I’ve missed restaurants. I’ve missed the atmosphere of a place at once both busy and calm, that comes with the relaxed feeling of knowing that everything will be taken care of for you. I’ve missed the sommeliers looming over you as you try the wine and say something like ‘yes, that’s really nice actually’, as if you’re somehow surprised that somebody whose job it is to know wine has chosen a really nice one, and didn’t just plump for something that had a nice label. I miss the chefs coming over to ask how the meal is, and over-enthusing to the point they become concerned for my wellbeing, as I tell them that my existence was meaningless until I tried their turbot.
More than anything though I’ve missed the food. The high-quality meals that I couldn’t even imagine, much less cook myself. As somebody who loves visiting fancy restaurants, it’s often assumed that I must myself be good at cooking and spend my time at home making my own delicious and elaborate meals too. In short: No. Even though I’ve had more time at home than ever, my culinary skills still sit somewhere between caveman and child with a Play-Doh kitchen. If Deliveroo could be completed, I wouldn’t just be watching the end credits by now, I’d be listed in them with a ‘special thanks to’ acknowledgement. I’ve had enough fish fingers to deprive Atlantis of an entire generation of pianists, enough spaghetti to make Eminem ruin his sweater again, and baked enough pasta that I’ll probably be named-checked in Planet Earth III as a global warming risk. My time in lockdown has yielded little in the way of success or personal development. I am the same person (if not slightly worse), than I was at the very start of this.
All this disappointment is behind me now though, as lockdown concludes and I’m finally allowed to visit restaurants again. Today I’ll be enjoying this by dining at Perilla, located on North London’s Newington Green. It’s only been open for a few years, but it’s already built a reputation that’s seen it lauded by The Times, The Evening Standard, and hopefully, this blog where I eat with people who are long dead.
My guest today is… well, nobody really knows. The man in the iron mask was imprisoned by France’s King Louis XIV in the 17th century, and forced to wear an iron mask to obscure his identity. Historians have only been able to speculate about who they were, and why their identity was placed under such secrecy. Having not just been imprisoned for thirty-four years, but also having spent a lot of time wearing a mask, I figured they’d be the ideal guest for today’s first post-lockdown review.
Perilla offers an a la carte menu, but today we’re opting for the full tasting menu experience of five courses. Safe in the knowledge that even the choosing of the dishes is out of my hands, we sit back and take in the whole experience of dining out again.
“So… what do I even call you?” I ask, upon realising I don’t actually have a name for my guest.
“Please, call me ‘the man in the iron mask’.”
“Yes, I get that. But what’s your real name?”
“That’s not important. What’s important is that we’re here, supporting local businesses.”
“Have you missed it? Thirty-four years spend in lockdown is a long time.”
“Yes, a very long time …” says the man in the iron mask trailing off. “But I’ve got a lot done. I’ve learned many languages, mastered many musical instruments, written a few screenplays. Well, I’m sure you’re much the same. What have you been up to in lockdown?”
“Oh, you know… I… you know…” My mind goes blank, until on my shoulder appears a tiny man dressed in a suit and bowler hat. “Homepride man?!” I say, stunned.
“Tell him about the pasta bakes!” Says Homepride man.
“And say what? Did you hear his achievements?”
“Oh, ok then. Well why don’t you speak to the guy on your other shoulder about all the other things you did in lockdown?”
I turn to my other shoulder. There’s nobody there. “Where are they?” I say.
“Oh, of course, pasta bakes are the only thing you’ve done! And so many of them! I’m here to collect, Andy!”
“Collect what? You know what, I don’t care. I don’t need this sass from you, Mr Homepride, so why don’t you just take yourself back to your tomato and herb sauce jar-“
“Andy! Andy!” Says a voice. I snap back into the room. Everybody is staring at me. “Who are you talking to?” Says the man in the iron mask.
“Oh, err… nobody. Please everybody, enjoy your meals,” I say, noticing that the Homepride man has vanished again. The other diners all give each other confused looks, and then slowly the restaurant returns to a bit more chatter and clatter.
“Sorry about that,” I say. “Anyway, as I was saying, there’s so many achievements to choose from reall-”
“It was the Homepride man, right?” Says the man in the iron mask.
“How did you know?”
“He comes to all of us who find ourselves inside for an extended period of time. Always offering wealth, pasta bakes, whatever the heart desires.”
“Wait, I could have had wealth?”
“Don’t beat yourself up, Andy,” says the man in the iron mask. “We all take the pasta bakes. They’re so quick and easy and can fill three to four meals.”
“I don’t understand. You lived in the 17th century. Homepride wasn’t even a thing then.”
“He went by a different name back then. In France we knew him as ‘le démon des pâtes au four’ or ‘the demon of baked pasta’. At least according to Google Translate.”
