Archive for food

Let Me Eat Cake! Being Suddenly Coeliac

Originally published by the Huffington Post. Who made a few minor changes before publication, including lengthening the title and adding a typo; this is my original version.


I am standing in Marks and Spencers, glaring at a chocolate éclair.

I have to admit, in the back of my brain, I know that the éclair hasn’t actually done anything wrong. Its only problem is that a month ago I would have bought it and eaten it, and now I can’t. And frankly, I resent that. What right do chocolate éclairs have to be unavailable to me? How dare my body acquire a non-éclair-eating disease? What are M&S thinking, selling éclairs with wheat flour in? Don’t they know that stuff is poisonous? Should I complain to someone?

I had been gluten free for about a week at this point, and the reality of it was starting to sink in.

At first I didn’t mind being diagnosed with coeliac disease. It was nice having a proper diagnosis rather than just unidentified stomach pains (like a UFO, but with fewer aliens, unless you’re very unlucky). People were sympathetic. And it’s a controllable disease; you don’t suffer from it, provided you can manage never to eat gluten again. Any of it. Ever.

So gluten and I were through, like a partner you think is tasty and delicious, but then it turns out they were secretly poisoning you all along. It’s not literally a case of never eating bread, cereal, pasta, pizza, cakes or pastry again, because you can get gluten-free equivalents of all of those. But you can’t walk into most shops and get them. Those cupcake cafes around London have become forbidden fruit. (Though luckily, fruit itself is not forbidden. But if you’re craving the squishy fluffiness of a cupcake, apples just don’t satisfy. I suppose I could coat them in bright pink butter icing.)

But the thing I hadn’t quite realised is how wheat gets into everything. Like chips.

I had friends who were openly sceptical about this. Chips are potato, they pointed out, and potato is fine. But I’d joined the Coeliac Society and read up on this, and I knew that some chips were fine and some weren’t – for example if they’d been fried in the same fryer as onion rings. So now I have to be someone who goes up to the bar in a pub and says, “excuse me, are your chips gluten free?”

I hate the idea of being that person. In fact, I hate it so much that I haven’t actually done it yet, I’ve just eaten the chips and hoped.

But I’ll have to get over that hurdle, because if I eat gluten-contaminated things I will damage my intestines and increase my risk of getting various cancers, all of which seem to have terrifyingly high mortality rates. I will do a lot of things to avoid dying of bowel cancer, and if one of those things is going to have to be sounding like a fussy eater in public, then so be it. Picky wins over dead.

I do wonder how it’s going to be, never eating a Double Decker again, or a bowl of Ricicles, or a Terry’s Chocolate Orange. (For those who are worrying about my appalling diet, don’t worry – it also features food that is not composed mainly of sugar.)

On the other hand, there are always Twirls. And as I discovered the other day, I live in a world where Tesco will sell me a gluten-free, raspberry-jam-doughnut-flavoured milkshake. Frankly, that’s a world I’m okay with.

Gluten-free cake! From the WAG cafe in Brixton Market.



Last weekend I went for dinner, with Choler, at a restaurant called Abracadabra. It was an Internet discovery. I’d googled for interesting London restaurants and found several I already knew about, such as Inamo (where you press bits of your table to order food, decorate your surroundings and play Battleships with your dining companion – lots of fun) and Dans le Noir (where you eat in the dark – cool idea but cheaper just to stay at home and blindfold myself). Abracadabra was one I hadn’t heard of before. It was a Russian restaurant and when I looked at the photos on the website I knew I had to go there.

restaurant booth

Those who know me will understand why this appealed.

Abracadabra is in Jermyn Street, which as Choler observed, is possibly the only street in London entirely devoted to men’s shopping. You can buy endless variations on the theme of ‘expensive tasteful shirt’, but there’s also a cigar store (which Choler wanted to move into) and a shop where you can buy cheeses large enough to club peasants with. Which, if you can afford to shop in Jermyn Street, may well be what you want them for.

Anyway, in the middle of all this expansive upper-class masculinity is an unassuming door leading to a basement which is the Abracadabra restaurant. And it’s a whole different world to the street above. There’s a lot of dark red. There’s a lot of gold – carved gold chairs, elaborate gold fittings. There’s a gigantic inverted chandelier. There are booths themed around pin-up girls, or Lenin. Or, in our case, rock and roll in various incarnations – there were Elvis and Sinatra records on the walls, and behind me, oddly, an original platinum single of Mull of Kintyre. Why? No idea. To add to it all, halfway through the evening a small central TV screen started showing us Russian music television complete with writhing Russian girls asking us to call them. Possibly in order to buy them some extra clothes, as the ones they had on didn’t seem to be covering very much.


View from our booth

Amid all this, the food was a secondary consideration, although it was a positive experience overall. Choler had the smoked fish for a starter and made very appreciative noises. I had the Grenki: “a spicy combination of grated mozzarella and cheddar mixed with egg, garlic and mayonnaise served on toasted bread with cherry tomatoes”. Basically, garlicky cheesy scrambled egg on toast. I expected it to be hot and it was served cold, which didn’t work quite as well for me, but it did taste good.

Main courses were Cossack Lamb Casserole for Choler and Russian meatballs for me. Unfortunately due to recent illness I couldn’t manage my giant mushroom-covered meatballs with new potatoes, though I could tell they were excellent; happily, Choler wasn’t that keen on his casserole (too oily, lamb too fatty, he reported) and ate my food instead, which he much preferred.

