« October 2005 | Main | December 2005 »

12 posts from November 2005

30 November 2005

Toby Young on London's worst restaurants

Toby Young doesn't pull any punches in tonight's Evening Standard.  The title of the piece "Worst celebrity restaurants" is pretty self explanatory. 

So what makes a bad restaurant? Obviously dreadful food is a clincher, but there are also surly waiters, a dingy atmosphere, woeful decor, too many people or too few people and the crucial litmus test - value for money. If there's something that really niggles, it's being ripped off.

The restaurant's that Young lays into, and their worst dishes are:

  • Nozomi - Deep-fried edamame in chilli oil. After the paint-stripping potency of this appetiser you won't be able to taste the rest of your meal.
  • Cipriani - Veal Milanese. It costs £35 and looks like flattened road-kill.
  • Nobu Berkeley - The chocolate bento box. I've had better chocolate fondants at Pizza Express.
  • Mint Leaf - Anything that's accompanied by dried fenugreek leaves. You might as well sprinkle sawdust on your curry.
  • San Lorenzo - Veal Milanese. It tastes like a piece of shoe leather sandwiched between two pieces of sandpaper.
  • Brunello - Duck ham. The fat is inseparable from the meat, making each slice impossible to chew.
  • St John - Barnsley chop. It tastes like it has been boiled in effluent.
  • Fifth Floor Café - Globe artichoke salad. The bits of artichoke had been marinated in lemon juice for so long they'd started to ferment.
  • Graze - Potato gnocchi. It tastes like cotton wool wrapped in Plasticene.
  • The Gallery at Sketch - Endive, pear and blue cheese salad. My wife said it tasted like "sick".

These are Young's own opinions, not mine.  I haven't been to most of the restaurants so can't comment specifically.  But I can generally.  You need to start worrying if a restaurant is more famous for who eats there than the quality of the food.  Many of these probably fall into the famous for who, rather than famous for what, category and no doubt there are many more besides these ten.

Fratelli La Bufala *****

Pizza restaurants are ten a dozen, themed restaurants are even more common.  The concept of a themed pizza restaurant is enough to make you run all the way to your oven and start cooking.  However, if you're going to Fratelli La Bufala, you do not need to worry.  It might be themed on the buffalo, but as themes go, buffalo mozzarella is not such a bad thing.  Especially when it's of this quality.

FLB is by all accounts a decent sized chain in Italy, with several restaurants in Rome, Naples and towns in that neck of the woods.  This is their first attempt in the UK, I believe they've got the odd restaurant in the States.  The restaurant is situated in what can only be described as arse-end, yet still very nice, bit of Hampstead, near the Royal Free, on the site of Cucina, a recently departed Italian restaurant.

The restaurant itself is fairly rustic looking.  As you walk in, you are faced with the enormous wood fired oven, tended by a similarly elephantine Italian - I'm always comforted by the sight of fat chefs.  At first glance the menu does not look particularly special.  The various icons next to dishes, such as a heart, or a pair of buffalo horns reminded me of Pizza Express.  But, as with so much cooking in Italy, it's the ingredients that counts, not what's written on the menu.  We skipped starters owing to a large lunch and launched on the pizzas, pastas and salads and what we ate could not be faulted.  The pizzas are particularly good, given the wood fired oven, and are very Neapolitan, that is, the crust tends to be slightly puffy and consequently very light.  It is not super thin and exceptionally crusty - this has got more substance to it. 

My pizza had fantastic tasting cherry tomatoes, delicious oozing mozzarella and crispy, oily courgettes.  The other pizza on the table was similarly well endowed.  Unfortunately, I was so engrossed by my own that I forgot to steal mouthfuls from my fellow diners.  However, there was a lot of cooing of appreciation, so I'm guessing they enjoyed themselves as much as I did.  Other than pizza there is a lot of steak, in particular, buffalo steak, which I saw being delivered to other tables and looked very good.  Nice and thick slices, perfectly pink in the middle.

One of the most interesting things about this place was the number of Italian accents.  Not just from the waiters, but patrons as well.  Clearly, I'm not the only one reminded of being in a trattoria in Italy.  My one complaint is with regard to one element of the authenticity of the place: the music. In true Italian style, it was awful.  Now I'm not talking about their fantastic classical and operatic composers. I'm talking about their awful pop and military music.  This stuff is not conducive to a good night out and what seemed like a military band at its loudest, was blaring from the speakers.  Thankfully, the management eventually turned it down or off, I can't remember which.  Either way, I was only reminded for the briefest of moments of fascist marching tunes.

The restaurant recently won an award from Harden's, the restaurant guide.  In the guide, the blurb for FLB says

The food philosophy at Fratelli La Bufala is based on simple cooking methods, and authentic and nutritional ingredients. Dishes are cooked in a traditional rural Italian way, with an emphasis on quality and freshness.