“Hold on, you had Google as well?”
“That’s a different demon, no time for that now.”
“Well what does he want?”
“He’s here for your soul. That’s the deal. Delicious, simple pasta bakes in exchange for your soul.”
“This doesn’t make sense. Even if he had claimed my soul, couldn’t he just wait for me to die to take it?”
“He doesn’t wait, Andy. He’s here to collect now.”
Wonderful. My first visit back to restaurants, and instead of it being a relaxing, celebratory time, now a tiny man in a bowler hat is trying to take me to sauce limbo. It’s while I’m contemplating this that our first dish arrives. It’s a simple dish, homemade sourdough bread with a mixture of spreads, but those spreads are pretty special. There’s burnt onion hummus, smoked aubergine, prawn taramasalata and sheep’s yoghurt and samphire. All of them are wonderful, but the burnt onion hummus is particularly excellent, and the kind of thing you could eat by the tub.
“There must be something I can do, isn’t there? After all, he hasn’t killed you yet. How did you escape?”
“Escape? I locked myself away and shackled my face so that he might never find me. He’d take me too if he knew who I was.”
“Who are you?”
“It doesn’t matter. We both need a plan now to stop him, ok?”
I nod, as I anxiously scan the restaurant. He could be anywhere, lurking, waiting, ready to strike. It’s then I’m startled back to the restaurant.
“Argh!” I shout, as a figure appears from nowhere. It’s our waitress with our second dish. “Sorry, I’m just… you haven’t seen a one-foot man in a bowler hat anywhere have you?” She looks bemused. “Ok, no problem.”
Our second dish is a leek and potato rarebit. A hollowed-out leek, filled with potato, mustard and cheese, and topped with hazelnuts and a green sauce I can’t quite remember (Restaurant Critic Of The Year 2020 surely awaits). It’s quite simply spectacular, a perfect reminder of what I’ve been missing so much in restaurants, a dish that’s at once innovative, delicious and fun. The last thing I had that was topped with cheese like this was-
“Watch out!” Shouts the man in the iron mask. I turn and see a knife shoot past my head and deflect off a window. I scream and drop to the floor under the table, in time to see a tiny man scarper off. Once again, the whole restaurant goes silent and turns to face us.
“Did you not see him?!” I say.
“See who?” Says another diner.
“The Homepride man! He’s come to take my soul!” The silence intensifies. “Ok, I know how this sounds…” The waiting staff come over to top up my water glass. “It’s really happening, ok! If you see him, watch out! He has knives!”
The silence is thankfully interrupted by the arrival of our third course, a unique take on mussels and chips. Day old bread soaked in the sauce of moules mariniere, accompanied by a bowl of moules and a side of chips with a homemade curry sauce. “Moules!” I proclaim excitedly, and hope everybody gets back to their meals. They do. “Oh thank goodness, I wasn’t sure shouting ‘moules’ was really going to help anything. We have to do something about him,” I say, as I eat a piece of delicious moules bread.
“There’s only one thing we can do, Andy,” says the man in the iron mask. “We have to banish him back from whence he came.”
“How do we do that?”
“I need you to go to the shop around the corner and buy a jar of Homepride. Then, I need you to eat it all, and then we’re going to cast a spell.”
“You want me to eat a whole jar of sauce?”
“It’s the only way.”
“Ok, fine,” I say, as I put my napkin onto the table and leave the restaurant. “I’ll be right back,” I say to the staff as I head out to the shop next door. I buy myself a jar of creamy tuna sauce and head back outside. I can’t very well go back into the restaurant though to eat a jar of Homepride sauce, given they already think I’m crazy. No, if I want to maintain my dignity I’m going to need to eat it in the street. I pop the lid and begin to drink the sauce from the jar. I can’t say that it’s the best thing I’ve ever eaten, but if this is going to get me through this ordeal then it’s just what I have to do. It’s then that I hear the sound of tapping on glass.
One of the nicest features about Perilla is the large, floor to ceiling glass windows that adorn the outside. They bring a huge amount of natural light into the restaurant in the summer, and in the winter give it a cosy feel, as if you’re in your own little bubble away from the cold. When you’re surreptitiously trying to eat a cold jar of pasta sauce though, away from a group of people who already think you’re mentally unstable because you keep shouting about the Homepride man, these large windows can be something of a problem. I turn to see the whole restaurant, frozen and staring out of these windows at me. “I need to drink the sauce so we can cast the spe- oh, you wouldn’t understand!” I say, as I drink the remainder of the sauce, to disgusted looks from the other diners, and walk back into the restaurant. I sit back down and put the jar onto the table. “Ok, now what?” I say, full of sauce.
