Thursday, 28 March 2013

Sweet & Spicy, Brick Lane

Now that restaurants don't have to tout their empty tables by standing in the street waving flyers and enticing you in with bottles of fizzy red wine anymore (they have twitter for that), Brick Lane can become a great place to go for a curry again. Nobody who's anybody goes to Tayyabs any more, unless it's Monday morning, because queuing is nearly as boring as reading an Andy Lynes review, and Lahore & Mirch Masala are just a bit too far over Commercial Road to walk in heels. Plus before all the places get taken over by sexy French girls or street-art shops, you want to get back down to London's crap curry capital and enjoy the garishness.

Only Brick Lane curry doesn't have to mean crap. 

Look between the glitzy signage and you'll notice numerous little cafes, sparsely decorated (some quite shabby, really) all serving 'home-style' curries, breads, samosas and bhajis from a countertop environment. 

My favourite forever was the now deceased Shalimar, situated next to Heneage Street, which made a perfect curry night duo with The Pride Of Spitalfields, a pub so 'East End' I once heard the manageress shriek "Churchills? This ain't the Queen Vic you know" to a poor wet-behind-the-ears and red-faced student, to the snorting giggles of his mates.

Second best (maybe now first) is Sweet and Spicy, a little corner place a few doors down. 

Reassuringly shabby, with grease and dust clogged fans and Pakistani bodybuilder posters, the room is 1/4 full (7pm on a Saturday Night!) the sole member of staff shouts orders to a kitchen downstairs into a microphone, which appears not to work as replies are heard shouted back up the stairs perfectly clearly.

The crockery is brilliant. Currently en vogue and featuring in interiors shoots in Wallpaper Mag, this stuff looks like it's actually been here since 1969, when the place opened (One of the first three restaurants to open in Brick Lane, according to its website).

We order the classics: Lamb karahi, vegetable samosa, rice & dhal for two. I'm quite sure the karahi here is as good as Tayyabs, dense and rich gravy, soft meat, fragrant coriander. The total bill:

£13. That's THIRTEEN POUNDS, for dinner for two in a very fashionable part of town.

40 Brick Lane 
Tower Hamlets, UK E1 6RF

Sweet & Spicy on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

How to Date in a Restaurant

Dating in London is weird. There are lots of potential weirdos and therefore, a lot of potential weird situations in which to find yourself. The first choice for a date is often a drink, or just as commonly, a restaurant. But there are so many ways for this to go wrong. I've been on plenty of dates in restaurants and there have been some disastrous ones. You may have totally different eating habits, your date may be allergic to everything, they may try and order a burger at a fancy French restaurant or horror of horrors, he might not want to share. It's not the same as a casual drink, where you can make a quick getaway – it can be a long, drawn out process which can be great, or can be awkward. If anything, it's a very useful way in which to discover any annoying or disgusting habits that your potential beau may have. There are so many ways to fuck it up - the littlest thing can put me off a man on a date. For example, I once went out with a guy whose idea of a tip was to leave 20p in 1 and 2p coins. He didn't understand why I, especially as a waitress, found that thoughtless. So I decided to put together some tips (and some horror stories) of dating in restaurants - potentially disastrous.


Choose the location wisely
. You could book the most amazing sushi place only for your date to announce that they don't like sushi. Nightmare!
Go somewhere with interesting staff. @tableforONE_PV: ' Le Beaujolais is a delightful choice for a 1st date. If the guys's boring then the old bartender is full of fun stories.'
Go somewhere with a focal point or a nice view - it'll give you something to talk about and it's a nice shared experience.


Don't dither when you're asked who the reservation is for, if you made it. It makes potential first interactions potentially awkward. Also, your date may have forgotten your name.


Establish the ordering situation. Once I went on a date to Pitt Cue. I thought he wanted to share, but he didn't want to share, so when the food arrived, I had to re-order to get my food. Hilarity ensued (it did not).
Don't assume people like being ordered for. @belhunt100: "1st date wouldn't let me order, or see the menu, or wine list. Did it all for me, and made a rubbish choice!"
Don't pretend to know a lot about wine if you don't. You will, inevitably, look like a pretentious dick. 
Don't worry about asking for tap water, no-one thinks you're cheap. 
Be observant. There's nothing more awkward (and unattractive) than a man ignoring who the waiter looks at and steaming in to order first. 
Read the situation and the location. A Nando's experience will be different to a Michelin starred restaurant experience (you would think this was obvious. It is not to some people). 
Make sure you can pronounce what's on the menu. @laurenbravo: "First boyfriend thought he was impressing by ordering "Sea Red beef". Had to point out it was actually "seared"."
Order things where there is no question of eating method. Some people like to follow the rules very strictly. If you order a burger, do you cut it in half first? Would you really cut a banana up with a nife and fork, as the Debrett's guide instructs?


Order something different to your date – if conversation runs a bit dry, you can always offer them a bit of your starter that they 'have to try'. It's a cunning excuse to get a bit closer to them.
Don't order anything messy. You may think that eating spaghetti is sexy, but you could end up slurping more than seducing. Not to mention the food that might go down your front / attractive joker-style tomato sauce stains around your mouth.
Think about the effect your food will have on you. @Blonde_M: "Don't order the squid ink pasta. You'd think it'd be obvious, wouldn't you? *Sigh*" - same goes for too much red wine!
Manners are very important. @TheSCGuy: “My date orders a salad, I order pasta. She gets up & goes to toilet as food arrives at table. Comes back 15mins later with no apology, eats salad whilst I force down cold pasta.”


