Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Quality Food!

Today I am going to talk about something close to my heart: Food. This is nearly an unashamed advertorial. The only thing stopping it being pure advert is that I have no vested interest in any of the companies I am going to mention and the first two do not even know that I exist. I am going to start with a couple of restaurants I have recently encountered, at the end I shall mention another of my favourite restaurants that I have know since it was a start up, but which is doing so well I expect it to be a chain soon. I am looking forward to seeing if Kelvin can maintain the quality levels when that happens.

First off, my qualifications to talk about quality in restaurants:

1) I eat.

2) I once spent a whole year with only one meal cooked at home, the rest were eaten out (I do not count Christmas dinner, while that was technically eaten out too, I helped cook). I have eaten in more restaurants than most people and more often, so I know a good thing when I see it.

3) I have been involved in starting several companies, so I know what is involved from the other side too.

Recently I have been particularly impressed with two restaurants. That does not just mean with the decor, though that was nice, nor with the service, though in both cases they went above and beyond the call of duty. What really impressed me though was the food. Quite different in each case, but both were filled with quality and care as well as taste and good looks.

The two places I went were NinComSoup in London (inside Old Street Tube shopping mall, near exit three) and Cotto in Cambridge (183 East Road just on the corner of the Tram Depot mews). Both of these restaurants are owned by people who care about food and staffed by the same, unlike a chain or a franchise. Having said that, both have all the good points of a chain with none of the bad. Being in a chain pretty much ensures that things like hygiene and health and safety have been covered fairly thoroughly, as is certainly the case in each of these places.

Taking Cotto first it is a stylish open place with a clean fresh atmosphere and a real culture of quality. When they ask you whether you enjoyed your food they then go straight to the person who cooked it and pass on your comments. When we arrived the waiter was sat outside going through a recipe book, and we still didn't have a moments waiting.

If you smile nicely you can get the recipe for the delicious chocolate cake or the citrus cake but believe me you will never make it better than they do. The first looks like a cake but is made like a torte, with no flour at all. What makes the place special is that the waiter knows this kind of fact and cares about it. He volunteered the details of how and why this was different from a chocolate sponge. When we commented on the nice plates he told us that they were Cedar and were dishwasher proof. The fact that they also looked lovely and fitted with the entire restaurant design was a given.

Quality is about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, which only happens when you can visualise the whole so that nothing jars the experience. I have mentioned the waiter, but the impression of ownership and commitment he gave out made me think he must be the guy starting it up. He isn't, someone I have not met called Alice owns it, but everyone there acts as if anything related the restaurant is as important as it would be if it were their baby. All the food is made on the spot from local ingredients in a well designed kitchen. The change of use has been flawless, and anyone coming to Cambridge should go there even if only for coffee and cakes.

On the subject of coffee and cakes, when the decaffeinated filter coffee ran low, Coralie, who did not want caffeine, was brought a free half cup of strong decaf (all that could be made from what was left) and a little jug of hot water to dilute it as far as she was comfortable with.

Oddly enough, free coffee could almost link the two restaurants. Nincomsoup, or


as they put it, is a completely different kind of restaurant.

It is a soup version of Starbucks, and before I ate there I had assumed it was a chain. It was the quality of the food and the attention to detail that made me suspect otherwise. The obvious care of everyone working there convinced me, and was what decided me to write this. If you want a smoothie in Starbucks, you buy an Innocent Smoothie (tm), or whatever else they are selling. Don't get me wrong, this can be a nice drink. If you want a smoothie in Nincomsoup you look through the different bags of fruit, vegetable or both and pick the one you think looks nicest and freshest. They will then liquidise it for you in the sort of liquidiser that was probably used to turn the dinosaurs into oil back in the prehistoric times before the Internet was created. The result? Probably the best fruit drink you have ever tasted.

Quality runs through the whole offering, but more than that, it is clear that the owners (Tom and Ben I understand) also care about how healthy their customers are. The food is deliberately healthy and delicious. If you want to pig out you can have a hand made chocolate brownie with an expensive proportion of nuts for a reasonably cheap price. If you actually find out what goes into it you realise that eating ten of these would be about a unhealthy as eating one of most commercial brownies. If instead you want the really healthy option you can get a flat tub of Natural (and I suspect organic, but I did not check) yoghurt with some fruit pulp over one side of it. I do not even like natural yoghurt and I found it delicious.

Beyond that, this restaurant, which has won several design awards, is also disabled friendly. Disabled friendly for a chain means it meets a few accessibility regulations. For Nincomsoup it means that staff are given deaf-awareness and sign-language training, that the staff are proactively helpful and that, of course, all the regulations are met too.

As for that free coffee, when I ordered my Americano, a different customer accidentally wandered off with it. They made me another, and him a fresh one of the type he had ordered, so that he ended up with two. It wasn't their fault he had mis-identified the coffee, but they had made it their problem and solved it so everyone was happy even before some of us had noticed there was a problem.

Finally a word about Bankside: Bankside is a huge restaurant in the centre of London, which does great food in large quantities at cheap prices. No, that is not right, it is now a set of two great restaurants doing great food at cheap prices in the expensive centre of London. In the second restaurant the elevator to allow disabled access cost more than the rest of the start-up costs put together, and nearly prevented the whole thing. So far almost no disabled people have been to the restaurant, so if you have mobility problems please go and enjoy a d*mn good meal, and help justify the cost.

I met Kelvin (the owner) shortly before he started the first of these restaurants, and he told me all about his plans. Frankly I was slightly dubious as he was talking about keeping the food cheap and the quality high. It is the sort of thing everyone wants but very few people can actually do. Kelvin managed it. He gets his house wine by the barrel so that he can save money on good wine, and it is good wine; he then passes on his savings to the customers. This is the ethic behind everything in the restaurant. He designed the seating himself, had it hand made for him and imported it, so that he could get what he needed to make the place beautiful and functional at a price that worked. Everywhere you look in either Bankside (one by the bank of the Thames the other by the Bank of England) the quality is superb and the price is cheap.

The best steak I have ever had was at Bankside and did not cost an arm and a leg. Gaucho do good steaks, Ecuador and the US do better steaks, but the best was in Bankside. I only ordered it because I smelt the steak of the person opposite me and had to have one as well. I had already eaten but could not resist. The menu at Bankside changes based on what the best food Kelvin can get is at any given time. There are currently only the two Banksides, but I am hoping the next one will be on the bank of the river Cam so I can eat there regularly.


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