Chain Review: Langan’s Brasserie Saturday, Aug 18 2012 

Having experienced a shoddy breakfast during our early-morning get-up at the hotel we were staying at in northern France, by the time we’d driven to Calais and got on the ferry to set sail for England we were keen to refuel. We therefore decided on the Langan’s Brasserie option, which has since evolved to cover several branches on board P&O ferries as well as locations scattered throughout west London.

Even if our breakfast in France had been poor, I had ultimately already eaten (cereal and bread) so did not want much. I therefore ordered a rack of toast and enjoyed the complimentary orange juice that was served to every customer and turned out to be of very high quality. My husband plumped for the brasserie’s fuller breakfast option: this offered a starter, full cooked breakfast and additional drink for £13. He ordered a pot of tea as his drink, which I promptly stole. He then went on to feast on porridge and a full English, which consisted of egg, sausage, bacon, black pudding, tomato, mushrooms, and bubble and squeak. As if that wasn’t enough, for your £13 you also get a generous basket of mini bread rolls and pastries served with butter, honey and different types of jam. This was all filling, satisfying, and generally really hit the spot. The portions were large and you could easily do as we did – share one £13 breakfast menu and then order extras if needed. Service throughout this experience was discreet (sometimes too discreet as the staff were not always prompt), friendly, and overall added a touch of class to proceedings.

We were therefore keen to take refuge there again from the ferry’s hustle and bustle during our return crossing about 10 days later. On this occasion it was around tea-time, and unfortunately we had a very different experience. Staff were standoffish almost to the point of being rude when they discovered we weren’t going to be wanting a full meal (and who does want a full meal at 4pm – seriously?) – and in any case it’s not as if they had customers bashing down the door wanting full meals ahead of us, as we along with another party were the only customers in the restaurant (which was a large venue with plenty of covers).

When we did come to order, we had difficulty choosing, as we had hoped for something more along the lines of afternoon tea, which it appears that Langan’s does not offer. Trying to order something remotely appropriate to tea-time, I ended up ordering a cheese plate while my husband ordered a bowl of strawberries and cream (both of these dishes, by the way, turned out to be mediocre and not to the standard of the breakfast we’d enjoyed the previous week). We also then ordered tea, because the weather was miserable and we fancied it. This (I admit) somewhat unconventional order raised a few eyebrows with the staff, but I was not impressed by their reaction, having worked in the service industry previously and knowing that no matter what a customer does, says, or orders (unless you get into the territory of hitting and swearing etc) it is your job to comply and be as polite to them as to any other customer. This did not seem to be a priority at Langan’s on this particular day, where we also heard them make an uncalled-for comment relating to members of the other party’s clothes (I admit they were dressed ridiculously for the venue, but again, this is not staff’s business; they are paying customers like any other). As a result of these reactions, and the generally slow service that followed (despite, again, the fact that the restaurant was practically empty), we were keener to leave as soon as possible, rather than lingering and enjoying the food (as during the first visit).

It seems to me, as someone who used to visit Langan’s aboard P&O Ferries regularly as a child and remembers queues stretching out the door (you used to have to reserve a time for later in the sailing and come back if you weren’t quick enough to get a table at the start), that their reputation has gone downhill in the intervening years. Service and food are inconsistent, and can prove either very good or truly terrible. Langan’s projects a very good image through the presentation of its menus and restaurants, and indeed through its competitive pricing, but at time lets itself down through average food and lacklustre service. It’s possible that its London restaurants provide a sparklier experience, and that indeed the P&O branches vary according to who is running them (meaning perhaps that we got lucky on one day and not on another). However, as a result of the second experience we now feel that we cannot rely upon them adequately for the welcome and high quality promised by the brand. We are now convinced that P&O’s club lounge – which, at £12 per person, promises champagne, tea, coffee and soft drinks included in the price, along with luxurious facilities (which we have now seen, as we went to inquire about the service immediately upon leaving Langan’s), newspapers and snacks. We’ll know what to do next time – and I almost feel sorry for Langan’s that their service is now so inconsistent and has gone downhill in this way.

http://www.langansrestaurants.co.uk/brasserie.html

Langan’s London locations can be found here: http://www.langansrestaurants.co.uk/booking.html

for information about Langan’s Brasserie on the Dover-Calais route, follow this link:http://www.poferries.com/tourist/content/pages/template/onboard_dover_-_calais_langans_brasserie_onboard_-_the_brasserie_DOCA.htm

Chain review: EAT Sunday, Jul 22 2012 

ImageI’ll be frank. EAT is a chain I have historically bypassed for no real reason – usually in favour of other chains, such as Pret A Manger and the West Cornwall Pasty Company. This is perhaps due to the food from the other chains being more favourably disposed towards outdoor consumption, although given the frankly cruddy weather we tend to experience in Britain, this doesn’t really seem fair. Nonetheless, as it is, I have visited EAT a grand total of twice, so how far you choose to trust my view is up to you. I would, however, return on the basis of these two visits.

