Archive for July, 2004

Gastropub: Cultural Shift or Question of Economics?

Posted on: July 27th, 2004 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

In the mid 1980s I undertook an Econometrics project into the demand for coal. Seemed a good idea at the time.

We lived in boom times, or at least the expanding middle classes lived in boom times; their property was soaring in value, inflation was under control, salaries rising, the new tertiary sector blossoming. Culturally we were work hard, play hard kick ass American, well mid-Atlantic at least!

For centuries economists have contested whether supply creates its own demand or vice versa, one thing that’s always been certain; where the two marry up we see the most stable markets.

I’ve seen it argued on learned foodie forums on the internet that the gastro pub is the ushering of a new culture in fine dining in Britain; that the demand from a growing number for gastronomic food in simple, laid back surroundings, at a reasonable price, has prompted this revolution.

There’s some weight to this argument. To borrow a character from Jilly Cooper’s amusing (but dated) book Class, Mr Middleton of the middle middle classes has considerably more disposable income that he did twenty years ago. In fact there are now many more Mr Middletons, they work even harder, longer hours, are better educated and are more demanding in their choices.

At the same time there has been widespread recognition in the market that Mr Middleton has far less free time in modern Britain. Supermarket shelves are stacked with pre-prepared meals, while 30% of junk mail is from takeaway restaurants. He is also guided by the near blanket media coverage of chefs and food and how he can most conveniently ‘consume’ in line with his lifestyle aspirations. No doubt the current abundance and variety of all types of restaurants found today may be attributed to these facts.

On the supply side, aspiring chefs are faced with a tough choice. Mr Middleton affords them a business opportunity, however the soaring property market makes it painfully difficult for them to set up without being slaves to a financial master. So what is the answer? Keep overheads and front of house costs down, keep it simple, encourage a local market mentality – The gastropub. Hey presto, a natural marriage of demand and supply. But are gastro pubs the natural long term meeting place for these buyers and sellers? Do we have a long standing market that one might argue is symbolic of a cultural shift?

It does, at first sight, look like a natural and uniquely British mixture – pubs diversifying upwards and gastronomy diversifying downwards. Mr Middleton is no longer satisfied with pub grub but getting dressed up on a week night is too much hassle and maybe just outside his price point.

Cultural shift is strong language however. It presumes that behavior goes beyond a function of circumstance and opportunity.

For example, would the gastropub survive in different economic circumstances; consider a significant downturn – as happened when the boom bubble burst in the late 1980s. Property prices slumped and the cost of (borrowing) money became considerably more expensive, there were also added pressures on employment.

In this situation, the number of Mr Middletons shrinks as does their disposable income. On the supply side, new gastronomic chefs face barriers to entry into the market due to the increased cost of mortgages, negative equity and the prospect of diminishing demand.

As with any economic cycle, it is the institutions which survive while the small players turn over at a rapid rate. The middle market either fails or re-invents itself.

So what of gastro pubs? To argue against the case of economics we must ask: are Mr Middleton’s tastes, priorities and requirements changed for good, such that the gastro pub will permanently be on his agenda? Will the number of new, able, young and talented chefs continue to emerge and need a low cost home?

For a genuine cultural shift to be the case we’d have to accept that the British perception of food is moving inexorably toward our continental neighbours. Through boom and slump alike, the French have enjoyed gastro style food in simple, low cost establishments for generations. We may romantically conjecture that Mr Middleton will cast aside the junk mail and Domino speed dial for good, in favour of the British equivalent – The gastro pub.

While this appears a relatively unlikely scenario, the middle classes are considerably better informed, travelled and educated than ever before; some time ago I bumped into an old university friend and his wife at an airport, they were busy feeding their four year old her breakfast – filter coffee and Pain au Chocolat – not something they would have experienced at the same age.

No doubt there exists a Mr Middleton somewhere, who will pay the £3000 top up fee to fund his son through an Economics degree and just maybe his final year Econometrics project will be to model the market for gastropubs. I wonder, will the next generation of Middletons be any the wiser?

Berkeley Square Cafe, London. Two Views (2004)

Posted on: July 11th, 2004 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Don’t Leave it to the Last Minute. by Simon Carter.

