Wednesday, 12 January 2011

External Article: Why is service still so bad in the UK

I found this article on the BBC News website. Although it is not an article that I have written, it is now one that I no longer have to write. This discusses the effect of the class system on service in this country. It is something I see time and time again. Having worked in restaurants as well as high end fashion retail (where it is very customer service driven), I am aware of how positive the response to good service is. Here in Britain, we want good service, we love good service, but we don't know how to ask for it, or raise the issue when it is not present.

Please read:

This article relates to the television series, Michel Roux's 'service', which begins tonight on BBC2 at 8pm GMT.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Restaurant Review: Jinnah, Harrogate

Name: Jinnah’s Restaurant
Location: Harrogate, North Yorkshire

It isn’t everyday that you see a contemporary looking Indian restaurant, built into a former Georgian school house. Coupled with the fact that it is also situated at the end of my road, it had to be sampled.

Inside the restaurant the ceilings are high, presumably as the school would have comprised of two floors originally. Along two separate walls are two large glass panels with water that trickles between the sheets, backlit by slowly changing vivid colours. This actually looks a lot less tacky than it sounds.

The range of dishes on the menu is vast, which raises alarm bells instantly. For anyone that has never considered this when looking at a menu, I don’t want to ruin your dining experience but think of it like this; what if no one orders that braised lamb dish? When was it braised? How long do the owners think it will keep for? Example menu ‘A’ has sausages, chicken, lamb, beef and every type of shellfish, the list goes on. Are the sausages frozen? Is the seafood frozen? What I am trying to conclude is that the larger the menu, the less can be prepared to order, or even prepared that day. That is why when you go to the best restaurants in the country you will find five or six starters and the same amount of mains. That is because they can handle this quantity if the produce is delivered fresh each day. It also means certain dishes don’t go unordered for very long. I’m digressing, but I will re-visit this point later on in the review.

Despite the large menu, it did read very well. Dishes were clearly explained in an enticing way, even giving a nod to the regionality and history in the description. It read like a menu written by someone who knew their onions. If only it had been cooked with the same passion.

We ordered the Poppadoms with a chutney tray. The chutney tray cost us extra. This is unusual for an Indian restaurant but when the tray arrived, it was clear why this was the case. The chutneys were extensive and many of them seemed to be made on the premises. They all tasted great and it was nice to have a variety. Being able to try all the different chutneys reminded me of sampling exciting varieties in London’s Borough Market, a real triumph.

For main we ordered a naan bread to share, a pilau rice to share, a chicken shashlik and a chicken rogan josh. This is where the positives end and the bastardisation of Indian cuisine in this country begins. The chicken shashlik is a great dish, if done well. Large marinated chunks of chicken are cooked with onions and peppers in a 400c tandoor oven lined with coals. This makes the meat incredibly tender and succulent, as well as giving the whole dish a sizzling barbecue flavour. When the dish appeared it was not sizzling. The chicken was barely hot and was served alongside half of a very large Spanish onion, as well as the peppers. The chicken was thoroughly dry. A real disappointment.

A Rogan Josh is supposed to be rich in spices and kashmiri chillies. It was mildly flavoured with tomatoes, but its one saving grace was that it seemed to be the only thing cooked to order. The basmati rice was mildly warm and had formed that harder, chewy layer round it where it had been sat out, slowly losing moisture.

I’m going to cut to the chase. There was a buffet on while we were there. This is something that runs seven days a week so it wasn’t a special day. I return to my earlier point about large menus. How do they cope with this gargantuan list of food? My gut feeling is that the shashlik and the rice, maybe even the rogan josh, were simply pulled from the buffet and glorified in their own little dishes. This isn’t as uncommon in restaurants as you might think. To top it off, the bill came to more than it normally does in my local North London curry house, who by the way do a very good shashlik. It even sizzles.

The problem with some restaurants round this area of Harrogate is that they are nearby to the conference centre that hosts one day business events throughout the year. This means that passing trade will always come to them. This can produce restaurants that get slack and forget that there are people like me who are a stones throw away, seeking out the best places to eat at time and time again.

From this review, I suppose it might seem like I expect the earth from a curry house. That isn’t really the case. Just cook the damn thing to order, balance the spices... Heck, don’t even balance them, just use them! Historically, curry is the food of peasants. Like many national dishes, it is about making the most of what you have, and giving it flavour. If Jinnah’s can’t successfully create peasant food, then they should consider opening a dog food factory.

Rating: (2/5 Stars)

Monday, 10 January 2011

Restaurant Review: Le Manoir Aux Quat'Saisons, Oxfordshire

I have realised recently that any restaurant review I have put on here is positive. This is because I try to put the bad ones to the back of my mind. Of course, that doesn't offer a balanced viewpoint on this blog. Therefore, I will put up reviews of places that I have thought were less than satisfactory. However, this will not start here with Le Manoir. Maybe next time.


