17 posts categorized "Silverbrow elsewhere"

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?

04 May 2008

Olive Magazine & Dizengoff

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by Tony Naylor for the BBC's Olive Magazine. It was for a feature in this month's magazine about bloggers' favourite but unknown restaurants.

Mine was Dizengoff. I've never done a full on review of the restaurant, which is a bit remiss because it's the restaurant I visit most frequently. I'll let the Olive article be a proxy for my review, as I really don't have time to write one now. Suffice to say though that for simple grilled meat, with fresh salads, I love Dizengoff. Given the tone of the article, I thought the photo accompanying the article (a dessert) was a bit of a non-sequituir. I've never eaten a dessert there, so am not in a position to express a view one way or the other.

You can download a pdf of the article here.

Google Maps
Google Earth (download)

Dizengoff, 118 Golders Green Road, London, NW11 8HB, UK
Tel: +44 (0)20 8458 7003

What others think

Time Out - Dizengoff's is (sic) producing some great meals

14 April 2008

Interview with Trusted Places

I always had a problem understanding Trusted Places. I couldn't understand what they were all about.

That was until I met Walid at a fascinating shindig arranged by Andrew of Eating Albion fame. After a bit of explaining it all made sense and I see that it's not simply another London Eating.

That night Walid asked me if I'd like to do an interview with them, I said yes and it's up now on Trusted Places. Thanks to Laura who asked all the questions. Welcome to all those who have come over here, from over there.

14 December 2007

Under the ethical table

Below is my first article for Word of Mouth. You can also read it over there, by clicking here.

As I predicted earlier in the year, Word of Mouth is a welcome addition to the food blogging community. Under the stewardship of Susan Smillie it has become a great example of a community blog - one where a variety of people post, from pros like Jay Rayner and Paul Levy to more amateur folk like Andrew Barrow or Aidan Brooks, aka Trig.

As ever, I hope you enjoy it. If you feel inclined, comment below or on Word of Mouth.

According to Sarah Irving, author of a report published in the current edition of Ethical Consumer magazine: "The restaurant industry would particularly benefit from good environmental and social reporting and better transparency." She is particularly critical of restaurants for bandying around phrases 'sourced locally', 'organic' or 'free range'.

But this is not really such a surprise is it? After all, there is no broadly accepted definition of any of these terms or their benefits. According to Whole Foods, anywhere in the UK can be deemed local. Organic status is determined in the UK by the Soil Association Ltd (a body only affiliated to the Soil Association charity). And anyway, organic does not mean the same thing in any two countries. As for Fair Trade, an early Word of Mouth post touches on some points dear to my heart.

So it cannot be a surprise that restaurants are confused, given that the ethical industry doesn't know its free range bottom from its organic elbow.

The Ethical Consumer report boldly states that the restaurant industry would benefit from better reporting and transparency, but offers no argument as to why that would be the case or by what metric they are measuring the benefits.

Tragus Holdings is one of the UK's largest restaurant groups. It owns brands including Belgo, Strada and Café Rouge and has about 240 individual restaurants. It comes in for a bit of a kicking from the report, earning only 2 out of a possible 20 points.

Given the seemingly self-evident benefits derived from ethical dining, Tragus must be financially crippled, or at least diners must be fleeing? Well, no. According to their 2007 full year results (pdf), turnover was £149m. Each restaurant in the group made an average profit of £238,000. This is not a company desperately in need of salvation from greater transparency.

Loch Fyne comes out of the report with a freshly burnished halo, receiving particular praise for its sustainable fish buying policy. But that's hardly a big surprise. Its branding is all about the high quality fish, For Loch Fyne, quality and provenance is all. I don't think anyone would try to argue that is the case at The Gourmet Burger Kitchen or Café Rouge.

I think this report missed a trick by focusing on cheaper brands. Far more interesting would have been an audit of some of the top-end restaurant groups, whether those directly associated with chefs such as Gordon Ramsay and Alain Ducasse or more general brands such as Caprice Holdings.

I'd love to know how many air miles are racked up delivering their produce.

With rare exceptions, chefs are notably schtum on these sorts of issues because they risk accusations of hypocrisy. There is a good reason that Oliver Rowe was able to secure so much press coverage when he announced he was sourcing all his ingredients from within the M25.

So my challenge to the team at Ethical Consumer is to carry out an audit on the top restaurants and see how they fare and then see if the easy prey of the chains are quite so abominably unethical.

26 October 2007

I demand healthier

I have been known to rant a bit about the state of kosher food in the UK.  Until now, you dear reader and the long-suffering Silverbrowess are the only ones who have been subjected to my moaning and wailing.  Until now.  Because now, I have vented my fury, my wrath and my despair on the pages of that organ of British Jewry, The Jewish Chronicle.

It is my first published article and I'm rather excited.  Many thanks to the paper's editor, David Rowan and Simon Round, editor of the food page, for publishing it.

I hope it will stir things up and start a debate, although given my track-record I'm not holding my breath.

Feel free to comment here, or you can write to the JC's letter page by emailing [email protected].

You can read the article on the JC's website or for those too lazy to click a link, read on.  What follows is the article in full, as it appears in the paper.

The Food Standards Agency, the UK’s food regulator, recently published a report linking some food additives to hyperactivity in children. The Times and the JC both reported that these additives have a habit of turning up in kosher processed foods. Ingredients such as sodium benozate, ponceau 4R and tartrazine are rather less evocative than cholent, adafina and kreplach.

The laws of kashrut are determined in the Torah, and kosher can be translated as “fit to eat”. According to Nachmanides, a 12th-century Kabbalist, “the birds and many of the mammals forbidden by the Torah are predators… we are instructed not to eat those animals, so that we should not absorb these qualities into ourselves”. So, if we are what we eat, religiously speaking kosher food must not be unhealthy.

