Saturday, 27 April 2013

Brigade Bar & Bistro

At risk of being accused of platitudinous middle-class hand-wringing - the dreaded #firstworldproblems - I've been thinking a lot lately about the ethics of eating out.

This week The Trussell Trust announced the biggest ever annual increase in use of its UK foodbanks, just as many London foodies were getting in a tizz over yet another new restaurant where the cheapest option is a £45, six-course tasting menu. Some of us are agonising over whether to go for  6 or 10 courses at lunch; some of us are agonising over whether we will eat at all today. 
Never, that I can recall in my lifetime, has the gulf between 'haves' and 'have-nots' seemed so painfully wide.

But I'm not about to say that eating out, and enjoying it, is wrong, or immoral; it'd be vastly over-simplifying matters, not to mention hypocritical of me, to say that because some people can't afford to eat, those who can should feel bad about it. What I would say however is that where an opportunity presents itself to support disadvantaged people while stuffing our faces, it is - I think - incumbent on us, at least occasionally, to take it.

Brigade Bar & Bistro, on Tooley Street, presents just such an opportunity. A social enterprise offering six-month apprenticeships to people who have experienced or are at risk of homelessness, Brigade supports the Beyond Food Foundation which helps apprentices into careers in catering and hospitality. It's a similar principle to Jamie Oliver's Fifteen - which celebrates ten years in business this year - but, lacking as high-profile a figurehead as the ubiquitous Jamie O, is rather less well-known.

To deal first with the only thing I really couldn't bring myself to love about Brigade, the dining room is not going to win any design awards any time soon. Although the room has as its focal point a fashionable open kitchen, the decor is harsh and dated with cream pleather chairs and fake flowers doing nothing to diminish the impression of having walked into a suburban budget hotel with airs, not a smart modern restaurant in an increasingly-happening part of London. It's noisy too; the shrieks of a large group ricocheting off every hard surface made it at times hard to hear or think on my visit. The rest of the building, which houses private dining and meeting rooms, a cookery school and offices is, by contrast, rather chic.

Fortunately that's where the gripes end because the food - which is, ultimately, what it's all about - is very good, and certainly well above the standard one might expect from a brigade of mostly chefs-in-training. Bar a couple of minor, and in the circumstances excusable, glitches, old school-friend David and I each enjoyed three pretty much perfect courses.

To start, David chose Wiltshire venison carpaccio, each deep red petal carved carefully to a uniform thinness and served with aged Old Winchester cheese, a clever British substitution for the usual Parmesan. My sardine tart, from the daily specials, was beautifully presented, two plump glistening silver fillets framed by puff pastry. The fish tasted deliciously fresh, its natural oiliness balanced by the crispness of the pastry.

David's main course of pan-fried lemon sole was, as my sardines had been, impeccably good fish, firm textured but delicate, although the lemon butter it was served in didn't taste of lemon at all and could have used a more generous whack of citrus. My chicken mousse-stuffed breast of guinea fowl was excellent, the mousse sufficiently boldly-flavoured as to  not be overwhelmed by the game. Guinea fowl is all too often overcooked to dryness; not so here. 

Sides were interesting but needed tweaking; deep-fried broccoli with a small bowl of rustic tomato and white bean stew was tasty stuff, notwithstanding slightly clumpy batter on the broccoli, but was such a huge serving that it would have been better offered as a starter than a side-order - a surfeit of food can be as bad as a lack. Roasted beetroot, cumin seeds and honey meanwhile used lovely earthy beets but I couldn't detect any cumin, by taste or sight, leading me to wonder if it had been left out altogether.

Desserts were a highlight. Caramelised apple tart - tarte aux pommes a l'alsacienne in anywhere less proudly flying the flag for all things British than Brigade - with Calvados ice-cream was a textbook assembly of thinly-sliced apple fanned around a crisp, fine base, while white chocolate and raspberry crème brûlée was luxuriously unctuous without being overly rich.

Helped by the fact that service was faultlessly polished and polite and despite the decor and noise, David and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The food was mostly very impressive, if in places lacking nuance and finesse - the unlemony lemon butter, the missing cumin - which can of course be excused knowing that the chefs here are learning on the job and will only do so by making mistakes. That said, the pricing at Brigade is pretty punchy with starters at £5.95-£10.50, mains at £14.95-£28.50 and desserts £5.50-£7.95, so one might not unreasonably expect (even) better. David felt that I was being harsh on this point and that if the money spent at Brigade is going to support good work - which it plainly is - then the pricing was justified.

