Thursday, 27 March 2014

How simple is your restaurant?

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

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

My simple quiz might help.


1. Is your restaurant name:

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

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

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

2. Where do people read about your restaurant?

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

B. On twitter

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

3. How is your restaurant designed?

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

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

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

4. Lighting?

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

b. Near darkness, apart from a few filament bulbs

c. Operating theatre bright.

5. How are your serving staff dressed?
 

a. Formal suits

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

c. Scandinavian designer asymmetrically buttoned overalls, in gunmetal grey


6. What food concept is it?

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

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

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

7. How seasonal?

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

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

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


8. Who are your customers?

a. Jet-lagged global company reps

b. The London in-crowd, this week

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


Results

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

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

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


Friday, 21 March 2014

LANES OF LONDON

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

5 Comments that should be banned from restaurant reviews

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

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

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

1. The tight git

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

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

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

2. The subject Nazi

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

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

3. The bitter ruralite.

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

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

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

4. Miss I Know Better

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

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

5. The moral high-grounder

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

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

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



Wednesday, 5 February 2014

London restaurant cuisines rated by coolness

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. American

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

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

8. South American

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

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

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The BBQ Diner Rip-Off Kit

Why, those chaps in that there London have been having some cool ideas. I know, you want to try it for yourself in your own town. It's ripe for it, right? You've got your 'concept' already? Got a suitable venue? A town full of student punters champing at the bit ready to tuck into your 'great idea'? Well don't take any chances. You don't want them to think you've got it slightly wrong. Nail 'the look' with my great 'BBQ Diner Rip-Off Kit'.
And don't worry, those pesky Londoners will never find out.







Thursday, 16 January 2014

The Rum Kitchen

I hate rum. I've hated it since drinking Malibu & coke as a teenager, with it's gorgeously chic white bottle, the sunset palm tree logo, it was the coolest thing to sit in a park and drink while waiting to be sick. Rum sick, nose rum sick.
Other memories of rum include Ron Amazona, a foul tasting almost black liquid I once drank with coffee at dawn in a cafe on holiday in Magaluf. Apparently this rum is so foul, it is only to be drunk in this way.

My unwowness over cocktails is also no secret. I simply cannot get it out of my utterly cynical head that they are not only an obvious massive rip-off, but a vulgar, silly and attention-seeking rip-off, which turns the drinker into a bar version of The Fast Show's Colin Hunt, with a brightly coloured clown of a drink which screams 'I don't go out often'.
I'm far more happy with the 'half a lager for Rodney' than Del Boy's umbrella and sparkler topped rum classic the piña colada, and £8.50 is a lot to pay for what is essentially a nicely presented slightly alcoholic can of Lilt, however you see it.  Piña Colada I have recently learned, simply means 'strained pineapple'. Case rested.

So you can imagine my cartwheels of joy when I heard that a bar and restaurant devoted to rum based cocktails was about to open in Soho.

The Rum Kitchen is already established in Notting Hill, where boys like the three marijuana dealers in Lock Stock probably hang out, as it reminds them of their holidays in Mustique. I've heard it's quite good actually. And Caribbean food has the enviable thing of just sounding delicious. That constant mixture of acidic fruit and spice. Everything's going to taste good, isn't it?

So off I went the other night to have a taste. It was one of those 'blogger previews' (I hope) and I'd been promised a free meal, which also explains why I feel obliged to not just write about it, but write nicely about it. Which, in this case, isn't difficult, because I liked The Rum Kitchen. More than I've liked the last few openings* (House of Ho, Ape & Bird, Oslo, Blackfoot, Kench & Bibesy - all of which have been ok, but nothing to really write about) and more than I think than any Caribbean restaurant I've ever been to, which isn't hard as I've only been to about three and I can't even remember what their names were.



Here's the run-down of what we ate, which was all perfectly lovely.

RUBIN CARTER: Dark rum, passion fruit & tropical juices
Saltfish fritters, grilled lime & chili jam
According to our waitress, this starter is the national dish of Jamaica: Saltfish fritters.
The combination of the fish and chili jam was great. Crispy and tender at the same time.

I normally never order squid as I can't bear that awful feeling that you are actually eating a chewy rubber hair band, but here the squid were perfectly tender, it was a pleasure to eat.
The aioli sauce packs a punch.
Only disappointment: if you don't eat them quickly, the batter goes a bit soggy.


