Category: Restaurant

Can an app save the high street?

Can an app save the high street?

Ian C Jones CEO of LoLo Rewards thinks it can

 LoLo stands for Local Loyalty and is the brainchild of an itinerant Australian now living in Kennington. Jones has worked all his life with small and medium sized businesses and thinks he’s found a way for individual shops and services to take on the might of the giant online retailers. It’s based on loyalty discount tokens and is an app that sits on your phone.

This is how it works: Download the LoLo app on to your mobile and you are immediately given twenty loyalty tokens. One token equals one pound. Via the app you now search for a shop or service you are interested in and for the sake of argument find a restaurant that you’d always meant to try. You take your partner out for dinner and at the end of the meal get a bill for £100. On that bill is a QR code. You open your LoLo app, zap the QR code then through the magic of modern technology the telephone talks to the card reader. You decide to use all your twenty tokens, so your bill now comes to £80 with you enjoying a 20% discount. You leave and as you’re walking down the street your phone beeps and you find the restaurant has gifted you £16 new tokens. (As part of the agreement with LoLo the minimum they can give is 5% in tokens however some will accept up to 50%). The restaurant will then likely ask you to write a review of your meal for which they agree to give you another five tokens. So, you started out with 20, spent those and got a 20 % discount and now have a further 21 tokens on your app to spend at the restaurant or with any of the other retailers who are part of LoLo.LoLo Local Loyalty

Jones adds: “Unlike a frequent flier programme where you’ll use all your points at one go, ours you’ll never run out. Ours only accumulate, you can transfer them to friends and family, but every time you spend them you end up getting back at least 10% more than you consumed. That’s what’s unique about it.”

The App also tells you how many tokens you currently hold and how much cash you’ve saved by supporting local businesses.

When a business signs up with LoLo they are given a whole stack of QR codes that are unique to their business. These are printed on cards for staff to hand out to their customers.

As Jones says: “If I had a coffee shop, I’d be standing at the door handing out the cards to everybody coming in saying download the app.”

He makes the point that if a retailer gives you a discount then that money disappears into the wider world, but with a token that money stays local.

But how do LoLo make money out of this? It’s very simple they harvest 3% of any transaction that goes through a card reader. So, going back to our notional restaurant LoLo receive 3% of the £80 spent by the customer.

Jones also sees the possibility of businesses, perhaps a florist, restaurant and dry cleaner, working together to cross promote their products to increase footfall and ultimately sales.

Jones’ mantra is first shop locally, then regionally, then nationally and if all else fails go to Amazon. He has high ambitions: “We want to make (LoLo) operate on every small business in the UK. Individually no small business can compete with the strength of online, but collectively they can. They’ve got some power so what we’ve done is given them a platform to be stronger.”

Amazon, Deliveroo, Uber Eats; they’re all disrupters and are playing havoc with our high streets. Can a humble app turn the tide on the big boys? Only time will tell, but why not sign up and be part of a revolution, there are tokens waiting for you.

Click here if you want to be part of this.


 

Cable Café: Back on track

Cable Café: Back on track

Following my blog about poor service being dished out at Cable Café on Brixton Road I received a response from the owner Craig O’Dwyer.

‘A friend passed me your article about our coffee / service. I would like to apologize for that day, we were all a bit grumpy having worked non-stop to pass a health and safety inspection just minutes before you passed by. I’ll speak with staff and give them a clip round the ears, they should have behaved better. I’m glad you liked the coffee.’

Apology accepted and I did like the coffee and will continue to buy it. A health and safety inspection must be pretty gruelling.

I’m passionate about supporting local businesses but if they fall short you should let them know. If you just shrug your shoulders and never go back everyone loses. But if your criticism is valid and they listen and improve then everyone wins.

Go to the Cable Café, you may well see me there.


 

Growth on the high street

Growth on the high street

Debenhams just announced they’ll be closing 22 stores next year putting more than a thousand jobs at risk. House of Fraser survives on a wing and a prayer and HMV has already closed a plethora of their shops. The cold hand of digital retail is slowly strangling the high street.