Which brings us neatly back to my original point, and the one that I would ask you to take a moment to reflect on, namely that while there is of course no reason for us to stop going out and having lovely expensive meals just because 346,992 people received a minimum of three days emergency food from Trussell Trust foodbanks in 2012-13, wouldn't it be great if, just occasionally, we could find a way of doing it that benefits others? Thanks to Brigade, we can.

Brigade, The Fire Station, 139 Tooley Street, London SE1 2HZ Tel: 0844 346 1225

Brigade Bar & Bistro on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Another very worthwhile campaign I'm supporting:

Posted by +Hugh Wright

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Nuremberg - A City Guide

Indelibly associated with the Reichsparteitag - Nuremberg Rallies - and the trials held there after World War II, Nuremberg in 2013 is a city mindful of its sombre role in history but not defined by it. Earlier this year I travelled to Nuremberg as a guest of the city’s bi-annual Fashion Days festival and found a forward-looking city rich with some of Germany’s best museums, delicious food, colourful markets and lively nightlife, making it the perfect destination for a stylish alternative city break.

A (handsome, nearly-shirtless...) model at Fashion Days
A (handsome, nearly-shirtless...) model at Fashion Days
About Fashion Days: A three-day extravaganza taking place in spring and autumn, Fashion Days brings together Nuremberg’s top designer and high street stores as well as labels from further afield for a roster of runway shows, pop-up boutiques, networking and glamorous after-parties. 

Taking a different theme each time - March 2013’s event was cleverly and meticulously styled to pay homage to London’s fashion scene - Fashion Days makes the kind of shows usually only accessible to industry insiders available to all, brilliantly democratising and demystifying fashion without stripping away any of the elegance. 

I fell hard for the edgy street style and pimped tailoring shown by department store WÖHRL’s concept line U-eins and the beautifully-tailored avant-garde collection by CHANG13.

Where to stay: The slick, modern Novina Hotel in the nearby town of Herzogenaurach makes an ideal base for a weekend in Nuremberg. As the official team hotel of German premiership team FC Nuremberg, the Novina has a sports theme throughout, not to mention a well-equipped spa and gym where you may find yourself working out next to a Bavarian Beckham. 

Novina Hotel Herzogenaurach Herzo-Base photo by Hugh Wright
Novina Hotel Herzogenaurach Herzo-Base
The immaculate bedrooms have flatscreen TVs, Nespresso machines and free cabled WLAN internet access; wifi is charged at a reasonable €4,95 per 24 hours. Breakfast is included in the room-rate and is a splendid, ample buffet of regional, continental and cooked dishes.

Herzogenaurach is also home to the massive global headquarters of sportswear Titans adidas and Puma - founded by sibling rivals Adolf (Adi) and Rudolf Dasler respectively - and both companies have factory outlets offering incredible bargains on clothing and footwear. Nike also have an outlet store here - Nike Air sneakers start at about €25 - as does fashion retailer s.Oliver, making this a shoppers’ paradise.

The Dokumentationszentrum at the Nuremberg Rally site. Photo by Hugh Wright
The Dokumentationszentrum
History Lessons: The city of Nuremberg has struck a very intelligent balance with regards to how it marks its unfortunate place in history. 

The structurally-unsound grandstands around the Zeppelinfeld parade ground - including the balcony from which Hitler addressed the hundreds of thousands of Nazi party members massed below - can be freely explored at visitors’ own risk, the city lacking neither the volition nor the €70m required to restore them. The likelihood is that with time they will crumble and disappear - a fitting end one might say. 

Contextual information on the events that took place in the city and how they came about can be found in the admirably dispassionate Dokumentationszentrum, a jagged modern building carved into the former Nazi Congress Hall.

Culture Fix: As the country’s largest museum of cultural history, the Germanisches Nationalmuseum is Germany’s answer to London's V&A. Boasting a delightful, eclectic collection of applied arts, clothing, pottery, furniture and art, the Renaissance and Enlightenment galleries are particularly impressive. The museum is accessed via the incredible Straße der Menschenrechte - Way of Human Rights - lined with thirty pillars each engraved with one of the articles of the European Declaration of Human Rights in a different European language.

