THE BLOG

This Week I Ate: Ape and Bird and a Squashed Pain Au Chocolat

16/03/2014 19:59 GMT | Updated 14/05/2014 10:59 BST

For just under a fiver you can get a cup of black coffee and a squashed pain au chocolat from St Helens Café and Deli, on St Helens Gardens, in North Kensington. I work round the corner and the yummy mummies of this neck of the woods pause here for a cup of coffee having exhausted themselves after dropping their children at nearby nurseries and schools.

It's not a cheap option but the food is usually good; big salads, large brownies, that sort of thing. So having missed breakfast and being in a hurry I nipped in for a cup of coffee and the aforementioned pastry. Connoisseurs of pain au chocolat - that's right, most of us - will recognise them as being about a inch in thickness with pleasantly flaky pastry.

Perhaps the staff at St Helens Café suspected that I was about to get in my car and would have been worried about eating the pastry and getting flakes of it over my clothes and around the Zipcar.

So perhaps that's why it had been squashed. Or maybe sat on, by a very small child as it curved up slightly at the edges.

It reminded me of a similar disappointment I felt about a piece of fish I once bought in a fish and chip shop in southern Ireland, on the road to Kilkenny. It was square-shaped, firm on the outside, solid within, and not tasting much of fish.

But the advantage of this pain au chocolat, which I looked at in distress as I pulled it out of the brown paper bag as I drove off - thus too late to return and complain - was that the pastry was so compressed that it didn't flake; not one bit.

I then remembered that the girl who served me had asked if I wanted my coffee and pastry to take away. So as she kindly poured the coffee into a cardboard cup, perhaps she also, in her mind considerately, grabbed a small child that she had hidden behind the counter and pressed its bottom onto the pain au chocolat.

There were other happier food-related revelations this week. One was after a dinner at Exeter College, Oxford - soon to celebrate 700 years - where I was treated to soup, beef and tiramisu in the dining room, built in 1618 with its long wooden tables, panelled walls, high ceilings and stained glass; think Harry Potter. We walked across the quad - where Inspector Morse once famously collapsed - through the gardens and up onto the wall of the Fellows' Garden. From there we could see, through the misty darkness, the elegance of Brasenose College and the circular building of Radcliffe Camera, a Palladian feat of beauty from the mid 18th Century. The site was as beautiful as any view in Florence. It was the precursor to dessert in a separate room, where claret and port were circulated at break-neck speed as well as snuff, which moved around the table less hastily.

The second highlight of the week was a pig's trotter scotch egg served as a starter at Russell Norman's Ape and Bird pub on London's Shaftesbury Avenue.

I sat at the bar with two friends feeling in the mood for some sharing dishes having wolfed down several packets of Mr Trotter's jalapeno chilli crisps and some of his new, rich and earthy ales in the basement bar.

But here is an eaterie from the Polpo chain where dishes AREN'T for sharing. Trust Russell to fuck with the zeitgeist just when you need it.

So I sliced up the scotch egg with its rich and dark meat and we shared it. We decided not to share the risotto because it was too salty to eat. And the unpeeled prawns at the top of the tall glass of prawn cocktail I donated to one of my friends. I don't think it works to mix peeled prawns with un-peeled ones, however pretty they might look sticking out of the top of the glass.

If I've ordered a prawn cocktail I've already psychologically moved away from a prawn-peeling episode.

A rib-eye steak I sliced and shared and we dipped my delicious crispy chips into the pot of Bearnaise sause.

Bottles of Gruner Veltliner were called for and we decided that this was a fine bar to sit at, a lovely bustling room, more restaurant than pub and if there was no signature sharing there was plenty of excellent, youthful, bright, enthusiastic, we-know-what-we're-doing-and-we-enjoy-it, type staff which is typical of the Russell Norman ethos.

If the Ape is reassuring strength and the Bird, delicate flourish, then the Ape and Bird has just that balance of conviction and artistry.