It’s that time again, ironically the quiet period for restaurant reviewers. Most of the press launches have been done and the eateries are too full of office lunches and Christmas shoppers chomping on festive fare to make a review either valid or pleasant. I don’t fancy sitting on a table for one with total mayhem occurring all around me instigated by people with paper hats and party poppers. It does, however, provide an opportunity for reflection on the past twelve months.
It was this time last year that we lost my journalistic hero, the Sunday Times restaurant critic AA Gill. It is no exaggeration to say that were it not for him I would not be writing my articles, but please don’t hold that against him.
I began the year by continuing with my ‘Let’s Do Lunch’ feature which is done incognito so that I am treated just as you would be should you call in to eat. It is also done at lunchtime, the clue being in the name, so I try to keep to the specials as I realise that commuters and visitors who are in our great City may be constrained by money and/or time. In March, however, I was invited to attend the press relaunch of Epernay Champagne Bar and, after giving a lot of thought to it, I agreed about three second later. This has lead to my covering several more press launches. The difference is that we are treated like royalty as the business wants to make a positive impression to garner good reviews, I do make it clear in my articles which is which. Anything headed ‘Let’s Do Lunch at…’ will always be incognito.
The revelation of doing press launches is that I get my finger on the pulse of what the new trends in restaurants are. Apart from the chain restaurant which is Cote Brasserie, the rest have been independents. I was privileged to eat twice in the grounds of Harewood House, once for the Hidden Harewood pop-up and once for the launch of the Leeds restaurant Home, whose premises were still being prepared at the time. These events put the emphasis on food provenance, which in both cases was the Harewood Food Project. There have been a couple of visits to the Basque themed Pintura; first for a Cheese Week promotion, then for the launch of their Saturday Gastronomica Experiencia. The Weekend Cocktail Brunch at Vice and Virtue followed, as did the rebrand of Dough Bistro into the Italian restaurant named Aperitivo. A pop-up supper club presented by The Messy Cook was held in the Union Coffee House and finally I was asked to write about Hive, a restaurant which has opened off Wellington Street and puts the emphasis on healthy eating.
As you would expect, all of these were excellent in their own way. If you can’t get everything right when you are doing a major presentation then you have no chance in the real world. My only slight fear is the direction in which I feel that the restaurant ethos is heading, in that there seems to be a veering back towards the late, very much unlamented Nouvelle Cuisine movement of the 1980s. For those of you too young to remember, this was the provision of minute portions, which, although beautifully presented, necessitated a stop at the local take-away on the way home. Don’t get me wrong, I am not of the school which says that you haven’t had enough until you have had to loosen your belt by a notch or two, but I believe that there should be enough food on the plate to give you a chance of sampling the taste and texture fully. From a purely physiological point of view you can’t do this with some of the dishes I have been served this year.
The taste buds are located on the surface and around the edges of the tongue as well as the inner cheek and upper oesophagus so you need enough to cover that area. There is also a school of thought which says that different areas of the tongue recognise the separate elements of taste, namely salty, sour, bitter, sweet and umami, so unless you have a gob the size of a mouse you will be struggling sometimes. Your brain also enhances the taste when there is a larger amount of food as the danger signals of starvation are overridden and food can be enjoyed without worry. The portions also need to be large enough to emit an aroma because the sense of smell is directly connected to the sense of taste. I know this from not only reading about it but also from a friend of mine who had an accident which has left him with no sense of smell and now he cannot taste anything. Finally there is the pleasure of chewing and combining different parts of a dish.
I am absolutely certain that the tasting menu culture is done with the best of intentions, but please give us something to eat. I should hazard a guess that of the total cost of a meal at a city centre restaurant in Leeds, the food will be much less than half with energy, staff, business rates, rent, taxes and profit margin etc taking up most of it so an increase in portion size would not trigger an exponential rise in the menu price. Please give it some thought as I can see there being a repeat of the Nouvelle Cuisine episode with people jumping on the bandwagon and providing substandard food at exorbitant prices to make a short-term killing whilst they are the ‘Next Big Thing’. I don’t relish the prospect of viewing a lot of naked emperors in 2018 who were supposed to be dressed in Savile Row suits. Rant over!
Ending on a positive note, which is what Leeds is all about, I continue to be stunned by the diversity and quality of the places I visit, and long may it continue.
My wish for 2018 is that we pay tribute to our wonderful City’s diversity and see town centre openings of Jewish, West Indian and Eastern European eateries, but with a suggestion, should anyone take me up on the latter category, give the bull’s testicles a miss as there are far too many people nowadays who are allergic to nuts!
Have a wonderful Christmas and a happy, healthy, prosperous and peaceful 2018.
Stan writes Let’s Do Lunch for Leeds Living. He also reviews special events for food and drink, which sometimes takes him beyond Leeds. He has also developed an interest in writing on culture, most frequently dramatic and musical theatre.