Monday, 13 May 2013

Food Revolution Day: how to pick a good restaurant

Five ways to pick a restaurant to be proud of

This Friday is Food Revolution Day, a Jamie Oliver-inspired day of action, when all over the world people go “Come on guys – we have to eat three times a day. Let’s do it properly”. Sure it’s about eating healthily, sustainably and in moderation. But it’s also saying for god’s sake let’s take PRIDE in what we eat and damned well enjoy it. Restaurants should be the shining example of people enjoying food – with no washing up at all unless you forget your wallet.

The thing is, people don’t really take pride in where they eat out. I don’t mind Pizza Express, but it's hardly somewhere championing one of the greatest joys we have in this world. To do that, we might need to take some risks, but here are some ways to make sure the places you go stand for the same principals as the Food Revolution - eating healthily, sustainably and with moderation, but enjoying every last bloody bite.

Now, it’s pretty much a rule that you should never enter, let alone eat in, a restaurant that has pictures of the
food in the windows (unless drunk). However, if things get desperate they can be a useful tool to work out how good a restaurant is. Whatever cuisine, whatever location, whatever price range, remember that menus should change. Annually at least. If they don’t it means the restaurateur doesn’t give a crap about seasons, ingredient availability, trends, fashions etc. He’s lazy, so why should the chefs be any different? So, if a picture is faded, poorly styled or, go forbid, black and white (no food looks good in black and white) then run away – that menu is OLD. Like the rings of a tree, the less colour it has the older it is, and the shitter the food.

Before I get into this one I must warn you that this is not a foolproof tip (I myself am a fool, with little proof). If you are in a gastropub, the rule is inverted.

However, usually it’s a great sign that the chef has to change his menu regularly – this would be partly because of customer feedback, but more because he is using local fresh produce, which means he has to change dishes according to their availability. Good sourcing means good food, and probably a good chef. Unfortunately, restaurateurs know this trick. It’s ruined my trust in blackboards, which are mostly painted with words now anyway, and soon I will come to distrust paper menus. See next year’s tips.

Perhaps I’m showing my prejudices here, but in my experience there are two kinds of suited diner. Most suited men I know think a City pub is a glass box at the bottom of their office building, and that beer comes only in yellow and tastes like coke when the syrup’s gone. They think being forced to sleep on the sofa is funny. They eat at places doing 2-4-1 cocktails on a Wednesday and a beer and (horse) burger for £6.99 on a permanent blackboard. Avoid those places and, more importantly, avoid those people.

The other suited men dine at places like the Ivy or something with “Chez” at the start. Following these men will lead to some pretty good meals, but also to certain financial ruin. For they regard taster menus as good value, happily paying £10 a bite for each course. They know about wine, and thus make some horrendous choices while singing “recession, what recession?” to the tune of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No.1. If you hear good things about a place full of suits, go early, go prixe fixe, and get out.

If a dish is beautiful, full of fresh ingredients, love and care, you don’t need to write:

“The loveliest, flakiest, most-Arian beer-battered deep-fried white fish with lemony, soft creamy mushy peas and triple-cooked hand-cut skin-on potato chips”

Just look for a place that says “Day-boat caught fish & chips with mushy peas”

That second place has the better supplier, the better fish, the better dish, the better chef and the better restaurateur. They don’t need to oversell their food. It’s simple, and they can answer all their questions, right down to the name of the boat that caught it and what the fish’s last words were. And that attention to detail and concern for welfare and freshness is what will lead to a great meal.

Ignoring the trend for doing one thing and doing it well, which has swept London like a tidal surge and
drowned us in wonderful places like Chicken Shop, MEATmission and Tonkotsu, this is a great rule. Look at the menu for Harvester (see the skid marks in the picture? Someone wanted to get out fast), and consider how shit it is. How the “chefs” must run around like blind mice with ADHD, never sure who they are or which microwave they’re supposed to turn on next. Then look at the Quality Chop House – one option plus veggie alternative, changing every day and printed on paper. I will genuinely put my life, and that of the tiny puppy I have a knife to right now, on you having a better meal there. Even if the chefs had to cook each other’s menus.

Please don’t prove me wrong. I love puppies.

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