Tuesday, October 19

A year of going out (and in) to dinner | Food

A cold Saturday night in February and I’m walking wide-eyed down London’s Gerrard Street, staring at the brightly lit Chinese restaurants that should be crowded, but aren’t. The waiters, who typically make feeding the crowd seem like a skilled contact sport, stand still amid the empty chairs. I don’t know yet, but this is the true beginning of 2020.

I was there to check out a branch of Four Seasons, one of my favorite restaurants in Chinatown, where they serve pork belly that boasts of crisp with a resonant crunch, and addictively burnished Cantonese roast duck. My review was intended as an act of solidarity with the entire Chinese restaurant industry, which had suffered a racist backlash due to the reports of some viruses thousands of miles away in Wuhan. What I didn’t know then was that, in six weeks, all those restaurants would be out of the habit. They would be closed, along with all other hospitality businesses in the UK. Windows would be plugged, staff fired, or fired altogether. Forget showing solidarity with a corner of the industry. Now would be the time to support the entire industry and the millions of people who work in it.

'Textured, Sparkling Joy' - Pickled Tea Leaf Salad at Lahpet.
‘Textured, Sparkling Joy’ – Pickled Tea Leaf Salad at Lahpet. Photograph: Sophia Evans / The Observer

It has been a year of parallel narratives. Too many people have had to deal with horrendous loss and grief. Meanwhile, the rest of us have had to endure the flattening and shrinking of our lives. In normal times, like in restaurants and I write smart things about it, my prose always teeters on the edge of a clumsy gag. My job is to let you know if it is worth your money and your time. It might seem like the very definition of ephemeral. In fact, in normal times, the entire hospitality industry could have been written off as such.

But as the first shutdown progressed and then restaurants, cafes, pubs, and bars screeched open, we realized, I think, that hospitality wasn’t short-lived. It was part of the whole point. We are social animals. We want to be together. We need to eat. The purse strings allow it, how much better to do it in a place with expert menus, waiters and cooks? How much better to be part of the throbbing pulse of the pack?

'Trumpian orange': sea bass with minced pork and chillies at Wen's.
‘Trumpian orange’: sea bass with minced pork and chillies at Wen’s. Photograph: Tom Martin / The Observer

A few weeks before the first lockdown, having sensed how things were going, I drew up a list of topics that a restaurant critic could write about if all restaurants were closed. I would not have wanted this situation, but thinking about the pleasure of eating out became a curious pleasure. I considered what makes a classic, the importance of atmosphere, the definition of great service, places that create memories, and much more. Each of these was a love letter to a restaurant business that has not only been a source of my employment for the past two decades, but also, for a guy overly interested in his lunch, a lifetime of joy. Yes, I have verified my privilege. Turns out I have loads, which is good.

Necessarily, I opened the journalist’s notebook to relate the challenges our chefs and restaurateurs faced when they first fought the closure, then the routine of caring for their staff, and the perhaps biggest challenges of reopening, albeit in a limited way. What highlighted this crisis was the staggering appetite in the business for hard work and innovation coupled with community understanding. I got heart sick from the verb “pivot”, enough pivoting, while acknowledging that it described exactly what so many people were doing. They established online food stores and delivery services. Thousands of them dedicated themselves to feeding the vulnerable in the communities of which they were part. Projects like Eat well MCR, spearheaded by chef Mary-Ellen McTague, led the way.

'Addictively Burnished: Cantonese Roast Duck at Four Seasons.
‘Addictively Burnished: Cantonese Roast Duck at Four Seasons. Photograph: Sophia Evans / The Observer

Under the circumstances, giving up on negative reviews seemed literally the least I could do. I will not rehearse the obvious arguments. If you still have a problem with it, there are other restaurant reviewers available. Regardless, there were plenty of wonderful things to swoon over in 2020: the tough, twisted cassoulet I ate at the Flying Frenchman canteen right before the shutters were down; the beautifully crafted pâté en croûte at Pique-Nique, the first restaurant I checked out when they reopened; the texture and sprinkle joys of pickled tea leaf salad at Lahpet, which revels in Myanmar food; whole sea bass with minced pork and chili peppers in a vivid sauce that I described as a “trumpian” orange hue at Wen’s in Leeds; the whimsical version of the Manchester Pie on Street Urchin; the extraordinary caramel pink plum souffle with a top-baked shortbread cookie at the Elder in Bath.

And all this against concerns about the role of hospitality in the spread of Covid-19. I am not an epidemiologist so I will not attempt to break down the details here. But I will say this. In every restaurant I have visited, and I have visited more than most, the commitment to the safety of diners and staff has been evident: there have been temperature controls, social distancing, masked waiters, QR codes and more. I’ve always felt safe, and yet I still feel like going out to eat. For that I give thanks.

But let’s not pretend. It has not been normal. Nothing in 2020 has been normal. And so we have made our own normal. Perhaps we have cooked more of our own dishes, or we have tried to recreate restaurant dishes at home without losing total control of reality. Or, if we could, we’ve thrown money on a restaurant food kit to bring a little specialty to our table.

'Extraordinary': plum souffle with a shortbread at the Elder.
‘Extraordinary’: plum souffle with a shortbread at the Elder. Photograph: Karen Robinson / The Observer

A couple of weeks ago, Chinese streetfood operators Rice boys launched a new offer through its food delivery website hoof.com, which brings together delivery options from several interesting places.

There was a whole Duck, marinated and then air-dried for Cantonese-style home grilling, yours for £ 28.50. He had to get it. It’s an amazing job, grilling in an hour and the result is a real deal, with salty and garlic-like skin, seemingly backlit amber glow, and the softest, sweetest meat. Was it the noise and rush of lunch at the Four Seasons on Gerrard Street? Obviously not. But it was still a Chinatown smell and I was delighted to have it on my table. Happy New Year. Next week I’ll consider what’s to come in 2021.

Email Jay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @ jayrayner1


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