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27/11/2008

Smythson's Restaurant List

The 2009 Smythson pocket diary, which has been out a week or so, includes a list of 50 London restaurants. A little glimpse, through Samantha Cameron's eyes, of places to eat - or perhaps to be seen to eat. Here it is, quoted in full:

Bentleys
Bibendum
Boxwood Cafe
Cafe, The, at Sotheby's [yup, that's how they list it]
Caviar House
Cecconi's
Cheyne Walk Brasserie and Salon
Cipriani
Connaught, The
Daphne's
Fifth Floor, Harvey Nichols
Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's
Gordon Ramsay
Green's Restaurant
Hakkasan
Inn The Park
Ivy, The
L'Atelier de Joel Robucnon [sic]
Le Caprice
Le Gavroche
Le Pont de La Tour
Les Trois Garçons
Maze
Mitsukoshi
Moro
Mr Chow
Nahm
Neal Street Restaurant
Nicole's
Nobu
Nobu Berkeley
Paternoster Chop House
Petrus
Poissonerie de l'Avenue
Quaglino's
Red Fort, The
Riva
River Cafe
St. John
Savoy Grill
Scotts
J. Sheekey
Simpson's-in-the-Strand
Square, The
Tamarind
Tom Aikens
Umu
Wiltons
Wolseley, The
Zafferano

I know, I know: Smythson don't claim to produce restaurant guides - despite issuing this rather beautiful thing. But even allowing for the inevitable W1 and SW1 bias (31/50, up to 37 if you include SW3), it's still a baffling list.

What's going on here? There are plenty of schleb-spotting places - J. Sheekey, Hakkasan, and of course The Ivy. But no Sketch? It's also disappointing not to see more recent high-profile openings, like L'Ambassade de l'Ile, or Murano, or L'Anima. Daphne's hasn't been a destination for twenty years - but somehow Richard Caring persuaded them to shoehorn it in there. I've heard some very negative things about The Cheyne Walk Brasserie and Salon, although I confess I haven't been. The Caviar House is just another midmarket chain these days, in an airport lounge near you. Fifth Floor at Harvey Nicks once served me raw pork, and I've rarely been more ill. Where's Locanda Locatelli? Pied à Terre? Do we really need both Nobus? And what the hell is the Paternoster Chop House doing there?

21/11/2008

Le Restaurant du Port, El Jadida, Morocco



Le Restaurant du Port



In Tangier, drenched by the unrelenting downpour, we dodged our way through hustlers before taking the winding road to Chefchaouen. We trudged round that blue hilltop village beneath more November rain, then returned, wretched and frozen, to an unheated, boxy little room, where we lay shivering under dirty blankets until it was time for dinner. (I had a decent enough tagine made with tomatoes and balls of lamb, with an egg cracked in its centre.) The sun broke out on day four, though, and after we’ve visited Fès, Meknes, Rabat and Casablanca, it’s blasting down today. A six-hour, rattly bus journey throbs ominously before us, so a nice spot of Sunday lunch is called for.
We can hear the Atlantic crashing against the rocks beyond, but the little port beneath us is as innocent and wobbly as blackcurrant jelly. Orson Welles filmed much of Othello here, among crumbling, storm-beaten ramparts built by the Portuguese five centuries ago. The place is full, and with a stab of homesickness, G and I set familiar eyes on a lively, clattering bar, which even has a couple of women at it. It’s a textbook seaside restaurant, really, with décor that would look kitsch back home; but here, the old rubber rings and ropes strewn across the wood panelling have a rustic homeliness.

Could we see the wine list?

‘We have red, white or rosé.’

G’s kind of wine list! Chilled rosé it is, the ubiquitous Cuvée du President, and when it arrives, glistening with condensation, along with some crusty baguettes, we could almost be on the Côte d’Az. The menu is exclusively fish, except for a solitary and somewhat dull concession to terrestrial carnivorism – steak au poivre. There’s lobster à l’Americain, and tuna steak, and marlin. Why not a classic, then? Sole meunière comes in eight minutes flat, firm flesh pulling gently away from sticky, gelatinous bone, the breadcrumbs bringing crunch and a pleasant scabrousness. With it are carrot slices gently glazed with butter and mint, some lukewarm chunks of potato and a large bunch of parsley. But after the endless bowls of urine-hued couscous with brownish veg chunks, this makes for a magnificently refreshing change. G’s fish are gobbling on their tails like a Celtic pattern, and are equally good, fresh as spring. To think they were slapping around on the deck a few hours earlier! Another bottle materialises; perhaps even a third. The reader knows I’m preaching to the converted, but is there anything in the world, really anything, more delightful than lunch with friends in the sunshine?

Bill please. Count-count-count. Eek. Not enough cash. G draws the short straw, and beetles out into the sunlight to the nearest machine (they don’t take cards here, like much of Morocco). He leaves me with, oh woe, the rest of the third bottle. When he returns, bristling with notes, the bus’s klaxon, far off, seems to rise above the muezzin’s wail.


Restaurant du Port, Port du Jadida, El Jadida
Tel. +212 (0)23 342 579
See on the TFYS Google Map

Lunch for two, excluding drinks and service, costs 190 dirhams (approx. £15).

