Wednesday, 30 September 2009

twelvepointfivepercent - no more?

I'm absolutely delighted to hear that D&D restaurants, owners of (among many others) my beloved Skylon, have taken the bold and very welcome step of abolishing the addition of a 'discretionary' 12.5% service to bills across all their 20-strong restaurant portfolio. That the move coincides with October 1st's change in the law whereby restaurants will have to pay staff the minimum wage before tips is bound to attract cynical comment. But in my view this makes it an even smarter move on D&D's part, as it throws down the gauntlet to other restaurateurs, be they owners of one or one hundred venues, to admit what diners have known all along but been too polite to challenge: that 'discretionary' service charges are nothing to do with rewarding good service and everything to do with topping up wait staff's meagre salaries.

It remains to be seen whether, and if so how quickly, other restaurants will follow suit, but we can certainly all do our part to ensure they do by plucking up the courage to exercise our discretion not to blindly pay the 12.5% service but instead to ask that it be deducted and tip instead in cash. You can still leave 12.5% - for excellent service you may even want to leave more, for mediocre service, less - but it makes the point that actual 'discretion' means leaving the choice of how much to tip entirely to the customer. Waiting staff shouldn't lose out; they'll be getting paid more anyway (hopefully - of course there will be unscrupulous employers who try to avoid their legal obligations but this is true in any industry) and rather than having their wages topped up by tips, any offering from customers will now be additional to their earnings. The addition of service to bills has never been about ensuring staff get a fair tip or saving customers the hassle of calculating service; it has only ever been about enabling restaurants to reduce their wage bill at their customers' expense and D&D deserve a round of applause for blazing the abolition trail.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Andy Campbell @ 23 Romilly Street

Latest News - January 2010: I was sorry to learn that this restaurant is no longer in businessdue to the closure of the private members club in which it was housed. However, I'm delighted to learn that Andy and Alessandra have taken on the restaurant Stanza nearby and hope to have it up and running by mid-February 2010. Naturally I will be bringing you a review of the new location as soon as possible, and in the meantime I wish Andy & Alessandra the very best of luck settling in at Stanza.

 I'm only too aware of the fact that my reviews of late haven't been about anywhere particularly thrilling; chains, cheap eats and revisits to old haunts don't exactly make for interesting reading (but if you have been reading, thank you nonetheless). So, it's really exciting to be able to write about somewhere new, special and absolutely, flawlessly fabulous. I'm calling it Andy Campbell @ 23 Romilly Street because (statement of the bleeding obvious alert) the chef is Andy Campbell and his restaurant is located at the new-ish private members' club at 23 Romilly Street in Soho. I don't know if that actually is the name; there's no sign, no branding on the menus and certainly no logos anywhere in the place, but this seemingly unintentional anonymity only adds to my delight at having found it, apparently before other food bloggers have got in on the act.

How I found this exquisite jewel of a restaurant is a story in itself. A few months back, after a night at the theatre with Elaine my glamorous fashion designer friend and her really-quite-famous film star boyfriend Jerome, Alyn and I bundled off at Jerome's invitation to his friend Frances's club night for tranvestites, transexuals and friends, called Lola, downstairs at 23 Romilly Street (if you followed all of that sentence and are with me so far, then ten points to you). It was one of those madly wonderful, spontaneous nights where we found ourselves having the time of our lives in a place where we would normally never have gone but afterwards couldn't wait to go back to. Fast forward to last week and we finally found ourselves having arranged to go back, but this time with Alyn fully cross-dressed as his feminine alter-ego Sivade. Now here's a uniquely modern dilemma: where can one go for dinner, and feel comfortable, and not be hassled, with a stunning 6'6" transvestite and a man who can't walk down the street in L.A. without being mobbed by sci-fi fans? The answer, it transpired after some discrete inquiry, is Andy Campbell, handily situated just a couple of flights upstairs from Lola.

OK, I'm doing an A.A. Gill here and going all around the houses without actually saying anything about the restaurant, so let's get down to business. Firstly, the welcome: Alessandra, Andy's partner in life and business, greeted us warmly without so much as a quiver let alone a bat of an eyelid and showed us to our window table in the dark wood-panelled, dimly chandelier-lit room. It's a very attractive, L-shaped space, sumptuously carpeted and adorned with an eclectic range of art from modern abstracts to a marvellous oil of HM The Queen. There are only about half a dozen tables, making this a thoroughly intimate space, and the couple of other tables that were occupied had as diners a very well-known tailor and a similarly celebrated jeweller - as much royalty in Soho as Elizabeth II herself. We ordered cocktails from a long and tempting list, and the long-ish wait for them was fully justified by the knowledge that they had to be fetched from two floors down from the cocktail bar run by world cocktail legend Dick Bradsell. The wait gave us plenty of time to consider the menu, a fairly concise affair with a strong emphasis on modern European cuisine and home manufacture, mostly classic dishes but with one or two genuinely unique home-grown creations.

