Why don’t restaurant reviwers, review restaurants any more?

I used to think AA Gill was a witty, urbane and cultured writer but his narcissistic clap trap is driving me crazy.  I saw his review of Kitchen W8 and leapt in with gusto.  1347 gorgeous words or so I though.  896 words on and no mention of the restaurant that was supposed to be the focus of the review.  So two thirds in and not a word, mention or sniff of the reason why I am reading the piece in the first place. Then hurrah at 896 words in there it is a mention of the restaurant in question.  I’m now anticipating silken prose about the food, the wine, the service and the ambiance. Sadly this doesn’t happen until 155 words before the end.

Let’s pause for a moment here, food fans.  So far, 90% of this article has been about Mr Gill, his love of language, his family, the fad of restaurant naming and nothing about the actual restaurant in the review.  This receives 155 words. I repeat 155 words. That twice the length of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s nothing.

So a tip for all you prima donna, pretentious restaurant reviewers.  Stick to the day job, and review the f’ing restaurants. If you want to read a decent review in the Times read Giles Coren but even he spends 1045 words looking up his fundament before he starts his review.

 

There was once a little sentence. It was a lovely little sentence, with freckles and grammar. It was clear and simple, with nice letters and a verb, or perhaps it was a noun, and a full stop. The sentence loved its full stop. It thought its full stop was the fullest of full stops that had ever stopped a young sentence.

But the sentence was sad, because nobody would read it. So it went to ask a passing limerick why nobody would speak to it, and the limerick said: “It’s because you don’t have a double entendre.” “Where could I find a double entendre?” asked the sentence. “You have to look in two places at once,” said the limerick. “Must dash. I’ve got to meet a young virgin from Milwaukee.” “Oh dear,” said the sentence, and asked a page of a newspaper that was lying in the gutter: “Why won’t anyone speak to me? I’ve a beautiful full stop.” The paper replied: “What you need — off the record — is quotation marks.” “Where do I get quotation marks?” asked the clear and simple sentence, and the newspaper said: “Someone has to give them to you.” “Whom?” asked the sentence. “Who,” said the paper. “A source. That’s who. I’m the last edition. Must fly.” And it caught a gust of wind.

“Oh, dear,” thought the little sentence. “How will I ever find a source?” And then a lovely young mother appeared, pushing a pram, and she stopped and she looked at the little sentence and she smiled a lovely warm mummy smile. “What have we here?” she said. At last, someone had spoken to the little sentence. “Hello,” started the sentence clearly and simply. “I’m afraid your daughter’s been killed by a maniac. Can we harvest her organs? Because they’ve come to a full stop.”

I’d quite forgotten — no, I’d wilfully blanked — how unspeakably frightful most children’s books are. I have to do the bedtime-reading thing all over again. This is supposed to be such an intimate, sacred communion between parent and child, the nuggety-warm, soap-smelling, damp-naped, snuggly-bliss moment of family, the sort of thing the Tories will give you a tax credit for, the thing you’re supposed not to swap for anything in the whole world. But I’d swap it for a stripey tie. To read them a bedtime story, you first have to get them somewhere close to bed, which means switching off the video of Toy Story, which can cause keening and renting akin to the burning of the library at Alexandria. (Frankly, they have a point. Tom Hanks does it far better than I can.)

Then we sit on the story-reading night-night sofa, and one of the twins runs off and says, “Read this, Daddy.” And Daddy says, I’m not reading That’s Not My Dog again. “Read it, Daddy.” No. “Read it, Daddy.” No. It’s not a book. It’s stupid. You don’t read it, you feel it. That’s not my dog, my dog’s bottom’s not that sticky. It’s Braille for the illiterate. No, let’s have another story, and it’ll be something about a girl who’s lost her pigtail, or a rag doll that had an adventure in a sewer. Or worse, it’ll just be a family who are being unctuously lovely and inclusive, and green and saintly, and role-modellish in rhyming couplets. “I love you, Grandpa, because you have big hands, and knobbly knees, and you were tortured by the Japanese.”

