Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Bistro du Vin: take a tip from me

Sorry. I tripped about the tip.

So waiters don't get paid much. I know this because I've been one. But the thing is, most of them don't deserve any more. I didn't. I dropped a steak knife on a child's leg once and still got 10%.

It's totally bonkers. The nation is up in arms about bankers being given bonuses when they lose the equivalent of Luxembourg's GDP in one day, and yet I can serve a numblingly average meal and scar a child's thigh, and get a bonus without anyone batting an eye lid. Maybe the two scales aren't quite comparable, but the principles are.

And so, after a perfectly decent meal at the perfectly overpriced Bistro du Vin in Soho, I was furious to find that, with no warning whatsoever, a 12.5% tip had been added to our bill. Given that there were seven of us, and we spent £200, that was quite the tip.

To be fair the service was excellent. We never had an empty glass, there was always someone waiting to help if we had a question, and the food came pretty quickly. And when it did it was very good. I had gnocci in a goat's cheese sauce (the ingredients of which seemed to be just goat's cheese and heat) with wild mushrooms (rather than battery...?), which was nice enough, even if the gnocci stuck to the roof of my mouth more effectively than Fixodent. My friend's butternut squash ravioli, however, was sweet, subtle and cooked to perfection - al dente like the Italians do it so the pasta doesn't have the texture of an oyster. In fact, I forced my friend to trade dishes with me half way through. But then, at £14.50, I expected something in a different league to Tesco's £1.99 ravioli. And gun to my head I'd have to say I didn't really.

I should stop taking cheap shots. I didn't mind the prices, even the house wine at £18.50, and I probably wouldn't have found the tip quite so irksome if it hadn't taken the waiter 20 minutes to collect the money after handing us the bill - and if they hadn't come back to tell us we were 85p short.

Unlike the food, that seemed a little cheap.

36 Dean Street
0207 4324 800

Bistro du Vin on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Lowndes Bar and Kitchen: torte a lesson

Only worth it if they bring it up to your room.

You know you’re in a Knightsbridge restaurant when you pop outside to take a phone call and find yourself stood next to a Lamborghini Diablo with Monaco number plates. Of course, the fact that you got off the Tube at Knightsbridge and then went to a restaurant just five minutes down the road will also give the game away.

Being a north-London boy I wouldn’t generally make the trip past central London and back out the other side. Knightsbridge and Kensington restaurants tend to be overpriced, aimed as they are at the rich residents and even richer tourists.

And it is these happy-to-pay-£230-a-night tourists that I dined with on Thursday night at the newly opened Lowndes Bar & Kitchen, which is attached to the five-star Jurmeirah Hotel.

It certainly had five-star furnishings, although the fact they were so new gave the room a slightly clinical feel. They had also made the huge mistake of lining the walls with American diner-style settees, which meant that when I leant back I was no less than a metre and a half from my companion and could hardly hear what she was saying over the muzak.

Not that I needed to talk to her. The restaurant itself was entertaining enough. The English of one waiter wasn’t quite good enough to explain to a hotel guest that he couldn’t be served food in the bar seating, our waitress couldn’t open our bottle of Rioja (I really need to branch out) and we had to make an late night call to their PR to prove we were on a review and didn’t have to pay the £110 food bill.

Which brings me to the meal, which was only remarkable for the price. A burger would set you back a staggering £15 and was the cheapest meal on the menu. Looking back I wish I’d tried it so I knew what a £15 burger tastes like, but I think I’d have been disappointed.  

But first I had the world’s smallest scallops – none of which were more than 2cm wide – in a saffron mayonnaise, accompanied by a solitary piece of salad garnish. Had there been a few more, or the scallops less anorexic, it would have been a nice dish.

Ignoring the temptation of a burger I had the duck (£18.50) with a redcurrant jus and sweet potato mash. The latter tasted like it had been boiled in tea, which while not unpleasant didn’t suit the sweet jus at all. The duck was a nice bit of meat but, despite being warned it was served medium rare, it was more the other side of medium and therefore a tad stringy.

My chocolate torte (the waitress’s recommendation) was no better than something out of a tin, although the ice cream was excellent. I hope this was homemade, or else  Cart D’or is nicer than I remember.
So thoroughly unremarkable, completely overpriced and lacking in atmosphere. If you can afford the rooms, you can afford the food, but only as a last resort because in central London, you will always be within 10 minutes walk of a much better meal and a fuller wallet.

Lowndes Bar & Kitchen on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Hail the Lord Nelson: the recession is over!

The best pub is Southwark. bar none.

Everyone rejoice. The recession is over. Lehman is but a ghost. The bankers are forgiven and the politicians aquitted. Europe can stop wringing its hands and Greece should stop crying and go back to investing in hummus.

The most important gauge of fiscal health, the Lord Nelson pub in Southwark, has withdrawn its recession menu. Gone are my happy lunchtimes with a pint of Holstens and fish-finger sandwich for £6.

The Lord Nelson has to be the quirkiest pub in London. It juts out of a horrid 1960s social housing block almost onto the road, as if daring you to enter. Its ceiling is adorned with upside down trolls, the bar is guarded by stuffed dead squirrels called David and Nick, and its menu has more dishes than Debenhams.

To be honest, its just standard pub grub, but it is homemade in the truest sense. The chips are cut unevenly, the fish-fingers definitely Birds Eye, and the plates too small to fit the portions. But so much food is about style, about atmosphere and care, and the Lord Nelson has all these things in spades.

And not a numbered wooden spoon in sight. Even in this, the second "boom" of the 21st century, you can effectively buy all you can eat for less than a tenner. The effect is not just tasty and filling, but comforting. You can even pop your head into the kitchens to see the fat chef toiling away to Radio One, wondering whether it’s all worth it and what happened to Mark and Lard in the afternoon.

No one can afford the boom time. Not even the banks. Essentially, when economists talks about the “cyclical nature of the market”, all they mean is that the banks all borrowed from each other (boom), and then remember they had to pay it back (bust). And I’m left counting out that extra two pounds for my fish-finger sandwich, cursing Keynes but paying without a second’s hesitation.

No one can afford the boom time, but we’ll always pay up in the end.

243 Union St

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