One such of the latter was my and Elaine's choice of starter. Ask yourself, have you ever had - or ever even thought of wanting - a salad of feta, mint, fennel, strawberries, poppy seeds and lemon oil? No of course you haven't, and why would you? On paper it's an utterly ridiculous, disparate, inharmonious combination which all sounds a bit Celebrity Masterchef. But we went ahead and tried it because, not in spite, of its utter bonkers-ness and were very glad we did, because it was genius. Salty cheese, tangy fruit, punchy fresh herbs and savoury seeds all combined deliciously with the slick of citrus oil to stimulate every taste bud. Less crazy but just as good were Sivade and Jerome's choices of chicken liver parfait - a generous, mousse-y, obviously home-made swirl of it - and Caesar salad, a fresh, unfussy, perfectly-executed example of this too-often bastardised classic.

Mains were similarly super. Elaine, the solitary veggie in the group, loved her goats cheese and red onion tart, chosen from the starters and made up into a main by the addition of some tasty herb salad, while Jerome enjoyed a huge serving of confit chicken leg with dauphinoise potatoes and green beans. I wolfed down my whole baked sea bream with sweet potato and chorizo mash, loving every mouthful of tender white fish and rich, spicy potato, but perhaps the biggest success of all was Sivade's home-made Merguez sausages with cous-cous, a trio of coarse meaty delights atop a mound of light, fruity grains which found favour even though, as the lady herself put it, "I don't usually like cous cous". All of this was served at a leisurely, well-judged pace by the utterly beautiful, husky-voiced Alessandra. My only slight grizzle about the otherwise excellent menu selections available on our visit would be that apart from the decadent (and no doubt delicious) fillet of beef for two at £45, there was no red meat on the menu; I'd have liked to see a steak or maybe lamb choice to complement the fish and poultry options.

By the time we'd enjoyed our cocktails, two courses and a few bottles - was it two? Three? - of a very pleasant French Sauvignon Blanc (at a very reasonable £17 a bottle), time had imperceptibly flown by at such a rate that we had to sacrifice desserts in favour of making it downstairs to Lola before the bar shut. No delay though in awaiting the bill; Alessandra bade us to go on down and said that she would bring us the bill, to which we could add our drinks at Lola and pay all together, another example of the superlative service which typified the evening. As for that bill; well, with all the food, far more drink than was necessary and of course 12.5% service, we escaped for around £40 a head - neither cheap nor expensive, but perfectly reasonable. This was one of those rare restaurant experiences though where, to be honest, the cost was irrelevant; in a time when restaurants come and go at an alarming pace and customer service and innovation have become secondary to profit margins and up-selling, one can't put a price on places like Andy Campbell where everything - food, service, ambience and experience - come together so perfectly and so, well, deliciously.

I started this blog to share my dining experiences with anyone who might be interested, and for my own enjoyment even if no-one else ever read a single word. Finding a gem like this one, and being able to share it with an audience however small, makes the whole endeavour worthwhile.

Details of Stanza, Andy & Alessandra's new restaurant, can be found at Andy Campbell at 23 Romilly Street on Urbanspoon

Friday, 11 September 2009

When Restaurants Bite Back

I had one of the most incredible meals of my life at Trattoria San Giacomo in Bellagio, Italy last year. Although I must declare a vested interest in knowing the owners, it's safe to say that this didn't blur or soften my opinions: Aurelio Gandola is a straight-talking, no-nonsense kind of guy and if I hadn't loved everything I ate I would have told him so and he would have taken my views on board. But that's not necessary when the food is of such an amazing, elevated standard - I can still remember every mouthful now over a year later, and how many meals can you say that of? I wrote about it here:

Understandably then, I was extremely angry to hear that a couple of months back, Aurelio received a very nasty, threatening letter from someone purporting to be an 'Associate Food Editor' of the New York Times. Despite eating every mouthful and paying the bill without demur, a Mr Roy Kaluzshner and his wife considered their meal at Trattoria San Giacomo to be 'the worst of their life' and demanded a refund - on pain of spreading the word far and wide that the restaurant was to be avoided. All over a bill of €18.