M&S, long the bell-weather of UK retail, are not having an easy time, though buying Ocado and partnering with British Airways to supply food on their flights looks to be a canny move.

I went to Moscow in 1991 just before the big switch from communism to capitalism got underway and I remember what struck me most was the complete absence of shops. Their showpiece was the dreary GUM department store on Red Square where if you queued long enough you might get a loaf of bread. Russia has long since changed from communism to turbo-capitalism, but I’ve always had a soft spot for shops and think of them as the most benign form of capitalism.

Yards of newspaper space is now taken up with hand-wringing articles on the future of the high street. Should Amazon be taxed more aggressively? Should bricks and mortar stores stay open at more convenient times? Should business rates be cut? These pieces usually feature a comment from the retail guru Mary Portas, but however well-meaning these efforts, the high street seems to be dying on its feet with little sign of a vision that could turn it around.

Whatever the answer is I don’t have it, but there is an interesting experiment going on in our neighbourhood. I’d hardly call our little row of shops a high street as there are in total just eleven stores. We have the usual betting shop, taxi service, optician and estate agent, but there are three shops together that might just point to a direction of travel.

Around a year ago a new restaurant opened up called Oval 24, you can see this blog’s review here, it’s a fine eating establishment which has garnered excellent reviews. To the right of the restaurant the shop has been turned into a flat and is now no longer retail space, but living accommodation.

But it’s the shop next door where things get interesting. Oval 24 has taken the space and uses it to grow vegetables for their kitchen. Just recently they erected huge tubs filled with lettuces and carrots out front of the shop. I saw these going up and was worried they’d be vandalised; this hasn’t happened. Inside the shop other vegetables are being grown using horticultural full-spectrum LED lights.

There’s long been talk of the high street offering experiences rather than retail opportunities, but I never thought shops could become urban kitchen gardens. Perhaps it’s this kind of innovation we need to counter the dreaded empty spaces, the blackened teeth of the high street, and turn it back into in a vibrant living environment.

Update: Just took the dog out and went past the street I’ve been talking about only to discover that what was once a laundrette will soon be a gym offering personal training, which kind of reinforces the point I’ve been trying to make. Good luck Damo.


 

Oslo Court Restaurant

Oslo Court Restaurant

I love the crazy places of London. The places that seem improbable but exist anyway. How come a flying saucer with mushrooms in the ceiling landed in Knightsbridge was named Albert Hall and became one of our favourite concert venues?

Why are men currently throwing themselves into the icy grip of Hampstead Men’s Pond when they could be tucked up at home with a hot drink and a good book? Who knows but I’m glad they do even though I’m going nowhere near the place until the Spring.

I want to introduce you to another crazy place that I’d never heard of until friends took me there last Friday. It’s the Oslo Court Restaurant in St John’ Wood.

Its location is, to say the least, unusual. Walk down Prince Albert Road and turn into Charlbert Street and you’re met with a handsome art deco apartment block. Build in 1937 it boasts 125 one-bedroom flats many with balconies on to the park. Out front there’s a small sign that gives a clue that it also boasts a restaurant. Apparently in days gone by posh blocks often had restaurants but that fashion has disappeared.

Walking into reception a smartly dressed attendant directs you through a small unmarked door and suddenly you are in the pinkest restaurant in the world. It’s like falling into flock of flamingos and is something of a psychedelic shock as you reel towards your table. You are at a pink festival on Pink Day in Pinkland.

The owner, Tony Sanchez, has been running the joint for more than 35 years. The place definitely has a period feel. The single rose in the silver vases, the rich fabrics, the melba toast with vegetable croutons creates a time-machine that catapults you back to the 70s. There is nothing minimalist about Oslo Court. There’s no steel and glass here; it’s sumptuous.

Now describing a restaurant as having a 70s vibe will be about as welcome to the management as an outbreak of norovirus. Food in 70’s London was terrible, I know I lived through it, but I was poor at the time and I guess places like this must have existed for those with money.

Let’s get to the food. I started looking at the menu which as you’ll see has Dover Sole, Crab and Prawn Salad, Duck and Chicken Liver Pate, Salmon with Hollandaise sauce and sundry other 70’s delights though not (Tut Tut) Black Forest Gateaux or Prawn Cocktails. Suddenly a waiter arrived bearing news of at least twenty specials. I love a special.

