Roses round the door

Whenever I was asked as a child to draw a picture of my ideal home, I’d get out my wax crayon and sketch a flat fronted two up two down cottage with a door and a crooked chimney with corkscrew smoke puffing out of the top of it. Then I’d swap colours and, with flair, add a rose flower winding over the porch. I’d never heard of the word, quintessential (let alone spell it), but even back then I knew what I wanted.

I’ve spent five nights alone at the new cafe premises in Denmark Hill. I use the description, cafe, in its loosest possible terms. Let’s just say it’s no longer a kebab shop. It’s hard to describe what it is, because it’s just a shell. A few weeks ago I took the decision that Guido and I should make the living space upstairs habitable first. I could stay there and oversee the work downstairs. That way I’d be on site to deal with emergencies.

If I ever come up with such a hare brained idea ever again in my entire life – shoot me.

Our builders are from Romania. There are lots of them. They travel in a pack. They arrive at six o’clock in the morning in a caravan of trucks. Regular readers will know I consider six o’clock in the morning still to be the middle of the night. They dig with shovels. Unfortunately I’m unable to speak fluent Romanian which, in current circumstances, would be advantageous. The head builder is called Roman. I’m not making that up. In my opinion he has the biggest “builders bum” crack I’ve ever seen. Those of you unfamiliar with this anatomical term may want to Google it. You’ve been warned. I try very hard not to get too close to Roman’s. It’s like some horrible cosmic black hole. I fear I may inadvertently be sucked into it like quick sand and be unable to escape; never to be seen or heard of again this side of the universe.

On the language front Roman isn’t that brilliant with English but he does understand the words yes and no. He definitely uses the word, no, more than he uses the word, yes. Which when you ask him the question –  is your construction plan on schedule? – and the answer is no, it’s pretty disappointing considering the number of shovels involved. However, if I ever ask Roman if he’d like coffee and sandwiches, the answer is always, yes.

“What do you mean the construction plan isn’t on schedule?” said Guido when I called him in the middle of a very busy lunch service at The Spanish Onion to tell him the construction plan wasn’t on schedule.

“The lasagna’s for table 3!” I heard him yell.

I could almost smell the cream sauce.

“Are you a complete idiot? Stop making coffee and sandwiches immediately,” he said.

His rationale was that this may be making it impossible for Roman and his team of completely professional builders to focus on our looming deadline.

Personally I’m not sure this approach will go down too well with so many men with shovels.

By the way, there’s a climbing pink rose around the cafe back door. I’m hoping that’s a good sign. It’s certainly as close as I’m going to get to quintessential in Denmark Hill.

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Simple pleasures

Yesterday I wandered through the café kitchen on my way out to work thinking, thank God it’s Friday. I can’t say I was looking forward to another day pondering the multi faceted uses for a vintage 1970s shag pile rug. As you can tell there’s never a dull day at the office for a South London interior designer.

“You know,” said Guido staring at the stove flame whilst holding his spoon in the air pensively, “sometimes it’s the simple things in life you derive most pleasure from.”

It wasn’t clear if he was talking to me or the spatula.

“Strip off. Be bold. Get down to the bare bones.”

Then he made a worrying sort of, Mmm… noise.

I looked at my watch. It was nine thirty a.m. and let’s just say I didn’t have the time or the inclination to start taking all of my clothes off. Trust me, Guido’s epiphanies are time consuming.

“Never before have three little words – less is more – seemed so appropriate to me.”

Guido’s eyes started to mist up.

“I see,” I said, seeing nothing at all, “I’ll tell you what Einstein, perhaps we could continue this very interesting conversation when I get home, “but unfortunately,” I said, “I’ve got a client waiting for me in Islington who has a weird but very expensive fetish for Italian polished marble.”

The clock was ticking on that one, trust me. But Guido certainly did get me thinking.

As I dodged other commuters across the concourse at London Bridge Train Station I wondered why on earth I was struggling to balance two satchels and an oversized portfolio when probably only one of them would do. Then down on a Northern Line tube train I sat opposite a guy wearing a Burberry tie and a big man scarf knotted with a flourish and a hat and I thought – aha! That’s actually all I can remember thinking at the time, but it definitely was fashion overkill. Whilst extremely cute, I resisted the temptation to lean over and point out to him that in my opinion the combination of a beard and only a cocked hat really was totally acceptable.

Later last night at home I got real quick to where Guido had been coming from.

Roman food with only 3 ingredients.

I’m telling you, pasta really does taste best almost naked. Oh and, it’s on the specials board tonight. We still have tables if you want to stop by. If you can’t then here’s the recipe. But just one thing, remember, strip off.