Now as I've said, Aurelio is a straight-talking, no-nonsense kind of guy; he's also - for the record - generous, kind-hearted, decent, and devoted to his family and wife-to-be Sarah. Understandably he wasn't to be intimidated by a 25-year-old idiot Yank who believes that threatening to destroy a small business is an acceptable way of resolving dissatisfaction. He posted the letter, in its entirety, on the restaurant's website - and his own, open letter in response. I reproduce the exchange for you here, and urge you to share it with as many people as you can, other food bloggers, newspapers, websites, Facebook and so on, firstly so that people can see what kind of person Roy Kaluzshner is, and secondly to share this beautiful example of what happens when a restaurant bites back at the critics...

Open letter to my customers

I am writing this open letter in response to a complaint I received on 2nd July 2009 at my trattoria, San Giacomo in Bellagio on Lake Como. On this evening two customers came to my restaurant for dinner. They ordered a pasta of Tagliolini al Missoltino, a dried pasta served with local sundried lakefish and a grilled Lavarello with salad, another lakefish popular for its extremely delicate flavour. The customers finished both plates and after having eaten everything complained that the pasta was overcooked. Unfortunately as the pasta had been eaten I could not comment or taste it, however I did offer a dessert or Limoncello. These were turned down.After having paid the bill the customers left a note on the bottom of the bill: "Worst meal on a 2-week trip to Italy! My wife cried, and she is a chef!"

This reaction seems a little exaggerated but obviously there is little that one can do when the customer finishes the meal, pays the bill and leaves. The customers on the next table read this message and having paid their bill left another one for me. It reads: "The Carbonara was so tasty…my son cried with joy!" The next morning, our dissatisfied customer returned with another, much longer letter. Here is the transcription:

"To the Owner, Manager, Chef:I am writing this letter to you at 11:30pm, 1 hour after leaving your restaurant for THE WORST MEAL OF MY LIFE! My wife and I have been in Italy for the past 2 weeks (and have both been on this Earth for 25 years each), and we have literally never had a more disappointing meal than we had tonight at your restaurant. I have never felt the need to write a letter like this before, but the meal actually made my wife cry because she wasn't able to eat it. Granted, she is a chef and has pretty high standards, but even I was disgusted at paying money for the food, and I don't even feel that way about McDonald's, Burger King, or the airplane pasta meal that Delta served me on the flight to Italy. My wife's dish ("homemade Tagliateli [sic] with a fish sauce") was extremely overcooked, had no taste of fish, and was probably not homemade, even though we were told that it was. My dish (fresh fish of the day) was not seasoned or salted at all, and was the most bland and tasteless thing I have tasted in this wonderful country. Even the olive oil was awful, and my wife and I have basically drowned our bread in olive oil at every other restaurant on this trip. The only redeeming qualities of the restaurant were the water, wine, bread, and service. We paid €15 for the wine, €2 for the water, €8 for the pasta and €10 for the fish…and we feel cheated for the €18 we spent on the food. We were even offered a free dessert/limòncelo and declined it because we were so desperate to escape the restaurant for some gelato. Our last night in Lake Como was ruined by your awful meal, and we request that you reimburse us for our food cost (18 euro = $25 us dollars).

You can mail us a check to: [address deleted] If we do not receive the check by July 15th, 2009, we will begin to post honest reviews of the restaurant on every website imaginable. Frommer's, Trip Advisor, Chowhound, Fodders,, etc. We will also write to all the publishers of the major travel books (Rick Steeves, Let's Go: Italy, Lonely Planet, etc), asking them to make sure that future tourists stay away from your restaurant! Not to mention, I am associate Food Editor at the NY Times, and will personally feature your restaurant in the "Tourist Traps: Avoid!" section of the Food Review. With over 1.5 million subscribers, I think it would be safe to say that the word would be out. Please consider my offer, and please improve the quality of your food! Food is a wonderful thing, and should never be served the way it was tonight. I only ate it to make my wife feel better and I regret not walking out after the first bite!

