Saturday, 11 July 2015

Eating out in Jersey

For a small island, there are plenty of places to eat in Jersey.
On our brief stay in June, we did our bit for the country's restaurateurs and here's a quick round up.
We started at the top - Ormer is one of Jersey's four Michelin-starred restaurants and it's run by someone called Shaun Rankin, who is a very famous chef (so I'm told). I might have heard of him, but to be frank, I don't really follow all this food porn on television and the glossy supplements.
Anyway, Ormer has a Michelin star and everyone was very excited about the prospect of eating there, so what's not to like?
Ormer is an interesting name. It's a type of sea mollusc (a little like an oyster). It comes from French "oreille de mer" (a sea ear) because the open shell looks like a large ear. In the Channel Islands, they love them and there are ormering tides when the tide goes out a long way and people dash down onto the exposed rocks to collect them.
They are rare, cost a lot of money (around £10 each) to buy and are considered a delicacy. We asked if they had ormers on the menu at Ormer and the head waiter said they didn't because they were rather tough and they'd never keep their Michelin star if they served them.
It seems a bit odd to call your restaurant after sea food that you wouldn't put on the menu.
The place was pretty quiet for a Saturday night, but we had chosen to eat fairly early (7pm). There was an Australian girl (with an older chap) wearing an incredibly short skirt and halfway through her meal she started a long Skype call with someone on her iPad. It was (just) too far away for me to eavesdrop, but the couple on the next table clearly thought it bad form and asked to be moved. It was an interesting social/class interaction. One couple had perhaps come out for a special occasion and thought it very vulgar to start a Skype conversation in the middle of a meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant; the other pair treated Ormer with not a slightest wisp of respect - like most of the proletariat treat McDonalds.
We started off with cocktails in the bar while we chose our food and I thought they were a little too keen to get us seated and served. I almost had to neck my negroni! I chose crab as starter and fillet steak as my main. They don't ask how you'd like your steak, they tell you it will be rare and ask if that's all right. I have quite a high tolerance of steak from rare to medium, so I was happy enough, but should a restaurant tell you how your food will be cooked? I guess that ultimately it is up to you to vote with your feet and leave and all this "how would you like your ..." is a bit unnecessary. They should probably just cook it how they think it's best and most of us would get on fine.
Our table was situated so that we could see into the kitchen - no heads, just torsos moving about behind the hooded counter. There are a lot of people in there and Margaret was very interested in what was going on. It looked just like one of the reality restaurant shows she likes - Jamie Oliver could have swanked in at any moment and started poncing about.
I thought the food was very good - rich (of course) and small portions, very nicely presented and with interesting flavours. The steak was tender and nicely cooked; the waiters attentive and very pleasant without being ultra formal. Margaret had some Jersey Royals and thought they were a little too scrubbed and therefore lacking in flavour.
To finish, I had a cheeseboard and it was very good, a really nice selection and served at just the right temperature with a slice of quince jelly. There was the added entertainment of a stray ant that had hitched a ride with the cheese and spent the rest of the evening running around the table in a very confused state. If I'd been a Michelin inspector, that ant might have cost them their star!
Once the food was done, the waiters left us alone and were a little tardy bringing the bill, but I'm nit-picking because of the high standards the restaurant sets itself. I had a really nice meal. Total bill was just shy of £400 for the four of us (Sam's treat).
We were staying at the Royal Yacht on Liberation Square, a four-star hotel that's quite lively at night. St Helier is a strange mix. In some ways it is a market town version of London with a mini Canary Wharf finance centre attached. It's cosmopolitan, but compact and it has a seaside feel to it - a nice place to live (apart from the rush hour traffic and the parking).
The Royal Yacht's bars and nightclub seem to attract the young-to-middle-aged party set. It's not Cardiff on a Saturday night, but there were lots of high heels; short, plunging dresses and a good deal of sexual tension. Tattoos are much in evidence among the women and there were a lot of smokers. The warmer climate allows outside bars and so it's much easier to social smoke than it is back home.
The Royal Yacht hotel was quiet, spacious and comfortable. There was no noise in our room, despite the party going on five floors below. Breakfast was the usual Full English or Continental and it was nice to be able to eat on the first-floor balcony. It didn't get the morning sun, but some gas heaters dotted around made it more than warm enough. Jersey doesn't seem to worry about global warming. It buys its electricity from France (nuclear) and there are no wind turbines or solar panels. Almost every cafe, bar or restaurant has an al fresco area, but its literal meaning (cool air) is always warmed by countless gas heaters.
