Tag Archives: restaurants

Why is pizza so popular?

 

The death of the wonderful Antonio Carluccio last week and my visit this week to the European Pizza and Pasta show at Olympia have got me pondering why we love food from Italy so much.

I’ve no idea how many Italian restaurants there are in Britain, but it must be several thousand.  The Italians got into the restaurant business in Britain long before the Indians and Chinese.

And in recent years we have seen the rise of excellent Italian chains – Ask, Carluccios, Franca Manca, to name but three.  And Jamie has even got in on the act.

If you’ve been to Italy, you’ll know that Italian cuisine is, of course, much more than pizza and pasta. I visited Sorrento a couple of years ago and was knocked out by the range and quality of dishes in its restaurants.

And we probably shouldn’t even talk about “Italian” cuisine, as in Italy food is regional. The kind of dishes they serve in Bologna will be different from those in Naples, the birthplace of pizza.

Pizza has to be the most popular dish in Britain. I know that some people argue that chicken tikka masala occupies that spot, but when do you ever hear kids asking for a curry when you take them out?

The reason pizza is popular is because it’s incredibly satisfying and so varied.  If you think about it, it’s basically bread with various toppings. And bread is popular wherever you go in the world, the flat breads in the Middle East, nan breads in India, baguettes in France, tortillas in Mexico. It can also be eaten in the street. It’s classic finger food.

At the European Pizza and Pasta Show, I got chatting to a woman from The Pizza, Pasta and Italian Food Association and asked her what she thought was the secret to the popularity of Italian cuisine in Britain.  ‘With Italian food, they don’t go in for novelty or gimmicks. They serve the same dishes again and again,’ she said.

She is spot on. In a London food scene that seems to get whackier every month, and where restaurants are desperate to make themselves appear different and innovative, you know exactly where you are with most Italian restaurants. What people want is good food and good service at a reasonable price. What they don’t want is the kind of foodie circus we now have in London.  Unsurprisingly, Antonio Carluccio was not a fan of this kind of nonsense.

Last night I went to a typical local Italian, II Mirto, tucked away in a side street in East Dulwich. The owner, who is from Sardinia, also runs an Italian deli down the road in Forest Hill. II Mirto seats just 22 diners and feels almost like eating in someone’s living room.  Oh, yes, and they only take cash, as the handwritten notice on the counter informs you.  The menu is pizzas, pasta and a couple of specials. There’s nothing pretentious or fancy about this place and the food is very decent.  That’s why I like it.

 

Restaurants in Italy and Spain can be disappointing

We are always told how fantastic the food in Spain and Italy is. And, yes, you can find some great places to eat. But there are also many restaurants where the food is mediocre or awful and the service slapdash.

This is my conclusion having returned from a holiday in Tuscany and Barcelona with my wife and son. I had gone in the expectation of eating great food in wonderful restaurants. Instead more often than not I came away disappointed.

For example, one evening we sat down at a table outside Osteria Enoteca in a small square on Corso Italia, the main shopping street in Pisa. I ordered a pizza with salami, my wife a spaghetti carbonara, and we ordered a margarita for our son. Each dish turned out to be very poor. But the service was just as bad.

Could we have some parmesan, please? Ten minutes later a waiter returns with a small bowl. Could we have some olive oil, please? Another ten minutes goes by before the waiter returns. By the way, I ordered a beer – half an hour ago. The beer arrives after another ten minutes. At 10.20 pm one of the waiters starts stacking the chairs while we are several other customers are still eating.  This was a Tuesday evening in the middle of August when Pisa is packed with tourists.

It was a similar story in several other restaurants we visited in Pisa or in the towns along the Tuscan coast. So many of the waiters we encountered seemed very forgetful.

However, one restaurant in Pisa was brilliant: La Meloria Fried and Fish in Via Domenico Cavalca.  From the outside it doesn’t look much, but the food was excellent (penne with octopus and calamari with boiled potatoes in parsley and olive oil were particularly good) and the service from Elena, the owner, outstanding. She seemed to be able to do six things at once and always with a smile. You could tell from the way she served the customers that she took a pride in her restaurant and was passionate about it. What’s more, you can have a bottle of good wine for nine euro.

