Some sterling advice for a dry January.
I will openly credit the background idea for this column to a conversation with the younger son of one of my oldest friends.
He is a very bright, young man, a lawyer by day, whose restaurant-going life is somewhat hampered by the fact that he and his charming wife have two small children. However, he did manage to attend the annual Chanukah gathering (the Jewish festival most commonly known as the Festival of Lights) organised by his father at Monty's Deli in Hoxton, pictured with a rather more adult crowd than ours was the other night.
Chanukah is particular in that it involves the lighting of the candles on the seven branches of a menorah (a candleholder), blessings and the chanting of songs. After that it follows the pattern of normal Jewish holidays, described so accurately by the American comedian, Alan King: 'They tried to kill us. We won. Let's eat.' Dinner involved plates of smoked salmon and challah bread that were followed by generous portions of brisket, smoked turkey, roast potatoes and greens. There were some excellent desserts too, I was told, but sadly by the time these were served I was in a taxi taking our two grandsons home. It was a Monday night and they had school the following morning.
During the Chanukah meal this young friend began our conversation by saying how much he had enjoyed my penultimate column in the Saturday FT in which I had set out my best meals of 2018. And then he added, 'I just wish I could afford them'.
As usual, this comment caught me off guard. Had I been 30 years younger, much closer to his age than his father's, I am sure that I would have had the wit to respond by suggesting that if he cut out the wine, then the bills in most restaurants would be a lot, lot less expensive.
This is only to state the obvious. It is selling drinks, ideally alcoholic, ranging from cocktails to wine and liqueurs, that drives restaurants' ultimate profitability.
It may be more appropriate to point this out as the celebrations of Christmas and New Year give way to the more sober months of January and February when sensitive restaurateurs have to acknowledge this fact of life and turn this change in their customers' behaviour to their benefit. Those who seize the initiative and come up with good quality, interesting, non-alcoholic drinks to entice their customers away from simply choosing between still and sparkling water (which so many restaurateurs today give away) will weather this disruptive period far more comfortably than those who do not.
This may be a controversial topic for a wine-focused website but it is one that is borne out by the facts. Alcohol sales may be painful in that cases of wine and beer are heavy and cellars are, by definition, invariably down at least one flight of stairs. And then there is the issue of recycling all the bottles to be taken into account.
But alcohol-dependence is today an indisputable fact of restaurant life and one that is having profound effects on every restaurant's P&L accounts as sommeliers, or those in charge of any restaurant's wine list, are now demanding salaries as exalted as those earned by the top chefs. Sommeliers know their worth and, having been underpaid for decades, many are now claiming their just rewards for all the hard work they put in.
So here is a brief summary of five of my favourite inexpensive restaurants in and around central London. They also share another common factor. In each of them, the gross profit that the more normal restaurateurs who specialise in alternative types of western cooking generate from sales of alcohol to accompany their cooking, is replaced by much heavier emphasis on the volume of customers served. None of these accept bookings except for large parties (which cuts down on the cost of expensive receptionists, as well) and only one has linen tablecloths, as well as giving away slices of oranges and mints instead of desserts.
That is the style on offer at the Four Seasons restaurant in Gerrard Street, Chinatown where they continue to produce the best roast duck and bok choi, a combination invariably washed down with copious amounts of jasmine tea. The interior could do with a lick of paint, perhaps another common theme for all these restaurants, but there is no doubting the quality of what they serve – at speed.
The ducks are stuffed with herbs and spices to get rid of their gamey flavour and then dunked in a mixture of vinegar and maltose syrup before roasting at a very high temperature for 45–60 minutes. When they come out of the oven, the ducks smell, according to the general manager Peter Tsui, as sweet as freshly baked bread. The combination of a popular restaurant and a busy takeaway mean that few of the 1,000 ducks a week that they roast linger in the restaurant's front window.
Over in Cranbourn Street, by Leicester Square tube station, chef Liangming Qiu leads a hardworking team of tough chefs dedicated to the art of hand pulling Chinese noodles at the Lanzhou Lamian Noodle Bar. There are two different varieties: La-Mian, the thin hand pulled variety, and Dao Xiao Mian which are shaved from the dough straight into the steaming stock. These are served in soup, dry or fried, then topped with a wide variety of beef, pork, poultry, vegetables or seafood. Seating is communal; nobody lingers too long; but the food is copious and restorative.
At 51 Greek Street in Soho, restaurateur Chris Miller produced an Italian version of the Chinese noodles when he opened the Lina Stores restaurant with Masha Rener, an Italian woman who appears to have an innate affinity with the cooking of this delicate ingredient. Portions are very well judged and well made in the Lina Stores shop on Brewer Street but the emphasis is similar: seat the customers cheek by jowl, serve them well and quickly, and keep the average bill below £15 per head.
Over by London Bridge, brother and sister Roselyn and Bank Inngern have taken over the reins from their father, Suchard, and renamed what was his restaurant, Kin + Deum, which means to eat and drink, in Thai. The redesign and the menu are now far more modern but it is the desserts that make this restaurant exceptional. Known as 'kanom thai' these are made by the family's 'aunties', an extended collection of Thai women who delight in keeping these old-fashioned dishes alive. Tum tim krob, pieces of red jelly floating in coconut milk, is one of my favourites.
Finally, to Dishoom, the small group of Indian restaurants that now includes five outposts across London and one each in Manchester and Edinburgh. They epitomise the late Sir Jack Cohen's explanation of the past success of Tesco when he said ' pile 'em high and sell them cheap', but in Dishoom's case this policy is conducted with the utmost care for their staff as well as for their customers. Good food is another contributory factor, as is the quality of their house chai, the drink that their receptionists hand out to those waiting patiently for a table, a drink described thus on the menu: 'all who have tried it are swearing by it'.
So here are six restaurants in which even my friend's son will not be able to complain about his bill.
Monty's Deli 27-229 Hoxton St, London N1 5LG
Four Seasons 12 Gerrard Street, London W1D 5PR
Lanzhou Lamian Noodle Bar 33 Cranbourn Street, London WC2 7AD
Lina Stores 51 Greek Street, W1D 4EH
Kin + Deum 2 Crucifix Lane, London SE1 3JW