Pret A Diner – ‘Italians Do It Better’, if by better you mean take the piss

My mate Dave was round yesterday for lunch, and I made spaghetti with semi dried tomatoes, basil, parmesan and a little bit of good olive oil.  Totally simple, delicious and cheap.  He wanted a suggestion of where to take his girlfriend for a special meal.  We discussed options and I came to the conclusion that the best posh meals I’ve had have been expensive but great value, i.e. set lunch at Le Gavroche, which is £45 but you get a bottle of wine, and it’s amazing.  Also Mr. Underhills – which is maybe £65 but it’s done with so much love and hard work.

Cut to yesterday evening, when another friend was taking me out for a special celebration to Pret A Diner, which is a collaboration of art, food and trendiness / pretension – which is temporarily in Mayfair for a month or so.  But you’re not allowed to call it a pop up, because it’s ‘A Dining Experience’….La di da.

In essence, £75 for an Italian dinner.  But dinner doesn’t include pudding.  (Well then it’s not dinner I’m afraid.)  And also if you want beef instead of the choice of crayfish or lamb, that’ll be a £13 supplement.  Oh.  And if you’d like fizzy water, that’ll be £8.50 for a bottle, plus service, of course.  (Oh, and if there had been live performance, they’d have added an extra £8 cover charge, just because.  You know.  They can.)

By the time we’d had the cheapest bottle of wine on the menu, the whole thing was over £200 – with no pudding, because if you think I’m paying another £9 for a cannolo, when I am a cannoli affocionado with very high standards, then you are wrong.  I’m sorry but that’s not ‘A Dining Experience’ – that’s taking the piss.

What do you get for the money then?  Well…you start with 2 little squares of focaccia with tomato on top (very nice),

a mini tuna burger (fine, though it’s not the mid-90s)

or, on the alternative menu (created by a chef whose surname is Craparo, so I don’t need to make a joke at this point but feel free to insert your own) – the choice of a different mini tuna burger.  This mini tuna burger was the size of 2 x 50p coins (ironic, when you think about it) and was served with some messed up lemonade with an oyster in it.

Now seriously, call me fussy, but since when is the choice between 2 tuna burgers an actual choice?  Like, er, what if you don’t like tuna burgers?  And what if you particularly don’t like tuna burgers with oyster-tonic?

Then there was a pasta with mullet and olives that wasn’t anywhere near as delicious as the pasta I’d made for lunch, or a gnocchi that tasted of salt and nowt else (and I say that as a dear fan of salt, except in this instance.)

Then I had very good lamb, and my mate had very good beef (though not £60 good, which I guess is how the pricing would break down.)

And sure, there’s a DJ and it all feels a little bit Zoolander meets a mid-90s-WAG-show-home

and you get to eat in a glitzy room

that’s been styled as an indoor basketball court with a neon hoop:

So if a neon hoop is your thing darling, then you’ll enjoy it immensely.  But for me that’s not enough to justify these prices for this food.

I popped in to the Pret A Diner at The Minotaur last autumn, and while I didn’t eat there, at least the venue leant it a massive sense of spectacle and originality.  But this? It’s nothing special, in fact the food is pretty average, and the prices leave a very bad neon taste in one’s mouth.

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Er, like where is the spring?

What exactly is a person supposed to do in this weather, other than eat?  All I’m doing is trying to keep warm.

Had this super light, airy strawberry souffle at Galvin on Baker Street:

So light I needed another pudding to ground me, in the form of this ‘chocolate pallet’.  Honestly, this resembles something I’d serve if it had fallen on the floor first – sort of smudged along the plate in a deliberate attempt to look artistic but fooling no-one.  Delicious nonetheless.

Have also been eating these tasty, crispy little balls – smoked bacon and pea arancini with a chilli sauce, at the ever-great Alford Arms.

Followed by a lush chocolate tart with amaretto crumb – perfect combo of dense mousse texture with crunchy crumb base and sides.

And then this, tonight – a killer home made sausage sandwich.

The perfect antidote to such a freezing cold Monday in May.  Fresh out of the oven ciabatta, smothered in butter, with a layer of caramelised onions, mustard, awesome quality sausages, ketchup and mayo – all of the condiments, all of the time.  I’d forgotten how perfect and beautiful a sausage sandwich could be.  Happy Monday.

MEATMarket. Nice pun, shame about the rest.

