La Genova

then it hit: the garlic. An assault of still-raw garlic that was harsh, bitter and as brutal as the Battle of Monte Cassino. On and on it went, well into the next day and beyond

For some, the 1970’s is revered as something of a golden age for food, a halcyon interlude of eating and dining out. Certain quarters would have you believe we have recently witnessed a revival of all things seventies-related.

Were it to be true, it would be hard to regard this as anything other than a mawkish exercise in harking back to a time when people were growing up; a nostalgia for a collective, half-remembered and idealised past. The food, really, has nothing to do with it. Nostalgia is in the mind, not on the dinner plate. Take music: it is tempting to think that absolutely everybody was immersing themselves in Dark Side of the Moon on a home stereo system costing more than your house and with quadraphonic sound so luminous it was as if Roger Waters himself was having a breakdown right there in your living room. But then you actually go and watch an old episode of TOTP only to discover that this categorically was not the case.

Pundits as diverse as Alex James and Gregg Wallace are on record as declaring the 1970’s to be a particularly glorious period in our epicurean history. But if we associate just one person with the era then it is obviously Delia Smith. From the minute she appeared as presenter of Family Fare in 1973 Delia, as it is popularly claimed, Taught The Nation How To Cook. Her mannered approach was instructional, her programmes educational as opposed to entertaining. Of eating out in particular, Smith, perhaps somewhat typically, believes that the overall experience was simply “better back then” as chefs served “real food” and were “more in touch with what the public wanted.”

Yet all this fanfare for the common man doesn’t really ring true. “Bring back the buffet table!” is about as appealing a rallying cry as “bring back hanging!” Yet we should not be too quick to discredit Delia Smith. Her influence and authority on all things epicurean is, and continues to be real and genuine: sensible, aspirational, generous. And lest we forget, it was Delia who baked the cake for the album cover of Let It Bleed.

Gregg Wallace on the other hand is the English Defence League of British cooking. He misses the point entirely when bellowing about “the great 1970’s food revival”. Really? Where? A “57% increase in the sale of Chicken Kievs” the Ingredients Expert thunders with no small amount of reactionary pride. He obviously thinks the country has gone to the dogs because nobody is eating spam anymore. And that’s as maybe. Although he neglects to consider that we are floundering in the death throes of a recession deeper than Zaltman’s Metaphor. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies families have spent more on processed convenience food during these straitened times. Mums don’t go to Iceland because they suddenly come over all misty eyed for Showaddywaddy. They do so out of necessity because rocketing prices and falling incomes equate to consumption of the cheapest calories available.

But what were people eating in the 1970’s, and where were they eating it? Well for a start anything that is nowadays cooked in a Balti pan, served Chow Mein or eaten with chips. Add to that pub food: from the unreconstructed, un-tucked shirt and high street aggro of Wetherspoons to the A-road lay-by, beery suicide note that is the Toby Carvery. From Prawn Cocktail and Steak and Chips to Black Forest Gateaux, this is what we eat now. None of it has actually ever gone away. So much for nostalgia and revivalism.

But the biggest innovation of all to come from the 1970’s was the Italian restaurant, or at least its anglicised counterpart. People began holidaying abroad more than ever before initiating a desire for and interest in food from sunnier climes.

Our love of Italian food and the trattoria was born and fast became a staple of many a high street with its check-table clothes, pasta suppers and affordable reds. The Shirley Valentine charm of the trattoria signified something that was at once aspirational and exotic. Really, it is not hard to see why. Practically anything Italian at all, from organised crime to Fascism is capable of sounding alluring; glamorous, even. It is all just clinking glasses on the piazza and endless sunshine. Admittedly this was never going to translate to a high street in Stoke, say, but maybe the food – pizza and pasta, olives and olive oil, and coffee as smooth and as rich as a chauvinist astride a Vespa – could. As writer and blogger Tony Naylor says, “an Italian restaurant was, and is still considered to be the height of sophistication and for many, it feels like a big, glamorous night out.” While more practically, Anglo-Italian is “cheap to make, hard to balls up.”