The Hungry Man (and woman) at Rozel
On Sunday, we had a walk with Skipper the collie dog (who belongs to one of Sam's partners) along the coast from Bouley Bay to Rozel. The north coast is up and down and the granite cliffs very pretty. It was a lovely warm day with a fresh breeze and lunch was at The Hungry Man in Rozel. This is a gaily painted shack with tables around the quayside and it does a roaring trade, with people queuing half an hour for food.
We let Sam do the queuing, while we sat at a table and enjoyed the sun and scenery. I'd offered to help, but then forgot, so he had to carry everything back on his own. There's a steady stream of cars driving down to the end of the quay hoping for a parking space and then having to turn around and drive back when they find there's none free. I've never seen so many disappointed drivers.
I had a crab roll, the house speciality, and it was good. That's crab twice in two days! Lucy likes nothing more than a bacon-and-egg roll with lots of sauce. Later, we drove round to St Ouen's Bay, which has a massive beach stretching for five miles. It's west-facing and catches the afternoon and evening sun, so was very pleasant in spite of a brisk wind. There's a beach bar called Watersplash that was pumping out a reggae beat at high volume carrying for miles along the almost-deserted sands. I'm surprised they get away with noise-polluting such a beautiful beach, but the tourist board seems to want to create the image of a surfers' paradise, so that means loud music and you can park your VW Camper on the slipway without being fined. I sound grumpy, but actually I didn't mind the music too much.
After enjoying some sea and sand we wandered back to a cafe called El Tico to see if we could eat. Sam, Lucy and I had breakfast there the last time we came to Jersey and it was very good. On Sunday evening, the place was pretty busy, but most people wanted tables inside and so we got a nice spot outside in the sun. Sheltered from the wind, it was really warm - who would want to sit inside when you could enjoy the sun and look out across the sands? El Tico is a safe bet for food; I had a salad in a desperate last bid to get a couple of my five a day.
We're gobbling down the calories, but we are getting plenty of walks.
Monday started with another "Full English" and then we met Sam to collect some paintings he'd ordered for his consulting room. Margaret put her foot in it by telling him she didn't like one (typical!) so he didn't ask her views on any of the others. We then drove out to Plemont, which is a lovely little cove and beach on the rocky north coast. The Plemont Beach Cafe is highly rated and is very nice. We'd already had a large breakfast so I just had a hot chocolate (very good), Sam went for crab (again) and Lucy might have had a bacon and egg roll. It was just (only just) too cool to sit outside unless you were in the sun and so we went inside. The cafe overlooks the beach and there's a lifeguard station on its roof.
From Plemont, we walked around to La Greve de Lecq, which is about three miles along the coast. There was a strong, cool  wind blowing but it was sunny (quite good walking conditions). The coast here is very up-and-down but the path is good, narrow in places, but with steps cut into the steeper inclines. Lucy is doing a round-the-island walk in a couple of weeks time and the north coast will be the toughest section. The walk is just over 50 miles, so quite an undertaking.
There are supposed to be puffins nesting along this section, but we didn't see any. There are good views of the other Channel Islands though. You can see Sark, Little Sark (which is joined to the main island by a narrow isthmus), Herm and Guernsey. The missing one (Alderney) is way off to the north.
Above La Greve de Lecq, Sam said he'd run back along the road to where we'd parked the car and pick us up in the village. We walked down to a nice pub called La Moulin de Lecq, which is a converted watermill with the wheel still in place. I tucked into the beer (it's nice not having to drive) while we waited in the sun for Sam to arrive.
Cocktails at Banjos.
In the evening, we were to eat at Banjos, which is a restaurant and cocktail bar housed in a former gentlemen's club in St Helier. We'd planned a meal there last time we were in Jersey, but weren't able to eat because Margaret was feeling unwell. This time, we almost missed it because I took a wrong turning and ended up half a mile from where we should have been, so we only just made it in time for cocktails with Sam and Lucy before sitting down.
I'd promised myself a fillet steak (another one!) because that's what I was having last time. Unlike Ormer, they give you the option of how you'd like it cooked, but I got the impression that they wouldn't have looked upon me kindly if I'd asked for it "well done". There was almost a food disaster when the waiter delivered a steak to my plate and then asked who was having the other. We said no-one else is having steak, so he took it back to the kitchen. In a couple of minutes he came back and said he'd brought it to the wrong table, so my steak was whisked away. Fortunately, I hadn't sliced a little taste off the end, but Margaret said the people on the table behind me who were getting a 'second-hand' steak didn't look very pleased (and I can't say I'd blame them).