Yet as the FSA demonstrated, there is a gaping void between what we expect of our kosher food and what we get.

I have yet to find a kosher butcher in London who can assure me that his chickens are free range, or even tell me the exact ingredients of his sausages.

Similarly, if you ask a kosher grocer for their fresh-food section, your browsing will be brief. Kosher food shops are heaving with processed, packaged and often frozen items. Even seemingly fresh kosher deli products have a shopping list worth of additives.

This is not just a problem for the home cook. There is not a kosher restaurant in the UK that makes a virtue out of where it sources its produce. This is not because kosher restaurateurs are bashful, but because they have got nothing to shout about.

The upshot is that the consumer is not fully informed. Bizarrely, this is occurring at a time when there is an evangelical approach to provenance among producers not targeting the kosher market.

Any half-decent restaurant will name-check the farmer who reared the ribeye, or the river the salmon last spawned in. TV programmes are dedicated to identifying heroic food producers. Visits to farmers’ markets are de rigueur for any self-respecting yummy-mummy. In the non-kosher world, traceability is a growing obsession.

So why the gap between kosher and non-kosher food? There are three inter-connected factors which ensure a race to the bottom: limited demand, the cost of regulation, and complacency.

There are no definitive statistics on how many people keep kosher in the UK, but the number is small. There are under 300,000 Jews in the UK; even conservatively, the most who keep kosher are 150,000, a number that anecdotally seems to be falling. Those who keep “kosher” encompass a broad spectrum of observance of the laws, from those that insist on everything having a hechsher to those who simply abstain from pork and shellfish.

So, as a business proposition, kosher is not attractive. The market is small and comprises a broad demographic. Demand is relatively limited, but, thanks to the rules imposed by the kashrut authorities, so is supply, because only certain foods are deemed kosher. Prices are therefore higher than comparable non-kosher items.

The inflated cost is not helped by the levy kashrut authorities insist on imposing on producers before their products will be certified kosher. As a producer faced with these issues — limited supply, diverse demand, high fixed costs — you will look to maximise your profits by appealing to as many people as possible. You will also try to keep your prices low because things are expensive enough already. Very quickly, it is difficult to remember whether you are a widget manufacturer or food producer.

Underpinning these economic issues is complacency. There is an assumption that because kosher food fits its religious requirements it is healthy. As the FSA has demonstrated, that is frequently not the case. Producers race for the bottom to maximise their returns. Shoppers buy what is on the shelves as they are blinded by the kosher stamp of authority or have no other choice.

Observant or not, it is time those of us who keep kosher returned to the core of our beliefs and insisted on eating food that is fit to eat.

01 July 2007

Blooms again, but never again

I have had bad meals in the past, we all have. However, a recent dinner at Blooms was the first time I have had a truly awful meal whilst accompanied by a restaurant critic from a national newspaper.

What made this particular meal worse - and genuinely it was so awful it is hard to believe anything could have been worse than what we ate - was that I had cheerily invited Jay Rayner, the Observer's food critic, citing my two previously good experiences. In my invitation I did mention a third, more recent meal, when my grilled liver resembled a particularly tasteless, tough piece of shoe leather, but I dismissed that as an aberration. I was wrong. It seems to be the norm.

You might argue, "you had two good meals, now you have had two bad meals, maybe they're just inconsistent." They are certainly that. But any restaurant that dares serve the quality of food we ate and has the chutzpah to charge people for it, is a truly awful establishment.

Read Jay's eloquent review for an insight into what we had to put up with. It was a trip down memory lane we would both rather forget.

Before I go, I have to praise Jay and his kind. I thought being a restaurant critic was all about eating at the world's greatest restaurants, or gorging yourself in a dining marathon. I now know that it is much harder than that. Especially when you have to order ersatz custard, made from heaven knows what, but almost certainly not egg and definitely not milk, all in the name of journalistic thoroughness. I pleaded, begging him, feeling like Zammo, to just say no to the waitress offering him this curdled mess atop the apple pie. In spite of my wailing, he perservered. Mr Rayner you're a mensch and a martyr to your profession, I salute you. I also profoundly and grovellingly apologise for dragging you along to Blooms.

24 May 2007

Some very nice words from Jay Rayner

It is always particularly flattering when people you respect say nice things about you. Of all the restaurant critics, I enjoy reading Jay Rayner's column in The Observer the most. He clearly knows his onions when it comes to food (as his recent novel demonstrates) and therefore he writes from a position of knowledge, unlike some of his fellow critics. Most importantly for me, Jay is focused on the food, rather than the fripperies.

Given my love for the man, I was delighted to see I received a mention in his first post on Word of Mouth, The Guardian/Observer's new food blog. To quote him:

"Silverbrow on Food [is] the blog of an amateur cook, and Stakhanovite eater, with remarkably Catholic tastes for someone who keeps Kosher."

If Jay says I'm a Catholic communist then I am.

Despite my delight at being able to bathe in the glow of this praise, I was intrigued that the Guardian has decided to start a food blog, and am particularly interested in what their impressive roster of contributors think about hanging with amateurs. From my experience, newspapers have viewed the growth of blogs and other user generated content with a mixture of fear and awe. Of all the newspapers, the Guardian has embraced blogging most enthusiastically, nonetheless, I feel Word of Mouth is a welcome addition to The New York Times' food and wine blogs and adds further legitimacy to our corner of the internet. Unlike a couple of journalists at the San Francisco Chronicle, Jay is courteous enough to acknowledge that us amateurs do sometimes have something to add.