19/11/2008

A note on tipping

The government’s proposals on restaurant tipping, announced today, are long overdue. That they appear at a time when the industry is facing both haemorrhaging customer demand and rising costs in raw foodstuffs is of no importance. For years, certain restaurants – including favoured chains like Strada – have brought wages for front-of-house staff to statutory minimum levels only by hijacking the tips; a form of candlelit robbery. A ‘gratuity,’ that is, given freely, was once a means of expressing appreciation and acknowledging good service. It was never supposed to fund a waiter’s basic subsistence. In its debased modern form, the tip functions as an effective cover charge, with an ‘optional’ twelve-and-a-half per cent tacked on to everything from a bowl of olives to a magnum of Dom. It thereby does nothing to incentivise better service. The English, with a cowardly reluctance to complain to restaurateurs, swallowed this ‘table tax’ (itself a VAT dodge) like a teaspoon of arsenic-laced Petits Filous. In America, where service is typically far better, tips are wholly discretionary, with good performances well rewarded. It’s time we followed that example.

18/11/2008

Stylia, Marrakesh, Morocco



Stylia

☆☆

Until quite recently, the restaurant was an alien concept in Morocco. In a poor country, where family is all, it seemed a distinctly odd idea to eat food cooked by someone other than a female relative, and then to pay for it. The French, as brief colonial overlords, barely changed this, despite cementing what might now be called a ‘café culture’ and a taste for flabby croissants. As a result, most restaurants in Morocco are aimed squarely at tourists, and there is no good restaurant aimed squarely at tourists anywhere in the world.

G and I have been pottering round the country for a little over two weeks, and have run the full, briefish gamut of Moroccan dishes. The best things we’ve consistently enjoyed have been roadside barbecued brochettes of minced lamb, flecked with oregano and then stuffed, perhaps with onion and tomato, into the chewy oval breads you find throughout the country. The bulk of restaurant meals have inevitably comprised couscous, or tagines of lamb or chicken, and have swung from mediocre to downright awful. Couscous, in particular, has been consistently dire: clumpy semolina under overcooked wodges of carrot, potato, and big-seeded courgettes. The accompanying liquor is better – a chicken reduction flavoured, more often than not, with cumin and harissa. As for the tagines, well… decent enough though they were at first, there’s only so much you can do with them. And only so many of them you can eat. So it’s with something approaching exhaustion that we arrive at Stylia.

Curious name, for one thing: neither Arabic nor French. A hint that this place is even more touristy than most is bolstered by live oud music – which (like a lot of music, come to that) has its roots in the slave trade: in this case, the Senegalese bought and sold in Moroccan markets as late as 1912. It’s about twenty to eight in the evening, and the door is shut fast. The chap who showed us the way through the labyrinthine medina scuttles off, and we’re literally alone in a dark alley. We press a button that might conceivably be a bell. Four minutes later, someone appears, telling us that they don’t open till eight. OK. Can we make a booking for eight, then?

‘One moment.’ Off he goes. A couple of minutes.

‘Come in.’

It’s a big plastered room in a fifteenth century mansion, with glass chandeliers from Murano – naturally – and a water feature sloshing away in the centre. Rose petals are scattered everywhere: hall, corridor, floor, like a bombed florist’s. A couple of bottles of the country’s best beer, Casablanca, followed by a bottle of the localish Ksar, and it begins.

In the deathless words of Lonely Planet (which, it bears emphasis, is no Guide Michelin as far as restaurants go), ‘to many people, a discussion of Moroccan cuisine begins and ends with pastilla’. It certainly ends this one. Pastilla is possibly the least pleasant national dish I’ve ever eaten – and this one isn’t my first in Morocco. Here, it’s made with shredded pigeon (an alternative to the usual chicken) and, as standard, it’s layered in a flaky pastry with ground almonds and cumin. This concoction is then liberally sugared and dusted with, of all things, cinnamon. The pastry has a decent crackle, but the ratio of bone to meat is approximately 5:3 and, like all poultry bones, these are shardy and multi-shaped and niggling. Food through which the tongue must sift does not an enjoyable dish make. Apparently, pastilla is principally ‘reserved for special occasions, such as weddings’. That may well be true – although at the Berber wedding G and I were lucky enough to be invited to a few days ago, we had a fabulous dish of lamb baked with prunes, accompanied by noodles with shredded coconut and washed down with, um, Fanta. Perhaps pastilla, like the roast turkeys of Christmas or Thanksgiving, is restricted to rare occasions because, in all honesty, it isn’t that good to eat.

Next, and far better, is a tagine of lamb: a thick hunk of tender shoulder in stolid, cuminy sauce, a chunk of preserved lemon adding salt and the faintest citrus whiff. The meat is as soft as a baby’s thigh, though there’s too much for me. The waiter clears the plates by the table with an ear-splitting scrape.
Couscous arrives, and the grains are fluffy and distinct, there are sultanas and an onion marmalade and the kitchen has barely overcooked the carrot, potato and courgette. In fact, this is the best couscous we’ve had all trip; it’s just a shame that it should have come when our tolerance for the stuff has long reached stodgy saturation point. Unbelievably, pudding is meant to be another pastilla – au lait this time, which we had at La Maison Bleue in Fès.
Some orange à la cannelle is a safer bet: ripe oranges sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. Intrinsically Moroccan and a light, uninspiring end to dinner prepared by a kitchen on autopilot.


Stylia, 34 Rue Ksour, Marrakesh
T
el. +212 24 440 505
See on the Map

Four course set menu for two, excluding drinks and service, costs 550 Dirhams (approx. £35)