Monday, December 08, 2014

Soho, please don't get too bland.

Photo from the set 'It's all happening' 

The sad closing of Madame Jojo’s last week has been hailed as a final nail in the coffin for the soul of Soho. It's true, with its streets over the past twenty years slowly but surely turning from famous den of freedom and debauchery to a sort of  norm-core shops-n-lunch village, the chances of catching a glimpse of some old stripper’s arse or - heaven forbid - paying said stripper to do exciting things to you in a flock-wallpapered back room somewhere are becoming extremely slim. 
With all the huggable feel-good brands to eat and drink at now, with their on-trend pastiche menus and US style service, it’s far more safe and sober, lots less edgy and erotic. 

Clearly, Soho appears to no longer be the byword for exoticness it once was. Its style and design has become bland and homogenous. Most new restaurants or bars opening today all look like some kind of buy-by-the-sq-foot BHS Brooklyn, a look you can get in any branch of Habitat. 
You can now buy a ‘Soho’ bathroom set (no crack addicts included, I bet) and even John Lewis now does a ‘Soho’ furniture range. 

Mind you I don’t claim to be any more edgy. My own early memories of Soho are not exactly laced with malfeasance.
I remember as an art loving teenager discovering a book of my Dad’s called ‘Soho in the Fifties’ by Daniel Farson, and consuming it as a kind of ‘essential reading’ for any budding louche and bohemian creative. In reality I am about as louche and bohemian as a Surrey Golf Club, but aged 16 I was convinced I was a cross between Mick Jagger and Francis Bacon.

My first memory of visiting Soho is passing my GCSE’s in 1991, my mother taking me for lunch at Andrew Edmunds, then - in her words - ‘the canteen of the gossiping media world’. Then a couple of years later I was rewarded for getting into university with lunch at The French House, by the same mother. It was then a funny little first-floor restaurant and home to a couple of chefs called the Hendersons. It was the first time I’d eaten pigeon. 

Later in the mid nineties I remember feeding a vinyl habit at the record shops: Chocy’s, Unity, Black Market and Uptown, and even occasionally playing them DJing at our little tin-pot do’s at Mars and Velvet Underground. A high-point in my blagging career must be in the late 90s gaining an unofficial membership at The Groucho Club under the name of an Iranian carpet dealer client of mine, which I used for nearly a year before being asked for six hundred quid or so in ‘unpaid membership funds’ and swiftly doing a runner, not to return for 10 years or more. 

Some other places ring a bell - peering through the stained glass of Quo Vadis at the time (I wasn’t rich enough then to book a table) you would catch a glimpse of Damien Hirst’s dead animals preserved in formaldehyde. How Brit-pop. 
Bars and clubs like Abigail’s Party, The Sun and 13 Cantons, Alphabet Bar and Soho House when it opened all felt the tread of my 90s cords and Wallabees on occasion, and of course there was The Midas Touch, a wine-bar style pub next to the Virgin Radio building Golden Square in quite possibly the naffest, post-naff, neo-naff, pre-irony naff wine bar styling the mid 90s could be capable of. It was like a tribute to Grecian Gods crossed with cross-channel ferry. Chris Evans was often there on a Friday afternoon. That’s my sole memory of rubbing shoulders with rock n roll Soho celebrities in the 90s. Everyone else had Liam & Patsy, I had Chris Evans and Billie Piper.

It’s not all bad, Lots of the best places in Soho are still here. My favourite pub, The Coach & Horses is now owned by a big brewery (Fuller’s) but remains untouched aesthetically, right down to the Skol Lager and Ind Coope motifs, rotten carpet and Jeffery Bernard cartoons. 
The French House still has an air of intellectual old-soak, and The Algerian Coffee Stores still serves a great espresso for a pound. The Blue Posts on Berwick St still has its pot plants and thick curtains. The Dog & Duck still has one of the best examples of Victorian glass engraving panelling in a London pub. 

There isn’t much that can stop the inevitable changes, as ultimately, landlords will always go for the highest paying and lowest hassle tenant, who wouldn't? Why would you want some skint little independent outfit always complaining about the rent, never paying on time and not investing properly in all the boring health & safety trivialities, when you could have a nice well-behaved superbrand paying you handsomely like clockwork every month, just for the Soho bragging rights?

