Thursday, 11 February 2010

Leon, Spitalfields

Leon Restaurants and I go back a long way. Back, in fact, to the first few weeks of the first restaurant opening on Great Marlborough Street, when a group of us enjoyed one of the earliest stabs at providing a dinner service in what had until then been only a daytime destination. Unprepared for the high demand, two of Leon's three co-founders, Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, found themselves press ganged into providing waiter service - which they did with great charm and charming inefficiency - while the third member of the founding triumvirate, Allegra McEvedy, took charge in the kitchen.

I loved Leon from the off; the unique food offering - healthy fast food - and the cracking quality of it; the quirkiness of the decor with its photos of the founders' families; and the feeling of being a member of a very groovy but very egalitarian club. I remember feeling then, very strongly, that Leon would be a success and would not stay a single-shop affair for long. Since then I've eaten many a time at many a Leon; when last autumn I joined Henry and friends to celebrate Leon's fifth birthday, it was at their vast Ludgate Circus flagship, one of the nine-and-counting strong chain that that single-shop affair has grown into.  

Tonight's dinner, with my long-time fellow Leon-lover Kate, was at the Spitalfields branch, a large space in the shiny new restaurant complex which replaced - controversially - a large swathe of the old market. It's a nice room, decked out in Leon's signature style of bold colours, refectory-style tables and chairs, and walls adorned with homely books, photos and travel paraphernalia. A particular quirk is the communal toilet, which divides opinion if not the sexes. 

We'd chosen this branch over our usual - the original - to check out the new menu which Leon are in the process of introducing. The 'new' menu, it transpires, is in fact the old menu served in grazing portions; the Emperor has new clothes, but in smaller sizes. There are ten dishes to choose from, all Mediterranean or north African-influenced and all about £4, a half dozen sides - though how 'grazing dishes' can have 'sides' is a mystery to me - and the same selection of full size soups, salads and wraps as is available throughout the day. There are no main courses as such, so if grazing isn't your thing, you're done for. 

Fortunately Kate and I are not averse to grazing and recognised most of our favourite dishes, albeit miniaturised, on the £25 'Feasting' menu. There's also a slightly smaller 'Classic' set menu at £23; a quick mental tot-up worked out each offers a saving of about 10%. Both are heavy on meat and there's no veggie alternative, which I thought was quite a serious omission. Most of what we ate was very good; chilli con carne was rich and punchy, the grilled chorizo was salty and gorgeously chewy, and Leon mash of sweet potatoes and carrots was unctuous and comforting. Moroccan meatballs, and hummus with Greek flatbread, both Leon staples, were excellent. Less successful was chilli chicken, the dark, cheap thigh meat used tasting almost gamey, and garlic and chilli broccoli which tasted only of broccoli. 

Unsurprisingly, we were too stuffed to contemplate puddings but I can vouch from past experience that the brownie with organic ice cream and lemon and ginger crunch are both sinfully delicious. There's a decent if unexciting wine list, all Old World and with one or two choices available by the 500ml carafe; we chose the one rosé, a L'Emage Shiraz at £15, which was fine. A range of refreshing sounding long drinks, both alcoholic and non, is on offer for non-wine drinkers.

Staff are universally polite and friendly, if engaged only to bring things to your table; along with the 'new' menu, Leon has adopted a new service model, Nando's style, of ordering at the counter with ones table number. I don't like this, but I'm sure there are reasons for it. Our set menu and wine came to under £40, which for the quantity we'd enjoyed and the quality of both the food and its presentation felt very reasonable. Note that if you want to leave a tip - for example, if the food has been brought to your table with particular efficiency - you'll need to find a way of doing it; no money changes hands at your table as bills are paid at the counter and there's no visible tip jar or similar.

I'll declare here, to avoid any accusations of shilling, that I do know Henry moderately well, but my role throughout our acquaintance has always been one of critical parent to his bouncing culinary baby. Leon's come in for a bit of flak lately from some quarters; the food has been criticised as bland - it's not, although much it does rely more on aromatics than seasoning - and the publication recently of comprehensive nutritional information caused more than a few raised eyebrows, mine included, at the calorie content of several dishes. But for all that there may have been growing pains, Leon is a fantastic endeavour, still miles ahead of any competitor for quality, consistency and innovation, and deserves to continue to grow and thrive.

Leon, 3 Crispin PlaceLondon E1 6DW Tel: 020 7247 4369

Leon on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Monday, 1 February 2010


Think of ‘dinner and a show’ and you’re most likely to conjure up images of taking your mum to a matinee followed by an early supper somewhere swanky – Les Mis then Sheekey’s always works for Mother Wright – or for the really cosmopolitan among you, of watching les girls at the Crazy Horse on Avenue George V in Paris while nibbling côtelets d’agneau. You’re less likely, I would wager, to envisage feasting on bone marrow and snails before watching a three-piece transgender ‘frockabilly’ band in a converted warehouse in Hackney. But that’s exactly what I experienced last weekend at Bistrotheque, and what an enjoyable experience it was.

