Eating out: posh nosh or good & simple? I go for value these days.
Wed, 31 August, 2016
Eating out. I do more and more of it, for reasons extensively (ad nauseam) mentioned before. It’s damn expensive to eat out, say what you will – my weekly shopping bill has admittedly gone down but overall expenditure on food contrarywise. I should have asked around a month or so earlier – maybe someone would have employed me as a restaurant critic temp? No, didn’t think so.
I live in a small town, possibly quite representative as small, reasonably nice, market towns go. We have about a dozen or so restaurants, four gastro-pubs, a few takeaways and lots of cafes that also tend to do food. The last is a new thing – I can’t say I’m very taken with the idea of a place doing EVERYTHING: breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee, cakes – the lot, unless it's a hotel. If you try to do all, you usually end up doing it all badly.
The restaurants weirdly veer towards Italian. Every time a new place opens you can bet on it being Italian-ish of sorts. I honestly don’t know what is wrong with people, they seem to think that cooking Italian food means throwing lots of rocket on food as a compensation for the lack of flavour. Perhaps someone should tell the Italians and they could invade those ‘authentic’ (not) outfits, pelt the owners with handfuls of penne, dunk their heads in a barrelful of olives and tell them, in no uncertain terms, that a self-respecting outfit shouldn’t serve pizza AND carne or pesci; that bruschetta is not pronounced like it's the cousin of a brush; and that pasta is the middle course of a meal served after a starter and before the main.
What do I look for when eating out? Good question. There are the usual two camps: posh nosh and good & simple. You don’t go to a lobster shack in Maine expecting a Thermidor but Le Gavroche would let you down without a bit of foam and jus on the plate. The Holy Grail in both camps though is the same I guess: flavour. Sadly it is often a let-down: good intentions but poor execution, the outcome - bland and meh.
So I generally look for dishes that I can’t cook at home (or, let’s be honest, am not up to cooking), or the produce that is difficult to get hold of in your weekly grocery shop. When I first had sweetbreads I’d not even known what they were but it was love at first bite. Recently it was the lamb grenade at Tom Kerridge’s that took my breath away: cutlet wrapped in sweetbreads and cabbage, all breaded and deep-fried (take that, Mary Berry!).
Okay, eating out is expensive but inspirational too - take my tomato stew or the dome cake, both versions of what I’d had in a restaurant. But these days, for reasons above, necessity rules so I look for another very important restaurant factor: good value. My tip: Thai and Greek places usually win in that department. Perhaps just in my town...