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5 posts from May 2009

26 May 2009

A sign of the times

I was in a restaurant yesterday and this sign was plastered over every available surface.

Photo of a sign in a restaurant that says 'We no longer take credit/debit cards Cash only Sorry for inconvenience'

I've decided not to name names at this stage because it can only be bad news for them.  But this is no fly by night, it's a well established restaurant, with a bit of a following, although in a niche sector of the market.  They've been around for years.

And it seems their bank has pulled the plug on them doing any card related transactions.  Cash is king.  That must mean they have a serious cash flow problem.  That means they're likely to have issues paying suppliers and despite the tough times we live in, how long are suppliers going to put up with not being paid.  And what about the staff's pay packets?

I'm certain this establishment is not the only one in to be facing such issues.  Others no doubt will bypass this 'difficult time' and go straight to the wall.  But it says a lot that a restaurant with a long history, a loyal (if not large) following is finding it difficult to convince the banks that they're a safe bet.

I know there are other, seemingly safer bets that have faced far bigger trouble (think Scotland's banking system) but it reinforces the point that if you want the places you like to survive, you need to keep spending money in them.

As an aside, Nick Paumgarten's article in last week's New Yorker on the financial meltdown is brilliant, although long and requires registration to be read in full.  There is also a podcast with him on the New Yorker site.

21 May 2009

When is a crisp not a crisp?

When it's a Pringle, or at least that's what Pringle's themselves argue and have insisted for sometime.

"Look", they say, "there might be a bit of potato in this weirdly industrialised concave food stuff we produce, but what about all the other ingredients in them as well: there's loads of flour, both corn and rice, a fair bit of wheat starch, emulsifier and dextrose. And there's fat, lots and lots of fat. Yes, there might be potato in this over processed product. But let's not get too excited by that. It's only 42%. C'mon, what self respecting packet of crisps can stand up and claim, as a Pringle can can, "Less than half of me is potato!""

Unfortunately for the we're-not-a-crisp brigade at Pringle HQ, British judges disagree and now the tax-man is in the money.

I wonder what the PR damage is by Pringle's fighting their case so diligently. Afterall, in this era of healthy eating, it is more than a little alternative for a producer to insist just how unhealthy and unnatural their product is.

I assume that someone's done the maths to balance up the cost of the case, plus the potential cost of tax (£120m) versus the impact on sales of reminding us we're eating nothing but heavily processed starch and fat.

19 May 2009

My drinking confessions

Is it a little bit too metrosexual of me to 'fess up to falling deeply in love with Jasmine Silver Tip Tea?

Perhaps, in defence of my orientation, I can argue that No, it's not as it has brought me and Silverbrowess closer.  She is the only northener I know who can't stand a cup of builders.  But she too has fallen for this sexy little cuppa and rather than Horlicks, we've been spotted sipping it late into the night.  It's becoming something of a habit. (Reminder to self: get some of that Planeta oil).

And whilst I'm on the topic of hot caffeinated drinks, I have to admit I've found a Starbucks coffee I quite like.  Shock, horror, I know.

I generally do my best to avoid the mighty beast, but a month or so ago I was approached by a friendly chap from their PR agency who asked if I wanted to try their VIA Ready Brew.  Always ready for a laugh I agreed and was surprised to discover that they weren't that bad.  Of the two brews in the range, Colombian and Italian, I much preferred the Colombian, which had more complexity and was nowhere near as bitter as the Italian.

I'd opt to drink the Colombian instead of the average 'coffee' from Starbucks anyday and it's infintely more tasty than other instant sludge I've had the misfortune to try recently. Silverbrowess is a known Starbucks obsessive and she thought it was pretty good as well. 

It's no substitute for the real stuff, but in a worst case scenario i.e. nowhere but a Starbucks to buy a coffee, it would do the trick for me. 

Finally, whilst I'm on the subject of coffee, I strongly recommend this suprisingly engaging video of Gwilym Davies' recent success at the World Barista Championships, which next year will be held in London.

07 May 2009

Is pleasure possible without passion?

A warning before you start, this post is a bit rambling, but it's something I've been thinking about and I decided the best way to get it right was to get it written.  It's not perfect but I'm getting there.  Then again, I might be about to disappear up my own fundament.

I've just finished reading Simon Majumdar's Eat My Globe. It's clear he is a man with a passion about food.  I wasn't oblivious to his love of food - I've been reading the blog since the start and emailing and IM'ing him for some time - but in the book it becomes clear just how much he reveres great food and how good food comes together in a great meal.

That passion makes him a pleasure to read.  He reminds me of Nigel Slater and Kevin McCloud.  It is their respective passions for food and design that make them a delight to read and watch.

Passion is contagious, which is lucky as it's one of the key ingredients to producing the best food, the other is generosity.  I genuinely believe that without both of those one's treatment of food is never going to be anything more than mediocre. 