Your customer, Roy Kaluzshner"

I obviously have a copy of the original letter if anybody is interested in seeing it. Now, please let me explain a few things. My restaurant is actually a Trattoria, this is not the same thing. A trattoria serves very simple food that you would find on your plate at home, no fuss, no sauce, just the raw product cooked in the most basic way possible. A dish you could remake at home. Lavarello is a lakefish that is relatively bland compared to seafish, ask any local and they will confirm this. However, Bellagio is on Lake Como and this is a traditional dish that is served in everyone's home and also in nearly every restaurant on the Lake. We grill the fresh fish as it comes and serve it with a salad (no dressing) and leave the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper on the table for the customer to season as he or she wishes. I serve approximately 150 lavarello a week in my restaurant and my family has done for the past 35 years. This is the first complaint I have received for this particular dish.

At this point I would also like to point out that the olive oil in Italy firstly is not meant to go on the bread, but on the salad. As a consequence of many foreigners "drowning their bread in olive oil" many places now charge a cover charge. Do not be mistaken into thinking that olive oil is cheap because we live in Italy! The fact that many Italians ask me where this oil is produced so that they can buy it says enough to me. Dare I say that Italians may know best on this one? I do not charge a cover charge like most people, the Extra Virgin Olive Oil poured all over the customers' bread is done at my expense not theirs, so if they want a higher quality oil they should look for a "ristorante", not a trattoria. Missoltino on the other hand is a tradition only to Lake Como. The fish is called "agone" and the method of sundrying it in tins for 3 months creates a very salty flavour. It is certainly not a dish we recommend to everyone for its unusual and strong flavour. Actually to most foreign tourists we advise AGAINST it. This is a dish we serve mostly to the locals who are already familiar with the flavour. We serve our Missoltino with fresh tomato and dried tagliolini pasta. Nowhere on the menu does it state that this dish is served with fresh, homemade pasta. It strikes me as strange that the customer's wife who must be a fantastic chef does not know the difference between fresh and dried pasta. If she wanted fresh pasta she could have chosen from many other dishes on offer, like our fresh HOMEMADE fettuccine. Our customer actually removed the pieces of Missoltino and left them on the side of the plate and ate the pasta so the complaint about lack of fish and overcooked pasta simply does not stand. Again, without having been given the chance to taste for myself I do not know for sure. What I do know for sure is that if the pasta was overcooked and the customer had advised one of the waiters, I would have changed it.

How two 25 year olds can teach a trattoria that has been serving its locals for the past 35 years with the same dishes can possibly assume they know better is nothing short of absurd. My trattoria has a capacity of 30 people indoors and 12 outdoors. The next evening I had 29 locals sitting down for dinner. This speaks volumes, far more than two young Americans who think they know the Lake cuisine better than me. My mother is 70 years old and still cooks in the restaurant. I invite any future tourists to come and speak to any of my foreign and local customers to get the real story. I am Italian, from Bellagio and very proud of my work and trattoria. I do not accept lightly this kind of threat/ blackmail and am willing to take this matter further. I will pass on this letter to all of the named websites and guidebooks (the customer by the way has also underestimated these people, Rick Steve for example has eaten in my restaurant so he does not just advise people on hearsay). I will let people judge for themselves. My trattoria has appeared in many newspapers and guidebooks for a good reason. If this customer really is a food critic, I suggest he changes career. Apart from judging a restaurant on just two dishes, it is all too simple to complain and threaten people with no basis just to get a free dinner.

I, just like my customer have never felt the need to write a letter like this before, but this is slander and I will not accept this kind of behaviour and repeat am happy to take this matter further if need be.I thank you for your time reading this letter and any feedback would be most gratefully received.

Yours, Aurelio Gandola, Trattoria San Giacomo

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Palm Court Brasserie

Ordinarily, Palm Court Brasserie in Covent Garden isn't the sort of place I'd go. On a touristy street in a touristy part of town, overlooking the busker-infested hell of the Piazza, it's aimed firmly at the visitor who, seeking brasserie staples in nice surroundings at fair-ish prices, hasn't had the good fortune to stumble on a branch of Brown's (more on which topic later). That said, I'll give anywhere a whirl when there's free food on offer and having accrued enough Toptable Rewards points for a free dinner for two, with Palm Court being one of the venues where the offer could be redeemed, Andrew and I decided to give it a shot. My expectations weren't especially high and it's not being deliberately uncharitable to say that my expectations were met.

That's not to say that there's anything at all wrong with Palm Court. Notwithstanding that I was less than impressed when my pointing out that our table was wobblier than a Crossroads set was met with the response 'Yes they're all like that', service was fine, although Andrew had to reassure me that it shouldn't worry me so much that the adjacent table had to wait what seemed like aeons for their main courses, whereas ours appeared mere seconds after our starters had been cleared away. The decor's none too bad either, in a harmless Paris-by-numbers kind of way, although lighting fell on the squinting side of subdued.

