Tuesday, 28 February 2012


Bistro-Pubs. Code for overpriced, up-its-own-arse food.

It’s not that I hate them. It’s just that some of them are all just way up their own arses, overpriced and overrated. Would you even pay close to £15 for fish and chips if you were somewhere else? Probably not. But because it’s battered with 34-day brewed local ale and the chips are hand cut (not that it’s not pretty much a given in these places) we must pay more.

I want to make it clear here that I do not hate bistropubs, as there are some great ones around, but some just take themselves way too seriously.  Here are some of my pet peeves:

Using florid language and adjectives to describe EVERY ingredient. You can shove your 76-year barrel-aged, honey roast corn-fed chicken up your crispy stuffed vine leaf. I know some of it’s an important part of it but they just sound ridiculous. That much detail can mask what is really an unimpressive, shrivelled bit of meat (resisting temptation to make an innuendo). Barrel-aged, 28-day hung and corn-fed. It could be aged in a sewer and you’d try to make out it was a hi-tech maturing process.

Pork belly. They ALL, without fail, have pork belly on the menu. It’s like a gastro rite of passage thing. It just has to be on the menu. It’s the least interesting type of meat and I don’t think I’ve been to a place in the last 6 months that doesn’t have this on the menu. FIND SOMETHING NEW (actually, I know what’s next: pulled pork)!

Gourmet burgers. Everyone has one. But what actually makes it a gourmet burger? Fine ingredients? Something truly special? Because as far as I can see, a gourmet burger is defined by well, anything, different from the usual ‘salad and burger’. Most commonly the classic ‘bacon and cheddar’ combo. Or if they’re feeling really swanky, stilton. It’s not really gourmet. It just sounds better than ‘high cholesterol and fat’, I suppose. More catchy.

Scotch eggs. I love Scotch Eggs. But they are everywhere. Once a horrendously uncool snack which was only fodder for family picnics, it has made a comeback in which it is practically a pre-requisite with your lunchtime pint. With extensive variations, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry that it is just *too* trendy. It’s an egg covered in meat. Let’s not forget that.

Reworked or ‘deconstructed’ British classics. Following on, there is a definite trend at the moment for reworked classics that used to be more school dinners than trendy pub (don’t even talk to me about Gregg Wallace’s new place). For example, fish finger sandwiches. I know for a fact that it’s the most popular snack in many places. Or sausage and mash. A classic dish that is on the menus of many. And they can get away with putting as much espuma or micro-salad on their deep-fried halloumi on the menu without being labelled ‘poncy’, because of dishes like these on the menu.

Beetroot, beetroot, everywhere! Beetroot and celeriac are the darlings of the foodie world at the moment. Once rejected because beetroot made everything pink and because celeriac was ugly and a bit weird, it’s difficult to find somewhere that doesn’t serve at least one of these two. Usually in an ‘artisan’ salad.

Eton mess. This one really pisses me off because it’s so ridiculously marked up. And it is near impossible to make it look nice. And possibly the simplest dish to make because well, let’s face it, why would you pay a chef to smash up some meringues and cover them in strawberries and cream? Apparently, a lot of people would.

Fish Finger Sandwiches. Yet another 'de-constructed' classic. Once an after-school treat, it is now on virtually every menu. They're one of my favourite snacks but they are horrendously marked up for something so cheap to make - fish fingers, mayo, ketchup and bread. And a few leaves if they're feeling fancy.

Sourdough bread. Absolutely bloody everywhere in the last few months. It's great, but it's just so predictable... Pate and sourdough. Get something new!

Menus which come on clipboards. So cool, so now. And very cheap and hipster.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Hey, What's Cool?

Things go in and out of fashion so quickly, it’s increasingly hard to keep up and sometimes, you don’t want to have to keep up. You just want to have a good time. Choosing a restaurant becomes difficult if you're concerned about fashion. I mean, some might say who would be seen dead at a chain like Strada, while Pizza Express remains strangely OK?

Quite often restaurants invest so heavily in fickle changes in menu, interiors and booking policies that pandering to fashions, they lose track of what they stand for. And that’s good service and good food, when it comes down to it!

A good example is the 'fusion' food trend of 10-15 years ago. How many 'fusion' (or rather 'confusion') pan-asian, pacific rim, Thai-infused concotions failed, and quietly slipped away un-noticed in the noughties? I say slipped away, they might have also made their way to provincial towns and still enjoy out-of-towner trade, (like the Guildford married couple treating themselves to a monthly night out).

It could be simply because the veneered hardwood, frosted glass walls and square plates of 10 years ago has given way to tin cans, taxidermy and desk lamps in 2012.

But personally I have a sneaky suspicion that these places didn't just sit there and build on what they had. They tried to adapt and change, frequently updating and redesigning according to which size of slate they should serve on that week, but essentially ending up in a confusing dithering state of disarray, arguments about direction and product culminating an another bland mish-mash of current trends.

