This is one of those columns that restaurant critics write after they’ve been on holiday, where they bang on about the nice places they’ve been eating while you’ve been stuck here grinding away at whatever it is you do that pays for your mortgage and your divorce settlement. You might want to stop reading now.
Still here? Fair enough. I was in New York, which is a city without a shortage of places to stuff yourself into an early grave. I went to Eleven Madison Park, one of seven three-Michelin starred restaurants in the city, which was disappointing in the way only three Michelin-starred restaurants can disappoint – a vague, uneasy kind of disappointment, like a fart in a gilded lift wafting faintly past you, almost imperceptible behind the exotic musk of spectacular gastronomy. But it lingers around the edges of your senses – a lacklustre foie gras here and an uninspiring amuse-bouche there. For the most part, of course, it was quietly wonderful – including a very fine lobster indeed – but that’s what you get for having three Michelin stars: a perilous wall of expectation, ready to fall on your soufflé at the slightest hint of over-seasoning.
What really stood out about the New York food scene, though, was the relentless quality of places that charge less than $20 for a main. Roberta’s, at the far end of Williamsburg, serves better pizza than anywhere in London for the price of a small Domino’s. I had a “barely legal”, topped with rapini and horseradish, which sounds about as appetising as thrush but is in fact outstanding. Go there.
And go to Island Burgers & Shakes on 9th Avenue. It has the kind of frontage that suggests Badly Fried Chicken, but its patties are at least as good as any of the wave of “proper burgers” sold by the likes of MeatLiquor and Dirty Burger. And go to Ofrenda in the West Village, which sells incredible Mexican food for an almost embarrassingly small amount of money.
I could go on. I could bore you with the minutia of every restaurant I ate at, but I won’t. I don’t have the space or the inclination. The point is, while every Londoner knows a few places where you can get a properly good feed and a pint for less than £15, you have to know where to look. In New York you can’t move for them. We could do with more.
Urban Meadow, a new café-come-restaurant near Hyde Park, wants to be that kind of place, with its emphasis on simple, affordable food (mains start at a tenner and the most expensive thing on the menu is an £18 sirloin). It’s bright and airy and has big leaves daubed all over the place, as if whoever designed it took inspiration from the most cherished of their child’s crayon drawings. Plant pots hang upside-down and the furniture has a nostalgic, National-Trusty, Museum café-ish quality. It makes you want to get out your Pritt Stick and make a collage in the craft area, which I was disappointed to discover didn’t exist. Ideally the owner would have been a manic woman in her 50s with frizzy hair and a dangerous glint in her eye, who opened the café using what was left from when her grandparents were forced to sell the country pile. It’s actually part of the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel, although if you’re looking for this woman, she owns pretty much everything in Muswell Hill.
During the day Urban Meadow is going to be packed with delightful children and their yummy mothers and fathers, which is why I went at night when I could drink a bottle of wine without having to worry about trampling Tarquin on the way to the bogs.
I started with a decent duck terrine and El Pye had calamari, which was batter-heavy and squid-light, but the garlic and pesto dip was good enough to swig from while nobody was looking.
My fish pie main was the stand-out dish – a deep tin of very nice haddock topped with a tangy, Cheddary sauce. The tomato and stilton linguini was a simple, solid bowl of pasta, serving its function to the letter but not, in hindsight, inspiring any notable adjectives. Avoid the onion rings: big, greasy things, which allow the onion to slide too easily from its crusty sheath, leaving you with a glistening block of essence d’coronary.
I finished it off with a pear crumble, which avoided the pitfall of being too sweet. And that’s it. Three paragraphs. That’s your lot. Nobody is going to write a magnum opus on Urban Meadow’s food; nobody will traverse continents for it. You won’t even have to make a reservation – it’s not that kind of place. But the bill came to £50. For two people, with drinks, for three courses. If you’ve just taken Molly and Tobias to Hyde Park, you could do far worse.
First published in City A.M.