Food and Drink: To the Indian, or the local cowboy?: On a tour of some local Westerns, Emily Green ate the three courses: the good, the not bad and the ugly
Saturday 09 January 1993
This jumbled little restaurant, done out with cowboy hats, rawhide bar stools, rodeo posters and a fresco of the Alamo, is the work of two Britons. One partner, David Walters, also has a small string of Wild West theme restaurants elsewhere in Europe, including Le Texan in Paris. The other, Terry Mitchell, is Bill Wyman's partner in Sticky Fingers.
In Blazing Saddles they have contrived a Frankenstein of a restaurant: part homage to the Wild West of Mel Brooks, part spin-off of the Soap Creek Saloon (that fine honkytonk in Austin, Texas) and part lunchtime cafe for the shoppers of Kensington High Street.
During my Tuesday lunch, raucous music blared - great, foot-stomping stuff - but to little avail. By day, this is no Soap Creek Saloon: there is no thrashing band, no dancing, no necking, no fighting. Rather, a pair of fetchingly sulky young men, perhaps foreign students escaping their bedsits, sat at the bar. They nursed beers and moodily eyed the waitresses and a pair of ladies padded out with bags from Hobbs and Marks & Spencer. The poor hombres- about-town resorted to staring listlessly at a television screen, where a Western played soundlessly.
They should try again in the evening. It sounds as though things pick up. From 27 January, every Wednesday to Saturday, there will be live music, either R & B or Cajun, until 1am.
The food is not bad. A huge rack of barbecue ribs at pounds 8.15 was just as it should have been (for two people). The small or 'starter' portion costs pounds 3.75. The large one comes with choice of something called Mondo Beans or a huge bowl of coleslaw. The beans, topped with what tasted like some evil commercial cheese, are a passable meal in themselves, provided you avoid the menu's coy lavatory humour in describing the dish: 'Remember the campfire scene?'
Beers include a perfectly good lager from Wisconsin, Mickey's Malt, which comes in an odd, squat green bottle. The cocktails come with names such as Orgasm, Quaalude, Beam me up, Scotty, Mind Eraser and Zipperhead.
As a rule, I loathe theme restaurants, but there is a certain agreeable funk about Blazing Saddles. Its tangle of decorations add up to something comfortable, almost personal. And compared to Joe Smo's, a new American- style bar-restaurant in Chiswick High Road, west London, it is the height of authenticity.
Who, for starters, is Joe Smo? No relation, to be sure, of Joe Schmoe, contemptuous Yiddish rhyming slang for John Doe. Judging from a cartoon likeness, this Mr Smo seems instead to be a reject character from an American comic strip set in a high school: a wholesome idiot.
Mr Smo's restaurant (right) is a thinly disguised suburban pub, a barn of a place. Two wrong turns coming back from Heathrow, and you're there. Upstairs, it looks as if it transmogrified into a wine bar before another evolution into what it calls an 'American bar and diner' and 'West London's hottest live music venue'.
It will take more than the odd 'Uncle Sam Wants You' poster to effect the transition. High among the missing items are the customers. It was empty when I ate dinner last week. This might be in part due to what is described as 'Authentic American Chow]' My chow was a huge cheeseburger on a cold, plasticky bun lathered with ice-cold coleslaw. The burger was topped with plasticky cheese and fatty, cheap bacon. Chips were flabby.
Downstairs is something Mr Smo's publicity bumph calls the 'chic Manhattan Bar'. To me it looked like yet more pub with a slightly different job- lot of fittings. More I cannot report. It was locked up and empty. Weekends, apparently, Mr Smo has live music and dancing.
Crouch End, north London, once had one of London's only good Afro- Caribbean restaurants. It catered for Prince when he toured here, but Prince did not come often and it closed last year. Today it is something called the Barbella American Bistro, which serves 'los snackos' and that great American favourite, afternoon tea.
Down the street, another new place, Banner's, is an altogether jollier ambassador for Americana. There is a 'Nobody for President' bumper sticker on the door, nice stainless steel and chrome fittings along the bar, a popcorn machine and some fine old posters for events sponsored by Valvoline and the Oakland, California, Elk Club. The clincher is a framed front-page edition of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, dateline 4 November, 1992, Little Rock, bearing the headline: 'Clinton Wins'.
Now here is a cafe-restaurant that knows how to crib what it likes, but remain true to itself. There is a lot to thank the States for in Banner's - all- day breakfasts, great taped music, Louisiana Hot Sauce ('one drop does it'), pecan pie and Jack Daniels. But its Budweiser is Czech (and better for it). There are Russian wines, Cuban rums, Manx kippers and Creole cooking. Banner's is international: the world according to Crouch End.
It has an agreeable, shaggy socialist sort of vibe. On entering, other customers might smile at you, as if welcoming fellow conspirators in the forging of a new espresso bar society. The staff and clients are mixed class and race. Children clamber around. Intellectual-looking types take up whole tables, drinking bottles of Kodru Cabernet Merlot from Moldova and scribbling in notebooks.
Then again, what looked like lingering may have been simple waiting. The staff of Banner's is struggling a bit with authority. You could easily mistake the graceful young owner, Juliet Banner, for a junior waitress, for it is she who does all the work while her staff are somewhat bumbling.
During my visit, one of the cooks wandered from the kitchen and had a nice long chinwag on the telephone, while I sat forgotten by the waitress. Ms Banner caught the slack, then enquired about the meal. A salad of black-eyed peas, butter and kidney beans was advertised as having an onion, chilli and coriander dressing. The beans were dry, undercooked in the marinade, which tasted mainly of oil. The tomatoes were pale pink wedges that should never have been accepted into the kitchen. 'Jerk' chicken had a good spicy sauce, was slightly overcooked and came with delicious fried plantains. As a sauce, a pool of sticky, bland mayonnaise was a curious choice.
As we chatted at the bar, another customer came to announce that she had not got the food she ordered, and had got something she hadn't. Ms Banner sorted it, then told me that this is her first business. She was a waitress before. When she stops waitressing and starts managing, she should have a good cafe-restaurant. Just now, she has a good-natured one.
Blazing Saddles, 38 Kensington High Street, London W8 (071-937 9207). Snacks from pounds 5, meals with beer from pounds 10- pounds 15. Vegetarian meals. Loud music. Open 12 noon-12 midnight Sun- Tues, to 1am Weds-Sat. Major credit cards.
Joe Smo's, 29 Chiswick High Road, London W4 (081-995 0945). Meals and drink from pounds 7. Live music. Open 11am-11pm; cocktail bar Thur-Sat 6pm- 2am. Major credit cards.
Banner's, 21 Park Road, London N8 (081-292 0001). Children welcome. Vegetarian meals. Snacks from pounds 1.50; light meals from pounds 5- pounds 15. Open 10am- 11.30pm Mon-Sat, to 11pm Sun. Visa, Access.
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