Restaurants

Who Gets the Tip?

This is a semi-off-topic post, for me but one I thought was important to share. I heard about it through my friend Alasdair who I believe is doing the PR for it.  The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is backing a campaign called ‘Who Gets the Tip?’  They’re asking diners in the UK to ask where is it, exactly, their tip money goes after it leaves their hands.

In the US, we know that servers are the ones who gets the tips. Quite often they have to tip out the bussers, foodrunners or bartenders, but the money they make is still pretty much theirs.  In the UK, it’s not so clear. You’ll often get a service charge between 10% and 12.5%, but where that money goes after is a bit murky.

Since October 2009, it is illegal for businesses to use tips to make up the National Minimum Wage. They’re also being encouraged to display their policy on how they distribute tips.

If more people ask ‘Who gets the tip?’ then more businesses will be transparent about their tipping policy.

A Code of Best Practice, has been developed by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in collaboration with Trade Unions, consumer groups and industry. They are all supportive of businesses being transparent about tipping policies with consumers and workers. The Code states that businesses should:

  • Display information on their tips policy prominently, before the customer leaves a tip
  • Be transparent to customers and workers about how their tips are distributed as well as the level and purpose of any deductions
  • Ensure that workers understand the tips policy and know where to direct customers for additional information

The Code is voluntary, and the Government will be holding an official review towards the end of 2010. Businesses can find out more about the code at Business Link.

The ‘Who gets the tip?’ campaign is backed by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and supported by Trade Unions, consumer groups and industry.

I’m all for this.  In the States, I’m a serial 20%-er, but here – like everyone – I just pay the service charge. Do I really have any clue where it goes? Nope. I can’t say that I’ve even thought about it.  But I do know if I were to find out that the 12.5% went mostly in the pocket of the boss, I wouldn’t be happy.

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Tajima-Tei – Chancery Lane

When I lived back in the States, I used to have sushi all the time. I still love it, but I find to get proper sushi in London, you usually end up paying an arm and a leg. If I’m every really craving it, I might have Itsu for lunch, but even then, I end up spending £7 or £8 for something that’s not really high quality.

So, essentially, I’ve been avoiding sushi as much as I can. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to find a place I like because I know it will be expensive, and I know I’ll just want to go all the time. Tajima-Tei is a perfect example.

I went here on a very cold and rainy London evening. My dining partner had said that he heard about it from a friend who said it’s the only place he goes for sushi in London, and that it’s the only place Japanese people in London go for sushi. Walking in, that seemed to be a true statement. I think we were the only native-English speakers in the whole place. Good sign.

The first thing I order at any sushi restaurant is hamachi. Ninety-nine percent of the time, you can judge the quality of a sushi place based on the quality of their hamachi. For example, what did I think of Hakuba‘s hamachi? Not great. Tomoe‘s hamachi? Actually quite nice, and a good price. Japan Centre‘s hamachi? Meh. And that pretty much sums up my feelings of all of those restaurants in general.

And what, you ask, did I think about Tajima-Tei’s? My god, just look at it:

Lovely, rich and buttery. A fantastic fish.

The rest of the evening was filled with things like eel and avocado:

Tuna, prawn, mackerel, salmon, scallop and some sort of weird egg thing on rice:

Veggie tempura:

And the star of the show, a massive ‘Spicy Tuna Tempura‘, which had sweet prawn, tuna, crab stick and salmon mixed with spicy mayonnaise. This picture doesn’t do it justice – each piece was seriously about the size of my palm:

I really liked this place. It’s a bit out of my way, which is probably a good thing as I won’t be tempted to come back too often, and it’s not the cheapest (food and two carafes of sake and service was about £65), but it was definitely tasty.

Tajima-Tei on Urbanspoon

Asia de Cuba – St. Martin’s Lane

I had my first taste of Asia de Cuba, the most well-known (only?) tropical-Asian fusion restaurant in London and New York, at Taste of London, and I’ve been dreaming of it ever since. After one failed attempt at lunch in August, I was ready for another go – especially since they had a 2-course £15 deal going on for London Restaurant Festival.