Banjos doesn't have a Michelin star and the food isn't as theatrical or as well presented as Ormer, but it's a nice place, the cocktails are good and the building is splendid. It's owned by the Jersey Pottery group, which has a number of cafes and eating places around the island. I like the pottery (Sam and Lucy bought us a piece when they were living in London, years before they ever thought of moving to Jersey) but it's a shame that the pottery is made abroad, not on the island. Even if some of the smaller, cheaper pieces were made in the far east and some had been retained on Jersey it would have been better. As it is, I think it's a dangerous game to jeopardise the integrity of a brand. Of course, they're not alone - Portmeirion is doing exactly the same thing and I won't buy any of their new stuff for exactly that reason.
Corbiere lighthouse - at the start(and end) of the railway walk.
I'm not sure if Sam thinks we need to get fit or whether this was part of Lucy's training regime for the round-the-island walk, but he had planned a number of walks for us. We were supposed to be going on a boat trip to Les Ecrehous today, but the wind was too strong to be able to land there, so it was cancelled. Instead, we did the railway walk that was planned for another day. Jersey had only one railway and it ran from St Helier, along  St Aubin's Bay and out to Corbieres. If they'd kept it open, a steam railway might have been Jersey's most popular tourist attraction, topping the Nazi War Tunnels and the Battle of the Flowers, but they didn't. All of the tracks have been removed, but the section from St Aubin to Corbiere remains open as a footpath. It's a very gentle downward gradient from Corbiere, but the views are not great (in fact most of it is through woodland, suburbs and a golf club).
So it's a pleasant, if unspectacular path, much favoured by dog walkers, with a cafe half-way along. The only problem (and it's one which many paths suffer from): cyclists. They are more polite in Jersey than they are in the UK, but walkers and cyclists don't mix - dogs just add an extra dimension to any problem, of course. There's a cycle-hire shop in St Aubin at the end of the path and it's an obvious thing to make a trip to Corbiere your first target. Fortunately, most of the tourists don't cycle much faster than I can walk.
At the end of the track you're in St Aubin, which has a pretty harbour and a collection of shops, houses and hotels. We had lunch in the Boat House, which overlooks the harbour; very nice decor, very friendly and efficient service and a nice view. You can site outside, but it was far too windy today. Margaret and I had tapas, which was OK. To finish the day, we went to Ransome's Garden Centre, which may also be part of the Jersey Pottery empire (or perhaps it's just the cafe). The cafe is renowned across Jersey and, by the time I'd walked back to Corbriere, I had made room for a cake. I think garden centres make more money from their cafes and restaurants than they do from selling plants. This one should do - it was very busy, packed with middle-class mums and their noisy children. I have quite a high tolerance of noisy children (having had three myself), so this wasn't a deal-breaker. Service was good and the tea/cakes were also good (if a little pricey).
On Wednesday, we visited Jersey zoo, or the Durrell Wildlife Park, to give it its proper name. It came highly recommended and we were told to be sure to watch feeding time for the large primates. I'm never very happy with animals having to perform and, although the chimps’ tea-party fell into disrepute years ago, even the prospect of gorillas being thrown food made me a little uneasy.
Spot the animal - favourite game at Jersey zoo.
For a small island, Jersey zoo is very large. The animals, mostly, have large enclosures, which means that the indignity of being stared at while you eat is probably not such a problem. In fact the biggest problem is finding an animal to stare at and demean. The Andean Bear enclosure was notable for its lack of Andean Bears, the orang-utans were merging successfully into the background (which is quite hard because they’re orange and the background is green) and even the meerkats were a little backward in coming forwards.
There are animals in Jersey zoo, trust me, it's just that it takes you a while to learn how to spot them. Once you've got your eyes accustomed, you can normally find some kind of creature within half an hour or so. It's a very pleasant place to spend a day even without animals, so look upon a sighting of the tip of an otter's tail disappearing under the water as a bit of a bonus.
Sam in the observation bubble in the meerkat enclosure.
