It's not fancy, it's not big and it's not clever, but the scrag end is delicious. For simple, honest opinions on restaurants, recipes, supper clubs and what not, you've come to the right place.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Supperclubs, trademarks and the London Underground

Many of you reading this will know Ms Marmite Lover. I expect several of you have been to The Underground Restaurant, her Kilburn supper club. I attended before I was a food blogger, and had a memorable day, chiefly because of the sweary biscuits she served. As the self-proclaimed “pioneer of supper clubs in this country,” Ms Marmite Lover is pretty well known. 

The Underground Restaurant launched in January 2009, achieving remarkable success extremely quickly. Supper clubs in London are two-a-penny these days, but Ms Marmite Lover (real name, Kerstin Rodgers) claims to have laid much of the initial groundwork for the current boom. From her home in Kilburn, she puts on dinners, lunches, afternoon teas, themed nights and recently, an Underground market, charging up to £50 pounds for the privilege. While she may not yet be making mega-bucks, it’s clear that what started as part-hobby, part-philosophical statement, is now a brand, generating revenue and a significant media profile for its founder.

Unfortunately for her, success means publicity, and with publicity comes scrutiny. Last week, the Evening Standard ran a story about Transport for London’s challenge to a trademark application for ‘The Underground Restaurant’, filed last year. Ms Marmite Lover confirms that she filed the application, and that TfL have sent her no less than three ‘cease and desist’ letters, demanding that she change the name or shut the restaurant down, on the grounds that she is infringing the company’s ‘Underground’ trademark.

The story met with howls of outrage from the foodie community, some of them justified, many of them not. Despite what some people have claimed, this has absolutely nothing to do with trying to ‘copyright’ the word ‘underground’ (that would be impossible), nor is it accurate to say that TfL has tried to ‘patent’ the word (patents cover inventions, not words). This piece is an attempt to look at the issue slightly more realistically, though I’m not a trademark lawyer, and none of what follows should be taken as legal advice of any sort.

TfL owns a trademark for the word ‘Underground’, registered in Class 43 for food services, restaurant booking services and the like – essentially, it’s the European-approved category for restaurants, catering and so on. This trademark entitles the owner to protection from anyone imitating it, passing off their services as the owner’s, gaining benefit by creating a false association with the existing brand, creating confusion about the origin of services or otherwise diluting the value of the initial mark. 

That said, for a trademark to be usefully enforceable, the owner must normally be able to demonstrate that it is being put to use in the category for which it was registered, and that someone else’s use of it is confusing or damaging in some way. Effectively, if challenged, TfL might be called upon to show that it not only provides some kind of food or restaurant service, but that it is branded with the Underground mark. I asked TfL if they have any such services, but didn’t get a reply.

Now, without going into whether ‘The Underground Restaurant’ actually infringes TfL’s mark – it would require more information than is available to someone not involved in the case – it is fairly clear why TfL are pursuing it. Any large corporation has a responsibility to its stakeholders (even if they are taxpayers) to protect its intellectual property. It’s sound commercial policy to stop people gaining benefit from a brand name that they don’t own. And while Ms Marmite Lover calls TfL’s own trademark “frivolous” (in as far as it covers food), for the moment, the trademark exists.

Does ‘The Underground Restaurant’ gain benefit from a false association with the London Underground? Probably not, but if the question is even worth asking, then it’s probably worthwhile for TfL to investigate it. Does ‘The Underground Restaurant’ create confusion among customers as to the origin of its goods and possibly dilute the TfL brand? Probably not, though Ms Marmite Lover’s house is not far from the Kilburn Underground station, so it’s easy to see why you might ask the question.

The more pertinent question might be whether it’s worth TfL investing money in tackling what is still a pretty small business. Many people would say no - it’s a clear waste of money that TfL could usefully spend on providing a useable transport service. Personally, I have quite a bit of sympathy for that view. But that said, it won’t cost TfL very much to send cease and desist letters, and the company knows that it has deeper pockets than its opponent. It might well be making a sensible calculation that it can nip a potential problem in the bud by throwing its weight around now. It’s not very nice, admittedly, but neither is it illegal. In fact, it’s probably good business.

So given the situation, where does Ms Marmite Lover go from here? Well, she could close down. That’s probably not an option. She could change the name of the restaurant (TfL have apparently suggested ‘Kilburn Underground’, though that doesn’t seem to solve the problem). That seems unlikely. She could wait it out and see whether TfL feels strongly enough to take her to court. The problem is, that could mean ending up in court. Finally, the two parties could reach an agreement.