In Barcelona the prize for the worst meal I ate goes to La Surena in Port Vell. I ordered dogfish and patatas bravas. Both were disgusting.  Something told me that the food was probably frozen. After we had left the restaurant, I went immediately to a shop to buy some biscuits to take away the awful flavour.

Another bad experience was at Congrejo Loco, a fish and seafood restaurant in Port Olympia. As soon as I saw the prices (190 euro per kilo of lobster), the white table cloths, the huge menus, and the waiters dressed in white jackets I suspected that this would be another disappointment. And it was. I ordered Gallician octopus and potatoes (15 euro). It was saturated in pimento and salt. Truly awful. The restaurant had been chosen by a friend of ours and her husband, because they had had their wedding reception there.  They admitted that it had gone down hill since then.

Two restaurants that were excellent, however, were Laia in Blanes, a resort on the Catalan coast, where I had some delicious baby calamari, and Entre Pam I Tapes in Badalona, on the northern edge of Barcelona, where I had the best patatatas bravas I’ve ever eaten.

Chefs such as Rick Stein, Gennaro Contaldo, and Jose Pizaro have done a wonderful job in convincing us that Italy and Spain are gastronomic wonderlands. The truth is that there are many restaurants that dish up food that is as poor as you would get in some places in Britain and that seem to care little about providing diners with a memorable experience.

 

 

 

Don’t believe the hype about some pubs and restaurants

 

I’ve thought for a long time that there’s too much hype about how good restaurants and pubs are supposed to be. When it comes to hype, restaurants and pubs can be up there with the best of them. Their web sites often make exaggerated claims about the food on offer. Menus are sprinkled with words such as “artisan”, “aged” and “hand-made”, and contain words or phrases you’ve never come across before (“tonkatsu-inspired”, “nduja sausage”, “basil pistou).  And you are informed that your crab is from Norfolk, your cheese from Yorkshire, and your Kale from Lincolnshire.

You will often be told the “story” behind the restaurant to make you feel that you are visiting a place where the owners really care about the food, the service and you, the customer.

And to drive home just how good a place considers itself to be, its door will be festooned with stickers from Trip Advisor, Square Table or one of the other  countless organisations that market themselves by handing out stars or awards to restaurants, who grab them greedily.

But, of course, when you use so much hype, the customer’s expectations increase. And the fact is that there are far too many restaurants where the hype far exceeds the quality of food and service provided.

This week, I’ve encountered two gastro pubs where the food and service didn’t match the hype.

The order mix up

The first was in a pretty village in Kent, where I went with my wife and son on Sunday afternoon. I was told 40 minutes after placing our order at the bar that, sorry, I couldn’t have fish and chips. That’s right, 40 minutes later.

“There was a bit of a mix up. We had two table 52s down,” said a young guy coming up to the table. “Would you like to order something else?”

I gritted my teeth and ordered burger and fries instead. When it arrived 15 minutes later it turned out to be pretty average, although at £13.50 the price was above average. Remember, this is rural Kent, not London’s West End.

Fish with bones

The second villain was a pub near Tower Bridge. Having been denied fish and chips in Kent, I decided I’d have them here. I knew the pub quite well and the quality of the food had always been very good. However, it had been over three years since my last visit. But the pub still had the same two owners, so I figured the standards would be the same.

I was wrong. My friend discovered his fish contained numerous bones. I complained to one of the bar staff and asked him to tell one of the co-owners, who was sitting at the bar having a drink.  He came over to see what the problem was. Here’s the conversation:

Me: There’s quite a few bones in my friend’s fish, although, so far, I haven’t found any in mine.

Co-owner: You do get bones on fish.

Me: Shouldn’t the fish be pin-boned properly in the kitchen?

Co-owner [Pointing to the menu]: It does say that fish might contain bones.’

Me: Yes, but shouldn’t the kitchen staff do a better job in removing them. Imagine if a child was eating this fish. They might end up in hospital.