We eventually saw more than two meerkats (I think the sight of Sam appearing in the observation bubble scared them all to one end) and we found the Andean Bears in their underground enclosure indulging in a little afternoon hanky-panky (well foreplay at least). The orang-utans put in a brief appearance and the gorillas appeared fleetingly for feeding time and the gorilla talk by a zookeeper. The menu today comprised lettuce, which the zoo grows itself and which is lobbed into the undergrowth in the gorilla enclosure so the animals have to forage (as they would in the wild). You'd think a gorilla would need more calories than is contained in a lettuce, but they don't seem to be underfed. The highlight of a zoo trip for me (like any child) is seeing an unusual animal doing a poo. In Jersey zoo, we saw a gibbon hanging by its long arms from a steel wire (strung like a clothes line for his amusement and exercise) to relieve himself. First he (or she) did a long wee and then the creature forced out a long poo. The gibbon and the poo hung there for a couple of minutes before it dropped (the poo, not the gibbon). I've never seen that before, although if I were a gibbon, I'd definitely try it. There was also a bonus in the fruit bat enclosure. These are amazing creatures, wonderful to watch. When they're not flying or pooing they hang upside down - think about it, you can't do a poo upside down, it would make a terrible mess. So what the fruit bats do is turn over, hang the right way up, get the business done and then go back to hanging the right way (wrong way) up.
It's a well-known fact that Margaret is very fond of pizza, so Sam and Lucy planned a trip to Pizza Express at St Brelade in the evening. Sam had wanted to book a table by the window and after some difficulties had been promised one, but we'd arrived a little early and had time for a walk on the beach and a drink before eating.
St Brelade is a nice place and overlooks Ouaisné Bay (another of those Jersey place names which is quite hard to get your tongue around). There are two wide beaches intersected by a rocky outcrop which you can walk around on the sand when the tide is out. When the tide's in, there's a path up and over it. We walked the length of the beach to the Old Smugglers Inn and then back to Pizza Express. The place was absolutely packed, it was doing a roaring trade! Of course, there wasn't a table by the window, I think they'd forgotten our booking and we were squeezed in, then had a long wait for the pizza to arrive and mine had a soggy bottom - they were just too busy to do a good job. The after-dinner drinks were no better - Lucy ordered a mint tea and got greenfly floating on the top, I ordered an Irish Coffee which didn't taste of coffee or whisky and was crowned by a massive blob of squirty cream. We complained and they gave us some money off.
Exit this way - inside the mound at La Houge Bie
Thursday was our last day, we were flying out that evening and we started the day at Bouley Bay where there's a little beach shack called Mad Mary's. Lucy is fond of their bacon-and-egg baps (the best on the island, I'm told) but I'd already had bacon and egg (plus toast, black pudding, a sausage and tomato - I'd resisted the hash brown and baked beans), so I settled for Mad Mary's other speciality - hot chocolate. Mad Mary didn't look very mad, but she did give me a perplexed look when I said "no thanks" to squirty cream on my drink. What is it with squirty cream - you can't avoid the bloody stuff in cafes these days.
Sam and Lucy know I like nothing more than a day with a prehistoric mound, so they took us to a place called La Houge Bie, which is claimed to be the finest passage grave in Europe. It's Neolithic, dating back to around 3,500 BCE and it is a really amazing place. You can crouch and walk into the chamber and at sunrise on the summer solstice, the sun shines directly through the entrance and onto the back wall. The place has been knocked about a bit - the Christians built a church on top of the mound (which is about 30ft high), then some rich Victorian guy built himself a mock palace (which was later pulled down) covering part of the mound, then the Germans used it as a communications and command bunker during the Second World War.
It's amazing what bad care we have taken of prehistoric monuments over the years - it's amazing there are any left. The Christians were the worst, they pulled them down, built churches on them ... At Avebury, we built a village on the most amazing Neolithic stone circle in the world.
In spite of its trials and tribulations, La Houge Bie has survived and it retains an ancient, special feeling. There's a good museum, you can go inside the chamber, you can climb on top of the mound and go inside the tiny church. The WW2 command centre is open and has been converted into a memorial for the forced/slave labourers who died on the Channel Islands during the war. The Channel Islands was the only part of the British Isles to be occupied during the war and the Germans spent much effort in fortifying them (all using slave labour). In the end, the Allies invaded France and left the Channel Islands alone until the German surrender by which point the garrison (and a lot of the population) were starving.

Well we certainly weren't starving on Jersey and our holiday came to an end in typical British seaside tradition - fish and chips in the pouring rain. We'd driven to Grouville and the plan was to have a mooch about, a walk on the beach and then grab some chips to eat on the beach before catching the plane home. As we were driving from La Houge Bie, a few spots started to appear on the windscreen, then it was pouring down, then it was thundering. We had a drink in a pub instead of a walk and chips (from Entwhistle's, I think) were consumed inside a steamed-up car.