With the StrEAT Food Awards fast approaching, editor Henry Norman embarks on his fourth annual eating tour of the capital. What’s new in the world of B&I, casual dining and, of course, street food?
Another year, another awards, another period of economic uncertainty. While the time might one day come when we can embark on this annual tour without our apparently interminable exit from the European Union hanging over the country (and the sector), sadly 2019 will not be that year after all.
Not that Brexit seems to be having much of a negative effect on London’s thriving street food scene. While casual dining has ironically had to smarten up its act following some seriously high profile casualties, street food, particularly in London, continues to go from strength-to-strength, with several exciting new openings (more of which later) meaning that the scene no longer exists at the margins of the capital, but has now proudly placed itself front and centre.
The first part of our tour, however, takes in a couple of B&I sites, with Compass, which has prevailed at the last two StrEAT Food Awards competitions, being the obvious hosts. On both occasions, the chefs came from Restaurant Associates, so we are keen to see what its fine and employee dining arm is offering.
To find out, we are kindly hosted at a contract with an investment bank in the City that typically puts on at least one designated street food-style offer per day. Just how important it is here is emphasised by the fact that the whole of the canteen has been converted to reflect the street food style. As well as four different ‘zones’, complete with names such as ‘Leadenhall’, there is fresh produce openly on display, the fare is, as much as possible, prepared in front of the customers, and there is even a truck serving up burgers.
On the day of our visit, they are dishing out the buttermilk chicken variety, which comprises crispy coated tender chicken thigh and a Paul Rhodes brioche bun, along with loaded fries. Already a cut above, the real point of difference comes from the use of garlic aioli as a condiment and the fact that the meat is smoked with coal oil. The result is a texture that comes apart in the mouth in a way that is usually associated with meats that are more commonly associated with slow cooking. And this focus on quality and precisions also extends to the other two street food offers available.
The pizza sourdough base is fermented overnight, while the toppings include tomatoes and mozzarella imported from Italy; oregano grown on slopes of Mount Etna; and Calabrian nduja and Tuscan salami.
As good as this all is, though, for someone who has to try and favour the healthier end of fast food due to the ‘demands’ of this job (see, er, this article), the Turkish is the highlight. Veering away from the usual formula, it manages to look almost as good as it tastes. Presented with care and precision, and doubling the condiments up as a decoration, while the josper-grilled chicken and pulled aromatic lamb shoulder are winners in terms of both texture and taste, the sumac dressing (the sumac is, naturally, imported from Beirut) and pomegranate, in particular, offer up zesty, contrasting bursts of flavour.
Next, we move into the West End where Eurest provides an impressively large-scale offer for the workers at an iconic department store, dishing up around 2,000 meals per day. And the numbers just keep coming: this seven day per week operation, which runs from 7am to 7pm, serves 300 salad bar covers, 33 bespoke sandwiches and 2,500 vending transactions per day. Despite all this, the offer remains fully fresh, with no use of freezers, and it is delivered by 10 dedicated chef de parties. A prime example of higher volume catering at a lower price point, Eurest’s work here shows that, in this case, having so many cooks certainly doesn’t spoil the broth.
With this sector having, as previously mentioned, been experiencing a recent bust almost as big as its previous boom, I ask my colleagues on our sister publication Casual Dining for an outlet that is really succeeding in this space. On their advice I head to Picadilly Circus to visit one of three London-based bricks and mortar outlets run by the former Brixton-based street food business Kricket, which puts its own spin on modern Indian dining.
The first thing of note is that, as tucked away around a rather anonymous corner as it is, it’s impressively busy. It may be a weekday lunchtime but all the seats at the upstairs bar are accounted for. I opt for a spicy delivery, the aged beef seekh kebab, which seems to represent decent value (£11.50) until I realise I have to pay for the bread too (another £4). The addition of the date and pistachio kulcha bread undoubtedly elevates the dish, though, with the kebab leaving a satisfying burn, despite the calming influence of the smoked bone marrow raita. Certainly a cut above much that you will find on the street food scene (but with a price to match), settling for posher plates of the Indian orientation anywhere else in central London simply wouldn’t be Kricket.
With lunch more than taken care of, having taken a little time to digest all this, it’s time to emerge a few hours later to explore how street food is becoming central to London’s offer. With Market Halls and Mercato Metropolitano both poised to open concerns in zone one (in Oxford Circus and Mayfair respectively), Kerb has already sprouted up in Covent Garden, having recently slipped into a disused banana factory.
Occupying 24,000 square foot, it is the pioneers’ first-ever permanent home, offering all-day dining seven days a week. As such, as opposed to the somewhat ramshackle, pop-up nature of Kerb’s usual markets, it more resembles the aforementioned Market Halls’ Victoria outlet, with the vendors all being housed indoors on more than one level around a central courtyard.
Packed to bursting with some 25 independent food businesses, all with roots in the city’s streets and markets, in trying to find the lightest bite (this is very much a relative endeavor!) available, I settle on another Brixton street food stalwart, Nanban. Having long had a suspicion that ramen is little more than a faux pho, I’m willing to be converted – but the first impressions aren’t good. The first word the springs to mind is ‘gelatinous’ as it is served with unappealing traces of fat on the surface. The taste is an improvement – but unfortunately at a level that remains at ‘damning with faint praise’. The chicken and vegetables are decent but somewhat disparate, while what should be the real driving force behind the taste – the broth – is half-hearted and suffers from Nanban’s policy of not spicing up any of the ramens. On reflection, the lamb curry may have offered more.
Having sampled the likes of Club Mexicana and Yum Bun before, wanting to go out in style we decide to finish our feast at Truffle. After some slightly sniffy service, the aged beef burger is recommended, so we decide to go death or glory and double up on the patties while also adding truffle fries.
At £3 to add the former and £4 for the latter, it’s a pretty affordable way, especially in this postcode, to get a meal for two. Though, be warned, it’s very much not first date fare, as the burger is deliciously drippy, putting the ‘rare’ into medium rare. The fries are generously portioned, but with the addition of truffle oil, pairing them with the burger is a little too rich a combo. You may have more joy popping to El Pollote next door for the yukka fries for an experience that both is subtler on the palate and easier on the waistline.
Kerb’s new venture, as a whole, though, is certainly recommended. The atmosphere is vibrant, while the variety and quality on offer is extremely impressive. Though any B&I sites nearby, as long as they’re serving up fare of the same quality, as Restaurant Associates’ site in the City, need not worry about their customers straying too far from home.
The StrEAT Food Awards returns on 19th March. Go to www.bandistreatfoodawards.co.uk for more info