Wednesday, 24 September 2014

What's powering deformality in restaurants?

Recently I attended one of those industry workshops with a well known discount bookings company, and on the agenda was a talk from someone from Michelin Guide. Ooh I thought, how interesting. What followed was bordering on bizarre: the speaker was announced to be behind a screen, amplified like some sort of restaurant Wizard of Oz, proceeding to read out some kind of desperately worded script about being ‘more relevant’, with ‘small plates’ ‘no tablecloths informality’ and ‘groovily dressed staff rather than the penguin suits of yore’.

Please. Groovily dressed staff?  Bang on. That sure is what I dream of when I think of really spoiling myself at the restaurant of my dreams. Groovily dressed staff. Not drifting off into a magical world of professional service, not beautifully cooked food, but groovily dressed staff. Lucky the old red book is getting relevant, because I was beginning to think they had no idea that restaurants today were about groovily dressed staff.
I’m sorry (no I’m not) but The Michelin guide, tragically jumping on bandwagon trends trying desperately to stay relevant is rather like that mother of your schoolfriend who, desperate to stay young and cool, cringeingly wears the same teenager clothes has her. 

However, this obsession with ‘democratising fine dining’ has got me thinking. What does democratising fine dining even mean? Who are the people powering this so-called ‘shift to deformailty’ and what has made it happen?

The first thing I think of is the use of the word ‘democratising’. Isn’t fine dining almost the ultimate form of democracy? In which other situation can the everyman, no matter who they are, or where they are from, as long as they have £150 or whatever, go out, free of guilt and be treated like a queen? With the exception of possibly some day spas, possibly a night at a grand hotel, or purchasing a business class ticket on an airline I can’t think of any other example apart from restaurants where for a brief period, one can purchase (at a reasonable price) pure, luxury service. 

I often like to compare the restaurant industry with the airline industry. Both offer you a fundamental product: with airlines it is a trip from a to b, with restaurants it is your dinner. So once we remove this element from the experience, as we are so often told is the case - how often have we been told we want to ‘strip everything back and focus on purely what’s on the plate’ - we are left with the simple fact of adding service and luxury to the experience. Economy vs business class.
I can hear all the passengers in the long-haul queue at Heathrow now.
“I simply can’t bear all that stuffiness of legroom, quietness and comfort. Lying there, literally flapping my legs around in the stupid big flat beds. That annoying air steward coming over and offering to bring me food and Champagne and blankets whenever I want. The inane boredom of quiet calmness when I try and sleep. No, give me economy any day! I love the tiny cramped seats, not being able to get anyone’s attention, queuing 15 mins for the loos, the smell of someone’s crisps, the snoring and burping, my idea of heaven!!
Sure, there will always be people who want to simply get to their destination, where economy class is perfect. But find me anyone on earth who, if money was no object, would honestly choose economy over business class and I’ll eat my hat. And money is no object here. At no point has any ‘deformalised’ restaurant I can think of also ‘deformalised’ the prices. Service charges and menu prices always seem to remain the same. 

And what is with the design? Let’s consider the common elements: The concrete floors, the tiled walls, half-light filament bulbs, plain utilitarian schoolhouse furniture, the overruling embarrassment and shame of decoration, luxury or comfort of any kind. It’s like we’re all some self flagellating frugal religious sect, rather like the Shakers, who eschewed comfort and decoration in favour of durability and functionality - or the Puritans; who can forget the classic Blackadder scene where Edmund sarcastically offers his Aunt ‘a spike to sit on?’ in order to further extend the desired discomfort. 

Maybe though, it’s simply a social thing. A result of our society. I look around at the archetypal young London restaurant scenester powering every stripped out Brooklyn style eating house in town and I see a common thread, the home-counties middle-class comfortable background, the same kind who tried to cover up their posh accents at uni, for whom restaurants and service evoke the memories of their privileged upbringing, when they were taken to their local Michelin starred house of pomposity in the 1980s & 90s, being told to be quiet, the starchy linen brushing their knees and not being allowed to have more water unless a waiter topped up their glass.
They are used to experiencing comfort and subservience, they’ve grown up with it, and they are perhaps ashamed of it, preferring to visibly slum it, with staff that look like student versions of themselves, elbow to elbow in some kind of proletariat workhouse environment, which in some weird way comforts them as downstairs rather than upstairs at Downton.

So who knows what is behind it, but perhaps I’m just jaded. Maybe I’ve just sat down to too many sharing tables and ordered lunch from one too many matey conversey servers (poor me and my lifestyle) but when I hear someone like the director of The Michelin Guide chatting on about small plates and groovily dressed staff, I can’t help but feel sorry for them.

