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9 posts from June 2006

26 June 2006


As I had thought, it turned out to be a damp squib.

The quality of the food they eat, appears to be a non-issue for the readers of the Jewish Chronicle letters page.  I suppose that isn't all that surprising.  It tends to be single-issue obsessives, foaming at the mouth, who read the letters pages; not to mention the type of people that go to the effort of actually writing a letter.

23 June 2006



Generally, I like Ocado.  I like the fact that I don't have to go to the supermarket and can get my groceries delivered at a time that suits me.  I find their radio adds vaguely amusing.  Their service is pretty good - they rarely substitute your bananas for avocados, the type of trick that Tesco Online used to play.

But - and it's a big but - their direct marketing stinks.  Direct marketing is supposed to be a clever tool to entice people to spend money by sending them offers that might be directly relevant to them.  Ocado fails miserably.

Every couple of weeks I get an email from them offering me a special deal, usually it's a bottle of wine.  It could be tempting, except the offers are always predicated on me making an order with a minimum value of £85 - a figure that has recently creeped up from £75.

Except I never, ever spend more than £50.  I have emailed Ocado back telling them to either make me a real offer or stop sending emails.  So, today, they offer me the chance to win £1,000 of John Lewis vouchers, as long as I include a box of Kellogg's Special K in my £85.  Special K? Special K?  Why on earth would I buy Special K.  I never order cereal, let alone a cereal that is supposed to be as healthy as Special K AND I NEVER SPEND £85.

I know I could choose not to receive emails from the company.  Unfortunately, I sometimes find their emails helpful and informative, such as the one telling me last ordering dates over the New Year.

I appreciate this may seem like small fry to you, but it is really annoying me. I like their service, but they're pissing me off and I'm reconsidering whether I should use them.  Given I don't spend a fortune with them, I appreciate this might not have them quivvering in their boots but it would be nice to see them keep their word and as their website states: go the extra mile.

It can't be that difficult to look at my order history, see what I buy, what I spend and make me an offer that tickles my fancy rather than bombarding me with crap.  If they're reading, maybe they'll listen.

22 June 2006

Ta ta Zvika

In October 2005, I gave Zvika six-months before it went under.  I was about two months too pessimistic.  I went past the restaurant the other day and noticed the windows were white washed and the doors locked.  A sign in the window said they would soon be reopening with a halal kitchen.

I don't know what has caused this volte face.  Either the economics of a poor quality kosher restaurant in a Soho back street not known for its passing traffic didn't work out, or there was some other problem.

When will kosher restaurants learn that just by being kosher is not enough?  In somewhere like Soho, where there isn't a strong Jewish, let alone religious presence, another grotty restaurant serving overpriced mediocre food is not very appealing.  When the food is further inflated because it is kosher and the food is even more mediocre than usual, it would appear doomed from the beginning, as I had predicted.

20 June 2006

Egg cream

I've never had an egg cream (although I have had a few creme eggs), but having read this story about the war of Uncle Hymie's egg cream, I wish I had.

Similarly, I wish I had been at that meal at Barney Greengrass with Smilesburger and Philip Roth (or his alter-ego).  An encounter that the Amateur Gourmet kindly retells for us.

I do not think the stereotypes of New York Jewish life could be summed up any better than in these two articles.

Mushk steak anyone?

19 June 2006


Spitalfields is an area I love dearly, especially as recent innovations have firmly placed it at the centre of the foodosphere*.

I heard today that it is further enhancing its credentials by upgrading its food market.  Whereas currently the food market is only one element of a larger Sunday market selling all kinds of rubbish, there will now be a much larger area dedicated to food.  Best of all, market days will be Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays.  It will make a change for a decent market to be open at some time other than the weekend (and Fridays in the case of Borough Market).

I was particularly intrigued to hear that the stall holders will include several of the fresh-produce stalls from Borough.  It appears that a number of the meat, fruit and veg and seafood purveyors are getting sick of Borough's mobs and the never-ending queues of people buying sandwiches.  Borough has become more like an enormous and expensive food-hall, than a true market selling fresh produce.

