Peter James: Internal US airlines and the finest low-calorie dishes in the world


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Bestselling crime writer Peter James talks us through his gastronomic adventures and keeps us abreast of everything relating to his fictional detective, Roy Grace

Last month, you may remember, I had a real go at internal US airlines. This month I’m having another moan! Honestly, if anyone tells you internal US airlines are not the worst in the world, they’ve never travelled on an internal US airline. Lara and I have just taken my “real life” Roy Grace, David Gaylor and his delightful wife, Lyn, to a homicide conference in New Orleans – research for my next Roy Grace novel. On an internal flight from Dallas to NOLA, as it is called, travelling first class, American Airlines lost David’s bag for five days. They have a phone number that no one answers, or if they do, they keep you on hold until you give up. When I tweeted in outraged despair, they contacted me within minutes saying how much they valued their customers… then gave me the same number! It was only after the furious intervention of my brilliant travel agent, Claire Horne at Travel Counsellors in Worthing, that they found the bag – within five minutes.

This was my third visit to New Orleans and it is now firmly my favourite city in the US. Incredibly friendly and chilled, with terrific food, great bars and music everywhere, it isn’t called The Big Easy for nothing. We stayed at the Marriott Convention Centre, not normally my first choice of hotel brand, but what a superbly run hotel it is.

You could spend a month in New Orleans and not eat in the same superb restaurant twice. Rich, spicy Creole and Cajun food is their speciality, along with legendary beignets, and not for nothing did it recently acquire the unwelcome soubriquet of Fattest City In the US. But choose carefully and you can enjoy some of the finest low-calorie dishes in the world. Oysters, soft shell crabs, big prawns and fabulous scallops are plentiful – raw, sizzled or roasted – along with a wide variety of fish, as well as huge choices of meats. But the taste sensation of the trip was crispy alligator, at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen. Once you get past the idea of eating something that could otherwise eat you, you are tasting the best, richest taste of chicken ever.

General consensus has it that GW Fins is the best restaurant in the city, and having been there four times in the past 10 years, I wouldn’t disagree. But also try crazily rammed Acme’s at lunchtime (no booking), Red Fish Grill, Gautreau’s for classy old-New Orleans style, Bayona and Cochin. And if you’re in the mood for a cigar or just a lethal cocktail in a great, air-con environment, go to La Habana Hemingway Cigar Lounge in Toulouse Street, in the French Quarter.

Earlier this month I was in one of my favourite UK towns, Harrogate, where I was this year’s guest programming chair of their Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. And to my surprise, thanks to all of you who generously voted for me, I won the Tess Gerritsen sponsored award for Best Crime Series for Roy Grace! My favourite Harrogate restaurant is the Drum and Monkey, where I have eaten regularly over many years, and it never disappoints. They were having a lobster week while we were there, maintaining top quality crustaceans at almost bargain prices.

What you mean by lunch, tea or dinner traditionally defines your class. For factory workers, lunch is around 10am, dinner at 12.30pm and tea is the evening meal. For royalty, lunch is 1pm, tea is cucumber sandwiches, scones and cakes at 4pm, and dinner is at 7.30-for-8pm. However, at legendary Betty’s in Harrogate there seems to a social order of its own. We went there at 1pm, and were served an utterly delicious, Champagne-fuelled later-in-the-day version of brunch. Sort of lunch and high tea combined. Prawn and avocado, sandwiches, scones, cakes, more of everything and then more still. We staggered out, stuffed and smiling, to the glares of the constant mile-long queuing public outside.

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Getting closer to home we took my youthful father-in-law for his 70th birthday to Benares, in London – an Indian restaurant in Berkeley Square that is, quite simply, sensational – if priced accordingly.

If Terre-A-Terre changed the UK’s views on vegetarian restaurants, Redemption, in Notting Hill, changed Lara’s and mine on vegan ones. So much so I found myself trying a vegan sausage roll in the Marwood Coffee Shop in Brighton’s Lanes, and loving it.

I loved the food in Plateau, opposite Brighton Town Hall, where we went to celebrate the publication of my first non-fiction book, Death Comes Knocking – Policing Roy Grace’s Brighton, with my co-author Graham Bartlett and his wife, Julie. The vibe was great, the food – such as my tandoori fish platter – original and clever. But they advertise themselves as a wine bar and have a wide, eclectic list of wines. Our first choice, at £60, recommended by the waiter/sommelier, was as cloudy as a silted pond. “Because it’s organic,” he said. Come on Plateau, you could be one of the best restaurants in Brighton. Hope you like my photograph – it shows me with the last sommelier who tried to convince me about cloudy wine…

Peter James donates his fee for this column to his charitable foundation supporting Sussex charities and this month’s fee will be given to Terry’s Cross House in Woodmancote, for retired clergy.

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