One thing’s for certain though, trends don’t last forever, and as more cookie cutter ‘deformalised’ restaurant offerings appear, I think, as always, the same folk who set the original trend will be the ones right back to the beginning, pushing to make going out to dinner something special again.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Food World Cup

Make the World cup more interesting with my 'Food World Cup' sweepstake kit. All the teams, in their groups, but in their 'favourite' foods.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Cinnamon Soho

Last year, I did a round up of Soho lunches under 10 pounds which featured Dozo, Made in Italy, Forty Dean Street, Amico Bio, Bistro 1, Amalfi, Stockpot, Duck soup, Mele e pere, @Siam and Cookhouse Joe.
Since last year, Soho has new great value options for a sub £10 lunch, such as Currywurst from Herman ze German, and Cinnamon Soho.

Highlights of the new Cinnamon Soho lunch offer of the is their 5 dish option for £10 - Thats FIVE DISHES FOR TEN POUNDS, everyone - or the £8.75 rapid lunch. 

Stir-fried beef chucks with red onion and pepper corn
Stir-fried beef was fantastic, a great punch of spiciness, it was nicely hot. I liked the crunchiness of red onions, the sauce and raw vegetables had a touch of freshness to the dish.

Tandoori chicken with peanuts and dried mango
Tandoori chicken was fine, moist and had a lot of flavour. To be honest I'm so used to tandoori chicken in the usual dark orangey red colour, it was hard to be so enthusiastic about this lighter coloured chicken.

Aubergine stuffed with spiced vegetables, coconut rice (V)
Because it was vegetarian week recently, and Indian are normally good for veggie food, we ordered the aubergine stuffed with spiced vegetables served with coconut rice.
If that is the kind of food vegetarians eat everyday, I can happily become vegetarian too. This dish was rich, the curry sauce was tasty and a little bit spicy. Vegetables on top of the aubergine was a nice bernoise. I don't think the cheese added much to the dish, I could have gone without.

We ordered a garlic naan to go with our main course. Naan was very nice and light with that lovely buttery glaze you get in places like Tayyabs.

Garlic Naan
Lamb burger with Malasa wedges.
Vegetarian yes, but not too much. I couldn't resist when I saw on their snack menu, a lamb burger with Masala wedges. The burger itself was great, lamb patty was good and perfectly cooked, I didn't recognise the sauce they had on top, and being useless I forgot to ask, but what ever it was, it goes very well with the meat. The best think about this burger was their homemade bun, it was a bit greasy and very moist, the perfect bun.

The perfect snack for me at Cinnamon Soho will be their stir-fried beef served in a bun (this is not an option, but I think it could be a great one).
With their new offer and their terrace outside, Cinnamon Soho might become the HOT place to get a spicy great value lunch.

I was invited to review Cinnamon Soho.

Cinnamon Soho on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon

Prelude: Man takes a little squirrel-hair brush and begins to lightly brush the corners of a rectangular plate with some kind of flash gold coloured paint.

Once, one of the most exciting things you could possibly do for the money, was go out to dinner to a posh restaurant. This was because restaurants were once different. They were a truly magical world, where for one night and for the right money, you could be anybody.

If you saved up, planned in advance, you could dine pretty much anywhere (private clubs obviously excepted), and enjoy the same cosseting service, eating the same food, at the same table, in the same surroundings as, say, The King of Greece. The tables and tableware would represent the kind of unobtainable splendour and riches you hoped you might one day be able to afford when you were much older, or you might be transported into a super flash, hyper designed work of a clever contemporary designer, challenging, exciting, fun.

These days it’s different. Restaurants are no longer really like this.
Any kind of grandeur now a generally slick pastiche of a well known brasserie format, perhaps crossed with a gentlemen’s club. Squint your eyes and it works, look closely and you spot MDF under the faux mahogany, and paintings which turn out to be printed fakes.

The worst bit though, is that ‘flash’ is dead. Flash is not cool. London restaurants today are all designed to make you feel not guilty about eating out. The decor, food, menus, staff dress, everything is a highly sophisticated plan to make you believe you haven’t actually left your flat, yet it is a plan so clever that parting with £50 for the experience is accepted. Nobody questions the value of an undecorated room, minimal non-decor is style, not austerity. No tablecloths are a lifestyle choice, not a weekly saving of how-many-hundreds of pounds which will be passed on to the customer.

The biggest restaurant style revolution of the last 20 years I would say started with St John, where I imagine back in the late 90s the ‘institutional chic channelling One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ white tile-n-concrete look was a funky new departure from the hyper-naff Asian-fusion clubby style hang-outs that posh restaurants were all climbing over themselves to do. This was this era that spawned the square plate - the one tableware design that has felt the butt of jokes more and more over the last 10 years as fickle restaurateurs clamber frightened onto whatever bandwagon is trundling along at the time.

Ouch! I here you say. Wince! Nobody would actually dare use one of those one-stop illustrations of naff?

Well no, they probably wouldn’t. But then as it is with all trends, things are only cool until someone uncool says they’re cool. Like your dad, or your teacher when you’re 15. Then what you think is cool becomes uncool. Kind of like when The Daily Telegraph says something’s uncool. It’s times like this you suddenly know something’s really cool.