La Genova on North Audley Street is Mayfair’s oldest Italian restaurant. A local stalwart since 1970 it remains largely unaltered, bright green neon sign out front and all. Owned by Rinaldo Pierini for nigh on 45 years, it was named after his city of birth, the capital of the region of Liguria, that small, bow-shaped province in the north of the country running from the French border down to La Spezia. Aside from a few house specialities that include Minestrone Soup and the regional dish of pasta with pesto, green beans and potatoes, Genovese fare is rather disappointingly not foremost on the menu. Although there is something touchingly naïve and old-fashioned about the way in which their oft-featured pesto is proudly described as ‘home made by the owner himself’.

To start, a steaming bowl of Trofie al Pesto was initially as comforting as only a good pasta dish can be. Like all well-made fresh pasta it was bouncy and velvety with plenty of fresh basil and a good glug of Extra Virgin. Then it hit: the garlic. An assault of still-raw garlic that was harsh, bitter and as brutal as the Battle of Monte Cassino. On and on it went, well into the next day and beyond.

Elsewhere on the menu there was Prawn Cocktail, obviously, and plenty of spaghetti dishes. Various things in breadcrumbs such as scampi, chicken and veal and lots of things cooked in brandy and cream. Salmon Ravioli in a cream sauce was perfectly decent in a non-U, napkins-folded-up-in-wine-glasses sort of way. Of the more Italian-sounding main courses there was Veal Fillet in Marsala. It didn’t taste bad simply because it tasted of very little. But then there was also a nicely comforting veal Osso Bucco which was far better. More of the same, sweet, cloying sauce that seems to accompany all dishes here but the softly caramelised meat fell obligingly from the bone. Every dish also came with the obligatory side plate of mixed veg.

A generous dollop of Tiramisu from the dessert trolley proved to be the high point of the meal. It was a splodge of pure retro dinner party heaven that would have done Delia proud. Superlatively creamy and rich, I clearly envisaged a satiated Michael Winner, all squinty, and gurgling “Marvellous!” “Historic!” And it truly was. Other choices were fresh fruits or ice cream.

I have painted a rather so-so and unexciting picture here but everything about La Genova from the decor to the menu is a genuine, un-ironic, concept-free throwback to a bygone era of dining. It has remained open and well-loved for the best part of half a century and there is no reason to suspect it will not remain so for as long again. There are those who might describe it as Mayfair’s ‘best kept secret’ yet Italian is our de facto restaurant of choice. Figuratively speaking, everyone eats here. The 1970’s may have well shaped, honed and melded our taste buds more than anyone would have imagined, but in this instance at least, nostalgia ain’t quite what it used to be.

Opinion: 5/10

La Genova
32 North Audley Street
London
W1K 6ZG

Tel: 020 7629 5916
Website: http://www.lagenovarestaurant.com

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Corrigan’s

the sense that green, muddy, hearty Ireland had been supplanted by warm, fragrant, luminous Southern Europe

Hey, I’ve got a joke:
“Waiter, waiter your thumb is in my soup!”
“Don’t worry sir it’s not very hot.”
Or how about this:
“Waiter, waiter I want to complain to the chef!”
“I’m afraid his dinner break has just started. He’ll be at the restaurant next door as usual”.

These pearls of comic genius may not trigger Tanganyika-esque levels of hysteria but they do at least shed light on the accepted truism about chefs being an inherently humourless bunch. And always skinny.

You’ll doubtless be aware of the aphorism Le chef mange ici along with the old adage entreating you to ‘never trust a skinny chef’. Well if you happened to be thinking of Richard Corrigan then you might conclude that he does indeed mange ici and that his trustworthiness would be beyond reproach. Somebody like the tiny-in-real-life Michel Roux Jnr on the other hand probably has all the integrity of Fagin. (In this context, I hasten to add. I’m sure he is a perfectly lovely man in reality).

To me, the expression le chef mange ici brings to the fore images of fat chefs – men big in both body and spirit – all sweating brows and bulging whites waddling around kitchens and bustling over stoves of bubbling sauces. Probably French, these men belong to an evocative culinary heritage of yesteryear. Ironically, much like Michel Roux Jnr’s father Albert. And they enjoy their grub. The food they cook and enjoy, though stylish and sophisticated, always manages to be big-hearted: rich, heavy reductions, lots of butter, mostly meat. They most certainly have their dinner break at their own restaurant. And they most certainly have gout as well.