A mere 50 yard walk along the road from Berkeley Square Cafe will take you past a host of chauffeurs waiting patiently in luxury hardware, the pavement replete with tabloid photographers. No, they are not there for this restaurant, but for Cipriani – a place where the experience for the fashionable comes before food for the foodie. It is somewhat ironic that, in such proximity, Vince Power’s money funds the gastronomic Berkeley Square Cafe – Mr Power is a man more typically associated with The London Astoria and the Glastonbury and Reading Festivals.  Having driven to this part of Mayfair on a weekday evening, a sure plus is the choice of free parking around the square. This occasion was no different and we walked into the restaurant bang on time. This was to be our seventh visit of 2004, perhaps not due to The London Newcomer of the Year Award in The Good Food Guide, but more the and promotions.

Business must have been slow for Merete and Steven Black so at the turn of the year they had the marketing idea of offering the £45 three course Carte at significant discounts. After early 70% discount before 7pm, they still today, offer bookings with 50% discounts from the Carte.

Steven Black has a pedigree of cooking at up-market country houses – Thornbury Castle, Chewton Glenn and Eastwell Manor. The style is very much ‘respect the ingredients, respect the jus.’ Unnecessary enhancements, combinations or fusions are avoided – quality ingredients well cooked have flavours, textures and natural sauces that speak for themselves. A clean and refreshing approach in an age of complexity, over-elaboration and scientific cooking. For example; a generous fillet of Aberdeen Angus Beef with Cepes, Asparagus and a bunch of Cherry Tomatoes still on the vine; sweet, seared scallops (presumably hand dived) with a fine helping of melt-in-the-mouth pan fried foie gras.

The simply roasted Welsh Black Mountain Organic Chicken was my choice for the main course. The meat retained its moisture and the quality was evident from the burst of flavour that lingered on the palate. An open ravioli of confit thigh on the side was sweet and succulent.

Throughout the year the kitchen has noticeably stepped up in class and consistency; as has the front-of-house with the astute hiring of the Sommelier Benoit Gueret – formerly of 1837 and L’Ortolan – who is as good with customers as he is with the wine.

The restaurant was packed for the evening – at least 70 covers – testament to promotions backed by quality. In fact the cooking staff of eight have done well to retain high standards so effectively, working as they have in what can best be described as a galley kitchen. What is more, the puddings have demonstrated complexity and imagination as strings to their bow – The Tasting of Raspberries and Assiette of Banana provide a variety of tastes and textures in creative style. I went for my standard chocolate fondant and was more than satisfied.

As you might imagine £22.50 for three courses of such quality is irresistible, at £45 the menu would still represent value, and by the time you read this, that may be what you pay. Should the restaurant remain on the same path then I’m sure Berkeley Square Cafe will be a high climber in the 2005 1% Club, and if not next January then the January after, the Michelin Star will come, perhaps long after Cipriani has closed.

A Progressive Sort by Daniel Darwood

Davies Street, linking Berkeley Square and Oxford Street, was, until a couple of years ago, hardly the place to find restaurants of distinction. Yet now it has become the St James’ Street of Mayfair, attracting foodies to parts of central London usually reserved for estate agents, galleries and specialist shops for the upper classes.

Of the three major restaurants which can be found in this quarter of a mile – Gordon Ramsay at Claridges and Cipriani being the other two – Berkeley Square Café can claim to be the best in terms of innovative cooking, efficient service and value for money.

Steven Black, lately of Eastwell Manor, and his sous chef Richard Hugle (the latter having worked in several Michelin Starred kitchens), lead a small but dedicated team, producing dishes worthy of much larger establishments.

Front of house can be the delightful and welcoming Merete Black or the surly and distant Joseph McColgan. The dining room has well spaced tables, is subtly lit and exudes a sense of style. Don’t bother to have a drink in the downstairs bar which is ill lit and furnished with the most uncomfortable low back swivel bucket chairs. Instead, seek the advice of the engaging sommelier Benoit Gueret whose experience at L’Ortolan and 1837 has stood him in good stead.

On the a la carte menu, a bargain at £45, expect as an amuse bouche a tasse of intensely flavoured soup – gaspacho, tomato or lentil. The starter dishes which follow are amongst the most satisfying, combining measured creativity with maximising tastes. The Cornish Crab risotto with plum tomato sorbet and frozen olive oil exemplifies this perfectly: the sorbet and oil provided the contrast in texture and taste, whilst the generous use of brown crab meat added depth of flavour to the risotto itself. The seared scallops and foie gras with pea puree were perfectly executed if somewhat passé by today’s frantically changing standards.

Main courses include at least three fish dishes, beef, lamb and poultry. The roasted breast of Welsh Black Mountain organic chicken retained its moistness and gamey flavour. Its accompaniments – an open herb raviolo of confit thigh, carrot and tarragon salad and a light pea sauce enhanced the dish perfectly, although I must admit I could done with a little more sauce. This might also be said of the perfectly cooked Aberdeen Angus beef dishes, which have been garnished, at different times, with red wine dressing, foie gras, snails or cepes. This however, is a small grumble given the meal as a whole.