Make sure your date isn't married! @intotheFworld: 'Shortest 1st date ever. Fancy fish restaurant, we sit down, he says "Don't take this the wrong way but I'm married". I leave.'
Remember where you are. You're in a place where people eat. I've had a few bad experiences where my date has told charming tales involving bodily functions. I'd rather not hear about your bad digestion whilst I'm eating, thanks.
Don't forget to thank your date if your dinner was paid for by them. That's happened to a friend of mine and it really pissed him off to receive a text saying that his date was home safely. No word of thanks for dinner in sight.
At least pretend to be interested in what your date is saying. @jameslewisland: "My most memorable restaurant date was one Valentines day when I proceeded to fall asleep when she was talking."

Try and keep the same eating pace. A friend went on a date to a turkish restaurant, ordered kebabs, finished way before and spent the rest of the meal picking meat out of his teeth with the forks that the kebabs were on. 


At least pretend to protest even if you think your date will probably pay.
Tip. Unless the service was really bad. Otherwise, definitely do. That is an instance where you WILL look cheap and that doesn't bode well on a first date.
If you are offering to pay the bill, make sure you can pay. There is nothing more embarrassing than your credit card not working and not having any back-up cash. That's happened to a friend of mine - his date had to pay and he was mortified.
Don't be tight. @Blonde_M: "I wish this weren't an actual experience of mine - do NOT whip out a voucher at the start of the meal and tell your date what she can order based on the T&Cs therein.  Unsurprisingly, that date was our first and our last."

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Princess Victoria, Shepherd's Bush

Shepherd's Bush is a bit of a culinary wasteland. Full of mainly chain restaurants, it's not somewhere I would go for a meal. It seems to be more concentrated on shopping and live music - food doesn't really get a look in, for those serious about it. So in a forest of EAT, Yo! Sushi and GBKs, I was surprised to discover that somewhere worth going to actually exists.

I was actually in Shepherd's Bush by accident. I'd been to a house party the night before and I'd stayed there out of sheer laziness. I woke up with a hangover and a few of us decided to go to for brunch/lunch. What fresh hell, I wondered, would this visit bring me? I didn't know anywhere in Shepherd's Bush worth eating in. The previous time I'd been to Shepherd's Bush for a gig, I ended up going to Wagamama in Westfield for some oh-so-hip but mediocre ramen on the insistence of a visiting friend (ever find that when friends visit the [eating] capital, they get most excited about going to Nando's or Frankie & Benny's over somewhere new? Not that I have anything against chains but going all the way to London and only eating in that kind of place is limited and a little boring). So I was not particularly excited about this visit, surrounded by Chicken Cottage and the like.

After walking past a number of Aussie-themed pubs and unremarkable chicken places, we ended up at The Princess Victoria. It is one of those pubs where you can have a very nice time. It consists of a large room at the front and a dining room at the back. The waiter attempted to dissuade us from sitting in the busy pub bit (after a little pushing, we discovered he was trying to fill up the empty dining room and clear the pub for football supporters. Nice try). We waited for our friends to arrive and although they offered us their own brand of still or sparkling water (free of charge, tick) and a basket of bread (also free of charge for the initial one), they didn't seem to want to take a proper drinks order until said friends arrived twenty minutes later, how ever much flagging down we tried. Were they not trying to sell us things here!?

I ordered a couple of starters because they looked more interesting than the main courses (more often than not, that's the case). To start, a beef tea (which is basically a beef broth), with chanterelles, bone marrow dumplings and truffle oil, which kind of looked like something resembling the mock turtle soup from The Fat Duck. It was refreshing and meaty but I couldn't taste the gratuitous truffle oil. It didn't detract from the dish particularly. Also, it wasn't another 'carrot and coriander' soup - something a little more adventurous. So much of what makes up a pub menu is often a crowd-pleaser. Then, some dressed crab with paper-thin slices of toast - a fairly generous amount, though erring on over-subtle taste.

Also on the table were a half-pint of unpeeled prawns with lemon mayo, crispy deep-fried whitebait and not-particularly-smoky taramasalata on toast which were all perfectly pleasant and and exactly what you would expect, but the true star was a magnificent Scotch egg which was , which I'm still berating myself for not ordering.

It was about £20 each for a main course and one (non-alcoholic) drink - pretty average for the area, although as with all gastropubs, prices would rise swiftly adding on extras and drinks.

It's about a 10-minute walk from Shepherd's Bush Market station and about 15 minutes longer than that from Shepherd's Bush main station but it's a 'gastropub' I would probably travel to Shepherd's Bush for - it's interesting, a great room and there's not a pieminister pie in sight.

Square Meal

Princess Victoria on Urbanspoon

Monday, 25 March 2013

How to Open an Artisan Coffee Shop

Originally published in Fire & Knives March 2013.

Once upon a time a coffee shop was either the place owned by Daphne where everyone met in Neighbours, or a snack bar announcing the fresh, new vision of Tesco circa 1985. 

Coffee shops: places we now can't live without, an essential part of our day. I think it was when my own suburban mother referred to 'needing' her coffee 'hit'  that my stomach turned over and I felt the first twinges of cynicism. Now we talk about coffee in terms like 'flat white' and 'stumpy'. It's like we've all eaten an Australian phrasebook.