If you're trying to impress a date, or suggest a venue that won't scare away the cooler people in your gang, what we are frequently left with when thinking about going to eat, is a selection of recently opened, hip, ‘very now’ places, which are inevitably difficult to get into. Is it me or do places simply stay cool for a shorter time now?

I was recently invited to join a friend at what he called his favourite 'unfashionable' restaurant in London - the Bloomsbury old favourite Ciao Bella. I say favourite, it could now be his second favourite, as apparently Jay Rayner has personally advised him to try Oslo Court in St Johns Wood, which he hasn't told me about yet. My friend is a bit of a name-dropper.

Set in Lamb's Conduit St, a back street of Bloomsbury, this neighbourhood restaurant has been serving bog standard Italian fare for 30 years, and appear not to have needed an upgrade in either menu or decor in that time either, being adorned with film posters, white tiles, wicker chairs, the whole Mediterranean seaside feel.

The point of Ciao Bella is they don't give a crap what's in fashion.

Nor it seems do its hoards of regulars, as it wasn’t that easy to secure a booking - we had to settle for a table at 9.30. A chilly Tuesday and the place was packed – clearly the rest of London knew that Ciao Bella were onto something.

A pianist tinkled away in the corner and at least three different waiters looked after us. We were flanked by an elderly local couple to the left who knew the manager by name, and a young student couple to the right, holding hands.

I felt comfortable enough to ask what pizza the guy next to us had, it was that kind of atmosphere. Jokes were being told.

After weeks of Soho's ox cheeks, slaw, smoked eel, beef brisket, onglet and somethingelselet, how pleased was I to see 'avocado prawns' on the menu? Oh yes, welcome back to the 70s! Then, a Fiorentina pizza, with perfectly fresh dough and deep, sharp tomato sauce, and my dining companion had a rack of lamb, which was 'perfectly acceptable, if a little over seasoned'. Our accompanying Montepulciano went well. We were having fun so the waiters got a decent tip. I got the feeling that these pleasant, efficient waiters often got good tips.

From entering the restaurant, I kind of felt like I was in a bit of a timewarp, but in a good way. This is what I’ve been looking for – no ridiculous food trends, no exposed lightbulbs and ‘quirky’ ways of serving. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great trendy restaurants around at the moment but how long will they last? Sometimes somewhere unfashionable is the only place that can cut it. ‘Do I tweet about it?’, I debated in my head. Heaven forbid if my cool friends find out. When I told him this, my friend likened it to riding a scooter: 'Great fun, but you wouldn’t tell your mates'.

Ciao Bella will be here for many years. On reflection, it's places like this that transcend fashion because they do not care whether they are 'in' or 'out'. And as Ben Stiller says in Starsky & Hutch - that's what's really cool.

Cost: £47 for 2, with wine.


Friday, 10 February 2012

Service Included

Despite the recent recession in the UK, the restaurant industry is thriving and more places keep opening up regularly, which as someone who takes advantage of the booming London restaurant scene, is great news. The problem that I have is that whilst the food gets better and better, the service can suffer badly.

In Europe, being in the service industry is a profession and people take it seriously. It is a skilled one, but one in the UK that is available to everyone potentially as many have a high staff turnover, so students and those temporarily out of work are readily available. So it acts as a stopgap for those youngsters – meaning that not all of them necessarily have the same amount of passion for the job in hand as those who take pride in their job (obviously I'm generalising, but you get my main point).

Image by Baron C. De Grimm

In the past twenty years or so, wait staff have got younger and younger. It is no longer a job to take pride in but a mere ‘stop-gap’ whilst saving for one’s gap year, or something to do in the school holidays. At the last restaurant I worked, when the inevitable, obligatory question ‘So... how often do you work here?’ came around, the answer 'I'm full-time at the moment', it was always hastily followed by ‘but this isn’t what I want to do…’. There isn't really a need to dismiss it so quickly. A lot of people do have a career in service and take pride in making a customer as happy as possible.

This generation of half-arsed servers don’t care about whether the plate is garnished before carrying it haphazardly into the restaurant from the pass, nor if the customer is enjoying the meal and certainly not if the customer is looking desperately looking around trying to attract the waiter’s attention because he or she wants to order drinks. 

The other more recent service trend seems to be in the hip pop-up phenomenon which (as is their forte) puts food right at the top of their priorities, not a bad thing in theory, but with design and atmosphere coming second, service is inevitably last, often resorting to the partners/friends of the new operation, who might have never even worked in service before. Chaos usually ensues.

Another reason that it is so difficult to get dedicated servers is the pay. Waiters and waitresses are notoriously badly paid, and so must either work very long hours, work in one of the very best places (which the higher up you go, is obviously more difficult, though you could argue that with any job) or look for another career which is less physically draining for the amount of money that you make.

