Joe’s Stone Crab, Miami Beach, Florida

I was, I’ll admit, a bit nervous about the restaurants in Miami. A couple of American friends had told me that they found the food in Florida “unsophisticated” and “boring” – thankfully, this really wasn’t my experience. (Outside the Disney parks, that is, where you will drive yourself mad trying to find something to eat that isn’t a pretzel, a sausage of some sort or a funnel cake.) We found some really interesting, innovative eating in and around Miami – traditional American at Michael’s Genuine, some great tapas with a very individual twist at Sra. Martinez and a simply astonishing bento box at Naoe, which I’ll give its own post later on.

Joe’s Stone Crab isn’t exactly innovative, having been serving up the same stuff for nearly a hundred years, but it came highly recommended by almost everybody we spoke to. At the southern end of Miami Beach, it’s easy to spot by the long line of Aston Martins and Ferraris queuing for the valet parking. The restaurant does not accept reservations. Your best bet is to visit mid-week, or you’ll be looking at a two-hour wait for a table. We went on a Thursday lunchtime, and were shown to a table indoors straight away; there was a 30-minute wait for an outdoor table.

Joe’s started out in 1913 as a seafood shack. It really came into its own in the 20s, when Joe Weiss discovered that the local stone crabs, previously passed over as inedible, had enormous, sweet, meaty claws. No, I have no idea how such a thing as a crab with giant claws might have come to be ignored by restaurateurs either, but that’s the story. These days the place only opens in stone crab season (late October to May), and then offers a reduced service until August. The crab claws are still served cold with the original accompaniments: a sharp, mustardy mayonnaise, a vinegary fresh slaw, hash browns and roasted tomatoes or creamed spinach. There’s also a large menu of other seafood, alongside fried chicken and steaks for the fish-phobic.

Despite those cars outside, the remarkable bling encrusting a lot of the women diners and the flotilla of designer labels, you don’t have to spend a fortune here, although some care in ordering is required. At lunchtime, the restaurant is offering a recession-busting “Great Lunch Bailout” menu, with a coleslaw starter, three enormous crab claws (trust me – these are so rich you won’t want any more), a positive Everglade of garlicky creamed spinach, a big patty of skillet-fried hash browns, the mustard mayonnaise, drawn butter, a slim slice of key lime pie and a coffee. The whole lot rolls up at $29.95.

I decided to embrace my status as a tourist, and wore the proffered bib. I’m very glad I did – the claws are ready-cracked, but I still managed to spray us both with liberal amounts of butter and crabby juices. A polite notice informed us that the recent cold weather (so aberrant that nobody in town seemed able to talk about anything else for the week we were there) meant that the meat from the claws may stick to the shell. It didn’t, but this is still a messy eat. There’s more here than you’ll be able to eat; be careful to save some room for the excellent pie. The crab is the main event here, and it’s downright fabulous – dense, sweet, rich and full of meat.

It’s such a simple meal that I find I’ve little else to add. Head over if you have the chance to visit this gorgeous, sunny city, and don’t bother exploring the rest of the menu. These crabs are something you won’t find outside Florida, and they’re a local delicacy so good that you’d be cheating yourself if you didn’t snap up a few claws while you’re there.

George Hotel, Stamford – Seafood platter

Dr Weasel and I spent this week’s Bank Holiday Monday in Stamford, where we had our wedding reception in 2004. The George Hotel is one of my favourite places in the country: it’s a coaching inn that’s been active since around 947 AD, with a gorgeously planted garden, quiet lounges with inglenook fireplaces, comfortable rooms and two very good restaurants. It’s in Stamford, a beautiful market town built out of creamy Barnack stone, a few minutes from Burghley House, the palace built by Elizabeth I’s treasurer, William Cecil. We spent the morning at Burghley, then stopped at the George for the afternoon to have tea and scones by the fireplace, and read our books.

The hotel is probably the oldest still functioning in the UK. The original coaching inn forms the heart of the building, with the two religious buildings on either side incorporated into the inn about 500 years ago. One side used to be the Holy Sepulchre, a hospital of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem. The George’s historical success came from its position at the side of the old Great North Road, and pilgrims and knights of the Holy Sepulchre stopped here as they travelled from the north down this main conduit on their journey to Jerusalem. There is a crypt beneath the cocktail bar where you can see part of the old hospital, and little architectural details pop out all over the building; trefoils carved in the stone, medieval gateways and the thick walls which once formed the outside of the building, now inside the hotel.

There are two restaurants at The George – the Garden Lounge is smart, but less formal than the Oak Panelled Dining Room, where men are asked to wear a tie. (Dr Weasel had left his in Cambridge when we visited a few years ago, and was given one by the head waiter.) Try the Oak Panelled Dining Room if you get the opportunity; it’s an experience simply to sit in the beautiful room, lit only by candlelight. The wine list is fascinating and meticulous, and the food, traditional English dishes like Woodbridge duck, suckling pig and a wonderful sirloin of beef, is always hearty and delicious. (We’ve looked up from our plates to see Judi Dench eating in the restaurant twice in the last few years – stalkers take note.)

We ate yesterday’s meal in the Garden Lounge, where the menu is a bit lighter. The menu changes seasonally, but there are a few constants – the gruyere fritters with a Thai chilli jam have been on the menu since I can remember. I had this gorgeous Brittany Platter – a dressed crab, a langoustine, an oyster (only one, sadly), a clutch of whelks, little palourde clams, cockles, mussels, tiny pink prawns and a huge king prawn. The enormous platter was served with a green salad spiked with celery, home-baked bread, and three home-made mayonnaise sauces; a Marie Rose, a mayonnaise tout simple and an astonishingly good tartare sauce.