And to me, this sums it up perfectly.  Go there while you can still battle with the Italians for a table and  do your best to ignore the marching bands.

Fratelli La Bufala, 45a South End Road, London, NW3 2QB, UK
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7435 7814

Google Maps
Google Earth (download)

What others think
At the moment, I can't find anything out there - except of course for their award from Harden's.

24 November 2005

World Food Market 2005

I went to the World Food Market today and was disappointed.  It billed itself as a "dedicated business event for everyone interested in the ethnic and speciality food markets" and was particularly gushing because it was "the UK’s first ever dedicated Halal Exhibition and the UK’s debut Kosher event."

I went along in the hope that I'd find interesting products, in particular kosher products, that heralded the news that high quality, kosher food, was about to arrive on these shores - the type of stuff that could give treyf a run for its money.  Instead what I found was a few stalls promoting products that are by and large already available in kosher outlets.  And the majority of those products were frozen or conveniece foods laden with preservatives, sugars etc etc.  Some of the products were even a bit sinister to me, such as the cook-in-the-box La Bruite range, or the edible artists palette: Color-a-Cookie.

There were only two positives I got from the event.  The most important was the amount of friendly and interesting dialogue between the kosher and halal stall holders.  I heard more than one discussion between stall holders discussing the differences between their culinary traditions.  There was even a frum couple with a stall in the middle of the halal section, who were selling Haribo Halal (which are also kosher), much to the excitement of their neighbouring Muslim stall holders.  I know there is no reason for animosity between the two religions, but too often there is a perception that the enmity exists, almost by default.  Today proved to me that wasn't necessarily the case - as does this.

The only food related thing of interest to me was the stall promoting Aunt Berta's (who she?) Preserves, Marmalades, Sauces & Spreads.  There was a wide range of jams and sauces, all without preservatives, that tasted fresh and delicious.  I would guess they could market to a wider - non-Kosher - audience if they chose, with their Etrog Marmalade, Lemon Mint Sauce and Date & Nut Spread. 

It wasn't a great day out, but there was the odd glimmer of hope.

21 November 2005

The 59th Annual Great Latke Hamantash Debate


The University of Chicago has turned out some intellectual giants, including Milton Friedman and Saul Bellow.  You don't have to agree with them, but you would be hard pushed to argue that their writing, whether literary or economic, did not influence the 20th Century.   

It therefore came as a shock to discover that for the past 58 years, the finest minds at the University of Chicago have been debating which is better: latkes or hamantashan.  Personally, I don't really see where the argument lies.  One is a prune with sweet pastry around it, the other is golden, deep fried potato and onion.  Latkes win every time.  Tomorrow night, this bizarre debate is set for its 59th anniversary.

Nonetheless, our academic brethren across the pond clearly enjoy this -  just for the hell of argument - so who am I to berate them?  They've even brought out a book dedicated to the issue.

16 November 2005

Google recipes

Further to my post a couple of weeks ago, I see that Google Base has now gone live.  You can upload your recipes here and then the whole world can enjoy them.

15 November 2005

Pétrus *****

I've heard it said that you can tell a lot about a man by his handshake - basically the firmer the handshake, the better the man.  If you offer up a damp fish, you're not dealing with a man's man.  However, if it's vice-like, this is someone you can do business with.  Or, in the case of a chef, revel in eating his food.

Now I already knew this by the time I got to meet Marcus Wareing, chef patron at Pétrus.  His food is sensational, his staff are the best in London and all in all, it doesn't matter how much dinner was, it was worth it.   Ok, obviously it matters slightly, but still, it was worth it.

Being kosher in a restaurant like Pétrus was never going to be straightforward.  The menu of £60 for three courses all looked delicious, but there was sod-all I could eat.  The most interesting starter, seared tuna with truffles, came with foie gras.  Grappling with the prospect of going hungry in one of the UK's best restaurants, I decided to bite the gourmet bullet and make changes to the chef's menu that he had no doubt spent hours constructing for its balance and flavour.

Although I sat there cringing at my own request to have the tuna without foie gras, the maitre d' could not have been easier going.  I was expecting a lot of tutting and tooth sucking, with lengthy negotiations with the kitchen.  Instead, all I got was "Certainly sir, no problem at all.  Really, it's fine, don't worry."  I was thinking that was easy for him to say, he didn't know I was about to order the sea bass without the bacon. I made my second request to order off menu.  Again, a similar response "Not a problem.  It's our pleasure."