Name: The Manor of Four Seasons (2 Michelin Stars)
Location: Great Milton, Oxfordshire
Owner: Raymond Blanc

As with any visit to a restaurant with two Michelin stars, there is a degree of excitement that mounts towards your visit. This review will go on to explain how we were not let down, in any sense.

After parking, you are required to walk through a beautifully kept front garden with a path towards the Manor. When booking we had asked to have a tour of the kitchens and mentioned this again upon our arrival, it was noted and not much more was made of it.

As we entered we were taken into the lounge area to get comfortable and have pre-dinner drinks as well as canapés. Neighbouring us was a middle aged woman who was clearly well fed, quaffing champagne and talking loudly, using expletives. This immediately relaxed us, as it meant we weren’t required to hush our voices or act overly ‘proper’ to meet the grandeur of our surroundings. This is one of the only benefits of having someone rich and obnoxious in your vicinity.

We ate in the conservatory area of the premises which gave us another great view over the grounds and a spacious, naturally lit room in which to enjoy the meal. The wine menu was extensive with a price range to suit everyone. There was a sommelier in the dining room so we asked if he would like to choose our wines by the glass to go with the starters and main.

Our first course was a beetroot terrine served with a dill flavoured crème fraiche. Simple, perfectly executed and a great way to get the taste buds going.

Secondly we tucked into what looked like a simple risotto of summer vegetables. The vegetables were of the highest quality and every care had been taken in cooking each one to its optimum. The flavour was intense and more superb than I thought it possible for a risotto. After reading the recipe book we found that this was no fluke but through a great piece of preparation. A large sack of tomatoes had been suspended in a muslin bag with herbs overnight. The juices were caught below. This may seem excessive but the intensity and uniqueness of flavour it produced, showed exactly what you can do with the humble tomato, bolstering a simple risotto to two star standard.

Sea bream with a scallop and chanterelles was next. Needless to say it was perfectly executed and lightly flavoured. The wine selected for this course was a white; it was outstanding and opened my eyes to what a white wine can be. It was plummy, so rounded and balanced in flavour. It had very little acidity, which even pricey white wines can tend to have.

Throughout the meal it was clear that everything was timed and calculated exactly. The genius of this however, came with the relaxed and unfussy service that was seen front of house. Even if you watched the waiting staff, it was hard to see the seams of their work.

For our main course we were served a duck breast with char-grilled chicory and a blackcurrant. The duck was lovely and pink but was served without a crispy skin. The skin had colour and was perfectly rendered so this somehow worked. The bitterness of the slightly charred chicory was a lovely pairing with the salty duck and the sweet blackcurrant sauce. The wine selected here was a red of French origin which was once again, delicious.

Dessert was my least favourite offering but only as I am not a great lover of apricots. As far as apricots go, I thoroughly enjoyed them. Slowly baked and served with a floating meringue. As I write this review, the sheer volume of food consumed makes me feel stuffed. Looking back, I did not feel this way. Everything was so light. It did not need to be made rich, as the produce was of such high quality. We left the dining area feeling comfortably full.

If you go to Michelin star establishments to be thrown into a world of wizardry and the unexpected then Le Manoir may disappoint. For me, it is clear that what Raymond Blanc wants to achieve is not in direct competition with the ‘mad scientists’ behind Noma and the Fat Duck. Respecting tradition and nature’s larder in a typically French manor is what is desired and achieved.

After the meal, I requested the wines be written down for me so that I can purchase them at a later date. This was left with the sommelier and I considered the possibility that he might forget.

We were led into the lounge once more for petit fours and coffee, which was more dimly lit this time. The list of teas and coffees was extensive and detailed descriptions accompanied each. Shortly after, my note of the wines came through to the lounge on a postcard of The Manor. How naive of me to think it wouldn’t. Shortly after, the restaurant manager came through and unexpectedly led us through for our tour of the kitchen, which we had simply forgotten about.

Despite a busy service going on we were shown past every section of the working kitchen. The manager laid out all the bare bones of the back of house, quite literally, in the butchery section. There must have been one chef per person in there! The kitchen was huge. It was clear that they prepared as much as they possibly could themselves. Freshly baked breads and entire animal carcasses prepared on site. Vegetables were grown out in the gardens by their head gardener, Anne Marie Owens. The fish preparation area was high tech and hygienic. There was an entire cookery school, also situated out the back.

As an ex-chef, this was all very interesting for me to see. It also impressed me that they were prepared to show you (as a customer) everything, with the upmost pride.

With a bill for 4 (for everything mentioned plus two cookery books), this experience weighed in at just over £150 per head. There is no doubt about it that this is a place to eat in for an occasion, at least for the average Joe. This meal cost far and away what I would normally pay to dine out. However, it wasn’t just a meal. It was a flawless experience from start to finish and one I will remember past the day I can no longer consume solids. 90% of the restaurants I have visited, I doubt I shall remember past my 20’s.

(5/5 Stars)