I'm often asked where I like to go out to eat and whether, as a chef, eating out can ever be a pleasurable experience. It is true that working in the industry definitely makes it harder to find that perfect meal, with tasty food, beautiful presentation, good value for money, and perfectly sized portions.
It is inevitable that diners who also happen to be chefs will mentally deconstruct dishes and consider what they might add or take away to make the dish better, and this is most true when visiting those award-winning fine dining establishments where expectations are so high. Eating at Noma, supposedly the best restaurant in the world, was a dream come true, however the food disappointed- probably due to expectations that were impossible to live up to. On the other hand, our lunch at The Fat Duck back in 2003 remains the greatest and most memorable meal ever because we arrived with no expectations at all.
Over the past weekend I have eaten at a couple of local restaurants ranging from high-end to cheap and cheerful, and the main thing it got me thinking about was portion control.
First up was the Oxford Kitchen, a relative newcomer to the Oxford dining scene. The menu is pure fine dining, although the atmosphere is relaxed, the interior design more laid-back café than starched white table cloths, with the waiting staff all wearing denim. Oxford isn't exactly blessed with restaurants of this type so I was excited to check out their creative menu with its innovative flavour combinations which read so well on paper. I go to these places as much for inspiration as for a dining experience and in this area the Oxford Kitchen excelled. The food was pretty good. Presentation was beautiful and the everything was perfectly cooked, although the main course of lamb loin and breast could definitely have done with a punchier sauce. My only other criticism is one that seems to be a common trait of fine dining restaurants - meagre portion sizes, or rather, a clear aversion to carbs.
The problem is carbs aren't pretty. They mess up the look of a modern dish with its delicate puree swooshes, dribbled dots of jus and perfectly placed tendrils of pea shoots. At the Oxford Kitchen, the carb contribution to my beautiful plated lamb dish was a solitary new potato that had been cut in half. That's great for anyone on the Atkins diet but not so good if you have a normal appetite. We ended up ordering a basket of bread (£2 extra) to fill us up, and so even after we'd had desserts too - a superlative banana tatin in my case, we were just about satisfied. Last week I had a similar experience in London at Canvas by Michael Riemenschneider where, after a £50 five course tasting menu, I had to fill up on a Burger King Whopper at Paddington Station on the way home. I think the burger was actually more filling than the 5 preceding courses and I should add that I am a 65kg lightweight with a pretty normal appetite, not that of a sumo.
On Sunday we met our extended family for a carvery at the Plough Inn in Wheatley. The carvery concept, which is basically meat plus all-you-can-eat trimmings, has been around for decades but I don't think I've ever heard the blame for the nation's obesity problem put at the door of all-you-can-eat restaurants. Fast food joints like Mcdonalds, Burger King and fried chicken shops are always the first to take the rap but I've never seen a customer pile their tray as full of food in a Maccas as I have at the all-you-can-eat restaurants in London's chinatown, at Harvester salad bars or at the carveries of Toby Inns or mid-market hotels up and down the country.
It's as if paying a set price becomes a challenge to literally eat as much as you can, even though you don't need it and it will ultimately do your body no good at all. Pizza Hut's all-you-can-eat £6.99 pizza and pasta lunch offer should carry a carb overload health warning. I came across an article about a couple of guys who got banned from their local all-you-can-eat Mongolian BBQ restaurant because they ate too much, and what about those people in China who stack their salads to get the most they can from the free salad bar.
It's almost impossible not to overeat in an all-you-can-eat restaurant. They exist for the greedy, and I can on occasion count myself amongst their number. But for some people it's not just the odd occasion, it's every occasion and that is not good because restaurants then feel they have to serve giant portions to keep customers happy when all they are really doing is keeping their customers fatty.
Have you heard of Taybarns? It's scary. Very very scary. With multiple sites in England and Wales in towns like Barnsley, Coventry and Wigan, it styles itself as 'the ultimate eatery'. It takes all-you-can-eat to a new level. This is from their website...
'An all-you-can-eat experience offering 7 restaurants under 1 roof at amazing value and convenience. Our famous 34 metre food counter displays freshly-baked pizza straight from our pizza ovens, Chinese dishes cooked in woks, freshly cooked joints of meat for a proper Sunday roast with all the trimmings in the carvery section, delicious rotisserie chickens you can see being roasted in the rotisserie oven, plus tasty pastas. Crisp, healthy salads at the salad section and lots of indulgent puds! The foods we all love, all in a row, all cooked freshly in front of you by our chefs, and not forgetting our 'help yourself' drinks dispensers and delicious ice cream machines - all for one simple low price and all under one roof!'
and here's the latest review of the Wigan branch from Tripadvisor...
'We arrived about 6.15 & found a parking space easily, once inside the queue to pay was small & took about 5 minutes, then we was shown to our table by a very pleasant young lady. 1st port of call was the drinks machine for a soft drink, plenty of choices to drink. Armed with my plate I set off to the start of the food line hmmmm Salad bar I will swerve that seeing as its a day off from trying to be healthy. Fish bar, yes please, the fish in batter was lovely & the curry sauce was very nice as well. Onto the grill bar, I tried a burger, not to bad, the potato wedges were beautiful, no sign of the ribs but they appeared @ 7pm the wife says they were nice. I tried a small portion of sweet n sour chicken with rice which was also nice. I topped it off with apple pie & ice cream which was also nice. The lad being 17 ate a variety of burgers sausages chicken etc which he enjoyed. The wife said the liver was a bit powdery, but the carvery meat was nice. Perhaps it was a bit quieter with it being a Monday evening, yes it was a bit loud, but we saw no feral children running riot or having food fights. All in all it was a pleasant meal, very good value for the money indeed. If you want a quality steak with homegrown produce this isn't for you. It is what it says it is, we enjoyed it & will definitely eat there again'
Oh dear. AA Gill has really let himself go.
And the price? £7.99 for all you can eat. So that's four rotisserie chickens if you fancy it, with ten cokes and 3 bowls of ice cream for £7.99.
What the hell is going on?!!!
Back at the Plough and we're on to the desserts. A single portion sticky toffee pudding could have fed two easily and I'm sure many of the regulars polish it off on their own.
As for me, I had to leave half.
Well, just under half.
So which is best, the £50 a head restaurant with beautiful food that leaves you hungry or the £18 a head restaurant that fills you up, but piles on the pounds?
For me, neither is perfect, but that's just my opinion and you can never trust a skinny cook.