“I have had reasonable discussions on the phone with TfL's lawyers. They said I'm sure we can come to an arrangement if you use a different font,” Ms Marmite Lover says. “They changed their mind. I'm hoping to come to an agreement with them,”

In all likelihood, they will come to an agreement. It’s in no one’s interests for the case to go to court. And if there’s a slight irony in a proud anti-establishment figure wanting to register a trademark in the first place, then no matter. As Ms Marmite Lover says, she’s “protecting [her] brand.” TfL would say the same, no doubt.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Tiny Robot, 78 Westbourne Grove

It’s a little bit funny, this feeling inside. I’m kind of hungry, and I’m outside. I don’t have much money, but if I did, I’d probably go to The Ledbury instead. They say Saturday night’s alright for fighting. Luckily it’s Friday, which is good for dinner. And while there are many familiar, delicious restaurants around Westbourne Grove, it’s no sacrifice to try a new one. So hold me closer, Tiny Robot, even if your name is silly. 

The first problem is the menu. It’s all well and good having a set of dishes listed under the word ‘Balls’, but it’s a challenge to work out how you’re supposed to choose your meal, given that half the menu costs about £3.50 while several dishes cost upwards of £15. Do you have starters? Lots of small things? A mix? Are the dishes suitable for sharing? We didn’t know. Nobody told us, nobody showed us. We asked the waitress, and apparently it’s normal to order lots of things and share them, giant T-bone steaks at £28 notwithstanding.


We had arancini and a couple of sliders, some whitebait, a rocket salad (or arugula, as the American-language menu would have it), and a piece of giant sausage with lentils.

The arancini were tasty enough, though smaller than you might like. Their spinach and parmesan risotto filling was comforting, while a side of herb aioli added a nice kick. We had one pork and one beef slider (meatballs in little burger buns). Mine, beef with ‘spicy tomato’ sauce, was pretty average, its sauce neither especially spicy nor even particularly tomatoey. Cute Letts' pork slider fared little better with its creamy parmesan topping. Neither of us had the guts to try the special turkey and cranberry option.

Now, I’m a rocket man, and in a salad with shallots and a super-light vinaigrette, it’s an excellent leaf. Our salad was just right, an enchanted moment in an otherwise mediocre ensemble. But even the most rocket man of rocket men might have found the whitebait dish a little odd. I don’t have any particular objection to serving whitebait mixed up with rocket, but in this instance, the whitebait was too soggy and threatened to meld with the leaves at any moment. A disappointing experience only partially offset by some delicious aioli (this time, without herbs). 

But oh, lawdy mama, the giant sausage and lentils were good. A generous slice of cotechino Modena, a lovely, fatty sausage, sat lustily on a bed of lentils, crispy pancetta, carrots and onions. It was marvellous.

For dessert, we shared a baked Alaska, principally because I haven’t eaten one since I was about five, and they’re bloody lovely. This was particularly good, a ‘pieces finally fit’ kind of moment. Fluffy meringue sat atop rich pistachio ice-cream on a bed of boozy panettone. It was far too big for two, and you can’t order it for one, but I didn’t care. Six mouthfuls made me so sugared-up I felt like a wide-eyed wanderer. Otherwise, I’d have certainly finished it. 

The bill came in about £50 for two, including a couple of beers and a glass of wine. Tiny Robot is ok, but you can do a lot better in this area, and I don’t just mean at The Ledbury. Would I go again? Well, I think it’s gonna be a long long time.

Phil Letts’ take: 5/10

p.s. Apologies for the scarcity of photos. It was too dark. The sun had gone down on me.

Tiny Robot on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 14 November 2010

In praise' markets

Why would anyone need to praise farmers’ markets? It’s not like there are hordes of people queuing up to hurl insults at farmers selling their wares. We love fresh food in this country and we like knowing where it’s from. There’s no argument.

But in these straightened times, you hear the growing sound of tummy grumbles. ‘Farmers’ markets are overpriced,’ goes a popular refrain. ‘The food is hardly locally-sourced if you live in London,’ goes another, ‘and besides, farmers’ markets are full of twats.’

The third point is unarguable, but I’d take issue with the others.

There are certainly some things at your average farmers’ market that are overpriced. Normally, they are those items that have little or nothing to do with a farm. No one needs to spend seven pounds on a jar of hazelnut honey, and pre-made pesto sauces don’t need to cost a fiver. Indeed, much of what you might call the artisan-food trade at farmers’ markets is a horrendous rip-off. Thankfully, there’s an easy solution to that: don’t buy from those producers unless you want to. 

