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Epicure Winter 2017

Cafe Couture, A Prison Themed Cocktail Bar And A £20 Cup Of Coffee

You know that a food trend has gone mainstream when – as in the world of fashion – it filters down to the high-street. And so after years of vegetarian and vegan dishes being relegated to footnotes at the end of a menu, plant-based diets have taken root like never before – and across all price points. 

In the UK, Pret à Manger has just opened its third vegetarian-only sandwich shop while vegetarian sales at Asian fast-food chain Itsu have doubled since 2015. Noodle chain Wagamama is trialling a vegan menu while Foxlow, the casual offshoot of upmarket steak chain Hawksmoor, went vegan for November. No wonder that New York chef Chloe Coscarelli (11 restaurants and counting) feels that the time is right to bring her vegan café chain, by Chloe, to the UK.

High-end restaurants have taken note by serving less meat. Core, the first solo restaurant of Clare Smyth, the former chef-patron of three-Michelin-starred Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, opened in August in Notting Hill. Vegetables are centre-stage on Smyth’s menu in dishes such as carrot braised in lamb stock, and another haul of Michelin stars can’t be far away.

It’s not just the UK where plant-based diets have hit the mainstream. Since 1st November, Whole Foods in New York and Los Angeles has been selling ‘faux fish’ sushi rolls based on ahimi, a plant-based alternative to tuna which uses tomato to replicate the flavour and texture of ahi tuna. It’s already a hit in the in-house canteens of Google, Twitter and LinkedIn.

With so much veg on the menu, just make sure you save all those potato peelings: reducing food waste is the new mantra of the world’s top chefs. Wasted!, the critically acclaimed new documentary narrated by Anthony Bourdain of Kitchen Confidential fame, features appearances from hotter-than-hot New York chefs Mario Batali of Babbo and Dan Barber of Blue Hill, plus Massimo Bottura of Modena’s Osteria Francescana, all offering solutions to how the 90 per cent of food waste that ends up in landfills can end up on the plate instead.

Over in Denmark, meanwhile, former Noma chef de cuisine Matt Orlando aims to turn all the leftover produce at his Copenhagen restaurant Amass into new dishes. Orlando has reduced the amount of food thrown away by 75 per cent with techniques including transforming fish bones and leftover carrots into snacks. At £107 for an extended dinner menu, customers are prepared to pay handsomely for it.

It’s not just restaurants that have embraced the low-waste trend; new east London bars Cub, Scout and Nine Lives are also attempting to reduce waste. At Cub, cocktail supremo Ryan Chetiyawardana has collaborated with Doug McMaster of Brighton’s zero-waste restaurant Silo to put ingredients such as Japanese knotweed and compost-smoked carrot centre stage alongside high-end pours including Krug Champagne and Belvedere vodka.

Meanwhile, Tom Soden, co-owner of drinks consultancy Sweet&Chilli, has adopted a zero-waste approach to cocktail-making at his new Bermondsey bar Nine Lives, while at Scout in Shoreditch, master mixologist Matt Whiley uses foraged ingredients in his snappy list of 10 seasonal cocktails, while the bar’s eco credentials are bolstered by an all-British wine list.

Against such a virtue-signalling backdrop, it’s a relief to know that there’s still a place for over-the-top luxury at the world’s top tables. Eleven Madison Park, currently number one in the World’s Fifty Best Restaurants list, now sells a cup of coffee for $24 – a sky-scraping figure even by New York standards. Still, it’s easier to swallow when you learn that it takes 10 minutes for the restaurant’s coffee director to make, using premium Colombian wush wush beans and a top-of-the-range Silverton coffee dripper.

Then there’s the £75 box of three (!) Prussian-blue Ladurée macarons which went on sale at Harrods in London in October, a ‘Pastry Portrait’ designed to represent the taste of Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović. ‘More than just a box of macarons, it is an object that represents a conceptual artwork, emphasising the performative experience of tasting the artist’, Ladurée explained. Either that, or it’s the ultimate expression of conspicuous consumption.

Neither of these, however, feels like an ostentatious PR stunt because everyone involved already has a reputation for being among the best at what they do. But pick the wrong way to get attention and social media will be all over you. Needless to say, La Première Plantation (‘The First Plantation’), a Colonialism-themed bar in Lyon, France, with pictures of slaves in the loos, attracted attention for all the wrong reasons.

As did Alcatraz, billed as ‘London’s first prison cocktail bar’, which launched in east London over the summer. The Alcatraz-themed immersive pop-up called customers ‘convicts’ and asked them to wear orange jumpsuits similar to those worn by inmates in US jails. Social campaigners were not amused.

It’s hard to believe that either of these projects ever sounded like good ideas on paper, but the bear-pit of social media means that any PR missteps will be transmitted like wildfire around the world.

Better by far to be the sort of restaurant that customers not only want to share on social but to buy into as a lifestyle brand. The time was when restaurant merchandising only extended as far as cookbooks and kitchenware; now you can track down Copenhagen restaurant Noma’s furniture (the restaurant auctioned off its fittings on 2 November before re-opening in 2018) while London celebrity favourite The Wolseley has just launched an online shop selling Wolseley-branded hampers and chocolates, Champagne and silverware so you can re-live the restaurant experience at home.

Or why not go one better and get your customers to wear your branding? Not as staff uniform but as a clothing line – just as US burrito giant Taco Bell has done with its collaboration with Forever 21, featuring hoodies and sweatshirts emblazoned with cute graphics of menu items.

Clothes that look good enough to eat? Well, it’s an easier way of broadcasting your commitment to responsible dining than actually eating your five fruit and veg a day.

By Ben McCormack, Editor of SquareMeal.co.uk and Classics Revisited expert for Telegraph Luxury
Winter 2017

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