Meals on Wheels: Has top-quality home-delivery dining finally arrived?
Saturday 19 November 2011
When I first visited New York in the early 1980s, I was fascinated by the signs taped to the letter boxes of most apartment buildings: 'no menus'. What brave new world was this, where not only did restaurants deliver to your door, but they did so with such persistence that you had to post deterring notices? It seemed an exotic dream, to be filed alongside such other New York legends as giant cockroaches, or crocodiles that lurked in the sewage system.
At that time in Britain, the choice of home-delivered food was pretty much limited to pizza. But over the years, we've gradually caught up, and thanks to a growing number of online food delivery services, the house-bound or kitchen-averse householder can potentially eat a different cuisine every night of the week.
So that's what I set out to do. Instead of eating out, my normal beat for this magazine, I would eat in, and do it in style. In a Week of Eating Lazily, I would avoid restaurants, not to mention my own oven, and instead comb the web to find the most interesting home delivery services. Not just the usual restaurants and takeaways – I was looking for bespoke food experiences, gastronomic thrills, suppliers who brought the fun of the restaurant to my own kitchen in a thermal box. It would be like The Trip, only we wouldn't actually go anywhere, apart from downstairs to open the front door.
By chance, my week of sedentary hunter-gathering coincided with the death of our old fridge-freezer, lending a certain urgency to the whole experiment. With no fresh food in the house, and only Twitter and Google to guide me, I put together a week's worth of menus fairly quickly.
By close of play on Monday, I was in the unusual position of pretty much knowing my dinner menus for the next six nights. That doesn't happen to most people until they go into a care home. And let me tell you this – it felt good.
Service ***** (Meal hand-delivered by the boss)
Ambience ** (Foil/plastic cartons. Broken fridge starting to smell funny)
Price £49.60 for two including £6.60 delivery charge (based on mileage)
The first day of my experiment in electronic foraging, and I learn an important lesson. On no account be deterred by the name of the company. Second only to small-town hairdressing salons, online food services seem to go in for the off-puttingly wacky name. My Salivation (sic), which launched in May, is attempting to fill a gap in the market by offering home deliveries from restaurants that don't go in for that kind of thing, generally because they're either too small, or too popular.
The site is the brainchild of displaced New Yorker Evan Graj, a former City trader who grew frustrated that his favourite local restaurants didn't deliver. His service allows foodie big-hitters, like the legendary Pakistani grill house Tayyabs, to outsource their deliveries, and while it's currently east London-oriented, there are plans to roll it out nationally.
I can't see beyond Tayyabs, the Whitechapel institution that's as famous for the length of its queues as it is for its grilled lamb cutlets. I'm outside the delivery area, but Evan Graj agrees to bend the rules and do the run.
I like the way, that once my order has been placed, regular e-mails arrive, updating me on its status – it's a bit like having someone calling "Nearly ready!" from the kitchen. The food arrives in a thermal bag packed with two hot water bottles, touchingly low-tech for a service that bills itself as a 'restaurant aggregator'.
The meat may have lost some of its fresh-from-the-griddle sizzle on the five-mile journey, but it's still fantastic – punchy, springy seekh kebabs, a dense and aromatic dry meat curry made with slow-cooked lamb shoulder, and best of all, those famous, gloriously spicy lamb chops. Karahi chicken curry, sweetly murmuring with cloves, and a silky yellow dhal with baby aubergines are also great, but it's the grilled meat that's the star.
The bar has been set very high for the week. This, my partner and I agree, is a service we will be using again, even if having food delivered from a local restaurant on the other side of town is just a step away from the touring rock star who has burgers air-freighted from his favourite home-town diner. An impression enhanced by the Jagger-esque pouts we've been left with, thanks to the fiery heat of our meal.
LIFE, FORK & SPOON
Service **(messy packaging, unclear instructions)
Ambience *** (microwave rage)
Price £25 for two including £4.95 delivery
Another day, another terribly-named food service. This one is fronted by TV chef James Martin, in conjunction with two Roux-trained partners, and offers 'dine-at-home' products which can be delivered around the country by next-day courier. A huge selection of main-course dishes, ranging from lasagne and boeuf bourguignon to oddities like 'balti chicken mini pies' are snap frozen, and delivered in state-of-the-art biodegradable packaging, kept cold by bags of dry ice.