The meal was particularly notable to me because I had some of Choler’s bottle of sweet Georgian red wine, and was startled to discovered I liked it – the first glass of red wine I’ve ever finished.


Everything was very red.

The other thing about the evening was the toilets. They were downstairs (which, incidentally, turned out to be a whole new and unoccupied section of the restaurant with the bordello theme turned up 200%, and I want to have my next birthday there). The women’s toilets featured a heart-shaped gold basin, mirrored cubicles, a toilet seat that appeared to have some kind of whale tusk as a handle, and most disconcertingly, a little screen on the inside of the cubicle which linked to the bar, so you could see what was going on upstairs. I presume the connection was not two-way.

I later sent Choler off to investigate the men’s, as I’d glimped that the walls were decorated with giant red 3D hearts, and he came back looking somewhat scared and gibbering slightly. I managed to catch the phrases “gold plated floor!” and “giant statue of naked woman around the toilet seat!”, and we decided not to even go into the issue of the what the urinals were shaped as.

We weren’t offered a dessert menu, although I noticed there was one, so we paid up and decamped to a nearby pub to assess our evening and try to decide if we’d simply hallucinated the whole thing. Maybe we did. If any of the above description has appealed, you should go and see for yourselves.

Bill total: £82.52 for two, including 12.5% service charge and £30 wine


The Blues Kitchen: a subjective review

The Blues Kitchen and Bar is a restaurant-cum-bar-cum-live music venue, located at 111-113 Camden High Street. My friend Alan and I ate there last night, and paid £77 for two courses, four drinks, and a 12.5% surcharge.

I should say first off that my expectations for this evening were, in hindsight, unrealistically high. The sense of disappointment currently being experienced by me is at least partly due to the following:
- I don’t go out as much as I used to, thanks to the two children I seem to have acquired during my vague drift in the direction of adulthood. My evenings out, being rarer, have therefore acquired a lot more significance than they used to have.
- I hate spending money. London is expensive and I increasingly resent that.
- A few years ago, Alan and I went to New Orleans on holiday. We drank Hurricanes, ate alligator and gumbo, and drifted from bar to bar listening to amazing bands playing blues, jazz and zydeco in the warm summer air. When I discovered that The Blues Kitchen existed, that was the image I had in my head. I failed to appreciate that I was essentially going to a bar on a busy London high street in February.

So some of my problems with the evening were just generic London problems. Too many people, too much noise, everything too expensive (and in somewhat extreme Londonness, there was a man covered in blood at the tube station on my way home). I should probably just stay in my almost-leafy suburb and continue to spend my evenings watching Glee and refreshing Twitter. However, having ventured out, I feel it’s worth reviewing my evening.

Let’s start with the good things.

- Location (see also Cons). Camden is a unique, vibrant slice of the city full of unique and interesting people, many of whom could single-handedly support the black eyeliner industry. I have on occasion been one of them, and even now I find myself adding an extra layer of lipstick whenever I head up the Northern Line.
- Some of the food. Alan praised his jambalaya, and he’s not a man who is easily impressed by jambalaya. My fries were hot and plentiful. Puddings – key lime pie for Alan, chocolate brownie for me – were great.
- Drinks. The Margaritas were good, apparently, and I applaud the existence of an alcoholic milkshake menu: my strawberry shake with a shot of peach schnapps was something I’d happily drink on a nightly basis.
- Staff. Everyone I encountered was friendly, helpful and cheerful, and when I complained about the steak (see below) two free glasses of champagne arrived at our table as an apology.
- Live blues. We did not, in the end, actually stay long enough to see the live band, but the very existence of live blues in London is definitely a good thing and maybe I’ll go back another time to experience it.

- Location (see also Pros). The venue is right in the middle of Camden High Street. Personally, I’d like a blues bar to be in a basement in an alleyway somewhere, to feel like a secret you’ve discovered: this felt very mainstream. See also my note above re too many people, too much noise.
- The rest of the food. To be honest, my biggest problem of the night was this: I ordered a £15 steak, and it was tough. £15 is not (sadly) an outrageous amount to pay for a London steak, but having paid it I would expect a good meal for the price, and I didn’t get it. I had to leave half the steak because even with a steak knife I couldn’t cut it up. The taste was ok, but the texture so overwhelmed everything else that I couldn’t even tell you if it was medium rare, as I’d ordered, or not. I actually complained, and I never do that. In addition, the corn on the cob we both ordered was barely warm – it had clearly been cooked, because it was blackened, and it looked delicious, but corn really needs to be hot and this very much wasn’t.
- The table for two I’d booked turned out to be two spaces at the end of a table for six, with the other seats already occupied. Not disastrous, but not what I’d pictured: if I’d been going on a date, I would have been irritated. The layout generally didn’t feel like it worked: for example, there was recorded blue music playing somewhere, but we could only just hear it. I can’t imagine it would be much fun for a live band to play there (but I could be wrong).
- I didn’t mention it to the staff because we wanted to leave, but the bill contained charges for ice cream – which according to the menu were included in our puddings – and also charged me separately for my milkshake and my liquor shot. The three mistakes together only added up to £2.50, which is another reason I didn’t mention it, but it suggested a certain lack of organisation.

Overall, an honourable failure (to quote Alan). I wouldn’t go there to eat again, but I’m tempted to give it another try on a Sunday night, when they play live music all evening, and just drink there. (Though they don’t serve Hurricanes! Why ever not?) But ultimately I think I’m just going to have to start saving up for that plane ticket to New Orleans.