The latest Real Meals column is here:
You can’t get realer when it comes to meals than chowing down with the Statesman’s own laureate of the low life, Nick Lezard.
I’ve known Nick for years (ever since, in fact, he compared my prose to that of the classical emeticist Tertullian), and together we’ve eaten some memorable meals, including that Highland police-evading delicacy poulet au hashish, but in recent years – as his column amply confirms – Nick has fallen on hard times. True, he never exactly lived high on the hog, but now he barely scrapes by low on the streaky. It would have been unfair to subject Nick to the snail sorbets and caviar casseroles served up at London’s top tables – let alone stick him with the bill – so I suggested that we rendezvous at the Stockpot near Leicester Square.
The Stockpot is one of a mini-chain of three restaurants offering plain, wholesome British cuisine (with a few Italian fripperies) at scandalously low prices. You can have a three-course meal for two at the Stockpot, with wine, for well under 40 quid. Unbelievable, no? I mean, in most West End restaurants you can barely get a maître d’ to sneer at you for that kind of money.
I’m not altogether certain what the genesis of the Stockpot was, but all three outlets have a powerful ambience of having been there since time out of mind. Granted, the Stockpot is a metropolitan phenomenon, but I like to think that every British city still has its equivalent: somewhere that dishes up liver and bacon, bubble and squeak, fish and chips – all the binary conjunctions that once made up the bedrock of the British diet before the creation of chicken tikka masala.
I often used to eat at the branch (now closed) on Basil Street, behind Harrods, which was much frequented by cabbies, and there was nothing more comforting than watching these cockney knights of the open road spoon down their jelly and custard while inveighing against wobbly modernity.
I pressured Nick towards the liver and bacon with onion gravy and veg – a snip at £6.50; while I had chicken kiev with rice and veg – a relatively expensive £7.90. I say “pressured” because I wanted to know what the liver and bacon was like, without having to eat it myself. But then I’m like that in relation to a lot of experiences, both sensual and aesthetic. I also want to know what the foam night at Space is like, but I have no intention of going. Jules Verne picked up on this tendency over a century ago, when he remarked of Phileas Fogg that he was the kind of Englishman who sends his manservant to see the sights for him.
Passepartout also had the whitebait to start with, at my insistence. He enjoyed both heartily. “Um, um,” he ummed, “this is really quite good – you should try some.” And I did, just to please him. My soup wasn’t too bad either, giving the lie to that school of thought which says you can spend all day making soup only to end up with something that tastes marginally worse than what you get out of a can.
However, with the chicken kiev, I hit the culinary rumble strip and juddered to a halt. Like The Towering Inferno and Earthquake, chicken kiev was an integral part of the early 1970s. They were disaster movies; it was disaster cuisine – a great lowering lump of crap chicken, filled with garlic butter and herbs before being coated in breadcrumbs and fried. Chicken kiev felt anachronistic at its inception. Forty years on, I felt as if I were in a 1970s episode of Doctor Who in which cavaliers duelled with cyborgs.
Nick was faring no better with his liver and bacon; it had begun promisingly – the meat was tender and tasty – but soon ploughed into the escape lane filled with onion gravy. We tried to stimulate our jaded palates by putting these plates aside and ordering peach-and-apple pie with custard (£2.95), and chocolate sponge pudding with chocolate custard (£3.20), but it was too late – we were stuffed. The only thing we had any appetite for was the bill, which came in at £40, allowing a generous 20 per cent tip for the waitress.
I say “we” had an appetite for the bill, but in the spirit of this column I must tell it like it is: I’d gone out without enough cash, and obviously the Stockpot hasn’t heard of plastic – yet. So, Nick was obliged to pay the greater part of the bill. No wonder he’s down and out.