UK Food Culture

Food Reviews - What's the Point?

Professional Restaurant Critics, Bloggers or Review Sites?

With thousands of restaurants in London alone, choosing where to eat can be a daunting task. When all else fails, you can always turn to food critics – but are they the people to listen to?

When it comes to engaging with culture, I don’t always seem to get it quite right. Many is the time a film has been panned by the critics, only for me to love it upon watching, and more than once have I gone to highly-acclaimed restaurant to leave disappointed. My belief is that only an extremely silly person would believe that there is such a thing as an absolute right or wrong opinion when it comes to consuming things – be it films or food. So what are the critics there for?

London Restaurant Marketing

The Guardian food writer Jay Rayner believes it is less about the restaurant and more about the review itself – “Some people do use [food reviews] as a guide, but the vast majority read them for vicarious pleasure or displeasure”. I am one of those people. I love nothing more than curling up with the Sunday papers and reading about the fanciest or most fashionable restaurant that week. But food reviewers do much more than that, they give you a way to understand the food and teach you a language you can use to describe it. The critics can tell you why the food is good, what it is about each ingredient which adds something to the dish as a whole. Last week I mentioned that egg added richness to a pizza – a truth I always knew, but hadn’t previously been able to explain. Critics shape what we already think into more coherent, eloquent sentences.

Food blogger

Critics also have access to new restaurants long before us mere mortals do, and are exposed to food trends and sure-fire successes far earlier on. If you want to understand where food culture is heading, they are the people to follow. If you disagree with one food critic, that is one thing, but if ten highly-respected reviewers agree on a restaurant, it should give you a good idea of its worth. We asked Joanne Gould, the blogger behind Jo Eats London whether she thought food critics were a good gastronomic barometer, “Yes and no. If there is widespread panning or applause then yes, but you will always get people disagreeing. Plus, it is kind of more fun to go make up your own mind”.

Food blogger

This is where food bloggers come in. These are the halfway point between your Gran and Giles Coren – people who know about food and actively engage with it, but who do not write for a national magazine. They are – for the most part - yet to achieve the semi-celebrity achieved by the critic. Successful food bloggers often start out like anyone else– looking for good places and tasty things to eat – and they form a knowledgeable food community. Blogger Her Favourite Food says she finds most of her new restaurants through other food bloggers, “you build up a relationship with them through following them for a while, so in time you realise you agree with and trust”.  Herein lies the rub however – although they may not have achieved the same levels of fame as the critics, bloggers still wield a considerable amount of influence in the restaurant world. If you are a successful blogger with a good following, restaurants may seek you out, offering you free meals in exchange for good publicity and compromising the review’s reliability.

London Chef

And so we come to the trickiest reviews of all – Trip Advisor. A restaurant’s best friend or worst nightmare, Trip Advisor has taken a great deal of heat in recent years for not doing enough to prevent fraudulent reviews, spawning the twitter campaign #noreceiptnoreview. The platform is set up so that anyone can say anything they like about the business and reviews will only be taken down if it is very clear that guidelines have been violated (the reviewer is abusive in their post, or never actually went to the restaurant, for example).

Trip Advisor

So what use, if any, does Trip Advisor have for potential customers? It can be a perfect window into customer service. I don’t mean by reading that Mabel30954893 gave the service 1 star (Mabel30954893 could have had a bad day, perhaps she got caught in the rain or got a flat tyre and took it out on the waiter), but by reading how the management responds. If they respond rudely (or not at all), and you can see that they do so in other reviews, that is a fairly good measure of how much they value their customers.

London Restaurant Marketing

So, what can we take from all of this? Essentially that Trip Advisor should give you an idea of customer service, food bloggers are helpful insofar as you find one you relate to and trust, and critics are there to entertain, to give you the tools to talk about and understand food, and – at times – to capture and translate the zeitgeist. As Rayner put it, “mine is a writing job not an eating job. Either you like what I write and find it authoritative or you don't. Simple as that.”

Basilico Delivers

Epicure Digital Marketing Reviews London's Gourmet Pizza Brand Basilico

British pizza lovers have become spoilt of late. Whether you are in the mood for a grease-fest or a gourmet feast, delivery options have become so sophisticated that you can get food – even Michelin-starred food - delivered right to your door. But this phenomenon is fairly new – back in the late nineties, takeaway pizza meant a pre-made margarita warmed up in the microwave.

Enter Basilico.

Basilico London's Gourmet Pizza Delivery

When it first opened in 1998, Basilico was the only wood-fired, high-quality pizza delivery around, and the only pizza delivery company at all to get a red star in the Time Out Eating Out guide. Since then restaurants and food delivery services have caught up with Basilico’s original innovation, which makes one wonder whether the unique selling point of delivering delicious, fresh, wood-fired pizza offers Londoners anything truly special? We decided to try for ourselves.

