Monday, 29 September 2008
I received an email on Friday morning inviting me to Toast, billed as a three-day food, wine and music festival at Kensington Olympia. Actually, I wasn't invited as such, I was encouraged to win a set of tickets by answering one of those ITV-style easiest-questions-in the-world and handing over all my personal details. Having nothing better to do of a Friday night (shocking, but true), I signed up and wasn't in the least bit surprised to "win" 2 tickets to the Friday night Australia day. After work, I toddled along.
I wasn't sure what to expect, and I did have an open mind, but I can honestly say I have never been to a more cynical, soul-less, depressing, corporate ripoff-market than Toast 2008. In the vast, echoey chamber of the Olympia were a handful of poor outside caterers, mass-market high-street wine merchants (Wolf Blass, Jacob's Creek) serving wine costing more for a glass than you can get at Tescos for the bottle, convenience food (shrink-wrapped sausage rolls and £10 factory pies), and many other usual suspects of these consumer fairs - paintball stands, novelty t-shirts, you know the drill. It took about five minutes before we lost the will to live and rushed back outside, leaving a poor Australian singer on the main stage serenading a crowd of about ten. Desperate to redeem the evening, I gave my Urbanspoon iPhone application a shake and found Popeseye, a steakhouse hidden around the back of the Olympia, and so pushing past the touts offering tickets to unsuspecting punters that you could presumably have even by then still picked up from the website for free, we crossed our fingers and made our way.
Without exception, the only truly great steak houses that I have ever visited (Luger's, Hawksmoor, Strip House) have made a virtue out of their limited menus. At Luger's, they prefer you don't even ask for a menu, and instead order "steak for four" and hope for the best. Even at Hawksmoor, where, as a rather patronising concession to non-carnivores they offer one fish and one vegetarian dish, the menu is short and direct - beef steaks in three different varieties in two different sizes, alongside lamb and pork. Sides are extra. A proper steakhouse should be all about the steak, and if the item you are ordering costs anything less than £20 and sits alongside Chicken Kiev or Crab Tagliatelle on a large menu, be warned.
With this in mind, the menu at Popeseye in Kensington reads like a steak-lover's dream. Three different cuts of meat each served in five different sizes, and that's it. Chips come whether you like them or not, and the only additional side is a £3.95 bowl of salad. It is a menu that quite simply has everything going for it, and it was therefore all the more of a crushing disappointment to eventually taste the food.
My £18.45 12oz rump steak was first of all cut incredibly strangely - it looked like two huge lobes of liver flattened out to cover the entire plate. Being so thin it was, of course, overcooked, and though not tough the poor quality meat hadn't contained enough fat to create a good char, and instead was just bitter and burned in places. A friend's 8oz rump was thicker and therefore more easily medium-rare but still of the same poor quality, tasteless watery meat. The menu proudly claims the beef is hung for two weeks and is from 100% Aberdeen Angus cattle, but then you can get an Aberdeen Angus steak from Burger King these days and they taste like crap too (in the interests of research, before you say anything). Accompanying chips were bland and insipid, the kind you would get at any high-street pub.
So essentially we have a steakhouse that serves literally nothing but steak, and can't cook steak at all. I can't explain the good press this place has been getting (the door is plastered with the usual Timeout awards) but I can say that for more or less the same price you can get a dictionary-thick slice of 28-aged sirloin that will blow your mind in Hawksmoor at the other end of town, and a beautiful cup of triple-cooked chips that rank with the best in the city. Oh, and their toilets are indoors, which I'm guessing would make them more appealing in February.
After the violation of Popeseye, and the awful experience at Toast, I was even more apprehensive of my upcoming visit to Beer Exposed in Islington on the following afternoon. As it turns out, I needn't have worried and the two events literally couldn't have been more different in execution, attitude and passion. But that, my friends, is another story.
Toast festival 1/10