24-hour restaurants

Night-time in the bar at the Duck & Waffle, one of the UK’s first high-end restaurants to stay open 24 hours a day

A feature for G2

At 11.30pm, the elevator for Duck & Waffle in the City of London has the hot, beery stench of an underventilated nightclub. I already feel jetlagged from heading out for dinner so late, and when it whooshes me up the Heron Tower’s 40 floors in under 30 seconds it gives me an extra headrush. It is a bit like being drunk, which seems rather appropriate for late-night eating.

In New York, Paris and many east Asian cities, 24-hour restaurants have become part of the eating habits of the population. Not in Britain, which is strange when licensing laws theoretically permit round-the-clock opening and many people work shifts through the night. “It may be because of our historically rigid licensing laws,” says Jonathan Downey, a bar and restaurant owner who has held two 24-hour licences. “At Milk & Honey our kitchen is open until 2am and we probably sell five plates of food during the last hour.”

Which is probably why many late-night British restaurants are aimed at drunk people. Buddies in Brighton has featured on Channel 5′s sociological study Brighton Beach Patrol, and with its fry-ups with lager, pizza and burgers, caters to a distinctly vomity clientele.

London’s oldest all-night restaurant, and the only one with a 24-hour booze licence, is Vingt-Quatre on the Fulham Road. “We have security,” says its managing director Simon Prideaux, “who make the call on whether someone has drunk too much.” At 11pm, VQ’s menu contracts to a few soaky classics: omelette, bangers and mash, a full English. The place has lasted since 1995 by harnessing one of the great truths of eating out: the squiffy don’t crave culinary invention.

“To eat at four o’clock in the morning,” says Jay Rayner, the Observer’s restaurant critic, “things are either going to be really bad or so good that it doesn’t matter where you are. You have to wonder how much value is being placed on the quality of the food.”

Continue reading at the Guardian

How we fork out millions for MPs’ food and drink

A feature for G2

It is just after prime minister’s questions, and it’s all rather lively in the Strangers’ Dining Room in the House of Commons. Sir Peter Tapsell, father of the house, is at a corner table, burbling contentedly. Tory and Labour MPs are rigidly segregated. A staff member with Charles Darwin’s beard spoons out crumble and custard. Down the corridor in the empty bar they are serving “Top Totty Blonde Beer”, with its bunny-eared model. By the following day this will be withdrawn, after a complaint from the shadow equalities minister, Kate Green.

I am here as a guest of MP Kerry McCarthy, having read recently of the appalling hardships our Honourable Members endure in their dining rooms and refectories. “Literally uneatable” was Tory MP Laurence Robertson’s verdict on the food served in the Commons last year. Another member bewailed their “bucket” of chips, adding that while such presentation is “no doubt trendy”, it makes the chips “soggy”. (“The tower arrangement is better,” this gourmet claimed.) Packets of crisps from Commons vending machines are 10g too light. The beetroot is “tasteless”, the eggs are “watery” and the salads are “cold”. In all, despairs one MP from the wood-panelled dining room with its sweeping views of the Thames, eating in the mother of parliaments is “a dismal experience”.

There are, remarkably, 28 different food outlets in the Westminster complex. The grandest and most traditional are the adjacent Members’ and Strangers’ Dining Rooms. These share a menu, the former’s being heavily subsidised. Only MPs and officers of the Commons are allowed in the Members’, the Tea Room and various other places. “I don’t like the food and can’t eat most of it,” says McCarthy, who is a vegan. “I think it’s generally pretty OK – though some of the combinations are a bit bizarre.” Starters at the Strangers’ include rabbit and apricot terrine or roast partridge breast, both £6.75. I have chicken with cabbage and black pudding potato cake: tepid but tasty and, at £13.55, cheap compared with many central London restaurants.

Continue reading at the Guardian

How the Roux family educated the British palate

Albert Roux, channelling Marlon Brando

A feature in G2 on the legacy of the Roux family

On the same evening that Restaurant magazine published its annual list of the world’s top 50 restaurants, other futures were being decided at the Mandarin Oriental in London’s Knightsbridge. Mark Birchall, who won the 28th Roux scholarship on Monday, will now spend three months abroad working in a three-Michelin-starred restaurant. Earlier winners have shadowed such luminaries as Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in California and Alain Ducasse, who has 19 Michelin stars between his establishments around the world. When I visited last year’s scholar, Kenneth Culhane, during his stint at New York gastrotemple Jean Georges, he told me without smiling that winning the scholarship was the greatest achievement of his life.

Downstairs at the Mandarin is Heston Blumenthal’s new restaurant Dinner, perhaps the most sought-after table in Britain. But the dichotomy between Roux and Blumenthal could not be more striking. Dinner represents the apotheosis of modern eating: highly technical, meticulous, contemporary food with a strong appreciation of history. The scholarship finalists cooked veal orloff, a preposterously frilly dish involving roast veal cut from the bone, sliced, stuffed and squeezed into a cavity made from the bones, slathered in bechamel and truffles, and baked. It came with fiddly stuffed cucumbers and a kebab made from kidneys.

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The Bocuse d’Or

Judges at the 2009 championships in Lyon

I’ve a little thing on page 3 of G2 today about the Bocuse d’Or, “the most prestigious cookery contest you’ve probably never heard of”, as the sub-editor put it.

It’s arguably the most prestigious cooking competition in the world, has the atmosphere of a football match and cash prizes of up to €20,000. But have you ever heard of the biennial Bocuse d’Or championship, which starts tomorrow in Lyon? Probably not. Britain’s chefs – as famous for their shouting and swearing skills as their cooking – tend to do terribly. But this year all that could change.

Simon Hulstone, chef-patron of the Michelin-starred Elephant in Torquay, is representing “Team GB” and is Britain’s best hope of getting a place in the top three. In 2009 the 38-year-old came ninth and has spent months perfecting his two platters, including loin of Scottish lamb with shoulder “spiral”, beetroot textures, and couscous “domino” with cucumber ketchup and watermelon.

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Tim Hanni MW: matching food and wine is bunk

One man’s nectar is another man’s poison. Photo: Still from Sideways/20th Century Fox

I’ve written something for today’s G2 about Tim Hanni, the American wine expert who now says wine critics talk a load of rubbish, and that “matching” food and wine is a myth.

Click here to read it.