Monday 20 July 2015

NY Fold

For a few years now we’ve all been told that whatever we know about pizza is all wrong, and what we should all be eating is floppy, spongy crusts, with watery undercooked cheese tops and blackened carbon burnt bases, because that’s how they do it in Naples.
Well, Naples can go and stick its head in mount Vesuvius for all I care because I'm struggling to 'get' pizza like this. Give me something thin and crispy that I can pick up with my hands that doesn’t end up flopping all over the place in a steaming wet mess of cheese and tomato. 
Pizza by the slice has started to make a bit of a name for itself over the last couple of years, Homeslice and Voodoo Ray's both putting out their wares in this denomination. Voodoo Ray was probably the first to try and emulate the ‘New York’ style, and I loved it.
NY Fold is the latest, slightly more normcore opening direct from New York - yes food fans, real actual America - offering big slices from its new outlet in Charing Cross Road. So technically Soho, but facing TK Maxx and for a bit of grounding.
The current staff crew is all-American as far as I could tell, with even 'world pizza champion' Bruno di Fabio himself at the ovens, or at least I assumed it was, as he kept saying ‘my pizza is this, my pizza is done like that’ so much I hope I’m right.
Not sure about their insistence on calling pizzas 'pies' though. Pies, as we all know, are pastry, with a lid, filled with hearty fillings like steak & kidney, and served by jolly old ladies up north. Luckily though, unlike mac & cheese, fries etc, 'pie' for pizza seems to be staying put over there. 
Great to hear all the accents - I even honed my pronunciation of New York - (it’s not ’Niew Yawk’ but ’nooYARK’ ).
I hope the US voices stay longer, as they add a bit of romance to the atmosphere, but fear they’re all here just for the opening period. 
To be honest its quite fun to have an American thing here that really feels fresh, unpretentious and authentic, rather than the usual desperate hipster fawning pastiches we’re all so used to.

My starter of Caesar salad was good, I ordered it without chicken, because chicken has no place in a Caesar salad, the only thing belonging there are salty, umami-ish anchovies to go with that parmesan. Sadly no anchovies or croutons  appeared, so it was really like a lettuce & parmesan salad with Caesar sauce. It has to be said was good though.

The pizza slice, Quite big, as everyone knows Americans eat ten times what any other human eats at any given time, and nicely hot with still bubbling cheese. The much lauded base was crispy, light and tasty, which is exactly what Mr Di Fabio said it would be like.

There were three desserts I could see. Cheesecake, Tiramisu and Butterscotch Budino. All of which I was excited by, as they all ticked my ’not too clever, classic and a bit retro’ box. Butterscotch Budino is a fantastic thing to have in London - made famous by legendary Mario Batali L.A. & Singapore Osteria Mozza (and in the cookbook). I’ve never seen them here before, apart from on a stand from Italian restaurant Tartufo at Taste of London a couple of years ago.

Anyway I went for the Tiramisu as I’ve not the sweet tooth for butterscotch. It was great, deep in coffee and marsala wine flavour, not too heavy.

All in all I reckon NY Fold is a good addition to London's pizza repertoire. Expect families, tourists and day-trippers along with a good dose of Soho-ites dropping in.

I paid for my meal myself.

Tuesday 10 March 2015

How hip is your chain?

What do you do when you’re not cool anymore? No self respecting foodie scenester would be seen dead in them now they’re rolled out and servicing the suburbs and featuring on everyone’s Facebook feed for your slightly provincial friends’ girls night out, but these neo-chains were all once the place to be seen, supercool indie startups basically giving birth to the London foodie twitter and instagram food trend with their sharp, niche offerings which offered quality and style in a sea of either Strada or Jaimie’s Italian.
Fundamentally, these guys have made it because their product was, and remains, good. But this post isn’t about how good they are, that would be boring. It’s about how cool they are, now that they’ve grown paunches since the investors have waded in. And coolness is all that really matters, right?


The chain that’s slowly but surely replacing the great Aberdeen Angus and more recently Gaucho as the London generic steakhouse of choice, Hawksmoor. Handy at tapping into a bit of Victorian aesthetic nostalgia for good measure, Hawksmoor has built itself into a perfectly acceptable choice for everything from a stag night to a city boys birthday party. 
The irony here of course is that Nicholas Hawksmoor was famously vegetarian.*

Shop count: 6
New kids on the block: I think there will always be a market for pretending to be in a sort of European Peter Luger, but as the pastiche American steakhouse look begins to dilute itself across the whole of the UK, I imagine more tiny, rough & ready niche places like Flat Iron & Blacklock will emerge as hipper meat alternatives.
Hipness factor: Won’t let you down.

