Street food is invading restaurants, and restaurants are taking to the streetsby William Skidelsky / October 17, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
Fancy dining goes underground in the Old Vic Tunnels
Champagne and hotdogs: one of the world’s least appetising culinary combinations, or a marriage made in heaven? Many, if asked, might err towards the former, but James Knappett is of a different opinion. The menu at Bubbledogs, his recently opened restaurant in Fitzrovia, central London, consists of a dozen “gourmet” hot dogs and a selection of “producer” (or grower-made) champagnes. On the website, Knappett explains that his inspiration for the concept was the Italian custom of pairing prosecco with cured pork. It was, he writes, a “no brainer: greasy, spicy, salty meatiness with an ice-cold glass of refreshing bubbles.” And so diners at Bubbledogs can munch their way through, for example, a “K-Dawg” (a kimchi, red bean paste and lettuce hotdog) accompanied by a glass of Laherte blanc de blancs champagne, all for under £20.
The ad executives who work in Fitzrovia evidently approve of the concept, because Bubbledogs has become hugely popular. On the quiet street where it is situated, the early evening line for a table often snakes back past several neighbouring buildings. (As is de rigeur for edgy London restaurants these days, Bubbledogs doesn’t take bookings, except for parties of six or more.) Yet the champagne-and-hotdog operation is itself only really a kind of front for a more ambitious undertaking that started up in October, a few weeks after Bubbledogs first opened. At the back of the dining room is a thick brown curtain. Part it, and you find yourself in a larger, less frenetic inner sanctum, comprising of a state-of-the-art kitchen surrounded on three sides by a bar.
Secure a booking in this section of the restaurant, as I did recently, and after elbowing your way past the hotdog-hungry hordes you are seated at one of the bar’s 19 places, before you proceed to eat your way through a no-choice, 13-course meal that is prepared in front of you and served by Knappett himself. The handwritten menu, which changes daily, gives little away. The first four courses on the night I visited read: “Scallop. Cod. Chicken. Cauliflower.” But this doesn’t matter much because you get to observe each dish being made and then Knappett gives a fuller description when he hands it to you. Thus your attention is drawn away from the menu and waiters—the customary props of the restaurant—and towards the cooking process itself. This is theatrical cooking of an unusually intimate kind, an almost literal dining-in-the-round.
More than being a fine place to eat, one can, I think, make the case for Bubbledogs as an emblematic restaurant. Its two halves represent two distinct but related trends in dining out: street food’s incursion into the restaurant, and top-end cuisine’s partial escape from it. Both trends are connected to the recession and both are democratic in spirit. One is an upward movement—a buffing up of the shabby; the other a downward one—a roughing up of the smart. The cleverness of Bubbledogs is that it embodies a sort of meeting point, while also suggesting, by means of its hard-to-pass-through curtain, that the two realms will always remain separate.
Does the Bubbledogs concept work? Yes, emphatically. For those on the smart side of the curtain, the set-up is one of the attractions. Everyone is seated in a row; there is no “best table.” The format encourages interaction, both with the staff and with other customers. I was seated (presumably not by accident) next to another solo diner: a chef who, it turned out, was soon to start working at the restaurant. It was helpful having him there to answer my queries about the food —“How exactly do you puff up pig skin?”—but had he been a lab technician from Doncaster I’m sure we still would have got on fine. And we also chatted to the couples on either side of us who were, I suspect, grateful to be provided with extra conversational outlets, given that the meal lasted three and a half hours.
Of course, none of this would have added up to much had the food been no good. But it turned out to be excellent. Knappett has worked at some of the world’s best restaurants, including Noma in Copenhagen and Per Se in New York. At Bubbledogs, however, he has eschewed cheffy elaboration in favour of a cuisine that, while technically adept, also has some of the simplicity of home cooking. A magnificent dish of “Truffle,” for example, consisted of home-made tagliatelle with a truffle-butter sauce, topped with black truffle shavings and foraged chickweed (procured, Knappett informed us, that very morning in Fulham). It sounds lavish, but such a dish would be within the range of an accomplished home cook who happened to have some truffle and chickweed handy.
“Chicken,” our fourth dish, was similarly straightforward in presentation, if more demanding to prepare. A modernist crostini, it comprised a crispy wafer of chicken skin (made, I learned, by baking the skin sandwiched between two roasting dishes) spread with mascarpone and topped with bacon jam. Again, it was superb: the oiliness of the skin and the sharp creaminess of the mascarpone provided just the right base for the salty-sweet topnotes of the bacon jam. Other dishes didn’t rise to these heights, but there were no duds and the same subtle thoughtfulness was evident at every stage.
Excluding drink, the cost was £68. That may seem like a lot, but it isn’t too bad if you consider that it works out as £5 a course. Afterwards, I felt not only lightheaded but surprisingly light of stomach too, and I even toyed with the idea of grabbing a hotdog on my way out before thinking better of it and heading home.
Bubbledogs is, in part, a child of Britain’s street food “revolution,” which has taken place in the past five years. The founding principle of is that even though young people like eating food from stalls and vans (it’s fast and cheap), they still prefer it to be of good quality. Street food, unsurprisingly, tends to draw its inspiration from humble culinary traditions—southern American food, pizza, dumplings—and often involves an element of juxtaposition, such as Indian burgers or Korean pulled pork sandwiches.
Recently success on the street has begun to provide a route into restaurants. The model is one of steady upward mobility: start with a stall, move to a van, then to a residency or “pop up” before finally opening a permanent place. Recent hits such as Meat Liquor (a burger restaurant) and Pitt Cue Co (American BBQ fare) are the products of this trajectory.
And as the street traders have moved upwards, so the chefs have started to come down to join them. The casualisation of the British restaurant is a process that, according to Russell Norman, proprietor of Polpo and several other central London venues, dates back to the 1960s and 70s when there was a move from traditional restaurants, modelled on hotel dining rooms, towards “concept” destinations, such as Joe Allen and Langan’s Brasserie. This “slow movement,” Norman says, continued in subsequent decades, but has only truly gathered pace since the economic downturn. With the discovery of a new market of adventurous but cash-strapped young eaters who value atmosphere and buzz over the traditional trappings of smart dining, the entry costs to opening a restaurant have lowered. “In the old days you needed half a million at least, but now you can do it for much less,” says Norman, whose own flagship restaurant in Soho famously required an outlay of just £140,000.
One result is that good chefs no longer just want to cook in traditional restaurants. Instead they do residencies in shabby pubs or in other unexpected venues—the roof of Selfridges, for example—or start supper clubs, or open eateries in former petrol stations. In one of the more extreme examples, Ben Spalding, ex-head chef at Roganic—itself a pop-up iteration of L’Enclume, a Michelin two-starred restaurant in the Lake District—has taken fine dining right down to the street at his Stripped Back stall in Broadway Market. There’s a choice of either four or six courses, and dishes include absinthe-candied fennel with rapeseed cake and tonka bean cream. This is restaurant food—or an approximation of it—divested of all trappings of the restaurant.
As a result of these developments, it isn’t too far-fetched, I think, to suggest that the very definition of what constitutes a restaurant is changing. Since the modern restaurant came into being in Paris just before the French Revolution, it has proved a remarkably durable institution, hardly changing in format at all. But in the new, mixed-up world of dining, the idea that there could even be such a thing as a format is starting to seem quaint. Restaurants aren’t in danger of disappearing, of course; it’s just that what constitutes a restaurant is much less clear than it once was. When it comes to eating out, these are interesting times.