An exhibit at the Germanischen Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg. Photo by Hugh Wright
An exhibit at the Germanischen Nationalmuseum.
Time To Eat: Nuremberg is famous for its finger-sized Nürnberger rostbratwurst sausages and the city’s signature snack is drei im weckla, three bratwurst served in a crusty roll. Available on almost every street corner from kiosks for €1,50-€2,50, a drei makes for a tasty bite at any time of day. 
For something more substantial, head for the sensational Bratwurst Röslein just off the main marketplace at Rathausplatz 6. The world’s biggest bratwurst restaurant (so they say, and who am I to argue?) serves huge platters of bratwurst and other Bavarian specialities such as schäufele - roast cured pork shoulder - with dumplings and sauerkraut. Share a platter (prices start at around €15,00 per person) and you won’t need to eat again all day. Or indeed all weekend.

Finally, no visit to Nuremberg would be complete without a kaffee und kuchen stop at city-centre institution Cafe Beer at Breite Gasse 79. It's easy to see why this sprawling cafe-bakery, with its vast selection of mouth-watering cakes, pastries and chocolates, has been in business since 1879.
Bratwurst Roslein. Photo by Hugh Wright
The world’s biggest bratwurst restaurant, Bratwurst Roslein
Something Sweet: Nuremberg is known for its spicy, squishy lebkuchen - delicious gingerbread especially popular at Christmas but available all year round from the main Hauptmarkt and various stores including perhaps the city’s finest, Lebkuchen Schmidt. Plain, iced, chocolate-coated and shaped varieties are all sold here, in plain packaging or beautifully elaborate tins which make perfect gifts. Around Easter-time Schmidt also stock Osterbrot, a tasty traditional fruit-loaf that is Nuremberg’s version of panettone.

Nuremberg by Night: With a population of just over half a million, Nuremberg is a fairly quiet city by night but that’s not to mean there’s no nightlife. The city has a number of lively bars and clubs, the best of them being bijou boite 360 at Adlerstraße 36. This tiny club offers an ever-changing series of DJ nights and live acts; it’s worth booking a table to be sure of getting in. If you can’t, the much larger and more commercial Goija at Bahnhofstraße 11 is a safe bet, albeit one with a rather more pretentious crowd.

When to go: Other than for Fashion Days (of course!) Nuremberg is especially worth visiting at Christmas (for the spectacular Christmas market), at Easter, and in autumn for the Old Town Festival. Host to many cultural, sporting and trade events throughout the year, flights and hotels are often at a premium so it’s advisable to plan well ahead to ensure that you get the best rates for accommodation and travel.

Getting there: Nuremberg is well served by airlines from the UK. Direct flights are available with airberlin, City Jet and budget airline Ryanair; Lufthansa and Swiss also fly to Nuremberg via their hubs in Frankfurt and Zurich. I flew from London City Airport with Swiss via Zurich; two of my favourite airports and my favourite airline (they give you chocolate during landing, what’s not to love?) ensured an easy and very pleasant journey in little over two hours.
I travelled to Nuremberg as a guest of Fashion Days, who provided my travel and accommodation, but none of the businesses or locations mentioned in this guide have paid or otherwise provided any incentive for inclusion.
Posted by +Hugh Wright

Thursday, 11 April 2013


Balthazar London interior
One question often asked of best-TV-series-ever-made Buffy The Vampire Slayer was how the citizens of Sunnydale, a town unusually prone to attack from vampires, demons and the occasional robot, seemingly experienced collective amnesia after each new massacre. Die-hard fans however know that this was neatly explained very early on (Season 1, Episode 2, 'The Harvest') when Giles - Buffy's 'Watcher', or guardian - tells the Scoobies that, "People have a tendency to rationalise what they can and forget what they can't."

So with Giles' advice in mind I am writing this as quickly as possible - the morning after the horror of the night before - so that if, as I truly hope I shall, I forget everything that I can't rationalise about dinner at Balthazar, there will at least remain some record of it to warn others away from this Hellmouth of a restaurant.

Balthazar, a huge brasserie occupying the site of the old Theatre Museum just off the piazza in Covent Garden, is a near-carbon copy of the original Balthazar in New York. Why it was thought that what London really needed in 2013 was its own branch of a restaurant that was very fashionable when it opened in 1997 but nowadays is, by most accounts, strictly one for 'out-of-towners' is beyond me, but so are cooking rice and why people find Ricky Gervais funny - I don't pretend to understand everything.

