The Acid Tongue
A.A. Gill Forgets
Selected By Toh Hsien Min
One of the most devastating ways to review something is to not review it, or more precisely to review it without reviewing it. A sterling illustration of this is provided by one of the best-known critics on Fleet Street, even if he is less known for his critical judgement and more for his corrosive prose - which of course also supports the theory of communication that in general people reveal less about what they commentate on than about themselves. One suspects A.A. Gill simply likes to see his name in print.
His 19 October 2008 Sunday Times review of The Modern Pantry - as the sub-editor's headline tells us - starts with a reflection on the likely effects of the looming recession on the restaurant trade:
They're calling last orders in the kitchens of the West. Every year for the past decade, I have predicted that this was going to be the year of the great hunger — the restaurant recession — and now it's happened. Just as I soothed, it's about time we had a winnowing, separated the wheat from the caff, cleared out the Augean dining room. Now I can say with a brimming cup of smug: I told you so.
This moves on to a reasonable articulation of the human behaviours that will underpin these effects.
The first rule following a recession is that worried people don't start by amputating bits of their lives, they downsize them first. When you're frightened, you put all your effort into not panicking. You don't make desperate decisions, you make little, sensible, parsimonious changes and hope that maybe the fear will go away. Well, a lot of restaurants are going to go away before the fear does, and I feel conflicted about that. On one plate, there are too many exploitative, lazy dining rooms that badly need to have their balls fed to the bailiffs. Then again, some of my favourite places in the world are restaurants. They're where I ply my trade, albeit the way a wolf plies sheep.
But hey ho, it's not my job to make restaurants thrive, or throw them to reality television. If I check the PR file, aka the bin, I see that there are still hundreds of restaurants waiting to open, like a list of new recruits going up the line to the Somme. In rich boom time, more than 80% of catering start-ups go chicken breasts up within a year. But it's not going to affect everybody equally, and here, for what it's worth — which is probably more than your Isa — are some of my tips for nascent dining rooms.
Gill goes on to discourse in some detail on what the new dining room should do (don't get caught with a concept, offer value, dish out comfort food, be a cafe, and be hospitable ("Restaurants were invented by the French during the terror — you don't get a bigger depression than that.")).
It's all very very good reading... and nothing at all to do with any particular restaurant. Only after spending about 70% of his column inches on the above discourse does Gill touch on the ostensible subject of his column.
I did do a review this week, I'm sure I did. I know I did. I ate something somewhere so you wouldn't have to — possibly as recently as last night.
Then he goes on to not so much talk about its forgettability as to enact it:
But I simply can't remember anything about it. No, hold on, I'm getting grey — it was grey. Painted in those National Trust matt flat tones that are called things like Dead Pigeon or Maudlin Mortician. Where on earth was it — somewhere in Clerkenwell, perhaps? Maybe I'm making that up. Clerkenwell is the synonym for all lost and disregarded things, it's a never-never land of inanimate objects. Your sunglasses, the lens cap, your mother's pashmina, the girl you stood up on a blind date — they're all in Clerkenwell. So let's say the restaurant was in Clerkenwell. I went with friends — I do remember them. Nick and Nick, Christa and Alice, all shiny, bright and gyroscopically humming with anecdote and interest.
Mention of the food is restricted to this:
What did we eat? There was an omelette, yes — yes, I had an omelette as a starter. It was slightly burnt. What was in it? Okay, close your eyes, deep breath, regress the omelette, see it on the plate, smell it, what does it smell of . . . I've got a blocked nose.
In summing up the "transient grey restaurant that vanished without trace", Gill writes: "Was it expensive? I don't think so. Was it worth it? Not really." The layered comment being made here is that not only is the restaurant (probably) not worth a knock-down price, it isn't even worth more than a casual consideration of its worth.
And in shrugging off "Whatever this place is called", Gill draws attention to his never deigning to refer to the restaurant by name, before quickly getting back to the more pressing matter of the recession: "But [the customers are] all dodos now. Waiting on the shore of extinction for the bankers to club them on the back of the head."
By the end of the article, I haven't been told anything about The Modern Pantry. But I suspect it's not going to be on my list of restaurants to try the next time I'm in London.
QLRS Vol. 7 No. 4 Oct 2008