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Sun 1st Aug 2021 - Weekend leisure stories and restaurant reviews
Uber rides and pizza bribes for under-30s to have their covid jab: Young people are to be bribed to have coronavirus jabs with “vouchers for vaccines” that will give them money off Uber rides and takeaway food if they get jabbed. The new scheme will offer the under-30s discounts from Uber, Bolt, Deliveroo and Pizza Pilgrims. Under a deal struck with Uber, the private taxi app will send reminders to all users this month, encouraging them to have the vaccine. Those who do so will be offered discounted Uber rides and meals on Uber Eats. Bolt, a rival ride-sharing app, will offer free trips to vaccination centres. Other incentives being discussed include vouchers or discount codes for people attending pop-up vaccine sites or booking through the NHS, social media competitions and promotional offers for restaurants. It is understood the government has also been in discussions with the McDonald’s burger chain and Vue cinemas about offering discounts to those who get themselves vaccinated. Companies that join the incentive scheme will not ask for, or hold any health data, on those who use it. The plan will be controversial with some for encouraging people to eat fattening food. Behavioural scientists who have worked for the government have also warned privately that providing financial incentives for a vaccination programme is unwise, since it is better if people accept the medical and social good of getting the jab rather than see cash as a motivation. “You can only do it once,” a source said. Sajid Javid, the health secretary, backed the scheme, saying: “Thank you to all the businesses who are stepping up to support this important vaccine drive. Once available, please go out and take advantage of the discounts.” (Sunday Times)

London will ping back – in three years, says king of the clubs Richard Caring: After 16 months of lockdowns, social distancing and “fear and confusion” from scientists, Richard Caring is desperate for people to put on their best outfits and enjoy a night out – preferably at one of his restaurants, which have been particularly hit by the lack of tourists. “People have got to be encouraged to start really getting out and living their lives. I don’t think anybody in the world ever thought they’d operate in a time like this. It’s been challenging all the way through.” His prediction for the rest of London is gloomy: it will take three years before the city’s trading returns to pre-covid levels. “As far as shoppers are concerned, they [the streets] are never going to be back to where they were,” he said. Bill’s, the casual dining chain he has owned since 2008, has seen a revolving door of senior executives. There were rumours that Bill’s was on the block a few months ago, a suggestion emphatically denied by Caring. “Our biggest investment in time and energy is going into Bill’s,” he said. He plans to plough £10 million into refurbishments. Eight of the 52 restaurants will be fitted out with bars and will feature DJs and live music. “Not to turn them into a nightclub,” he added hastily. But “some of the Bill’s need a lot of help”. Another problem troubling Caring is property. Rent arrears have built up with landlords that have not agreed concessions. “The vast majority have been amazing,” Caring said. Some have granted 12-month rent-free periods. “15% of our landlords have said, ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn’,” he said. “You earmark these people and you say, ‘Never again do I want anything to do with these people in any way, shape or form’.” Unlike some rivals, Caring has the backing of deep-pocketed investors. Beyond the immediate problems, Caring is still plotting expansion. In Richmond, southwest London, he plans to open a second branch of Scott’s, his fish restaurant on Mayfair’s Mount Street. (Sunday Times)

Hedge fund Cat Rock gnaws at Just Eat’s finance chief: The activist hedge fund shaking up Just Eat Takeaway is turning its focus to the food group’s finance director after accusing it of “deeply flawed” communications. Alex Captain, founder of Cat Rock, is understood to hold Brent Wissink partly accountable for its alleged shortcomings in dealing with investors and the market. Cat Rock last week claimed the company was “vulnerable to takeover bids at far below intrinsic value”. Cat Rock said it had not been transparent enough in communicating the cost of its investments. It is understood that Captain also believes that solving Just Eat Takeaway’s problems could require a stronger chairman. Captain said he was “surprised” that the company had struggled to improve its communication. “The concerns ... aren’t new. I’ve made recommendations privately, and they haven’t moved quickly enough or aggressively enough to solve the problems,” he said. Just Eat Takeaway, led by Jitse Groen, was formed through the merger of FTSE 100 company Just Eat and Dutch rival Takeaway.com. “Takeaway.com was a roughly €1 billion company ... at [the time of its stock market listing] and it is [now] worth €14 billion with global operations,” said Captain. “The scale of the task on investor relations and financial planning has increased dramatically, but the resources are the same.” Cat Rock has also grown frustrated about the fall in Just Eat Takeaway’s share price – down 23% over the past year, valuing it at €15.6 billion (£13.3 billion). Just Eat Takeaway said it held “regular dialogue with all shareholders”. It has also increased its finance team. (Sunday Times)

