Friday, 30 June 2017

Winters shines in the ROH's La traviata

After all the Wagner and Puccini, the time seemed right to dip a toe into Verdi – and what could be better than to start with La traviata, the most performed opera in the world, according to Operabase.

First performed at La Fenice in 1853, it was based on the play La Dame aux Camélias, which was in turn adapted from his own novel by Alexandre Dumas fils. The inspiration was a legendary French courtesan, Marie Duplessis – Dumas fils was one of her lovers – who died of tuberculosis in 1847.

Verdi originally intended to title it Violetta, after the central character, but opted instead for La traviataThe Fallen Woman.

While the plot allows for the convention of the punishment of an early death for defying convention and propriety, it’s clear throughout that Verdi wanted to challenge perceptions.

He certainly succeeded – as some reactions at the time show. When first staged in England in 1856, “the heads of the Church did their best to put an injunction upon performance[s],” Leslie’s Weekly told its US readers.

But if Violetta dies, then what moral objections could there be to the story?

The answer is simple: it’s the nebulous concept of honour.

Having fallen genuinely in love with Alfredo, Violetta has retired from her life as a courtesan.

She knows that she doesn’t have long to live after an initial episode of tuberculosis, but is happy.

However, Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father, is convinced that his son’s relationship is bad for his family – bad for their ‘honour’.

He doesn’t believe Violetta when she says she doesn’t have long to live, finally convincing her that she has to give up Alfredo or the marriage – and future happiness – of his daughter (who is pure as an angel, he explains) will be under threat.

In sacrificing her own happiness, Violetta is shown to be the one with ‘honour’, while Giorgio behaves dishonourably and Alfredo – who has let Violetta keep him financially – is little better.

Some redemption is permitted the men, as Giorgio realises how poorly he has behaved and tells Alfredo to go to Violetta. He goes too and further learns of her honour when he sees that she really is dying. Thus he embraces her as a daughter.

It’s easy to consider that ‘honour’ in this sense is an outmoded concept, but when ‘honour’ crimes still occur, across cultures, the issue remains with us in a life-destroying way and, if Verdi’s opera no longer outrages, it remains a valid comment on the nature of ‘honour’.

On the night we saw this Royal Opera House revival of Richard Eyre’s 1994 production, Corinne Winters played the iconic heroine – and was simply superb.

She looks gorgeous, sings like an angel and excellently captured the intense emotion of the role.

Winters had excellent support in Atall Ayan as Alfredo and George Petean as Giorgio. The latter’s entrance was a masterclass in melodramatic menace – Verdi’s music could have been penned with a sort of Perils of Pauline moment in mind – but his singing was superb, particularly as he coaxes Violetta to leave his son.

Conductor Maurizio Benini had the orchestra in superb form: the balance of sound was excellent.

I had a slightly cynical moment when the curtain rose for the last time, as I realised that the entire third act is a bedroom death scene, but by the end, my eyes were pricking.

So it’s a fair bet that this will not be the last Verdi that I see.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Brighton serves up two more enjoyable eateries

Beets with goat's cheese
If The Salt Room and Petit Pois were the runaway winners of the culinary side of last week’s working trip to Brighton, two more eateries also had things to recommend them.

Tuesday saw our team dinner, which often flounders on the food front – not least because such affairs are largely about the socialising.

This time, one of our number had booked for the Copper Clam on the seafront, another of the town’s new eateries.

Temporarily faced by hoardings as the refurbishment and redevelopment of the seafront continues, we were shown to a very nice upstairs room that had been set for our group.

Cod in a buttery, sweet sauce 
However, having spent all day in a darkened conference centre, being outside was absolutely key – not least in hot weather.

The staff dealt with this change from our booking with alacrity and good humour, and we sat down outside with our first drinks.

While imbibing a very pleasant rosé, we enjoyed whatever we’d pre-ordered on a very good deal.

In my case, it was a prawn cocktail to start, with serious prawns rather than the pink tiddlers sort you’d usually expect in this retro dish.

And no avocado in sight.

As only a slight aside, I used to like avocado – and I know how to de-stone one without giving myself an injury – but in recent years I’ve found them too sweet. Perhaps the decline in my liking has a direct relationship to how hip they have become?

Wine glass; chilled wine
Anyway, back to The Copper Clam.

Everyone had opted for sea bass to follow – and it is indicative of the quality of the kitchen, that over a dozen people could be served such a dish at the same time and without quality being compromised.

This was decent fish, well cooked – moist and tasty – and the right sort of portion for an evening where the socialising was the main thing (and hence the reason for no photos).

The staff are very friendly – and our waiter was particularly deft at spotting an empty win bottle that might need replacing.