The restaurant is located in the St Martins Lane Hotel. It’s about as well-hidden as you can get being on a busy street in tourist London. The only hint of an address number is a nearly transparent sticker at the bottom corner of the giant chiffoned window that faces the street. I walked up and down the street about three times before I figured it out.

The other thing about Asia de Cuba is that it’s expensive. And by expensive, I mean overpriced. But that does not mean it’s not fantastic – it just means I’m not normally going to go unless A) it’s a special deal B) it’s a special occasion or C) someone else is paying. My lunch obviously fell under Category A.

I started out with the beef dumplings two ways: crispy with plum sauce and steamed with coconut rice and mango ponzu.

Gorgeous presentation. A bit small on the portion, but it is only a starter. The crispy dumpling was, indeed, crispy. There was far too little plum sauce though. After one swipe it was pretty much gone and I was left with a dry dumpling. The steamed morsel was much more my taste, but unless I’m blind, it didn’t come with any coconut rice. That was a bummer.

For my main, I got exactly what I tried at Taste of London – the dish I’ve been dreaming about for four months: Honey-rhum glazed pot roast of pork.

Heaven.

The top of the roast is crispy with caramelised goodness. Underneath that, there is a nice pork belly-esque layer of fat, followed by the most supple melt-in-your-mouth pork roast ever. The dish is served on top of cubed fried plantains (gotta get the tropical theme in there somewhere), enoki mushrooms and bok choi.

This is seriously one of my most favourite dishes on the planet. It is an absolute explosion of contrasting and complementing flavours all at the same time. I can not put into words how much I love this. It was just as good as I remembered, and I will have a hard time ever ordering anything else off the menu.

The only problem with this dish is that it is monstrous. I was conflicted… it was so good I wanted to finish every last bite, but I found myself slipping into food coma after about 25 minutes of om nom nom’ing and had to stop. In hindsight, I’m glad I did. I don’t think I could even look at food for the rest of the day.

Still, I think I did pretty well…

Dessert was not an option, but I think at some point in the near future, I could be tempted with the mini mexican donuts filled with butterscotch sauce. The others I thought looked very nice as well.

Service was fine, but nothing to write home about. I didn’t find anyone to be particularly personable, but I can’t complain since the service was prompt and the meal timed correctly.

There are definitely a lot of reasons people gripe about this restaurant (value for money being number 1), but as far as I’m concerned, they’re crazy – I’d probably pay double just to have that pork over and over again.

 

Asia de Cuba on Urbanspoon

Polpo – Soho

This tiny Venetian tapas restaurant in the middle of Soho has really made quite a splash since it opened earlier this month. Harnessing the power of social media, Polpo‘s owners have managed to drill down into the heart of the London foodie community and probably get more food blogger reviews in a few weeks than other restaurants have in years.  Now, whether that’s a good strategy for a new restaurant remains to be seen – the reviews from what I can tell are a mixed bag. My experience, however, was definitely a positive one.

I managed to snag a table for 3 for a 2pm lunch. The restaurant is still hopping. We sit down and take a look at the menu.  I have a momentary freakout because I’m with one vegetarian and one sort of vegetarian, and at first glance it doesn’t seem like there’s much on the menu for them to eat. A bit of detective work, however, found veggie dishes popping out from other categories.

We start out with some green tapenade crostini, potato & parmesan croquette and salt cod on polenta:

polpo

The croquettes are lovely, as is the salt cod.  I’m not too much a fan of the crostini.  The tapenade had a weird rubbery texture I couldn’t quite get used to.

We also tried the grilled zucchini:

polpo

This was fantastic. There was a nice bit of bread crumbs on top to give it a bit of a crunch. The zucchini itself had a nice bite to it as well (seems they were generous with the lemon). I always think zucchini has the potential to come out very soggy depending on how its cooked, but this was done perfectly.

Next up was a dish specifically for the carnivore at the table (me). Roast pumpkin with prosciutto and Parmesan:

polpo

OMG. This was soo good. Very simple, elegant blend of savoury flavours. The cheese was a sharp balance to the warm pumpkin. I’m making this at home. Easy, super fantastic dish.