“Now we- Oh, hold on,” says the man in the iron mask, as our next course arrives, AN ENTIRE SEA BREAM. Often described as a ‘deep-bodied compressed fish with a small mouth separated by a broad space from the eye’ (source: Wikipedia, 2020), whenever I’ve encountered it in restaurants it’s always been really enjoyable, and today is no different. It’s a bit of shame that moments earlier I’ve eaten an entire jar of sauce to somewhat spoil my appetite, but I still very much enjoy this.
“Tell me how to cast the spell before he comes back,” I say.
“Ok, well, first things first, we need to get everybody here involved.”
“What?! You didn’t say that before!”
“Sadly it’s a vital part of the spell. We need everybody to chant ‘there’s no sauce like Homepride’ together, whilst one of us reads out the ingredients on the back of the packet.”
“Ok, well clearly I die here today.”
“Andy, you need to do this or he’ll never leave you alone.”
The man in the iron mask is right. “You may wear an iron mask, but you have displayed so much vulnerability here today that perhaps it is the rest of us who truly wear the mas-“
“Are you stalling?”
“Obviously, yes,” I sigh. “Fine, let’s get this over with…” I say. I stand up and tap on my glass to get everybody’s attention. There are groans as people see it’s me again. “People of the restaurant, I need your attention, please. Many of you may know me as the man who was drinking sauce on the street just moments ago, but I’m so much more than that. I’m also the man who heated that same sauce in an ovenproof dish on a weekly basis for nearly four months,” I say. “Look, lockdown was tough for all of us, and just because I didn’t finish a screenplay or learn a language, or-“
“Write a blog,” says the man in the iron mask.
“Do any exercise,” says another voice.
“Not drink every day,” says another.
“Ok, this was not a call for suggestions! All I’m saying is, lockdown was tough and we all got through it as best we could. Sure, I didn’t learn any new skills, and sure, I may have eaten pasta bake almost constantly, but that doesn’t mean I’m a failure. Getting through something like this is an achievement in itself, and sometimes we all need a pasta bake for our mental health. Because sometimes a pasta bake isn’t just for our stomach… It’s a pasta bake for our soul,” I say. I leave silence for critical acclaim. True to form, there is none. Then, a woman at the back of the restaurant stands up.
“I too, had pasta bake every week,” she says.
“So did I,” says somebody else, standing up.
“Pasta bake got me through this!”
“I attended a house party even though I was displaying COVID symptoms,” says another.
“Ok, just so you know, you’re a terrible person,” I say. “The rest of you, I need your help.”
The man in the iron mask opens the jar and places it on the table. “Ok, everybody ready?” I say.
“There’s no sauce like Homepride. There’s no sauce like Homepride. There’s no sauce like Homepride,” everybody begins to chant. I grab the jar and begin to read.
“Tomato puree 73%, tomatoes 11%, rapeseed oil, onion 4%, sugar, modified maize starch.” In front of me I see a tiny man scarper into view.
“What are you doing? Stop it!” He says. Everybody continues chanting. Winds begin to swirl around the restaurant, knocking the remainder of our sea bream off the table (still delicious). I continue to rattle through the ingredients list. “Salt 1%, dehydrated cheese, concentrated lemon juice that contains sulphites, garlic puree, egg yolk powder, flavourings that contain milk and celery? What does that even mean?“
“I said stop it! STOP IT NOW!” Shouts the Homepride man in a booming voice. He tries to throw another knife, but he’s caught up in the vortex and begins circling our heads rapidly.
“Ground black pepper! Stabiliser also known as xanthan gum! Lactose!”
“You’ve not seen the last of meeeeeeeeeeeeee!” Says the Homepride man, as he and the winds are sucked into the jar, and the man in the iron mask quickly puts the lid back on. The jar rattles for a moment on the table, then it falls still. We all cheer, apart from the waitress, who emerges to our table and places down our dessert.
“Did I miss something? Sorry, I was in the kitchen.”
Me and the man in the iron mask share the dessert, a herb and pistachio choux that is both bizarre yet also surprisingly nice. We pay our bill and then head out onto the street, he carrying the jar.
“Well, I guess this is where we go our separate ways. Thankyou for your help,” I say.
“Not a problem, Andy. Now that he is gone, I am free to remove my mask and get back to being myself again,” says the man in the iron mask. He unshackles the catches on the mask, and slowly removes it.
“Oh my god, you’re-“
“Yes, it is I, General Vivien de Bulonde!”
“Yes, that’s what I was going to say.”
“You have no idea who I am, do you?”
“Then what were you going to say?”
“I don’t want to say now.”
“No, please. Do tell.”
“I was going to say ‘The Man In The Fleshy Face’”.
“Let’s end it there.” All said and done…
9/10 – Incredibly high-quality cooking at very reasonable prices.