I suspect there is a frustrated restaurant critic in all of us and this may well be my 15 minutes.
As a teenager in the 1980s when quantity
was far more of a pressing issue than quality, the interpretation of Nouvelle Cuisine came just at the wrong moment. Whilst the move away from heavy sauces may have been well received towards beautifully prepared and presented foods, the portion size moved in the diametrically opposite direction to shoulder pads throughout the decade and it seemed a rarity that you actually came out of a restaurant feeling full. Tiny slivers of lobster decorated with half a prawn were no match for the great 1980s invention – the sandwich toaster.
The challenge being to see whether you could get a raw egg to fit in both sides.
Decades do seem to be summarised by their foods and no 1970s retro party would be without a prawn cocktail, beef stroganoff, finished off with zabaglione or rum and raisin ice cream. The excitement of seeing a kiwi fruit for the first time (tinned) can still be remembered and Delia Smith in those days was better known for her cookbooks than enlightening the terraces of Norwich football club with the immortal “Let’s be ‘aving you”.
Having been brought up on a farm in Buckinghamshire, there was plenty of fresh veg from the garden, meat and game, though all attempts to grow asparagus proved fruitless and to add insult to injury a local farmer had a highly successful ‘pick your own’ asparagus business two miles away.
This has led to a general preference for very fine ingredients simply cooked, though it can be immediately contradicted by dishes such as lobster thermidor and their cholesterol inducing qualities. As has been so often pointed out – Harry is not a fussy eater.
Fast forward to the noughties and Harry Burnham was working in the financial services industry where entertaining and dining out was part of the way business was conducted. A key part of the role was negotiating dealing terms with the fund industry and more often than not this would culminate in dining out. This was before the Bribery Act disapproved of such an approach and undoubtedly robbed his tailor of many an alteration.
This has led to a distinct view on what makes a great restaurant, immaterial of large or small budget.
What makes a Perfect Restaurant?
When Quaglino’s reopened after a period of retirement in 1990s under the auspices of Conran, it was met with huge acclaim with everyone vying to go home with one of their ashtrays – purchased or not! However marble floors and walls made it virtually impossible to hear as the noise levels escalated and for this reason it fails the noise test. Carpeted floors and soft furnishings make a huge difference and the modern trend of wooden floors is a definite black mark for those who failed to wear hearing protection when soldiering or shooting for sport.
Speed of Service
If you are fortunate enough to be sitting on the terrace of the Hotel du Cap then time tends to be immaterial, but prompt service for the business diner makes all the difference. Fortunately restaurants are attuned to this and a quick explanation when you need to be out by makes all the difference.
A recent visit to the only two starred Michelin pub in the UK – The Hand and Flowers in Marlow – highlighted this. With a certain embarrassment we had to leave very promptly which left the kitchen minimum time to prepare the food. I can only strongly recommend for anyone to go – truly sublime.
Fortunately the real reason for the departure wasn’t revealed, one of the party had forgotten to bake their son a birthday cake and this needed to be squeezed in before they returned from school.
Wine really does make a meal and the old adage of white with fish and red with meat is long gone. Drink what gives us pleasure. As somewhat of a traditionalist I do tend to stick to old world wines – mainly due to a slightly lower alcohol content but if I could choose two tutored wine tastings at the moment, it would be English Sparkling Wines and Sake. As a convert over the past few years it is a subject about which relatively little is known, but if you talk wisely about ‘polishing the grain’, then you too can sound like an expert.
I’m always prepared to ask the Sommelier, outline preferences and give a steer on budget. Increasingly restaurants are happy for you to bring along your own wine with a suitable corkage and a call beforehand smooths the way. Drinking fabulous old clarets – decanted at home and with foods to match. A vertical tasting of 80s & 90s Ch. Haut Brion combined with Heston Bluementhal’s oxtail and kidney pudding at the Hind Head in Bray is not a bad way to spend a Saturday evening.
Plenty of Space
Restaurants are often run on very tight margins and it must be tempting to cram in as many tables as possible. An otherwise perfect meal in Club Gascon by Smithfield Market was spoilt to the closeness of the neighbouring table. Not helping matters was the fact that our fellow diners were from a rival fund group and all business discussions were firmly off the agenda. They were equally reticent and it became comical to the extent we nearly suggested getting one large table between us!
If in any doubt, ask the waiter or waitress what they would choose, you rarely go wrong. Earlier this year ‘A Wong’ the newly Michelin starred Chinese restaurant in Victoria was a perfect example. A fabulous selection of Dim Sum can be selected and is the obvious choice. However the waitress insisted we should try the Tofu dish – not a food which normally gets the culinary juices flowing. It was sublime and the standout dish, so do remember ‘Chengdu street tofu, soy chilli, peanuts, preserved vegetables’.
Captains of Industry
For those at the top of their industry and wanting to mix with their fellow plutocrats there are a number of ‘must be seen’ venues. The Savoy’s Grill Room was always the market leader and in the old days you knew you had truly arrived when you commanded one of the nine tables at the front in the Savoy River Room overlooking the Thames, with 1 and 9 being the equivalent of Royalty.
Outside of the traditional St James’s Clubs, there are the two sister restaurants of Annabel’s, Mark’s Club – suitable for members of the aristocracy and Harry’s Bar, their European counterparts. Old favourites remain Wiltons in Jermyn St and you need go no further than their sublime lobster bisque followed by Dover sole. The preference being meunière, but grilled or goujons available. Still the finest seafood in London. Anyone can be a tycoon for the day but be prepared for a bill to match.
Dining for Leisure
A Sunday when there is no urgency other than piling up the newspapers, cannot be bettered than slowly grazing through a substantial ‘plateau de fruits de mer’. Everyone has their own approach whether it be oysters first or going straight for the crab, though the periwinkles do always seem to get the wooden spoon. You will be pushed to beat Scott’s in Mayfair for quality and presentation.
Further afield, tea at Glattfelders in St Moritz. This is definitely one for the lottery winners as tea is vodka and an extraordinary selection of caviar. Your fellow diners will be Cresta riders celebrating their survival and whose sense of wallet has somewhat been numbed by their earlier escapades.
And finally… Culinary Bucket List
In equal top spot would be going to the Alba White Truffle fair in October. For those who have never tasted them, they actually do not have that strong a flavour but the aroma is difficult to describe beyond true hedonism. Gently shaved over taglierini or risotto and it’s the closest you can come to an X Man experience, slowing down time.
The second choice would be to have a tutored mushroom picking outing. The culinary equivalent of ‘water, water everywhere…’ just too dangerous unless you know exactly what you are doing but with such exciting rewards.