March 22 2010
Restaurants and the fashion industry have never coexisted happily, perhaps because the dining room is no place for a rake-thin supermodel. It is, for example, more than a decade since London’s lamentable Fashion Café called last orders (disorders, in some cases) and Mmes Turlington, Campbell, Schiffer and Macpherson went back to their day jobs.
This is not to say that gastronomy is immune to the vagaries of fashion. The arrival of a new ingredient on the culinary catwalk has always caused a sensation; these days, it might be pomegranate molasses or tonka beans, but chillies, chocolate, tea, potatoes and tomatoes have all caused stirs at various times. I await the arrival of rancid yak’s milk butter from Tibet.
Some restaurant fads are just silly. I recently dined at a pretentious Yorkshire gastropub where the onion soup was served in a Kilner jar, while the chutney came on a small plate. To avoid such solecisms, I recommend Tom Pemberton’s splendid Hereford Road, where the food is served on sensible white china and is better for it. There is not a rectangle of slate in sight. From the lunch menu, you might try – as I did – home-cured Bath chaps (pig’s cheeks) with dandelion salad, a rare onglet with aïoli, watercress and very good chips, and a wedge of Cashel Blue; £15.50 for three stylish courses.
Sometimes, a foodstuff is plucked from ignominy and given new life, as a washed-up pub singer might triumph on a TV karaoke show. Take piccalilli: pickled vegetables, packed into those strange jars that emit a yellow glow suited only to emergency lighting in supermarkets. Thanks to the trend for “good, honest, British cooking”, it has been rehabilitated, and it is now difficult to find a menu without it. I particularly recommend the version made and served at Canteen, the small chain of British bar/restaurants – try London’s Royal Festival Hall branch (pictured) next time you’re being cultured on the South Bank.
The best – or most amusing – attempt at a food fad was conjured up by the Italian Futurists in their manifesto of 1930. Many of the ideas therein are strikingly modern – the idea that some dishes should simply be passed under diners’ noses, for instance (I was once served a small box of smoke during a meal at El Bulli), or the promotion of perfume as a flavour enhancer (Heston Blumenthal’s Black Forest Gâteau is served with an atomiser of kirsch), and I am sure Marinetti and cronies would have loved the slates and Kilner jars.
They made one fatal error, however. For any fashion to persist beyond novelty, it must be practical, and the Futurists wanted to ban pasta, considering it enervating and demoralising. The idea failed. As a precept of culinary couture, it was one that the Italians simply wouldn’t wear.