It is true that as mentioned EAT’s foods are not greatly conceived for consumption outdoors, or on the move. Firstly, their most famous dishes – pies and soups – are messy to eat, and are thus best eaten while firmly seated, and secondly, one tends to eat these foods when it is cold or miserable outside, so one is unlikely to want to eat them outdoors or on the move anyway. However, should this be your aim, EAT’s products are not unsuitable for the (rare) sunny days we do get: as well as toasties (which are portable), they also make sandwiches, baguettes and wraps, using everything from classic fillings such as the BLT, to slightly wackier combinations such as BBQ Bahn Mi or Moroccan Falafel. While perhaps vegetarian options are lacking (there is a disproportionate number of options for carnivores by comparison), appetising choices do exist (even if at times they are slightly pedestrian) and EAT is also sensitive to dieters, pointing out low-fat options both on the website and in store. Salads and sushi are also available for health-conscious diners.

So far I have only sampled EAT’s pies, which, although unsuitable for on-the-go eating, do come in cardboard boxes which fold out to create a convenient non-spill recyclable plate and provide an affordable and filling meal. It’s clear from the eating that high-quality ingredients are used: intense flavours come from the ale and slow-cooking techniques in their steak and ale pie, and pastry is robust without tasting or feeling gluey or like cardboard. However, this “top quality ingredients” claim stops there: I’d appreciate knowing more from EAT about the provenance of the ingredients (e.g. are they free-range?), as they don’t go into any more detail than this at present, although as all the milk used in their hot drinks is organic, it wouldn’t surprise me if they take a similar level of care with their other ingredients.

As well as the standard range of teas, coffees and hot chocolates, various coolers, chillers, sodas and waters are available, including from high-end brands like San Pellegrino. Again, there’s something for everyone and you’d have to try very hard to find fault.

EAT also offers a range of desserts (from cookies and cakes to fruit salads and frozen yoghurts) and even serve breakfast, providing a tempting range of breakfast bagels and butties as well as muffins, cereals, yoghurts and pastries. Like what is arguably one of the chain’s main rivals, Pret A Manger, it ensures a healthier option is always available. On top of this, nutritional information for every product is listed on their website: I now know that thanks to the Steak and Ale Pie I ate, I consumed a whopping 913 calories, which also took me way over my RDA of saturated fat. Guess I’ll be plumping for a salad, sandwich or wrap next time then. Good job I didn’t have a dessert on top of that!

EAT even caters for the very busy in a way that other chains arguably don’t, by offering a delivery service: for a minimum order charge of £25, you can have your breakfast or lunch delivered to your desk…although I’m not sure that we need encouraging to eat more takeaways, no matter how healthy they may be.

Ultimately I have found that EAT is a serious contender to the other big boys on the lunchtime circuit, not just another chain to walk past with a glazed, faraway look in my eye. Even if next time I’ll be checking out the nutritional info before I go there, it’s really positive to have a chain that encourages us to make informed choices. Next time? I’ll have the Mozzarella and Chargrilled Peppers Multiseed Baguette, which at 514 calories comes in way lower than last time’s pie of deliciousness.

A full list of EAT’s locations can be found here.

Chain Review: Ping Pong Sunday, May 6 2012 

Staying in the Dupont Circle area of Washington DC meant we had a huge choice of restaurants within the immediate vicinity of our hotel (including Kramers literary café, which is set inside a bookshop…yep, it kills me that we didn’t end up eating here, discovering its existence only right at the very end of our stay).

Nonetheless, we were glad to discover Ping Pong, which, while it has locations in locations as far afield as Washington DC, Sao Paulo and Dubai, is in fact a chain originating in London (where it has by far the most sites). It proved a perfect pit stop for amazing dim sum, speedy yet friendly service, and a chilled-out yet buzzing atmosphere. It is evidently popular, and not without good reason.