So thanks to William Sitwell, the square plate is now cool again. Good, I say, because if I see another worthy floor length aproned waiter presenting their little pile of monk’s beard and smoked butter on an ironic chintzy plate again I will have to throw up in the establishment’s reclaimed Belfast sink.

L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon was, until 4:16PM BST 13th May 2014, probably the least cool restaurant in London.
If anyone’s not aware who Joel Robuchon is (as I, quite franky wasn’t) he’s kind of a big deal around the world as one of those international French chefs who rolled out his brand in the form of super-slick celebrations of that kind of 1980’s high precision Michelin style food that people who didn’t live in cities called ‘nouveau cuisine’.

L’Atelier is flash. It’s an enormous four or five storey building, painted entirely in black, with a teenage boy’s wet dream red & black with mirrors interior decor. It’s like a Bond villain had his more dastardly cousin repay him for once mentioning he didn’t like the colour black. It’s on that little street which at one end has Pizza Hut and The Ape & Bird, and the other end has The Ivy. So what with poor fat tourists, pub goers who don’t like pubs, and ageing luvvies and celebs catered for, L’Atelier takes care of the others.

The management had obviously read the Telegraph’s style commentary square plate piece and skipped for joy at suddenly being the most radical, pre-zeitgeist joint in town and thought: I know, let’s celebrate by inviting some bloggers down to see what we’ve been doing while you’ve all been squinting over a refectory table in an imitation government building like a sort of George Orwell fantasy. That’s why I was there.

The staff were well trained and friendly. Friendly is the new aloof, of course. After making ourselves comfy, which is what you may do in uncool restaurants, meeting our (has to be said, quite hot) waiter Alex and having our arms twisted we agreed to a perfectly out of fashion glass of Veuve Clicquot, another brand ripe for rediscovery.

We were given the option of having the chef choose our dishes for us, and provide us with a 4 course dinner with matched wines - no-choice is utterly anti-hip - so of course we went for this.

We got an amuse bouche. We all know how sad the term ‘amuse bouche’ is right now don’t we? It’s ‘snacks’ everywhere now. Not here. This was a little shot glass of something creamy and foamy with foie gras. Bloody lovely. What a bloody delicious naff amuse bloody bouche. Yes. Scraped the bottom of the tacky little glass - not retro, rustic, hand blown or anything - with my tragically aspirational teaspoon.

The starter we had been watching being prepared in front of us in the open kitchen. Salmon tartare topped with Caviar, which of course was to be eaten with the posh mother-of-pearl spoon and the thinnest of thin toasts and a glass of Pully Fumé. 
This was delicious, and about as anti everything I’ve been served in a new restaurant for about 5 years.
No little compost heap style pile of earnest local seasonal ingredients here. Square plate? Tick. Fancy edible decoration on plate? Tick. Out of season ingredients flown in from another part of the world? Tick. Gold leaf? Tick. Fabulous.

Then it was asparagus with chorizo and aged comte, a beautifully balanced dish with the comte and chorizo not overpowering the delicateness of the asparagus. 

Then black cod with miso, green peas & mint. (Still in debate as to what black Cod is. Wikipedia says not normal Cod. Advice here please). Not my favourite but I still finished everything.

Excuse me for the fawning description, but the dish that arrived next was so close to heaven I was seeing stars – a roasted quail breast stuffed with foie gras, served with a roasted leg and the world famous mashed potato, with an extra pot of in on the side in case we needed more. It took most of my will power not to make weird satisfied sex noises at the table. This mash is made with so much butter, it’s whisked and whisked (by hand) until it resembles a mousse.

Looks boring. Tastes not boring.

Whisk-y business
They decided that our tastes were different for dessert and we got a different wine and dessert to each other. Mine was a raspberry mousse, Lychee coulis, light pistachio custard cream and white chocolate that was so girly I could have entered it into a Miss World contest. Now we know I’m not a huge fan of too much dessert – gotta keep an eye on the thigh – but I loved this and upon tasting my friend’s, I discovered that we did indeed have different tastes, he much preferred his lemon bubble with lemon custard, yuzu marshmallow and yogurt ice-cream to mine.

One of the things that makes London so brilliant is that it can handle a seriously flash place like L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon. It’s not to everyone’s taste but Londoners are not as sheep-like as I sometimes think. But truly individual, visionary style is damned rare, and in restaurants, the comfort of keeping to the fashions is too easy.

Food: 8/10. Safely refined and delicious international French.
Value: No idea as I wasn't paying. I imagine it can be quite expensive.
Style: 11/10. Where you would take a very expensive escort, your divorce lawyer after winning, or a business deal where someone arrives with their briefcase handcuffed to their wrist.