Oslo Court RestaurantI opted for six oysters to start, served with an excellent sauce of Balsamic vinegar and garlic, then Beef Wellington (perfectly cooked and this is not an easy dish to get right) and for afters Lemon Meringue Pie with a side order of raspberries and vanilla ice cream. To finish up we had Petits Fours and coffee. A moment ago I described the atmosphere as sumptuous; the same goes for the portions. I then ordered a wheelbarrow to get me out of the place.

In the seventies, in between leaving school and going to University, I worked in a restaurant that boasted silver service. This is when the waiter serves your vegetables from a silver salver grasping the spuds and cauli between a spoon and fork and placing it effortlessly on your plate. Frankly I found it tricky and carrots typically ended up in the lap of some unsuspecting patron.

Silver service is now about as rare as a dodo, but not at Oslo Court where the waiters are dishing out the veg left and right while dressed in natty bow ties and dinner jackets.

This is a destination restaurant and if your destination factors in power cuts, a 3-day week, Ted Heath as PM it’s the place for you. The food is generally excellent but it’s not cheap; lunch comes in at £36 and Dinner £47. My only quibble was the vegetables were overcooked, but hey that’s the way we liked them 40 years ago.


Reservations: 020 7722 8795

Chalbert Street, NW8 7EN


 

Shucking oysters in Arcachon

Shucking oysters in Arcachon

A bivalve pilgrimage

Regular readers will know this blog recently decamped to France for a short break. Kicking the regal Biarritz dust from our heels the Preen family are on the road north to Arcachon.

Like Biarritz, Arcachon Bay is on the Atlantic coast and is known to the locals as Le Bassin or The Basin. The beaches are spectacularly beautiful, some of which can be viewed from a massive sand dune called the Dune of Pilat. It’s more like a mountain than a dune and something you’d expect to see in the Sahara rather than at a French tourist resort. Camels should have featured somewhere. From its summit you can gaze in wonder at the beaches and hang glide down to them if you’re brave enough.

But this isn’t a tourist blog, so get Googling if you want to know more. What we’re here for are the oysters as Arcachon is the oyster capital of France. We are on a bivalve pilgrimage.

Most French towns of any size have a covered market often called Les Halles where all kinds of fresh, French yumminess can be found from cheeses to hams to sausages, breads, fruit and vegetables. The French just take food more seriously than we do. Think of the words the English use to describe food, ‘grub’ ‘nosh’ and ‘chow’ spring to mind. We don’t like food getting above itself, so we put it in its place. Depending on your point of view, the French either exalt and treasure food or have a slightly bonkers obsession with it.

France’s local oyster, the European oyster, is now farmed and no longer harvested in the wild. After reaching two or three years of age, oysters are taken to so-called fattening grounds, typically in river estuaries and marshes. There they become plump and juicy and ready for the table by gorging on algae and other nutrients that are very appealing to the hungry bivalve. Thereafter they are graded for taste and texture. Little do they know what’s coming next.

At the back of the market in Arcachon we found the Bar à Huîtres where we ordered twelve of their best. While waiting for our order to appear and to the annoyance of the daughter I read aloud the Lewis Carroll poem the Walrus and the Carpenter. Spoiler Alert: Look away now if you don’t want to know what happens to the oysters at the end of the poem. Here’s an edited version, just an hors d’oeuvre, click here for the Full English.

O Oysters, come and walk with us!’

The Walrus did beseech.

A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,

Along the briny beach:

We cannot do with more than four,

To give a hand to each.’

 

But four young Oysters hurried up,

All eager for the treat:

Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,

Their shoes were clean and neat —

And this was odd, because, you know,

They hadn’t any feet.

Four other Oysters followed them,

And yet another four;

And thick and fast they came at last,

And more, and more, and more —

All hopping through the frothy waves,

And scrambling to the shore.

 

The Walrus and the Carpenter

Walked on a mile or so,

And then they rested on a rock

Conveniently low:

And all the little Oysters stood

And waited in a row.

