Andaman revisited

Saturday, December 20th , 2008

Brasserie Roux is that scariest of things, a restaurant in a hotel in an airport. Its Albert Roux connection and ex sous chef from the Wolseley suggested something better than airline food may be hiding here, and this proved to be the case. The dining room is attractive and the bistro food featured some good quality crab (pictured) and similarly well sourced, if overly cold, cheese. Easily the highlight was a genuinely impressive rum baba, a difficult dish to pull off properly. Prices reflect the captive audience, and this is hardly going to become a destination dining venue, but at least now I know there is somewhere to eat in Heathrow that is not a joke.
Madhu’s is the other restaurant in Southall that I go to regularly, along with the Brilliant. These are related in the sense that they are owned by the same family; Sanjay, who owns Madhu’s, is the nephew of Gulu, who owns the Brilliant. Madhu’s was the first Southall restaurant to adopt smart, modern décor, but the cooking is firmly rooted in the traditions of Punjabi food. A new dish on the menu is fried cauliflower with a garlic sauce, and this was a tasty way of starting the meal, the cauliflower retaining its texture and enlivened by the spices and garlic. Biriani is always good here, and a chicken biriani had fragrant rice and moist chicken. They have even now started doing romali roti, but also make light, fluffy naans. Madhu’s also knows a thing or two about scale, as they are the largest Indian wedding caterers in the UK. Indian weddings often have many hundred, and sometimes over a thousand guests, and one day this summer they were catering to seven separate weddings in the same weekend. Just imagine how many onions needed to be chopped for that!
Andaman is the venture by Dieter Muller in St James, with two of his sous-chefs operating a tiny dining room in the boutique St James hotel. It is also a case study (though not of the good kind) in restaurant marketing, and the perils of dealing with the London food critics. Andaman had the misfortune to open in late September just before Lehman Brothers folded, and the restaurant initially priced its food high and its wine list higher. There was no concession price during soft opening, and no cheap lunch menu. I spoke to the (now ex) restaurant manager at the time about the crazy wine prices and the need to encourage people in the early days (maybe a discount in soft opening?), and he looked at me as if I had asked to sleep with his sister. 
The London critics duly got their knives out and wrote a particularly vicious series of reviews which went on at length about overpaid bankers and the sort of people who frequent boutique hotels (not journalists apparently) with some vaguely xenophobic references to Germany in Basil Fawlty tradition thrown in. Some of the reviews even mentioned the food, though usually in passing. Suitably chastened, the restaurant now offers a limited choice £30 three course menu available in the evening, and tasting menus from £52 - £75. A hastily revamped wine list starts at £22 and has plenty of choice under £40. I have had three meals here now, and this is solid one star cooking, between 6/10 and 7/10. Sadly this does not matter a jot, because the critics only go to a place once, and now their reviews are out there on the internet like a line of gargoyles, putting people off from trying the place.  It is a good example of the old adage that you only get one chance to make a first impression, and sadly this is especially true of London restaurant critics. If you want to read a review of Andaman that discusses the actual food rather than unsubtle references to War World II then try this excellent one from blogger FoodSnob. Still, if you feel like swimming against the tide, this is a good time to go to Andaman. I doubt you will have trouble getting a table.
On this visit to Zafferano I had a good cuttlefish and French bean salad, with tasty cuttlefish and a pleasant dressing. This was followed by an excellent sage risotto, made from scratch and with the rice having absorbed a good, rich stock. Then chestnut pasta with wild mushrooms was an appropriately seasonal conclusion. Best of all was a little nibble at the beginning, bruschetta with langoustines and salad; the baby langoustines were superb. The restaurant is as busy as ever, with around 150 covers being served tonight; no sign of recession here, though of course this is December, the busiest time for restaurants. 
The River Café has now reopened after its fire in April 2008.  It looks very smart and the kitchen is almost entirely open to view. I have always struggled a bit with the River Café. It is a lovely, airy room, and the staff are sweet. The kitchen buys high quality produce, and generally cooks it very well. I am all for simple dishes, cooked carefully. However, every time I see the bill, I am left in a state of shock. A nice fillet of wild sea bass with some (frankly overcooked) lentils was £30. For £30 I can buy some pretty serious restaurant food in London. I cooked some wild sea bass just a few days ago at home and a fillet of similar size cost £6 to buy (£24 for an excellent quality fish yielding four good size fillets). Of course there are the lentils to add, but with the best will in the world the food cost for this dish will have been under £7. We are talking about roasting a piece of fish here, with no army of commis chefs needed to delicately carve vegetables or stir a demi-glace for five hours. This is the one and only problem I have with the restaurant; I simply cannot reconcile the price charged to the effort put in. £127 per person is a chunk of change for a lunch with one of the cheapest wines on the list, and I was grateful that, on this occasion, I was not picking up the bill. The media luvvies who packed the place out on the lunch time that I ate seem entirely oblivious to this pesky price issue, so I can hardly blame Ms Rogers et al for charging what the market will bear. However, I will be keeping my monthly booking at Zafferano, despite the River Café being very near where I live.
My completion of the tour of the 2008 Michelin three star places had a fair bit of press coverage this week.  For example:
As well as some specialist sites like The Caterer and Hardens. I did get one insight into the reality of journalism when, in the print edition of the Independent, they managed to end my article with the phrase “Andy Hayler writes about his trip” – that is it, just stopping in the middle of a sentence (in the correct on-line version the sentence continues and refers to my web site). I can now begin to understand why Giles Coren can get so upset (see also the video parody of this here). I am unstressed about my syllables but hoped that someone working on a national newspaper might spot that this was not a sentence, as well as wondering about the missing description of the drug-induced haze that the sentence fragment seems to hint at but does not deliver. First clue here to aspiring newspaper designers and sub-editors: there was no full stop after “trip”.   Ah well.
I’d like to wish you all a very happy Christmas.