Farmers’ market butchers can seem expensive by comparison with supermarkets, I’ll concede. Certainly, their meat is likely to cost more. Things that are miles nicer than other things tend to. I don’t think £10 for 800 grams of rare-breed skirt steak is too bad (price correct as of two weeks ago). Quite apart from the fact that you’d struggle to find skirt in a supermarket (chortle), this is more than competitive with almost anywhere you could buy it. It was bloody delicious too, even if 'rare-breed' is about the least helpful name for a product I can think of.

Yes, there’s the odd venison kidney for ludicrous amounts of money. If you can get one somewhere else, I suggest you do. Is it locally sourced? That depends what you mean by local. You’re probably not getting your deer from Richmond Park, but neither is your steak from Argentina. I’m happy to know that I know where it’s from, whether that’s Wiltshire or Northumbria.

The trick is to be discerning. Some price comparisons from my most recent visit:

Market eggs (free range) - £1.20 for half a dozen

Supermarket eggs (free range) – £1.63 for half a dozen (free range)

Market cavolo nero (bunch), leeks (five), broccoli (head), celeriac (one), onions (four), herb bundle, beetroot (handful) - £4.80

Supermarket cavolo nero (not in my local), leeks (five), broccoli (head), celeriac (see cavolo nero), onions (four), herb bundle (not really available), beetroot (handful) – about £5, if you buy the cheapest range, and without the missing items

Market apples (massive bag) - £1

Supermarket apples (not so massive bag) - £0.97 for basics

You get the point. The quality is hardly comparable either. 

My local farmers’ market is in Queens Park. I imagine it’s up there with the most expensive in London. I still save money shopping there above my local supermarket, and everything tastes good. It’s better value and similar quality to the Riverford veg box I used to get. It’s better quality and fractionally more expensive than Portobello market. There may be better options in London, but not near where I live, and not with Tesco or Sainsbury’s written above the door.

p.s this is very funny - thanks to The Old Hat Club for sharing

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Hawksmoor, 11 Langley Street, Covent Garden

If I was called Pete, I’d feel even better about Hawksmoor’s remarkable cocktail, Shaky Pete’s Ginger Brew. After all, on Sunday at lunchtime I did feel somewhat shaky - a result of the excesses of the night before the night before. I’m also a teeny bit ginger (my facial hair, since you ask, and absolutely NOTHING else). And any brew worthy of the name gets my vote. It’s almost the perfect drink for yours truly, then, even if it is named after the barman who created it. 

Shaky Pete’s Ginger Brew is truly the aperitif of gods. Unshaven, hungover gods perhaps, but gods nonetheless. This marvel contains gin, homemade ginger syrup, lemon juice, and a foamy London Pride top. They serve it in a glass with a proper handle too, the better to combat any tremors.

Anyway, Hawksmoor is principally known as a restaurant, so I’ll cease banging on about drinks. It’s famous for steak (and Kimchi burgers, if tweeting bloggers are anything to go by). We took advantage of their soft opening, which meant the food was 50 percent cheaper than it is now - good news for a tightwad.

As a result, we ordered extraordinary quantities of food and spent at least as much as we would have done had there not been a discount and we’d been watching our wallets. I had six Cumbrae rock oysters with sausages. The oysters were drowning in excess water, but otherwise delicious, while the sausages were the perfect fatty accompaniment. At £13 pounds (normally, £10 for oysters, £3 for sausages), these would be fine, but at £6.50, they were spectacular. We also ordered potted mackerel, which was large and tasty. It could probably have done with some more toast, but at £5.50 normally, you can hardly complain about that.

But who cares, really? It’s all about the beef. We went for a prime rib to share, with bearnaise sauce, steamed spinach, beef dripping chips and triple-cooked chips, and a side of bone marrow. You heard.

The beef was remarkable – fatty, beautifully pink and full of flavour, almost crispy on the outside with bags of lovely char taste. Also, there was loads of it – 1.2 kilos to be precise. This was a good thing, though also points to a slight quibble with Hawksmoor, at least during the soft opening.

We sat down for Sunday lunch at 1.30. By then, there were no porterhouse or prime rib cuts left at less than that weight. Between two, 1.2 kg is a bit of a stretch, and it would have been nice if the more popular weights (800g-1kg) were more readily available, especially since at normal prices, 1.2 kg would cost £72. That’s a figure to be reckoned with. I expect this is precisely the sort of thing that the soft opening is designed to identify, so it would be harsh to call it a problem, but I’d have certainly felt priced out of any of the sharing dishes if it had been a normal service – a shame, because the meat was truly brilliant.

At £3, the bone marrow side is laughably cheap – gooey, rich and stupidly moreish. Frankly, I’d have eaten four of five of these if I could. The beef dripping chips were super too – thick-cut and ballsy. Their thrice cooked cousins were slightly reserved by comparison, though still excellent. Spinach worked as a kind of annoying hippy at the meat feast – perfectly pleasant, but only really there to make you feel guilty about everything else.