Co-owner: Well, you’ve not found any bones in yours.

Me: No, not yet. But there might be some. Look, my friend’s just found another one.

Co-owner: The kitchen gets busy sometimes.

Me: When I go to my local fishmonger I always ask for the pin bones to be removed. And when I get him I check it to make sure this has happened. If not, I remove them with tweasers or scissors.

Co-owner: Yeah, well, the kitchen staff don’t always have the time.

Me: But I’ve always thought that removing pin bones from fish was a basic task for staff in any restaurant kitchen.

He shrugged and offered my friend another piece of fish, but my friend declined, thinking there was no guarantee that it would be any better.

I should add that the fish and chips were mediocre. The batter was soggy and the chips (about a dozen of them) dry.  And this cost a whopping £14.

What disappointed me most about this experience was the attitude of the co-owner. He didn’t seem particularly bothered about the bones. Well, I have my standards when it comes to fish. If I served fish with bones still in it to friends who came for a meal, I would be embarrassed and I would be annoyed with myself.

As my friend and I left the pub, we noticed an A board on the pavement. It said, “Best fish and chips in the area.”  As I said earlier, too many restaurants go in for too much hype.

Franco Manca – great restaurant model

Coming up with the right business model for a restaurant must be one of the hardest things. We can all think of places where, for one reason or another, the owners have got so much of it wrong. Yes, the food scene in London is unrecognisable from twenty years ago, but there are still many very mediocre restaurants as well as some truly awful ones.

London is, of course, awash with pizza restaurants, and many of them pretty good, I’m happy to say.  For example, I’m a big fan of Ask, whose branches never disappoint either in the quality of food or the service.  Some people can be sniffy about chains. I have no such qualms, provided they are good.

At the weekend, I visited Franco Manca in Lordship Lane, East Dulwich. Franco Manca started out in Brixton in 2008 when Giuseppe Mascoli, who came to London in 1989 as an assistant lecturer at the London School of Economics, started offering sour dough pizzas. Unlike now, they were a bit of a novelty back then.

The pizzas are cooked for 40 seconds in a wood-burning oven at 500 degrees. They are prepared by pizzaiolos using the traditional method that Mascoli learned at his family home in Naples.

His Brixton restaurant turned out to be a roaring success, and Giuseppe went on to open other branches across London. In 2015 he sold the business to Fulham Shore, which has opened restaurants across the UK.

One of the things that makes Franca Manco different from many restaurants is its menu. It only has six pizzas on offer.  There’s no pasta or anything else, other than a choice between two salads. I’ve always been a great believer in short menus. With just a few items to choose from, there’s a good chance that the food will be very good. And Franca Manca’s pizzas are delicious.

And the prices at Franco Manca take some beating: tomato, garlic and oregano (£4.95), tomato, mozzarella, and basil (£6.40) and, the most expensive, tomato, cured organic chorizo and mozzarella (£7.55).

With their short menu, low prices, delicious pizzas, and, just as importantly, good service, Franco Manca has created a winning business model. I can think of a few places that could learn a thing or two from it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rick Stein comes to Barnes

Finding good fish and chips in London is one of life’s challenges. So it’s great news that Rick Stein has opened a restaurant in Barnes, his first in London.

Despite previously saying he would never open a restaurant in London, Stein has taken over The Depot in Barnes. As this is one of the poshest parts of the capital, paying £16.95 for cod and chips or £8.95 for three oysters is unlikely to concern the locals.

The inclusion on the menu of dishes such as Singapore chilli crab, wasabi, and Indonesian seafood curry reflects Stein’s travels around the Far East for his excellent BBC TV series.

Of course, Stein won’t be cooking himself.  The days when he would be sweating away in a hot kitchen have long gone. What diners going to The Depot will expect is some of the best fish and seafood they have ever eaten, as this is what Stein specialises in.

I’m planning to visit soon.  Given Stein’s reputation, I will book in advance, as I’m sure The Depot will become one of London’s most popular restaurants.