Burger & Lobster

Now that everyone’s realised that it’s 2015 and not 1975, lobsters are just over-farmed big prawns and not the glamorous and chic delicacy it once was perceived to be, plus the fact that everyone from All Bar One to Travelodge is now doing a Lobster/Burger special, B&L has gone from THE chicest and most fun little Mayfair concept to an ever-so-slightly bootcut jeans hangout for tourists and home counties day-trippers.
And don’t forget, it’s £20 for a burger. £20.

Shop count: Crikey is there really 8 now?
New kids on the block: None. Even if there was one, I doubt they’d do it as well as B&L.
Hipness factor: Lobster is the new salmon. 


The brand that arguably started the London burger / ‘dirty food’ fad and made celebrating getting drunk for drunk’s sake when you’re not a student OK again, Meatliquor is one of the few that have kept a certain degree of hipness, and now with offshoots in Leeds, Brighton, and soon to be in Singapore, and Islington I think, they’re hanging on to it, but inevitably with a loosening grip. Much of their original fun & outrageousness has been quietly scrubbed off - what happened to ‘Arrive hungry, leave drunk’? - but constant inventiveness and realness has kept it sharp.

Shop count: 5/6 
New Kids on the Block: unmatched for concept, apart from a few copycats up north. Burger bores will tell you Bleecker is better but Meatliquor is more of a way of life. 
Hipness factor: Still got it.


I’ve always had a soft spot for Byron. They’ve unashamedly been chain-focused since day one, dedicated to high quality but basically simple product, and mushroomed faster than anyone I can think of. A masterstroke of marketing and design, Byron is a lesson in how to create a mid market family restaurant brand in the 21st century. The Pizza Express of burgers.

Shop count: 50
New Kids on the Block: Nobody really matching their formula at the moment. 
Hipness factor: Byron never really was exactly ‘hip’, was it?

Honest Burgers

Neither baddass nor squeaky clean, I’m a little lost as to their identity really. A branch of Honest opening in your neighbourhood is as exciting and rock-n-roll and a branch of Evans Cycles. This is a burger chain for couples who read Homes & Property with interest and wear gilets. If they were a band they’d be Mumford & Sons.

Shop count: 8
New Kids on the block: Tommi’s, Patty & Bun, Dirty Burger** or my secret favourite: Dip & Flip are all cooler. 
Hipness factor: Safecore

Franca Manca

Investor David Page (also Meatliquor) clearly has an eye for a cool brand, and being ex Pizza Express he obviously knows pizza chains better than most. The only Pizza in the list, Franca Manca has grown from a single Brixton outlet which in 2009 was the 2nd hippest pizza in London after Santa Maria. 
It's definitely true that London needed a new pizza chain, as since the 90s and with the more recent US comfort food craze, pizza simply hasn't been cool. 

Shop count: 12
New kids on the block: Pizza Pilgrims, Pizza East**, Homeslice
Hipness Factor: Good choice for a quick lunch with an ex.


It’s hard to remember London restaurants before Polpo. Linen & half net curtains, exposed brick, filament bulbs, brown paper menus, mismatched chintz plates were all around, but nowhere put them all together in one beautifully designed little package with the magic of Russell Norman.
Polpo changed the way we all approached going out to eat, suddenly it was cool to sit at the grimy bar with little plates of picky food, drinking Negronis discussing Baroque art or nineteenth century Russian literature.
The problem is that since it opened nine restaurants in every ten have copied something of it, small plates and no bookings has become something to roll your eyes at and everyone’s realised that when the bill comes it’s never quite the no-frills casual bargain you were seduced into thinking it was.

Shop count: 5
New kids on the block: Everyone
Hipness factor: Very much still cool, even though they are now in Notting Hill (I know). Everyone tries, but nobody comes close to matching its style.


*OK I made that up

**These I don’t really count as they are all part of the Richard Caring masterplan and never really were cool indie startups in the first place

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Elena's L'Etoile

I was once taken to a restaurant in Nice, called La Petite Maison. If anyone hasn’t been, I urge you to go at your first opportunity. It serves classic Provençal cooking at extortionate prices by a grumpy Maitre d' and is extremely hard to get a table at.