The DC branch offers sunny views of the neighbourhood (well, it did on the day we were there at least) and was keen to advertise its many deals, including happy hours and all you can eat. We were never once left wanting for iced water and yet service was not at all intrusive. During our time in DC, we were constantly surprised at what good value for money locals can get in restaurants, and Ping Pong was no exception to this. We both plumped for the Dumpling Collection, which retails at $18 in the DC branch and is not available at the London branches. While we were waiting, we dived into their non-alcoholic cocktail collection, choosing a mouthwatering goji, mango and mint drink, which was refreshing yet vibrant – just the ticket for a warm sunny day in DC after a three-hour train ride.

The Dumpling Collection then arrived – and it was well worth the short wait. Consisting of two hoi sin vegetable puffs, 2 shrimp rolls, 1 vegetable and tofu roll, and 6 dumplings (chive, beef, scallop and shiitake, seafood, crab, and shrimp). It sounds hard to believe, but in the face of the dinky steamed pouches of goodness, we were totally full afterwards and couldn’t bring ourselves to sample dessert (a shame, as the roasted pineapple and coconut spring roll looked lush!).

There is really something here for every customer, from sharing platters to vegetarian collections, and the staff are always happy to help those who are beginners to Chinese food. Even if you’re a regular at your local takeaway, chances are you’ll experience something totally different here – it’s a fresh take on traditional food, done simply and with high quality ingredients, in a totally satisfying way.

In total, this came to $49.50 including tax (€37, or €18.50 a head; £30, or £15 a head) – and as mentioned, we were totally full and satisfied by the end of the meal. Frankly, you could spend that in McDonalds and not come out with anything near as healthy or delicious. I urge you to visit; put it this way, it’s a good job a loyalty card is among their offerings.

http://www.pingpongdimsum.us/ (US site)

http://www.pingpongdimsum.com/ (UK site)

Chain Review: Le Pain Quotidien Saturday, May 5 2012 

We stumbled across the chain Le Pain Quotidien while looking for a place to lunch in New York. I know, ironic – we visited the US from Europe and ended up eating in a European chain. Founded in Belgium in 1990, the chain has around 150 outlets worldwide today. Although the name means “Daily Bread” in English, this is certainly not the chain’s only asset, as we would soon go on to find out.

Our first experience was with the drinks. We were thirsty after a busy morning in Manhattan, so we jumped at the drinks menu, resulting in an organic freshly squeezed orange juice and a still apple cider heading for our table speedily (note: service seems variable – we experienced very good service on our lunchtime visit but much slower service the following day at breakfast). Refreshing and authentic, they made us really feel like we were onto a good thing here  – and we weren’t wrong.

For the mains, I went for one of their specials – a vegan chilli, which was packed full of a variety of beans, juicy tomatoes, and just enough chilli to give you a much-needed lunchtime kick without taking out all of your tastebuds. A cheese and charcuterie plate on the other side of the table also got good reviews. The power of the beans also meant I had little space for dessert (shame, as I really could have gone for their apricot crumble). Coffee was among the best we had in New York but was a trifle expensive.

The expensive coffee doesn’t detract, though, from the friendliness of the servers and the rustic decor of the restaurant, which specialises in traditional wooden tables (which are often shared between different groups of customers), homey lighting, and warm colours that are reminiscent of a farmhouse setting. Locations are clean, and the elegant and provinical are effortlessly combined through the addition of soft classical music in the background and the chain’s clear appreciation for high-quality ingredients and seasonal produce.

At breakfast the following day we found the food equally inviting and delicious: 2 glasses of the same orange juice as before, one croissant, one pain au chocolat (or “chocolate croissant” as the Americans erroneously like to call them…!), 1 pain au raisin and 1 blueberry muffin proved an excellent breakfast for two. At $21.06 for all of that, the price was right too, although as mentioned, service was slower in the morning. While we didn’t get a chance to sample the bread, we’d certainly like to, and will probably be able to soon thanks to there being a branch just round the corner from Keeper’s workplace (he’s been jetsetting all over the place recently – his adventures can be found chronicled here – and hasn’t had a chance to visit it).

In short, we found the food to be good and honest – unusual for a chain of this size, which spans 18 countries. Affordable, accessible, and putting out delicious high quality food, it ensures that customers return. Bravo!

http://www.lepainquotidien.com/

Branches can be found in Australia, Belgium, France, India, Japan, Kuwait, Mexico, the Middle East, the Netherlands, Qatar, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States. See the above link for your nearest locations.

Chain Review: Yo! Sushi Saturday, Apr 28 2012 

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Lunchtime. Mum and I had just arrived at Paddington Station with my dad as a precursor to his 2pm meeting at the in-station Hilton. We needed food, and fast. The station has many options, including a pub, a Garfunkel’s, Boots Meal Deals, and McDonalds. But we decided instead to plump for Yo! Sushi instead; neither of us had ever been before (although we had eaten sushi) and Mum was quite excited at the prospect of going somewhere she would never get to go with Dad (he doesn’t like sushi).

