Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The GastroLad Restaurant Awards 2011

"I’d like to think of myself as one not easily cowed by a sommelier with a steely gaze and an eye for the bottom half of the wine list. But in Roberto Della Pietra, the sommelier at Gaulthier Soho, I more than met my attempt to order a £25 bottle of wine was batted away with ease..."

I feel like I’ve been slightly neglecting the blog of late. The combination of a new job, new flat and some busy weekends means that I haven’t had much to shout about. So in the grand tradition of a television show that has run out of ideas I’m going to do a ‘best of’ type post. In fairness though, this is something I have been thinking about doing for a while, but wanted to keep it up my sleeve for a rainy day, and indeed it was pissing down when I got off the tube yesterday evening.

Before my days as a blogger and back when I was just plain old Joe Bloggs, I would eat out on a fairly regular basis, and while I haven’t been everywhere listed in the in the latest Michelin Guide, these ‘awards’ should give some food for thought…

Best meal – The Fat Duck, Bray, Berkshire

This is quite a tricky one to judge as one’s best meal is necessarily subjective, and certainly doesn’t have to equate to the best food. But I’m afraid I’ve had to go with the obvious choice of Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck. I went for a Saturday lunch here back in 2008, not really knowing what to expect, but the whole experience was a delight. The service was impeccable, but not in that obsequious, toadying, pain in the arse style that makes you want to throttle the waiter, as was the food. I’m not usually keen on a lot of faffing by chefs (see below), but the quality and attention to detail was such that you couldn’t help but admire.

Now I don't want you to think the following is a criticism of The Fat Duck, but nevertheless I do think it's a relevant observation and something to take account of. The thing is, that a trip to The Fat Duck isn’t really a normal meal out, more of a theatrical performance by the waiting staff and kitchen. And because they are operating on a different level to pretty much any other British restaurant around, it is difficult to judge it in the normal context. You could liken a meal there to bungee jumping: a fantastic experience, possibly not to everyone’s tastes, and for most of us, a one off.

Favourite Restaurant – Arbutus, Frith Street, W1F / Galvin Bistro de Luxe, Baker Street, W1U

A bit of a cop out here, as I couldn’t decide between the two, so joint honours to the Galvins and Will Smith and Anthony Demetre. The tell-tale sign of your favourite place is that it is the one you want to return to ad nauseum, and this is true of both Arbutus and Bistro de Luxe. Both have interesting, keenly priced food on their menus, and the wine policy at Arbutus (they serve all the wines in 250ml carafes) means you can sample the bottom half of the list without breaking the bank.

These choices betray my food preferences quite neatly: I like good quality ingredients, well cooked, and none of the primping and other bollocks that goes on in places where the chef’s ego is splattered, foaming all over the plate.

Also mentioned in dispatches are Terroirs, Les Deux Salons and the Giaconda Dining Room.

Best Cheapo Option – Busaba Eathai, various London locations

People who have been here before will know of my fondness for Thai food, and as a post-work / pub feed Busaba usually hits the spot. The Thai style noodles, curries, stir fries and salads they serve are cut above some of the competition, and it is a bit of a default option for me. I’ve had the odd disappointment, but it’s more often a hit than a miss. Also the Thai Calamari is one of those addictive dishes that people will clamber over one another for, in order to grab the last morsel.

Honourable mentions go to @Thai on Greyhound Road in Hammersmith, which is a great little place where the owner will give you a Thai massage if you ask nicely, and also Vietnamese place Me Me (formerly Huy Hoang) in Fulham Broadway, which is cheap and does a great Bun Xa.

Best dish – ‘Jelly of Quail, Crayfish Cream, Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss and Truffle Toast’ at The Fat Duck

Predictably, another one from The Fat Duck. Even three years on I can still taste that quivering, savoury quail jelly, and to be honest I’m not sure my words can do it justice. But the whole thing was slathered in umami, and I enjoyed it very much. This was one of those dishes at The Fat Duck which was delivered with more than the usual flourish, and if you want to see for yourself stick the name into google images. It is still on the menu there, so get it while you can (and before the price of the tasting menu goes up to £180 a head in September).