Puddings are a triumph of artistry and taste. The “tasting of raspberry” comprised a sable, parfait, mousse and the fresh fruit in an utterly harmonious combination that delighted both eye and tongue. Warm fondant of chocolate is amongst the best that can be found in London. The kitchen is also able to be flexible – on a previous visit, a request for something simpler produced a plate of exquisite, intensely flavoured sorbets.

The Café – a major understatement given its accomplished cooking – offers a range of menus to suit all pockets and tastes. Our last visit saw a crowded restaurant, indicating it is now receiving the recognition it fully deserves.

The Waterside Inn, Bray, Restaurant Reviews (July 2004)

Posted on: July 11th, 2004 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Evolution not Revolution by Simon Carter

Michel Roux began his career as a chef at the British Embassy in Paris before taking the position of private chef to Mlle Cecile de Rothschild. It was in this role that Michel developed his palate as well as his cooking talents and started to look ahead to England and a joint venture with his brother.

Le Gavroche opened its doors for business in 1967, the young Michel and Albert Roux were about to revolutionise the UK perception of fine dining with the first true gastronomic restaurant. They found themselves packed night after night, Michel and Albert would alternate weekly between front of house and kitchen. Albert became more known for meats and sauces while Michel’s reputation grew in patisserie.

The brothers gradually expanded in London before, in 1972, purchasing The Waterside Inn, where they handed the head chef reins to the up and coming Pierre Koffman. When it came time, several years later, for Pierre to set up on his own, The Waterside had become an established gastronomic restaurant. Michel decided to take on the fresh challenge and moved to Bray permanently, while his brother remained at Le Gavroche.

The reputations of these two restaurants continued to grow throughout the 1980s, both receiving the coveted Three Michelin Stars. Only their protégé Pierre Koffman at La Tante Claire, Nico Ladenis and Raymond Blanc were to rival their supremacy.

It was during this time that Silvano Giraldin – “The Godfather of Service” – was nurturing a group of front of house talents that, to this day, remain world leaders in their field. Michel Lange – now restaurant manager at Louis XV in Monte Carlo, Denis Courtiade – now the same at Plaza Athenee, Benoit Radenne – now the same at The Waterside Inn and, in my opinion, the greatest of them all, Diego Masciaga – recently promoted to Director at The Waterside. These men worked together and developed their craft under Silvano at Le Gavroche.

This is a significant point because the front of house philosophy is fundamental to the dining experience, in fact you do not eat at The Waterside, you have a relationship with The Waterside.

Today, (as seemingly for ever) Diego orchestrates his well drilled and professional team and always smiling, he entertains his guests with natural warmth and charm (right from stepping inside to the point of opening the door for you to leave.) There is a clear sense of passion about all that is The Waterside – passion for the food, passion for service, passion to please.

Over the last 32 years the menu has developed and progressed significantly. This fact might be contrary to the typical perception; there have been no knee jerk reactions to changing fashions, no sea changes; development has instead been steady, purposeful and well thought out – always holding true to guiding Roux principles. The dishes of today bear little resemblance to those presented in 1972; cleaner flavours, lighter sauces and more focus on allowing the ingredients to speak for themselves. The menus are still very much gastronomic, in fact the pinnacle of gastronomy in the 21st century, just as those of 1972 were the pinnacle of their time.

The lounge, the summer houses and the terrace continue to be key parts of the ‘experience’ – the latter two particularly in summer. The dining room is light and airy with a view across the River Thames. Table 11, a table for two, looking in on the restaurant from the window is reserved for visiting local celebrities (such as Terry Wogan and Michael Parkinson) and considered the height of achievement for more mortal regulars.

The canapés arrive and, in spite of usually including a foie gras concoction, remain light. The three course set lunch is always consistent and for a Three Star restaurant £40 is affordable. Upon being seated, still mineral water is offered and if accepted is complementary, sparkling is charged. The wine list is not a mine field – there is considerable diversity thanks to the expert knowledge and channelled enthusiasm of Benoit Radenne; the customer has a good choice at reasonable prices as well as the range of expected heavyweights. The house policy is to buy en primeur and as a result the Sommelier is invaluable in helping take advantage of the restaurant’s educated gambles.