Sir Rocco Forte – Enough of the hysterical U-turns on foreign travel – it’s a form of terrorism by government: I welcome the decision by the government to finally open up our borders next week to travellers from the US and continental Europe – even if the current state of uncertainty remains far from ideal. Of course, this isn’t just important for the principle of freedom of movement, but also because it’s absolutely vital for the tourism and hospitality industry, which accounts for a significant 9% of the economy, and the sectors employ around 10% of the entire workforce. If we are to recover economically from covid, then it is not only essential that travel is as free as possible – but that it remains as free as possible. This means that there must not be any fresh U-turns or tightening of restrictions, because I fear that many businesses – which have only just survived – would go to the wall. My own business has suffered badly. During the last financial year, our income was a fifth of what it should have been. And while my hotels are all still operating, I’ve had to become more indebted to keep them going, and over the next several years, we – like so many other businesses – are going to have to work hard to get out of the red. The economic hangover from all those restrictions forced upon us to deal with covid is going to be long and very, very tough. This is something that I do not think that many in government understand. I want a dedicated minister for tourism. It is absurd that the minister currently responsible for the industry is a lowly Parliamentary under secretary of state, whose brief not only includes tourism but also sport and the Commonwealth Games. There should be a new minister dedicated purely to tourism, who would have more clout to help our industry recover. We also need some subsidy, particularly in maintaining a low level of VAT, which would really help us get back on our feet. Most importantly, we emphatically do not want a system of passes and passports in order for people to be able to visit hotels and restaurants and the like. It should not be the job of the hospitality industry to police people’s movements, or even to restrict them. I know that I am fighting against an authoritarian strain among us, which insists that nightclubs should be closed down and that there should be a curfew after 10pm. So be it. These are the people who do not go out anyway – and we should not be ruled by them. (Mail on Sunday)

One of Britain’s largest Thai restaurant chains reviving plans for stock market float amid huge wave of listings: One of Britain’s largest Thai restaurant chains is reviving plans for a stock market float amid a huge wave of listings that will launch once the summer holiday season ends. Before the pandemic, Giggling Squid co-owner and chief executive Andy Laurillard said a flotation was something he’d ‘love to do’. However, the restaurant group was forced to close its restaurants during the lockdowns and tap Barclays for a £5 million emergency covid loan to secure the group’s financial position. Now City sources say Giggling Squid is working on growth funding options – with a stock market listing one possibility. City brokers say it could be one of between 50 and 80 floats of companies worth more than £100 million before the end of the year. Nearly £12 billion has already been raised through 69 floats this year, according to Dealogic data. That means 2021 has already been the strongest Initial Public Offering (IPO) market since 2014 – and could surpass the £24.9 billion raised in 2011. Giggling Squid was set up by Laurillard and his Thai wife, Pranee, in 2002 in a fishing cottage in Brighton. The hut became their first restaurant. The pair secured £6.4 million from the Business Growth Fund in 2015 and they have gone on to grow the business significantly over the last decade. They now run 35 Thai food tapas restaurants across the south east. (Mail on Sunday)

Vaccine passports deny basic freedoms, cabinet critics tell Boris Johnson: Boris Johnson has been accused by cabinet ministers of denying people their fundamental freedoms over plans for vaccine passports. The prime minister has announced plans to make vaccine passports mandatory in indoor venues such as nightclubs and conference centres from September. The move is in response to concerns from government advisers that they are “super-spreading” environments and could fuel a resurgence of coronavirus in the autumn and winter. Cabinet ministers believe that the policy was “railroaded” through at the behest of the prime minister by Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister. They have been privately encouraging Tory backbenchers to raise their concerns in an effort to kill the legislation when it comes to the Commons. Labour has signalled that it opposes the plans, meaning the government is facing a possible defeat. There are concerns that the government appears to be encouraging “jabs for jobs”. Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, and Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, have praised companies that have barred staff who are not vaccinated from returning to the office. The Times can reveal that Johnson has been forced to abandon plans for university students attending lectures and halls of residence to be vaccinated. One cabinet minister said that 50 Tory MPs were likely to oppose vaccine passports, forcing the prime minister to abandon the plans. “This policy will be in the hands of Sir Keir Starmer and Nicola Sturgeon,” they said. “The prime minister has always been very cautious about overly intrusive legislation. He only does it when necessary.” (The Times)