Even when they’re supposed to be grim — because didn’t Roald Dahl tell us all children like horror — they’re all so winkingly faux grim. It’s glove-puppet horror. And just as cat food isn’t made for cats, it’s made for cat owners, so children’s books are written for kiddie owners, and they speak comfortingly to the arch vanity and overweaning snobbery, the self-satisfied genetic competitiveness that made us have children in the first place. Collectively, there is an almighty smugness about kiddie bye-bye words. I know the people who write these things, and the women who edit them, and the committees of educational psychologists and behaviourists who midwife them, and I know the sort of world they’re trying to project, and manipulate, for the good of us all. And, naturally, I want to take an axe and anthrax to the lot of them, and anyway, reading to children is a constant battle against heckling. So I’ve taken to picking up magazines and making up stories. A copy of Playboy is a good place to start. This is a story about a lot of mummies who have lost all their clothes. This is Debbie. She’s looking for her clothes in the bed. And Shawnee is looking for her clothes on the beach. Yes, maybe she’s got her pyjamas in her boobies. Hello! is also good for children’s stories. This is the ugly toad the fairy turned into a prince. Look at his greasy hair. He’s marrying the Queen of the Vampires, and those are her bridesmaids, Lunch, Dinner and Tea, and the guests are the Troll Cannibal and the Witch of Farts, and there’s the Evil Dwarf, and that one’s Simon Cowell.

Very quickly, the children will join in, offer plot points and alternative character developments. Bedtime story telling becomes like writing American television drama: collective, out of the box riffing. You start with a Boden catalogue; you end up with West Wing meets True Blood.

Kitchen is plainly the à la carte appellation du jour. Kitchen, on Abingdon Road, must be the third or fourth of that name that I’ve reviewed in the past year. They all used to be Chez, and then Bistro, and Auberge, and then it was just an address and numbers, and vanity chefs’ names, which vain chefs found made them very hard to sell. And then it was the AKA of assumed names that sounded like Hovis ads. Now it’s Kitchen. Kitchen is supposed to imply unfussy, down-to-earth, rib-sticky, home-made food, with a motherly touch. Kitchen supper. Kitchen cabinet. A touch of the kitchen. (Actually, in Spanish, that means you look like your dad was helping the maid put the buns in the oven.) This kitchen is a bit of a misnomer. It’s a satellite of Phil Howard’s Square. Howard is probably the best chef in London, but he doesn’t do homely, slap-on-the-plate, mop-up-the-gravy-with-a-buttered-slice food. He does delicate and elegant, with flavours that are surprisingly clear and intense.

This is the second time the Blonde and I have eaten in Kitchen, which is lucky for Howard, because first time it wasn’t quite the thing. It was like Noël Coward doing Cockney, not a Cockney, just the voice. It is a truth about cooks that it is easier for a short-order burger-slinger to up his skills to fine dining than it is for an haut chef to get down cheap and hearty. They just don’t know when to stop fiddling and arranging, and dribbling. It’s like opera singers doing pop songs. This time, though, it was much better. It’s given up the pretence of being from anyone’s kitchen. It’s now a smart, £50-a-head local restaurant in a wealthy bit of Kensington, informal enough to attract midweek diners, and sophisticated enough to impress the in-laws.

The food isn’t quite as immaculately pristine as the Square, but it’s probably right for the location. I started with a ravioli of mushrooms, mycologically deep and loamy and generous. Then stuffed chicken wings with foie. Our guest, Emric, had a velouté as smooth and fragrant as a novice cigar-roller’s inner top front thigh. I had a pigeon — a woody, not one of those bland French squabs — and the Blonde had a sea bream. The best dessert was a crème fraîche tart.

Overall, the food is far better than anything else you can eat in Kensington, though it occasionally suffers from ingredient generosity: one flavour too many. Plates can become overwhelmed by good ideas and taste association. The room has been decorated with energy rather than élan. (Clever Ikea.) It’s all a bit effortful, but it’ll probably remind the neighbours of home, which is, of course, the point of a local neighbourhood restaurant called Kitchen.

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