Thursday, 9 February 2012

Roux at the Landau, Marylebone

Who'd be a chef? The long hours of backbreaking toil for next to no money, the abuse, the heat, the stress. I've often heard it said of food bloggers and restaurant reviewers that they all-too-easily criticise a meal without knowing the effort that goes into it, but actually if most of us really truly understood the herculean energy behind even a half-decent meal out, we'd just feel too guilty to enjoy any of it never mind write an honest review.

I was reminded of this while reading Alex Watts' hugely entertaining book Down And Out In Padstow And London, and in particular the chapter at the Fat Duck where he describes spending days on end painstakingly removing the individual cells from grapefruit flesh using tweezers. The grapefruit cells formed just a small part of a salmon and liquorish dish, which I vaguely remember hoovering up as part of my tasting menu a year or two ago without giving them even a second glance. Had I known then what I know now I would have not only have appreciated them a whole lot more, or at least noticed them for God's sake, but also asked to give the poor commis chef lumbered with this frankly ludicrous task a big hug.

Of course, I blame Michelin (well, it saves time). It's thanks to their spoddy obsession with technique and classical presentation that many chefs feel they have to put themselves through 12-16 hour days of absolute hell turning vegetables into neat little cylinders and creating mind-bogglingly complex sauces from twelve different types of stock. I've heard stories (from Alex's book, and elsewhere) about chefs being physically unable to eat the kind of food they produce because the association with the backbreaking toil is so traumatising. To those people working their way through Michelin-starred hotel restaurants that really are cooking the kind of food they want to cook and want to eat, good luck to you. To the rest, you have my deepest, heartfelt sympathies.

Which brings us to Roux at the Landau. In the light of the above, I'd like to say to the overworked, traumatised phalanx of underappreciated chefs working in the kitchens at the Langham hotel that I'm desperately sorry I didn't enjoy the food more than I did. I'm sorry I thought the taramasalata that came with the house chips was too salty, I'm sorry I couldn't help noticing the limp sprig of tarragon slowly wilting into the overheated plate with the scallop, and I'm sorry I thought the Iberico pork chop tasted as bland and watery as any supermarket pig. I really am so very, very sorry.

It wasn't all bad, though. The scallop itself, despite being presented strangely and slightly underseasoned, was huge and had a lovely fresh, sweet flavour. My starter of "Venison and foie gras Chausson" was actually just a posh mini venison pie, and had a commendably powerful gamey flavour and aroma; it came with a madeira jus which probably took someone weeks to make and was silky and rich as only the best classical French cooking can be. And while my rhubarb panacotta was perfectly pleasant, we were particularly impressed with two delicate sticks of salty, buttery pastry placed on top - hugely addictive.

But I can't ignore that awful pork, so insipid I'd question whether the producer should even be allowed to describe it as Iberico. And neither my friend's Pot au Feu containing chewy, dry beef and so lacking in taste she found herself grinding salt over it in an attempt to find something to enjoy. It was all presented immaculately and I'm sure took years of experience and days of preparation, but it all was curiously missing some vital element - heart? Passion? It's easy to sail dangerously close to pretention when talking about a plate of food as "passionate" but it all seemed a bit hotel-restaurant Michelin-by-the-books - solid, professional, dull.

It doesn't have to be like this. Some people are lucky enough to not only cook the kind of food they want to cook, but cook the kind of food they want to eat - take the boys at Pitt Cue for example, banging out sticky trays of meltingly tender St Louis ribs and heavenly burnt-end mash from a tiny kitchen in Soho. Classically trained in a number of high-profile and high-price-tag restaurants, they have found huge success in homestyle American BBQ because this is what they want to do. And it's not just the trendy low-budget places; I have enjoyed every single thing I've ever eaten at Racine in Knightsbridge probably because the menu is a hymn to one man's (head chef Henry Harris) lifelong love of bourgeois French cooking.

So I don't blame the chefs at Roux at the Landau. They are doing a difficult job in difficult circumstances and couldn't really have done any better. Partly I blame the stultifying atmosphere of a hotel restaurant, and the timid adherence to the expectations of fusty regulars - like the old chap on the table behind us who turned up for dinner alone and so drunk he could barely string an order together for his poor waiter. And partly I blame the whole Roux estate who are attempting to farm out this anonymous hotel-friendly cuisine all over London (see also Parliament Square) in an effort to be the next Ducasse or Ramsay (as if the world needs yet another one of either of those). But mainly, I blame the passion-clogging, soul-destroying, talent-robbing Michelin Guide.


Roux at The Landau on Urbanspoon

Murky, shonky pictures of the food are mine; nice bright interior shot courtesy of Fluid London. I was invited to Roux at the Landau, but prices are here


Alex Watts said...

That's a great read Chris. You're right about Michelin stifling everything that's good about restaurants, and the ridiculous hoops chefs have to jump through to make these dishes.

I'm really chuffed you enjoyed my book! One of the things that really struck me during 'the time I served' was how much handling there is of Michelin food. Sweaty chefs' fingers are constantly man-handling the grub to make it look nice. Give me a less fussy place everytime!

All best,


Nick Loman said...

Nice review! Does look deathly dull.

No-one can accuse you of bias, you are happily slating all the places you are getting invited to at the moment :)

SD said...

Interested that you had the same bout of post consumption grapefruit-guilt that afflicted me after I read Alex's (excellent) book, and reflected back on an extraordinary meal at the Fat Duck.

It is very convenient and neat to blame Michelin for the outrageous levels of effort (and concomitant stresses) that go in to ensuring consistent excellence and precision in so much top-level cooking.

Is Michelin the cause, or just a symptom of a larger impulse to fetishise and compartmentalise what we all need to throw down our gullets at regular intervals? It almost seems to me that Michelin cop a lot of flak simply for being the most visible player in a game that lots of the rest of us (eaters, chefs, critics etc) feel a bit guilty for playing in ourselves.