L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon
13-15 West St, London WC2H 9NE

L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon on Urbanspoon

I was invited to review L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Rip off Restaurants

Someone cleverer than me once said 'no idea is original' and they are probably right. Every creative idea we have is influenced by something else. In fashion the rip-offs take days to transfer from hot catwalk shows to £10 high street versions. Musicians have contested rights for years, and artists have been copying each other since the renaissance.

The current restaurant boom has spawned a new member to the copycat club. With people hopping from trend to trend like fickle frogs every week, the pressure to open a hot joint has never been greater. And when original ideas are scarce, what do you do? Covet thy neighbour.

Editor's note: I'm pretty sure most of these have all been, or are currently being legally challenged, and some no longer even exist. Some still do, under different 'looks' and some just plough on anyway.

Let's start with this one.

Now, I can see you sell 'meat' and 'liquor' (or 'booze' as it used to be quaintly known outside of America)  and what with it being 2014, where if you opened a shop selling lavatories, the most likely name would be 'SHIT & PISS', I can see why you might have stumbled on the name 'Meat and Liquor'. I can even more see why you might have, after long consideration and name working and re-working, possibly employing a branding agency to really cut the fat from your idea and emerge like Indiana Jones holding the very shining heart of your business in two simple words. Especially, when there is a sort of successful restaurant in London that did something a bit like that not that long ago, but you can't remember the name of it.

Picture from Humble Honesty's blog

Picture from Humble Honesty's blog

And then we come to PittBros Smoked BBQ Project. Pitt I hear? Oh well that'll be because BBQ in US is 'pit smoked' though, so no link there. Clear conscience my friend. We've never heard of Pitt Cue Co. Nope. 

When we designed the menu you say? No, all our idea.


Because, you know, what with the Big MEAT in the top left corner...

That? No, no no. All our own work.

And the 'bun meal'?

That one came to me in a vivid dream. Pop! 'Bun meal' I thought. I'll have that.

And then the sides, they all look pretty similar, the bone marrow mash..... the 'burnt end' stuff...
Southern staples.
Ah yes, Dublin of the deep South.

Then there was the hilarious Chicken Shop/Shack debarcle. To be honest, I couldn't really see the similarity.

I mean, 'shop' sounds nothing like 'shack', does it?
How about some menus. Nothing familiar here.

And perhaps some branded sauces? That's a good idea, nice styling.

Now, nobody has the sole rights over a red top, not even Rupert Murdoch.

But a bare-to-the-bone burger brand,  straight to the point with its functional, explanative name, combining the two main components in the product, that'll be Patty & Bun, right? Wrong. Meet Burger Meats Bun, of Glasgow.

Nice work with the meet/meat pun.  I see what you did there. I do hope whichever copywriting genius who struck career-defining gold with that razor-sharp humdinger was given a gold watch and a foreign holiday.

Now if there is one name that has been the victim of copying more than most in the last few years, it is Polpo. 
The gorgeous decaying style was just to irresistible to just leave to one restaurateur. 
But it wasn't just to happen on these shores. Cue 'Ombra' in Wellington New Zealand.

They've pretty much nailed it, with the zinc bar tops, the no-frills austere clipboard drinks list and the general decaying feel.

And why not have some cafe curtains, I know, in some sort of raw muslin or linen. And how about embroidering our name in there? Brilliant original idea. 

And then there is this one from Ontario, Canada. (concept brainstorm) 
Octopus. Hmm. No, to clunky.  *lightbulb appears above head* It's an Italian restaurant, right? Well.... why not call it .... drumroll.... POLPO? 
I like it. Yeah, and how about we use paleontogy drawings? Yeah, of an octopus. That'll suit the look, a little retro, non-fancy and bold, without the diversion of decorative expression, right?

And let's do that clipboard thing with the menus. Again, we're not copying anyone, it's simply a fabulously witty 'up yours' to the silly stuffy leather bound menus of our vulgar material-obsessed past, yeah?

More Polpo/Polpetto 'influence'... - this is 'Polpette', in Dorset. The name, the brown paper placemats, the distressed fonts... 

But of course, they may have never visited London. Let's give them the benefit of the doubt.

Perhaps, though this is all poetic justice, as you only have to google 'Venetian bacaro' to find a plethora of little places like this, which have been there for decades. Just sitting there. Imagine! Those half-height linen curtains, that distressed paintwork, the greens, the terracottas... 

If you're in Venice any time soon, there is a great trick you can do. Go in one of these bars, wait for the lights to lower, squint your eyes a bit, have a few negronis and just think, you could quite easily be whisked away to the epicentre of central London's restaurant scene, 2014. Magic.

Melissa Foodie - (I stole that name in good faith in 2012)

Friday, 2 May 2014

Wanky review expressions

What is it about food reviews and the wanky expressions?
The minute we get all 'citizen journalist' and write stuff down, we seem to turn into rather over-the-top versions of Barbara Cartland, dictating to a scribe while stroking a small dog on a chaise lounge.