As for the food, it was fair-to-middling for the most part; not bad for a freebie but perhaps not the best showcase for what the kitchen can do (which I would have thought to be the reasoning for offering these reward meals - to impress people enough to want to come back, or perhaps I'm oversimplifying things?) Andrew's starter, a Greek-ish salad of feta, tomato and spinach, was fresh and colourful on the plate; mine, a very ordinary, bought-in chicken liver parfait with toasted brioche (chewy) and onion marmalade - about a teaspoon thereof - was alright but certainly didn't justify a £2 supplement. We got luckier with our mains, both opting for braised gammon ham with mash and grain mustard sauce, which was very pleasant if a little more pub-grub than brasserie-fare. Puddings, from the main menu, were good if not great; Andrew's sticky toffee pudding elicited a 'very nice', and my cheese plate was good on choice and quality but let down by no warning being given that the promised quince paste accompaniment - one of my favourite things - had run out.

When the bill came, our one extra course each, bottle of house red, side dish of green beans and 12.5% service had added £20 a head to our starting balance of £0 - quite a hike. Still not too bad for a three course dinner you might say, but ultimately I can't not compare Palm Court Brasserie with the vastly superior Brown's. I've been eating at Brown's rather a lot of late - it's pretty much become my default destination for casual, quality dining - and everything has been consistently excellent (OK, some duff shallot vinegar with my oysters let things down a little bit the other day, if you really want me to get picky). What's even better is that if you register as a 'Friend of Brown's' on their website right now, you can download a reuseable voucher entitling two people to a two course dinner including a bottle of house wine for just £29. Even adding a couple of puds won't push that figure too far north of the £40 we ended up shelling out at Palm Court for an experience that just wasn't as good.

Joe Public however can't seem to get enough of Palm Court Brasserie; whether it's the special offers, or the location, or some seriously good food that just didn't reach our table this time, something brings the punters flocking in - the entire room was completely packed, with vacated tables being reoccupied in rapid succession. And with that level of business, it's clear that the ones really reaping the Rewards here aren't the Toptable faithful, but the people behind Palm Court Brasserie.

Palm Court Brasserie, 39 King Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 8JS tel: 020 7240 2939>Palm Court Brasserie on Urbanspoon

Brown's, 47 Maddox Street, London W1R 9LA and branches.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Feng Sushi

Well my new found love of Ping Pong (see ‘Chains Round-Up’) looks set to be short-lived: wanting a quick bit of sustenance before sitting through two hours of Phèdre at the National Theatre, Simon B and I popped into the South Bank branch only to be told that despite all visual evidence to the contrary (i.e: empty seats aplenty) there would be a wait of half an hour for a table. Not by us there wouldn’t be; neither of us had any intention of risking indigestion with Helen Mirren and Dominic Cooper waiting for us, so off we buggered to Feng Sushi a few doors down and - dreadful name notwithstanding – it wasn’t a bad performance.

It has to be said that for a casual diner – generic modern-Oriental elements including white walls, bare wooden tables and disposable chopsticks all present and correct – the menu struck me as being not only fairly expensive, but also haphazardly priced. The wide but incohesive range of starters, bento boxes and sushi and sashimi in both selections and individual servings roller-coastered from four or five quid to around £20, eschewing the familiar pricing structure of comparable places such as Satsuma and Wagamama where the distance from cheapest to dearest dish is no further than about a fiver.

Stability was better however in the main courses section, where from a short selection all around the £12 mark Simon and I both chose ‘Japanese Fish and Chips’ for £11, three fat goujons of cod tempura served with hand-cut potato and sweet potato chips. It was a hefty portion - never a bad thing in my book – and completely delicious. The full-flavoured cod retained all its firmness under the light crunchy batter and was accompanied perfectly by a generous mound of tasty, chunky chips, sweet chilli dip and Feng Sushi’s own special, herby mayonnaise. It was a clever, well-executed take on a quintessentially British dish, and something I’d definitely go back for.

And speaking of quintessentially British dishes of which I’d most definitely like a large portion, Dominic Cooper as Hippolytus was amazing – brooding, angst-y, strong and – in a little black singlet and army trousers - tastier even than cod tempura.

Feng Sushi, Unit 9, Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 8XX and branches tel: 020 7261 0001

Feng Sushi on Urbanspoon
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