I hope Soho is too old and wise to let itself fall completely into the bland trap. I know it's tempting to the planners, but remember, Covent Garden is next door, and look what happened to that. Leicester Square and Piccadilly is now a lost hope. And Mayfair will tell you it needs a naughty neighbour, not a girl next door.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Leo Zanelli

A lovely article which appeared in a local Soho magazine The Soho Clarion about a customer of ours Mr Leo Zanelli, who once lived and worked at 21 Romilly street in the late 1940s.
Lovely to learn the history of life in our building, if only that it was possibly once the second ever vegetarian restaurant in London!

LEO Zanelli, 84
Raised in Soho, Author & Photographer 

I came here in 1939 with my parents because my father had purchased the lease of 21 Romilly Street. Of course it
was the beginning of the war and he was immediately sent to an internment camp because he was Italian. During the war I was in the basement at Romilly Street and although I’m a hard sleeper I was woken up by the floor shaking. An uncle of  mine who was an ambulance driver knocked on the door and said, ‘Is everyone alright? A bomb has just fallen over the road!’

I was brought up by my grandmother Rosa who didn’t speak much English but I would cry every time she spoke to me in Italian. My mum Lousia Bravazzi did bed and breakfasts in the house. We had one Bulgarian who used to pray very loudly so we had to get rid of him because you could hear him all night long. My uncle Peter was a band leader and he brought a lot of showbusiness people in. Harry Hayes, the famous band leader, taught me how to play the alto saxophone in that house.

Towards the end my mother decided to turn the ground floor into a vegetarian restaurant; I think it was only the
second one in London. It’s now Gauthier, a French restaurant that I go to every now and again. They’re very nice to me there and the food is a lot better now than when we had it.  We used to do things like nut cutlets - it wasn’t too dire if you didn’t eat meat but no imagination went into it.  It was called Jill-in-the-Green and it wasn’t paying its way and when my father got out of the internment camp, around 1945, my mother asked him if he’d like to work there. He was a big carnivore so he said, ‘You’ve got to be joking’ and went off and got another job, but when it finally went down he did take it over. It became The Tosca and it started selling steaks and things like that. Eventually he sold out to some Indians and opened a club – also called the Tosca – near Gerrard Street - that he ran till he died. It was completely Italian, it was just like the little tavernas that you have in Italy. It was almost exclusively male – women used to come in occasionally to see where their husbands were – but the men would sit down there and play cards, have a drink and maybe a salami or mortadella sandwich.

At the start of the 60s a friend of my father’s - Dick - also had a club at the top of Greek Street. When he died, my parents took over the club.  My mother stuck in two young Italian lads there: Luigi Mangiavacca – which is Italian for ‘eat cow’ - and his friend whose name I can’t remember.  It was Luigi who called it the Evaristo. Eventually it was sold on and then it was sold to Trisha’s husband and she still has it now. It’s called the New Evaristo now but everyone calls it Trisha’s. Her husband was a nice chap; he’d pop in once in a while for a drink and chat to two or three people – you hardly ever saw him – not like how Trish is now. My eldest son - who’s 50 tomorrow - remembers going to The Evaristo as a youngster. There used to be a photograph up on the wall of three boxers; one was Rocky Marciano. I remember saying what a lovely picture it was and Luigi gave it to me and, although it’s faded, you can still see Marciano’s signature.

Mr Leo Zanelli

This article first appeared in The Soho Clarion, quarterly magazine of The Soho Society, and written and photographed by Clancy Gebler Davies

A love letter to Mr Bown

Since opening our doors in May 2010, we have been extremely lucky to have gained a number of regular customers, who we welcome time after time and look after them and their personal requirements as best we can.
One in particular is Mr Bown, a lovely gentleman who we are happy to say has made us one of his favourite dining rooms.

Oh, Mr Bown! With a ring of the doorbell, he enters - dressed immaculately - with almost a fanfare, and after a customary welcome with all the staff he is shown his usual table. He requests a medium round table on the first floor by the window. Table four. This is his place, he feels comfortable here.

Is everything ready? Of course, we always have everything ready. No white napkins, we have his special shade of black. Napoleon table statue? Please remove this Frenchman!, Mr Bown has his own favourite political leaders, Generals Franco and Mussolini. With pleasure and gentle humour, his personal bronze statues are brought from the cupboard. Any other little things to remember? No red plates, food looks awful on red! And always underplates if you please. A little foie gras. Maybe some truffles. No port, or fortified wines. 

Mr Bown is in the room. He his everyone’s friend, and he has many. It has been our great pleasure to be introduced to many wonderful guests of his, many of which we can also now call friends and customers. He is such a well known face in the room that sometimes we are sure that customers think he's the owner!