Here's a few examples.

1. 'We opted for'
Something indescribably 'local news' about this expression.

2. 'We went for'
Even worse. Are you fighting? Was it a Mexican stand off against you and the food, until you cunningly went for it, grabbing by the throat and pinning it to the floor until it pleaded with you in defeat?

3. 'Other frequenters'
Frequenters? Would you say this in real life? Really? Hey guys, lots of other frequenters in tonight aren't there? Behave.

4. 'There were so many options, it was hard to know where to start'
Er how about at the beginning of the list?

4. 'Perusing the menu'
Peruse? Do you also 'peruse' the newspapers? Or 'peruse' the TV guide? Are you wearing Edwardian clothes? Is your name Mrs Fizzlebizzy? Well then why have you all of a sudden turned into a rather affected character from a period drama.

5. 'It's one of the most popular dishes, and for good reason' 
Well it would be a bit odd if it was one of the most popular dishes for no good reason.

6. 'Melt in the mouth'
Apart from butter, and ice cream, does anything actually melt in the mouth?

7. 'Very quaffable'.
Absolutely, because at some point between deciding to write this review and writing it, you turned into Bertie Wooster.

8. 'The chef spoke to me for longer than I deserve.'
Well then perhaps a good course of action would be to remove your nose from their arse.

9. 'Surely worthy of a star'
Ah, so you're the chef in disguise then.

10. 'Washed down'
Have you not read the rules? No-one since Keith Floyd is ever been allowed to say this.

11. 'savouring'

Teeny bit gushy.

12. 'devoured' 
You are not really a hungry wild animal.

13. 'Treated to'
You were paying for this meal, correct? Unless you are under 12 and eating a lolly after finishing your plate at Little Chef, then I fail to see how were you being 'treated' to anything. You were in fact 'treating' the restaurant with your custom.

14. 'We were spoiled'
see above

15. Sublime
According to the dictionary, this means 'greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation'.
So it better have been pretty fucking good then.

16. 'Unctuous'
This is just pure unadulterated freebased wankiness turned up to 11. Oily FFS.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

How simple is your restaurant?

Lately, not a day seems to go past without hearing about how restaurants are climbing over each other to be more simple.  Rejecting anything that might be considered 'fancy', and instead stripping everything away until we are left with nothing to adulterate the ingestion of its ingredients.

But restaurateurs, how can you tell if your restaurant is simple enough? Are you still wallowing around in 90s fine-dining stiffness? Or flopping around in lost in some 00s nostalgia comfort-food retro theme concept?

My simple quiz might help.

1. Is your restaurant name:

a. Something like 'L'atelier de Francis de la Touche, with subconscious interaction'

b. A two word tribute to its owner's surnames, helpfully old-fashioned and Dickensian sounding and joined with a plus sign

c. A single word, evoking your dedication to nature,  hand written in lower case.

2. Where do people read about your restaurant?

A. On an aeroplane in their leather bound company issue Michelin guide

B. On twitter

C. In an achingly honest piece in the Guardian food section, where they follow the head chef on a foraging tour of their home village, which will be a remote beach near Sunderland.

3. How is your restaurant designed?

a. A six month refit by a heavyweight interior design house, with specially imported materials, exotic wood marquetry and bespoke Italian marble inlaid panelled walls and Axminster monogrammed carpets

b. A whimsically retro throwback to a Victorian City bank clerk's daily eating house, complete with green glass shaded desk lamps, reproduction hunting prints and lots of simulated mahogany?

c. All white, with communal refectory tables and mix & match school chairs.

4. Lighting?

a. Individually spotlit tables, luminosity adjusted to best flatter both the food and the particular customer

b. Near darkness, apart from a few filament bulbs

c. Operating theatre bright.

5. How are your serving staff dressed?

a. Formal suits

b. Easy going Edwardian throwback waistcoats, loose ties, jeans, converse

c. Scandinavian designer asymmetrically buttoned overalls, in gunmetal grey

6. What food concept is it?

a. Concept led. The chef was once visited by a God in their dream and was instructed to continue their work in the form of food. What you are eating is the physical realisation of this dream.

b. Nostaglia led. Retro dishes, tweaked comfort food, English and American home classics with a twist.

c. Ingredient led. Pure and unadulterated dedication to nature.

7. How seasonal?

a. Always seasonal! We import this asparagus all year round from four different global timezones.

b. Totally seasonal. This hamburger is bang-on-the-minute-on-trend, so you're always 'in season'.

c. Highly seasonal. You've identified the sub seasons as you find the regular seasons too restricting

8. Who are your customers?

a. Jet-lagged global company reps

b. The London in-crowd, this week

c. Restaurant spotters, foodies with big cameras and Blackadder's puritan Aunt and Uncle


Mostly A's:
Your temple to vulgarity is not really getting into the 'simple' vibe, is it. Disappointed.