To get fully to grips with Basilico’s offering, we opted for two new additions (one of which looked very quirky indeed), one classic, and one which catered for the strictest of dietary requirements. Before beginning, we set out our criteria for what makes a great pizza – quality of ingredients, how well cooked everything was, flavour combinations, uniqueness, and – this being classic Roman pizza – how crispy the base was.

Basilico's Pizza Nera

The Vegetarian

First up, The Vegetarian, which we got vegan-style with lactose-free cheese and a gluten-free base. This comes with roasted aubergine, courgette, red peppers, red onions, fresh tomatoes and basil and earned an immediate thumbs-up from our resident intolerant eater. Despite being gluten-free, the base was crispy and every individual vegetable was perfectly cooked – no mean feat when you consider this was done in a wood-fired oven at 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Vegetarians normally get the short straw when it comes to toppings, so we were pleasantly surprised with the quality and thoughtfulness of Basilico’s veggie offering.

Crispiness – 8/10

Quality of Ingredients – 10/10

How well cooked – 10/10 (onions had bite, aubergine was perfectly soft and not stringy. Spot on)

Flavour Combinations – 10/10 (Use of herbs was particularly successful)

Uniqueness – 8/10 (As vegetarian pizzas go, fairly original)

The Vegetarian at Basilico

The Capricciosa

Next was our classic choice, The Capricciosa, which came with fresh asparagus, prosciutto crudo, free-range egg, shaved parmesan, and top-quality fior di latte mozzarella. It is said that you cannot go wrong with classic flavour combinations, but that is not always true. If handled inexpertly, what should be classic ends up dull and disappointing. Thankfully, this was not the case here. The asparagus was flavourful and al dente, the ham so thin it was almost melting, and the egg added an excellent richness to the whole thing.

Crispiness – 9/10

Quality of Ingredients – 8/10

How well cooked – 10/10

Flavour Combinations – 9/10 (This would have been a 10 with just a touch more sauce)

Uniqueness – 7/10

The Capricciosa at Basilico

Pizza Zucca

Having recently enjoyed a pretty fabulous dinner at restaurant “La Zucca” in Venice, I was intrigued by one of Basilico’s new additions - Pizza Zucca. Roasted butternut squash, crispy pancetta, crumbled roasted chorizo, smoked chicken, fior di latte mozzarella… it was like all my favourite things in one. It seemed like fate. And it was certainly the right choice, the butternut squash was sweet, the pancetta salty, the chorizo spicy, the whole thing warming and wonderful and indulgent without feeling even remotely greasy or guilt-inducing.

Crispiness – 9/10

Quality of Ingredients – 10/10 (the chorizo gets a particular A+)

How well cooked – 10/10

Flavour Combinations – 10/10 (If I could give this an 11, I would)

Uniqueness – 9/10

Zucca Pizza at Basilico

Pizza Nera

Our final choice was the most unusual, Basilico’s new Pizza Nera. The first thing that will strike you is that it is…black. Topped with fresh buffalo mozzarella, roasted yellow peppers, wild boar salami, punto di coltello, sundried tomatoes and rocket, this black dough pizza is certainly a shock to the eye. That said, the dark base made the colourful ingredients seem even more vibrant, and the first bite reassured me there was nothing untoward about the dramatic-looking base. It was one tasty artwork.

Crispiness – 9/10

Quality of Ingredients – 9/10

How well cooked – 9/10

Flavour Combinations – 8/10

Uniqueness – 10/10 (Black pizza? What will they think of next?)

Pizza Nera at Basilico

So, in a city of gourmet pizza and ever-fancier delivery options, does Basilico hold its own? Absolutely.

They are a London company, their branches stretching from Crouch End to Lavender Hill, meaning that wherever you live in the city you can enjoy their fabulous pizza. Not so with big international companies like Deliveroo. By picking the restaurants, rather than the customer areas, they leave people like poor old me out in the cold when it comes to gourmet pizza – especially with a vegan in the house! Basilico caters to Londoners, however out on the peripheries they are.

Basilico's Vegan Pizza

More importantly – the pizza is amazing. They promise to “make the best pizza, not the cheapest or fastest” and this commitment to quality is felt all the way through. Not the cheapest ingredients, the best ingredients, the best way of cooking them, the best way of combining them. This can be seen in the masterful flavour combinations of the Zucca, the artistic flair of the Nera, and the sensitive handling of the vegan Vegetarian. Even if you live surrounded by gourmet pizza joints, Basilico is without a doubt worth your time, because they have taken the time themselves to craft something excellent.

Sorry Deliveroo, I think you and I are through.

It's Complicated - Britain's Love Affair with Indian Food.

Epicure Digital Marketing Interviews Chef Cyrus Todiwala

The UK’s love affair with Indian food goes back several hundred years and, although the two countries have had a complicated history, Indian cuisine’s beneficial effect on British food is undeniable. The same cannot necessarily be said on our part. Britain has shamelessly borrowed, manhandled, and misunderstood Indian food almost for as long as it has loved it but, with the world of food shifting and changing all the time – are we starting to give Indian cuisine the respect it deserves? We sat down with Chef Cyrus Todiwala to find out.