We washed it all down with a bottle of Gayda (I laughed, but then I’m extremely silly). Punchy and nicely leathery, it was worth the £24 pounds we paid.

Taken on the terms it sets itself, Hawksmoor is more or less flawless. I can’t imagine you’ll ever find better beef in London, and the Seven Dials site looks the part and more. Shaky Pete’s Ginger Brew may be the best cocktail I’ve had, though I don’t drink many. I hope to shake him by the hand next time I go. It’s not cheap, but for a memorable meal in Covent Garden, Hawksmoor is a must visit. They are going to clean up.

Phil Letts’ take: 8/10

Hawksmoor (Seven Dials) on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Camino, 28 Westferry Circus, Canary Wharf

Canary Wharf always seems an odd place. But on a Saturday lunchtime, bereft of its bankers, wankers, lawyers and assorted consultants, it’s quite eerie, like a gold-rush mining town with no more gold.

I’ve always suspected that the typical restaurant customer in this part of London has no great need for food, subsisting instead on cocaine, money and poor people. But were they so inclined, the citizens of planet Goldman could do worse than head to Camino, the newish sister restaurant of a well-liked Kings Cross establishment.

I did, at the restaurant’s invitation and expense, and enjoyed the experience, though it’s fair to say Saturday lunch is probably not the best time to go (I chose the time, so you can blame me). We took advantage of the unusually good October weather and sat out on the waterfront, gazing over the odd modern-old buildings that define much Dockland riverside development.

The menu we were given was for brunch. It contained no starters, and when the waiter suggested we try churros con chocolate (little fried doughnuts with chocolate) ahead of our parrillada mixta (mixed grill), I was slightly bemused. Instead, we had to make do with some horrible olives, covered in lemon juice and paprika, I think. They were not good at all. A glass of Tio Pepe compensated somewhat, but I wasn’t optimistic about the rest of our meal.

Happily, things perked up with the arrival of our main. A huge plate of meat and garlic-smothered piquillo peppers, with a mild blue-cheese sauce, it was priced at a muscular £19.50 per head (minimum two to share). Any quibbles about the cost were more than made up for by the quality however. Rib eye steak was perfectly rare, tender and juicy. Pork sausages were interesting enough, with just a hint of peppery flavour to keep us keen. The morcilla (black pudding) was subtle and rich, with the texture of haggis and a fatty, ferrous flavour that I really loved. Some nicely cooked chicken was fine, but lacking zing. 

Best of all was the Iberico black pig, served very rare indeed, and quite superb. Unaccustomed to deliberately rare pork, I was surprised and delighted by the fleshy texture of the meat, somewhere between raw tuna and rare steak. Sprinkled with large chunks of rock salt, it was full of sweetness and meaty flavour. A real discovery. The piquillo peppers were good too, though the salad leaves perched on the corner of the plate were disappointingly meagre and poorly dressed. The ensemble would have been great accompanied by potatoes. There were none on the brunch menu, though they are available normally. They should probably just serve them with the meat. 

Our excellent waiter recommended a glass of Quinta El Refugio to accompany the grill. It was miles better than a £21 pounds-per-bottle wine should be, all vanilla notes and musky aftertaste. 

We followed this with cheese – a ragbag of decent manchego and disappointing non-descriptness, accompanied by a rather nice thick strawberry jam. One of the cheeses tasted simply of Edam; another looked cracked and tough, like it had been cut earlier in the day and left out too long. But, I suppose, if you’re going to serve mediocre cheese, then you might as well do so alongside Upita de Los Reyes biscuits. These were so good I took the wrapping home with me and am now scouring London to find more. Caraway, salt and caramel played on the tongue to create layers of flavours that expanded and retreated in every mouthful. The datey, pruney glass of Pedro Ximenez ‘El Candado’that we drank with it probably helped too. At £4.50 a pop, this is another bargain. 

We finished with decent coffee and an aggressive, anis-flavoured Basque liqueur called Patxaran. Very nice.

Camino does lots of things extremely well (including pictures of Penelope Cruz in the men’s loo). The food ran the gamut from poor to truly excellent, while the wine was wonderful and affordable. I imagine it will do very well in Canary Wharf, because it’s a cut above crappy chains like Giraffe, but not so fancy as to deter people who like that kind of place. You can eat and drink well for under £35 pounds per head. And if nothing else, there's the Iberico black pig and those gorgeous biscuits.

Phil Letts’ take: 6/10

Camino on Urbanspoon