So, Spitalfields is opening its arms widely to these stall-holders and offering them a berth.  I don't think they are leaving Borough for good, just diversifying their outlets.  Hopefully, prices will be a bit cheaper than Borough's extortionate rates.

It will not just be fresh produce, some of the local food shops will have stalls in the market, including A. Gold, that merchant of all things British.  Before I forget, A. Gold are closing for a few days later this week to rejig the store and introduce some new lines, including seafood - one to watch even more closely than usual.

*As far as I'm aware this is a neologism - I hope it is anyway.  It is a pretentious alternative to foodie, gourmand and their ilk.  If readers have a better term, please let me know.

15 June 2006

Man of Letters

The Jewish Chronicle is the UK Jewish community's most high profile newspaper.  There are others, but they tend to be geographically focused (such as The Jewish Telegraph in the North) or targeted at particular Jewish groups (such as The Tribune for the frummers).

Generally it is a pretty conservative paper.  It gives faithful listings of who has been hatched, matched and dispatched and it notes which members of the community have received honours from Her Maj. Every once in a while it rocks the boat.  Its scathing coverage of Richard Desmond's appointment of Chairman at family charity Norwood was picked up widely in the mainstream UK media.  On other occasions, it looks like it's about to rock the boat, but in fact is merely shuffling it's bum on the seat to get a better grip on the oars.

A front page 'Investigation' in last week's paper (9 June 2006) was one such bum-shuffling event.  Above a photo of a dozen or so fluffy yellow chicks, the front page screamed "These chicks will be going to kosher and non-kosher butchers".  As headlines go it really isn't that snappy and it was stating the bleeding obvious.  It's a bit like having a headline screaming "Cars need fuel."

Anyway, the thrust of the front page article and the seven related articles on an inside double-page spread, was that kosher food is more expensive than non-kosher food and the charges levied by the Shechita Boards are the main reason.  To me, this totally missed the point and I wrote a letter to the paper explaining what I thought.  My argument essentially was that if we were paying more for a better quality product it would be fair enough.  But we're not, we're paying more for crap.

My letter was published in this week's edition.  The only problem is, they have heavily edited it and even added in the odd word here or there.  So, what you see below is the full unexpurgated letter I sent in.  The bits in bold are what made it into the paper, the bits in square brackets are where they added in words.

Interestingly, the only other letter on the so-called 'Investigation' is from the owner of Menachem's, the one kosher butcher I rate.  Their letter is at pains to say that at Menachem's you get good personal service and the meat is of high quality.  The first point is undoubtedly true, the second is true, within the context of the limited quality of kosher meat on sale.

Dear Sir

Your ‘Investigation’ (9 June 2006) into the kosher meat industry entirely missed the point.

Virtually all kosher meat available for retail consumers is of appalling quality.  If it was excellent quality and expensive then we would be getting value for money and no-one would complain.  This is not the case, it is extortionate and rubbish in equal measure.

Those of us that eat kosher meat, accept standards that much of the non-kosher world has long turned its back on.  Not only is our meat generally flavourless but animals raised for the kosher dinner table often live bad lives.  As anyone with an understanding of food will tell you, the better the quality of life, the better the animal tastes on the plate.  As anyone with an understanding of kashrut will tell you, good animal husbandry is supposed to be a fundamental tenet of our dietary laws.

I fail to understand why one of your articles breathlessly notes that kosher and non-kosher chickens come from the same farm, but ignores the fact that when it is sold by Tesco or Sainsbury’s, it is in their value ranges.  When it is sold by a kosher butcher, it is presented as the highest quality.

Some kosher butchers have become lazy selling low quality, high margin products.  They seem to have lost any sense of pride in selling the best quality meat.  All too rarely do kosher butchers do any butchering.  They receive their meat in handy cuts that at most they need to trim and pack.  They seem to have no interest in the provenance of the food they sell.  Their attitude appears to be "Why should we?  It’s kosher, so it’s fine."  Afterall, with margins so tight on fresh meat, they can make far more profit from value-added products, like ready-meals.

