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NetworkTen: Bruce Millar

Bruce Millar Header Image

1. Hello, who are you?
Bruce Millar, the main writer on The Sunday Times Top 100 Restaurants. I also contribute to and help edit The Sunday Times’s two other restaurant supplements, covering the best 130 places around the country where you can eat for £20 and “around the world in 80 meals” — the best ethnic restaurants in Britain.

2. Tell us a little about your publication and your role within it…
We publish in association with Harden’s Guides, using their tried and tested methodology for collating marks and reviews sent in by thousands of genuine diners who have spent their own money on eating out. So we believe that although enjoyment of a meal is subjective, our ranking is as objective as it is possible to get. My role is to visit restaurants selected from the 100 and interview the chefs. I am not writing a review but describing what is special about each restaurant, and why our voters have chosen it.

3. Recently The Times editor John Witherow shared his expectations for 2016 and predicted “the resurgence of print”. Have you seen evidence of this already?
It certainly appears that the long and steady decline in newspaper print circulations as at last levelling off. Online has all sorts of advantages in terms of speed, convenience and accessibility, but I think people may be realising that it is not considered, edited or mediated in the way that good serious newspapers are (precisely our mantra for producing Social Media content for ourselves and our clients;  consider, edit and mediate and nothing less – Krista Booker, Director, Fourteen Ten). Much of the content of social media is like being shouted at in a bar.

4. Martin Ivens, Editor of The Sunday Times, said: “Our readers already enjoy a great package… The Dish adds extra spice to the mix, satisfying the thousands of them who have a love for all things food.” We have enjoyed the launch of this supplement, is it here to stay and are there any plans to develop it?
Interest in all aspects of food and cooking keeps on growing, and the Sunday Times is sure to go with it. I’m not privy to the commercial decision-making, but I can only see The Dish developing further, in whatever form that may take.

5. What makes a good PR approach?
Interesting, restrained copy with a decent amount of factual detail that shows some insight into the product it is promoting, as well as some insight into my requirements as a journalist, is always appealing. Soft-sell is always preferable to hard-sell.

6. What makes a bad PR approach?
Breathless and cliche-filled copy full of hyperbole is always underwhelming. If it’s sprinkled with spelling mistakes, I assume it was written by a know-nothing school-leaver on work experience — and that the executive responsible was too busy lunching a client to do the work. (thank you for raising this Bruce, these are practices Fourteen Ten work very hard to avoid, in fact we tend to take our Interns with us on said lunches – David Farrer, Director, Fourteen Ten)

7. What was your restaurant moment of 2015?
Too many to count. But if you insist… well, finally eating at L’Enclume after reading about it for so many years was wonderful — 18 courses at lunchtime, and I didn’t feel stuffed. I had eaten at Sat Bains in Nottingham before, but he came top on our list this year, and it was great to catch up with him and eat his brilliant cooking again. And I had never tasted with such intensity as I did at Araki — it was a revelation to eat sushi prepared in front of my eyes by one of Japan’s greatest masters, now working in London. And it is amazing how expense powers your concentration… A fortnight in the summer in Tokyo and on the Izu peninsular a bit further south included at least half a dozen great restaurant experiences — including a place where you catch your own fish in a big tank before the chef slices it up for you. The standard is extraordinarily high because all Japanese are serious foodies, so a bad restaurant will soon go out of business.

8. We understand you have a keen interest in Japanese food, which is your favourite Japanese restaurant in London and why?
I really enjoyed Koya in Frith Street, now closed but replaced by Koya Bar. And Namban in Brixton is a great addition — opened by an American fan of Japanese food.

9. We’ve seen trends for dishes such as Yakitori, Okonomiyaki and more recently Ramen in London. Are there any new Japanese foods you expect, or would like, to take their turn in the limelight?
What I really like in Japan are the highly specialised restaurants. There are legendary places that only serve one dish, but it is perfect. I went to one tiny yakitoria that sold nothing but bits of chicken barbecued on sticks, but there were half a dozen chefs working flat out and probably 50 different items on the menu. That would be great in London…

10. What were you doing at 14.10 today (or yesterday)?
Eating lunch in the canteen: rice and beans that I cooked at home, for reasons of both taste and economy.

Thank you, Bruce!

Single-Dish Restaurants: Is Less More?

Single-Dish Restaurants

According to research from the “restaurant discovery” app Zomato one in ten new restaurants opened in London since April is a single-item restaurant. This trend (and the frustrating no-reservations policy) originated in New York and if the queues are anything to go by it’s going down well here too.

With the arrival of restaurants like Come Fry With Me, Mussel Men, Balls & Company and Egg Break to name a few it’s easy to see that there’s a market for these niche restaurants. But does all the excitement mean that the trend is here to stay?

One advantage of these super-niche restaurants is that customers don’t have to face indecision or food envy and they do say that less is more. Without an extensive menu the dreaded choice is already made for us and you would think that a narrower focus makes for a better executed dish, but as Jay Rayner pointed out in his review of Ooze, “if you’re a specialist restaurant, it’s crucial that you take your one main dish pretty seriously”.

If you’re only going to do one thing you need to do it really really well. There are no excuses and nothing to hide behind so if you’re going to go down the super-niche and focused route you need to be pretty great at what you do. Surprisingly this is not always the case and some restaurants are unable to sustain the custom such as Fulham Road’s Fire and Feathers, coincidentally has now now swapped one single-dish for another from chicken to steak with newcomer Orange Buffalo.

When single-item restaurants started taking over New York two years ago Billy Lyons wrote an interesting article shunning the way this generation of chefs is “forgoing the traditional stylings of success, opting for Instagram and Twitter fame, and leaving fine dining for fast casual”. A 2013 article by Luke Nicholls for Big Hospitality highlighted some further issues that the rise of single-item restaurant causes for the industry observing that “single and dual-item restaurants are changing the chef’s skill set enormously and not necessarily in a good way since the ability to cook a great burger or cook eggs 10 ways does not automatically entail that someone has the grounding or traditional skill set”.

We must ask the question that is there a finite amount of times we are happy without a wider choice? This notion was muted by Rayner in his recent review of Piquet: “In a London overrun by concepts and formulas, by places offering small plates and sharing plates and things served on slates or by the 100g or by the bushel and peck, a place like this is quite simply a relief. It has starters, main courses and desserts. It has food cooked by someone who knows what they’re doing but is more interested in serving you lunch than in winning a place in some gastronomic hall of fame”.

Is the opening of Piquet the turning point for the single-dish restaurant to lose favour with London diners? Zomato’s findings also stated that one in ten new restaurants opened in London since April is a single-item restaurant is actually “double the number in the same period last year” so perhaps we have now reached saturation? New openings on the horizon include single-dish restaurants Shuang Shuang (hot-pots), Le Bab (kebabs) and Strut and Cluck (turkey) but equally we have Bellanger, Oliver Maki and The Lighterman. Possibly another sign that we are now edging towards a return to our previous preference of more actually being more?