The concept of Yo! Sushi is simple. Bowls are colour-coded by price, ranging from £1.70 (green) to £5 (grey). You take what you want off the conveyor belt, or buzz for a member of staff to bring you what you want (if you can’t find what you want off the menu or are just lazy), and at the end of your meal your plates are added up. Plates include everything from salads and sushi to duck and desserts, and what’s more, you can have unlimited refills of green tea or water for a mere £1.50 (other drinks are available too, of course). The menu clearly explains the pricing structure and breaks down the dishes into their constituent ingredients. Those with allergies or counting calories need not worry either as these concerns are also clearly marked.

We got four dishes between us, but shared them so that we were able to taste as much as possible. We plumped for prawn and chicken katsu with pumpkin korroke (nomtacular is NOT the word), salmon maki, duck gyoza (dumplings), and spicy chicken salad – and loved it all. There is really something for everyone here, from vegetarians to hardened sushi fans – even those who just don’t like raw fish (there’s enough cooked meat here for my BBQ-loving dad to shake a stick at).

The system of colour-coded plates, which are used to work out your bill at the end, has several advantages. One: as mentioned above, you can always share plates. Two: those with certain dietary requirements or preferences don’t bother anyone else that they’re with. Three: you have the freedom to pick what you want if you’re alone, or to socialise and share if you’re with others, and not feel freakish in any situation. On a less related note, staff don’t give you any hassle, but are quick when needed, meaning you can stay for as long or short a time as you want or need. And four: there should be no arguments about splitting the bill afterwards!

After all that we eschewed dessert (although the black sesame ice cream was VERY tempting – despite the fact that it was peeing it down with rain outside) and settled the bill, which was very reasonable indeed, coming in at around £20 for two (and we were more than satisfied).

Yo! Sushi also offers a host of other services, including takeaway and delivery; they regularly run competitions and promotions; they have an effective loyalty card scheme; and they also throw parties for large groups on request (although of course this comes at a cost). In short, they do everything they can for just about every group of people, whether they’re commuters or trying to throw a Christmas party.

Affordable, delicious, healthy, quick, and with a variety of locations (although sadly not in France yet!) – I’ll definitely be back.

http://www.yosushi.com/

Locations: truckloads across the UK, Ireland,  Portugal, the UAE, Bahrain, and Norway

Chain Review: Vapiano Monday, Sep 5 2011 

We picked Vapiano on a whim for lunch on our last day in London this summer chiefly for the unromantic reason that it was close to both the Tate Modern and where we’d parked the car. In more detail, and more seriously, I was attracted by its plant-filled interior, quirky quotations and illustrations on the wall (including Sophia Loren’s famous “everything you see I owe to spaghetti”) and by the fact that I just love Italian food.

However, we didn’t realise that Vapiano was more than just an Italian restaurant until we got inside and the greeter directed us to the cash desk. There we were issued with a card each, which you can either pre-load with cash and come in and use for quick meals (to eat in or take away), or leave ’empty’ to settle the bill at the end of every meal. Once you have your card, you can go to the antipasti, pasta, pizza, dessert and drink stations where your order cost is placed onto your cards individually for each course and each person. This method should definitely help to avoid arguments when settling up!

I was in awe of the pasta-making station, with its see-through windows and shiny pasta machines. All pasta is made fresh in-house before being boxed up into individual portions for easy access by staff at peak times, and in a number of different varieties – their spelt pasta, which I had wanted to order, was clearly popular, as it had run out. You’re not short of choice on the pasta shape front either – from papardelle to penne, there’s something to suit everyone. The 21 sauces are categorised by cost, too, from £6.10 for the pasta of your choice with arrabiata or pesto, to £9.10 for duck and seafood varieties.

But the fun doesn’t stop there, oh no. The sauce is not pre-made, but rather made in front of you with pre-chopped fresh ingredients, so you can see exactly what goes in. What’s more, you get plenty of control – you are asked at regular intervals about your preferred amounts of garlic, seasoning and chilli, and when it comes to serving, you’re asked if you want cheese or extra seasoning. The result is that the pasta is perfectly and speedily cooked, served with a healthy sauce, and all to your taste.