I'm not going to re-write the story. We all know that the coffee shop industry has us by the balls. What do you spend every day on coffee? £5, £10? Possibly more? Scary. 

Coffee has been in the news a lot lately, of course, with Caitlin Moran's favourite - Starbucks - grudgingly forced (after PR pressure, not the rules) into chucking the government a bone occasionally, after being caught paying less tax than a single-mother working part-time as a trainee nurse. Or the opening of the latest chain, Harris & Hoole, where people have been hoodwinked into cheerfully believing their neighbourhood has a friendly new independent latte lounge, complete with cool interior, groovy staff and homemade flapjacks, only to be horrified (after loving it) when they read in the paper that the secret silent investor is none other than the evil corporate bully (and UK's biggest employer) Tesco. Boo, hiss.

I was walking through town the other day and coffee was suggested. Where should we go? We considered the options. There are generally three choices now. The ancient Italian coffee shops we all know and supposedly love (although when charged £3 by a shouty Inter Milan fan for a bitter espresso, not always); the corporate super-chains where you're lining the pockets of a fat bloke on holiday in Mustique; or the new cuddly, liberal, eco-friendly, brown-cord-wearing nice guy reading the Guardian Weekend - the artisan coffee shop.

Artisan coffee shop. I could have easily said 'independent' - those places of vibes, design and good intention. Started by 'folk who love good coffee' (there seems to be quite a few of these), they have mutated into achingly worthy hangouts for more than just coffee: they are now full all day at the weekend with creatives resembling Catalan beatnik intellectuals, hipster families and everyone in between. It's even started filtering through to the normals. Liking 'artisan' coffee is not just for the foodies and coffee geeks now. Instead of going to the pub, they go to The Nordic Bakery (open late) and linger over a cortardo with their MacBooks and woolly hats and unfinished semi-autobiographical manuscripts, discussing righteous causes.

We need more of these little shops, sticking it to the corporate man in a stylish, good intentional granary bread kind of way, standing proud like a little beacon of brown in a sea of bright green & burgundy branding. So to encourage quitting that job in the City and running the independent hang-out you've always dreamed of, here's my guide to opening an artisan coffee shop.

1. Location
Your 'Monopoly Mayfair' gold spot would have to be a corner plot in London's Broadway Market in Hackney, a street so pleased with itself it recently decided to attempt to ban tourists as they were the 'wrong kind of people'. But any recently gentrified, middle-class enclave will do. Ultimate neighbours would be a specialist vinyl record shop, bookshop and vintage boutique.

2. Design
Rough & ready. Stripped pine, distressed and exposed brick are all good. As funky as possible. Helvetica font, or worn typewriter for more scrappy feel. Concrete/kitchen tiles/filament bulbs obviously - they're a given. There has to be a peg board menu with amusing notes for the customers. Any colours should be muted greys/greens from the late 90s gastropub era.

3. Product
Single supplier, hand roasted, ethically sourced, locally roasted beans of course. Square Mile, Climpson, Monmouth all favourites. Latte art essential. Serve coffee in glasses, Barcelona style.

Homemade cake, thick and crusty artisan bread, specialist Spanish hams, salads, and don't forget, lots of quinoa. Tea: great one as can be charged at the same as coffee (or it would make the coffee look expensive), enabling the extremely sneaky £2.50 cup of tea that has found its way unchallenged onto menus across London. Ker-ching!

No-no: branded cups, anything packaged. Walkers crisps. Syrup shots.

4. Staff
Baristas are the original mixologists. Get the most aloof ones you can find, and instruct them to wow your customers with their milk stretching knowledge. Tell them time spent is no object, and queues forming while they expertly tamp grounds and tap the milk jug up and down should be encouraged.

Girls: Wacky funky tomboy lesbians with exotic accents, lots of shaved haircuts and piercings. 

Men: beards are essential, as are band t-shirts or cable-knit jumpers and beanie hats.  Southern hemisphere where possible. 

5. Atmosphere
Background music should resemble a ad. The Staves, Laura Marling, the knowingly retro Joni Mitchell are all good.

6. Backing
Of course you'll need some cash to fund all this. Don't risk your own, and banks are extortionate. What you need is a backer. Be careful who you get - large evil corporations equal bad publicity and don't mesh with the independent vibe you're aiming at, so keep it quiet.

Good Backers (feel free to shout about these)
Local community whip-round
Fair trade coffee company 
Crowd funded multiple investors

Bad backers (shhhh)
Your parents

If you do well, you can open more shops, and hopefully become a chain. By that time you'll be loaded and have forgotten about the reasons you started your shop anyway, so it doesn't matter. 

Last but not least, your coffee shop will quickly fill up with buttoned-up lumberjack shirt wearing freeloading wifi suckers buying a coffee at 11am and sitting there for the rest of the day using your tables, loo, heating etc as their office. How to diplomatically discourage these folk will make the perfect topic of conversation as you clean the Marzocco.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Restaurants Doing Twitter Right

These are restaurants twitter accounts who do what I think twitter can be brilliant for: making customers remember you. 

Here is a list of accounts that I actually enjoy following and who have got the message from people who know how to do marketing: don't do the hard sell. They're witty, informative and there's a real person with opinions behind it. And not too much dull retweeting of praise or making their every tweet visible to all of their followers (not every reply is interesting!).