Mostly B's:
Your restaurant is better, but not really simple enough. Wincing at the nonchalant use of unrefined basic foodstuffs, and frivolous ornamentation you lavish your room with.

Mostly C's:
Congratulations, your restaurant is uncomfortably simple. Allow yourself with a firm pat on the back and celebrate with a glass of your home distilled early autumn sloe gin and relax by skinning a freshly trapped rabbit.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Lanes of London

Gosh it's been a while since I've reviewed a restaurant. Frankly, I'm not nearly enough of a food trainspotter - trying to think of a portmanteau - 'grainspotter'? - to form an opinion that anyone might find useful, as most of the time I kind of like pretty much anything as long as a. it's served nicely, b. I'm in a place I like the look of, and c. I'm drunk enough. So I tend of leave the ham reviewing to the others.
Well, since the recent blaggergate hoo-haa, I thought it only fair I should jump on the bandwagon and take advantage of the golden dripping honeypot that is freebieland and wave the flag for the good old hard-blagging blogger.

Lanes of London is of course the very place that started the most recent blagger storm: Jay Rayner's rant at 'effing blogger' @samphireandsalsify ended with his claim that their review of Lanes couldn't possibly be impartial.
Well, it seemed the best option to go back to the very place and give it my own review. And it wouldn't be a food blog review without it being free! So here, in all its freeness, is my free dinner at Lanes of London.

Bloodhound & Garden of Edhen Cocktail
Both cocktails were very good (obviously, being free), and while we were waiting for them, we had some spiced nuts and two glasses of water.
We had the Portobello road cocktail - Bloodhound : Bombay dry, Martini Gran Lusso, Martini dry vermouth, house made strawberry liqueur, Peychaud's bitters, and the Edgware Road cocktail, alcohol free - Garden of Edhen : Lebanese seven spice syrup, apple juice, lemon juice, egg white, rosewater. Being alcohol-free was quite apt, since they were also 'cost-free'.
Edgware road - Kafta meshwi: minced lamb skewers, "babaganoush", smoked aubergine
Dinner started with kafta meshwi, this dish wasn't very good, the babaganoush was too acidic. I will say however that being 'gratis' added a certain deliciousness to it, so on second thoughts would of course heartily recommend it.
Kingsland Road - Bun thit nuong : Barbequed pork skewers, Marinated pork, rice noodle salad, homemade sweet chilli sauce
Kafta was served at the same time as the bun thit nuong which was better, barbequed pork skewers were very nice and tasty, the rice noodle salad was very refreshing (but then I would say that, having not had to pay).
Portobello road - Beef brisket sliders : roasted bone marrow, horseradish cream
The best dish of the night was from the Portobello section: (completely cost-free) beef brisket sliders served with bone marrow. In appearance it looks like a real burger, but when you bite the texture was like a pulled beef. Totally bang on! It goes very well with the (mine complimentary) horseradish cream sauce. My friend added the bone marrow inside the burger.
Vegetarian- Apple & Celeriac salad: poached duck egg, walnuts
After all those handout meaty dishes, it was a pleasure to have something light and fresh like the apple & celeriac, especially when it's 'on the cuff'.
Meat - Smoked ham hock fritters : buttered cabbage, apple sauce
Fritters were good, smooth apple and crunchy coating. Smooth and crunchy in a great kind of 'chargeless' way.
Brick lane - Butter chicken: cumin rice and paranthas
Brick Lane butter chicken - have to disagree with Mr Rayner here. I'm no curry pro but have had my fair share of late night Brick Lane neon curries, and I thought this butter chicken was great, the sauce was not just the usual sweet/salt and fat yellowy instant-thigh-circumference-increasing fluent I'm familiar with.  It had real flavor. Rice was...rice. I also loved the paranthas.
According to the waitress, this dish is the chef Anshu Anghotra's family recipe. Now whether or not this recipe would have tasted awful had I paid for it, I cannot say.

So, of course Lanes of London is never going to please London's food bores who guff on about the sodding authenticity of everything.
It's aimed at international hotel guests (which it seemed to be populated with on my visit) who on a visit to London, I might imagine would find it all quite fun.

'Oh, but you can easily go to the actual places and get the real thing'

Yeah, why don't you just go down to the arse end of Dalston on a rainy tuesday night after a boring conference in a city you're not familiar with, or dodge bullets in Tottenham searching for that authentic Turkish, or shlepping over the river just to find some mythical hamburger.

No, you've got it all right here, neatly packaged and 5 minutes from your bedroom.

Anyway, what do you care? Being 'in the pay of the restaurant' as a freebie taking food whore means no-one will take a word of what I say with any integrity in any case.
Lanes of London - Marriott Hotel
140 Park Lane
London W1K 7AA

I was invited to eat at Lanes of London.
Lanes of London on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

5 Comments that should be banned from restaurant reviews

The online comments section. That brilliant accident of newspapers on the internet. Most columnists either stubbornly and rather aloofly ignore them, or dive in, hurt and touchy about this pants-down public criticism they were safe from for years and have to now endure.

