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OFF MENU: My Magical Restaurant

By Thomas Giblin (he/him)


culture & lifestyle writer

The faded memories of Ashley Bloomfield's daily sermons, face mask acne and Zoom lectures are remnants from a surreal world. Grandchildren will quiz us about these two or so years of Covid, closed borders and lockdowns for their homework. They'll ask, "What was it like?" and we'll realise that the pandemic didn't happen a few years ago but a few decades ago. This surreal reality defined our lives as we emerged into adulthood; no time was spent drunkenly stumbling down Queen Street. Instead, we watched Tiger King or played Among Us while sipping a dalgona coffee.

We all had to find ways to remain sane during the horrors of this new reality; my coping mechanism was a daily evening stroll around the grounds of a local school. This ritualistic promenade gave way to a lockdown hyperfixation: podcasts. No, I wasn't listening to The Joe Rogan Experience, but Off Menu - a food and comedy show hosted by famed British comedians Ed Gamble and James Acaster. The premise is simple: a guest imagines their dream restaurant, with a genie waiter that can produce any food or drink that one desires. Guests are first asked, "Still or sparkling water?" by Acaster, who plays the genie. Mid-answer, he'll suddenly shout, "Poppadoms or bread?" and the show continues with their guest describing their dream menu: the starter, main course, side dish, drink and dessert.

While walking, I often saw an old man with surprising athleticism doing tai chi on the furrowed school field. I'd pause the podcast, and we'd have a brief socially distanced chat about the daily community case numbers. Occasionally, a dog off its leash would scamper up to me and beg at my legs for attention. Its yaps would be much louder than its teensy frame. The pup would interrupt the sound of a podcast guest, such as The Streets frontman Mike Skinner or Hollywood star Martin Freeman, until its owner beckoned it back with a piercing whistle that echoed off of sandboxes and abandoned sports equipment.

My saunter began as an excuse to get out of the house and escape the glacial asphyxiation that occurs when you're stuck with family in a small flat for months. Instead, Off Menu became a springboard to ponder my dream menu, transforming these mundane walks into a self-reflexive examination of my complicated relationship with food and its enduring connective power. I know I'll never be invited to the show, so now's my excuse to reveal my dream menu after many hours of imagining what I'd say and how I'd impress the hosts.


In the London area of Mayfair (the namesake of Monopoly's most expensive dark blue property) is The Wolseley restaurant. Its premises are stunning; formerly a Barclays Bank, the building features Venetian- and Florentine-inspired detailing, with an interior decorated with lavish marble pillars and archways. The grand facade transports you back to memories of creamy hollandaise and indulgent desserts paid for by distant relatives. Despite its opulence and often glamorous crowd of media types, there's no sense of snobbery if you waltz in wearing a pair of jeans. Guests like me are welcomed as regulars, yet I've only been three times. Also, since this is my dream restaurant, I want to transport The Wolseley to the Swiss Alps, so I can walk out of the stinging cold and thaw out as a heater works overtime.

To further curate the ambience of my dream restaurant, I'd want a playlist of certified bangers to be playing. From Ryuichi Sakamoto to Aphex Twin and Salvia Palth, this playlist would echo out loud enough to be heard but not so loud that I'd have to raise my voice. Also, occasionally I'd overhear a patron telling their friend or significant other that they like the song playing. I crave validation, so this dream menu and restaurant is as much about pleasing my frontal lobe as it is about my palate.


Hear me out - Boris Johnson in leather bondage on rollerblades. The masochist within me wants to see the bumbling idiot humiliated and at my beck and call. He'd stumble and fall while carrying dishes to other tables, but Johnson would never dare spill my food. Seeing him seep with sweat, and his face go bright red as he struggled to remain upright on his rollerblades would be a sight to behold. Johnson would crash and fall. Plates would smash, and he'd dowse himself in lingonberry compote and Languedoc red. Patrons would all point and laugh in unison.

Still or sparkling water?

I'll always pick still tap water at a restaurant, but since this is my dream restaurant and I don't have to worry about picking up the bill, I'm choosing ice-cold sparkling water. No, it doesn't taste like TV static but rather the nectar of the gods. Make sure to add some crushed ice and a few slices of lemon.


Easy question: poppadoms. I am a moth to a flame for this iconic Indian snack. A staple of any takeaway night, a dozen will be consumed on the brief drive home, despite telling myself, "I have to save some for the curry." Only crumbs will remain in the greasy paper bag, crumpled up next to a piping hot naan fresh from the tandoor. If I had any self-control, I'd dip the poppadoms into a mint raita, but the wonderful guilty indulgence of knowing you shouldn't, but you will, makes this snack irresistible on a drive home. I'm always wary of the crumbs that adorn my lap; it's evidence against my case when I try to convince my family that I must have forgotten to order some.