Pizza bianca:

polpo pizza

This white pizza was a blend of cheeses with some very sweet roasted onions. It was a good size portion. I would order it again.

Grilled polenta:

polpo polenta

I don’t think I eat enough polenta. It’s such a great side dish.  Ours was a bit on cold, but that didn’t detract from it.  There was a hint of sweetness in the dish that made it pair well with whatever else we had at the table, including this dish of turnip tops, chili and garlic:

polpo greens

For me, the only slight disappointment was dessert.  We all went for the chocolate ganache cake, which we were assured was the best on the menu.  While it was indeed tasty, it didn’t blow me away.  It was less a chocolate cake, as it was a lemon cake with a bit of chocolate sauce.  I like to keep my chocolate separate from my citrus, but that’s just me…

polpo cake

So far, I’m a fan of Polpo. I’d definitely like to give it another go some time, particularly to try some of the other meat dishes – especially because I was so fond of the pumpkin ham. It will be interesting to see if it stands the test of time now that all the blog buzz is starting to die down.

Only time will tell…

Polpo on Urbanspoon

Stef’s – Oxford Street

Stef’s is located pretty much on the cusp of the first circle of Hell (just north of Oxford Street across from the Plaza Shopping Centre and next door to a Nando’s), but that won’t stop me from going there again.

We had a large group on a Saturday night and were all there on a Top Table deal of 2 course and a glass of prosecco for £15.95.  Now, most of the time on these deals, I expect to be treated pretty poorly, but the staff at Stef’s couldn’t have been sweeter.  The ‘deal’ menu had a lot of choice, we weren’t rushed by the staff at all and I thought the food was excellent (plus, all 7 meals came at the same time – something that seems to be a huge challenge for far too many restaurants these days).

For my starter, I went with a very simple mozzarella and garlic bread.

A really nice start to a very garlic-y meal. But in a good way

For my main, I had chosen a tomato cream tortelloni, but unfortunately they had just run out.  It must have been pretty popular.  I asked for a recommendation, and ended up going with a spaghetti with mussels in a spicy tomato sauce.

It’s so easy to get used to banging on about crazy intricate sauces and complex flavours that you often forget that simple can be best. This was a nice al dente pasta with tomatoes and chili and garlic and spices.  Nothing complicated, but certainly very good.

I was one of the few tempted by dessert, and went with this chocolate souffle cake.

I was amazed (and a bit bemused) as to how this cake got to our table so quickly.  Usually with a souffle it takes a little bit of time to cook – especially to the point where the middle of the cake is nice and oozy. I ordered this and within minutes it was sitting in front of me.  It’s a mystery – a very delicious mystery I probably don’t want to know the answer to.

Definitely pop into Stef’s if Oxford Street Christmas shopping is doing your head in. It’s not quite as good as Amaretto, but still a cheap option for yummy Italian in Central London.

Stef's on Urbanspoon

The Warrington – Maida Vale

No sooner did I leave The Warrington in Maida Vale did I read in The London Paper (rest its soul) that Gordon Ramsey’s pub had failed a health inspection. Apparently they found mouse droppings in the kitchen, under the sink and in the window sills. I’m writing this review as if I didn’t know that, but be advised that mousecrap supersedes whatever tasty things I had at The Warrington

I started out with the potted duck with apple and onion chutney.

Is there nothing better than duck with fruit? It’s like peanut butter and chocolate or steak and stilton.  I wasn’t sure if the lukewarmness of this dish was intentional or not, but I found it to be a nice light start to the meal. Bread was meh.

The main was a braised lamb shank with sweet potato mash.

Lamb shank should fall off the bone and melt in your mouth.  This did that, but unfortunately what fell of the bone was mostly fat. Ick.  I also wish there was some sort of a vegetable served along with this. Lamb is good, sweet potatoes are excellent, but I need something to cut the salt and sweet. That said though, there were some really nice flavours out of this. The broth was really nice.

For dessert: bakewell tart.

