We’ve got a change in direction for our blog this time, folks!
Last week, I met the lovely Laura Millar – award-winning journalist and restaurant reviewer at The Metro – to get her insight on all things food, trends and city hotspots!
Ellie: Hi Laura, it’s so nice to meet you! Shall we start off by talking about what your career involves?
Laura: I’m in charge of overseeing the food and drinks pages at the Metro. I’ll usually review places which have opened recently or have something new about them – a new chef or seasonal menu perhaps. I’ll also review more abstract venues, like a cafe that you can meditate in or a rooftop bar which makes you feel like you’re in the Alps. I get sent lots of press releases which I can filter through and pick what I think will be good for the paper. I keep in touch with my writers, edit their copy and obviously go out and stuff my face occasionally too!
E: Perks of the job, eh?
L: It’s really good fun – I think it’s such a good paper. It’s got the biggest readership of any paper in London. We’ll cover everything from food stalls to high-end Michelin-starred restaurants, places that appeal to all wallets. I think London is the kind of city where whatever your budget you can find really good food.
E: Is there a trick to finding great places in London to eat at?
L: You just have to know where to go – there are so many places whose menus are really reasonable. Padella makes great pasta from scratch and their dishes are no more than a tenner – it’s great to get two or three to share with a friend. I rate Flour & Grape on Bermondsey Street too – again, similar price point and very good quality pasta. Handmade pasta has become quite the trend lately.
E: Are there any other food trends you’ve enjoyed this year?
L: There’s a big trend around dirty diner food – big plates of mac and cheese, and greasy, messy burgers. The fresh pasta trend is definitely my favourite – I’m not going to call it a guilty pleasure though, just a pleasure! We’ve had some weird fads – there’s a place called HipChips where you can get crisps with various dips. It sounds like the kind of dinner party my parents used to throw in the ‘70s! There are a few places which specialise in one food, like the Hummus Bros who do lots of types of hummus with different toppings.
E: Are you a fan of weird food fads?
L: I think there’s room for everything. Actually, another big trend that’s sweeping across London is veganism.
E: Ah yes, we’ve just had Veganuary!
L: Lots of restaurants are putting special vegan dishes on their menus now. One of my favourite chains is Rosa’s Thai Cafe – they’ve always had veggie dishes on their menu and can make any dish vegan. It’s good that people are getting more choice – we’re thinking about the health aspects as well as the moral issues. Ten years ago, if you’d said you were vegan you would have been laughed at and given a plate of rice, but nowadays it’s so inventive.
E: You also travel a lot, reviewing restaurants and hotels around the world – is there anything about London that other cities maybe lack or aren’t as good at?
L: Well, you can travel the world in London by food! A South African place called Kudu has just opened in Peckham, you’ve got an Irish restaurant called Nuala in Old Street and a couple of new Ethiopian restaurants in Kentish Town. I went to a great restaurant last year, Samarkand, which was inspired by the Silk Trail. We’re good at Chinese, Vietnamese, Asian… I’m a big fan of Asian food!
E: Have you been to any great Asian restaurants recently?
L: Yes, one of my favourite recommendations! There’s a place called Bao which does these lovely soft bao buns. I’ve not managed to brave the queues yet but they opened a more formal branch called Xu. For me, a lot of the pleasure of a restaurant is how it looks and Xu feels just like being in a Wes Anderson film! Duddell’s, a popular restaurant from Hong Kong, have also just opened a branch in London and its peking duck is some of the best I’ve tried! There’s also a place called Yen which specialises in soba noodles. I wasn’t feeling the building and decor itself – it’s quite cold and stark, like being in a warehouse – but the food made you forget that. I suppose that’s the power of good food! London is very good at pizza too, and National Pizza Day is coming up!
E: Where are your top places to grab a slice of pizza from?
L: There are places I still want to try, like Voodoo Ray’s and Yard Sale, but I’ve been going to Rossopomodoro for a long time. About 60% of their clientele is Italian which I think is a great sign – if the Italians are eating there, you know it’s got to be good! Again, their pizzas are handmade and flung straight into the oven. I always persuade everyone I know to go there for my birthday and Christmas.
E: What’s your favourite type of cuisine to eat?
L: Pasta is obviously up there but I love Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai. I like Mexican too – Wahaca recently opened a restaurant called The Test Kitchen where all the dishes are slightly tweaked or new and the customers are kind of guinea pigs. You get given an iPad at the end of the meal to rate what you ate and give feedback. They get instant info about what customers like and dislike.
E: That’s a great concept!
L: It’s nice to know that each time you go there you will get something different and that you play a part in shaping their menu.
E: There’s not much opportunity for that normally! Do you know of any other restaurants who do this?
L: I don’t know of any others but I think other people will start to follow Wahaca’s lead. I can see it taking off as a concept.
E: What else do you think people should keep an eye out for this year in terms of food trends, types of restaurants due to open…?
L: I think handmade food and small plates will be a big thing, as well as street-market style food. Peckham Levels has just opened up into a kind of street market, and there’s Bang Bang Oriental in Collindale which is like a big hawker market. Companies like Street Feast have brought together small independent stalls and restaurateurs, and this has helped them get recognition.
E: Do you think independent restaurants are good at keeping up with food trends, like the ones that explode over Instagram?
L: I think these are very faddish – they look nice but are really only a 5-minute trend to look good in a picture. We went to Duddell’s recently and they do this lovely steamed mix dim sum called Dim Sum Symphony – each dumpling looks like a little goldfish. On Instagram it looks amazing! I enjoyed it well enough when I ate it – steamed dumplings with crab or scallop in them, perfectly tasty to me – but other reviewers said it was a bit style-over-substance. Trends divide people a little bit.
E: Are there any dishes or fads you want to try this year?
L: I should probably try more vegan dishes. In the last 10 years, veganism has grown in popularity by about 360%. If it’s inventive and tasty enough, then why not?
E: Exactly! Have you eaten any dishes recently that have been particularly delicious?
L: Xu serve a really moist and tender chicken dish. They also do this lovely fish fillet, where one side is served with preserved chilli and the other side is served with dry chilli. It’s green and red, and looks amazing! Padella’s ‘Pici Cacio & Pepe’ is their best dish – it’s like Italian udon noodles in a creamy, cheesy, peppery sauce. I’ve been there a couple of times.
E: That sounds amazing! The fact that, as a reviewer who gets to visit so many restaurants, you go back time and time again to the same places is testament to how great their food must be.
L: Absolutely! There’s also a place called Ichibuns on Wardour Street – it’s like casual, Japanese dining but the quality of the ingredients is really high and it’s keenly priced. The decor is really funky – you feel like you’re in Blade Runner! Decor is really important to the atmosphere of the meal.
E: Are there any restaurants with particularly memorable decor?
L: Xu is top – it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve been. Yen was too sparse and stark but the food won me over. I like the Polpo chain – they look very cosy and rustic. I was in La Pont de la Tour recently and that was lovely – the service was great and not intimidating. You knew you were in good hands and the food was very good quality.
E: Thank you so much for speaking to me today, Laura – you really do have the dream job!