A Saturday night and my phone pings. It’s an email from a well-known courier company. Earlier that day they’d confirmed that my delivery from a high-street restaurant chain would arrive the next day. Now they were telling me it was cancelled: “Contact the sender directly for more information.” At 9.30pm on a Saturday night? Gosh, thanks. Last month, when I wrote about the enduring appeal of French food in Britain, I was emailed by a senior person from the high street bistro chain Côte. They had just launched their Côte at Home range, available nationwide. Would I like to try it?
I turn down over 95% of the freebies offered to me. Partly this is because I am drenched in enough privilege as it is. Wet through, I am. Also, where would I put it all? Mostly, though, I decline such because I’d prefer to experience products as other customers would. I’ve never eaten in a branch of Côte, but many people have told me they rather like them: a fair price point, reliable food and good service. (Complaints in 2015 about the unfair use of tips to top up wages led to a change in policy.) Accordingly, I declined the offer of Côte at Home for free and instead booked it myself. Now, here I was very much experiencing the gorgeous life of a valued customer: it was a Saturday night, I’d spent £85, and my planned dinner for Sunday night had disappeared, along with the contents of this column.
Sod that. What’s the point of being thickly glazed in privilege if you don’t use it? I emailed the Côte exec. Much hand wringing. Apparently six packages had been lost by the couriers. It would be reorganised. Of course it would. Five other people probably have me to thank for their delivery turning up that Sunday, because I do wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t made a stink.
I mention this partly because it would have been far less than full disclosure not to, but mostly because I want them to sort it out. The thing is that Côte at Home is really good. Not just “good considering they’re a high street chain”, or “not bad at the price”. It’s proper good, in the way you tell your neighbours about over the garden wall while dissing the government’s latest knuckle-dragging stupidity. The online selection is so extensive – not just ready meals but cheeses, wines and butchery – that I wondered whether a food service company was involved. Apparently not. Côte introduced a central kitchen for some of their dishes a while back and, with the additions of a few buy-ins, it all comes from there.
Be prepared for packaging that recalls hardcore M&S: recyclable film-sealed plastic trays with cardboard sleeves bearing the legend “Handmade in the UK.” The labelling is supermarket ready, from allergens, through nutritional advice to ingredients and barcodes, with a chilled shelf life of a week. Look closely at those ingredients. It’s what those in the food business call a “clean dec” (short for clean declaration). It’s all words you would recognise, rather than the sort of preservatives and emulsifiers that allow certain foods to outlive that kitten you just acquired. The pokey vinaigrette, with a generous portion of roasted asparagus for £4.95, is made with Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar and oil, just as mine is. The gazpacho, more than enough for two, and again for £4.95, is made with such exotic ingredients as tomatoes, cucumbers, red and green peppers, garlic and olive oil. It tastes as if it has just been blitzed in my own kitchen. I check. I hadn’t blitzed it in my own kitchen. There are brioche croutons and basil leaves to add. It’s bright and fresh with a strident peppery kick.
Have you ever stood in a supermarket aisle peering at ready-meal portion sizes, muttering: “Which two people is this for? A couple of four-year-olds who are off their food?” No? Just me then. These dishes pass that test. The most expensive is the beef bourguignon at £13.95 for two including a portion of their mash, the arrival of which shames me. But then it’s part of the deal and I’m working, OK? It’s a proper serving for two of me, made with long-cooked boulders of shin, glugs of cabernet sauvignon, lardons, veal jus and a fat old dollop of time. It is ripe and unctuous and could stick your lips together on a chilly day. It gives Tom Kerridge’s recent beef cheek bourguignon serious competition.
Other highlights: a lamb parmentier that the packaging translates as a shepherd’s pie, made with both mince and pieces of lamb that have disintegrated graciously. There is salmon with ratatouille, and to finish, an impressive lemon and Armagnac posset spun through with zest for £3.50, or a classy apple tarte fine for £4.50. Home preparation has been considered. The oven needs to be at 200C for all of it, and cooking times are in multiples of 10 minutes, making it straightforward to get the dishes out in the right order. A slight niggle: the mash that I hated myself for having and the minted peas, required a microwave, which I don’t own. I did them on the hob. They were fine. I’d be very surprised if this service didn’t continue once the crisis ends, and far less surprised if the products turned up in supermarkets, though they’ll be hard pushed to maintain the current price point once retailers take a cut.
One other delivery: the small Mumbai-inspired group Dishoom have launched a kit enabling you to make their rightly famed bacon naans at home for £16, delivered via Deliveroo from their three London outposts. This did come to me for free, because I was then outside the catchment area, but I made a donation to the charity Magic Breakfast, which provides breakfasts in schools to kids who need them. (Dishoom makes a donation to Magic Breakfast for every kit sold).
It’s a lot of fun, and is now available nationwide. You get the three pots of dough, so you have one to screw up (or fill yourself). Roll the dough out, put it into a fiercely hot dry pan for 30 seconds then under the grill for a minute. Works a treat. There’s cream cheese, tomato chilli jam, coriander and very good streaky bacon from Ramsay of Carluke. The good things to have come out of this crisis are few, but a Dishoom bacon naan at home is one of them. Next week this column should find me eating in an actual restaurant. Or just outside one. Fingers crossed.
A London-based wine company, Nice, was due to launch an Argentinean Malbec in recyclable cans for the 2020 music festival circuit, to go with their sauvignon blanc and rosé that went on sale in 2019. Now, with a lot of sturdy red wine on their hands, they’ve bottled it and are selling it with all profits going to NHS charities. ‘Wine for heroes’ is available via selected retailers, Amazon and their own website, nice-drinks.co.uk.
One issue of the furlough scheme for the restaurant trade has been that income from service charges through ‘tronc’ schemes was not regarded as the salary upon which government payments were calculated. Many employees, already on modest salaries, saw incomes cut in half during the crisis. It’s shone a light on what many see as the problematical nature of restaurant staff depending upon tips, by their nature variable, to get by. Now London restaurants Oklava and Hill and Szrok have joined a few others by announcing the scrapping of all service charges. The headline price of dishes will go up, but there will be no extra to pay and staff salaries will be guaranteed. Let’s hope it catches on.
A survey of 2,000 people by research company Perspectus Global has found that Lady and the Tramp sharing spaghetti is the most loved movie restaurant scene of all time. The top ten also includes Meg Ryan’s faked orgasm at Katz Deli in When Harry Met Sally and Mia and Vincent going for a burger in Pulp Fiction.
By: Jay Rayner
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