September 23 2010
Which invention, do you think, has done most to improve the modern restaurant? The microwave, perhaps? The sous-vide water bath, in which you can poach a vacuum-packed piece of salmon for 12 hours at precisely 58.2°C? The Lilliputian Hoover that nanny-ish waiters employ to remove crumbs from besmirched linen?
No, the most important advancement is the computer. A few decades ago, menus in smart restaurants rarely changed: printing was an expensive business and so dishes tended to linger even when their ingredients were out of season. For the chef, it was like being forced to wear winter woollies year round. Today’s chefs have no such problems and can change their menus twice a day, should they wish, to accommodate the vagaries of fashion and the market.
Take the new Saturday farmers’ market, the FoodLovers market, in London’s Rupert Street. Set up in July by Henrietta Green, doyenne of the alfresco gourmand, and Slow Food veteran Shane Holland, it is giving Soho back some of the gastro-street cred it has lacked ever since Rupert Street greengrocers Gary and Kev said “that’s shallot” (yes, that really was one of their signs) and let in the tourist tat. Nearby restaurants – Hix on Brewer Street, Polpo on Beak Street and Quo Vadis on Dean Street, for example – are forging a happy link with the market and now offer menus based on its produce.
Next month sees the return of the fortnight-long London Restaurant Festival, which is rapidly becoming the diner’s riposte to Fashion Week. The (literally) eye-catching dinners by top chefs on the London Eye may have sold out, but there is plenty more to enjoy, not least the Festival Menus available at scores of restaurants that offer the chance to sample some of the capital’s best cooking at distinctly reasonable prices.
Those of a quizzical bent might sign up for The Big Quiz, on October 11 at Le Café Anglais, at which competitors’ frantic deliberations will be soothed by Rowley Leigh’s splendid roast chicken. And in a gastronomic version of couture-hits-the-high-street, the second week of the festival features a market at Old Spitalfields run by chefs and restaurateurs showcasing their dishes and suppliers: pickings should be particularly appetising.
There is an impulsive quality to street markets that is starting to find its way onto restaurant menus, and for a new generation of chefs spontaneity is part of the fun of cooking. For their customers, it is a fashion that should create many crumbs of comfort on London’s tablecloths. Let us hope that the waiters leave them alone.