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3 posts from June 2008

26 June 2008

Yes, the rumours are true

My people call. I answer.

18 June 2008

Does size matter?

This is cross-posted on The Guardian's Word of Mouth blog.

I had always assumed that big equals bad.  Fay Maschler's recent review of Quaglino's (400 seats) did nothing to dispel this fear, nor did the legion of poor reviews of Gilgamesh (680 seats).

My fears were only compounded when I heard that Guinness World Records had a category devoted to the World's Largest Restaurant.  According to the BBC, it was a hard-fought contest. The winner was Bawabet Dimashq in Damascus (6,014 seats), trouncing its closest rival Mang Gorn Luang (5,000 seats) by 1,014.

Is it possible that somewhere that makes more of its size than food can really be any good?

Of the four restaurants named so far, I've only eaten at Quaglino's. A surprise I know, especially as I don't live in one of the seedier corners of Kent. Nor am I a barrow boy. But, in its 90s heyday I did go. I can't remember a thing about it. Oh, except for its size.

It was, to a whip of a lad like me, ebloodynormous. And that staircase, well, was there ever a more suitable handrail to slide down? The food was little more than a side show.

But is this any surprise? Aren't gastrodomes doomed to serve mediocre food to the braying masses? Is small ever more beautiful than when wrapped up in fine napery and better ingredients? A meal I had on a beach last year in Brazil would appear to live up to this romantic vision. Sylvinha's is on a hard to access stretch of a hard to access beach. It has two tables and two staff: the eponymous Sylvinha who is host and chef, and a helper who serves and cleans up. The food was outstanding.

Without local knowledge and much planning there wasn't a hope in hell of finding the place. The chase was half the fun. It's hard to imagine there would be quite as much enjoyment if there were another 5,000 diners stuffing their faces. Surely big places can never maintain such high quality and are doomed to mediocrity.

I was mulling this received wisdom over on Sunday as I was tucking into Father's Day lunch at The Wolseley. By any standard The Wolseley is both good and large - according to the restaurant's website, they serve over 1,000 people a day. This is no mecca of mediocrity. My schmaltz herrings had a decent bite, indicating they were soused not sozzled. My omelette Arnold Bennett was richly unctious from the uber-yellow eggs, not too creamy and had enough haddock to give it all a rather sexy, smoky taste. The meal was digested whilst watching Bill Nighy, Dita von Teese and Jimmy Nail clearly enjoying their meals - as well as the other couple of hundred people tucking into their Father's Day meals.

There is definitely something about restaurants and size. I'd be interested in your thoughts. Are you swayed by the size of a restaurant? Do you run a mile if your restaurant resembles anything other than a boite, or does the concept of not eating with at least 500 other diners reduce you to paroxysms of claustrophobia? And finally, is the little Italian place around the corner ever nice?

17 June 2008

A Day at elBulli

Harold McGee doesn't much like the term molecular gastronomy. I'd guess however that it is a label many of us instictively understand, even if it is inherently misleading.

Whichever form of words one prefers, Ferran Adrià, Heston Blumenthal and Grant Achatz are all widely regarded as leading proponents of this school of cookery.

I recently worked myself into a lather of excitement at the prospect of a face-off this November between The Big Fat Duck Cookbook and the Alinea Cookbook. Things have just got a darn sight better. Ferran Adrià is publishing his new book at the end of October. A Day at elBulli, is billed by publisher Phaidon as "An exclusive look behind the scenes of elBulli...Includes over 1,200 photographs documenting the painstaking preparations for just one day of service."

It does sound a bit more like a picture book than Ferran's previous offerings, or the cheffy books due from Heston and Grant. Nonetheless, the prospect of all three coming on each others' heels is exciting. Or at least it is for a cookbook obsessive like me.