Sunday 25 September 2011

Lunch at The Clink

Last month, I headed off with a posse of fellow jailbirds, to deepest Sutton in Surrey, to HMP High Down prison for a spot of posh nosh at The Clink.  And I have to tell you, it's the best 'porridge' I've ever eaten!  For those who don't know, The Clink is a restaurant within a high security prison which is open to the public and serves the most delicious Michelin-quality food, at staff-canteen prices.

My prison partners-in-crime were a lovely bunch of food lovers and bloggers. We all arrived at Belmont train station and were hoping to grab a glass of pre-lunch Dutch courage at the local pub (no booze served in prison, unsurprisingly), but alas the pub was closed, so we made do with a round of coffees at a local cafe. It was a lovely, warm summer's day as we walked the short distance from downtown Belmont village to the intimidating, daunting and slightly scary confines of the prison grounds.

Once we had checked-in, handed over our passports and banned personal luxury items such as mobile phones, cameras, chewing-gum and aerosol cans, we escaped without a frisking and were taken through to a 'holding bay'. The reality of being in a prison really started to hit hard with the faint disinfectant smell reminiscent of a school corridor; the jangling of large bunches of keys hanging from the sturdy belts of stern-faced prison staff; the depressing grey walls and stark fluorescent lighting. A vase of dried flowers on the table added a token sense of normal decor.  It was a strange, yet fascinating environment to be privy to, but I was glad it was short-lived.

Before long, a prison guard came to collect us and lead us across a courtyard, surrounded completely by very high wire mesh walls and gates, all topped with lashings of barbed wire and endless security cameras. We all walked quietly and obediently across the courtyard, feeling a massive sense of relief that we were here doing lunch, not time.

Interior of The Clink

As we approached a non-descript building on the other side of the courtyard, we stepped through a door into a completely unexpected world. A really stylish, modern and upmarket restaurant which wouldn't look out of place in the heart of Mayfair.  We had arrived at The Clink! Kane Sterling, the Manager of The Clink, greeted us and showed us to our table. He is the man I met last year when I collected my very special prison Christmas pudding (you can read about that here) and was in fact an inmate himself, but has since learnt the error of his ways and turned his life around brilliantly. We took our seats, took in the decor and were ready for a Michelin quality lunch with a difference.

All the staff at The Clink are prison inmates including the waiters and chefs, all under the watchful eye of their supervisors. I obviously won't mention their names, this being a public blog n' all, but we did chat to several of the waiters and it was really interesting hearing their tales and their hopes and ambitions for when they finally get to leave prison. I think The Clink is brilliant for this as it means their staff have a positive sense of purpose and will (hopefully) leave with proper qualifications having successfully completed their City & Guilds diploma. One of the waiters has a matter of months left and is already planning on opening his own restaurant in Barbados! I'm of course more than aware that these guys are criminals and are in prison for a reason, but everyone deserves a chance and if they're willing and prepared to make an effort to better themselves for a more honest and respectable life on the outside, then good luck to them.

Bring on the porridge!

At last the food arrived and it didn't disappoint. It took a moment to get to grips with the slightly comical plastic cutlery, although I'm not quite sure who's benefit that was for considering the prison staff in the kitchen work with knives, and the glasses we drank from were proper glass. Between us we had all chosen a good variety of the dishes on offer, so were able to sample most of them. The menu included all these tasty morsels:

Brawn terrine with toasted sourdough and pickled vegetables
Trio of homemade ravioli with sage butter 


Homemade Mediterranean sausage with lentils, ham hock terrine  with pea & mint puree
Slow roasted breast of lamb, sauce vert, broccoli shoots with with rosemary & garlic potatoes 
Breaded pan fried breast of pigeon with pigeon terrine, 
sauteed  girolle mushrooms, served with blackberry sauce, fried potatoes & green vegetables 


Roasted grey mullet with fennel & blood orange salad
Roast haunch of venison with red wine sauce, celeriac puree  
served with a watercress, chestnut & mushroom salad 
Cream cheese, tomato & basil frittata


Fresh homemade ice cream (seasonal flavours) 
A celebration of English raspberries (a trio of raspberry desserts) 
Homemade apple & blackberry tart & fresh custard

Brawn terrine & toasted sourdough
Trio of ravioli

The presentation of each dish was excellent with huge attention to detail. You could really feel the sense of pride that had been put into every element of the food. I had the trio of ravioli to start which was superb. One with mushroom, one with pumpkin and another with ricotta. For my main course, I had the lamb which was also very good, although I had slight food envy when one of our diner's pigeon arrived, as that was a work of art and looked thoroughly delicious.

Mediterranean sausages & ham hock
Cream cheese, tomato & basil frittata
Pigeon with sauteed girolle mushrooms
Venison with red wine sauce
Roast lamb
Roasted grey mullet

The puddings were all very impressive and predominantly involved fruit, which I'm not that partial to in a pudding, so I was really touched when the waiter brought me a giant homemade chocolate chip cookie to accompany an enormous slice of strawberry shortcake which I rapidly distributed amongst the table. 