Mangal2. All of those 'witty' twitter accounts pale in comparison to this one. This one takes the piss out of itself regularly, and in a timeline of people and restaurant taking themselves far too seriously, a little irreverence is great.

The Gunmakers. The landlord tweets anecdotes of his customers (sometimes livetweeting peculiar customers and the frustrations of a landlord) and gives his strong opinions on everything, no holds barred. And he's funny, which helps.

The Dolphin. This isn't the real Twitter account for the Dolphin, but it's the one everyone follows, because it's absolutely ridiculous – follow for the utterly rude, inappropriate ramblings that comment on pop culture and very occasionally,  things that are relevant to pubs. If this was run by the dolphin, it would make me want to go there.

Hawksmoor. Interesting food and meat facts, witty observations and good interaction - they seem genuinely interested in seeing what customers have to say whilst maintaining a large following. They're just very likeable. If I see their avatar in my timeline, I look forward to reading a quality tweet.

Bob Bob Ricard. He gives a light-hearted impression of decadence and eccentricity, whilst being engaging and amusing. Never trying to sell his restaurant constantly, he gives us the occasional gorgeous insight into new dish ideas, but mainly his presence is a subtle reminder that Bob Bob Ricard is there - reliable, exotic and exciting, somehow managing to encapsulate the whole restaurant's USP in a Twitter feed.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Keep Your Empty Tables off Twitter, Please!

Restaurants. Those poor businesses, struggling to make ends meet. Existing to please us, the evil customer, the fickle, complaining pain in the arse who comes in and harrasses the waitresses, doesn't like paying service and threatens to write nasty Tripadvisor reviews.

We should pat these institutions on the back! They need all the help they can get, right?

Well of course, a business is a business. It needs to survive. How does it survive? Customers. Being full every night is surely the dream of restaurants everywhere. Booked, months in advance, kitchens ordering supplies happily, chefs and FoH working together like a well oiled machine. A performance, even. 

Yet somehow, through the wobbly vision of a dream fading away, I've come to realise that going out to dinner is precisely not this. A restaurant is not a performance. It's not an event. We are not there to witness art. 

Cooking and service is an art maybe, but not 'art'. It's not an expression of feeling. It's not there to entertain. It's not there to challenge your head intellectually and make you see the world in a different way. Well, apart from in some ridiculously pretentious Parisian three-starred Michelin kitchens I believe. So let's climb down from this extremely high horse and see restaurants for what they are, places to simply go and eat food in. Restore ourselves to a feeling of wellbeing, re-energise and raise our spirits.

Now, I love a restaurant as much as the next annoying blogger. In fact, going out to eat is my favourite thing to do in the world. I am a dream customer for a restaurant. I spend a huge proportion of my income on eating out. I like nothing more than being waited on efficiently, served lovely food and being treated like the king of Greece for the evening. That's what I'm paying for. 

How restaurants have attracted customers has changed over the years, from the small ad in the local newspaper, word of mouth, PR, email newsletters, even touts on the street with flyers and other collateral, asking, sometimes even hassling you to come in.

So when I look at twitter (as I do, occasionally) and see restaurants, who I've taken the time to follow, tweeting about their 'spare table tonight' again and again, I can't help thinking it's one step towards 'digital touting', an abuse of my time, a sales pitch I didn't sign up for.

What makes you think that your sudden table availability is of such importance it warrants tweeting, like a piece of news? 

Do you really consider yourselves so popular, so in demand, that a free table at your place is some kind of hot ticket? Like front row at a Justin Bieber show? Like a major sporting final? Are you expecting people to jump up and down and race to take you up on your generous offer to squeeze us in, and be the lucky part witness to the great sensational act known to us mere mortals as 'having dinner'?

This kind of short-sighted use of twitter is typical of DIY marketing and reeks of amateurishness, self importance, and is precisely what fuels the ridiculous hype, PR puff, fast turnover, backlash, dark void, waning of popularity then inevitable closure of restaurants. By playing this game you are fuelling the very devil you are fighting.

It's no coincidence that this practice is popular with a certain type of restaurant, recently opened and hype-hungry, generally. I can only predict that continually waving 'please come', many will shoot themselves in the foot and begin to irritate even the most loyal of fans. Because bottom line, it's boring.

It's a tiny, weeny, silly thing, but maybe that's because it's relatively new. But imagine the future, if it became commonplace for every business to tweet every time it wanted to sell something.

Let's not forget a few things. Twitter is not a marketing tool. It was not put here as a government funded free service to help small businesses sell their wares. Most people are not on it to watch advertising, or try and be sold things every two minutes. Businesses using twitter should be grateful they are even there, communicating with customers for free. They are guests at a party, and the party is not a trade show. Be here, yes, have fun, contribute to the atmosphere, but please don't talk shop constantly.

My gentle advice to restaurants would be to keep quiet, stop drawing attention to your thinly veiled desperation, concentrate on pleasing the customers that have taken the time to book and have kept their bookings, and work on making them regulars. 

I believe it will pay off, even if you occasionally have to have the odd empty table.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

La Rugoletta: A Proper Old-School Italian

I have been vocal in my love for Ciao Bella, a little Italian in Bloomsbury, which is one of my favourite places in London - exactly what a proper old-fashioned Italian should be like. It doesn't pander to any current (or otherwise) trends and it doesn't try whatsoever to be cool. And this is exactly what La Rugoletta is like. 