I am interested in the alternative and modern restaurant scene and its evolution. But even so, there’s something inherently reassuring about a chef whose frame might not look out of place on a Botero canvass. You’d think, “yeah, I want this person to cook for me; they look as if they’d actually enjoy it.” Who wouldn’t prefer early-years Nigella (before the ascent to mainstream popularity and the descent to self parody) lasciviously whipping up some gooey, creamy dessert like a sort of high-born Hampstead reader’s wife, as opposed to Gillian McKeith’s desiccated Gestapo officer force feeding you some linseed washed down with a mug of warm vinegar before having a poke around in your poo? I do know some people who would opt for the latter but they’re not particularly fun to be around.

But what of the personality profile of the modern day chef? They tend to belong to one of two distinct camps. They tend to be barely literate, violent, narcissistic, criminal psychotics who routinely work eighteen hour shifts without sleep and perform Bishop’s Fiver Finger Fillet on themselves and colleagues for fun. Alternatively they are autistic obsessives, meticulously fixated with detail, order and routine to the exclusion of, you know, normal things. Either way, they are barely-functioning human beings. You certainly wouldn’t want one as a friend.

And if once again you just happened to be thinking of Richard Corrigan you might by now be scratching your head. Not only slightly cuddly, he is also most definitely the sort of man’s man you might want as a mate. Much in the same vein as television’s James Nesbitt (is it an Irish thing?), he is the sort of bloke that other blokes would go for a pint with and talk about manly things, like car engines or sawing wood, or whatever. And since he is big in the culinary world, so to speak, you know you would also have genuinely interesting conversations about the optimum time beef should be aged, or how to make the perfect beurre noisette. He would laugh uproariously at your jokes about waiters but also crack his own. So: not skinny; likes a laugh. Probably not much cop as a chef then…

Michelin Stars earned at Stephen Bull and Lindsay House, a successful buy out of iconic London landmark Bentleys and being awarded ‘AA Restaurant of the Year’ for his newest venture, the Mayfair dining room Corrigan’s (opened in 2008), would suggest otherwise. Oh, and he has also won BBC’s The Great British Menu no less than three times.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that eating at Corrigan’s is representative of not just the man but of the background. Born and raised in rural County Meath, he has always stressed both the importance and value of land, sea (the snotgreen sea), good husbandry and honest farming. Just as Joyce’s Leopold Bloom gourmandised “the inner organs of beasts and fowls…thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs and fried hencods’ roes” then so too does the menu at Corrigan’s place an emphasis on heartier, wilder fare. A gratifying sense of terroir unites dishes such as wild rabbit through Cornish crab to artisan Irish cheeses. In-season game features prominently as do wild fish and oysters – West Mersea and Carlingford. But there are also plenty of surprising flourishes which exhibit a lighter, defter touch: a shellfish ravioli with sea vegetables; veal sweetbreads paired with morel cream; nutmeg ice cream with spiced fruit.

Designed by Martin Brudnizki, the interior manages to capture pastoral and hunting themes, albeit in a rather pleasing tongue in cheek fashion (bird foot lamps). The overall impression is actually that of a rather elegant 1930’s transatlantic liner with blue banquet seating, immaculately gleaming table linen and dark wood counterbalanced by the cosy, orangey glow of lamplight. Half of the space is devoted to a stylish marble-topped cocktail bar and the rest is the open plan dining room.

A recent dinner conjoined the robust with the subtle in a similar fashion.

A plump miniature sausage roll made with expertly buttery, crumbly pastry was the mischievous highlight of an introductory plate of amuse bouches. A starter proper of grouse and winter vegetable soup proved unusually delicate. Finely diced assorted root vegetables, pleasingly undercooked, coalesced with the slenderest slithers of grouse in a light broth. When one thinks of game birds paired with wintry roots it’s hard not to think of big ballsy flavours. This was way more refined than might otherwise be expected.

Rump of Elwy lamb with Heirloom tomatoes was similarly atypical in the sense that green, muddy, hearty Ireland had been supplanted by warm, fragrant, luminous Southern Europe . In this context the use of lamb makes utter sense; it is a ‘warm meat’ made alive by spice and sunnier climes. Here it was cooked medium rare, perhaps a tad under, and perhaps a bit, just a bit, tough. The tomatoes were as sweet in taste as in colour – vivid red to florid yellow – and the dish was rendered complete by the nut-like Ratte potato.
Dessert was a stand out by a mile orange and Grand Marnier soufflé elevated by its sharp clout of boozy citrus. A great soufflé is always a deeply indulgent moment d’intimité, kind of like receiving an out of the blue love letter, so a doff of the hat to the kitchen for that.