Island Spiced Squid, scotch bonnet aioli



Rum kitchen Sauces

All sauces at Rum Kitchen were good, my fave was the Scotch bonnet mayo.
Jerk fried chicken burger, scotch bonnet mayo, chili jam & slaw
Jerk fried chicken thighs, shoe-string onion rings, pineapple slaw, rum jerk bbq ketchup
My friend and I ordered two dishes with Jerk fried chicken.
Jerk Chicken was amazing on its owns (thighs), the burger was fine too but I think lettuce and bun is over-egging the custard a little as it overwhelmed the taste and the texture of this delicious crispy dish. But then I suppose without it it wouldn't have been a burger.
Pineapple slaw was pretty good and useful to calm down all the spice in my mouth.
Plantain & chill dip
As a side with our main, we had plantain. I like plantain but in small quantities as it is a bit sweet for me.


PAINKILLER: pussers Navy rum, coconut & pineapple & RUM SOUR: Chris Blackwell's fantastic rum simply mixed with lemon, sugar & egg white
 I'd say Rum Kitchen is the perfect backdrop for a casual meet-up with a bunch of friends, and would make a good first date venue, as the wacky interior creates a great diversion from painful stilted conversation. 

*As I write this, I have just been for lunch at Blanchette, a little French place which knocks every new opening in the last week into a cocked hat as far as I'm concerned.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Is your latest restaurant just today's X factor hit?


The selling of Gay Hussar has got me (and a few others I see) thinking. Yet another crumbling old haunt, supposedly loved, but forgotten, and eventually forced to close.

'Use them or lose them' we hear. Well yes, I agree. But equally, I don't believe in 'using' something in a charitable sense, if what you are buying isn't actually good. I don't want to book somewhere and grimace my way through an awful evening just so the sodding place won't close.

But that's not my point. I believe we've all become a little bit obsessed with the new and different, and maybe lost touch with what a long-term relationship with a restaurant can offer.

People speak about the latest opening in gushing cries of 'at last', 'finally!' as if this new place is the first restaurant serving hot food since before the war.
But the novelty of the new is very short lived. I wonder how many places will survive being the X Factor winner of restaurants. This month's talk of the town is last month's forgotten 'currently residing in the where are they now file' nobody. Because just like X Factor, what really separates the ones having their moment?
And the time window of fame is getting smaller.

I could name (but unusually I won't, because it's just a bit mean) plenty of 'must-gos' of 3,6,9 months and a year ago that I'd honestly have to check if they were still open for lack of tweet chatter (generally the thing that got them the hype in the first place).

And it's damaging - I truly believe that the void of post-honeymoon love, where all the fad-fantatical scenesters leave you for the next one-hit wonder, is far more detrimental to long-term business than if you never hit that dizzy place-to-be 'cool' status in the first place. I mean, who wants yesterday's papers?

Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be cool. I do. We all do. Being at the latest place is great for your ego, just like having the latest fashion, art or whatever. But my advice is this. You can all make anything cool. Don't rely on twitter or the latest restaurant reviews to guide your decisions, give your favourite old places a little more love, and new places time before you go.

What's cool for me, is booking that family run neighbourhood bistro on the corner you've been going back to for years.
Cool is when the waiter remembers you love a certain table or their creme brûlée.
Cool is building these relationships over time. It's a two way thing, remember.
Cool is leaving a tip because of how you want to be treated next time, not how you were treated this time.

Some cool restaurant things I actually try to do as much as possible and I hope won't ever go away:

1. Breakfast at Simpson's in the Strand. Where your breakfast arrives wheeled on a trolley under a cloche, and the world's Honduras mahogany supply is stashed, panelling its walls.

2. Dragging a first date into a back corner table at Andrew Edmunds at 10pm (has to be one of London's all-time most romantic gestures).

3. The box of truffles they bring to your table at Como Lario, Belgravia.

4. Taking a group of friends to Vecchio Parioli (Aldersgate St) or Carprini (Waterloo) for utterly lovely service and super-cheap hearty Med classics.