La Rugoletta has a bit of a peculiar interior, with the food prep area and glass-fronted cabinet being visible, like a cafe sort of set-up, but it makes the experience all the more old-school. The lighting isn't the most flattering but it's still sort of romantic - it's still somewhere appropriate for a date. The tiny room somehow packs in about ten tables - there is, admittedly, not a lot of room to move around but that fact can be charmingly overlooked by the fact that it makes the room more cosy. 

It's not going to win any prizes for inventive menu design or attractive glassware or crockery, but La Rugoletta is the real deal, and a totally refreshing change from all of the zeitgeisty places that are opening up seemingly by the day. It is family-run, has no pretensions and best of all, it's cheap! Furthermore, because they don't have a license, they can't sell alcohol so you can bring your own wine. Corkage charge is minimal (about £2, I think).

We kicked things off with a hefty portion of salami, bread, olives and bruschetta. Bizarrely, oil and balsamic vinegar, and olives, were served in large tumblers. Then, onto main courses. Tagliatelle with scallops, mushroom and white wine sauce was light and (perhaps a bit too light on the miniscule scallops, though). The tagliatelle was gloriously wide and the mushrooms unlike the little slugs you so often find when they're cooked, and though I couldn't finish it, I made a valiant effort.

We staggered out of the door after paying a £45 bill for three of us, happy and full. If you decide to make the trek (it's always a trek if it's outside Central London or East Dulwich), make sure you book (you can actually book!) as it's tiny and even on a Wednesday that far out, there's often a queue. And it't not even a trendy American 4-hour burger pop-up.

59 Church Lane, London, N2 8DR
020 8815 1743

La Rugoletta on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Restaurant Hipster Trap

Seems like every restaurant that opens these days has a new problem. Hipsters. These pests are everywhere!
They always get there first, poncing about in their little woolly hats and beards, demanding newer and more peculiar menus, more and more ironic decor.
Reviews of your hot new place don't even talk about the food anymore, focusing on these trendy customers instead.

Well, I've come up with the answer: The Restaurant Hipster Trap. Order yours now!

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Quality Chop House

Giles Coren tweeted about The Quality Chop House a few weeks ago, and on a whim, I decided to book - I'd been intrigued about it since it had opened it and I hadn't heard a bad thing about it. Then a few weeks later, he wrote an excellent review.

I liked The Quality Chop House,. but I didn't love all of the food. But the experience I had made up for any tiny hiccups, because I did generally have a great time and the food was mostly good. The great thing about it is that it's not trying to be trendy in its chintzy surroundings or trying to do something that is totally wacky or different with weird flavour combinations. It's like going to dinner at your friend's mother's house and being served up 'hearty' food upon mismatched crockery she's spent a couple of years collecting from antique shops (a trend, which by the way, is reaching saturation point). But it's difficult to criticise the wobbly pews and mismatched crockery because that's the kind of thing they're going for. That aside, I admire the traditional approach they're taking. And they're doing it very well (though with Nicholas Lander as the father of one of the owners, it's difficult imagine them going wrong. Aside from not calling it L'Escargot #2).

Smoked ox heart
In the 15 minutes I waited for my friend, I was given house still and sparkling water (sparkling rather tritely named 'bubbles'), and trying not to over-balance on the slightly wobbly pew I was sitting on. They did make me feel very welcome, though and placated my hasty apologies for the delay, assuring me they didn't need the table back (which, on booking, I was told they would.

Fried crab balls
The house white was £20, and nice and easy to drink. There are a lot of wines under £30 if you want something a bit more pricey, though. The service is so friendly and helpful I think it deserves a special mention. The pews (seating four people) make it difficult to serve, so I'm incredibly glad that the couple supposed to be sitting next to us didn't turn up in the end.

They serve one tasting menu of four courses (I use the word 'tasting' loosely, because it's a little more hearty than tastes), which change daily, for £35. That's the only menu they serve there.

Blood orange with meringue (WHAT  a plate)
On the day I went, the first course (served as sharing plates, presumably to prevent having an extra course) were deep fried crab balls, little bites of meaty goodness which were accompanied with lemon and mayonnaise, and smoked ox hearts - chewy in a very pleasant way, in that I wanted to savour them for as long as possible. They proved to be a little too chewy for my friend, who had to spit her last piece into her napkin. Next up was a little piece of cod, which was a nice little neutraliser between courses, but not particularly memorable. 

The main event was two pieces longhorn beef with parsnips and potatoes, which was reminiscent of something my mum would make, which I liked - good, solid food. No quirks here. What I didn't like was how chewy and fatty it was - it was just too much hard work and too many bits to avoid. The flavours were great, but I just didn't love it. The meringue with blood orange was too much overly-chewy meringue and not enough delicious blood orange (which is of course everywhere at the moment).

All in all, I had a nice time, but it was just that: nice. Perhaps for £100 for 2 I would have liked to be wowed a tad more, but it is a charming place and it's not trying to be 'different' or extreme, it's just serving good, solid food. And I would go back.

The Quality Chop House 
94 Farringdon Road, London, EC1 3EA

The Quality Chop House on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

10 Restaurant Things I Hoped Might Have Gone Away by Now

It's March 2013, and what better a time to blow off the cobwebs with some spring cleaning. I wish restaurants would clean out a few of these tired old relics, still lurking around today. Or at least exile them to chains in motorway service stations perhaps.

