Small Plates Research in London (+ a burger)

I am very much a believer in doing your research.  Very little is original and especially in the hospitality industry if there are problems to overcome someone has usually been there before and solved them to great effect.  London, like most capital cities,  has an incredible density of cafes and restaurants so there is nowhere better to visit to get the ideas flowing.

On 2nd Feb 14 I met up with our new executive chef Murray Wilson and, after an obligatory flat white from Laynes Espresso, we jumped onto the train down to Kings Cross.

The brief in my head was to experience a number of restaurant concepts offering small plates and gather some pointers we might like to consider for the opening of our own service ‘Nord’ in April this year.

Planning on the way down primarily centred on discussions on notes I made whilst reading ‘Setting the Table’ by world-renowned restaurateur Danny Meyer.  I would thoroughly recommend the book to anyone considering opening a business in the service industry and there is plenty of value in there for other industries too.  I think I have Peter Dore-Smith of Kaffeine to thank for the recommendation which I seem to recall seeing on Twitter.  Also recommended was ‘Art of the Restaurateur’ by Nichols Lander (food critic at the Financial Times) – perhaps a blog post about this book to follow.

Photo of post-its, moleskin and clipboard

Planning on the train on the way down

First up on arrival at the very swanky finished Kings Cross was Caravan.  Caravan is located just a stones throw away in a granary converted to house various businesses and the University of the Arts London.  The space is used as a restaurant, bar, coffee shop, roaster and coffee training centre.  The menu is pretty substantial and caters for every requirement throughout a day and evening service including small plates.

The décor is suitably industrial to match the building, softened with sympathetic lighting and a liberal smattering of neutral coloured hard-wearing tweed upholstery.  With a long day of eating stretching out before us we started slow sharing duck rillettes and pan fried mackerel.  The cooking is to order, ingredients fresh and dishes interesting.  Food was with us at the table within 10mins and with coffee/service cost  £19.12.

Rabbit rillette, one of the small plates at Caravan Kings Cross

Mackerel fillet and nori pear, one of the small plates at Caravan Kings Cross

There was no time to mess about enjoying the laid back vibe at Caravan, we had other places to be so we headed over to Covent Garden.  In the centre of the main building overlooked by the long Brasserie Blanc is Danny Meyer’s restaurant in the UK, Shake Shack.

As a 10-time visitor to the original Shake Shack in New York, Murray had set expectations high with the statement that this was his favourite burger in the world*.  This UK branch of the lauded New York based burger joint is operated as a franchise so it would be interesting to see how it compared.

Service is slick and friendly.  You make your order, retire to a table with an electronic pager and return to the hatch when your food is ready.  The classic Shackburger (£5) is a thin and moist patty on a soft and chewy brioche bun that is sufficiently constructed so it does not disintegrate during eating.  Tomatoes, onion and lettuce were all very fresh.  Fries (£3.50) are crinkle cut and the greater surface area means a better crunch, we shared cheese fries so had the added dollop of cheese sauce – it’s a US thing.

We neglected to have a frozen custard shake (thinking of our stomachs) but we both commented that these seemed highly priced at £5.  We both enjoyed the experience, Murray was pretty impressed but it was not quite the same as New York.

Shack burger at New York export ShakeShack in Covent Garden.  A bit of a change from small plates.

Two helpings of food down we had no solid plans but decided to head towards Soho and see what was about as we were meeting friends later that evening.  A quick search revealed Spuntino owned by Russell Norman, recently starring in BBC2’s ‘The Restaurant Man’, is open all day for food.  We decided to venture in.

Spuntino is at 61 Rupert Street in Soho and the facade very  low key – we walked past it the first time.  It’s description as an American diner style concept seems based on the extensive selection of bourbon and rye whisky, the music and a few menu items. The décor and character of the place reflects it’s former uses from which many of the features have been maintained.   It is finished with functional industrial pieces, dimmed exposed filament lighting and a really well designed steel topped U-shaped bar.  The bar allows the team to hold court from the centre of the room with everything for the beverage service available at their fingertips.  It was probably about 4pm by now so a beer was overdue (I felt a bit like I was on my holidays) and Camden Brewery’s Hells Lager fitted the bill.