5. Big Easy Crabshack Kings Road, serving super-fun burgers & lobsters to the children of Sloanes for years.

6. Crepes Suzettes made at the table at La Barca, alongside local family parties in Waterloo

7. Pizza, the guy on the piano and a bottle of Montepulciano at Ciao Bella (if you can get a table…. you just try it).

Friday, 4 October 2013

My ten best openings last year (and why London needs them)


I've just been asked by someone to put forward a list of my favourite new restaurant openings of the last year, so I decided to compile my own list for a blog post. Its amazing to look back and see all the places which seem so established, some flying, some tired, some completely forgotten or almost dead or gone.
For every quietly assured, professional success story there seems to be ten wacky or bold super simple 'concepts' that seemed so fresh and exciting at the time, brimming with confidence and PR froth, now fighting to be remembered, resorting to Groupon style discount offers to fill up mid-week.

In my opinion, for all our supposed 'centre of the world' restaurant scene, London is still often stuck in a carefully orchestrated and controlled sandbox of hugely powerful and deep-pocketed operators sharing a very small stage. And they all have one thing in common, they are pastiches of nostalgic foreign cuisines, created by British teams of highly skilled impersonators. Take London's most popular restaurants*: The Wolesley, The Delaunay, Hawksmoor, Brasserie Zedel, Balthazar and Duck & Waffle, all but one fit this category (the other unsurprisingly popular given its location).
The plucky little independent enterprises that twitter and the bloggers love, the Pitt Cues, The Pizza Pilgrims, the Bone Daddies, all the burger guys, all the posh fried chicken places, they are of course praised (by me included) for their quality, dedication to doing what they do really well, and using slick design, charisma (and hard work) to pull it off. But essentially they too climb onboard the pastiche bus happily. The London restaurant scene owes a lot to the art of imitation. Anyway, so what? Imitation is the highest form of flattery, isn't it?

At first glance this list might seem la bit boring and slightly out-of-date. I've tried hard to resist the temptation to put in all my favourite things from last month,  or current white-hot-not-even-open-to-the-minions-yet soft launches, as this is a list from the whole year. I've also tried to make this a list of favourite openings, and not necessarily just about the food.
The food in a restaurant is not even always my favourite bit, as I'm just as interested in the scene, whether a place is cool and talked about or not and who is there. Yes, I am that shallow, but at least I'm honest. So my list tries to reflect places that have made an impact or enriched the restaurant scene, and made it a generally more thrilling thing to be part of.



Balthazar

London is certainly a town that can 'do' the big pastiche grand cafe just as well as anywhere else in the world, as the real pros Corbin & King have shown us countless times. Covent Garden has the scale, punters and atmosphere to support it.
In a time of supposed austerity, Balthazar's lavish attention to detail, manipulation of our press like puppets, rejection of all things we've come to expect right now, such as the stripped back, scraped out fingerless-gloved Brooklyn backroom feel of things like Polpo and its followers, you could not fail to be impressed by the sheer magnitude of this opening, proving that the restaurant industry is one game that is healthier as ever.

London needs it because:  Tourists want the big names. 
balthazarlondon.com

Clove Club

One of the nicest bits about it is it is crowd funded (I think, as I do remember the funding request tweets going around) which I think is a particularly pleasant way of restaurant (being a business built on social skills) being created.
Shoreditch town hall is a big old dog, an ugly neo-classical mainly Edwardian building next to a bus stop on the wrong side of Old street. It took a lot of guts to do a restaurant there, so I take my hat of to them.
I've been twice. Genuinely creative, trying new ideas, not reliant on whimsical nostalgia. Serious enough to go on a proper foodie outing, and also chic and atmospheric enough to go on a date.
A note to the staff: If you will take orders by memory, and then cockily roll your eyes when I ask if you're absolutely sure you've remembered all our order, please make sure you have.

London needs it because:  Shoreditch needs somewhere serious to escape from the Essex parties eating burgers.
thecloveclub.com

Sushi Testu

I have to admit straightaway that I've not even been yet. I've tried to go, I've walked in twice and been politely refused, and I've also tried to book. But that doesn't matter. Because Sushi Tetsu opening is deserved to be on my list anyway, as the token place that has made such an impact that like no other, I dream of the misty evening where I am led inside, hopefully by a mysterious stranger as company, to be taken step by step through a menu of food I know absolutely nothing about.
The tiny room down the alleyway, the non existent availability, the lack of (visible) PR and marketing, all help to create the buzz, mystery and excitement.
It could be crap for all I know, but this is what the restaurant scene is all about. I almost don't want to go, in case I hate it, which will be awful as I won't have the excitement of having Sushi Tetsu to look forward to any more.