So there we are, the laurels have been awarded, and those restaurants mentioned above can feel suitably smug with themselves. But, as the Greeks said, there can be no pleasure without pain, and this is the bit you’ve all been waiting for, the bloopers reel…

Most disappointing meal – Tasting Menu at Cambio de Tercio, Brompton Road, SW5 (Nov 2010)

Whilst all the food was edible, I came away from this meal with a fairly bitter (actually that should be sweet, but it ruins the metaphor) taste in the mouth. I went along to Cambio de Tercio with high hopes, having eaten very well at its sister place Tendido Cero, and read some gushing eulogies on the interweb from bloggers (notably the feller at LondonEater) and food critics. But a combination of some poor, ill thought out cookery, indifferent service and continued attempts to upsell on the wine list meant I was £150 lighter without much to show for it.

My real issue was with the food, and I found almost every dish on the tasting menu far too sweet. It was as if it had been designed with a group of five year olds in mind and a real disappointment. The only dish that stuck in the mind for the right reason was their version of El Bulli’s tortilla, whereas I can recall the Foie Gras served with Chocolate covered Macadamia Nuts for all the wrong reasons, as one of the least pleasant things I have eaten in a while.

The trouble is I think Cambio de Tercio is probably a good restaurant, as far too many people swear by it. But if I ever go again, and I would like to give them a second chance, I will stick with the Spanish style dishes I enjoyed across the road at Tendido Cero and steer clear of the exotic stuff, which seems a bridge too far for the chef.

Most intimidating sommelier – Gaulthier Soho, Romilly Street, W1D

As a food and drink anorak, I’d like to think of myself as one not easily cowed by a sommelier with a steely gaze and an eye for the bottom half of the wine list. But in Roberto Della Pietra, the sommelier at Gaulthier Soho, I more than met my match. Maybe it was his height advantage, greater reach, or designer glasses. Or maybe it was his deft use of flowery vinous  adjectives, but my attempt to order a £25 bottle of wine was batted away with ease, and in the blink of an eye I found myself spending a tenner more than I had anticipated. Emasculated and beaten by a better man, I could only sit back and admire his skills.

Worst service – Canteen, Royal Festival Hall

The service here on three separate occasions last year was bloody awful, and I would not return if you paid me. We were ignored, had wrong orders taken, waited half an hour for a slice of cake and generally treated with apparent disdain. On none of these occasions was the place particularly busy and most of the waiting staff could be seen lurking in the corners, seemingly getting paid for doing the bare minimum.

To their credit, after complaining about the wait for cake we did receive a free round of drinks, but it was too little too late. All this is a pity as I like the menu at Canteen and I’ve never had any complaints about their Spitalfields outpost.

Rudest member of staff – a former employee at Bentley’s Oyster Bar

There is an amusing story here and one can that provide us with a lesson in morality and good manners. But I think I am going to save it for another time as VD (the girlfriend) and I have a trip booked to Bentley’s in the near future, so it will be revealed in due course.

Et voila: to the winners, the spoils; to the losers, the ignominy of being named and shamed!


  1. Ahhh, still haven't been to The Fat Duck, but I love Arbutus! I have to say I hate sommeliers that look down on you when you order the cheapest wine. I mean I can;t afford food AND expensive wine....

  2. I didn't mind it too much that time. The wine he chose was bloody good and he did it such a suave Italian manner (and with an excellent command of English wine related adjectives!).

  3. The real disappointment with many restaurants, particularly in London, is the gross overpricing of wine and the poor quality of a lot of the cheaper bottles. Probably bought at discount prices without tasting the stuff. A restaurant should be able to provide a good selection of wines at less than £20 even with a 3x mark up, which used to be the standard. Goodness knows what it is now bearing in mind some of the bilge which is being passed off. Still seems to be prevalent with bottom end French wines.

    I agree with your choice of Arbutus.Good food well cooked. However Giaconda's wine list fell well within my diatribe above.

    I woould recommend spreading your wings from Metropolitan gastrochain food to the bucolic delights of rural pubs, where singular food can be enjoyed with wine,or a pint of decent beer, without some snotty, half witted youth putting on a foreign accent and pretending he knows something about wine, or anything else for that matter. The Blue Lion at East Witton and the Hare Inn at Scawton are worth visits.