A lot of restaurants have a distinctly unfair system when it comes to tip distribution, as far as I have ever experienced and heard about, anyway. Opening an envelope to find £20-worth of tips makes it difficult to believe that’s all you've earned from 3 months work – employers must be keeping some, AMIRIGHT. Some restaurants, of course, place an automatic charge on the bill for service. Basically, the staff are guaranteed a tip so where is the incentive to go that extra mile? Furthermore, some of the chains that automatically charge for service often take a percentage of that charge, meaning the big guys at the head of company profit further, presumably, despite not having done any ‘serving’ at all.

I want to go into a place that’s not full of ennui-filled 17-year old kids surreptitiously checking their Facebook on their phone and gossiping about that couple on table 2. I'd rather have the old Italian waiter in the trattoria who’s been there 30 years, who really cares and seems genuinely pleased to see you.

So bring back waiters and waitresses who really care about their jobs and for God’s sake, pay them a bit more, you can probably afford to! It’s as important a job as any other career, and the difference bad service can make to someone’s meal is phenomenal. Of course, this is not applicable to all restaurants, bars and cafes – there are plenty of places that have friendly waiting staff who care about what they’re doing and anticipate the customers’ every whim. But not enough. Yet. Maybe it’s the next restaurant trend.

Monday, 6 February 2012

How not to write a restaurant review

I am addicted to reading restaurant reviews. Bad ones, good ones, mediocre ones and everything in between. Some of them, however, really irk me as they include unneccessary detail or are simply dull. These are some of my pet peeves in restaurant reviews:

Image via allyoucaneat.tumblr.com

The constant 6-8/10
How utterly dull. MOST places I actually eat in annoy me about something. There simply cannot be this amount of tediously 'ok' places and even if there were, why write about them anyway? A bit like X factor, I think most people want to hear about two types, the utterly brilliant, and the utterly shite. Go on, put your head on the block and say something controversial.

Naming their dining companion
“I came with my friend, Emily.” What's that all about? Even worse to refer to their vommy partner with some pseudo nickname either. And continue to refer to them as such throughout the meal. Like anyone really gives a shit? And name-dropping your famous dining partner, don't get me started (of course, that’s sadly what a lot of people are interested in).

Too much detail.
“We were shown to our table. I asked, ‘Where are the toilets?’ the waiter said ‘Over there.’” We don’t need to know EVERYTHING. This kind of thing is unsurprisingly taken for granted, given that you are in a restaurant. We’ll assume you were shown to your table and offered a drink, etc. It’s boring and no-one cares – we want to know what the food was like and if the wait staff were rude!

Sheep-like behaviour
So Fay's been and found the soup rather underwhelming? Well quelle surprise, so do you too. For fear of not knowing what they’re talking about, some reviewers will re-hash the last 6 reviews they’ve just read. And yes, it is obvious. Counting these sheep definitely sends me to sleep. Say something different or you might as well hand out photocopies of other people’s reviews.

Arse Licking
Gushing overly about the place like a starstruck fan because the owner or chef (who you mention by their first name, your oh-so-close pal) is someone in the current blogger's cool club or particularly influential or famous. It just makes them look like a bit of a desperate idiot.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Rosalind's Kitchen

 I found Rosalind's Kitchen on Twitter, and they must have liked my Tweets because they invited me to lunch. I went there yesterday. I was hoping there might be tables so I could sit down but at the moment, it's a take-away and delivery service only. But it's a great place to be in for that kind of thing, because of all of the offices nearby - the list of places they deliver to is growing.

Baked aubergine & button mushrooms
The staff were very friendly and answered all of my questions about the place. They've been open about a year, and the idea came off the back of the cookery school across the way. They are both owned by  Rosalind Rathouse.

I went for the barbeque chicken wing which was sweet and not dry and in a MASSIVE pile. I also had a salad selection in a little tub about the size of two hummus pots. It's way more filling than it looks, be warned!

Today on the menu (and mixed into my assortment) were beetroot (a little firmer than I'm used to in a salad but surprisingly pleasant), winter tabbouleh with bulgar wheat and pomegranete (which is one of my favourite things in a salad because of the great contrast), roast root vegetable salad, baked aubergine and shallots, roasted butternut salad and chickpea salad. They were all rather nice together.

The only small criticism that I will make is that the generous helping of chick peas in the salad were a bit too salty. Otherwise, a really nice, healthy lunch (well, maybe apart from the passionfruit muffin I had) and the prices aren't too bad either.

Their fishcakes in a takeaway box
For a small salad, £4, and large, £6. And next time I go, I'm definitely going for the falafel and hummus on tabbouleh. Actually, I'm quite tempted by the celeriac soup on the menu today... Friendly, knowledgeable staff and a great location (tucked behind Oxford Circus on Little Portland Street). Plus, they can deliver your lunch if you're nearby. And they do breakfast!

Open Mon-Fri 7.30am-4.00pm
12 Little Portland Street W1W 8BJ
0207 580 4881


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