Plates arrive with silver domes, simultaneously lifted. The Challandais duck is brought to the table and carved, with the blade always moving toward the carver. Cheeses are expertly explained and presented in clockwise order of increasing strength. Ingenious desert wine recommendations complement the variety of puddings.

Michel Roux has now handed the baton to his son Alain, even this has been gradual and smooth; the institution continues to press forward without a blink. The Roux scholarship still develops talent for the future and Michel remains a Vice President of Relais & Chateaux – The Waterside is one of the handful of Relais Gourmands in the country. To him, life truly is, a menu.

Simply the Best by Daniel Darwood

What makes the perfect restaurant: a regularly changing menu, with inventive, fashion conscious dishes: an army of waiters ready to do one’s bidding at the click of the fingers; luxurious seating, with chairs in the Louis XV style; a glamorous cocktail bar; and a host of celebrities eating regularly at their favourite tables? The Waterside Inn has none of these. Its menu has evolved at snail-like speed, with classics such as Aiguillettes de Caneton Challandais featuring on the carte. The waiting staff, although extensive, attends to one’s every need without prompting. Apart from the banquettes, the seating remains remarkably unsophisticated, indeed slightly uncomfortable with armless chairs. The bar doubles as the reception and cash desk, with seating for a dozen and not a pre- prandial drinks menu in sight.

Nevertheless, the Waterside, set idyllically on the bank of the Thames, has been able to retain its three Michelin rosettes – the pinnacle of gastronomic achievement – for much longer than any establishment in the UK. Michel and Alain Roux, co director Diego Masciaga and restaurant manager Benoit Radenne understand admirably the essential prerequisites for success at this elevated level: a consistently high standard of cooking using well sourced, impeccably fresh and seasonal ingredients; a wine list that caters for the connoisseur and those of more modest means in equal measure; and a front of house team which maintains professionalism without being intimidating.

Visits to the Waterside are occasions, not just meals out. None of the times I have been there since 1976 has failed to satisfy and each has been utterly memorable.

The curtain to this culinary theatre opens with a tray of canapés – rich but not over complicated or heavy. The bread rolls, unfortunately, are not in the same league, with rubbery crusts and elastic texture. This is the only gripe I have.

Diners can choose the menu Gastronomique (three course, set) at lunch, the seven course Exceptionnel at lunch or dinner, or choose from the Carte. The lunch menu often involves for starters a soup – consommé or veloute – and a terrine containing game and foie gras, all amazingly light and perfectly balanced. They do not steal the thunder of what is to follow. More ambitious dishes such as sautéed foie gras with cherries can be sought from the carte.

Main courses from the set menu offer fish or meat or game or poultry. Consider, for instance, a perfectly timed grilled fillet of salmon, cooked rare with a melting texture, accompanied by a light jus, waffled potatoes and tiny seasonal vegetables. This was a perfect summer dish. For crustacean lovers, the lobster in ginger and white port, garnished in spectacular fashion with the head, is not to be missed, if choosing from the carte.

All of the restaurant’s shellfish are cooked to order from the tank, so benefiting from quick, intense cooking that avoids the resulting dish having the texture of cotton wool. Meat and game dishes are equally well executed. Ducks are poached before being roasted rare and carved – with masterly technique – into paper thin slices at the table.

Cheeses should not be seen merely as an alternative to pudding, given the relative lightness of the two previous courses. The trolley groans under an embarrassment of riches, predominantly French: strong and mild, soft and hard, cow’s, goat’s and sheep’s milk cheeses, all in perfect condition.

Puddings, a Roux metier, show more evidence of development than the savoury courses. Intensely flavoured ice creams or sorbets often decorate these composite and imaginative creations. For those who

have difficulty in choosing, the assiettes, whether fruit or chocolate based, are ample for two and give an excellent indication of the skills in preparing patisserie, mousses, crèmes, and sables.

The petits fours that accompany the coffee initially appear too much, but prove to be irresistible and delectable morsels of chocolate, fruit, pastries, jellies and macaroons.

Diego Masciaga oversees the front of house, welcoming regulars and newcomers alike with his engaging charm. Benoit Radenne, well known in the industry as an excellent all-rounder, manages the restaurant cheerfully and enthusiastically.

The staff’s attention to detail and a general awareness of what is happening in the various parts of the building – the restaurant, riverside terrace, the pagodas and the lounge – ensure that the operation runs like a well oiled machine, but one which retains individuality and the personal touch.

The Waterside, now in the transition phase from Michel Roux Senior to his son, Alain Roux, goes from strength to strength, comfortable but not complacent in its disregard for culinary fashions and fads.