When it first opened about five years ago, Bistrotheque was that rarest of entities: something completely new, at least to London. While multi-purpose restaurant and cabaret spaces have been around for centuries, Bistrotheque eschewed the safe formula of mediocre, over-priced food matched with predictable, traditional entertainment and instead founded itself as a space for alternative, challenging performance, with the option of fine dining in its attractive restaurant space.

To add to its uniqueness, Bistrotheque opened in what was then – and to be honest, remains – the middle of nowhere, adopting one can only assume the bold mantra of ‘If we build it, they will come’. Come they did, and still do; Bistrotheque was an instant hit with the fashionable east London crowd and on the Saturday night we visited was doing a roaring trade despite its isolation.

The lure for us – myself, Alyn, Elaine, birthday boy PJ and his husband Michael – was the aforementioned frockabilly band, The Frantastics, fronted by Frances, erstwhile hostess of the temporarily-homeless Club Lola. While it’s perfectly possible to just come for the show (and I would highly recommend that you do come), the chance to make an evening of it and enjoy dinner beforehand was very welcome. I’m glad we did take the chance, because the dining experience was, bar a few glitches, very good.

There’s a choice of two dining rooms, the all-white, vaulted-ceilinged main room and the smaller, more intimate wood-panelled Oak Room. Wanting to celebrate PJ’s big day with some degree of privacy we opted for the latter, and were given a large, attractively dressed table in the centre of the charming candlelit room. The menu – printed, with immense practicality, on one’s place setting – reads appealingly; it’s modern, fashionable bistro fare as you’d expect from a modern, fashionable bistro.

I loved my starter of bone marrow, sautéed snails, frisee and toast, a generous helping of inch-thick cross sections of bone each oozing with rich, butter-soft marrow which paired deliciously with the garlicky snails and bitter leaves. A starter of mixed beetroot salad, herbs, orange and horseradish, chosen by all of the rest of the table, divided opinion. While one described it as ‘the perfect starter’, both ‘aesthetically pleasing’ and ‘soothing’ (sorry to go all Zagat on you here with the inverted commas, but I’m quoting from an email), another found the dish to be short on flavour and overly dry, ‘similar to eating a prettily coloured piece of card’.

Mains were universally liked. My steak tartare with chips and green salad was excellent, although the salad had to be replaced as it was so over-salted as to be inedible (who on Earth salts salad? I wondered). Alyn’s half roast chicken with garlic and wild rocket was a simple success, the meat moist, succulent and just fragranced with the garlic. Roast sea bass with creamed leeks, crab, tomatoes and gremolata was pronounced ‘simply delicious’ by PJ, and the two vegetarians at the table highly praised the fennel and oregano gratin, baked flat mushrooms and Taleggio. There’s clearly an expert touch being deployed in the kitchen, the subtle layering of textures and flavours in every dish showing both skill and imagination.

It being a birthday there had of course to be cake, and I had pre-arranged a chocolate and raspberry one which was brought to the table with the candles and fanfare requisite of such occasions. Once the candles had been blown out it was taken away and, at no extra charge, re-plated as individual portions with some excellent vanilla ice-cream. I thought this showed great generosity on the venue’s part, and was a real highlight of the meal. We tried additionally a fruit crumble and crème brulée, both of which were tooth-janglingly over-sweet; viz the green salad, somewhere among the commis chefs there’s a heavy-handedness which needs addressing.

Drinks were all pink; we started off with a bottle or two of a lovely light Prosecco rosé, before moving on to a 2008 Cotes de Provence, Domaine Gavoty Melopée which proved a successful match for our many and varied food choices. The wine list is strong, mostly French, and like the food ungreedily-priced. Tap water was offered and constantly replenished, earning extra brownie points. Service throughout was delightful, with special mention going to restaurant manager Jason who accommodated my extremely demanding table requirements and miscellaneous enquiries with charm and enthusiasm.

The bill, for three courses, lakes of good wine and 12.5% optional service which we were very glad to pay, came to about £60 a head; with less wine than we put away and sans the birthday cake you could get away for much less. That figure also included our entrance to the show, which for the record was just fabulous. Frances, Lauren and Jenny - the fantastic Frantastics – entertained us and a packed room with a foot-stomping, barn-storming set of covers and original material, including the oh-so-contemporary ‘I Fell In Love In A Chatroom’ – check it out on the Frantastics' website.

Michelin – an infinitely more respectable and reliable restaurant guide than this - says of its highest-scoring three star restaurants that they are worth not just a detour, but the journey itself. Given Bistrotheque’s location, you have little choice but to make a special journey, not to mention a few detours, to get there, but while I’m not sure it’s quite the sort of place I’ll be bringing Mother Wright in a hurry, I’ll certainly be making the journey again before too long.

Bistrotheque, 23-27 Wadeson Street, London, E2 9DR. Tel: 020 8983 7900

Bistrotheque on Urbanspoon

Square Meal
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