Sunday 19 May 2013

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

It started with a sandwich. 

So impressed was I with an extremely tasty and unexpectedly cheap prawn baguette from Harrods Sandwich Counter that, when I got home, I decided to start a food blog. I already had a blog - in the classic, now-almost-obsolete mould of the straightforward online diary - but it had become neglected and I had felt for a while that it was time to focus on one subject; I just wasn't sure which one. That baguette was my light-bulb moment.

I've always loved eating out. As a child [screen fades to denote misty-eyed reminiscence of idyllic, bucolic Dorset childhood] 'eating out' meant very occasional family trips to the pub; I remember thick, sugary tomato soup, probably Heinz, big slabs of paté served with toasted brown bread and foil-wrapped pats of butter, and gammon steaks with chips, peas and pineapple - a meal that I would, and do, still happily order anywhere I see it.

As I got older, into my teens, eating out became something I did with friends, from birthday meals at Beefeater (one chap who ordered his ice-cream 'Chocolate no nuts' rather too enthusiastically was lumbered with that as a nickname for many years - kids can be so cruel) to more sophisticated group outings to La Lupa, a family-owned Italian restaurant where we first tried breadsticks and, if ordered with sufficient confidence by the boy with the deepest voice - which wasn't me, not then - you could get wine.

And then - after a long summer spent working as a host at Chiquito's, whence began a love which endures to this day for tacky Tex-Mex and frozen Margaritas with heavily-salted rims - I went to uni, and London, and a whole new world (albeit a far, far smaller one than today's) of culinary possibility opened up to me. I remember still my first visits to a smart new place called Wagamama where they didn't take bookings (fancy that!) and served big bowls of soup noodles called ramen (it'll never catch on); to Yo! Sushi, and Atlantic Bar & Grill, and - oh, the glamour! - to Quaglino's.

So I've always loved eating out. And I've always loved writing. So writing about eating out - making one new hobby from two existing ones - was, as a contestant on The Apprentice might put it, a no-brainer win-win. I've done it for nearly four years now, and I think I've done OK at it. But now it's time to stop.

Because I have, as some of you will know, landed a rather fantastic job with a restaurant group, doing their communications - social media, copywriting, press, PR, all things that I have developed an expertise in as a direct but I can honestly say unintentional consequence of starting this blog. The poacher has turned gamekeeper; I've gone over, as more than one restaurant PR has put it, to the Dark Side. Entirely organically, two of my great passions, eating and writing about it, have become my living, and I couldn't be happier.

Which means that, for now at least, it's time to say goodbye to blogging. I certainly won't stop writing, and I most definitely won't stop eating out, good heavens no, I just won't be doing one about the other on this platform. You'll still be able to hear my views on restaurants and the industry on Twitter - God, just try shutting me up on there - and of course face-to-face. And I'm sure there'll still be occasional posts on here about anywhere that particular blows me away, and non-food topics including another passion of mine, travel - something I recently dipped a toe into to an encouragingly positive reception.

Blogging about restaurants is a very different game now from what it was when I started in 2009. It's been fun - huge, crazy, booze-fuelled, stomach-distending fun - but this feels like a good time to get out. I have my views - oh boy do I have my views - on the ethics of restaurant blogging, on who's worth reading and who isn't, on the cynical manipulation of SEO and how businesses confuse readership with influence, on freebies...but those are for another time.

For now I would just like to say, thank you for reading (and for reading this far), for commenting, for challenging me, for sharing, and au revoir. I hope it's been for you even 12.5% of the pleasure it's been for me.

Posted by +Hugh Wright

Monday 6 May 2013


Ordinarily, a glitzy bar-cum-restaurant-cum-nightclub like McQueen in Shoreditch isn't the kind of place you'd find me having dinner. Aimed squarely at the kind of high-spending, hard-living City geezers 'n' gals who like their spirits premium, house happy and ropes velvet, it's somewhere I've always given a wide berth, even though I used to work just round the corner.

But then a few weeks ago at a networking event (yes, people do still go to those, or at least I do; they're like LinkedIn, but with wine) I met McQueen's very charming Marketing & PR Manager who, doing what good Marketing & PR Managers do when they scent someone who writes about restaurants, invited me in to try theirs. My kind of place or not, it would have been churlish to refuse, especially when it transpired that we had a mutual friend who would make the perfect dinner date.

Not realising that the restaurant has its own entrance on Tabernacle Street, we entered through the bar which, on a Thursday night, was - as I believe the kids say these days - going off. The decor, which carries through to the restaurant, is a bit blingy but perfectly inoffensive - parquet floors, Chesterfield sofas, slate walls, gilt-framed black-and-white pictures of the venue's inspiration, the eternally-cool Steve McQueen - and succeeds in making the space feel razzy without tipping over into tacky. The louche, sexily-lit room would, my pal Nic and I agreed, be ideal for a date, perhaps with someone who wasn't publicly your partner.

The menu (as well as the a la carte there are good value express lunch and early evening set menus) is unthreatening stuff - salads, bistro classics and a few grills - at not-too-terrible prices; starters are around the £8 mark and mains, except for steaks, all under £20. We kicked off with a couple of well-made cocktails and some courgette fritters, pleasingly thick wedges in a crunchy, salty crumb.

Nic's starter, a salad of carpaccio-thin slices of pretty candy beetroot with red apple and pepper cress in a lemon and herb dressing, was lovely to look at and fresh and clean on the palate, if a little bland. Mine, three plump, sweet scallops 
topped with crumblingly-crisp streaky bacon and served on a cauliflower puree given a kick with white pepper, was much livelier.

Poor Nic didn't do too well with her main course, a very ordinary veggie burger which - horrors - wasn't cooked all the way through and was served on an only-partially-defrosted bun. The dual shame of this was that, having chosen to serve such a humdrum vegetarian option in the first place, the kitchen couldn't at least do it well. They redeemed themselves with my monkfish, a good firm fillet served on soft, silky buttered leeks with smoky griddled razor clams, although it was rather heavy-handedly salted.

Desserts, fortunately, were spot on. Ginger pannacotta with honeyed madeleines was a very happy marriage of tastes and textures, while a classic hot chocolate fondant was as good an example as I've encountered anywhere. Coffee, too often an over-priced afterthought, was of a high standard, as was service which was nicely paced and unpressured with none of the forced formality or up-selling that I might have expected of such a 'see-and-be-seen' location.

All-in-all, bar that very poor veggie burger, McQueen was better than I thought it would be. My perhaps prejudiced expectation of venues like this is that they'll be more style than substance, the food and beverage offering secondary to loud music and a late licence in attracting customers; not so here. Not only did I enjoy McQueen despite it not being somewhere I'd usually go; I'd go so far as to say that I'd happily go back.

McQueen, 51-56 Tabernacle Street, London EC2A 4AA Tel: 020 7036 9229

McQueen on Urbanspoon  Square Meal

Posted by +Hugh Wright

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
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