Despite all evidence to the contrary, I'm not totally unqualified to do this job. Many years ago, I worked as a researcher on the BBC TV series Food and Drink.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, I'm not totally unqualified to do this job. Many years ago, I worked as a researcher on the BBC TV series Food and Drink. It ended life as Oz and Woz camping it up in a farmhouse kitchen, but back then, it was a sensible studio show, with Michael Barry doing the cooking, Chris Kelly issuing avuncular warnings about salmonella, and Jilly Goolden honing her metaphors on wine duty. I still remember some of the interesting correspondence she used to get from gentlemen viewers.
Food and Drink was derided by metropolitan foodies, but along with Delia Smith's programmes, it did a lot to kindle Britain's love affair with good cooking. The man behind its success, as well as that of other juggernauts of lifestyle programming such as Ready Steady Cook and Changing Rooms, was Peter Bazalgette. Despite being something of a foodie himself, he always worked hard to keep Food and Drink accessible, simple and entertaining.
The BBC sold off Kensington House, the Shepherd's Bush building where Food and Drink was based, a few years ago. It's now a "design hotel" called K West, and when I heard they'd opened a new restaurant, Kanteen, I asked Baz (as he's universally known) to join me there for lunch. Where once we'd endured fry-ups in the canteen, we would now feast at Kanteen.
It was a shock to have the door whisked open for me on arrival, rather than barred by a commissionaire demanding to see my pass. The dusty cubicles where documentary producers could hide undisturbed for years have been refurbished as bedrooms, and a smart, shiny bar has risen where Main Reception used to be.
Kanteen occupies a mezzanine floor above the bar, and the modern-deco design, like the clientele, is trying a bit too hard to be trendy (one diner was sporting what might well be the last remaining male pony tail, or "dork knob", in captivity). The menu, too, is trying a little hard. The chef, Stephen Spooner, describes it as "modern eclectic", and it's certainly in the spirit of Ready Steady Cook; take a shopping bag of ingredients, throw them together seemingly at random, and hope for the best. Pumpkin and mixed seafood risotto. Tempura pak choi. Vermicelli and wild mushrooms with chilli. In one word: why?
Baz gratefully seized on a familiar dish from the selection of "appetisers". "Pear, walnuts and balsamic vinegar - that was a favourite of Michael Barry's," he chuckled. "It must have become a retro classic!" Then he noticed a whole line of additional ingredients and his face fell.
A loaf of rustic bread, served with good olive oil and tapenade, started things off promisingly, but the variable quality of our starters set the pattern of the meal. An excellent leek, potato and garlic soup was obviously freshly made using good stock. But coriander broth with crab dumplings was a dog's dinner, the broth cloyingly chilli-hot, and reached via redundant thickets of pak choi, spring onions, coriander and shiitake mushrooms.
Our suspicion that the kitchen was more comfortable with the traditional end of the repertoire was confirmed by the main courses, both of which got the difficult things right, while screwing up the trendy trimmings. Roast duck breast was admirably sweet beneath its glazed skin, while confit of chicken was full of old-fashioned flavour. But pak choi fried in soggy tempura batter was disastrous, as were parcels of undercooked risotto wrapped in inedibly salty Parma ham. "I don't think that's a success," Baz muttered, in the icy tones he once dismissed my groundbreaking Yoghurt: What is it, Why is it so tasty? programme idea.
The bells and whistles are largely set aside for the pudding course, which offers simple pleasures such as panacotta, lemon tart, and chocolate fondant (the Black Forest gâteau of the Noughties). "Fruits poached in red wine. That reminds me of some of our old colleagues from the music and arts department!" cackled Baz, as he dived in. There seemed to be far too much wine and not enough fruit in his bowl - he looked like he was bobbing for apples - but Baz thought it was properly done. And he's the chairman of the British Academy of Gastronomes, so he should know.
We tried a chocolate fondant too. And a pineapple pudding. In fact Baz ordered so many extra dishes, our table ended up as messy as the Food and Drink studio after the crew had descended on one of Michael Barry's demonstration dishes. As the manageress triple-checked our bill (around £45 a head, though it could have been much less) she gasped, "You've eaten a lot!" Not in the guest-management textbooks, that line.
Kanteen is unlikely to become a destination restaurant, even for people staying in the hotel, but it's potentially a useful venue in an area not over-endowed with great places to eat. "I might come back and grab a bowl of pasta," Baz concluded. It's just a shame that because K West is a "design hotel", a decent chef feels under pressure to produce designer food. There's a lot to be said for Baz's mantra. Keep it simple and entertaining, and you won't go far wrong.
SECOND HELPINGS: EATING AT THE OFFICE
By Caroline Stacey
North Bridge Brasserie
The Scotsman hotel takes its name from the newspaper whose Victorian offices it occupies. Where the newsroom was, straightforward food (chargrilled fillet of beef) is now served.
20 North Bridge, Edinburgh (0131-556 5565)
In the middle of a circular first-floor room in the 1960s Economist building, the preposterous Shumi schedules a meeting of Italian ingredients with Japanese presentation.
23 St James's Street, London SW1 (020-7747 9380)
Where once they got spliced, now they get custard slices. What was until 1996 a Register Office offers Paul Heathcotes modern-British and Mediterranean dining, and his brand of glamour.
Jackson's Row, Manchester (0161-835 3536)
Alain Ducasse is the brains behind this restaurant at the Sanderson, a hotel in a 1950s office block. From the multiple-choice menu, the picky eater can create their ideal meal.
The Sanderson, 50 Berners Street, London W1 (020-7300 1444)Reuse content