I think I’m just not cut out for ‘pudding’ pudding.  When I was little my grandma would make strawberry rhubarb pie and Christmas pudding and I just couldn’t handle it.  Bakewell tart is the same. It’s just…. too much.  What I thought was ice cream on the side of the extremely rich and dry tart ended up being just one huge hunk of cream.  It just needed something to hydrate it, and dessert shouldn’t really be like that at all.

The Warrington was fine. If I didn’t mention it before, the building itself is absolutely gorgeous. Really, really beautiful.

Considering the whole mouse crap thing, I won’t go back to the restaurant proper, but I enjoyed my meal enough when I was there. I would definitely spend time in the pub downstairs though.

It was also nice they had a California Zin on the glass list. You don’t see that every day in England.

Warrington on Urbanspoon

Grange – Ann Arbor, Michigan

Opening up a restaurant is extremely difficult.  There is so much to prepare, so much to anticipate, and so much to work out before you actually know what can and could go wrong.

That’s the kind of pressure Grange is under at the moment.  It’s the newest nice restaurant in Ann Arbor. With big shoes to fill, it’s in the loacation of the former Bella Ciao and right next door to my beloved Pacific Rim.

Grange is the brainchild of Chef Brandon Johns (Vinology and Chop House).  The restaurant aims for something that I’m actually quite shocked that Ann Arbor hasn’t gone for yet: sustainable, in-season, fresh ingredients from the farm to the table.

The other thing about Grange you should know, is that one of my best friends, Lauren, (also known as Wifey) is the front of house manager. So obvs, she was really excited for me to try it out.

Being friends with the manager does have it’s perks.  Us VIPs (as designated in Open Table!) enjoyed some starters on the house. w00t!

Fried green tomatoes, cumin scented goat cheese fondue:

Good, but unfortunately a bit cold.  The goat cheese sauce could have been a bit more pungent.

House cut fries, duck fat, roasted garlic mayo, smoked salt:

You know what? I’m just convinced that everything tastes better in duck fat. Yum!

Scotch duck egg, mustard sauce:

Never met a scotch egg I didn’t like. Especially Heston ‘Effing Blumenthal’s

Plate of radishes, butter, sea salt, crusty bread:

I think I told Lauren about this dish: ‘I love you, but no’.  I mean, it did what it said on the tin, but it was – in all honesty – a bit  boring. They charge $7 for this and I think it probably costs them about 75 cents to make. I would not have been a happy camper had I paid properly for it.

For my main: “Fox River Breakfast”, cornmeal crusted trout, duck confit hash, fried egg

My friend Emily and I both got this dish.  We couldn’t resist egg and duck and fish all together. It was a bit odd though. Mainly because I could tell in which order this dish was put together.

The potatoes were plated first (they were the coldest), followed by the trout (a little warmer) and then by the egg (piping hot!).  Emily’s was in the same fashion, but it was clear they were in a hurry to get it out of the kitchen because in a rush they threw her egg on top too quickly. The yolk broke and was leaking all over the place.  In the rush of that, they also forgot to give me the sauce that was meant to go on the dish. That, however, may not have been a bad thing, as Emily said it was a bit too salty in the first place.

Needless to say, I was not in love with my main.  It was good, definitely. But not $25 good. And that’s not about the taste, but more about the temperature.

After a ridiculous amount of starters and my main, I was so not hungry for dessert. But, of course we shared one anyway.

The plum tart:

Ah! This was fantastic.  The crust was light and buttery, the fruit not too overpowering. Just a wonderful summer dessert.  Only thing was that the ice cream was served in a warm ramekin and so it was all half melty. Still really tasty, but temperature was off. I’d say that pretty much sums up my feelings about Grange…

The thing with this restaurant is that they need an expo. Like, now.  Service was wonderful, and the food was really good, but the issue is consistency and presentation in the Back of the House.  The fact that two of us at our table ordered the same thing and it came out looking different and at different temperatures is a huge problem for a restaurant that charges $25+ an entree.  Ice cream that’s all melty and cold fried tomatoes should never make it out of the kitchen.

It’s the little things that end up making a huge difference.

That said, I will of course be back at Christmas to see how it all pans out. It’s a new restaurant, after all.

Grange Kitchen & Bar on Urbanspoon