Monday, 16 August 2010
Aberdeen Angus Steak House, Piccadilly Circus
"The act of going to a restaurant when you know it's going to be shit," advised Robin Majumdar, one half of the Dos Hermanos blogging crew and someone with more than his fair share of shit restaurant meals behind him, "palls really quickly, believe me."
In all honesty, I could have predicted I wasn't about to have the meal of my life at the Aberdeen Angus Steak House on Coventry Street on Friday. But my reasons for visiting the restaurant chain with the worst reputation amongst not just regular restaurant goers but Londoners in general, were slightly more complex. Will I deny that a teeny part of me was secretly, gleefully looking forward to laying into it post-mortem? No, I won't. I'm only human (and a blogger). But my expectations regarding what I might find actually lay somewhere between a Beefeater and a Bernie Inn - I wasn't expecting gourmet food, nor particularly good quality meat, but surely there was some reason the places are packed to the rafters every night, that they have become a feature of the London West End landscape as clichéd as discount theatre ticket booths and street caricaturists, that they are one of a tiny handful of restaurant chains (along with Pizza Express and very little else) to have survived more or less unchanged since the 1960s? If - and it was a big if - they served half-decent food, for not too much money, and the whole experience wasn't completely awful, then that would make sense. If not... a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, as Churchill possibly would have said; I owed it to myself and, without sounding too arrogant, to London, to find out just what went on behind those shiny red doors.
Lots of staff. That's the first thing you notice - not the crumbling 70s décor, the interrogation-room lighting or the piercing cacophony; lots of staff - smart blond women with Bluetooth earpieces that herd new arrivals around with military precision ("How many people? Three people. THREE PEOPLE!") and dozens of black-clad waiters seemingly taking part in some kind of unofficial speed service competition. I saw one guy literally run to a table to deposit the bill; clearly this is either a restaurant that believes turnover is king, or the manic service is a necessary method of getting people out of the door before they have a chance to complain about the food. Because the food served at Aberdeen Angus is by some distance some of the worst I've ever paid for in this country. Brace yourself for the gory details.
The prawn cocktail arrived with the charming introduction "That one's his", barked from one waiter to another and with a helpful point in my direction, all without making eye contact. Isn't it a picture? A huge mound of prawns in an alarmingly orange, sickly sweet sauce on a bed of wilted green lettuce. Perhaps, if I'm going to be excessively kind, not completely disgusting but gloopy and overwhelmingly dull and at £6.15 an unforgiveable rip-off. And I got off lightly. A friend's chicken wings, with their wobbly skins and sugary "BBQ" sauce were evidently straight from the microwave, again not totally revolting but about 50p worth of ingredients marked up to the best part of £6. Worst of all though was a 'Skewer of char grilled prawns', containing five miniscule prawns overcooked so badly they were literally crunchy all the way through, and tasted of plastic. Bloody awful.
We picked at our starters in disbelief for a few minutes before abandoning most of it half-eaten, interrupted only briefly by a rather distracted member of staff dropping a bowl of greasy fries into the middle of the table with the announcement "chips!" and then scurrying off. I think they were meant for another table, but we shrugged our shoulders and tried a couple anyway. They tasted of old oil and were overcooked into crunchy, floury tubes.
Mains arrived barely a couple of minutes later, while our discarded starters still lay on the table in front of us. This didn't seem to faze the staff, who held the tray of steaks over our heads while someone wordlessly removed the barely-touched Death By Prawns and replaced them with three deceptively normal-looking steaks. But the deception didn't last long. The best you could say about my rib eye was that it had probably come from a real cow. But it was watery, overcooked (more medium than medium-rare), under seasoned and dreadfully bland, the kind of desperately poor quality beef I didn't even know you could still even buy for mincemeat, let alone serve as a steak with a straight face. I didn't even have the worst one either - that accolade goes to my companion's rump steak, which was bitter, livery and tough, and with a distressing funky aroma which I couldn't quite place. Or maybe I just didn't want to. Accompanying "béarnaise" was like sweet cat's vomit, artificially thickened and sugary with a chemical sheen, fries were cold and chewy with the same gag-inducing stench of old oil, and mushrooms had come out of a tin.
"It would be funny if it wasn't so upsetting," said Dave Strauss, restaurant manager of Goodman steak restaurant in Mayfair, who had foolishly agreed to join me and @jezmd for the evening. "I could understand if the place was empty, but look!" We gazed out on the cavernous 1st floor dining room, every single table taken and a good few startled tourists literally queuing on the stairs. The whole scene was violently, stomach-churningly depressing. Tables of Russian families with young children, older American couples with their "fanny packs" and Zagat's guides, the occasional group of Japanese teenagers snapping each other with their futuristic mobile phones and smiling at the knowledge that British food is every bit as bad as they had been warned. And they'll all go home and tell their friends that London was such good fun but you were right about the food and so expensive too and for the rest of the trip we just went to McDonalds. I wanted to take them all by the hand and show them Polpo or Koya or Bob Bob Ricard or - God - ANYWHERE else and prove just how unrepresentative this diabolical place was of London food. But what can you do. We asked for the bill - £37 each with just two beers, the final, stinging slap in the face, and left.
Aberdeen Angus is a restaurant that doesn't deserve to exist. I'm guessing it has probably done more damage to our culinary reputation than the BSE crisis, foot and mouth and salmonella outbreak combined and yet there it still is, squatting on the corner of some of the most famous and well-trodden streets in the capital, luring in unsuspecting visitors and spitting them out with cynical efficiency, their opinion of British food set back another 30 years. It's infuriating that this disgraceful process is allowed to continue and that nobody has attempted to do anything about it - surely the enforced closure of all of London's Aberdeen Steakhouses would be a cheap and extremely effective method of boosting our international standing and we could recall Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver from America. Win-win.
Foul, expensive food, served incompetently in dreadful surroundings, Aberdeen Angus is a restaurant with no redeeming features. But then I imagine most of you suspected that already; the really nasty surprise on Friday was just how bad, not just passively mediocre but actively wicked their modus operandi is, and just how successful they are at exploiting naive tourists and passing trade for the maximum possible financial gain for the minimum possible effort. It is the working embodiment of everything that is shallow and cynical and just plain mean about the way that London treats its guests, and if you have a hospitable bone in your body you will do everything in your power to make sure the word reaches every corner of the globe. People of London, people of Britain, people of the world - never ever eat at Aberdeen Angus.