It is never good form to be a smug bugger and the act wins you few friends; Kevin Pietersen my Speckled Faced ram can testify to that; but I feel compelled to blow the trumpet of one of Llanevan's associates.
James Johnston's cousin George, who is studying idiosyncratic bio-dynamics at The Magdalen college in Oxford, turned eight last week (fifty seven in dog years) and so James and I went east to celebrate with him. James insisted on taking a mouldy rabbit pelt he had found in the back of his kennel and it damn well stank the land rover out, but George appreciated the gift far more than the twenty pounds worth of Lidl vouchers I gave him.
We sat in his digs drinking Skol lager out of chipped mugs then went on a tour of the famous college. Afterwards George took us for a stroll down to the meadow at Christ Church and we watched the magnificent Longhorn cattle graze gracefully and swish their tails in the Indian summer heat. James was suitably moved enough to do a sketch of the scene with the resplendent George as centre piece. We took a walk through the mighty halls and discussed the alumni who had passed through the books and over the words of such an internationally renowned educational Mecca. We mused that George, in time, may well be added to that list. James said he hoped so, but you could see that he wanted to remain the top dog in the family.
As luck would have it James Johnston and I supply an establishment only a dog's bark from George's college and so after we had tucked a few more Skol's under our belts we called in for a spot of birthday dinner. The Magdalen is its name, now there's a coincidence.
The Magdalen is one of those places that, along with the rat, would survive a nuclear war. It's a big, square barnacle of a building with exposed corner stones; an exterior that at least hints you are going to have a welcome time. It is dark of wood inside and has enough secluded corners to allow you, should be your want, to get really very drunk on the fine selection of ales and write a few stories. James was in one of his 'moods' and decided to ask for obscure drinks all evening, but was never disappointed as the cool staff met each of his demands.
"Yes of course sir. A Campari and pineapple it is." George and I started with the ales then climbed aboard the wine list and set sail. The Magdalen take half a cow every fortnight from Llanevan and work their way from moo to oxtail, never wasting a single stem cell. The cattle are lovingly treated when they are alive and it is satisfying to see them equally so on the otherside of the trip to Alton Towers (see Who are you calling a fat old cow?).
The kitchen is open, as are so many these days, which allows fine smells to seduce the restaurant and ensure the chef is not urinating in the boeuf consomme. The walls are bedecked with landscape paintings of Llanevan. James overheard a table remarking on the quality of the art work and the modest mutt leaned over to proclaim he was responsible for them. I don't know if they were more shocked about a talking dog or one that could paint.
I started with a level glass of red wine and deep fried squid and baby octopus. It is a principle of James and mine that when we eat at a place we supply we do not consume our own product. It's a bit like the Queen never carrying any cash, if you see what I mean. The breaded tentacled chaps were so fresh they were almost born inside my mouth. The only thing worse than having seafood that has lingered on a wet tray for days is finding a dog turd in your slipper. George buried a game terrine of such substance it could have easily replaced one of the formidable cornerstones and James ferreted a snail and bacon salad of such merriment that is was decided the snails and pig would have made a fine jazz band. James continued with his stratospheric beverages...... "a white wine and whisky it is........." while George and I abseiled the wine list face.
The main course was more like an obstacle course for me. The other two, being dogs, were not encumbered. James plumped for a grouse, while George held up the family name and selected a minute steak from the back leg of one of James' favourite bullocks - Stealthily Found. James faked sorrow, but it was a mere smoke screen excuse to order another drink. I had lumbered over the menu for a donkey's span. I have aforementioned issues with veal (see Seasons First), I felt dirty at the thought of sleeping with someone else's sheep, beef, of course, was vetoed, the game was not lighting my fire so I stumbled blindly into the unknown in the form of a smoked haddock rarebit with chard. So hot off the hob was the dish that the waitress could only say it looked nice, having not had a chance to sample.
"I miss Stealthily Found," James harped on.
"Well you might still be able to say hello," George said as his steak was presented so pink and perfect that there was a chance that Stealthy Found was still alive. James' grouse looked like it had lived well on them there moors and my fish was un-showing under a pillow of slightly browned cheese. James decided that the perfect accompaniment for his bird was a Prosecco and Ferna Branca.
What happened next was akin to an exceptionally attractive mid twenties lady slipping her hand into my trousers. I was speechless. Fish, cheese and bitter leaves have no right to be that good. NO RIGHT. I have put some pretty super-duper things in my mouth in the past, (the evening of June 16th, 1997, springs to mind) but very few have rivalled that fishy dishy. It was an instant all time top three entry.
Suddenly I was all alone.
It was a perfect, warm early summer's day. I was on a beach. Silent terns weaved over head in the topaz sky and the air was rich with the scent of sea, salt and sex. I was walking hand in hand with my lover: a five foot five inch haddock, smoking a Cutter's Choice roll up with cheese dripping down it's face and a basket of greens on its arm. Very seldom do I want to make love to food.
George was insistent that the beef was the best meat, ever! but it's hard to tell when someone knows it's yours as to whether such eulogies are true to the indulgence. James and I are pretty proud of it and that tends to be enough for us. James was crying over his game bird and as to whether it was because of the taste, the drink or the company George and I weren't sure, but we suspected it had found a favoured roosting home in the melodramatic sheepdog's belly. Italian Tony, the chef, is as in control of his food as James is with his oil colours.
Dessert was a blur of port, a refreshing punch from a little lemon pot, a flirting plum and almond tart and some rough and tumble with a good honest hedgerow crumble. As good as they were I was still intoxicated by my Fisherman's (girl)Friend. The two accompanying potatoes had been nothing but forgotten snog less bridesmaid's. It wasn't their fault, they were just at the wrong food wedding, at the wrong time.
George and I beat up a couple of brandies in one of the dark corners while James chatted freely to himself on a bench outside while he puffed on his pipe and waltzed with a Pernod and orange.
The very definition of a Michelin starred restaurant is to travel out of one's way to sample the food. The Magdalen certainly fits the criteria. I wouldn't just go out of my way to eat there, but swim deep into the North sea to find a similar fish and fix my face around it's fish lips.