 

Restaurants can be hit and miss

 

I can’t think what to write, but I need to write something, as I haven’t posted anything this year. Well, what’s on my mind is the varying quality of food and service – and therefore disappointing – in so many restaurants around London that are deemed to be very good. Here’s some I’ve visited recently:

500 Degrees, Crystal Palace: the pizza was okay, but the service abysmal. As this was the third disappointing experience at this restaurant, I won’t be going again.

Lorenzo’s, Crystal Palace:  good pizza and service pretty good. My wife had a pasta dish, but wasn’t impressed.

Ask, Beckenham: excellent pizza and crayfish pasta, but, unusually for Ask, hit and miss service (the manager said some staff were on holiday).

Iberica, The Zig-Zag Building, Victoria, The food was average. The staff seemed very inexperienced and kept dropping glasses. The food was all the more disappointing, as Iberica’s menus are designed by a three-star Michelin chef. But perhaps the clue is in the word “designed”.

Joanna’s, Crystal Palace: fantastic food and great service. The staff seemed to be enjoying their work.

Eating in Crystal Palace

I’ve always loved going to Crystal Palace, which, with its park and Eifel tower-like TV transmitter, often feels a little bit like  holiday resort.  Crystal Palace also occupies one of the highest points in London and offers some fantastic views of the London’s ever changing skyline.  And if you are hungry, Crystal Palace won’t disappoint you.  You can find restaurants specialising in over a dozen cuisines, including Portuguese, Venezuelan, Iranian, and French/Algerian, not to mention some great pizza places and decent gastro pubs. And you can also buy top class burgers from Roti Brothers, whose truck is now a permanent feature in Westow Street.

 

 

 

Meeting the Arzaks in San Sebastian

On my recent trip to San Sebastian in the Spanish Basque country, I met a legend of Spanish gastronomy, Juan Mari Arzak, regarded as one of the world’s top chefs. I called unannounced to present him with a copy of my new book Ole! Ole! Passion on a Plate: The Rise of Spanish Cuisine in London.

He’s seventy-four and he’s still cooking in the kitchen at his restaurant, which was awarded three Michelin stars in 1989, a time when Spanish cuisine was still struggling to make a name for itself. He has been at the forefront of what has been called the new Spanish cuisine, taking traditional ingredients and dishes and adapting them.

His daughter Elena, an equally talented chef, works in the kitchen with him, overseeing a team of 30, which includes 10 interns from various parts of the world.

Passion

I wanted to know if Juan Mari was still as passionate about cooking as when he began his career.

“Yes! When I can’t sleep I sometimes think up new recipes,” he said.

Laboratory

He has a laboratory at the restaurant, which has over 1,000 plastic containers, each with a different ingredient. It’s here that Juan Mari, Elena, and their team

Come up with ideas such as sardine and strawberry, squid with banana, and chistorra with beer and mango.

They might sound odd combinations, but having tried all of them I can say that they were absolutely delicious.

Fame

Elena has received many offers to do TV shows, but she isn’t interested in them.

“I don’t want to be on TV,” she said. “I don’t like it. I prefer to be cooking in the kitchen.”

She also receives many invitations to attend conferences. In the next few weeks she is off to New York, Istanbul, and Milan.

Tradition

What struck me about the Arzak restaurant is that it is a family business with a deep sense of tradition and views the team as part of the family. In one of the wine rooms is part of a tree and a bottle of wine dating back to 1897 when his grandparents opened the restaurant. Several of the kitchen staff have worked there over 30 years.  Two remarkable chefs and  a remarkable restaurant.

Running a pop-up kitchen

Passion on a Plate greg wide 1Passion on a Plate tapas sign

“Croquetas de jamon ready for table three!” I barked in my best Spanish pronunciation, sliding a dish to to my wife. “Padron peppers in two minutes.”

It was eight thirty on a Saturday night at Beer Rebellion, a small bar in Sydenham, specialising in craft beers brewed down the road in Penge. And I was running my first pop-up kitchen, providing nine tapas dishes under the name of Passion on a Plate.