Find out more at and on Twitter at ‪@TheCopperClam.

Sea bass and salad
Twenty four hours later, in need of a quieter experience, we decided to try the bistro at Hotel du Vin on Ship Street.

Revamped last autumn and pulling in appreciative noises, we got a table outside in the courtyard – a pleasantly peaceful environment that felt as though it were miles from the hubbub of the promenade that was, in fact, just a few metres away.

After enjoying a glass of Nyetimber – an interesting English fizz – it was time to see what the food was like.

First up for me was salt-baked beetroot with whipped goat’s cheese, sumac, Greek yogurt and Melba toast.

Looking beautiful, it had plenty going for it. The beet was warm and tender, while the other ingredients lent various degrees of sharpness to the dish.

The Other Half had ordered soft-boiled duck egg with asparagus soldiers, which came on a wooden block that had clearly been designed for just such a dish, with once large dimple to hold the egg and a smaller one for the salt.

It was apparently very tasty – and for once, the slightly fussy way of serving it worked.

Most of the time, simple plates are more than adequate – even if that goes against the current fad for presentation demanding all sorts of ‘quirky alternatives to plates, which add absolutely nothing to the food.

Amaretto over ice
Next up for me was butter-poached cod with lyonnaise potatoes, smoked salmon and a hispi cabbage sauce – enough sauce, indeed, that it was served in a bowl.

A very sweet, rich dish, the cod was moist and flaked beautifully.

The Other Half opted for more sea bass – this time, with a panzanella salad and nasturtium pesto.

I finished with a lime cheesecake with meringue and dice of elderflower jelly, while The Other Half settled for ice cream.

The service was very pleasant, although we had quite a wait for dessert. But the setting made that bearable – and even allowed for a touch of dinnertime macro still life photography.

This is good food, well presented and served in a very pleasant setting.

Altogether, another welcome addition to a growing list of decent eateries in this south coast town.

To find out more, visit Hotel du Vin and Bistro.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Petit Pois – a new Brighton culinary star is rising

Frogs' legs
If The Salt Room gave us a superb dinner last Sunday, our first meal in Brighton during this particular tour of duty had come 24 hours earlier at Al Fresco.

The menu at this Brighton legend has been modernised and lightened, which is all to the good, and while not without flaws – including, but not limited to, my bugbear of OTT portion sizes – they gained our custom essentially because of rudeness elsewhere.

Having only just arrived and got organised, we’d thought to go and have fish and chips on the prom. Now The Regency may be another local legend, but that’s primarily because it’s not as bad as most excuses for fish and chips that are served on England’s south coast.

Stuffed vegetables
It simply cannot compare with what we ate in Scarborough in 2001 or even the German ode to “a great British tradition that we consumed with relish in Travemünde in 2014, yet it clearly suffers from a vast dose of arrogance.

On Saturday, it was rammed, so we asked the maître d’ if he had space.

Clearly channelling the rudest French waiter stereotype that he could muster, he enquired whether we had a reservation (who books for a chippy?) then scoffed and pointed us to a large queue outside a side door where “the naughty boys” had to wait.

Suffice it to say, he didn’t see a penny of our money during the week.

Ice cream and sorbet
But thankfully, we managed to wrench ourselves east of West Street, taking us beyond our usual patch and his rudeness.

On Monday night, on the back of a colleague’s recommendation, we booked for Petit Pois on Ship Street, a new French tapas eatery that had only been open for eight days.

We picked a selection of dishes between the two of us.

To a bowl of olives and a plate of bread and very nice butter, with tapenade and aîoli, we added salt cod fritters with a spicy sauce; frogs’ leg goujons with a garlic and parsley butter; chips and a béarnaise sauce; duck breast with celeriac dauphinoise, and little stuffed vegetables with a tomato sauce.

The frog was superb – delicate and so moist. If you haven’t eaten frog, the taste is as little like a sort of gamey chicken.

The salt cod fritters were also excellent – light and moist.

The courgettes, peppers and small onions, stuffed with a delicate mushroom and herb mixture, were superb.

The duck breast was lovely – properly pink with delightfully crisp skin – while the celeriac dauphinoise was quite simply divine.

The Other Half finished with a café gourmand; I opted for a combination of vanilla ice cream with blood orange sorbet.

Oh, this was very good indeed.

The cooking is excellent; the ingredients fresh and of high quality.

There is a nice wine list – no telephone directory, but some very good and interesting choices.

Service is friendly and knowledgeable; décor is simple, modern and clean, yet warm and very pleasant.

So much was this all the case that, on Thursday evening, wandering along the seafront in the duck, in search of food after a reception, we suddenly thought: ‘why eat something for the sake of it down here when we could nip up the steps and go back to Petit Pois if its open?’