Hors d'oeuvre/Appetiser/Starter

The humble onion bhaji, an underrated item on Indian takeaway menus, is a staple food in my life. The frozen ones I'm currently defrosting for when I have a break from writing aren't authentic, but god do they hit the spot. Best served piping hot with a side of mango chutney, an onion bhaji will always make me smile.

I've already featured two foods from the Indian subcontinent on the menu, so I want to situate my relationship with Anglo-Indian cuisine in my life. I was born in Ealing, London. The town of Southall, often called Little Punjab or Little India, was adjacent to where I lived. My mum often recounts how I was only a few days old when I was in a high chair at Haweli's, an iconic Indian restaurant. When I learned to walk, the staff would give me a kitchen tour, and on Sundays, we'd visit for their bargain Sunday brunch buffet.

I'm thankful I was born in a city with such ethnic diversity, where the cuisine spanned the globe. Yes, barriers still exist, and the poisonous debate around immigration has been stoked by the likes of Trump, Farage and Hanson. But diversity is what makes cities like London, my birthplace and Tāmaki Makaurau, my kāinga, great. Our differences stoke creativity, and exposure to different cultures through the connective power of food should be celebrated. We shouldn't be divided, but rather united over delicious plates of shumai, mussels, waakye, empanadas and pavlova.

Main Course

When you have hyperfixations with certain foods, you often end up loving the dish one day, but the next you can't even stomach looking at it without feeling queasy. Fresh pasta, the spinach and ricotta kind you get from the refrigerated section at your local supermarket, was all that I wanted to eat for the longest time. Despite these tendencies of mine, there was no clear choice for my dream main. I could've chosen a beloved food from my childhood, but I can't remember a main course I was infatuated with. I was a picky eater, so any main course was usually spent sitting at the dinner table till I was finished with my food or hiding vegetables in the pockets of my camouflage shorts. I'd later flush the broccoli, green beans or brussel sprouts down the toilet.

Without a standout dish in mind, I had to deliberate for hours on what my dream main would be. As if I was a juror serving on a trial, I agonised over all the evidence. But soon it became obvious: tteok-bokki with an extreme amount of mozzarella cheese. The dish, sweet and spicy, with perfectly chewy rice cakes, a sprinkling of spring onion and a smothering of gooey, stretchy cheese is a dish I turn to whenever I'm feeling blue. It warms me up from the inside and brings a smile to my face whenever a large bubbling bowl of the famed Korean street food is placed beneath my drooling mouth. I can't remember the first time I had tteok-bokki, and my attempts at making a homemade version have always been a travesty. So as it's my dream main, I'd want it to come straight from a pocha.


There is no duality to this menu, as I continue the theme of unhealthy carb-heavy dishes. It wouldn't be a dream menu without hot chips. Not floppy McDonald's French fries or those abominable waffle fries, but hot chips, straight from the deep fryer of a fish and chip shop, wrapped up in an old newspaper. This Aotearoa staple must have a crisp exterior with a light and fluffy interior of potatoey goodness, caked in salt, served not with tomato sauce but with mayonnaise, the superior condiment.

What's your poison?

I want an endless supply of dangerously strong gin and tonics served in an ornate highball glass, with crushed ice and maybe a leaf of mint if I'm feeling fancy. This G&T won't be spiked with Gordon's, Beefeater or Seagers. Instead, I want Peddlers Shanghai gin, a favourite with mint, juniper berries and Sichuan pepper notes. Yes, this is definitely pretentious, but after many nights curled up on the bathroom floor due to cheap gins, I can't go back. Thankfully, since this is my dream drink, I'll get drunk and enjoy the false confidence it gives me, but I don't want a hangover.

Dessert (pronounced [deh-zert])

I don't want anything extravagant for my dream dessert, but rather a tiramisu made by an Italian nonna. Strong espresso and whipped cream are two of my favourites, so when you bring them together I'm in glucose heaven. After gorging myself on such a spread of carbohydrates, I'll need a pick-me-up, so the sugar and caffeine will bring me back to my usual glum self. If I'm feeling naughty, I'll ask for a slice in a takeaway container, so in the depths of the night, I can sneak to the fridge like I'm Nigella Lawson and enjoy my treat.

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As Gamble and Acaster recount a guest's dream menu, my calves begin to ache, signalling that it's time to go home and enjoy the respite that a bowl of food brings. The thought of what food I'll stuff myself with makes me walk like Roger Quemener. Because of the lockdown, I don't usually eat till midnight to cook peacefully away from prying eyes and loose mouths. As the pan sizzles and the extractor fan begins to hum, the magic of Off Menu is no more; tonight's episode has finished, but its ideas will be pervasive.

Two or so years on from this lockdown hyperfixation, I'm now writing an article that pays homage to Off Menu. A lot has changed since my first dream menu, so the one above is not written in stone; tomorrow, it all may change, but for now, I'm content. Camus said you'll "never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of", but I think happiness consists of a rice cake covered in a sweet and spicy sauce with cheese.


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