1. Chunky Chips
I'd like to have been there when they invented these. Back in 1985 some hungover head chef at Berni Inn decided he really couldn't be arsed to slice potatoes any thinner, and he hated the French anyway. Eureka: Chunky chips were born.
Well, nothing filled me with more disappointment last week than when I ordered a club sandwich (very nice) & chips at Balan's and it turned up with inch thick, soggy greasy doorstops of deep fried King Edward (pictured above). I only ate one, which contained enough steaming wet potato to make a family-sized shepherd's pie.
This is SOHO FFS, not Swindon.
If I was an  EU politician I'd be lobbying for a rule of max 8mm sliced width in chips, or they must be called 'British chips' and reserved for theme pubs in airports with laminated menus.

2. Anything 'deconstructed'
I can't think of anything more about this than 'put the sodding ingredients together you lazy pretentious twat', sorry. 

3. Faux-sterity
Has anyone else noticed that the ironic thing with 'austerity dining', which begins with no-booking policies and single page websites, single item menus, wine served in milk bottles, scavenged furniture and decor that looks like you're eating in a rather less salubrious part of Chernobyl, is when the bill comes?

4. Battering and frying everything
Unless you're a chippy, yawn. Can't chefs think of any other cooking techniques? Plus i read somewhere that doing that to everything is a teeny bit bad for you.

5. Micro leaves, dusts and powders
This has become ridiculous. Looking at plates from certain big hitting chefs these days can be rather like looking at a compost heap that's been left for a few weeks and little shoots have sprung up all over it. I've written about it before here.

6. Absurd novelty afternoon tea themes
They're getting more and more twee - do we really want to eat an edible shoe? Can't we just be civilised without being made to feel completely ridiculous? Are we supposed to bring our teddy bears too, and talk in girly voices? It seems to be a female thing to want to go and dress up in vintage costumes and live in some sort of fantasy world for the afternoon.

7. Square plates
These belong to 90s Thai restaurants, Tetris obsessives, Footballers & Come Dine With Me contestants. No-where else.

8. Everything pickled
Of course this 'down-home' trend is the perfect partner to your smokey ribs or whatever, but it seems to have sneaked onto real restaurants menus now too.
I don't want everything to taste of salty vinegar any more. I thought pickles were for evening drinks parties with your Aunt's leathery skinned gold-jangling neighbours in her holiday flat in Marbella. Plus, rather boringly, pickled things contain up to 10 times more sodium than fresh things. Death by gherkin.

9. Flirty t-shirt slogans
Unless you've got a bar full of cheeky, young, model-esque staff, it just looks a bit embarrassing. Undress me? Quite honestly, the thought of you naked while I'm eating this bit of chicken skin is a bit weird.

10. Salted caramel
Fast becoming the 2010s answer to 'Death by Chocolate' in the eighties, or banoffee pie in the nineties.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Wild Honey, Club Gascon & The Chancery: Pitting 3 Fine Dining Restaurants Against Each Other

This week I went to 3 'fine dining' restaurants, for various reasons - a celebration, catching up with an old friend and a date. It's not normal for me to go to three of these in a week, and it struck me it would be a good opportunity to compare and contrast. They were Wild Honey, Club Gascon and The Chancery.

It's easy to assume that 'fine dining' restaurants will be perfect for any occasion, but some are more romantic, some are better for groups and it's not something you can necessarily find out until you arrive at the restaurant, in which case it's too late.

Two had Michelin stars and were French, one was English and didn't. I had a great time at all of them, but in terms of value for money, they varied widely - I couldn't believe how much the price vs my experience of the place differed, because they didn't necessarily correspond.

Wild Honey

We were one of the first tables in - and we were seated by the door. Not off to the best start. One of the first things that was made abundantly clear was the lack of music. If you've been in a near-empty restaurant with no music, you'll know how bloody uncomfortable it is to talk in anything above hushed tones, for fear of being too loud. Staff seemed to be a bit inconsistent - whilst most were smiley, we were opposite the hostess' greeting desk and she didn't seem to be particularly happy. The food is expensive. From £15-£20 for a starter and £25-£35 for a main course, I hoped that my mother never found out I'd been here (she is the epitome of frugalness and would be horrified). The problem with a la Carte menu is that it's much easier to see what you're spending on what - somehow if you're spending the same amount on a set menu, it always somehow appears to be better value.

The smoked salmon starter was cooked to perfection, if not a little predictably paired with beetroot. My tomato and octopus salad was possibly one of the most boring dishes I've ever had: under-ripe anaemic-looking tomatoes and the tiniest smidgens of sauces. As starters were served, I noted that we still had butter knives and butter. Unfortunately, no bread (which they remembered as they served the main courses). My cod was nice enough, but I couldn't help thinking it was a bit under-seasoned and soggy. The highlight was the dessert - rhubarb granola - beautifully silky, tender pieces of rhubarb with rhubarb jelly, seeds and mascarpone sorbet. And of course those decorative pansy leaves chefs are so very fond of which no doubt made it more attractive but didn't really add anything to the taste.

Rbubarb 'granola'

The bill was £145 for 2 starters, mains, desserts and a bottle of house white. There was a considerable wait for coats as they disappeared into the back of the lengthy room - message received. They don't have to try and impress us any more. Most of the service was pleasant but it all smacked of the bare minimum. I wouldn't go back there. I've heard Arbutus isn't all that much cop these days either.