The Maitre d’ there is called Nicole, a stout but glamourous lady in her fifties (or possibly sixties) who moves from table to table administering service like a mother hen feeding chicklets with a terrifying bluntness, sending the ‘my husband and I’ Tripadvisor reviewers into a soapbox style fury.
But it's packed, day in, day out with the kind of wealthy local and international customers that you might expect to have no patience for such apparent rudeness, coming back time after time and ordering their salad Niçoises and bottles of rosé like well-behaved school children, while Nicole barks instructions to waiters and rolls her eyes at petty requests.

It took me a while to understand how this restaurant was so popular, and why people put up with this apparent abruptness. But when Nicole suddenly arrived at my side and filled up my glass and poured a splash of olive oil on my plate of tomatoes, I realised I felt good, loved, totally looked after, and weirdly proud she had noticed me.
She had seen me and my plate and thought - with a natural instinct for other’s comfort - ‘you need more oil’.  I found myself thinking 'when in London does this ever happen?' I’ll never forget that.

Long-standing Maitre d’s, especially female ones, which of course are the best, seem to be a dying breed.
This is especially the case in London, where individual restaurants and staff have a lifespan of around a week before they’re either too unhip and close, or rolled out and thinly spread around the rest of the country. Both Ollie Dabbous and Marcus Wareing have recently been quoted as saying ‘I don’t want to be doing this in 10 years’ , cementing the short-term turnover culture of today’s restaurant concepts.

What kind of message is that to your customers? How will anyone feel, investing their time and money in your hospitality, hopefully slowly turning this relationship from a one-night stand into a long-term affair and making you their regular Friday night mistress, that you’re so happy to be serving them you want to sell up and get out as soon as the coffers are full?

Elena Salvoni was perhaps London’s greatest ever Maitre d’. Her story is well known, so I won’t re-hash old tales, but forced to retire at 90 after serving Francis Bacon, Ella Fitzgerald, Peter O’Toole, and Robert Niro (and counting them as regulars and friends) says all you need to know, really.

Elena with guests

Her restaurant L’Etoile in Charlotte Street must be undergoing some kind of PR push by its owners - and evil HR department - Corus Hotels (boo, hiss), because I was invited to go and review it.
Now that’s an air-punch email if ever I’ve had one, as personally, I can’t get enough of crumbling old French bistros with nicotine-stained pressed Edwardian wallpaper and ‘wall of fame’ framed photographs of celebrity guests. This is the kind of look and feel that concept boards for Balthazar or Cafe Rouge or hundreds of others long to get right. 

Elena’s L’Etoile belongs to that special club of old French Bistros that London does better than anywhere, even France. Opened in 1897, and looking like it hasn’t been updated since, it breathes decrepit charm. Tired, of course. The lighting is too bright, and the tables could do with candles, but it’s so well worn in I couldn’t help but fall in love.

Of course Elena is no longer there, but the feeling of being under the control of an enduring and established Maitre d’ is, with two highly efficient waiters never missing a beat, informing me we were at Ben Kingsley's favourite table, after I enquired shamelessly about famous regulars.

Food is French bistro classic, and I ordered what I always order, the same as I order at every other bistro, because that’s what you do in French bistros, and that’s why they never change these menus.

Celeriac Remoulade with Serrano Ham and pea shoots
Fresh and simple, good mustardy remoulade and generous slices of ham. The Pea shoots (although not exactly in season) were a welcome fresh hint to the dish.

Chicken Liver Parfait
Smooth and delicious, with a little layer of fat just enough to be a pleasure. Personally I found the brioche one step too rich and calorific, light toast would be better.

Pan fried breast of corn fed chicken, wild mushroms, baby gem lettuce, tarragon cream sauce
A perfectly cooked chicken breast - if I'm honest I presumed it would arrive over-cooked and dry as a bone - so I was pleasantly surprised with the moist centre and crispy skin. The wild mushrooms were soggy and slimey - 2 minutes more in the pan with a it of pepper would have done them wonders. But the tarragon sauce was spot on, as unhealthy and rich tasting as Bearnaise but (I hope) with fewer calories! 
Chips - should have been French fries - pommes pont neuf are a bit naff now.

Rib Eye Steak Sauté Potatoes, Baby Onions, Red Wine Sauce
Really good, juicy etc. Ordered extra green beans (to be really different) and got a huge bowl.

Lemon Tart
A bit sweet, and not sure it needed the extra things on the plate, but I ate it all.

Wine was a bottle of Latour Bourgone Pinot Noir (£38). Light and easy.