I certainly don't understand what all the fuss is about the room at Balthazar, or the fabled 'buzz'; you will recognise the decor immediately if you have ever been somewhere like Bofinger in Paris, or Cafe Rouge. I am about the thousandth person now to compare Balthazar to a Cafe Rouge, but the comparison is inevitable when the shared 'I've-been-designed-to-look-like-I've-always-been-here' ersatzness is so stark. As for the 'buzz', fill a cavernous room with people and blast middle-of-the-road jazz over the speakers and of course they'll raise their voices to be heard. You say 'buzz', I say 'racket', tomato, tomato.

The menu at Balthazar, London
Already at our table when I arrived early for our booking, dinner-date Matthew explained that he had fled the adjacent bar because of over-crowding; an unwelcome import from New York is the notion that herding diners cheek-by-jowl into a holding pen before being allowed to have their dinner builds excitement, a theory as flawed as the belief that administering fear-hormone adrenaline to veal calves before slaughter will make the meat taste better.

To the eating. I cannot rationalise how a restaurant jointly operated by Keith McNally - a man who in countless, angst-soaked pre-opening interviews stressed how much of a 'perfectionist' he is - and Caprice Holdings, a company whose restaurants, almost without exception, I love, could allow such mediocre (and in the case of one dish genuinely inedible) food to be served. 

A basket of bread, from Balthazar's own bakery in Waterloo, had been brought thence so slowly or long ago that it was stale and flavourless. My starter of dressed crab was fine, likewise Matthew's chicken liver and foie gras mousse, although presentation was rather forlorn, my crab on a bed of tired lettuce with a tin pot of entirely superfluous Marie Rose sauce, Matthew's mousse a cone plonked on the plate straight from a catering mould. Accompanying red onion confit at least appeared to have been lovingly spooned from the jar.

But the main courses - oh dear, oh God. I ordered whole grilled dorade with Romesco sauce and herb salad, Matthew steak tartare with a side of frites. The fish had been grilled so long that all moisture had been obliterated, and the lemon and herb filling was so over-powering that the dorade tasted - the one mouthful I had before sending it back - as if it had been marinated in Toilet Duck. It was truly horrible, and swiftly changed for a salad Nicoise, which was OK. Matthew's anaemic, undercooked fries, too, had to be replaced and once done properly were far more enjoyable than his meagre portion of dull, dry tartare.

Unsurprisingly, we had no interest in desserts. Nor did we fancy ordering anything from the cheeseboard our waiter presented; would you want to pay £10.50 for brie or roquefort shown to you sweating under their clingfilm wrappers? I thought not. We did at least enjoy the perfectly pleasant mini cookies that came with our coffees. That at first an espresso was served instead of a macchiato came as no surprise; that our bill, for two courses (my replacement for my awful main course was still charged for), coffee, one cocktail, one glass of wine and service came to £92, did.

To give credit where credit is due, our waiter and most of the staff we came into contact with were delightful, but it is humiliating for them and for Balthazar's owners that an army of floor-walking management - from New York, I'm guessing - are trying to train them on the job. If I felt embarrassed that a manager came to the table with our waiter when he was serving our main courses and hissed, "Position 2 for the fish" out of the side of her mouth, how must he have felt? I have heard rumours of a power-struggle between the New York side of the operation and the London team over how things should be done; I didn't expect to see it played out in front of me table-side.

Never before have I left a busy restaurant - and for reasons that cannot have anything to do with the food or atmosphere Balthazar and its veal-truck bar were packed - so inclined to stand at the door and implore people to go somewhere, anywhere else. The Delaunay is just round the corner and doing the grand brasserie thing a thousand times better; hell, Tuttons bang next door is superior by several powers, and that's saying something. 

Would that London were Sunnydale and Buffy could come along and plunge her stake into the heart of this blood-sucking horror of a restaurant; then it would crumble into dust and, not being able to rationalise the sheer dreadfulness of what we had experienced, we could all just forget it had ever happened.

Balthazar, 4-6 Russell Street, London WC2B 5HZ Tel: 020 3301 1155

Balthazar on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Posted by +Hugh Wright
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