Epicure Found Chris O'Leary and Chef Cyrus Todiwala of Café Spice Namasté

Epicure Found Chris O'Leary and Chef Cyrus Todiwala of Café Spice Namasté

In 1600, the East India Trading Company was founded to open trade routes with the Indian subcontinent, ushering in a whole new food era. Brits returning from their travels had acquired a taste for the flavourful dishes they had been eating abroad, and new recipes sprung up in their homeland to accommodate them. The first English curry recipes can be found in Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery, as early as 1747, and 1809 saw the first ever Indian restaurant open in the UK. Although Britain’s passion for Indian cuisine declined in the later years of the Raj, the influx of Indians and Bangladeshis into the UK in the 20th century saw it come back with a vengeance.

But we have always insisted on doing it our way. Early English curries were extremely mild and nowadays the food we consider “Indian” often bears little resemblance to what you can actually find in the country itself, as Todiwala points out. “If people come to Indian restaurants in the UK, everything is not all dark and smelly like it is in India. Everything is deep-fried and full of colour - in India we don’t use a lot of colour in our food, whereas here we use it rampantly”.  

Epicure Digital Marketing Dines at Café Spice Namasté

For Chef Todiwala, Indian cuisine in the UK has not followed the same trajectory as that of, say, French cuisine, attaining a high profile and a “fine dining” stamp of approval. On the contrary, the majority of Indian restaurants are treated as day-to-day British dining, a perception, Todiwala remarks, which has prevented the Indian food industry from growing and developing.

“To the bulk of the British public, Indian restaurants are still “curry”, because they haven’t identified what curry really means, and what Indian cuisine really stands for.” Rather than a complex and profound gastronomy, most of us still think of Indian food as a Friday night takeaway or post-pub sustenance. Now, don't get me wrong, I love a typical Indian takeaway as much as the next person (and I must admit, I'm a sucker for a sweet, mild korma) it is great, tasty food, and, as Todiwala himself points out, "you can't say it is poor quality, it isn't necessarily. It is simply that these restaurants are providing a service for people who demand that kind of quality, product, and service." It is simply that our view of this particular style of cooking is often applied to all Indian food, regardless of quality. 

Café Spice Namasté in London

And it is exactly this perception that restaurants like Todiwala’s own Café Spice Namaste are trying to root out. To begin with, says Todiwala, it was out with the dim lighting, flock wallpaper, and musty carpets, and in with the bold colours “India is a very very colourful country, unfortunately the restaurants within Britain did not represent that”.

Epicure Digital Marketing at Café Spice Namasté

Secondly, if you are looking for your standard Jalfrezi, think again. The Indian subcontinent is bursting with regional cuisines, each as exciting as the last, but in Britain there are very few opportunities to try anything but the well-worn options you can find at your local curry house.

But this is changing, with restaurants like Michelin-starred Trishna offering options such as a Kerala-inspired tasting menu. At Café Spice Namaste, Parsi food is the order of the day – a cuisine found in India’s Western Gujarat area which is closer to Persian food than it is to a Brick Lane Balti – alongside Goan-inspired seafood dishes and much more. “We always try to educate our public, so those who have not had our cuisine before will have the opportunity to dine on different forms of cooking.

Samosas at Café Spice Namasté

And it turns out that we Britons are increasingly willing to be educated. Our love of food TV is at an all-time high – I myself am a MasterChef obsessive – which means it has never been simpler for us to learn how to cook these dishes ourselves. Instead of relying on a curry recipe from a cookbook, you can watch Chef Todiwala make it himself on Saturday Kitchen. It is also easier than ever before to travel to India and try the food first-hand. And this, according to Todiwala, is what is making a real difference. Once people have tried real Indian food, our pale British imitation simply will not cut it.

There is this amazing growth in the palates and the refinement of the taste buds of British people today, who demand more in terms of quality, in terms of consistency, and in terms of variety”, remarks Todiwala. Not only are we beginning to create superlative, informed eaters (or foodie hipsters, whatever you want to call them), we are also producing superlative raw materials, which many UK Indian chefs are using in their cooking.

In fact, Todiwala only uses British produce in his kitchen, taking great pains to source the finest meat, fish, and vegetables from all over the country. When we visited, there was a trout on the specials which can only be found in the chalk streams of Hampshire, where some of the purest water in Britain can be found. “I buy British, and I’m proud to buy British, that’s what we do.” So here it is – with our long-delayed appreciation for more complex and “authentic” Indian cuisine comes an opportunity to contribute something worthwhile ourselves in the form of our world-class local produce.

Epicure Digital Marketing Feast at Café Spice Namasté

A new era of British-Indian food, authentic to us, celebrating the best of both countries is about to begin, and it’s going to be delicious. Want to get involved? Café Spice Namaste might be a good place to start.