THE ART OF DINING ALONE

As a man who produces a YouTube channel (Huey’s Fabulous Fast Food For One or Two) dedicated to producing recipes for one, it’s obvious that I would be interested in the increasing popularity of dining alone.

Actually, I have always been a supporter of such a practice and, in fact, at my restaurant Fleurie – which only had 44 seats and was always booked a month in advance (I wouldn’t take bookings any further out) – I always kept one table up my sleeve obstentially for mates, regulars and the like – a table that I also happily let for solo diners whether they were mates or not. But, I do remember the other hot restaurant of the moment Petit Choux not being quite so generous and turning away my Sous Chef because he wanted a table for one. I rang the owner who said: “Of course he can have a table and I’ll sit with him, otherwise people may get the idea that we let tables go for singles.” Well, John actually didn’t want to dine with him – not just because he was a bore, but because he actually wanted to dine along, was quite happy doing so and didn’t expect any special treatment because of same.

I was reminded of this by a recent article in The Age that spoke of a restaurant which proudly told of putting a goldfish in a bowl (named Embla) on a lone diner’s table for company. For some reason, Sydney’s Firedoor was quite proud of this, supposedly, thoughtful effort. And, other restaurants, whilst not repeating the fish dining companion experience, spoke of involving the guest in everything from video games and WiFi to specially created menus to detailed descriptions of a dish’s component to, worst of all, tours of the kitchen.

In fairness, I am sure there is the odd customer who enjoys such efforts. But, as a person who has always enjoyed the peace and quiet of dining alone, one can only hope that most staff understand that many such clients just want to be left to their own devices. And one can only hope that all staff are instructed how to read the signs, because we have all experienced those well-intentional waitpersons whose involvement in your dining experience goes something along these lines: “Hi, I’m Bruce your waitperson for tonight and I’m going to enquire every time you take a bite whether you’re enjoying your meal, and the rest of the time I’m going to stand at the end of the table and bore the shit out of you.”

But, jokes aside, there are good things coming out of restaurants realising that there is a demand for sole dining and not just at that table stuck next to the kitchen or toilet door. (L’Archestrate in Paris where, at regular intervals, Chef Alain Senderins would burst out of the kitchen to glare at the staff – banging my table as he did so.) No, what I’m talking about is seating arranged around the kitchen bar or on a communal table, which is now common practice in restaurant design. As is the offer, in many of our leading restaurants of half serves where applicable and a good selection of quality wines by the glass – all of which certainly makes the solo dining experience more enjoyable.

And the number of persons dining along is definitely increasing. According to booking service Dimmi, solo reservations have risen by 27% in the past year and according to hospitality professionals “there is no longer a typical demographic for solo diners. They range from young cooks wanting to experience other establishments to travellers and business people to my dear mate Siggy, who has been a happy solo diner for the 30 years I have known him and does it because he not only enjoys food, but his own company as well.

As Lennox Hastie of Firedoor states: “It’s actually a huge compliment for me as a chef and restaurant owner when someone comes in and eats alone, because they are purposely coming to your venue for your food – not because friends have dragged them there.” Very similar to my feelings all those years ago at Fleurie and, although I do appreciate his sentiments, when I visit Firedoor (which is certainly on my list) if he plops a fish in a bowl on my table, I will not be responsible for my actions – SASHIMI ANYONE?

 

COQ AU VIN REVISITED   (for 1)

Put 1 chicken breast, skin on, in a bowl and pour over 1 cup decent red wine. Marinate in the fridge overnight, turning once or twice.

When ready, heat olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan and seal the drained breast all over (retaining the liquid). Remove.

Add 4-6 whole small button mushrooms to the pan with 4-6 peeled baby onions and 1 sliced small bacon rasher. Cook until coloured. Then add 1 heaped tbsp plain flour, mix very well and cook for 1-2 mins, before adding 1 cup beef stock, the marinating wine, 1 crushed plump garlic clove, 1 bay leaf, 1/3rd can diced tomatoes, seasonings and 2 thyme sprigs. Cook gently and, when starting to thicken, return the chicken and add a good slurp of fresh wine. When the chicken is ready, remove and if necessary cook down the sauce until thick and fragrant.