This sort of wilful ignorance is matched by
the Shechita Boards, [seem] obsessed with the letter of the law and seemingly ignoring its spirit.  If they did not take such a narrow view of their role, they would not countenance chickens spending their lives in ‘humid sheds’ and ending up as flaccid, fatty, pale birds on our Friday night dinner tables.

One of the most ridiculous examples of the Shechita Boards’ closed-minded attitude is their ban on porging.  Not only does it cut-off a valuable revenue source for butchers, it actually results in higher prices for the meat we can eat.  Half of every slaughtered cow or lamb is useless to a kosher abattoir [and this too puts up prices].  Consequently, the half destined for the treyf table, has to be sold at a heavy discount, suppliers know the kosher abattoirs have no choice but to dump it.  As a result, the half of the animal we can eat has to priced-up, to off-set the losses made on the hind quarters.  It is a vicious cycle thanks entirely to the Shechita Boards’ refusal to allow a process that has been practised, under rabbinic direction, for centuries.

I would hazard a guess that a large proportion of consumers buying kosher meat, are far more discerning when making their other food purchases.  The only explanation for this aberration is that consumers have fully bought into the trope that kosher equals better.  Consumers have forgotten that there was once a meaningful difference between dark and light cuts of their chicken.  They have also seemingly forgotten that their Friday night roast chicken did not always render as much as half a litre of fat.

I am unclear who is more to blame for the parlous state we are in, but that is almost irrelevant because the situation is so bad, the quality so low.

It is instructive that kosher restaurants and caterers in London often buy their meat from France, a country where they would never allow standards to collapse in this way.  In the Marais, you will have no problem finding home made pates, sausages or porged legs of lamb in butchers supervised by the strictest rabbinic authorities.  In the UK, you have more chance of finding gold at the end of the rainbow.

I am disappointed that you failed to address the real subject that requires investigation, hopefully next time you will consider broadening your remit.

Yours faithfully,

Anthony Silverbrow

I'm uncertain whether this will get any response in the letters pages next week.  It is possible it will rock the boat, then again, it might well die like a damp squib.  If there is any follow-up, I will post it here.

13 June 2006


Arbutus has received a lot of interest recently from food critics and all their comments have been positive (see 'What others think' below).  It could only have been a matter of time before other chefs came sniffing around to see what all the fuss was about.  This week, it was Gordon "I've just signed another TV deal" Ramsay's turn.  I wondered whether this meant the kitchen would raise its game for the occasion, or whether we'd end up with a duff meal because they were petrified about the great man's presence.  I would guess that a kitchen led by someone of the experience of chef Anthony Demetre would not be phased by Ramsay, a man who is becoming more of a brand than he is a chef.

This was my first dinner but second meal at Arbutus.  I went there for lunch in its first week when all the food was fifty percent off.  Being with a couple of other food obsessives, we took full advantage of the cheap food and ordered two starters each, a main and a dessert.  Piggy I know, but it meant I could taste a broad range of the menu - once again this is all in the interest of you dear reader.

My lunch was a mixed affair.  For starter #1 I ordered what the menu described as 'Asparagus, soft boiled egg, vinaigrette, Parmesan.' What I got was asparagus on top of a gooey sauce that looked like hollandaise but wasn't, with flakes of Parmesan. When I asked the waiter what the sauce was, he was at a loss for words. This was my least enjoyable dish. The asparagus were slightly overcooked and the sauce lacked any taste. I couldn't even taste the Parmesan, which should have had some of its distinctive salty kick.  Starter #2 was a salad of Jersey Royals, watercress and goats curd. It was good but a bit bland. The watercress didn't have any mustardy hit to it. It needed some sort of vinaigrette to lift it.