So it was our happy surprise that we noticed Mr Bown was approaching his 200th visit recently, which would be an achievement for a regular guest at a 20 year old restaurant, let alone a four year old one. That means he has visited us on average at least twice a week since we opened!
How can we thank him for his custom, his patronage and his consistent ambassadorship?

Mr Bown will never have a bill now at Gauthier Soho. He is always welcome, there is always his table ready for him. Customers like him are not won by PR companies, marketing departments or special offers, but by something else. Perhaps it's love?

Thank you and see you soon, Mr Bown.

Mr Bown (in cream suit) adjusting his cuff-link on the day of his 200th visit.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Servants' Quarters

21 Romilly street is a Regency period or thereabouts townhouse, very typical of thousands of similar built in and around London in the late eighteenth/ early nineteenth century. 

Quite small in comparison to those found in Mayfair, or especially the later Victorian mansions of Belgravia and Knightsbridge, our little Georgian house occasionally provides some little secrets about life nearly 200 years ago.

When we moved to the building, we found at the back two tiny rooms on top of each other, connected by an equally tiny staircase. Each room is no bigger than 2 x 3 metres, and has no windows. We did some research and learned that these rooms would have been used as servants quarters, probably with a married couple sharing this tiny space as their home.

For me, it’s amazing to think that all these years ago, even the most modest of houses had fully employed service for all domestic duties, and especially interesting when you realise the tiny, cramped spaces they inhabited.

We now use the spaces for part of our wines and spirits storage, so it’s nice to think of some Remains of the Day Anthony Hopkins type character enjoying a nice bottle of something after service late one night.

Tea and Gauthier Soho

About two years ago we were approached by Lalani & Co about listing their teas here at the restaurant Gauthier Soho. 
They informed me they were great lovers of the restaurant, and felt their product would sit perfectly with us, so intrigued, we invited them in to show us the product.

Personally, the idea of tea with food evoked cabbies in chippies, Binnie Hale on the wireless at my grandmother’s, or perhaps awkward hours spent in stiff hotel drawing rooms nibbling on cucumber sandwiches while my mother-in-law sips Earl Grey with an extended little finger.

Here at the restaurant however, Chef patrons Alexis and Gerard have always been enthusiastic about tea in restaurants, particularly in Japan and South East Asia, where delicate blends are appreciated far more commonly in a restaurant environment.
Green tea for example as a digestive after a long meal, is well known and simple as it sounds. But the feeling of leaving a full meal completely calm and relaxed, without the calories and sugars of alcohol or fruit juices is revelating.

Oddly, I found the natural pairings were more obvious to me than I first thought. How many years had I enjoyed my afternoon chocolate and strong black tea? The sweet creaminess of milk chocolate is counteracted perfectly by the bitter, slightly sour and deeply dry notes of the strong black tea, which is basically Assam?

The idea of pairing teas with dishes was new ground, however. Would customers really be happy with tea as a substitution for wine? Can the flavours really be appreciated in the same depth?

The obvious answer is of course yes, and in some cases more so. I've learned that teas can actually expose flavours otherwise hidden away, such as the bitterness of turnip previously shrouded in a rich thyme jus being brought to light by a Taiwanese Oolong, and the umami earthy notes of black truffle utterly underlined by a 1st flush 2014 Japanese Sencha, to the surprising revelation of poached apricots from an indian Darjeeling.

Full tea flights are now being served with tasting menus and are available to view here 

Well, more than a year on and all we can say his how happy we are with the product and how well it’s been received. 

Restaurant manager Damian Sanchez says: “Having the tea flight pairing has for the first time offered the health or calorie conscious guest a serious alternative to wine or soft drinks in a situation where perhaps simply drinking water would be a shame. For example, drinking tea instead of wine can cut up to 500 calories from a meal and leave you feeling refreshed and invigorated rather than heavy and sleepy. We find it’s especially popular with people with a highly professional or busy schedule”

Chef Alexis Gauthier says: “ For me, matching food with drinks has always been a main part of being a chef but as my food was getting more and more floral and vegetal, I found Lalani had the passion and the expertise to understand what I was looking for to apply to more vegecentric dishes.
One revelation was learning about how tea was actually as if not more seasonal than my favourite ingredients and a new source of discovery into the vegetal world of cooking.“

Veganisteria 111

Deep Problem If there was one thing that has seriously amazed me since becoming a vegan chef is the fact that I am still not connected ...