Friday, September 05, 2014

Masterchef pop-up restaurant, stretching a TV reality show way past its natural limits?

We were intrigued to hear from those merry folk at American Express that in order to wring as much cash from a TV programme and monetise even further the Masterchef franchise (my words) there was to be a pop-up restaurant in Southwark serving a series of tasting menu meals featuring the winner and runners up from this years (and previous) series of succesful amateur cooks. Apparently the tickets for the four week run sold out within 4 days, Mrs Stuffy being the on-line shopping apex predator that she is we and a couple of Masterchef fan chums, were duly booked for day 1.

The big day dawned and some hours after dawn we duly turned up, smartly dressed and keen to be impressed, ready for a glass of something refreshing before our 7:30pm experience at the pop-up restaurant set up over two floors of the Bluefin building delivering nice, but not spectacular views of the river, the city and the Shard.

This was the opening night so it was only to be expected that there might be some teething trouble, such as the astonishment generated by ordering a gin and tonic at the bar, gin, yes they had gin, and if I would wait a minute they would send a chap to get some tonic, I'm not an expert in running a bar but I am thinking that there is probably a good chance that a gin and tonic might be requested at some time during the evening. 

Hey oh, it only took 15 minutes to locate, transport and deliver the tonic to my now somewhat diluted gin. Teething troubles. So we took some photos and when the novelty of that palled we trundled inside at the appointed hour to be told that actually we wouldn't be fed till 8:00 and should get back to the bar for 30 minutes, I asked if we would be offered a complimentary glass of fizz but apparently that was a ludicrous suggestion so we instead identified our allotted table and purchased a bottle of Sancerre to keep us busy, we'd finished that one and were halfway through the second when we were finally served our starters around 9:15. 

The starter was a very pleasant char sui, a Chinese steamed bun but instead of the classic approach of filling it then cooking, it had been cooked as a roll, then sliced and a slice of cooked pork inserted, this was accompanied by a (rather dry) prawn arancini both served very cool on the same plate with between them about 5 little blobs of sauces,dressings. 

This was one dish created by components from two of the cooks, and of course the problem was that it was just that, two, not really complimentary,dishes on one plate and with little clarity about, for example, what blob was appropriate for which starter. The staff, again hired for the project, were not full-time restaurant folk, and were not well briefed. They were enthusiastic and they tried really hard but ultimately were not really helpful. The steamed Chinese roll was lovely but it was way too big and totally swamped the tiny slice of over-cooked pork. 

So we drank some more wine and time moved on and eventually supper arrived, a lamb dish, served cool, with a not entirely pleasant sausage and some gravy. Alongside that, you know, I just can't remember, maybe a prawn (again) samosa?  It's all very well defining a meal as a tasting menu but it should be more than a collection of things, no matter how tasty, there's a necessary flow, a theme a story that a meal should convey otherwise it's a bit like the demo lads and lassies one encounters during a circuit of Costco, "fancy trying some Gorgonzola?", "a little pasta?", "a croissant?", "some cherry liqueur?"  It just didn't work for me. 

Waiting for the main course had seen off the 2nd bottle of Sancerre and a quartet of apologetic complementary champagnes so we ordered a bottle of red to see us through to dessert. I'm not proud of the fact that apparently, instead of quietly enjoying the tasty but cold and tardy offerings of the TV wannabe chef hopefuls and the Masterchef branding machine surrounding them I was loudly sounding off about the transient nature of celebrity, the power of social media and god knows what else. I've since been told off good and proper by the lady who currently holds the title of Mrs Stuffy, (currently).

Desserts arrived around 10:30 or "getting on for bedtime" if you've been mixing food tasting with wine gulping. Again this was a curious melange, a platter mixing a very nice Thai-flavoured dried, candied, fruit medley with an adequate bitter chocolate dessert, both fine on their own terms but really not great platefellows. 

We'd a train to catch and couldn't linger but a final cock-up over the bill seemed an appropriate end to a very mixed, and mixed-up experience. I'm not sure what I should have expected, I think I was open minded on arrival but I suspect that this event was not about the food,the service, or the customer. This was a fan event, the equivalent of queuing (and paying) to see a movie star on the red carpet, and that isn't something I would ever do, in my opinion these folk are just ordinary people who won a cookery show because they're good cooks, so I really, really think that the food, the service and the customers do matter and the ability to "actually see them" putting too cold food on a cold plate alongside something else inappropriate doesn't really cut it for me.

But apparently that's a minority view. So it goes...

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