Trio of raspberry desserts
Homemade ice cream

Soon it was time for us to leave as The Clink staff had to finish their shift and make their way to their cells, which made me feel a bit sad, as I suddenly remembered the reality of where we were. Next stop was The Ship in Wandsworth (one of my favourite pubs) for a prison lunch de-brief over a few bottles of wine. 

We all agreed it was a really fantastic lunch and an absolute bargain at around £15 for three courses. It was a very unusual and surreal experience, and if you're feeling adventurous and fancy trying lunch with a twist, I highly recommend it. There's talk of The Clink opening up a couple of branches at other prisons too. You can find further details about The Clink on their website including information on how to book. Christmas is approaching fast and The Clink is reknown for their Christmas lunch menu which gets booked up months in advance. And don't forget they do a wonderful Christmas pudding too!

The Chain Gang

A massive thank you to Kane and the team at The Clink for being so welcoming. It was a great day and certainly a lunch to remember! I look forward to returning soon.

Note: As cameras are not allowed at The Clink, Kane kindly agreed to take photos on our behalf using the prison camera, so all photographs in this blog post are courtesy of The Clink.  Thank you.

HMP High Down

Tel: 020 7147 6524

Wednesday 21 September 2011

ETM Group - Bloggers Pub Crawl

Last week, I joined an interesting bunch including fellow bloggers, a food photographer and a wine sleuth for a rowdy night on the town. We were invited by the ETM Group to try out a selection of their wonderful and diverse pubs and bars across town, for what we affectionately nicknamed The Posh Pub Crawl. Pretty hardcore for a Wednesday! Our hosts and hostesses for the evening really looked after us, including Jessica from the ETM Group and Rebecca & Stuart from Roche Communications PR.

First stop was the Chiswell Street Dining Rooms in Barbican. This recently opened bar/restaurant was definitely my favourite place of the night. A lovely bright space, with modern yet classic interior design and a vibrant, upmarket atmosphere. Whether you want breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea or dinner, or just a drink, it ticks all the boxes.

We were spoilt with cocktails and canapes including leek & wild mushroom tarts; quails eggs with truffled duxelle (whatever that is); smoked eel & horseradish; king scallops with crispy bacon & pea puree; fois gras ballotine on brioche with Madeira jelly, and the most succulent mini Aberdeen Angus beef Wellington. *happy sigh*

The food was so good at the Chiswell Street Dining Rooms, I could quite happily have spent the entire evening there. But after all, we were on a pub crawl, so into the awaiting minibus the Blog Team clambered, onto our next destination... The Hat & Tun in Farringdon, for our starter. This was much more of a cosy pub vibe, as we all sat around a large table and enjoyed a few glasses of Montagny, 1er Cru Le Vieux Chateau, JM Boillot 2008 and Savigny Les Beaune, 1er Cru Fourneaux, Jean J Girard 2008. The starter was an individual snail & smoked bacon pie in a Guinness & mushroom cream sauce, which I have to say looked lovely, but was sadly very bland. The sauce was too runny and lacked seasoning, as did the pastry. But never mind, the wine was brilliant, so we armed ourselves with a glass and boarded the bus onto Pub No 3.

The White Swan in EC4 was a great place for our main course, with a cosy bar downstairs and a galleried restaurant upstairs where we all sat (under a mirrored ceiling no less). It was time to sample yet more fantastic wine - Semillon, Boekenhoutskloof, Franschhoek 2007 (a delightful South African number) and Chateau La Chenade, Lalande 2006.

The main course was roast tranche of Cornish line-caught turbot, complete with Dorset crab beignets and autumnal turnips and salsify with a bisque butter sauce.  This was delicious, perfectly cooked and not too heavy. There was also a lamb dish for, erm, the non-fish eaters, which looked very tasty too.

Feeling quite merry by now with all the lovely wine, we climbed back into the minibus like a bunch of naughty kids on a school trip, and made our lairy and rowdy way across town to Chelsea for our final course - pudding at The Botanist in Sloane Square. It is a lively bar and is often full of bellowing toffs in the evening. But don't let that put you off, as The Botanist is actually one of the nicest eateries in the area and does excellent food, on a par with Chiswell Street Dining Rooms. We tucked into an amazing array of miniature pudding canapes including lemon meringue pie, custard tarts, baked gooseberry cheesecake, fig pudding and chocolate brownies. Accompanied by a very delicious glass or two of 'Vin du Pud' - Tokaji Late Harvest, Royal, Hungary 2008.

It didn't end there! By now it was pretty late, but we managed to board the bus one last time and headed down the King's Road to The Cadogan Arms for a game of pool and a few digestifs, which was a fitting end to a fun night of crawling. Full of excellent food and wine, it was finally time to call it a night. Thank you very much to everyone at ETM Group and Roche Communications for a great evening!

Chiswell Street Dining Rooms 56 Chiswell St, EC1Y 4SA  (020 7614 0177)
The Hat & Tun 3 Hatton Wall, EC1N 8HX  (020 7 242 4747)
The White Swan 108 Fetter Lane, EC4A 1ES  (020 7242 9696)
The Botanist 7 Sloane Square, SW1W 8EE  (020 7730 0077)
The Cadogan Arms 298 King's Road, SW3 5UG (020 7352 6500)
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