London needs it because:  The restaurant scene needs myths and legends.
sushitetsu.co.uk

Grain Store

The current boom in London restaurants has one other little common fact, it is hugely meat led. The idea that you could focus on vegetables without becoming a restaurant for card carrying Ecco shoe wearing folk singing modern parents from Muswell Hill is simply a no no, but this is where Grain Store dares to venture. I firmly believe this will form part of the shift towards places plucking up the courage to offer less meat dependent menus in the next five to ten years.

London needs it because:  We eat too much meat, but we don't always want to be vegetarians.
grainstore.com

Patty & Bun

Of all the burger bars to open (admittedly this one was hard due to the scarcity of this rare dish) Patty & Bun has to just pip everyone at the post. I would have put Meat Mission here, as this is the one I've been to far more often, and I love, but that would have been a bit boring and predictable, and the menu and offering is not much different to MeatLiquor, and also I don't love the lighting as much either.
So apart from the use of the word 'patty' in their name, which for some reason makes me cringe, P&B do nothing wrong.
What's wrong with patty? WelI how on earth did this pathetic sounding name end up being given to the very meat in the world's most badass thing to eat? I just think of someone with a little mound of minced beef in their hands, molding it into burger shaped blobs, thinking 'what name could I give to this blob' while they gently pat it with their hands. 'Hmm. I know - patty'.
Patty. Patty. The word just dribbles out of the mouth like the wet kid at school who always has a hurt knee. Try saying 'patty' sounding in any way tough. Try imagining Mr. T saying patty. It simply doesn't work.
Well, Patty & Bun don't try and do the burger rock n roll lifestyle thing, they just stick to the product, which is probably the best in London.
Other great burgers (yes, I've managed to find some) which should be noted are Lucky Chip, The Disco Bistro roller disco one, and the new one from Clapham newbies Dip & Flip, which has singlehandley made a trip over the river just about bearable.

London needs it because: Meatliquor needs competition.
pattyandbun.co.uk

Street Feast

Did this start last summer or this summer? I'm not sure but anyway I don't care, it feels like this summer, and the game-changing street food thing is probably London's most exciting single thing to happen in food for a few years. I think it was last summer I went a few times to the Climpson's coffee nights in Hackney when they had the Burnt Enz lot there, plus a few others I can't remember the name of, and that was the first time for me that I experienced this new way of eating out, fresh little companies, doing daring, interesting food, for not much money, sharing tables, and all outside.
Street feast has gone further. Well organised, marketed and always new and interesting, they manage to carve a new marketplace for a Friday night crowd, wanting an alternative to the usual pub/maybe a restaurant/ late bar order of things.
Sure, standing around eating burgers in a dirty disused factory with no roof isn't everyone's cup of tea, and NOBODY likes queuing, but hey, you can't go to The Gavroche every night either. I'm a fan.

London needs it because:  Thanks to it, restaurants are not the only way to go out to dinner anymore
streetfeastlondon.com

Bone Daddies

This will show my ignorance and naivety but until Bone Daddies I couldn't get excited about Ramen. Wet food. Soup. It wasn't sexy. I remember reading a book about an American guy at university who gets through with no money by eating dried 'ramen noodles' and kind of got it into my head they were a sort of restaurant Pot Noodle, with an egg floating in it.
But Bone Daddies opened and suddenly I got it. I have no idea how authentic it is, but I don't really care, they have a cool sounding name. Bone Daddies. Like some sort of 1950s rockabilly / prehistoric Flintstones lovechild.
It's taken to Soho like a fish to water and I'm happy about that.

London needs it because:  American food should not be the only way to eat rock n roll.
bonedaddiesramen.com

Disco Bistro (in various places)

I think Carl Clarke and the Disco Bistro team should be congratulated for simply being the most crazy restaurant people in London right now. What they do is not exactly groundbreaking, but they are the equivalent to the really exciting DJ club promoters at Uni, always doing something cool, keeping the party going and never complaining. Their pop-ups and mini restaurants have one thing in common: fun. They make you want to go out on a cold February and eat. That's what being a restaurateur is all about isn't it?