Move over Gordon f…ing Ramsay and Jamie Boy, a true English super chef arrives in Oz (and I bet you he doesn’t have any problems keeping his doors open!)

I’m enjoying the new Fairfax Good Food sections and, in particular, was very interested in an interview with English chef, Alastair Little, which revealed that he is to take over the late Jeremy Strode’s CBD Restaurant in Sydney. Excited because, to my mind, Little was the star of those heady days in London (the eighties) when ‘young Turks’ such as him, Simon Hopkinson, Rowley Leith and Marco-Pierre White showed the world that English boys could actually cook. Although, the early days from this self-taught cook were not all beer and skittles.

“My cooking career was launched at the Old Compton Wine Bar. ‘Launched’ is perhaps the wrong word – kick-started is more like it, in that the Chef left and I volunteered to have a go. The very next day I was cooking 80 lunches armed with a copy of Elizabeth David’s ‘Provincial Cooking’ and a self-confidence that can only be viewed as foolhardy. My first ever review followed soon after. The Times Diary made several pleasant comments about the wines, the quality of the breads and cheese, but observed that ‘the only cooking he noticed was by a young man who was preparing lamb chops by the simple expedient of setting fire to them on the grill.”

Fortunately, by the time I came across Chef Little, he had honed his skills a little and was heading the kitchens at L’Escargot in Soho, which was owned at the time by wine guru Jancis Robinson and her husband, Nic Lander. Interestingly, also ensconced in the kitchen was one of our most talented produce-driven chefs, George Biron of Sunnybrae at Birregurra fame (now Brae). The food was marvellous – simple and fresh, yet highly skilled cooking.

After a stint at the highly rated and influential 192 Kensington Park Road, Little returned to Soho and opened his own eponymous restaurant in Firth Street.

I ate there a number of times (my brother Don owned wine bars nearby) and it was actually those visits that encouraged me to return to Melbourne and open a 40-seater – Fleurie – following the Little (and, dare I say it, Biron) principle of ‘keeping it simple’. In fact, I think it was a wonderful Tortino of crisp potato topped with the most perfectly cooked, spotlessly fresh anchovies and a scattering of what the Italians would most probably call ‘poor man’s Parmesan’ that tipped me over the edge. Sadly, I could never find, at that time, anchovies of the quality that would make such a recipe proud, so my dream dish never made it onto the Fleurie Carte. But, hopefully, Mr Little has more luck and the dish will feature in Sydney – I will certainly be keeping my fingers crossed. But, no matter what, I will be looking forward to more inspired cooking from the master.

PS.
Alastair Little and I, seemingly, have another thing in common – we both taught ourselves to cook (or at least to appreciate great produce) with the help of Elizabeth David and, in particular, her book “French Provincial Cooking”, pub. 1960. I will always remember, at a time when commercial tomatoes were pale and insipid, her tale of the joys of eating just-picked tomatoes with good bread and the best butter from Normandie. Little was obviously also impressed, because he talks of presenting an entree of a great tomato with mozzarella and the best olive oil, and gobsmacking the locals who had been brought up on Italian restaurant fodder of salads dressed with the oil from the chip fryer.

PPS.
I also noticed that his new restaurant will feature freshly shucked oysters with tiny spicy sausages. A wonderful flavour combination – the salty brine of the oysters and the hot spicy sausage. This recipe also featured on Jeremy’s menu, as it did on a number of my restaurant menus.  Although, I must admit, I didn’t pinch the idea from Little, but instead first encountered the dish in Bordeaux (circa 1970), where it was always washed down with a glass of crisp, flinty Muscadet – yummy!

And, there’s more … for plenty of new recipes, log onto my YouTube channel – Huey’s Fabulous Fast Food For One (or Two) – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCmvDLNrITNG0Gyhpz6350FA