I'm not really sure of the agenda behind the PR push, as by 9pm, the restaurant was almost full, with a mixture of couples, lone regulars reading The London Review of Books, and larger tables of work parties, family gatherings and friends.

As we left at around 9.30pm on a mild Autumn evening in Fitzrovia, I must admit to being slightly under the old spell of net curtains, ancient claret-coloured velvet, Burgundy and rare steak. And passing the Huckleberry Finn set decor of noisy Barnyard and its Conversed teenage staff, and a half-empty Lima and its menu of flash-in-the-pan fashionable novelties, both looked faintly absurd. I wondered what Elena or even Nicole would make of them.

I was invited to review Elena's L'Etoile

Wednesday 8 October 2014

Say Hello to 'UKIP Diner'

I sometimes forget we live in a little bubble of cosmopolitan sophistication. Central London restaurants are packed to the gills every night with forward-thinking, fashionable, liberal, creative people, discussing cutting edge ideas, and enjoying exciting, exotic cooking.

Venture out to the provinces however, the land 'where critics dare not go' and a new type of restaurant-goer is emerging.

I can imagine ‘UKIP diner’ very well. Definitely a ‘motorist’ sort of real-life Alan Partridge character, male obviously, he drives a Rover with a pair of mesh/leather mix driving gloves and a copy of the Michelin guide in the glove compartment. UKIP diner plays golf, wears pink lambswool v-necks with a logo, ginger corduroy trousers and pats waitresses bottoms.

UKIP Diner is no Tripadvisor warrior - he complains in restaurants - he says what he likes, and likes what he bloody well says. 

Recently I’ve been thinking of ways to identify UKIP Diner properly, but as my arse rarely leaves our beloved capital city to brush the tall backed seats of provincial gastropubs I’ve struggled to encounter him.
So imagine my joy when the other day I stumbled across UKIP Diner’s manifesto for dining out, a kind of ‘what to avoid’ list of ingredients and dishes fellow UKIP diners should be aware of.

Carrots - Don’t trust the Dutch. Never visit a country with no hills. Should be purple or white really, and still would be if it wasn’t for William of Orange, who invaded our precious Isle and ruled us for thirty years. Tulip loving clog wearers. Avoid.

Balsamic vinegar - turns you into a lefty Guardian-reading Birkenstock-wearing Islington Estate agent’s window botherer. See also Rocket salad.

Wine - this suspicious beverage is brewed by the French, and that says all you need to know about it. It comes in two kinds - red which is drunk by snobs in ‘la-di-da’ restaurants, and white which is drunk by women. Never seen the point really. Apparently there is rosé too, which is just red and white mixed together.

Sole - Soles are well known as the fish introduced by handout-seeking Bulgarians dropping them into the sea on their way through Dover, the open floodgate to benefits Britain. Get this pescatorial emblem of layabout culture off our menus!

Potatoes - another sneaky foreign import, this time from the swarthiest nation of all, South America. Eat too much of them and you’ll soon be paying off corrupt governments, producing home-grown cocaine and taking the afternoon off work for a siesta. Swerve.

Paprika - this peculiar spicy red powder is well known to actively induce the wearing of gypsy clothes and begging on London Underground.

Pasta (also known as Spaghetti) - The filthy Iy-ties first came over here 100 years ago and have been stealing our cafe jobs ever since. This wobbly muck is simply a con, it’s just re-shaped boiled bread. The rotten war-dodgers will charge as much as £30 a bowl up in London.

Cucumbers - disgusting. Look at the shape. Quite obviously some weird bio-concoction bred to infect our minds with filth by the gays.

Pierogi - this mysterious Eastern European gloop is in fact a substance which causes the mind to actively become weak and dislike work. The packaging of Poland’s main brand is ‘Kasia’s’, Polish for ’Calais’, and its main ingredient is dough which roughly translates as ‘benefits’. You work it out.

Paella - Those lazy work-shy Spaniards have been coining it off our holiday pound ever since we discovered that baked desert of a donkey sanctuary and its peasants 50 years ago and turned it into a seaside resort. This dingy slop is simply yellow rice pudding with bony bits of rabbit foot and prawn heads. Politely decline.
Apparently now there’s a ‘Spanish food revolution’ where in right-on bits of London, soppy ‘foodies' order the same bowls of deep fried nibbles you get free with your sangria in Marbella. Imagine!

