Ta­ble talk

Myr­tle Restau­rant in Chelsea

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Contents -

ANNA HAUGH, the chef-pa­tron at Myr­tle in Chelsea, popped out of the kitchen to bring us a tiny in­ter-course dish of chicken mousse and pea purée. Her soft, lyri­cal Ir­ish ac­cent brought back two mem­o­ries. One won­der­ful, one painful. As to the lat­ter: ‘Don’t you re­mem­ber we met on Point­less?’ she said. In fact I had no rec­ol­lec­tion at all of this. Noth­ing. Just a blank. You see, I was first up with fel­low critic Grace Dent on the TV quiz show, pre­sented by Alexander Arm­strong. And asked to name a ma­jor potato-pro­duc­ing coun­try, I in­ge­niously said New Zealand, as I thought – cor­rectly as it turned out – that no one else would think of that an­swer. In­deed no one did, as it’s an in­cor­rect an­swer, and so we were out in the first round. As you’ll un­der­stand, I im­me­di­ately for­got about this, though my chil­dren, friends and Anna Haugh keep at­tempt­ing to re­mind me.

But her voice also brought back many trips to Ire­land. The first was some 25 years ago, when the food was very un­myr­tle – that is to say, very much not what Anna pro­vides, which is posh Ir­ish.

I first went to Ire­land in my early 20s be­cause of a man called Peter Oborne. Peter is a bril­liant writer and com­men­ta­tor on pol­i­tics, and also an oc­ca­sional his­to­rian of cricket. I met him while I was work­ing for an MP. ‘Do you play cricket, Sit­ters?’ he asked, de­cid­ing for him­self on this nick­name. ‘Not re­ally,’ I replied. ‘Per­fect,’ he said.

A few weeks later I was with him and his team of White City All Stars. Over

seven days we played teams from Dublin down to Cork, groups of farm­ers, lawyers, sol­diers and any­one else with ac­cess to a ground and a pav­il­ion. I re­turned with the team for many years af­ter and a pat­tern emerged. We were mer­ci­lessly slaugh­tered, and if we were ever on the verge of vic­tory, Peter man­aged to snatch de­feat by bring­ing on a ter­ri­ble bowler, hav­ing a mas­sive row with a fielder or chang­ing the bat­ting or­der. We drank ex­ces­sive amounts of Guin­ness, ate sen­sa­tional teas and, un­less asked to a bar­be­cue by an op­pos­ing team mem­ber, con­sumed some of the most re­volt­ing food known to man.

As I ate a dish of salmon in Myr­tle, I re­called the square pieces of fried fish we once bought in a small town. It was more deep-fried card­board than fish. So we tended to stick to the Guin­ness and match teas, stuff­ing our­selves with cakes, sand­wiches and sausage rolls. An­other rea­son we would lose…

But grad­u­ally, as the years pro­gressed, the food im­proved. To­day, the food of Ire­land seems trans­formed. Many have headed to the Bal­ly­maloe Cook­ery School near Cork, and in­deed this week’s restau­rant is named af­ter Myr­tle Allen, who laid the ground­work for that in­sti­tu­tion. Her name rep­re­sents the birth of mod­ern Ir­ish cook­ing and Haugh’s restau­rant acts like a fixed and con­stant trade stand, a bea­con that of­fers a glimpse into what is to­day hap­pen­ing in the land of her birth.

Haugh’s salmon – al­beit look­ing sus­pi­ciously like it had been blow-torched (the menu says roasted, which makes me think of ovens rather than sous vide and a flame) – was won­der­fully sim­ple and del­i­cate, and al­most melted into the crushed pota­toes. It was a very finely judged and bal­anced plate with some wa­ter­cress adding a pep­pery note, and a creamy sauce adding fur­ther juice and flavour.

The salmon was pre­ceded by a thin length of black pud­ding wrapped in crisped potato. This was a mirac­u­lous lit­tle plate. God knows how you wrap a slice of potato around black pud­ding but the re­sult is a fab­u­lous jux­ta­po­si­tion of rus­tic flavour and fine-dining pre­sen­ta­tion; like a soot-cov­ered miner do­ing a pirou­ette.

All this goes on in a tiny lit­tle restau­rant with some 40 cov­ers. Staff and cus­tomers squeeze past each other en route to the loo or kitchen. And if you walk past the kitchen your­self you might hear Anna shout­ing, ‘Ser­vice… thank you sweet­heart.’ (I’ve heard worse lan­guage near stoves.) The de­sign of the restau­rant rather matches the plates: soft, del­i­cate, mod­est and wel­com­ing, and the tables fea­ture spe­cially de­signed sil­ver wa­ter gob­lets (try to get a seat down­stairs, the up­stairs has less soul).

An ex­cel­lent man­ager safely steered us to­wards a won­der­fully dry and aro­matic Aus­trian sau­vi­gnon blanc from Weingut Erich & Wal­ter Polz. It was a per­fect ex­am­ple of how sau­vi­gnon blanc can be sub­tle and fra­grant – the op­po­site of a blowsy and ob­vi­ous New Zealand num­ber.

Myr­tle re­minded me of the best of Ire­land. I think hap­pily of the amaz­ing ladies who served those match teas and nursed our sport­ing and off-the-pitch in­juries. Hospitable, cheery, up­beat and for­giv­ing.

And, I dis­cov­ered, it’s the best place to be when it’s rain­ing.

It is a jux­ta­po­si­tion of rus­tic flavour and fine dining; like a soot­cov­ered miner do­ing a pirou­ette

Above Potato-wrapped Clon­akilty black pud­ding. Be­low Roasted salmon with wa­ter­cress and crushed pota­toes

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