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.


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