O Oysters,’ said the Carpenter,

You’ve had a pleasant run!

Shall we be trotting home again?’

But answer came there none —

And this was scarcely odd, because

They’d eaten every one.”

All around us men where shucking oysters, splitting the shells with a twist of the wrist in one deft move. Very quickly our plate arrived with the oysters set on ice and draped in seaweed fronds. They may have spent months being fattened in river reedbeds but at La Table de Preen they were gone in 60 seconds, well perhaps a little longer. I’m hopeless at describing food, I’m English for goodness sake, but they were plump and salty and slithered down with great ease. I could have ordered another dozen.

The next day part of the family spent the day at Aqualand , but not being the world’s best swimmer, I was given the morning off to mooch. Staying just outside Arcachon in a village called Le Teich, I wandered into the centre to get some lunch. There in front of the local bar I found Hercule selling oysters from a cart.

‘Douze huîtres s’il vous plait’ I said in my best ‘O’ level French and twelve were duly slung into a plastic bag in exchange for a few Euros. I headed back to the apartment, put the bag in the fridge and waited for the family to arrive.

How hard could it be to shuck a few oysters? Well let’s just say, I recommend gardening gloves and a police issue stab vest if you want to keep safe.

As you can see from the picture, the knife looks like something which would be of interest to the police if you were caught with it in one of the seedier parts of London.

The BBC’s Good Food describes the shucking process like this:

  • Wrap a tea towel over one hand and use it to hold the oyster firmly.
  • Using an oyster shucking knife in the other hand, place the tip of the shucking knife at the base of the hinge, twist the knife using pressure, then without the pressure, lever the knife upwards, or twist it to prise the hinge open.
  • Slide the knife under the top shell to release the oyster and remove the shell.

Sound so easy doesn’t it? Well, let me tell you, my oysters were no pushover. All that gorging on algae had made them tough little buggers who weren’t going to give up without a struggle.

What the BBC fails to mention is the bit where you inadvertently stab yourself in the hand because it’s so damn difficult to get the knife into the hinge. Or when you twist the knife and a bit of oyster shell flies off and hits you in the eye, the shell remaining tightly shut.

It’s a tricky business but eventually all twelve were opened, eaten and pronounced delicious. I guess all good things come after a bit of a struggle and oysters are no exception. Thanks Hercule, we’ll see you tomorrow.

Basqueing in the late summer sun

Basqueing in the late summer sun

This blog has decamped to France, so you are now reading Une Petite Vie Francaise or something like that. No doubt I’ve got the gender wrong and I’m certainly lacking a cedilla because I can’t find it on this computer keyboard. Sticklers among you will now be saying well that’s very nice for some, but what has this got to do with London which is supposed to be the blog’s USP. The answer to that perfectly reasonable question is not much, barely anything, but not absolutely nothing if I’m allowed to veer off into the double negative.

We are staying in Biarritz which is set deep in the heart of Basque Country. I know it’s Basque Country because I’ve discovered a desert called Gateau Basque. This is a pleasant cake-like thing made from ground almonds (probably) and in the case of the one I’m wading through right now, is stuffed with cherry jam. It may not be up there with the great French dishes such as Bouillabaisse or coq au vin but I seem to be able to eat it quite happily for breakfast, then as a desert for lunch and supper. Say what you like about Gateau Basque, it’s versatile.

Biarritz was once popular with the Beau Monde who came here to gamble and party, particularly in the early part of the last century. There is still a grand casino, large Art Deco hotels and wide sandy beaches which are now sought after by surfers rather than the crowned heads of Europe.

Come the sixties the better weather in Nice and the attraction of Brigitte Bardot and her ilk meant the money moved a little further South East to the Mediterranean and away from the more stormy pleasures of the Atlantic seaboard.

Miremont Biarritz
Miremont Café Biarritz

For breakfast we ventured, en famille, to a rather grand cafe called the Miremont. On the outside window there is a photograph of King Alfonso XIII visiting the Miremont with his ‘young’ wife. I’m not fully boned up on Alfonso V13, nor entirely sure which country benefited from his beneficent rule, but it looks to me like this might be Mrs King II, or the younger trophy wife.