Once I've liberated our dinner from its box (and covered the kitchen floor in shredded wood strands), I'm faced with several closely-typed sheets of reheating instructions and a dilemma. The entrées – as we New Yorkers like to call them – are vacuum-sealed and 'semi-defrosted', surely one of the most unsettling phrases in the English language. An hour before we're due to eat, I don't have time to do it in the fridge. So it has to be the microwave, which feels like breaking the rules. After all, I could have done the same with an M&S Meal Deal.
The intermittent hum and ping of the microwave soundtracks the next hour, as each dish is defrosted, then heated up at full power. Meanwhile, I scrape together a few tired vegetables from the back of the rack. Life, Fork & Spoon don't offer side dishes yet, forcing me to peel my own pumpkin, like some kind of scullery maid. We're just about ready to eat when I notice that the instructions end with "flash roast or grill the meat to achieve a crispy finish". Like we know how to use the stove...
The results are pretty impressive, though. The meat may be a tiny bit dry, but the slow-cooked lamb shank comes with a dark, deep, subtly minted sauce which is much better than anything I could make myself. Ditto the orange zest-y sauce which lifts the confit duck to another level. This is proper, restaurant-quality food, and definitely a cut above the M&S Meal Deal. Though at least they could have given us vegetables.
James Martin's notes about each dish entertain us through puddings. "Just try it," he urges, about the white chocolate and whisky bread and butter pudding. "It's soft. It's a treat. It's wonderful." Ooh, it's the Yorkshire Cointreau man. Suddenly, there are three of us in this kitchen. And two of us are eating inadvisable, artery-clogging puddings.
Ambience **** (biodegradable cardboard cartons tied up with jaunty raffia)
Price £11 for the 12-piece Loch Duart salmon box, £10 for crispy mackerel
No time to shop, or even to order online, with a hectic day in the office, followed by an after-hours event. Normally on such occasions my sous-chef partner Harry would step in, to make his signature cauliflower and chickpea curry. But tonight, a mystery order has been placed on my behalf. Miraculously, just as my taxi pulls up outside our flat, a delivery biker is leaving his consignment, from the local branch of Feng Sushi, a mini-chain that specialises in sustainably sourced fish.
This has to be the quickest meal of the week that we experience. Just add boiling water to the miso soup mix, crack open the chopsticks, and we're on it like seagulls. The whole meal is finished in about 10 minutes, soup to nuts – or in this case, edamame beans. Some highlights do register: the jewel-bright salmon roe winking at us invitingly from a salmon selection box that is crammed with nigiri and maki rolls, some crisply fried mackerel on a bed of silky soba noodles. But at the end of a frazzled day, this ascetic style of eating doesn't quite deliver, so to speak. We need something with a bit more heft and character. Something... dare I say it, cooked. "I can see why Japanese people are so thin," grumbles Harry, on his way to the biscuit tin.
Service ***** (they threw in a bottle of wine)
Ambience ** (unclear recipe, unexpectedly long preparation time)
Price Recipe kit £45.95 + £4.90 delivery
One of the unexpected joys of the eating-in project has turned out to be the absence of washing up. It's a treat to come down each morning to a clean kitchen and empty sink (OK, so we don't always do the washing up the same night. What of it?)
Four days into the experiment, and we are completely institutionalised. How quickly one forgets the daily routine of shopping, cooking and clearing up, when someone else is doing it all for you. It's like Downton Abbey round at our place. But then, it all goes wrong.
Natoora is a well-established service, beloved of foodies, which bills itself as 'the online farmers' market'. As well as supplying top restaurants, including The River Café, it delivers a wide range of fresh produce and groceries from premium producers. If you want Vacherin in Dedham Vale, or Sichuan peppercorns in Runcorn, Natoora can help.
They don't offer prepared meals or dishes, but they do offer a range of recipe boxes, created in association with name chefs. As a fan of Anthony Demetre's cooking at Les Deux Salons, I order his 'cod with braised chicory recipe kit', not quite realising that the use of the word 'kit' would be slightly misleading. This isn't a neatly prepped, ready-to-assemble selection of ingredients. It's some groceries in a bag. Very posh groceries; the butter comes loosely wrapped in waxed paper, with a hand-raised cow motif, the immaculately-trimmed fish from James Knight in Mayfair. But I'm going to have to do some cooking.