Comments on restaurant reviews are no different, but I'm starting to see certain trends forming, and each week the same kinds of arguments are put forward, rather boringly. 

Here's a quick round-up of which kinds of commenters I think should be banned from restaurant reviews.

1. The tight git

"£50? I could make it at home for £10". 

Maybe you could. But you would have to know the recipe, maybe by reading a book or learning somewhere. (maybe 1 hr of your time spent) Then you would have to go to the shops and get the ingredients (2 hrs). Then make the meal (2 hrs), and afterwards do the washing up (15 mins). 
That's a rough estimate of 5 hrs 15 mins of your own time, and at the average UK wage (£12.56 per hour) is the equivalent to you earning £56.94 before tax.
Then you would have to serve it yourself, choose and pour your own wine, get up and get the salt and pepper yourself (squeaking as you walk, presumably), and sit there and talk to yourself wallowing in your smugness that you aren't sitting in an expensive restaurant, participating in society, surrounded by jolly people enjoying your food being cooked and served by nice people in order to make a living.

Well done, I just hope I'm never married to you.

2. The subject Nazi

"Oh please concentrate on the food rather than withering on about your thoughts on the train there/current affairs/ your sex-life" 

Ok I'm just going to come out and say it: people don't read restaurant reviews to find out where to go and eat. The internet has told them already. And one of the most common mis-conceptions about restaurant reviewers, and indeed any other reviewers, is that  they are not employed to to review things because they know a lot about the thing they specialise in reviewing. They are employed because the editor thinks they are a good writer. 
For me the best restaurant review will talk about the restaurant for less than 15% of the words, max. Quite honestly what is there more to say? I mean, this isn't an autopsy. Who wants to know all that stuff anyway?
If you want to read about unctuous mouthfeel, read a food blog. There are plenty out there. Or failing that, see a psychologist.

3. The bitter ruralite.

"I can't believe that for another week, you have chosen once again to stay (insert tiny number) miles away from your beloved home in London, where this paper is obsessed by! You should spread your wings and travel a little, you might be surprised" - etc etc fade to silence.

Well, I for one have never had a decent meal outside of zone 2, let alone outside the M25, so I don't believe you for one minute. 
This is a lie obviously, I'm sure there are many lovely restaurants right across Britain.
The fact is London is our capital city, does a fine job of being it, and because of that lots of people from all over the world come here to live and work, so it subsequently find itself with lots of people who like to eat out more often than birthdays and anniversaries, the demand of whom allows the opening of an awful lot of restaurants, some of which end up being the best in the country. 

Oh, and in London they don't serve food on square plates anymore.

4. Miss I Know Better

"You really should have tried Mrs Miggins' Cafe round the corner, the eccles cakes are divine'"

If there is any side effect of restaurant review comments, it's the ability for people like Mrs Miggins' tech-savvy teenage daughter to be able to whack some free advertising for the family business. The new Tripadvisor. Kind of don't mind this one too much I suppose, but be careful how you word it, it can be obvious.

5. The moral high-grounder

"Eating out is quite frankly a vulgar waste of money, when there are children starving in Africa, why not give the money to them?'"

Well, if nobody ate out, restaurants would quickly fail, and everyone from The Jag driving owner to the plongeur would be penniless, and according to some clumsy googling, over 2 million people would be now living on benefits street, and our GDP would be down approximately 2.5 Bn. I hope you're pleased with yourself.

My conscience is clear anyway, as I have for this reason stopped buying The Guardian and now donate the money saved to worthwhile faraway causes.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

London restaurant cuisines rated by coolness

London might be the 'best place in the world to sample the world's cusines', but what surely matters most are not which are the best, but which are the coolest. Food is of course fashion, and what you eat is surely as important to your overall vibe as what you wear, listen to, watch, read and do. So read my current coolness factor list of London's most currently cool cuisines.

Ones that nearly made the cut and deserve a mention : Balkan/Turkish/Greek, Middle Eastern - if only for the superbly hip vegetarian Dutch falafel place Maoz, currently my no.1 desk lunch without question, also Venetian, but only one serious player at the mo, can't remember who.

1. British
The recent enthusiasm for Britishness is a curious one. The popularity for wartime ephemera (Keep Calm etc) and the 'Famous Five' look, with flat brogues and short back n sides hair has seeped into restaurants, with camping tins, refectory tables, London Transport chic (rectangular tiles, off white, copper pipes, teal blue and scarlet) finding its way into almost every new opening since about 2009 and is usually associated with 'austerity, economic situation subsconciously making us feel thrifty' and a rejection of all things fancy and posh, like tablecloths etc.
The modern British restaurant is now firmly on the radar, and epitomised by such places all of which sound like stage sets in an Am-Dram production of an H.E. Bates novel: Foxlow, Social Eating House (ok sort of half French brasserie), The Quality Chop House, Clove Club, Restaurant Story, The Dairy.

