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Morus’ Saturday Slant: Table Talk

January 10th, 2009

The Menu Has Changed

There once was a time that Britain had a fairly straighforward choice of restaurant. Our beloved class structure, in which every Earl and urchine knew his place, and each understood the choice of fare that was offered. They were simpler days, before we infused our gastronomy with foreign flavours, and yielded in silent homage (rhymes with fromage) to the culinary imperatives of Continental cuisine. Sadly those days are gone, and the Blonde and I this week found ourselves in two eateries that encapsulate everything that has perhaps gone wrong in the professional British kitchen.

    Islington first, a borough of the capital best described as ‘Primrose Hill if they let everyone in’ – the vanity not quite underwritten by the chequebooks that now ensconse themselves to the South and West, and a diner that once was a family favourite of ours reminding us both of happier times. It’s not that the ‘New Clause IV’ doesn’t act the part – much play is made of its glory years – but this only underpins the gloom of realising that potential has been wasted by slovenly management and a lack of clear direction.

We started with salad that didn’t even have the decency to pretend that it hadn’t started life at Sainsbury’s, and on to the main courses – her cottage pie clearly the product of a mind only vaguely acquainted with the rustic world, and my ‘Rooster in Reisling’ betraying its European parentage (as that miserable dish Coq au Vin) by the false anglicised estuary English with which it rambled its ingredients and virtues from an only-too-familiar menu. In the winceful glare of 1990′s faux-brow Britart, we sat miserably wondering what had happened to the old pub classics – Toad in the Hole, Welsh Rarebit, Bubble & Squeak – gravy-drowned monuments to a way of life that would have never tolerated the careful, elf-n-safety notices about calorie count, units per glass, and lactose intolerance that covered the back pages of the menu like roadworks on the M4.

    The ‘New Clause IV’ took over an old Victorian pub called ‘The Kier Hardy’, a staple of the men who used to be called the salt of the earth. Ours was £50-a-kilo Danish flecked sea salt, and desicated the last drops of whatever atmosphere this grand old building had ever had. This was one of the first restaurants in London to become ‘Non-smoking’, and it still felt like it. I’m tempted to suggest that only a 60-a-day gluesniffer would have the requisite damage to his palate to find the food digestable, but that would be unfair. On the gluesniffer, I mean – the genius who concocted this stale excuse for an offering would make our inveterate drug-user an International Master of Wine by comparison. More than could be said for our sommellier.

It feels a little uncharitable to criticise the staff, who erred (and they did err) on the side of overzealously feigned interest in our opinions. Yet having never having thought to act upon them I’m not sure that uncharitable is out of order on this occasion. There is nothing worse than the bungling fussiness of those who claim to serve you – they should endeavour to stay out of your way as much as possible, though be always on hand to make sure that things run smoothly. If that sounds demanding and difficult, it’s because it is. You would hope that after 11 years training, and the realisation that a job isn’t for life that a bit more effort would have been spent on getting that balance right. I rarely cancel the tip before I’ve reached the dessert menu, but three courses already had me reaching for my wallet, and dreams of a swift escape.

I would have unreadily forgiven this dreary trip down memory lane, passed it off as a case of ineptitude rather than malice, had the bill not been so utterly staggering. It is one thing to rip-off your customers openly, but the intricacies of our cheque made me begin to sympathise with those city bankers. If paying for dinner has this many complex line items, how much more complex must credit derivative swaps be? I have never minded paying through the nose for what I imbibe and shovel through my mouth, but the stealth and subterfuge of the peripheral charges (cover charge, 12.5% service charge, surcharge for tap water, and a line for gratuities) epitomised everything that was wrong about the whole experience. It was smug in its assumption that you wouldn’t notice, before dropping your plastic onto the tablecloth. Conceited, narcissistic, arrogant, and shameless – whilst the food was forgiveable, the wine tolerable, the cost hefty but not beyond all decency, what let this place down was the complete wilful ignorance that this was anything other than wonderful – rather than a dinner by numbers – and that remains unforgiveable.