Cacio e Pepe

Bring a deep pan of water to a boil and season with salt; add spaghetti and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes before it’s tender. Drain, reserving 3/4 cup pasta cooking water. Meanwhile, melt 2 chopped tablespoons of butter in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add a teaspoon of cracked pepper and cook, until toasted. Add 1/2 cup reserved pasta water to the pan and bring to a simmer. Add the pasta and one table spoon of chopped butter. Reduce heat to low and add 3/4 cup of Grana Padano, stirring and tossing with tongs until melted. Remove pan from heat; add 1/3 cup of Pecorino, stirring and tossing until the cheese melts, and coats the pasta. Add more pasta water if sauce seems dry. Transfer pasta to warm bowls and serve.

Going for a song

This week Guido’s super tiny Spanish parents, the super diminutive Rosa and Juan, invited us round to their place for dinner. All I ever hope for when we go round there is a quiet night in with his folks and a big plate of Rosa’s hot and spicy salt and pepper calamari. Guido’s parents might be small in stature, but trust me, their portion size is always huge. Rosa serves it with a homemade chopped tomato salsa like you’ve never tasted before. If she ever bothers to tell me the recipe I’m going to immediately press it into production at a bottling plant and probably become a millionaire overnight.

Regular readers of this blog may remember that Guido’s parents burst out laughing every time they clap their super tiny eyes on me. Apparently the words – hello, or, how are you? – have never before seemed so incredibly funny.

“Hello,” I said smiling at Juan as he threw open his big front door in downtown Dulwich.

“Ha, ha, ha, ha!” said Juan bent over double looking up at me, “you so so funny!” He waved me in and hugged Guido.

Juan is so super tiny and his son is so super tall they kissed somewhere around Guido’s knee caps. Unfortunately when Juan starts laughing, it’s highly contagious. So, so do Guido and me. This usually means that by the time I finally find Rosa in the kitchen we’re all almost hysterical but no one can remember what the hell anyone is laughing about.

“How are you?” I asked Rosa, who just happened to slicing vegetables with the same but unaided vigour of a Kenwood food blender switched to its highest setting.

“Ha, ha, ha, ha!” she shrieked, stopping only to point her big cleaver at me, “you so crack me up and into many MANY tiny pieces.” I’m guessing that would be many many even more super tiny pieces. At the time I could smell the scent of her delicious calamari batter mix so I was just praying she’d manage to serve it all up before she fell to bits.

I’ve got to tell you the fish main course was great. The almond cake dessert was terrific too but nothing could prepare me for what came along with the coffee and I’m not talking about that full bottle of liqueur. Let’s just say you can’t miss an electronic organ when it’s got pride of place with a microphone plugged in right in the center of the room. Especially when it comes with a fully integrated orchestra at the press of a button. And when Rosa sings she really puts her heart and soul into it. Some how she manages to make Margarita Pracatan sould like Maria Callas. I’m surprised the neighbours haven’t shot themselves. I’m hoping for their sakes they’re deaf.

After almost a full bottle of Tia Maria, Guido agreed to play a tune on the keyboard. Rosa, Juan and me sang along, and whilst I have absolutely no idea what it was, I think the four of us might now be taking bookings for bar mitzvahs and weddings. The clip below is the closest I can give you to the real thing (and boy it’s pretty close).

Rosa might overcook the lyrics to any song she says sings, but her calamari is pitch perfect.

The ugly truth

Last night Ted and Gary came round to the café to play poker. The four of us sat in one of the dimly lit booths after closing time. We ate olives and nuts and we drank a lot of wine. Needless to say Guido and I lost spectacularly.

“I’m a little worried,” I said. Ironically I wasn’t talking about the hand of cards Gary had just dealt me. “Apparently it’s been proven,” I said crunching a macadamia, “that very attractive couples who are married are statistically more likely to get divorced.”

“Oh no, please no,” groaned Gary raising his eyes to the ceiling, “tell me you’ve not been reading another one of those ridiculous on-line surveys.”

Well, clearly I had.

“Researchers at Harvard University asked two women to judge the attractiveness of 238 men in their high school year books. They then accessed ancestry.com to uncover the men’s marriage and divorce data.”

Nobody said anything.

“And guess what? The men who were facially attractive had shorter marriages.” I sipped my wine. “Just saying.”

When I say I was worried, what I really meant was that on a scale of one to ten I was a – barely concerned two and a half. This was on account of the fact that the survey failed to go into any details about how bothered you should be if, as is the case in my relationship, your partner happens to be considerably better looking than you are. Naturally I was hoping my wonky nose and bushy eyebrows would help even out our longevity on the marriage front.