Working from a slightly confusing recipe card, I set about sautéing the fish and braising the endives, using the entire pack of butter. Normally I wouldn't use that much in a week, but that's one of the differences between restaurant food and home cooking. Juniper berries (I never use them either) are pounded for the endives, and the juicer dusted off for oranges. Oy vey, the washing up!
I've been chopping and simmering for about an hour, and above stairs, Lord Grantham is getting restless. Then I read to the end of the recipe card (do you see a pattern emerging here?) and realise the endives have to be finished in a hot oven for 35-40 mins. At this rate, it will be quicker to take the bus down to Les Deux Salons and pick up a takeaway from Anthony D himself. Instead, I just turn up the heat and give them a five-minute blast on the hob.
My finished dish doesn't look quite as neat as the picture on Natoora's website, and the caramelised endive is a little bit close to braised celery for Harry's liking. But I love the way that, although I've cooked it myself, it doesn't taste like my cooking. It's slightly ... foreign, as though a slim-hipped continental gigolo has danced through our kitchen. So while the Natoora recipe box feels like a bit of a palaver, it might be just the thing to spice up a tired culinary relationship. Once you've finished the washing-up, that is.
Service ***** (the chef brings it round in person, on a bike)
Ambience ** (posh food, let down by plastic containers)
Price £46.20 for two x 3 courses (free local delivery)
It's Saturday – normally the night when I have time to cook a proper meal. Not tonight. Tonight, a highly-trained French chef is doing all the work, courtesy of newly launched service Housebites. Dreamt up by three web entrepreneurs, and billed as 'gourmet takeaway food', this really is something a bit different – a site which connects professional chefs and talented amateurs cooking from home with householders in their area. It currently operates across London, and the range of cuisines is amazing. My local options include Caribbean and Persian, as well as the classical French menu of Laurent Rossi, who lives closest to us, and has worked in some swanky London restaurants.
I've pre-ordered from Laurent's menu a couple of days in advance, and he arrives in his whites on the dot of eight. As he plates up his braised beef with truffled mash for our photographer, the rest of our dinner steams unhappily in its containers. We decant them as soon as we can, but the delicate dishes portrayed on Laurent's online menu have lost a lot of their presentational finesse, and by the time we've finished our starters – beetroot carpaccio, and goat's cheese salad – our mains need to be reheated in the microwave. They're good – particularly that dark, almost black, slow-braised beef – but if I used Housebites again, I'd probably opt for a more transportable cuisine. When you're spooning chocolate mousse from a polystyrene tub, rather than the illustrated Martini glass , it rather loses its allure.
BREAD AND HONEY/FARMISON
Price £14.95, £18 or £23.50 a head, plus VAT and £15 delivery
Today I'm hosting a family birthday lunch for eight people. Catering company Bread and Honey, who specialise in events and location work, deliver a spectacular Middle East-inspired banquet, beautifully presented on crackle-glazed ceramic dishes and garnished with flowers and microherbs. The hot dishes sit happily in their thermal box until we're ready to eat; instead of spending the morning cooking, I have time to tidy up and read the papers.
When the guests arrive, I'm languidly dipping griddled flatbread into beetroot hummus. The house is flooded with the glorious smell of home cooking, but it isn't mine. And the food is so good, and so abundant, that doing a cheeky June Whitfield and claiming it as my own isn't an option. The only small complaint is that the delivery guys return to collect all their dishes at 4pm, when we're still tucking into our selection of farmhouse cheeses, from foodie-oriented delivery service Farmison. Other than that, a perfect, stress-free occasion.
We're always being told how important home cooking is to family life, but ours has definitely been improved by our week of eating lazily. When you come home late from work, as I often do, the time before the children go to bed is too often spent dicing and chopping, rather than mucking about together. So in that respect, it was a success. On the downside, we both gained several pounds, after effectively eating restaurant meals six nights in a row. And judging by the quantity of leftovers in our new fridge, we will still get a few more nights out of it.
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