I'm still searching for the perfect steak, though given my current, jet-lagged appearance, a sharp stick through the heart might be easier to find. Who said holidays left you feeling rested? I'm pale faced, hardly able to get out of bed before lunch, I keep the curtains closed so as to avoid bright sunlight, and don't venturing out until after dark. Ah - business as usual, then.
After months of genuflecting and running inside to prostrate myself in fear under the bed every time someone mentioned the dreaded 'barbeque', I'm finally ready to file down my teeth and chew the fat. But, please Uncle Sam, no more community clambakes, whole hickory smoked hogs and pig pits dug into the front yard. If you say the word spit, I probably will. Just give me a teeny bit of grilled sirloin, and maybe a plate, a fork, a knife and a paper napkin.
At the Pope's Eye in Hammersmith, you don't get very much more. It's a no frills, bare floored neighbourhood restaurant - basic, right down to the authentic smokehouse reek emanating, Hiroshima-style, from the grill in the corner of the dining room. It reminds you why people have extractor fans - or, alternatively, don't fry steak in their kitchen when they invite you round for supper. Furthermore, almost every single customer, mostly lean, late twenty-something, vulpine men in grey woolly jumpers and jeans, sat surrounded in his own mini-cloud of Marlborough lite. The whole room was smoking - like being back at University, said my companion.
So, paper tablecloths, organic Aberdeen Angus beef and a no nonsense menu - three types of steak - rump (what in Scotland is called the Pope's eye, hence the restaurant's name), sirloin or fillet, in three sizes. All orders came with chips, while salad - a selection of supermarket leaves crammed into a soup bowl - was available as an optional extra.
We had the rump and the fillet, both rare, both melting like new bread under the knife and good, if not extraordinarily so. The chips tasted like they had been frozen in a previous life, and seemed to owe more to the oven that the deep fat fryer, though I'm assured to the contrary by the management. They were tasteless, dry, dead things not enlivened by the ramekins of tomato ketchup, manufactured bˇarnaise sauce, and various mustards of the Dijon and 'strong Dijon' ilk. It was a shame, in a place with such an unpretentious, straightforward concept you want the chips and the bˇarnaise to be superlative - otherwise it's just a chap grilling steak with no added value. My husband will do it for free, and wash up afterwards, though hopeful guests should be aware we rarely have vacancies. Our idea of entertaining these days is watching late night reruns of Frazier whilst sucking a couple of Rennies.
A nice selection of farmhouse cheeses followed, with a couple of puddings chalked up on the blackboard. This is probably where my turgid and rhubarb crumble with the aerosol cream should have stayed - as a nice idea, easily wiped off with a damp cloth. Service was neglectful but in a relaxed, friendly fashion. Since we were happy to sit and chat until after the grillmaster had left and all the tables and smoke had cleared, this wasn't a problem.
The Gaucho Grill in Heath Street in north London - one of four in the London area, is at the other end of the spectrum, as well as the A-Z. Oh Gawd, you think when you walk through the door - cow hide stools like last seasons handbags, with a couple of funny baguette jobbies hanging at different heights against the wall -perhaps neck rests for the freakishly tall, though looking at the clientele, perhaps not. It was packed with hip, hungry Hampsteadonians, lots of short men and chubby beached (this is not a typo) blondes in leather. The husband and me fitted right in.
Our waiter was knowledgeable, exceptionally efficient and tirelessly helpful, explaining the six-week long, vacuum packed process by which the chilled meat is shipped from Argentina. Steaks, again three cuts and, three weights to chose from, were delicious, with only the merest whisper of flame-grilled flavour and thankfully none of the accompanying parfum du graisse. Hampstead is, I'm sure, more of a Gucci Envy sort of suburb.
Chips were chunky hand cut fried potatoes still wearing skins served with a sprig of rosemary and rock salt, while the mushrooms were grilled on a skewer between slivers of onion. The bˇarnaise sauce tasted satisfyingly creamy, with an obvious human hand somewhere in its preparation.
I squeezed in a bit of pastel green avocado ice cream served with a sharp, syrupy dollop of honey. It was strangely pleasant, tasting nothing like avocado. Happily it didn't remind one of generic hair conditioner which, although I don't make a habit of tasting grooming products, I imagine isn't very nice. No doubt it does wonders for your follicles if not your taste buds
I asked for the bill, and only then, when I opened the clasp of brand new snakeskin purse, realised that I had forgotten most important accessory of all. Namely cash.
Husbands are very useful in situations like these. Don't you just love short men?