We did – it was open and we enjoyed it every bit as much the second time around.

We partook once more of those very good salt cod fritters, also opting for excellent snails that were far more than an excuse to consume copious amounts of butter, garlic and parsley.

Then there was a halibut dish that came with potato duchesse, broccoli stems and a seaweed hollandaise.

A tarte fine of tomatoes, courgette, aubergine and rocket gave us a very pleasant side of vegetable and we welcomed more of the bread.

I finished with a trio of crèmes brulées – that’s right: three delightful mini brulées – and mini, mini madeleines, while The Other Half had a tarte tatin.

Petit Pois is very new, but goodness, it’s also very good and is, unsurprisingly, already picking up a very good buzz.

On the basis of this visit, it deserves to become another Brighton legend.

And finding a new – and not just to me – eatery of such quality in Brighton gives me renewed hope in the state of British food.

Petit Pois is also open for lunch, from noon until 3pm, with the lunchtime set menu costing £9.50 for two courses and £13.50 for three.

To find out more – and to salivate over the menus – visit Its also on Facebook at

Friday, 23 June 2017

The Salt Room ticks all the boxes again

Raw scallop starter
Extraordinary weather on the south coast ensured that dusk on Sunday evening was a beautiful sight to behold, with sky hues that were redolent of the Mediterranean, evolving through a palette that ranged from apricot to lilac.

And in such a situation, what could be better than a really good meal, enjoyed al fresco?

This was my fourth visit to The Salt Room in Brighton in the space of just over 12 months and The Other Half’s second.

I have, before each of those meals, had just the tiniest amount of trepidation. British dining is, in my experience, so often a matter of pot luck.

Over the years, we’ve paid not inconsiderable sums for food that has, if not inedible, been little more than fuel. Given serial disappointments, one is familiar with an inkling of fear that perfection simply cannot continue.

Teriyaki salmon
But this is The Salt Room and now, having eaten 12 courses there, I can report that it remains utterly flawless and a simply wonderful place to eat.

This time, I started with raw scallop, finely chopped and combined with elderflower and radish, and topped with lumpfish roe.

It was beautifully served on a shell, which sat on top of crushed ice to keep the fish at the perfect temperature.

I’ll say it again of this eatery: a single bite is enough to tell you two things – that the fish here is seriously fresh and that the kitchen really knows how to handle seafood.

In the case of the scallop, delicate tastes and a delicate texture made for an exemplary dish.

The Other Half very much enjoyed his teriyaki salmon, with wasabi, cucumber and lime.

He noted, as we dined, that suggestion from some that an expensive meal should induce guilt.

But as touched on above, you can spend less and, for instance, have a vast plate of pasta placed in front of you and not be able to come close to finishing it because it’s an insanely over the-top portion.

On weekdays, I lunch sometimes at a café near work where, frankly, any pasta dish is close to being half a packet of the pasta in question.

It’s not particularly expensive, but I can never eat it all – even though I always ask for a smaller portion.

The OH posited the point that, on such occasions, you even find yourself eating more than you really feel comfortable with – simply from guilt and not wanting to have to face staff asking what the matter is.

So which is worse – an expensive meal of quality that you eat every last crumb of, with relish? Or something that is far cheaper but you eat largely because you need to eat and you leave loads because theres far too much to start with and its not particularly special anyway?

Cherry Arctic roll
Portion size is a wide-spread problem in the UK. Thankfully, it’s not the case at The Salt Room, where I can comfortably eat a three-course meal.

The plates from our starters could have been licked clean by the time they were removed.

Next up, The Other Half enjoyed – very much – cod and chorizo with BBQ onions, samphire and lemon.

For me, it was sea trout, with crayfish dumplings, asparagus, BBQ tomato and basil.

Again – an utter delight, with perfectly-cooked fish and lovely flavours. Textures were light, while presentation was also up to the very high standards.

And two more plates were completely cleaned before being removed.

Last up, The Other Half had mango and vanilla parfait with lime curd, lime snow, passion fruit and macerated mango.

I opted for a cherry and chocolate Arctic roll that was a confection of cherry ice cream, chocolate espuma and compressed cherries.

Do I have to tell you how much was left after we put down our spoons?

I didn’t think so.

The Salt Room is consistently producing excellent, seasonal food. The creations of head chef Dave Mothersill are inventive but never feel forced. Frankly, it was difficult to choose what to eat because there was so much to whet the appetite.

The service also remains superb: efficient, friendly, knowledgeable and enthusiastic.

My only question is when I’m back in town next!

To find out more and book, visit