The pizza is prepared similarly, although my husband commented that you could tell that the pizza dough had been more quickly than you’d cook a homemade pizza at home. Nonetheless, the pizza toppings also received equally high marks. We did not sample any antipasti, desserts or wine, but the choice seems extensive and authentic. Italian soft drinks are available, too, and these we did sample with gusto.

Two mains and two drinks came to under £20, and not only were we full and satisfied with the high quality food, we were hooked. We were therefore surprised and delighted to find that this innovative concept has indeed made it to France (which is hardly innovation personified), with locations in Puteaux and Lyon. However, less of a surprise was the fact that Vapiano is in fact a German invention – with that level of efficiency and quality, it was practically a guaranteed success.

Sadly the only UK locations at present are in London; I look forward to its expansion so that all of you can try it too.

www.vapiano.de

Locations: see the website for more details, but there is at least one location in just about every European country, as well as outside Europe – Australia, Austria, Bahrain, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Croatia, Czech Republic, Egypt, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Germany, Hungary, India, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, Oman, Poland, Qatar, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Slovakia, Sweden, South Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan, Turkey, UAE, UK, USA

Chain Review: Nando’s Sunday, Jul 3 2011 

Having always really enjoyed previous trips to Nando’s with friends during my university days (which ended a mere three years ago), I looked to the Portuguese-themed chain with confidence on a recent business trip to London. I wanted a light, late lunch that would be fun, reliable and satisfying, and I was pretty sure that Nando’s would fit the bill (even though, indeed, I had not set foot inside the joint since leaving uni and subsequently moving abroad immediately afterwards, to a country where they don’t have Nando’s).

In my three-year absence from the place as a diner, I can safely say that there’s still a lot to like. Even though the ‘create-your-own’ approach can seem a little bewildering to new visitors, the ability to customise your meal is always going to be appealing, allowing you to choose not only your chicken’s serving style (burger, wrap, wings…) but also the level of spiciness desired, from plain through to extra hot. It combines table service with self-service (you have to go up to the bar to order your meals, and serve your own soft drinks and cutlery, but your meal is brought to your table along with alcoholic beverages), there is loads of choice for vegetarians as well as for carnivores, and there are also what appear to be genuine Portuguese desserts on the menu (although on this occasion I did not sample any).

Service was also friendly and fairly swift (although there was nobody to meet and greet me at the door, even though the service was resumed later), and the chicken burger tasted nice (even if the mango & lime sauce I’d ordered seemed conspicuous by its absence), as did my side order of sweetcorn.

So what was wrong? Perhaps my taste/standards have just changed in the past three years, but I found a few things.

Number one: this is clearly a student hangout and place for families – i.e., it is young and sociable. In fact, if you are with any other person (even if, as I was three years ago on my last visit to Nando’s, that person happens to be your grandmother), it is a darn sight better than being on your own. The main aspect of the Nando’s experience, in my view, is social.

Following on from that, criticism number two is the self-service aspect. It’s hardly Nando’s fault that I was alone for my last visit there, but the self-service thing is a lot less fun without someone to watch your bag while you are away from your table getting your soft drinks and cutlery.

Point the third: all Nando’s says about its chicken on its website is that it is “farmed in the UK and delivered FRESH (never frozen) to our restaurants”. It’s all well and good that the chicken is not shipped in frozen from China in dinky vacuum packs, but I think consumers want to know more about the chicken than that (or at least I do): is it organic? Is it free range? How is it fed? etc. I would really personally like to know that the chicken I am eating was at least a happy chicken before it met the chopping block. Many other restaurants are increasingly aware that consumers want to know about the origins of their food; Nando’s is in danger of falling behind in this respect, so needs to be more precise.

And finally, the food was just ‘OK’. I didn’t complain about the lack of mango and lime sauce flavouring at the time as I was tired and hungry and just wanted to eat, so maybe that accounts for the lack of zing. But it seemed to me to be blander and more mediocre than I had remembered Nando’s food being. Or perhaps the idea is that you are so busy socialising while you are there that you don’t actually notice the quality of the food?

Don’t get me wrong – as I said, Nando’s still has plenty going for it. It has plenty of healthy yet authentic choices on its menu alongside the more indulgent stuff, and has a whole section on its website about eating well. I would also be happy to purchase their affordable but delicious peri-peri sauces from their online shop (were it not currently closed, boo hiss) and to cook from their recipe selection (which thankfully is available on their website).

However, even though the jury is still out on the quality of the food served at Nando’s, I may be forced to concede that my Nando’s days might just be over.

http://www.nandos.co.uk

locations: various, around Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, India, Malaysia, Mauritius, Pakistan, Singapore, the UK, the US, and Zimbabwe.