Camden Hells Lager at Spuntino in Soho

Small plates are the area of the menu in which we were interested so we ordered ox tongue and a special burrata dish with grated dried fish.  The food came quickly, within 10 minutes, and both dishes were enjoyed and polished off despite slightly bulging stomachs at this point.  The bill came to around £23.

Burrata a special small plate at Spuntino in Soho.

Ox tongue in Soho's Spuntino

View front the bar at Spuntino, Soho.

View from the bar at Spuntino, Soho.

With full tummies and smart phones out of battery, due to wandering around like hapless idiot tourists following Google Maps in the big smoke, we needed to recharge.  After availing ourselves of the electricity from our friendly neighbourhood Starbucks, we grabbed a slightly disappointing Gin and Tonic on the way to meeting at our dinner destination, Polpo.

Polpo is another Russell Norman restaurant but this time based on a Venetian Bacaro.  Considering it was Monday evening trade was brisk as the greeter hit us with a 1-hour wait for a table, fortunately there is a bar downstairs.  The byword for Polpo would be cosy, lots of people after not so many tables and quite closely located to one another.  We waited about 40 minutes before we were seated.  There being 4 of us we were able to sample a larger range of small plates including meatballs, rabbit ragu, octopus and borlotti beans, salmon tartare, squid ink and cuttlefish risotto, duck and orange salad and a selection of cicheti (small bites).  Food comes out when it is ready and the range dishes were all well executed with the rabbit and octopus amongst the highlights.  We had space for dessert of rhubarb and pistachio pannacotta, chocolate salami, nutella pancake and tiramisu – less well received but all solid.  We drank wine and beer and the bill came to £150 with service for 4 people.

Cicheti in form of a small plate at Polpo, Soho. Salmon-Tartare small plate at Polpo, Soho.

After dinner we headed back to our friends place for a cup of some of the nicest tea we have tried in a while.  Tea Party Tea from Singapore based ‘TWG’ has a natural sweetness and vanilla aroma that carried strongly through the black tea but worked well with milk.  It is somewhat expensive at around £17+ P&P and is only available from Harrods.  Was great though.

So what were our conclusions from the trip?

We think we can deliver some exciting plates of food that aim to match or even surpass the quality of anything we ate during this trip.

In London people are prepared to pay a fair price for interesting and beautiful food.  They are also willing to wait for a table if necessary.  The anticipation of a wait in a buzzing atmosphere almost becomes part of the experience and many other elements of discomfort are forgiven if the food, drink and service deliver.

One interesting point we noticed across the board is that a 12.5% service charge was applied to every bill we received with the exception of Shake Shack but including in the bar where we had the disappointing G&Ts.  We paid on each occasion but there we lengthy discussions around this practice and it is something we plan to explore with the help of our Facebook community.

*Murray later decided he had been unfaithful to Ottawa’s Hintonburger, so swiftly backtracking he claims that is actually his favourite.

Photo credits Paul Rawlinson and Murray Wilson.



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2 Responses to Small Plates Research in London (+ a burger)

  1. I feel really strongly about service charges, having waited tables for 2 years at a place that didn’t pass it on to the staff, but used it to pay wages, to pay for tablecloths et al.

    It is also possible that it incentivises staff to sell the most expensive wine, but not to deliver the best service.

    I have not been to many places recently that added a service charge; perhaps this is because I’ve moved out of London? I don’t have experience of working in the hospitality industry outside London, so I don’t know how well people in Harrogate tip, or whether you can even generalise.

    I don’t like the service charge, but if it is going to the staff in its entirety, then you could argue it’s better than minimum wage plus random, unpredictable tips.

    • Paul says:

      Hi Jane, thanks for your thoughts.

      I agree I haven’t really seen service charges in the UK outside of London with the exception of a charge added to tables larger than 6. This is something a lot of restaurants do that seems rather arbitrary but I believe is justified by restaurateurs because when the bill gets larger people tend to tip less than the generally expected amount.

      I have to say that the service charge we paid felt like a London weighting in some places. Service ranged from very good to fairly perfunctary so it wasn’t really linked to the customer experience.

      I suppose it removes most of the awkwardness around tipping and service, but as a customer I can’t see many other benefits.

      It should certainly be made clear where the money is going because customers assume it all goes to staff.


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