Ok. So my views on MEAT liquor are here.  Their new offshoot, MEATMarket opened in the Jubilee Hall market in Covent Garden this week. Take my views on MEATMarket and multiply them by 10.

If you’re not a tourist, you’ve probably not been inside this market.  It sells, for want of a better phrase, a load of old tut.  I heart London t-shirts being the classiest example of the wares.  MEATMarket, a fast food version of MEATLiquor the restaurant, sits on a thin strip of a balcony, overlooking this market.

If this is your idea of a good idea, you’re more open minded / younger than me.

MEATMarket loves a double entendre.

Call me prudish and old fashioned, but I don’t really want a shaved Brazilian in my face when I’m thinking about a cheeseburger.

The thing is, I don’t really care that much about what they do on their light box signs.  I wrote a book with quite a bit of shagging in it (some of it in public places.)  In fact, if you want to make a pun about shaved Brazilians, go ahead – but just make sure my burger is a great burger, because the effortful-ness is putting me off my food.

The burger here?  7 out of 10.  Hawksmoor’s a 5 minute walk away. Their burger’s twice the price and 7 times as good.  You do the maths.

Maybe I’m too old for this.  But the whole experience left me feeling grubby and dirty.  And not in a good sexy dirty way.  Just in a greasy burger way.

Very good pizza, very good Chinese

Quite ambivalent about pizza in general.  Well, in England, anyway.  When I was growing up, Dominos was the greatest treat ever, so you may well throw up your hands in despair at this point and call me an ignoramus who knows nothing about food.

The thing is, I either want really amazing, authentic thin crust Italian pizza, or really great when you’re drunk pizza.  The in between stuff does not do it for me.

Happy to report that I’ve found the former, on Portobello Road, next to Tesco, down the crappier end of the street.  The restaurant is called Saporitalia.

The guy who runs it was involved in Pizza Metro in Battersea back in the day.  (This means nothing to me, but he said it in a way that made it sound hugely significant.)  More to the point, the pizza right here, right now, is delicious.

Super simple, very traditional toppings – buffalo mozzarella, cherry tomatoes and basil from Italy (or maybe Tescos next door, but it did smell amazing and un-Tescoey) Italian roast ham, Neopolitan salami, Puglian olives….

But it’s actually not so much about the toppings, but much more about the base, which is super thin and crispy.  As it melds from main base to the crust, it goes springy and light and totally satisfying on the teeth.

It’s something to do with a traditional sour rising process – they leave the dough to prove from midnight the day before, blah, blah, blah, but while the chef was talking all I was doing was looking in this big, fiery oven, thinking how cool and a bit scary it was.

They also make the most perfect sourdough (as good as St John’s I reckon)

so you can eat 4 slices of bread, then a pizza, and then, if you’re that way inclined, more bread.  And then get home and wonder why your tights have left an imprint around your waist.

Anyway, the point is, there are plenty of places you can hide if you’re trying to sell an average pizza –  you can stuff a crust, you can stick crispy duck and hoisin sauce on top, you can get a celebrity chef to put their name to your toppings.  But with a pizza like this, there is nowhere to hide.  It’s just you, a minimal topping, and the base.  It had better be good, and it is.

These guys have succeeded in keeping it extremely simple and not at all stupid.  Quality raw ingredients, huge attention to detail, perfect process.

Totally great.

Moving rapidly on – Szechuan…so hot right now…  my friends had raved about this restaurant behind Kings Cross

I thought it had a silly name, but then who am I to throw stones, I’m named after an Interpol song and a dead film star.  Anyway, all I can say was the food was so delicious I wolfed it down without taking a single photo, such was my greed.  It was only when I surveyed all the empty plates that I realised other eaters might want some info.

So if you do go, here’s roughly what we ate.  Apologies it’s so vague but my friend’s sister ordered – in Chinese!  she’s so clever, and she’s not even Chinese:

Amazing cucumber starter in sesame garlic dressing
Prawns with sesame seeds and red and green pepper (and I fully detest green pepper)
Pork belly – one big piece, slow cooked, super tender
Dan dan noodles
Beef dish with these 4 almost donuts
Very salty spicy aubergines – almost marmite salty

Don’t worry, I’m going back soon, I’ll update with more detail in due course.  But suffice to say, if you like spicy Chinese food, it’s truly excellent – better than Bar Shu and Shan, and we stuffed our faces for less than £20 a head.