Club Gascon
Playing in the background was tinkling piano, typical loungey music. As my friend sat down she remarked on how romantic the atmosphere was, which was true - ideal for a catchup with a friend, right? The sommelier was very helpful (and good-looking with great hair, just FYI) and helped us choose a glass of wine that matched with our meals and dessert - not trying to sell us a ridiculously expensive glass of wine. There's nothing more embarrassing than being upsold wine and having to ask for a lower-priced one. He did explain in more detail than we needed (just tell us which one! I don't know how this wine is 'fun'!).

Sea urchin veloute with cauliflower
The chefs' menu is incredibly good value for a dinner at £28 for 3 courses. There is an a la carte option but it works out as far more expensive. And it mostly very good. The amuse bouche was a bit weird, and I didn't really know what it was due to my French waiter's slightly unintelligible accent (the language barrier was a problem at a few times during the evening). I should mention that there was a hateful portmanteau on the menu: 'quinotto' (quinoa risotto, I presume). I did not order it. Things were equally as weird moving onto the starters. There was a sea urchin veloute with cauliflower and crisps on the menu, so of course I had to try that as the weirdest looking thing on there. It was, also, weird. I think perhaps it is an acquired taste and it was definitely interesting, but I couldn't really say if I enjoyed it. It felt more like an exercise in different textures as opposed to taste. On another note, the 'crisps' served with it were the exact colour and consistency of fish food.

Pastrami onglet

Main courses were more promising. The cod was firm and went a dream with the butternut squash puree. The beef pastrami onglet was tender and due to the curing, with so much more flavour than a normal steak. Things fell a bit when it came to desserts - the mango soup with mojito sorbet (I ordered it out of perverse curiosity and am still at a loss as to why restaurants serve a soup for dessert). It was alike to a fruity drink that you might drink by the pool. Coffee came with petits fours, which were the usual chocolate affair - truffles, chocolate-covered almonds and chocolate covered papaya.

Mango soup

This was my favourite in terms of experience - the staff looked after us beautifully well - not a dropped napkin, not a look went unnoticed. The food fell a bit short sometimes, but at the end of the night I had a huge smile on my face: testament to the fact that good service can make up for, not awful, but a bit weird, food. The bill was £90 for 3 courses each, 2 glasses of wine and 2 glasses of dessert wine.

The Chancery

I don't know why more people don't talk about The Chancery. It's central, it serves food that's inventive and interesting and it's fairly good value. But oh, I forgot - it hasn't got any 'quirky' dishes or interiors (well, the interior could perhaps do with that, but more on that later).

The service leaves a little to be desired - it's a little unintelligible sometimes and there were a few instances when it was a little slow, including the fact that they forgot about our remaining wine in the bucket until we had finished our meal, but it was incredibly warm and friendly so these things can be forgiven to a certain extent. The room is a pretty weird sludgy colour and a pretty weird room, being split up into two parts, which at first made me feel quite uneasy for some reason - perhaps because it all seemed so… formal.
Parsnip soup (after that my battery died)
I soon forgot about that when the food came, though. At £35 for 3 courses, the set menu was nearly as good value as Club Gascon. There was more choice there, but I'm never sure if more choice is necessarily a good thing. Amuse bouche was a parsnip soup topped with flaked almonds - a great, simple way to start. The starters were varying: the lobster cannelloni (I think it was blackened with squid ink) was a few small bites of decadence, the coriander playing off against the subtle lobster, well worth the £4 supplement. The cod cheeks were a little cold but the accompanying cornichons and aioli were a great match for it nonetheless. Main courses were better than anything combined - the Cornish plaice with razor clams and glazed parsnips was perfectly cooked and the apple smoked pork was brought to a new level of smokiness by the fact that it was rolled in ash. Desserts were both very pink, the rhubarb panna cotta was creamy and the jelly surround was a great contrast but the tiny custard doughnut and liquorish sorbet didn't quite work so well, sadly. The blood orange cheesecake's turkish delight ice cream was a much better.

This was not necessarily the best experience but the food was better here than either of the two places - I still walked out grinning. The bill was about £120, with 3 courses, with a bottle of wine and 2 glasses of dessert wine.

Price wise, Wild Honey the dearest and Club Gascon the cheapest (perhaps owing to our not being charged for dessert wine, though) so this came in at the middle. If it's experience and expert service you are looking for, Club Gascon. If excellent food, The Chancery. If paying through the nose for a fairly pleasant but unremarkable experience, Wild Honey.

Wild Honey
12 St George Street, London, W1S 2FB
Wild Honey on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Club Gascon
57 West Smithfield, London, EC1A 9DS

Club Gascon on Urbanspoon Square Meal

The Chancery
No. 9 Cursitor Street, London, EC4 1LL

The Chancery on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Thursday, 7 March 2013

10 Ways to Piss me off Before I get to your Restaurant

Inspired by Marina O'Loughlin's mini outburst on Twitter yesterday, I was thinking about how important it is for a restaurant to make a good impression on you before you even get there. It's incredibly easy to piss customers off and here are some ways restaurants can do that. Read this carefully, aspiring restaurateurs.

1. Taking a credit card number with a reservation
I know it's frustrating if you have no-shows, and if it's a particularly large party, I am totally on board with requiring a deposit, but for two people for a regular dinner, it shows a complete lack of trust in the customer. I will go to that restaurant pre-pissed off if that happens.