Wines: An O Rosal and a red Sancerre, both very decent and noteworthy alternatives for fans of Albariño and young-ish Burgundies.

At Corrigan’s you get a touch, just enough, of Mayfair grandeur but most importantly you get an unpretentious menu created for people who enjoy eating enjoyable food. It is telling that Richard Corrigan and his food seem to be universally liked by the critics. There exists genuine goodwill. Corrigan puts this down to the fact that he is doing the right sort of things for the right sort of reasons, purely and simply. I am very much inclined to agree.

Opinion: 8/10

Corrigan’s
28 Upper Grosvenor Street
London
W1K 7EH
Tel: (0)20 7499 9943
Website: http://www.corrigansmayfair.co.uk
Twitter: @CorrigansFood (Richard Corrigan)

Maze

serious question, why would anybody pair chicken with orange? Or liver with orange? Why?

Mars Bars, New Years Eve, popular mainstream TV sit-coms, politics, political leaders, Ricky Gervais, genuine fast bowling, smoking, Margate, journalism, The Times, McDonalds milkshakes, the economy, banks, the Top 40, Glastonbury, A-Level exams, cartoons, funding of the arts, drummers, hip hop, snooker, wars, polio, Quality Street.

Clearly, the above is a list of Things That Aren’t As Good As They Once Were. It is by no means a scientific snapshot – it is purposefully flippant and light in tone – but it is pretty hard, I think, to refute the position of any of the above items on the list. At one time or other, the quality of any one of them could justifiably be described as ranging from Very Good to Excellent. And now – well none of them are quite the same, are they? There are degrees of course: some have gone completely down the pan; others, more just a nagging, gnawing awareness of the fact that a certain élan has faded, some characteristic otherness has been lost.

Take smoking as a particularly facetious example. Throughout the decades, cigarettes have variously epitomised ethereal silver screen allure. Light up, and one transforms into Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman. James Bond, even. Smoking came to characterise completely Left Bank café culture: try and picture Hemmingway, Joyce, Camus or Sartre not wreathed in Gitane smoke at Les Deux Magots.

Smoking was proletariat solidarity. It was intellectualism and the avant garde. It was being a member of the band. The de facto description of the coolest jazz club in town was always ‘smoke-filled’. Non-smokers were always prissy, fussy, uptight and un-sexy. Yet fast forward to now and anyone who still smokes is a social misfit and a pariah of the underclass who carries with them everywhere a carcinogenic miasma of poverty, hopelessness, boredom, dole queues, stupidity and UKIP. Were a bar to be described as ‘smoke-filled’ these days it would sound about as alluring a prospect as an abscess. You don’t suppose it will be long before the last remaining smokers are bricked up in their bedsits for good and left to die the death they deserve.

So there you go: fags – once great, now rubbish.

And variously, political leaders: our game show host-alike deputy admits to wearing a onesie. Snooker: well it’s hardly the Davis-Taylor Final these days, is it? Ricky Gervais: sorry mate, what happened? Quality Street: why are over half of them either the strawberry one or the orange one?

Another thing that might now find itself on such a list is Maze. It really Isn’t As Good As It Once Was…

Maze is in the Grosvenor Square Marriott Hotel and forms part of the stateside television celebrity/occasional chef Gordon Ramsay stable. It was also the home of the very highly-acclaimed Jason Atherton, who, until 2010 was the executive head chef. There are probably few restaurants in London that boast such a grand location here at Mayfair’s periphery. Just minutes away from Oxford Street, the dining room overlooks the mock-Georgian Square’s gardens, that elegant, surprisingly austere and scrupulously maintained 49th parallel across which the American and Canadian Embassies face off.

My first outing to Maze was for dinner some while ago. I went with Charlie for my 30th  and everything, all of it, was a sublime sequence of elegantly assembled Belles-Lettres. The best thing? Just the sheer irreverence and humour on display in such dishes as deconstructed ‘BLT’ and ‘Peanut Butter and Jam Sandwich’, both now Athertonian trademarks.