Coolness: 6/10. Hip with a thoughtful, nostalgic crowd.

2. Nordic/Skandinavian
Not just Salmon and cream cheese. Golden Square bakery Nordic Bakery first alerted me to the food delights of our stylishly-designed cold weather cousins, and the egg and herring rye bread sandwich is now my third most favourite thing to eat for lunch. Influence on ingredients is obviously from Noma, with serious faces, greasy flick, stubble and intellectual demeanour completing the look.
Menus lend themselves to the 'set piece' theatre of the 'performance' style offering, where a list of current 'hits' are 'experienced'.
Design: Every fine-dining establishment worth its salt is as-we-speak ripping out anything even approaching comfortable or decorative in favour of cold, bare and industrial.
Coolness: 7/10 Not just cool in a low temperature way.

3. German/Austrian
There is no getting around the fact that Germany is the most hilarious country in the world, and every menu item sounds like a grumpy uncle in a Sound of Music spin off, so the current enthusiasm for schnitzel and sausage is unsurprising.
They quietly invented the hamburger after all, and it is available in its nude and unblemished form as a frikadeller in Herman Ze German (my current 2nd favourite Soho lunch place) with amazing gravy. Boopshi's in Fitzrovia is another more 'designed' version, but lacking in the currywurst department.
Coolness:  7/10. Up there. Berlin has forever been cited as the coolest place in Europe, but only really by people actually in Berlin, who went there when their conceptual art studios became too expensive in Shoreditch.

4. Korean
On the Bab, Koba's for kimchi and Anju, and Jubo, the fried chicken thing still rumbles on, with the Korean element giving it an edge. There seems to be something special about the crispiness or something, I don't really know but it's very now.
Coolness 7/10. If you want to make something on your menu cool, just add 'Korean' somewhere.

5. French
That's right, everyone's tired of old French restaurants serving fuddery duddery old hat dishes with by waiters who've wasted time tasting it, and good Lord please remove those carpets and tablecloths, what do you think this is, auntie's birthday? Get with it, Grandad, stuffy old French is OUT. 
The sexy little newcomers in Casse Croute, Blanchette, Chez Elles, the 2012/13 brasserie explosion of Balthazar/Zedel/Chavot, heavy demand for tables at poshos The Ledbury, Gauthier, Le Gavroche, and the success of universally adored Otto's is proof of that little pudding.

Coolness: 7/10 C'est cool. Well, I suppose France did invent the restaurant.

6. Spanish
I suppose I should rather lazily include Portuguese and Catalan food here, and am already bracing myself for the North-Spain politics obsessives who will undoubtedly pull me up for getting the name of one of their dishes wrong, but the rate of tapas bars opening across the capital is astonishing. The legendary Moro should probably be credited with starting it but Jose, Barrafina, Iberica, Salt Yard etc all doing a good job of pumping out the little plates of that tasty deep fried creamy mashed potato and thinly spiced spicy sausage, washed down with recently-revived port and sherry. And what is it with sherry? I just remember being drunk in teeny glasses by rather stiff great aunts and pronounced 'shell-air'.

Coolness: 8/10. Everyone from City stiffs to Fitzrovia TV producers can get into it.
Bluffing tip: Knowing Iberico is a type of pig rather than an area in Spain. Trust me, I've got it wrong and suffered the roar of laughter.

7. American

Where do I begin? 2013's 'great burger wars' were an almost comical episode but you couldn't help being swept along with the greasy steamed bun party. And with the current rash of MEATliquor rip-offs, and especially when blended with the BBQ trend it has everything the 18-30 buttoned down prison tat lumberjack shirt & air max 90s crowd wants (salt/sugar/fat in equal quantities) and shows no signs of faltering.

Coolness: 9/10. Huge, but spreading thin. The provincial rip-offs and smoked meat on every pub menu in the home counties has to tell us something. Too big to disappear in the short term, but the smart customer will soon demand quality over style.

8. South American

Yes, with Martin Morales' Ceviche and Andina going great guns, and Lima winning its Michelin star, and (somewhat patronisingly) 'elevating Peruvian cuisine to new levels' it seems everyone (still) wants to sample tiger's milk and pisco sours at every opportunity. Personally I think there's a danger that some restaurateurs might become a victim of star-blinded over-expansion, as when the Time-Out/Metro love affair with citrus marinated raw fish served on earthenware plates will any-day-now be dropped like an X Factor winner in Crocs as soon as the next exotic undiscovered peasant style cuisine that fits the bill comes along. And who wants yesterday's papers?

Coolness: 10/10. Even The Daily Telegraph agrees.


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