London needs it because: Eating out should be a party sometimes. 
discobistro.co.uk
 

Tartufo

Opened almost completely under the radar, seemingly carefully aimed at a crowd for whom twitter is still a term from a David Attenborough programme, this Chelsea place is not exactly hip (I went with my parents. It's that kind of show) or inventive (no fermented vegetables, casien powder or mosquito fart oil here I'm afraid ) but it's the simple old trick of silk-smooth professional service and flat-out, seduce you from the moment it arrives awesome Italiany food that had me comparing literally everything I ate to it for the next three months.

London needs it because: Sometimes, you just want things to be lovely.
tartufolondon.co.uk

Chez Elles

How can I say anything about this place that hasn't already been said. Never mind the probably even better Casse Croute and its superior cooking, Chez Elles is where you go if you still dream of eye contact with Vincent Cassel in a smoky parisian bar, or secretly want to be in Amelie.
A cute little French bistro slap bang in the middle of the wrong (but used to be the right) end of Brick Lane, decorated with red velvet and imitation flowers, with lovely French dishes served by friendly, eccentric and very cool staff, seemingly with genuine love and affection. And it's the last bit that really shines out. The real people in the know go on Sundays for its suburb brunch, which is quite possibly the only brunch in London with a dessert.

London needs it because: It is the most sexy, fun and gently kitsch restaurant in London. Go on a date.
chezellesbistroquet.co.uk




* Source: Toptable.co.uk










Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Herman Ze German - Old Compton St


I've spent many a summer's holiday winding up new found German friends with the went-down-with-the-ark joke of: (clears throat)

Me (in comic Gestapo accent): 'You Germans make the verst sausages in the verld'
Helga (in actual Gestapo accent): 'Nein! We make ze BEST sausages in ze verld!'
Me: 'no, you make the VERST sausages in the verld'
Helga: 'NEIN. Ve make ze BEST...' etc etc (repeat whole thing indefinitely)

So you would think the old 'wurst sounds like worst' gag would be a bit over in 2013.
Nope, you'll be slapping your thighs in rhapsody to learn, it's happily alive and well, and used as the main super-pun in the Herman Ze German brand, a well loved little German sausage place in that little street going down to Embankment station thats always full of tourists and people trying to impress first dates by taking them to Gordon's wine bar.

Nicely managing to side-step the hotdog craze of a couple of years ago (remember that?), Herman ze German has been quietly knocking out his currywurst for a while now, and I'm not ashamed to say I've been to him a few times, and not only when I'm drunk. A quick portion of Herman's hot & greasy frankfurter before say, a boozy night out has often saved myself from ending up worse for wear on many occasion.

So imagine my delight when I discover that HzG was to open another sausage shop, this time in Soho!
Today was my first visit, and I'm happy to say I'll be back. The interior design has unsurprisingly decided to go down the general stripped-back industrial retro shack look, with lots of un-planed wood, reclaimed style tiles and lighting and all that, but hey, who doesn't. I'm so used to restaurants having a design plan that simply says 'make it look like the last 5 trendy places' that I'd honestly be shocked if someone had the balls any more to decorate their place with anything different.

But anyway. The menu is short (of course, it is London and post-millenium) and to be honest I would have liked this one to have had a few more variations, or sides, or SOMETHING to make the simplicity of sausage and chips a little more…varied? As usual, I asked the server what the 'best thing to have' was, and was recommended the smoked sausage, with fries and medium heat curry sauce.
What can I say? Great intense sauce, deep flavoured sausage and excellent, crispy, salty, moreish fries.

It was lunchtime so I didn't drink alcohol, but they did seem to have a good selection of beer.
If I hadn't been so hungry, or greedy, I'd have gone for the hilarious-but-utterly-offensively-sexist-to-some-flat-shoe-wearers 'no carbs, fraulein?' special lighter menu of sausage & salad. In fact, I was a bit sad they didn't seem to offer salad as a side.
Nice touches: Herman insisting on calling everything 'ze' - 'ze sink' etc, it seems the Germans are learning our feted English humour after all. Also a sink in the main room, presumably to wash your hands on the way out?

It's great, really. One thing I really really rate here though are the fries. Everyone bangs on about who has the best fries, but I reckon Herman's are up there.
So, go to Herman Ze German, crack a few sausage innuendo and wurst jokes, etc etc. You won't be offered a more tasty looking wiener in Old Compton St.

www.herman-ze-german.co.uk
Smoked sausage, fries and medium heat curry sauce
Herman Ze German on Urbanspoon



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