The maitre d’, told us proudly that Biarritz was once the ‘Queen of resorts and the resort of Kings’ and that it was once said that at teatime there were ‘fewer pastries than Queens and fewer rum babas that Grand Dukes’.

Well the Preens are not easily intimidated, so barging a few Barons out of the way and treading a couple of Earls underfoot, we made our way to our table. The thing about mixing with The Quality is that it doesn’t come cheap. The creamy rich cafe au lait came in at €5.90 a pop while the croissants were a bank busting €2.20 and the daughter’s orange juice or fruit presse was €6.60. But Grand Dukes don’t complain about l’addition and neither do the Preens when the food is this yummy.

The Miremont prides itself on its ‘cosy charm and grand style’ which is a tricky combination to pull off. As we are leaving the maitre d’, who the daughter described rather unfairly as an old goat (vielle chevre), told us that King Edward VII, used to stay every year at the Hotel De Palais, while ‘remaining faithful to the Miremont’s confections’ and of course remained faithful to the wife who cost him the throne. We were also shown the Royal Coat of Arms that was bestowed on the Miremont by Queen Victoria who apparently used to send Albert down to pick up the buns.

Restaurant review: 24 The Oval

Restaurant review: 24 The Oval

There are restaurant premises on Clapham Road close to Oval tube that have seen many manifestations and make-overs. In our 18 years of living in the neighbourhood it’s been: The Lavender, Oval Lounge and now we have a new eatery: 24 The Oval.

The new owners took possession of the property at the back end of last year and we all expected it to be open for the busy Christmas period, this didn’t happen. The place obviously took a long time to refurb and only opened earlier this year. I’ve been meaning to check it out for some time but finally got around to it when Mrs Preen and I visited last Wednesday.

I walk past the restaurant most days with the dog on the way to Kennington Park and had checked the menu. I was concerned it all looked a little pricey, certainly more so than the previous incarnations I’ve mentioned, plus I wasn’t seeing many patrons.

So, I was surprised when I called to make a booking for 8pm to be told there was nothing available until later in the evening. On our arrival I couldn’t have been more wrong about the lack of punters, the place was heaving.

The long refurbishment must have more to do with the kitchens and the elements not on display as the interior doesn’t look so different. It’s all pleasantly woody with flowers and plants giving it a charming country kitchen atmosphere. Strangely the music was very loud and given all the reflective surfaces of glass and wood, conversation proved a little difficult, but almost as soon as we’d sat down someone dialled down the sounds and chat commenced.

One their website 24 style their approach as ‘old fashioned, modern British cooking’. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but the menu is gratifyingly small and there were many dishes I would have been happy to order. While we were waiting, we were brought a yummy cheese fondue with savoury choux buns as a taster.

Deciding not to go for starters, my wife ordered the Roasted Skate, Jerusalem Artichokes and Rainbow Chard (£16). I opted for the very fishy mix of BBQ Monkfish, Smoked Mussels, Salsify and Seaweed (19). I’m not going to come on like a MasterChef judge and give you chapter and verse as to what was right and wrong with the dishes, largely because that’s way beyond me, but I will say both dishes were consumed with gusto and pronounced excellent.

Just one caveat, while the last thing we wanted were huge US-style portions, both dishes were a little on the small side. The Skate wing was more the size of a budgerigar wing; perhaps portion control could ease up a bit.

I had Treacle Tart and Ice Cream to finish, because I’m incapable of not ordering treacle tart if it’s on the menu.

Add in three glasses of house red wine (perfectly drinkable) a side order of Triple Cooked Chips and the bill came to a pretty reasonable £69.

A couple of other things to add: My wife is Coeliac and has to have a gluten free diet, this was speedily arranged with no fuss. There is a Tasting Menu which comes in at £38.50 per person, but best of all 24 is a dog friendly establishment.  A large silver haired mutt of indeterminate breed sat behind us beneath its owner’s table.

This looks like a really welcome addition to our neighbourhood which is not blessed with many fine eateries. A return visit to 24 is definitely on the cards, but next time with Bucket.