A football-themed restaurant could have been an own-goal, but at the end of the day… it’s not the cliché you feared
Westfield Stratford City, London E20 (020 8702 2590). Meal for two: £90
I am to football much as bankers are to morals and politicians to principles. I know football exists. I understand the concepts, but I have no interest in it. None. I genuinely don’t understand how people can invest their emotional wellbeing in the activities of 11 players they don’t know. I never was one for the bellow and foetid armpit stench of tribalism. Still, each to their own, as I’m supposed to say.Nungwi Village
Each being to their own, I should have had no reason to trouble myself with the activities of Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville, who once played together for Manchester United (thank you, Internet, for this. No, really. I didn’t have a clue.) However, since they have opened a restaurant called Café Football they have become my concern. Why they couldn’t just buy a pub, descend into alcoholism and be declared bankrupt like all other self-respecting ex-footballers I really don’t know.
But here it is: a football-themed restaurant to which I must go, like a eunuch to a lap-dancing club. It occupies a big, echoey space in the Westfield shopping centre at Stratford in east London. Somewhere, another tedious essay is doubtless being written about the deathly commercialisation of the game and how this enterprise represents all that’s wrong with the multi-billion-dollar business that it has become.Nungwi Village
It’s true that there’s lots to make you jab a fork into the back of your hand. The “gent’s convenience”-style white-tiled walls are splattered with legends like “Hustle and heart set us apart” or “Hit the sweet spot” or “At the end of the day”. At the end of the day, what exactly? Video screens play gobbets of action on a loop, and everything – chairs, crockery – is branded with faux team shields. The menu is littered with dish names that make me conclude the guilty should be punished. There are burgers called The Boss and Hometeam. There’s a section of Fans’ Favourites including Karren Brady’s Match Day Classic – pie, mash and liquor, chilli vinegar for £13.95 – or Kirsty Gallacher’s Terrace Winter Warmer – chilli with steamed rice and soured cream. The wine list is arranged in teams with 11 reds and whites aside, from all points including Brazil, Italy and Hungary. There’s not a single English wine on either team. Much like an English Premiership team, then. Footballwise, that’s all I have for you.
With the Starting Eleven Platter, all is as expected. The marinade on ribs has a brutal raw-tomato tang which makes me suck my lips. Breaded and deepfried un-jointed chicken wings are a hit of salt and fire outside, and damp sweaty meat within. But lurking here are signs of something other. There’s the coarse-cut tartare sauce with their own rather appealing fish fingers. There’s a dish of treacle vinegar, a kind of northern reboot of balsamic full of huge caramel flavours, for dipping bread into. And then there are the “treble pies”. The flaky pastry is undercooked, but there’s intent: proper pieces of long-braised beef in one, a nuanced level of spice in the curried chicken with the crunch of toasted almonds, a cheese and vegetable effort which is not all detritus and sludge but something with bite. I nod quietly over them. Not bad at all.
Unlike the rest of what I eat. It’s shockingly good. For somewhere along the way, in this obviously cynical attempt to separate dribbling football fans from their cash, the crazy decision was made to serve nice food. What were they thinking? Head chef Brendan Fyldes, who formerly ran the kitchen at Richard Corrigan’s Bentley’s, has worked with consultant chef Michael Wignall, who holds two Michelin stars at Pennyhill Park, to build a menu full of ludicrous joys.
Nev’s Noodle Pot is another one of those “kill me now” dish titles. What arrives is a ceramic faux Pot Noodle container full of proper roast chicken, egg noodles and shredded vegetables. Next to it is a glass teapot holding a stock which punches you in the face with umami, the one to be poured into the other. It’s deep but clean flavoured. The lid to the teapot is a small bowl containing a julienne of ginger and spring onions. At which point you begin to wonder if this isn’t a knowingly poncy parody of terrace food – a deliberate attempt to show up football food culture for what it is: an exercise in barrel scraping so determined you can almost see daylight through the bottom.
I order the sausage roll, a glorious thing that I want to adopt as my third child. It has glazed pastry sprinkled with fennel seeds. The filling is compressed pulled pork shoulder and black pudding, spun through with Dijon mustard. On the side is a heap of their own baked beans, the sweet, smokey mass held together by strands of more pulled pork. I order a side of their Bovril gravy, which shows commitment as I’ve always regarded Bovril as Marmite’s degenerate sibling. This is a huge beefy jus, reduced so the flavour keeps echoing long after you’ve licked it away. Obviously £12.95 sounds like a lot for a sausage roll. And it is. But by God it’s good.
Which is when the complicated thoughts occur. Snobbery may be unpleasant, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong. So: is this food wasted on the clientele it’s being offered to? Do they actually want this? For example, the cheery staff tell me the sausage roll rarely gets ordered because it contains black pudding. Their loss. Clearly Giggs and Neville were damned either way. If they’d merely done a slightly improved version of junk food they’d have been accused of pandering to poor taste. By doing this they’ll be accused of traducing a key part of working-class culture.
I finish with the chocolate turf, which looks like a slice of a 10-year-old boy’s birthday cake complete with green pitch and white lines. The thin layers of pistachio sponge, and the ripe grown-up chocolate ganache would probably make the 10-year-old pout. No matter. There’s an ice cream and sweet counter at the back. Will I ever return to Café Football? No, of course not. But it’s reassuring to know that the spendy hordes, descending from Essex to show their support by eating, are likely to be fed well. I just hope they don’t notice.
Jay’s news bites
■ Theme restaurants are usually where superstars go to cash in and hope goes to die. Which makes it remarkable that the grand daddy of them all, The Hard Rock Café, still does the thing. The London branch is now the cornerstone of a 150-strong global chain. Sure, the queue can be long, but it’s well managed. And the burger is a thing of wonder: serious-quality beef, a proper char, great cheese and bacon, and chips that rustle against each other (hardrock.com).
■ Four years ago McVitie’s reduced the saturated-fat content of its classic digestives by 50%. They are now reversing the recipe and putting the fat back in, apparently because consumers claimed the new recipe was less “dunkable”. A lower-fat alternative will still be available.
■ Sad news. The Mark Addy pub, recently listed in this column as an alternative to the glossy Manchester House, has closed its restaurant. Apparently renovation costs proved prohibitive. Chef and Mancs institution Rob Owen Brown will doubtless bounce back. Meanwhile, he’s concentrating on events catering.