The seafood here is always good; this was gloriously fresh. The shellfish, steamed gently, tasted of the sea, and the prawns were sweet and tender. It’s always good to find a whelk that’s not gritty or slimy, and these whelks accomplished that with aplomb. Grated egg yolk and white garnished the crab, and my, those little clams were a thing of beauty. Remarkably, I nearly managed to finish this; I left about five prawns, a couple of mussels, a whelk and some of the crab’s brown meat. Nearly 24 hours have passed, and I’m still full.

If you’re in the UK and looking for a weekend away, or if you’re visiting England from abroad, do think about spending a couple of days at the George. There’s nowhere I know that serves up that mixture of tradition, service and comfort quite as well. Ask for the kippers as part of your enormous breakfast, and tell them I sent you.

Crab pate with Melba toast

Something deep in the lizard-bit of my brain seems to be saying that I need to eat more fish. Ever alert to what my inner lizard is telling me, I’ve been eating a lot of seafood this week. And when the weather’s warm and humid, nothing is nicer than a glass of wine and some chilled crab pate on Melba toast.

Dressed crab is always curiously inexpensive in the supermarket – doubly curious, when you consider how delicious it is, and how easy it is to work with, all ready-shucked and packed in its own carapace, so you don’t have to be a chef at Hotels in Blackpool or a Michelin Star winner to be able to turn it into something incredible. To make enough pate for two smug fish-lovers, you’ll need:

1 dressed crab
2 tablespoons melted butter
Leafy parts of a stick of celery
½ teaspoon quince jelly (if you can’t get hold of quince jelly, use redcurrant)
1 teaspoon tarragon leaves
Small handful chervil
Juice of half a lemon
½ clove crushed garlic
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper

Put all the ingredients in the blender and whizz until you have a fine purée. Pack the resulting pate into a greased mould (I used a silicone muffin mould, which looks like a timbale mould in shape, but is easier to handle) and chill for an hour, until the pate is firm enough to turn out in one piece. Dress with chives and some more chervil.

The tiny amount of fruit jelly in this really brings out the strangely fruity sweetness of the crab. We ate the pate with Melba toast, which is delicious and looks dreadfully complicated. It’s actually simplicity itself. Just toast white sliced bread in the toaster as usual, and when it’s done, slice off the crusts. Separate the two sides of the slice of toast from each other by pushing a sharp knife through the soft bread in the middle of the slice, and grill the white side of each bifurcated toastlet under the grill until it’s golden and curling. Pour a glass of Semillion Chardonnay and get munching.

Cha gio (nems) – Vietnamese crispy spring rolls

nemsWhen Mr Weasel and I were living in Paris, we spent a lot of our time in one of the city’s Chinatowns, along the Avenue d’Ivry. It’s more a Cambodia-town or a Vietnam-town than London’s Chinatown, which is full of Chinese people and food; France is home to many more Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian people than the UK is, and this is reflected in the food.

One of my favourite Vietnamese dishes is these spring rolls, which are very hard to find in restaurants in the UK. Many cultures cook things wrapped in other things – there is the burrito, the Malaysian po pia, the fajita, the crèpe and . . . I suppose the closest English equivalent is the Cornish pasty. The cha gio stands head and shoulders above all of these – it’ s got texture and flavour to beat them all to a pulp in any contest of wrapped-up-things you may choose to imagine.

Cha gio get their texture, both crisp and chewy all at once, from the rice paper skins they are wrapped in. You can find these in good oriental supermarkets, and although they’re a little fragile when dry, they’re very easy to handle and wrap with. The finished rolls are wrapped in lettuce and herbs, making them taste fresh and light.

To make about sixty cha gio, you’ll need:

225g cellophane (bean thread) noodles
4 carrots, grated
8 dried shitake mushrooms, soaked
8 water chestnuts
1 dressed crab
12 raw tiger prawns, peeled and deveined
350g minced pork
1 onion
5 spring onions
4 cloves garlic
6 shallots
4 tablespoons fish sauce (nuoc mam)
3 eggs
15 x 25cm discs of rice paper (available in oriental supermarkets)

Sugar and water for soaking
Oil for deep-frying
Lettuce and mint leaves for wrapping

4 cloves minced garlic
½ cup nuoc mam
¼ cup caster sugar
1 teaspoon chili oil
1 diced red chili

raw prawnsSoak the noodles in boiling water and set aside, draining and rinsing in cold water after 15 minutes. Put the mushrooms, water chestnuts, crab, pork, prawns, onions, garlic and shallots in the food processor and pulse until chopped finely. Use your hands to stir in the fish sauce, the eggs, the carrots and the noodles.

Fill a mixing bowl half-full with warm water, and dissolve about six tablespoons of caster sugar in it – the sugar will help the rolls brown and help the sweetness of the carrots come through. Soak a rice-paper disc in this until it’s soft and pliable. Cut it with scissors into quarters. Place a dessert spoonful of the filling on the curved edge, fold over the adjacent corners and roll up, as in these photographs.

Deep fry the little rolls (I use a wok, which helps save on oil) until they are golden brown.

cha gioTo serve, wrap each one in a leaf of lettuce with some mint leaves. Dip in the spicy sauce and do your very best to nibble delicately. Delicious.

Those visiting Paris should run, not walk to Kim Anh (51 Av Emile Zola, 15e, 01 45 79 96), where the nems are . . . pretty much as good as these, only you don’t have to do all the work. (I lie. They’re even better, and they’re served alongside the very best Vietnamese food I’ve ever eaten.)