The theatre of the evening began soon after we were shown to our table.  A large wooden trolley, with a pewter bowl stocked with iced bottles of champagne, was wheeled over.  We were asked if we wanted any, we declined, sticking to the wine.  Then arrived a small Le Parfait jar of salt cod pâté with biscuits.  In the jar there was the white, creamy flesh of the cod, with a swirl of greenish, unctuous goo.  You may gather from my description I have no idea what the goo was - perhaps a salsa verde - but the whole thing was delicious. The cream, offsetting the cod, the green goo, was slightly sharp and cut through the richness of the salt.  Also, served as an amuse bouche was foie gras in what looked like mini taco shells.  The groans of delight from my fellow diners implied it was rather good.  The next amuse then arrived, a shot glass of grey/brown soup.  The smell that hit the table as soon as the glasses were set down was unmistakable truffle.  The truffle and mushroom soup epitomised the meal - it was perfect, it tasted delicious, the strong waft of truffles and the subtle mushroom flavour.  The portion was just right, enough to get a good couple of mouthfuls, but small enough to leave us begging for more.  All of these amuses were accompanied with delicious bread and butter.  Ramsay always says that good bread is the sign of a good restaurant, it's nice to see his protégés' listen to his advice.

My starter of just seared, basically raw tuna, with shavings of truffle was heavenly.  It must have been far richer in its intended state with foie gras, but mine was great nonetheless.  Similarly my sea bass, sitting on a bed of lentils.  The bacon that was supposed to caress the lentils had been replaced by a sauce which I couldn't quite identify.  Again it was delicious.  It looked bright and crisp and tasted of the sea.  Cutting through the fish I was almost dazzled by how white it was.  The combination of the fish and lentils, provided a comforting autumnal dish.

Between recovering from the main course and deciding to turn down dessert, we were offered a tour of the kitchen.  I could have kissed the maitre d'.  We were led in to the low ceilinged, but very white kitchen and introduced to Marcus.  It was at this point I was able to size-up his hand shake and conclude from it, that his food really was rather good.

He took some time to talk to us for a bit, introduced us to a couple of the chefs and all I could do was stand there gawping as the food came off the pass.  There was no shouting, no excitable chefs leaping around.  There was diligence and attention to the finest detail.  Of the six or seven dishes that were served whilst we were standing there, Marcus sent back about three.  Either to be cooked a little longer, to have a bit more flavour added, or simply binned.  Nothing went out under his watchful eye unless it was perfect.

I know my awe isn't very cool - it doesn't help me come across as a man about town, but I was dumbstruck by the whole experience.  I imagine this was the foodie equivalent of a chav being introduced to Colleen McLoughlin.  After ten minutes gawping, we were led (I skipped) back to the table to be introduced to the bonbon trolley.  A bit like the champagne trolley, this was a wooden trolley, laden with buckets of hand made sweets: marshmallows, honeycomb, toffee, fudge and others too delicious for me to remember.  The staff were relaxed and easy going, playing-up to our child-like reaction to the trolley and egging us on to have a second helping.  Feeble as we were, we went for another round.

I had been slightly concerned that the restaurant would be stuffy.  Especially as when one walks in from The Berkeley hotel, you enter a large, hushed, oak panelled room with tables set a fair distance from each other.  The service is not poncy, it is down to earth.  The staff know the smallest details about each dish, I imagine they probably know who the suppliers are as well.  I had not eaten in any of Gordon Ramsay's restaurants prior to Pétrus, but I had read lots of reviews.  Although all of them praised the quality of the food, I don't remember any praising the quality of the front of house staff.  Which, after my experience, is deeply unfair. 

However, it is not entirely surprising that the front of house staff are overshadowed by the kitchen given how fantastic the food was.  I didn't see the bill, as I was a guest at dinner.  I am sure it wasn't cheap, but I'm also sure it was some of the best value-for-money food to be had in London.

Pétrus, The Berkeley, Wilton Place, London, SW1X 7RL, UK
Tel: +44 (0)20 7235 1200

Google Maps
Google Earth (download)

What others think
The Times - one of the best fine dining restaurants in London
Square Meal - one of the capitals most highly regarded chefs

It's slaughter, get over it

Martin Samuel, has written a great article in The Times this morning on the squeamishness we have with food.  He notes that people were up in arms that Jamie Oliver slaughtered a lamb on TV. Whereas, Jamie rightly, insisted that it is immoral to to eat something if you are unprepared to be part of the process of its death.  Samuel's piece contrasts well with this histrionic article from The Daily Mail.  I never fail to be gobsmacked at the ability of so many people to find natural, everyday processes, to be so horrific.

For those of us that eat meat, animals must be killed.  If you look after the animal well in life, there is no reason to feel guilt with its death.  Much can be said about vegetarians (some of my best friends are vegetarians) but they are not hypocrites.  Unlike so many meat eaters, who start cringing at the thought of an animal being killed, but are more than happy to tuck into a crappy, flabby chicken and delight in their Sunday roast. 

Rather than getting so concerned with the animal's death, there should be far more concern about its life.  People should worry whether their roast chicken's last cluck was in a faeces-littered factory, with dead and crippled birds all around.  Or, whether it got to see some real grass and the big outdoors and was cared for by a farmer who knew that only way to ensure the best tasting roast chicken, is to give the bird the best life and thus ensuring its slaughter would not be in vain.