When I had got up early that morning to make four tortillas before heading to a Crystal Palace bakery to collect five loaves of sour dough bread, I had been filled with a mixture of anxiety and excitement.  Would the electric cooker at Beer Rebellion work okay?  I had tested it the week before and discovered that some rings took a while to heat up? How would I cope if I had to prepare or cooking several dishes at once? Would the customers like what I served? Yet despite these worries, I was raring to go.

And an hour and a half into the service, I was loving every minute of cooking for paying customers. Standing there in the kitchen, wearing a chef’s jacket and white apron and hat, I was feeling like a proper cook. I was even becoming incredibly bossy with my wife. “No! The customers only need a small slice of quince with the cheese.” I had watched too many episodes of Hell’s Kitchen.

Passion on a Plate diners

This pop-up might never have happened had I not attended several cooking classes at Leith’s. They not only gave me some knowledge and techniques, but, just as importantly, they boosted my confidence and helped to demystify the process of cooking.

The class that was perhaps most valuable to me was the one taught by the charismatic Omar Allibhoy, who came to London from Madrid to persuade more of us to eat tapas.  I bought his book, Tapas Revolution, afterwards, and I had used some of his recipes for my menu at Beer Rebellion.

I later interviewed Omar for my book Ole! Ole! Passion on a Plate: The Rise of Spanish Cuisine in London. And, looking back, it was meeting him, and other inspiring Spanish chefs and owners of Spanish restaurants, that led me to answer the post from Beer Rebellion on my local community forum: “Want to run a pop-up kitchen? Come and speak to us.”

So I did. The manager, a laid back Kiwi, wasn’t concerned that I had never run a pop-up kitchen and he said tapas would go down well with the customers.

Once I had fixed a date, I then had to decide on a menu. I knew I was plunging into the deep end.  Cooking at home is one thing; cooking in a bar is something else.  But I felt this was a challenge I was ready for.

Passion on a Plate food cu 2

Recognising my lack of experience, I sought advice from Raffaele, the owner of Trattoria Raffaele, the fantastic Italian restaurant in my local high street, and Jorge, a chef at Barrica, a top West End tapas bar.  “Keep the menu simple and short,” they both urged.  So I decided to include five cold dishes and four hot.

I would make the tortilla, jamon croquetas, and sauce for the patas bravas in advance. This would mean that on the night I would only be cooking padron peppers and potatoes from scratch.  I felt this was achievable.

Running your first pop-up kitchen requires military planning.  You have to price your dishes; work out portion sizes; find good suppliers for your ingredients; think about what kitchen equipment (in my case a deep fat fryer, slow cooker, and toaster), crockery and cutlery you will need and how big the fridge is to store dishes made in advance.

As well as this, you have to work out how you are going to use the space in the kitchen to arrange your ingredients and plate up. You also have to design a menu, provide a spike for the tickets the orders are written on, have a good supply of tea towels, and bring a bottle of hand wash.

Adding special touches to the evening can help create an atmosphere. My wife bought red and yellow carnations for each table and placed them in the set of small glass jars I had spotted in a charity shop. She also bought some sunflower plants, which we arranged on the ledge of the kitchen, wooden boards to serve the iberico ham, and red and yellow napkins.

In the three weeks leading up to the pop-up, I practiced cooking the dishes. My attempts at creating a good alioli were disappointing. When the mixture kept splitting, my wife suggested I buy a ready made one. But this would have seemed like cheating, So I continued experimenting and, eventually, I got there (thanks to a Jamie Oliver recipe on You Tube).

I felt such a sense of achievement when I slumped down with my wife at the end of the evening at Beer Rebellion.  We had served 49 dishes, and all had returned empty. I was still on a high the next day.

And now we are going to run a weekly tapas night in the bar.

 

 

Ends

10 best books about chefs and restaurants

Anthony Bourdain

If you are looking for a good book to provide an insight into the world of restaurants and cooking, then here are my top ten suggestions.

1.Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential

Hold tight for this journey into the dark underbelly of restaurant kitchens.

