Tag Archives: musings

What Makes a Restaurant Good?

4 Apr

I was recently asked if I’ve considered writing restaurant reviews for this blog. My response at the time was a marvelously poetic and coherent “Ennnnnnnnnnnh.”

To put that noise into words, I’ve not written reviews before because I don’t want to push myself as some kind of obnoxious all-knowing expert. Taste in food is leagues more subjective than in music, or films, or books. Every person in the world has their quirks of palate, their weird vestigial preferences that make no sense to anybody else. I’m the person who dunks dill pickles in barbecue sauce, for goodness sake, so who am I to judge?

Put simply, I’d like to think I’m an enthusiast, not a connoisseur. That said, after over 24 years of going to restaurants, I have a pretty good idea of what my ideal restaurant is.

Food

I’m biased towards food with big flavours (no surprise there!). I’m equal opportunity when it comes to cuisine, but I have a soft spot for anything Mediterranean or Middle Eastern. Taste aside, I think the most important factor for me foodwise is a lack of pretentiousness.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a reverse snob. I will hoover down foie gras and caviar if it’s offered, and I am kind of intrigued by molecular gastronomy. But I’m not interested in irony, or preciousness, or machismo. Good food, served with attention and pride. And preferably not in little towers or surrounded by sauce squiggles.

Service

I also think attentive but not overbearing service is important. I don’t need my servers to be my bestest, but I am delighted when my water glass gets filled before I have to ask. I’m under no illusions that this is an easy balance, so thumbs up to the servers who can strike it. Bonus points if they can talk about the menu fluently and make good suggestions for beverage pairings.

Atmosphere

I’m at home just about anywhere, as long as it’s not too over-the-top. To be honest, I think the company you’re with determines the atmosphere more than anything the restaurant does. I can have a sedate meal on my own in a noisy burrito joint, or have a boisterous group dinner in upscale surroundings. In generally, I tend to prefer places that are a bit more casual.

All of that said, here are my five favourite restaurants. I guarantee you will have a fantastic meal at all of them. Unpretentious and delicious food, great service, and a relaxed atmosphere. Go!

Sarah’s Top Five (in no particular order)

Range (San Francisco)

Moro

Barrafina

Bocca di Lupo

Tayyabs

This list is subject to change – there are places like Hawksmoor and Ducksoup which I haven’t tried yet and are supposed to be fabulous.

Your ideal restaurants are probably different from mine, so I’d love to know; for you, what makes a great dining experience?

Let Them Live!

6 Mar

Many of you have heard that old chestnut about Britain and America being two countries separated by a common language. Well, I’m here to tell you how they’re also separated by the common vegetable.

The British see vegetables as an alien life form that could rise up and attack at any moment, so they throw them in boiling water and cook them until they join the choir invisible. The only good vegetable is a thoroughly dead vegetable. No color, no texture, just mush.

I have adopted some of the native ways of cookery, but this abuse of Nature’s bounty makes my Californian soul cringe. I like my veggies crisp and colorful, either in a salad or cooked lightly. Many vegetables don’t need much more than salt to make them taste their best. A pinch of the white stuff brings out the sweetness in the most intransigent vegetable.

My current favourite is purple sprouting broccoli, which looks like the usual supermarket broccoli as rendered by Dali, with stems and florets and leaves sprouting every which way. I break it down, stems and leaves and all, into bite-sized chunks, then chuck it in simmering water for three minutes. Unfortunately, cooking makes its purple tinge disappear, but what’s left behind is a spectacular emerald green.

After draining the vegetables in a colander, I toss them in a bowl with a tablespoon of pumpkin seed oil and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. It’s a great mixture of bitter, sweet, and nutty flavours, and the perfect side dish for rich meat. (I served it with a pot-roasted venison haunch, of which more later this week!)

If you’re scratching your head about pumpkin seed oil, it’s a wonderful ingredient to have in your cupboard. Brilliantly green and intensely nutty, a little of it elevates salads or vegetable soups to a new level of umami deliciousness. It’s largely used in central and eastern European cuisines. I found mine at a Croatian food stand in Borough Market, but I imagine it’s easily found in gourmet supermarkets and shops specialising in central and eastern European imports.