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A trip to Ripley, believe it or not

Saturday, August 22nd , 2009

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Stephen Drake has his name attached to two restaurants in Surrey. The one where he now cooks is Ripley in the village of Ripley, near Woking. I was impressed by the cooking here. We went for the tasting menu (a proper vegetarian tasting menu is also available, and was pronounced excellent by my wife). In particular a scallop dish with braised pig cheeks (pictured) was terrific, the single scallop large plump and sweet, perfectly cooked, a pear and saffron relish giving a hint of acidity.  Stephen Drake uses high quality ingredients and demonstrated very good technique throughout the meal, delivering dishes that were appealing and interesting. It is not on the Tube of course, but you can’t have everything.

Finding a chippy in London is not difficult, but finding a good one is.  I like Two Brothers and Toffs but these are a long way from where I live, so when I read some positive reviews of Fishers in Fulham I headed off there. It is certainly a decent place, with the fish tasting fresh and the batter fairly crisp, and although chips are bought-in they were cooked correctly and were fine.  However I couldn’t really see why Fishers merits any more attention that being a good local chippy, based on this visit.  It is certainly better than the one where I live in Chiswick, but I don’t think it is somewhere that is worth a special journey.

It is hard not to be intrigued with a restaurant in Brentford with the name Glistening Waters, which is what this Caribbean restaurant in Brentford was known as until this week, when it became the duller Lagoon Lounge. I went here partly as a result of a personal recommendation from someone who should have known better, and partly a rave review in Time Out (it gives this place fives stars compared to four stars for The Square; good one, Time Out). Caribbean food is not the most sophisticated cuisine in the world but I usually enjoy it, especially if it features decent seafood and robust spicing. Here, although the restaurant appears authentic enough, the food ranged from ordinary to downright bad, which is a pity given the rather nice room and the friendly (if at times forgetful) service. 

The Brilliant continues to be as popular as ever, completely full even on a Sunday night, with people queuing for a table. This week aloo tikki, which is a dish you only ever tend to see in Southall (vegetable pattie, yoghurt, tamarind sauce and fresh coriander), was on good form, and quite attractively presented.  The meat curries are always the highlight here, along with the excellent romali roti bread.  This is my favourite Indian bread, the dough rolled out very thin and tossed in the air before being cooked briefly on a very hot hemispherical steel dome: the result, if done well, is extremely light and supple.  The dome takes a lot of space in a kitchen, and the bread requires some skill to make, so very few places in the UK have it (Tamarind used to, but no longer). The version here is every bit as good as the romali roti I have eaten in India.

In other news, Hardens Guide released their annual restaurant opening/closings data. This is a crude barometer of London restaurant industry health, and given the depth of this recession I think just about everyone was expecting a steep rise in closures in the last twelve months (in 2003, the last and fairly mild recession, saw 123 closures).  Over the last decade Hardens have reported around 120-140 openings and around 65 closures.  So, what has been the effect of the worst recession since the 1930s?  Er, well, seemingly none.  Openings were at 121 (actually up over the previous 12 months) and closures were 64. This is actually an improvement over the prior 12 months, and indeed the lowest number of closures since 2000.  I have no idea why this is, other than maybe people have entirely forgotten how to cook at home over the last decade. Of course there may be other effects of the recession that this measure does not show, such as reduced average spend or lower profitability, but it is certainly an interesting data point.  However, it turns out that economic performance is surprisingly poorly related to this restaurant health measure anyway. If you assume that “openings minus closures” are the measure of health, and compare the historical data with UK GDP growth, the correlation is almost exactly zero, so perhaps restaurants are not such a great barometer of the economy after all.

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