Melissa Foodie, stand-by UKIP Candidate for Thanet (will consider other places) - October 2014 

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Tredwell's - Sharing Wareing

Cripes, all this relaxed accessibility. All this casualness. All this sharing. I’m surprised anyone ever actually makes it out of bed, let alone into a restaurant. 
We’re all too busy being casual and relaxed about everything, sharing everything and generally being accessible. Personally I’ve dived head first into this new trend and left my front door open this morning, hopefully making it more accessible to passers by. In an attempt to be more casual, I haven’t spoken to my mother in weeks. But all this general open-armed accesibleness and friendly jeans & converse-wearing makes me hungry. so I need a non-stuffy, casual, relaxed and informal eatery to fully express my rejection of formalities in a relaxed, convivial, sharing environment.

Chargrilled chicken, peanut, cucumber

Tredwells is the new West-End eatery offering from Marcus Wareing seemingly designed to ape the success of places such as Foxlow and Social Eating House perhaps. Everyone can picture the brainstorming meeting. “What we need is one of those dark and dingy booths n barstool ‘casual eatery’ type places, You know, blokey, but swish, like a restaurant version of Hackett or Murdock, bit of dark wood & shiny brass here, leather there, green glass lampshade maybe?” 

Shrimp cocktail

It describes itself as ‘combining accessibility with a relaxed, informal atmosphere’ with ‘modern London cooking with an emphasis on sharing’ and in keeping with the current trend of rejecting all the stuffy conventions of tradition, the menu is in no convenient order, but separated into sections called Snacks, Pots & Jars, Breads & Buns, Bowls, Grills & Smokes , Salads & Vege.

Lamb chops, minted bean chutney

Food all arrives at once, as is ‘a la mode’ in London 2014. Of course it does. Casual & carefree. Why are we all constrained to these silly rules like ‘starter’ or ‘main course’? How stuffy. How contstrained. How square. 
So I’m going with this. Down with it. Problem is, the lamb cutlets arrive at the same time as the shrimp cocktails, and I’m left with the dilemma: do I eat the chops first, while they’re hot, or leave them to gradually cool down and allow the lovely glistening shine to congeal until I’m ready to eat them - how tragically conventional - 10 or 15 mins later following the chilled shrimp cocktail. Which If I had left, would have gradually warmed up to that lukewarm horribleness that seafood should never be. 


So we end up just sort of picking through everything at the same time, like a kind of wedding buffet, not quite sure if what we had was really going with everything else. Bite of chilly shrimp, bite of lamb, bite of beetroot houmous. No start, no middle, no end.

Anyway, the food itself was a real hit and miss for me. Some pretty good, some odd, bordering on bizarre. 
Here’s what I remember:

Lamb chops: juicy and tasty, with a pleasant minted bean chutney.

‘Beetroot hummus’ this was a bit rubbish. Could have done with some salt, and possibly some garlic, lemon juice, and maybe swap the beetroot for chickpeas. Just a thought.

Chargrilled chicken, peanut, cucumber: Oddest tasting combination I’ve ever had I think. Not sure I would order again.

Shrimp cocktail: good sauce, tasty shrimps. Question: are shrimps the official new word for prawns? Or are they the small ones? Someone knowledgeable please inform me.

House salad: This was just a sad looking bowl of wet vegetable stuff with a vinegary dressing which just acted as texture.

House salad

Polenta fries with smoked tomato dip: edible enough, not bad at all. Tomato dip does what all tomato dips do, and made me want Heinz.

Desserts: My chocolate pot with Campari ice instantly transported my back to Christmas as a child, accidentally biting into my great Aunt’s chocolate liquors. 

Chocolate pot, Campari ice

Muscovado sponge, coffee and walnut, not a disaster at all. Best of the two.

Muscovado sponge, coffee & walnut

So Tredwell's food is obviously from a good pedigree, we all know that. Design-wise, the tired bandwagon-jumping that so many London restaurateurs are rather cringeingly doing to try and stay hip, like drunk uncles at weddings around your hot teenage friend is rather boring, but I wasn't completely annoyed by it. Weirdly, opposite Dishoom and Jamie's over the road, Tredwell's kind of slots into place as another out-of-towners out on the town dining place, and with Marcus's forthcoming TV attention it seems the perfect choice of location to snare some boot cut jeans wearing groups from the home counties between shops-n-a show.

But does Tredwell's make me go home thinking 'if I never went to another restaurant ever again, I would be happy that this was my last one'? Nope. And I believe - rather naively perhaps - every restaurant should make you feel like that.

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)


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