2. Alex Watts, Down and Out in Padstow and London

What happens when a journalist gets bored with churning out stories about celebs and decided he wants to be  a chef?

3. Bill Burford, Heat

How about taking a year out and learning to cook like a professional?

4. Marco Pierre White, The Devil in the Kitchen

What drives a chef to want three Michelin stars?

5. Rick Stein, Under a Mackerel Sky

How does someone who ran a nightclub and drifted around Australia become one of the country’s most popular TV chefs?

6. Keith Floyd, Stirred but not Shaken

It all began in a Bristol bistro. The ups and many downs of a legend. Cheers, Floyd.

7. Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour

A chef goes off around the world seeking new food experiences

8. Michael Ruhlman, The Making of a Chef

A behind the scenes look at the Culinary Institute of America.

9. Joe Bastianich, Restaurant Man

Want to know how to run a good restaurant?

10. Pru Leith, Relish

The woman behind Leith’s School of Food and Wine

Are there too many food and drink awards?

 

There was a time when restaurants and hotels and their staff received little public recognition for doing things well. But today organisations are queuing up to dish out awards to them.

When it comes to awards, forget the film industry. It’s the hospitality industry that wants to shower people with praise.  At one time, it was all about Michelin. But now the number up for grabs each year is staggering. Here’s just a few.

AA Hospitality Awards

National Restaurant Awards

BBC Food and Drink Awards

BBC Food and Farming Awards

Restaurant Bar and Design Awards

European Hospitality Awards

Trip Advisor Best Restaurants

Big Hospitality Awards

The Good Food Guide Restaurant Awards

Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink Awards

Green Restaurant Awards

Tatler Restaurant Awards

British Hospitality Association Awards

The Grocer Food and Drink Awards

The Caterer Awards

Quality Food Awards

Evening Standard Restaurant Awards

Food Made Good Awards

Observer Food Monthly Awards

The Grocer Own Label Food and Drink Awards

There are many others, including a raft of regional and other awards. Near where I live in south-east London there are three Indian takeaways within a few yards of each other – and each displays an image in the window of some kind of curry award it has won.

It’s fantastic when people are recognised for excellence. We all love recognition. But are these awards really about excellence?  Or is it that the restaurants, chefs, and producers are simply just vehicles to gain publicity for the companies sponsoring the awards? If they are, perhaps they don’t mind, as an award is seen a useful marketing tool on web sites and doors.

And how are the winners selected and by who?  Who puts up the money for the champagne reception? What’s more, do restaurants and hotels have to pay to be considered for an award?  Apparently with many wine awards, it costs if a producer wants to enter a bottle.

With so many awards being given out each year,  most come to have little meaning.  Maybe there will soon be an award for the restaurant or hotel that has never received award.  The problem is that there won’t be many to choose from.

 

 

Why aren’t restaurants more child friendly?

Why aren’t more restaurants child friendly?  I asked myself this question after a visit to Ask Italian, near Tower Bridge.

The Ask Italian chain does everything to try and help parents who have lively and easily bored small children in tow.  It provides colouring pens and spot the difference pictures, small knives and forks, and highchairs and baby changing facilities. It even serves children’s meals first and on cold plates, so they don’t get their fingers burned.

As well as this, the waiting staff at Ask are always very tuned in to the needs  and fickleness of children.  They don’t freak out when a child starts banging the salt cellar on the table or spills orange juice on the floor.

Yet this kind of focus on the needs of children and families is still very much the exception rather than the rule in many restaurants I’ve visited.  Given that, at least during the day, there’s a good chance that families as much as couples or groups are going to be coming through the door, you would have thought owners and managers would have cottoned on. It’s pretty basic.

In contrast, in countries such as Spain or Italy you generally find restaurants are far more geared up to children.

I suspect that the reason that so many restaurants don’t adapt to children is that they don’t really want them there. Either that or they are too blinkered or lazy to do anything to make the experience more enjoyable for them, and their parents.

Yet, as McDonald’s discovered a long time ago, there’s money to be made in being child friendly.  If you make yourself more friendly to children, then you make yourself more friendly to their parents.