2. Lying about how busy you are
Tell me the restaurant is full and I'll have to take a *much* earlier/later/antisocially timed booking, for me to arrive at the restaurant which is half-empty for the duration of my visit.

3. Not putting prices on the website
I just want an idea of the price, for God's sake! If I have to ring up the restaurant and find out the prices, I feel a bit cheap and embarrassed. That information should be available on the website.

4. Ignoring prospective customers
Just because I'm not a definite customer, it doesn't mean I might be. If you ignore my email about how your disabled facilities/catering to vegetarians, I'm damn sure not going to bother giving you any customers. Same goes for not answering the phone. It's amazing that restaurants can spend so much on intricate decor and design but won't budget for a receptionist's salary.

4. Not getting a booking confirmation. When I first moved to London, I was most bemused with the practice of calling to confirm a reservation on that morning. Now, if I don't, I get nervous that I've given them the wrong number or there is no record of my reservation if they don't call. So I have to call up and confirm with them, to their bemusement, mostly.

5. Retweeting left, right and centre
I start following a restaurant I'm going to on Twitter, they flood my timeline with compliment retweets (usually exceptionally dull). It already shows a lack of imagination. Not a great start. I have griped about this countless times but I still see it happening on a daily basis.

6. 'Tables Left'
Tweeting 'tables left' as if it's some kind of rarity. Every night is such an occasion that think they have they have the right to tweet it as if it's big news. Er, you're just trying to fill tables like everyone else. It's funny how it's only restaurants who think they're important that do this.

7. Automated Switchboard Systems
If it's a big holding company like Gordon Ramsay for example, there is often a huge number of options when you call them - 'press 1 for reservations, press 2 for private dining, press 3 if want to know the name of the pig you will be eating tonight…' . Just hire a switchboard receptionist if your company is that big. No-one wants to hold on for 5 minutes just to make a booking or find out opening times.

8. Stupid rules 
Before customers even arrive. 'No cameras. No phones.' I understand dress codes and health and safety issues, but don't tell me what to do. It makes the restaurant sound overly aggressive and I might be paying a lot of money, thanks very much. Why don't you trust your customers a bit to not use flashes and switch their phones on silent.

9. Time Limits
The restaurant informs you that you only have the table for a limited amount of time. I understand why some restaurants do it, but ultimately, it's table turning and you feel that they just want to get you out of the door quickly. If you have a time limit, you're constantly thinking 'how much time do I have'? It's not like I'll sit there for four hours with a starter and a glass of water.

10. Unwilling Data Collection
Restaurants that take your contact details without asking. They might think they're being helpful, but they might not be. If you have your work contact details on your email signature, you probably don't want to be contacted about your restaurant booking on there, because you might not get the message, you might not be there or you simply don't want that creepy receptionist at your work to find out where you're going to dinner! Note to bookings teams: ask for my details!

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Tuscanic: A Nice Place for a Date

In Soho, the cool, desirable places are often ones that take no reservations so if you decide to go to dinner on a whim, it’s often difficult to actually get in anywhere. So it’s nice to have somewhere that you can actually get a seat and that’s quite new but it’s not somewhere that the foodies are queuing around the block for. And Tuscanic is exactly that. Perhaps because there’s not a wacky gimmick, or because there’s not a big name chef involved, or perhaps it’s just not been vigorously over-hyped on Twitter, but if you walk past at peak time, you can probably get a table, despite its location on Old Compton Street. Not to say that it’s completely dead, it’s just not got MEATLiquor or Pitt Cue-esqe-queues. Or anywhere-Time-Out-has-mentioned-queues.

But it’s buzzy enough, and as I was walking around Soho a few weeks ago with a date, desperately trying to find somewhere that would hopefully impress him and somewhere that didn’t have a queue. This ruled out 10 Greek Street, Duck Soup et. al and the only other option was Ed’s Easy Diner, somewhere which didn’t fill me with overwhelming joy.

So we walked into Tuscanic and it was half-full and smelled nice. The wait staff are a little eccentric, but in a rather endearing way, especially the guy wearing a jaunty trilby (out of choice, apparently). Oddly, we were asked if we wanted the wine list (‘Yes!’ I said a little too quickly. I was nervous) – isn’t that a given in a place like that? – but I can’t really begrudge them that. We ordered the ‘Il Misto’ – a plate of cured meats and cheeses. Said be-hatted waiter attempted to dissuade us from ordering a small one, his face creased in genuine concern/trying to upsell – ‘it’s very small’. But we took our chance, not being particularly hungry. His measuring of ‘small’ was different to that of Polpo, Barrafina or any of those truly small-plates establishments.

It was quite enough, and a pretty decent size, considering it was supposed to be a snack. It was only about £8 (£10 for the large if I remember correctly). There are four different types of cured meats (salami, Italian ham etc) and an interesting selection of cheeses, none of which I’d ever seen (I think the cheese in the pot was a ricotta which was deliciously creamy). 

The wine list is short but reasonably priced (the price being my only criteria, as per), but the wine was good.

It’s not somewhere for a formal dinner, it’s for a catch-up with friends, or a casual date. But more importantly, it's not ridiculously oversubscribed and it's not majorly expensive either.

I’m not sure they need the ‘concept’ tab on their website, though. It’s a Tuscan cafe that serves little crostinis, foccacia with meats and cheeses and wine. That's pretty much it.

Tuscanic Merende on Urbanspoon


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