food excellent and the service good.

Briefly, then, to The Ladykillers.

The Ealing comedy has been rewritten for the stage by Graham Linehan of Father Ted and Black Books fame, and has received raves.

It is a light evening’s entertainment, but it isn’t the film.

The Ladykillers
The cast were great – particular mentions for Angela Thorne, Simon Day, Ralf Little and Chris McCalphy as Mrs Wilberforce, Major Courtney, Harry Robinson and One-Round.

It’s not that John Gordon Sinclair was bad as Professor Marcus, but he never really hits the creepy notes that are essential.

It has a brief moment of very welcome and sinister darkness in the second act, but certainly in the first, could out-ham David Walliams’s death scene in the Grandage Company Dream.

The robbery and chase, though, is very inventive and the set in general is excellent.

So, that was that. It made me order a copy of the original film, feeling that I need to remind myself what a glory of British cinema it is.

But if the theatre didn’t live up to hopes – Joe Allen’s most certainly did. We will be back.

No comments:

Post a Comment