Soon after Ramsay’s newest venture opened its doors in 2005 Atherton found himself le nom célèbre du jour; his carte at Maze the hottest ticket in town. He has an internship at Spain’s holy of holies El Bulli to his name, where, as you know, instead of a menu they had a surrealist manifesto. In place of courses, a series of hypnagogic non sequiturs. The toilsome drudge of mere eating was elevated to a Dali-esque realm where mechanics, states, flavours and forms were stretched beyond reason. El Bulli marked a kind of gastronomic endpoint. Where does one go from there?

Maze quickly became the most popular of Ramsay’s venues as Atherton’s training appeared distinctly unRamsay-like in every conceivable way. Ok so he wouldn’t be blindsiding diners with edible punctuation and nor would their menu choices be performed on Moog synthesizer to them. What he did bring with him was technical nous and creativity.

The food is ostensibly modern European with pan-Asian influences. “Uh-oh, it’s a passé fusion joint”. Luckily though, it is (was?) nothing of the sort. You choose several courses, between five and eight, that come in roughly tapas-sized dimensions. The idea being that you create your own tasting menu. While there may not be the traditional demarcation between starter-main-dessert, and all dishes are the same size, the menu is fashioned so that you start with lighter plates, progress through more robust fare and finally have as few or as many puddings as you can fit in.

…But the main conceit of this review remains: Maze is Not As Good As It Once Was. There is the palpable sense that something has gone awry. A recent lunch only served to confirm this.

Some rather fundamental questions arose relating to a pressed chicken terrine and parfait with orange and hazelnuts. Why would anybody pair chicken with orange? Or liver with orange? Why? Fridge-cold liver parfait was sandwiched between slices of pressed terrine – which to be fair was good and probably should have arrived on its own – then accompanied by a tangerine segment cut into a single wafer thin slice. No really, why? Experimentation is one thing, but I fear putting liver with orange is a clear violation of the Nuremberg Code.

A pork dumpling, daikon and wild mushroom broth was a far more harmonious affair, a love affair to be precise. Pork slow-cooked in just enough anise, five spice and ginger and reduced to inky stickiness got seriously good once the dumpling slowly melted into the delicate yet muscular broth.

Blade of beef, pomme purée and shimeji mushroom which, though perfectly fine, simply served to emphasize again the mis-match between what was on the plate. The braised beef, neatly and impressively fashioned into a perfect square was meltingly soft and the pomme purée quite wonderful. Shimeji are teeny-tiny Japanese micro-mushrooms, and oh-so delicate – the pixies of the fungus world. And so they found themselves not just drowning but utterly engulfed under a burly, brawny beef and potato tidal wave. The faintest barely-there dusting of piquant Japanese togarashi spice proved equally as futile.

Similar thing with pudding of apple terrine with rhubarb and custard ice cream. The terrine was like baby food; all saccharine, gummy, stewed apples. The ice cream was utterly fabbo in a zingy, summery afternoon sort of way.

But I did enjoy a very respectable indeed New Zealand chardonnay. An area where Maze has always scored well is its excellent selection of New World and by-the-glass wines. Here, you know that should you opt for a Californian Pinot Noir (I have, it was one of the best wines I’ve ever drunk – 30th birthday, see above) or a Chilean Riesling you be well catered for.

So the killer question. And pretty much in the same way you would ponder to yourself after stumbling upon an old lover you haven’t seen for years and who has aged really, really badly: “What on earth has happened?”

The point we are labouring over is that Maze is not as good since Atherton’s departure. It is less interesting, lacking that spark of true inventiveness. The kitchen is simply not as good or as experienced. And less fun. Therein is the nub. Maze needs to be a fun place to eat, it needs to rediscover that something that makes you exclaim “oh wow, look what they have done here!” when your food arrives, and not “oh my god, what the hell have they done here?”

The tasting menu idea still feels unique, so kudos for that. Here’s hoping that Maze doesn’t end up as a directionless, noughties Ramsay nostalgia act – ‘that passé fusion joint’ – at a time when the capital’s restaurant scene is as exciting, original and fast-moving as it has ever been.

Opinion: 6/10

Maze

10-13 Grosvenor Square

London

W1K 6JP

Tel: 0207 107 0000

Website: maze@gordonramsay.com