    Cross-town, and another renovated outfit – ‘Bullingdon’ over in swanky Notting Hill. Not here the preachy vegan option, or the reminder that a second drink would make you ineligable to drive. No more mockney faux-brow sculpture here – rather the clumsy emulation of country grandeur that only South West London, with its spray-can-applied mud on the Chelsea Tractor, can truly manage. Back in the day, by which I mean before the new Boy Wonder took over the kitchen, this was a fusty old joint called ‘The Establishment’. The sort of brandy-and-cigars den that could have conceivably hired Chelsea Pensioners and retired Colonels who saw Amritsar to occupy the armchairs by the fire, if there hadn’t been a waiting list of them to do so anyway. Plush, civilised, proud – the sort of place where dropping your haitches was a more egregious breach of etiquette than dropping your britches. Now, chrome and pastel colours adorned the walls, and the chandeliers have been replaced by energy-saving light bulbs.

Somewhat out of character, the Blonde and I shared our starter – organic foie gras terrine with glazed organic pears and a walnut-and-cinnamon paste. The wine was fair trade, and approved by the Soil Association. I can’t deny, it was a pleasant change from the stodge we had suffered in Islington, but the false humility of the new decor was completely dischordant with the plummy richness of what was on offer. It is a pet hate of mine that organic is used to describe any foodstuff not made exclusively of PVC, and whilst nowhere near as cloyingly intrusive as what we had experienced in North London, the faint smuggery of the fair-trade, knitted-by-Peruvian-organic-llamas menu was an unnecessary distraction from what had the makings of a decent meal.

The mains were British gastro, though I should warn you that even the most traditional of dishes (the Beef Wellington) came with mashed potatoes preenishly-drizzled with balsamic vinegar and truffle oil. The menu was decent, although much of it lacked the sort of substance that great kitchens produce, with the best offering being a Swedish smorgasbord which proved to be quite an education. The liberating experience of pickled herrings with gravlax and ‘Janssons Frestelse‘ at lunch aside, we left with a sense of not having quite had our appetites satisfied, yet having overdone it on food that was rich beyond requirement.

The service was mixed, at best. No clumsy mistakes, and one could forgive the discomfort of staff who had clearly been trained by the ancien regime here, and were trying to forget their silver service drills to fit in with the open collar breeziness that is the preserve of the young and the worriless who invest in vanity projects like this. Having been physically-harrassed at our previous dinner, a little more space was welcome, but the absentmindedness and invisibility of our waiters almost implied that they had better places to be. I know it is usual for staff to moonlight at other (no doubt better-paying) jobs but this customer doesn’t like to actually see it in their eyes as they read out the Plats du Jour. Our bill was another complicated affair – did we, or did we not qualify for the pre-Theatre price? Was there a discount for only having 2 courses from the 3 course set menu? Clearly the maitre d’ was eager to give us at least our wine for free, but one suspects that the freebee culture is now under the scrutiny of Chef, and only time will tell whether he is prepared to stick to high prices that are a customer-deterrent, or whether undercutting the competition is going to be the way that this becomes a flawed-favourite for the whole city.

Restaurants are in a mess. They no longer know what their target demographic looks like, and the desire to be all things to all diners is making for a confused and unappealing set of choices. Food needs to be simple rather than showy, well-crafted rather than disdainful, and at whatever price is reasonable for that dish. Too many restaurants set their prices before their menus, and it is leading to the twin fallacies of clumsy economies on otherwise good dishes and overpriced filth-masquerading-as-haute-cuisine. Decor should work on the basis of including anyone prepared to pay their money, rather than hoping that your customers will feel obliged to blend into the wallpaper and drapes. Service should be barely noticeable – unobtrusive when it needs to be involved, always available when it is invited. Those who have their wages paid need to remember who their customers are, and be responsive to their actual needs, rather than imagined expectations. The bill can be whatever you want it to be, but it needs to be honest and transparent. Ultimately, the food will always drift in and out of fashion, decor and staff see faster turnover than apples at the hands of a German pastry chef, but the goodwill of customers is a hard-won thing. If you get them through the door, they should want to come back next time around. A few restaurateurs should remember that – especially if they decide to revamp the dining room. I don’t know where Londoners will feel most comfortable eating, but if this is what’s on offer, I suspect a great many will simply stay home. Right now, a Hawaiin burger sounds rather appealing.

Morus, with apologies to A A Gill






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