Main course was far more promising. I had the Dover Sole, field mushrooms, crushed potatoes and spring greens. The sole was served as two fillets, sitting one on top of the other, with a thick layer of pureed mushrooms sandwiched between the fillets. There was some mushroom reduction liberally dribbled around the plate. The puree was delicious - very earthy and the fish itself was fantastic. It was the best sole I can remember having. It was a modern enough take to make a change from meunières, but not so radical as to lose the pleasure of this great fish.

Dessert in that first week, was also a bit of a let down.  My creme brulée failed the crispy topping test (that Ma Silverbrow passes with flying colours).  My preference is for a the brulée to be so thick you need a jack hammer to break through to the custard that lies beneath.

Despite some of these downsides, I did still enjoy the meal.  I'm not really sure why, but I was certain I would return.  I was pleased I did, as my dinner was far better than the lunch.  It felt as though the kitchen had got fully into its stride.  Unlike at the lunch, when at the end of service Demetre came up to speak to Evening Standard critic Charles Campion who was sitting two tables away from me.  Chef summed up our meal by saying to Campion "Sorry, it didn't quite come together today."  For my dinner it clearly came together.

Other than c'leb chef Ramsay in the house, the restaurant was full on a hot and humid Thursday night.  There were even people sitting at the bar, although I noticed that as soon as a table became free, the attentive staff moved them out of their culinary Siberia, to a more comfortable position in the main restaurant.

My starter of pistou was straightforward but allowed the multitude of spring vegetables to work their magic in the light broth.  The diced veggies were cooked to just the point that they were yielding, but not mush and still retained their flavour.  I seem to be having a mental block on my main course, although my receipt says I had sea trout.  It clearly was not horrendous, but nor for that matter did it imprint itself on my brain - although the wine might have had something to do with that - more of that later.

The dessert however is firmly imprinted on brain and tongue.  As with the starter, the kitchen made the most of seasonal ingredients with a dish of alphonso mango, rice pudding and alphonso mango sorbet.  For the uninitiated, alphonso mangoes are nectar.  They are the sweetest, juiciest mangoes around and have a short season in the UK, running from May to the end of June.  The best places to get them is your local Asian supermarket, as the only decent ones are flown in from India.  True, they are not great if you are trying to eat local or limit your food miles, but seriously, these are worth a few carbon emissions.  Rice pudding is not my favourite, but at Arbutus they had managed to make it into nothing more than a slightly sweet risotto.  Plump grains of rice, in a gooey, starchy sauce, mopped up by the vivid amber mango.

As you can hopefully tell, I really enjoyed myself.  My dinner put paid to any concerns I had after the lunch.  The cooking is not revolutionary, rather the chef uses his obvious skill in producing dishes from the finest ingredients.  It is the type of food you could eat nightly without ever getting bored by its pretension or its attempts to be clever.

One area I have not touched on is the restaurant's wine policy.  As all the write-ups note, it is revolutionary because every single wine is available in a 250 ml carafe, equal to about two glasses of wine.  Whilst some of us might balk at a bottle of 2000 Puligny-Montrachet at £80.00 a bottle, we might be prepared to try two glasses for £28.50.  This has the advantage that each diner in a party can have a different wine, or you can have a couple of decent size glasses of different wines with each course.  The restaurant keeps the wines fresh by using a commercial version of the widely available Vacu Vin wine stopper system.  Although it means their wine list is not extensive, they currently have only fifty bins, their policy of having everything available in a carafe brings choice to their customers, which can only be a good thing.  With any luck other restaurants will follow suit.  I understand that Nigel Platts-Martin is considering the system for his restaurant, The Square.

Arbutus is a great restaurant that deserves to do well.  I am confident that over the coming months many establishments will try to copy its easy and relaxed style, which would be no bad thing for those of us partial to a decent meal.

By the way, here is a quick reminder of why I'm no longer giving restaurants a star rating.

Arbutus, 63 Frith Street, London, W1D 3JW, UK
Tel: +44 20 7734 4545

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What others think

Metro - Arbutus is the restaurant for fervent foodies
The Times - The menu looks classic bistro but delivers refined, modern platefuls