My real birthday was easily one of the happiest days I had in 2016. It was also a Monday and right in the middle of winter exams, so that's really saying something! I woke up to a very early breakfast in bed made by a secretive B: perfectly scrambled truffled eggs, fluffy pastries and, of course, a steaming mug of my favourite lemon and ginger tea. It was the perfect way to start the day and set me up for a morning in class, after which I had lunch with my classmates - a chicken katsu box from the wonderful Whitecross Street Market - and surprise chocolate cake in the university foyer.
Wonderful B, my love, then whisked me away from university to central London to escape revision for a day. We made a concerted effort to enjoy Winter Wonderland for all of five minutes (sorry, WW lovers - I think it's best in the dark, maybe!) before giving up to walk through leafy, lovely Hyde Park instead. It was a beautiful December day, misty yet bright, and we delighted in leaving the hubbub of Marble Arch and its harried Christmas shoppers behind for what could have almost been a stroll in the country. A weak sun nearing the winter solstice dipped low in the sky as huge hounds raced around the park, tongues lolling merrily, happy to be off their leashes. Hand in hand, we walked to the museums and spent the rest of the afternoon at my cherished childhood haunt, the Natural History Museum, taking in subject matter as diverse as cetaceans and pyroclastic flows. So it was that by 6 PM B and I were already exhausted, feet swollen, as we made our weary way back to the City for dinner at Petit Pois. B knew I'd wanted to go to Petit Pois from the second I read that there was going to be chocolate mousse. And oh, what mousse. But hold on, I'll get to that later.
B chose well: I couldn't help but fall for the restaurant from the moment we walked in. It's on Hoxton Square, a comparatively tranquil pocket of town where the City meets Shoreditch, thankfully tucked away from the din of Old Street. Petit Pois itself is fairly tiny and has a distinct character - it's a French joint, of course, but steers clear of the clichés that go with the stereotypical bistro set-up. No crooning Hardy, Bardot or Piaf here - you're more likely to find cool American blues here, all mellow and jangly guitars, plus simple décor: wooden tables, tealights and exposed brick. All of this gives the place the vibe of a sweet local, a surprising and exciting find.
A short menu of French classics meant that I didn't have to spend long choosing - the best birthday present for a neurotic. First: Stornoway black pudding. Apologies to the faint-hearted - you know I'm a fan of nose to tail by now. Hearty, indulgent, velvety discs, a wobbly poached egg nestled on top. A thin Nile of red wine sauce awaiting the inevitable rush of sticky golden yolk. Smoky lardons amping up an already sublimely rich dish. A consolation of greens hovering anxiously on the side. (Thanks owed to B for that description). A promising start to the evening.
Not pictured but worth mentioning: the wine. Helpless and ignorant in the face of wine, I knew only that I didn't want something dry so asked for 'lush' recommendations: the patient sommelier interpreted my request perfectly and brought us two suggestions. Mine, a Chateau Beynat Bordeaux, was smoky and complex; B's, the fragrant 'Cabaret Frank No. 2', smelled like dipping your head into a bramble bush (although much more pleasurable). Both were exceedingly good and went very well with our meaty mains.
For me: steak frites. Rare yet done extremely well (a masterclass in how to cook a steak, I thought) and accompanied by a bearnaise so thick and tasty, I couldn't help but mop up every last drop with my skin-on chips. Serious chips. Really excellent.
For him: duck confit. The better of the two mains, I thought - the duck, all tender meat and crisp skin, was positively falling off the bone, while the dauphinoise gratin on the side, intended perhaps as a cameo, almost stole the show all by itself. It's always been one of my favourite dishes and this one was particularly special, swimming in a magical rosemary flavoured cream. Rosemary for remembrance - and this, an unforgettable dish.
But my chips really were incredibly good.
And so we come to dessert. This chocolate mousse's reputation precedes it. It was described as Jay Rayner as 'the best three minutes you can have in London for under a fiver.' I'm inclined to agree with him. This mousse was a voluptuous, full-bodied minx, delicately powdered with the finest cocoa and swelling seductively as it was scooped from a mixing bowl directly on to our plates at the table. Chocolate and cream: the most wanton and base of desserts. Mindless, pure pleasure - in fact, I'm unable to even fully remember the sensation of consuming it. Oh, for an hour with that mixing bowl.
Just do me a favour and go and have that mousse.
I was taken with Petit Pois from the start and my love failed to wane over the course of the evening - if anything, I'm more infatuated looking back at the meal, a month on. Everything was simple, yet technically impressive and clearly crafted with love. I'm getting smutty with the superlatives, perhaps, but I have to say it: this was surely up there with my best meals of the year. And B didn't faint at the sight of the bill! This is that rarity in London: good food at a reasonable price. B lives around the corner from here now, so I'll find it difficult not to come back for that sinful mousse, a.k.a. seven minutes in heaven (a game for big girls and boys, children...) perhaps followed by a drink at Happiness Forgets in the basement this time.
So I had the happiest of birthdays, from start to finish! B and I made the hour trek back to my parents' place after dinner, where I was surrounded by family, presents, cards and yet more birthday cake (this time, an exotic rose-scented confection from Pierre Hermé - thanks papa!) I had a lovely time, and felt that I was exactly where I wanted to be. Thank you so much, my loved ones, for making sure that I had the most wonderful day.
Petit Pois Bistro
9 Hoxton Square
London N1 6NU