“Which just goes to show what those intellectual dummies at Harvard do all day long,” said Guido re-shuffling his deck.

“Hey, you know Jean-Paul may be onto something,” said Ted nodding, “l mean, think about it, Brad Pitt?”

We all sat for a moment silently contemplating whether Brad was hot in his year book picture. The conclusion was that he probably didn’t have braces, pimples or wore thick glasses.

“If I hadn’t met Ted I would’ve been perfectly happy to take my chances with Brad until he got completely bored of our relationship and dumped me for Jennifer,” said Gary.

I tried to think of a funny amalgam of Brad and Gary’s names but couldn’t afford (literally) to get distracted from poker. And any way, if anyone should’ve been having sleepless nights about that particular survey then I reckon it was Ted and Gary.

Ted is a handsome semi-retired millionaire silver fox and Gary is a highly chislled flight attendant with great biceps. Nobody illustrates the brace position like Gary does. Let’s just say the fact they also both look utterly fabulous together probably means their relationship is teetering on a knife’s edge.

“Yeah, well apparently the study also suggested that having a good looking partner also meant that others would treat you with a lot less compassion,” I said, “which explains why you guys never let me win at cards.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Guido later in bed, “you have to remember we’re probably the weirdest couple combination there could possibly be.” And if that wasn’t a back handed compliment then I didn’t know what was.

I lay in the dark. I wondered if Brad was in bed and if he was, what was he doing, and who was he doing it with.

Statistically I was just thankful I wasn’t there.

My mirror has two faces

Sometimes there’s a difference between what sort of a person you believe yourself to be and the sort of a person everybody else thinks you are.

I try to be a good person. Really, I do. As a general rule I’m outwardly pleasant to most of the people I meet (except for the klutz who pushed me in line for the bus this morning). However I’ve never formally introduced everybody to what I call my bitter and twisted inner voice. It lives happily in my head and it really isn’t very pleasant at all. I still say good morning, or, hold the door for a complete stranger whilst smiling sweetly, but sometimes I’m thinking – God what a horrible suit, or, could you hurry up please I really don’t have all day you know. I’ve always thought that’s how everyone’s head operated. I’ve assumed they’re all doing exactly the same straight back at me in equal measures (I see you’ve not managed to lose any weight then, still can’t believe you’re screwing that hot chef, and so on).

Last week I was asked by a tutor friend of mine to give a presentation about creativity to an evening class full of enthusiastic mature students at a night school. Rather than names on badges I noticed they’d been specifically asked to write two words on a sticky label to reveal their personalities. During the coffee break I found myself chatting to a blonde called, Vivacious Fun, and a guy with a very intense stare called, People Person. It struck me how they really didn’t live up to their labels. She wasn’t the life and soul of the party, and the guy with the stare turned out to hate everyone in the room.

I told Guido all about it when I got home to the café.

“When I began high school,” I said, “a sheet of paper with our names on it was passed around my classmates and we were told to write underneath two words to illustrate our first impressions about one another.”

“Why do I get the feeling this is one of your stories which ends horribly and you’ve been mentally scarred by it for the rest of your life?” said Guido warily.

“Well, naturally I was heartbroken to read that someone had scribbled under my name, Total Wacko,” I said shrugging. “But what could I do?”

“I guess their first impression about you was wrong,” said Guido diplomatically. What else could he possibly say?

“Yeah, but, no.” I said. “You see it’s true, underneath I am a total wacko so whoever wrote that was actually very astute for an eleven year old.”

“All I know,” Guido said lounging on our sofa in a pair of super tight boxer shorts, “is if I had to write two words on a sticky label that best described me right now I’d be totally honest about it. No kidding. No lies. Total undiluted truth.”

I knew Guido was trying to make me feel better.

“I believe you,” I said, “so what would the two words be?”

I cynically braced myself for something altruistic like, Amazing Chef or Under-rated Footballer, or as is much more closer to the truth, Sex Maniac.

Lucky Guy,” he smiled.

That’s the great thing about Guido. What you see is what you get.

The twisted grape vine

Thursday night we ate out in Covent Garden and, just as I was ordering the wine, Guido explained to me that I’m not exactly the cheap date I always thought I was.

“You do know that there’s a weird psychology going on when it comes to drawing up a wine list?” said Guido scrutinising the food menu. I could see his finger stop at the line with deep fried calamari on it.

Whenever the two of us sit down in a restaurant something strange happens.  The waiter always hands Guido the food menu and I always get passed the wine list. I like to think these guys have a sixth sense. An other worldly and boozy professionalism only sommeliers can have, where they’re able to suss out which one of us is the foodie and which one of us is – the complete lush.