I could lose £30,000 because staff shortages caused me to close my restaurant for a week: Shaun Hill’s Michelin-starred restaurant, The Walnut Tree Inn in Llanddewi Skirrid, near Abergavenny, in Wales, is closed once more. There’s no local lockdown, no government-enforced hiatus – instead, the place has been hit by a staff shortage. With usually a team of eight in the kitchen, on Saturday Hill was down to just three, relying on ex-chefs and old friends to step in and help carry out service. “Two of my more skilled troops left after lockdown as we’d been closed for five months and they began working on other things,” Hill says. “Then, a full diary combined with fewer staff and a heatwave meant some of my remaining chefs started to crack – a couple took sick leave for stress, leaving me short. I managed to get a few old staff back, but after a week I decided to cut my losses and close.” If his chefs return, Hill hopes to reopen again on 4 August. The losses he faces are significant: the restaurant makes a £30,000 turnover each week. While many cite the ongoing ‘pingdemic’ as the source of their shortage woes, with staff members having to take time off work to isolate following a test and trace alert, Hill says he has struggled to recruit staff in the first place – and for one key reason. “The problem lies in Brexit,” he stresses. “We are a trade that has for decades relied, in part, on people coming into this country to do it. We are all drinking from the same pool, and that pool has suddenly run dry. Staff shortages following Brexit were inevitable.” Having posted a tweet about his restaurant’s latest forced closure, Hill was bemused to see a statement from the Home Office on a BBC news article in response, which stated that companies should not rely on “cheap labour from abroad”. The barb angled at the hospitality industry stung. “What an insult to skilled chefs and waiting staff,” he says. “You wouldn’t call a foreign nurse ‘cheap labour’, would you? And I can tell you, my staff are not cheap. I employed a Swiss restaurant manager and a Czech pastry chef, both of whom were fantastic, and paid well. All my other staff are Welsh.” (The Telegraph)

Marina O’Loughlin reviews Hypha: Hypha is a small joint dramatically located right on Chester’s city walls – the address is 5 City Walls – an altogether striking place. Vertiginous drops over ancient stones give the vertigo-afflicted pal the fear; inside are many, many trailing plants, a lot of wood panelling, arse-challenging benching, concrete-topped bar. The look is Instagram interiors account meets log cabin. A lot of older patrons look, frankly, bewildered. It styles itself h y p h a, but, well, no. During lockdowns the restaurant evolved from an informal trend-driven vegan offering – mushroom burgers, ramen, “poke bowls” – to something more ambitious: complex tasting menus featuring all manner of in-house fermentation, a beer sommelier, foraging (obviously) and intricate, dazzling dishes. (Its “fermentation lab”, Koji, is next door.) Hypha isn’t just vegan but committed to ultra-seasonality and locality with ambitions towards zero waste. So there are no lemons; no peppers in the “romesco” that lies beneath the layer of “mushroom soil” in a filo plant pot of perkiest vegetables. There’s one particular course that is, without hyperbole, sublime. A cut-through of fat oyster mushroom stalk masquerading, with its burnished top, as a sizzled scallop; on the side is an ethereally delicate tartlet brimming with pop-fresh peas and a swoop of sea vegetable puree as green as the deep ocean. Occasionally there are outbreaks of trying too hard: that vegetable-planted filo pot is a little last decade, despite its dusting of powder made from no-waste carrot tops. Desserts and petit fours (chocolate mycelium bonbon, miso-caramel shortbread, recycled carrot and oats) are where the limitations of a maniacal attachment to plants and seasonality are most evident. Confession: it’s the sweet part of veganism, with few exceptions, that leaves me coldest; the pleasures of butter cream and eggs notable by their absence. But they pour me about a half pint of sauternes to go with them, so, you know, swings and roundabouts. (Sunday Times Magazine)

Jay Rayner reviews The Bradley Hare, Wiltshire: If you wanted a single plate of food to symbolise the current state of the gussied-up country pub, you could do far worse than study my main course at what is now the Bradley Hare in the village of Maiden Bradley, a few miles outside Warminster in Wiltshire. It is steak and chips. Except, of course, it isn’t steak and chips; or at least not just steak and chips. The meat is impeccable, in keeping with the noisy commitment here to quality ingredients. They don’t just have a butcher. They also have a game dealer. They say they are against waste and very much for community involvement, so they have a barter arrangement with the local allotment society, allowing them to commission certain vegetables and “botanicals” for the bar. The Bradley Hare has the kind of bar that needs botanicals. I suspect it didn’t when it was the somewhat less titivated Somerset Arms. I’m acknowledging that the Bradley Hare won’t be for everyone, that the pub traditionalists might well find it profoundly irritating. It is worth knowing that a lot of those involved come from the Soho House international members club group. The general manager, Ben Jones, was previously the restaurant manager at Babington House, the Soho House group’s country retreat. A co-director is James Thurstan Waterworth, which sounds like the name of one of those valiant souls who sacrificed themselves during Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition. He’s the one-time European design director of Soho House. If you’ve never heard of Soho House, the mere fact they need a European design director tells you everything you need to know. It is, in short, a glossy relaunch of a country pub, aimed at people who know that the different shades of paint on the walls have fancy names; that the weave of the rugs, and the saris refashioned as throws, matter; that sofas must be squelchy but not too squelchy. Obviously, I am very happy here, for traditional pubs make me feel like I never fully read the pub-going manual. The food follows the model of that steak, for the most part. It is thoughtful and thought about. (The Guardian)

