Gourmets scoff at Tesco posh nosh

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The Independent Online
IT COULD BE the answer to the dinner party cheat's prayers. Tesco launches a range of supermarket haute cuisine this week: chilled ready meals that - it claims - are as good as anything in the best restaurants.

Alongside the traditional baked beans, frozen chips and tinned tuna, shoppers will now be able to pick from Haddock Chowder with Croutons, Beef Whirl with Wild Mushrooms, Lamb Saddle Steak with Roasted Vegetables, Fresh Lobster and Barbary Duck with Orange and Lemon Sauce.

The move into upmarket catering is the latest advance by the superstore into our lives. Tesco and its rivals have already taken on the dry cleaning industry, chemists, fashion trade, cosmetics, newsagents and the high street banks. Nevertheless, food experts point out that, however well- prepared the food, it can never replace the ambience of a good restaurant.

Tesco has gone to some pains to justify its extravagant claim that a pre-prepared meal on a supermarket shelf can match the tastiest delicacies at Sir Terence Conran's Mezzo or Ruth Rogers' River Cafe. The menu, "Tesco's Finest", which offers 130 items, was put together by leading chefs Brian Turner and Anton Edelmann of the Savoy.

Starters include Chargrilled Vegetable Filo Tartlets and Mushroom and Bacon Tartlet. Main courses tend to the experimental with dishes such as Fresh Halibut Medallion with Roasted Pepper and Cous Cous and Boned Quail Stuffed with Wild Rice and Fruit. Desserts are the standard bistro offerings of Tarte Tatin and Tarte au Citron. Wine is not included.

An average three-course meal with accompaniments will set you back around pounds 15, but some combinations cost up to pounds 35.

Tesco says that unlike most ready meals, which are produced in factories, the new meals are prepared by hand in kitchens. One woman is employed solely to pluck the leaves from tarragon stems.

Inevitably, many top restaurateurs are irritated. "It's a bit naughty to make the analogy with restaurant food. It can't be as good because it's not straight from the pan," said Sir Terence Conran. "The flavours just won't be able to 'leap' in the mouth in the same way. There is also the issue of freshness. With their distribution system, it will be hard for them to match the quality of food bought this morning and cooked five minutes ago."

Gordon Ramsey, chef at London's fashionable Aubergine restaurant, said: "It is inconceivable that it could match restaurant quality. When I cook a dish, I prepare it for 10 people. They will be preparing it for 10,000. It's just not possible to maintain the same standard."

In any case, he said, eating at home can never compete with eating out. "You don't go to a restaurant just for the food. There is also the ambience, the ceremony; that will be lacking."

The Independent on Sunday's Food Editor, Michael Bateman, said he was not surprised by Tesco's move. "They have had the edge over their rivals when it comes to curries and their customers are very adventurous. If serious chefs are worth their salt they don't have anything to worry about from a supermarket. I would still expect a restaurant meal to have more finesse. But there's no reason why Tesco can't achieve the level of a medium quality restaurant."

Anthony Worrall Thomson, of BBC TV's Food and Drink programme, said: "People in this country are appalling at eating out. It could broaden mass market tastes. If it improves attitudes to food, it has my support."

Tesco says it is responding to demand from customers. "People are more discerning and they want to eat food of exceptional quality," said director of trading John Guildersleeve. "If we got even 1 per cent of the pounds 8bn a year restaurant market, we would be ecstatic."

That, of course, is what they said four years ago when they started selling newspapers. They are now the second largest newsagent in the country behind WH Smith.