“What are you talking about?” I said, slipping on my spectacles.

I always slip on my spectacles when I read a wine list. I think this makes me look more intelligent. I go through the silly charade of slowly pondering as if I’m someone who knows what he’s looking at. Sometimes I’ll even throw in sound effects by sucking my finger nail and making an extended hmmm… sort of noise. I think this adds gravitas to the process of weighing up the subtle nuisances between a flinty French sauvignon and a fruity Chilean one. The spectacle thing is a waste of time. I’m actually short sighted rather than long sighted. This means when I’m concentrating hard to read anything for real (particularly the price I might add) it all looks blurred and out of focus and back to front like I’ve just developed dyslexia.

Trust me, white wine is always on the left hand page and red wine is always on the right hand page. If you flip it over, the poor old blush is usually hovering all lonely on the back whilst the expensive fizzy stuff is right down at the bottom. It’s there as a sort of hopeful after thought for customers on a desperate first date or a boring Valentines Day meal when splashing the cash is going to bolster you’re chances of some sex later.

“Establishments don’t really list the cheapest wine from the top down you know,” Guido whispered. He was still mentally debating about the squid I think. “The second wine listed has actually got the highest mark up. That means in reality it’s way, way, more expensive than the cheap house wine at the top,” said Guido.

Now he tells me, I thought. I’ve been playing this wine game for years. I always order the second one listed. This is so I don’t appear to be a complete cheap skate by picking the first one, but apparently the restaurant will already have worked this out using a twisted kind of reverse psychology.

Suddenly the staff wearing aprons, scribbling orders into note pads and juggling plates had all just become mini Einsteins.

“Are you ready to order?” the waiter smiled, his pen poised, ready to analyse.

“We’ll both have the deep fried calamari,” I said, “and bring us the cheapest bottle of plonk you sell. I don’t mind where on the list it is.”

The squid was outstanding, and after the second bottle, so was the wine. Whatever it was.

The next big thing

These days it’s getting ever harder to keep ahead of the curve.

“Did you know it was a pastry chef in Greenwich Village who hit upon the novel idea of deep frying croissant dough without causing it to go lumpy?” asked Guido toying with his spaghetti at dinner last night.

It does make you think that people who roll pastry for a living really do need to get out a bit more.

“He succeeded where so many before him failed,” said Guido in all seriousness. He called this hybrid invention the Cronut. “Apparently queues formed outside his café at dawn when the word got round.”

Which just goes to show what sort of people live in Greenwich Village.

There are very few things in life I’d happily stand in a line for. I tried to think of one reason why I might do that at dawn and quickly reached the conclusion it wouldn’t be for a croissant.

“My initial plan was to cook exactly what I’m doing here at The Spanish Onion and then replicate the menu at the new café in Denmark Hill,” said Guido. He twisted his spaghetti pensively. “But I’m beginning to think I ought to be more ambitious. Maybe I should try to get ahead of the curve like everybody else.”

Into this manic food reinvention frenzy I give you Kristen Tomlan, a former interior designer (there’s hope for me yet folks). Kristen has long thought that the best part about making cookies is the dough. I’m only with her up to a point. I don’t make cookies myself but I’ve always found licking out Guido’s bowl rather appealing. A few years ago Kristen bought a tub of raw cookie dough at the supermarket. Whilst passing the sticky goo around between friends she had an epiphany. She worked out a brilliant recipe using pasteurised eggs and heat treated flour which meant it was safe to eat the batter in large quantities. I’m so relieved I never made this discovery myself otherwise I’d probably be the size of a small house. Now she’s selling it on-line and is about to open her first shop.

“If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” I said to Guido. “Nobody fries French toast like you do but I’m not sure the people of South London are ready for the raw version.”

Now I’ve gotten over the initial shock, I’ve started referring to the Denmark Hill café as, The Denmark Hill Project. This should not in any way be confused with The Blair Witch Project although I predict it too may involve a considerable amount of screaming. We went to have a look at the premises on Tuesday. At the moment it looks like exactly what it is, which is an abandoned Turkish kebab shop.

“Don’t worry, we’re all looking for the new and the exciting and the innovative,” I said to Guido later in bed, “so it really doesn’t matter if you’ve not yet thought of the next big culinary thing.”

Guido kissed me and switched out the lamp. I lay there thinking immoral thoughts about what the two of us could get up to with some cookie dough. And whilst I wasn’t exactly sure where that placed us both on the curve of life – I was just happy I was somewhere on it with Guido.