To be clear, I am not talking about quality of food as deigned by Michelin or A N Other ranking system.  I'm talking about good food as defined by the quality of ingredients, the taste and most importantly, the result of the love of preparation and the joy of consuming what is on the plate.  Nor am I talking about innovative food.  Innovation does not necessarily equate to passion.  I don't buy into the hoary old argument that innovative food is good food.  I appreciate there is a necessity to innovate, to push the boundaries of what we know as gastronomy, otherwise how do we learn to enjoy new things.  Some people do this very badly, probably more so than those that do it very well.

A perfect example of it all coming together was a recent meal at Locanda Locatelli.  I chose it for my wife's first Mother's Day since our daughter was born.  From experience I knew it would be sufficiently relaxed to not mind an eleven month old eating there - not true of all Michelin 1* restaurants in London - and that the food would be excellent and not pandering to the Mother's Day hordes.  I've never been disappointed by a meal there and I wasn't this time. 

I know that LocLoc is not the culinary apotheosis of London restaurants, but it is a great place to have a meal: the food is always excellent and the service is relaxed.  And that clearly comes from a passion at the top.

Throughout the course of our meal, Giorgio Locatelli was in and out of the kitchen, checking up on the restaurant and showing off his recently trimmed haircut.  When he first saw my daughter he smiled at her and she smiled back.

When she virtually finished off an entire plate of their specially prepared pasta (tomato sauce, no salt) he cooed at her and said he'd bring some ice-cream.  True to his word, ten minutes later he carries to the table a plate with three lozenges of sorbet: apple, raspberry and mandarin.  He talks her through them explaining the importance of eating them in the right order.  She sits there in wide-eyed amazement, seemingly listening to every word.  He then stands over her, with a look of consternation on his face as she tastes the apple.  She loves them all.  He relaxes and coos some more.  Mummy, Daddy, baby and chef are all happy.

Of itself this may seem like a minor incident.  But in the two hours we were there, this was the only dish that Giorgio brought out of the kitchen, let alone served.  His eagle like surveillance of the dining room indicated an obsession with making sure things are running well.  But the sheer pleasure he took from someone enjoying his very good food was palpable.  Even more so when that someone has never eaten anything like that before and therefore it is a defining element in the progression of her taste-buds.

The more food I experience (whether produce or in a restaurant), the more I believe that passion is a requirement and it is obvious when it is heartfelt.  The result, for the diner is always good.  It is the same with design, an area I'm becoming more intrigued with.  It seems that truly great design is the result of someone's passion.  It's the inverse of GIGO, it's PIPO, passion in, passion out.

In these straightened times we shouldn't be retrenching to an austere attitude to pleasure or passion.  I firmly believe both are imperative to happiness - and let's not be afraid to be happy

So whilst we might not be able to be as generous as we would otherwise like, can it be so wrong to be passionate?

05 May 2009

Eat My Globe

"I love it when a plan comes together." So said Col. John 'Hannibal' Smith, one of the greatest tacticians of our age.

Plan's can be complex things, things of beauty even, rarely however are they as simple as Simon Majumdar's: "Fuck it. I'm off to eat" - I paraphrase, but that's basically what it boils down to. 

Instead of winning a battle, Simon's plan resulted in his first book Eat My Globe.  According to my current reading material, simple is good, and frankly Simon's plan seems splendid to me. There is obvious clarity of thought and purpose, with a definable and importantly, achievable, goal.

His book is not great for those dieting, those prone to hunger, those prone to lust, envy, greed. Frankly, I wouldn't advise reading it unless you are doing terrible things to a perfectly charred steak or bottle of single malt.

I knew the book was about food, and I knew that it was about Simon's travels around the world.  If nothing else I'd read all about it on his excellent blog, Dos Hermanos.  However, I was expecting the book to be about what the yanks might call 'fine dining'.  I expected that when in Chicago he'd be tucking into Alinea not Hot Doug's, I expected at least a mention of the Fat Duck in the UK and elBulli in Spain.

Instead the book is predominantly about meals with families or street food.  Almost directly as a consequence, it's a book about people and an absolute delight as a consequence.  Don't get put off thinking this is all about high falutin' food, it's not.  It's about great food, greatly enjoyed - with the odd exception of Brazil.

I did have some frustrations with the book, there seemed to be a few typos, but I guess that is a result of this being the first edition. Also in places Simon goes into great detail about how he ended up doing what he was doing, whether it was pre-planned or serendipity, but in other places he's remarkably vague.  For example, whilst he waxed lyrical about spending time with Adam Balic in Australia, he skips around who his two dining companions were at Chez Panisse.  Given that this book is largely about people and his obvious excitement to be eating at Chez Panisse, the ommission was glaring.

But these are minor niggles and essentially this is a beautiful (if hunger inducing) travelogue.

My last gripe is simply that the book I want to read is Simon's view on food (and people) everywhere. I want him to see more of Brazil than just Salvador because I reckon he'd love it. I want to hear his thoughts on Damascus Gate, I want to know if there's a good meal to be had in Utah and I'd be really interested in his perspective on elBulli.

It seems that the likes of Matthew Fort, Jay Rayner and Nigel Slater better take heed of that nipping at their heels.