Giles Coren reviews Café Deco in London’s Bloomsbury: Café Deco is bright and pale and very café-like, with almost no tables, presumably because of social distancing, and concomitantly minimal, slender, elegant staff in monochromatic outfits and masks. There were slices of ripe, chewy sourdough and a half-moon of salty butter on plain white plates and six radishes (£3.50) on a similar one. The radishes themselves were bright and crunchy but, to be honest, a little bland. I love a radish. Nothing else is that colour, that special, urgent pink. And nothing sings of its terroir more than a radish. But I prefer more pepper in the bite. The pepper that starts to evaporate the moment it leaves the ground, like the scent of a truffle. Radishes require such a short journey from earth to plate. Really, any journey is too long. Even if you take the plate to the radish patch. Just pulling a radish out of the ground is already a shame. The only real way to eat one is to tunnel up under it and eat it from underneath, in the moist dark of the earth it grew in. You’ll get soil in your mouth (and a hint of petrichor), but it goes great with radishes. Plenty of vitamin B12 too if you’re of the vegan persuasion. What was not bland, though, was the egg mayonnaise (£3.50), halved and laid to rest beneath the yellowest, grassiest egg and oil emulsion, and a saltire of crossed anchovies – dense, thick, saltier than salt, perfect wingman to the egg – so unlike the dull “oeuf dur mayonnaise” standards of my Parisian 50-franc menu youth (which, of course, had other recommendations).Of the five mains, two were vegetarian: the spring garlic, tomato and saffron quiche (£12.50) and the summer vegetable stew with pesto (£16.50), which I ordered and was lovely – peas, broad beans, courgettes, cubes of firm unpeeled potato and no doubt other stuff, but I was a pastis and half a bottle of albariño in and enjoying myself now and not poking about counting ingredients. The pesto was a mild, pale green example of the genre, in good quantity to thicken out the stew and bang up the umami, not the sharp, emerald-coloured, super-garlicky version that I, again, inflict on my guests, which comes on like a fist in the face, screws with your gut and leaves you unable to sleep for days. (The Times Magazine)

Tom Parker Bowles reviews Pino, Kensington High Street, London: Soul. That intangible restaurant quality that is born not bought, an elusive elixir that transcends base function, transforming a utilitarian room into a haven of sybaritic delight. There’s no rhyme or reason, no guidebook or business plan. I’ve been to three-Michelin-starred places with all the atmosphere of a morgue, and dilapidated beach shacks that throb with bonhomie. You either have it, or you don’t. And despite opening only a few weeks back, Pino has soul coursing through its veins. Which is hardly surprising, as it comes from the family behind Kensington’s Il Portico, a local and much beloved stalwart since 1967. Just like its elder sibling a few doors down, Pino mixes top-notch ingredients from the Chiavarinis’ home state of Emilia Romagna (Parmesan, prosciutto, lardo, coppa, etc) with a sort of greatest hits of Italian regional classics. James is the fourth generation of Chiavarini to run things, and he’s here, as he always is at Il Portico, greeting regulars, filling glasses, keeping things ticking along. He is, as you’d expect, a born restaurateur, and does it for love rather than cash. The site used to be Pizzacotto, also theirs, and the wood-burning oven still blazes away at the back. But the room, with its warm, flickering light, olive tree and framed Campari and Fernet-Branca posters, feels both new and warmly familiar, too. We eat culatello, sweetly piggy, cut tissue-paper thin, as good as you’ll find anywhere. And melanzane parmigiana, cooked in that oven, all silken aubergine, oozing cheese, sharp tomato sauce and bubbling, blistered top. Fritto misto, hot and salty, wears a light batter, the prawns and squid scented with nostalgia for summer holidays long past, and lunch eaten with sand between your toes. Neapolitan-style pizza, all puffy cornicione, fiery n’duja and small molten puddles of mozzarella, is Zia Lucia good (my favourite London pizza group). In fact, the only slip is squid-ink ravioli. Generously filled with monkfish and aubergine, they wallow in an intense shellfish broth. But the pasta is a little thick and dense. Not inedibly so, but certainly not up to the usual family standard. Hey ho, it’s early days. And despite just one visit, Pino is already like an old friend. I know I’ll be back, and I know it will be good. Simple, confident regional Italian cooking, with the sweetest of service. And soul. Did I mention that soul? (Mail on Sunday) 

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