Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Heston's Little Chef

I don't know if you caught "Big Chef takes on Little Chef" on Channel 4 as part of their "Great British Food Fight" season at the beginning of the year? If you didn't, my summary is that the ailing Little Chef roadside restaurant chain agreed to have Heston Blumenthal come and give them a complete overhaul to try and get them turning a profit and keep them in business. A more in-depth summary can be found here.

As soon as we discovered that the Little Chef chosen to pilot Heston's new menu was the Popham branch, just up the road on the A303 near Junction 8 of the M3, we headed on over to give it a whirl. This was a few weeks ago and shortly after the final TV show, and when we arrived there was a six car queue to get into the car park and a minimum 1.5 hour wait for a table. This was at about 2.30pm on a Sunday afternoon, and as we hadn't eaten we decided to give it a miss. 

We had another go tonight with our friends Kev & Dean, on a Wednesday night at 8:45pm and found the restaurant much quieter. We had a bit of excitement on arrival when we spotted a bald chap that looked like a bit like Heston, especially given that Kev's sister had been earlier in the day and seen a film crew. The new d├ęcor is smart and crisp, with a painted sky, modern tiles and chairs, plush booths and dangling butterflies. They now serve alcohol, and the classic orange lollies have been replaced by delicious jelly beans.

We each had three courses, with me opting for mushroom soup, sausage and mash and then waffle with ice cream. Whereas I was a little pedestrian, Kev went classic style with the Olympic breakfast (“Best black pudding I've ever had”), and Dean braved the braised ox cheeks (“Very nice, very tender”). I was initially a little bit disappointed with the food, as given Heston's reputation, I was expecting amazing quality and incredible attention to detail. May's mussels were beautifully presented, but small and my sausage and mash although tasty was not mind blowing.

I guess you could say that the food was less overtly amazing than perhaps I had expected, but then I remembered that the sausage and mash I was eating was costing me £6.25, and May's mussels were £4.95. I then really appreciated the dichotomy of getting Heston to rework the place – his focus on high quality ingredients and innovation is clearly at odds with the Little Chef's price bracket. Having realised this though and having modified my perceptions to fit that fact that I was in a competitively priced roadside restaurant, I became very impressed with what Heston has achieved at Popham.

If all Little Chefs offered the same quality and menu as Heston's trial restaurant, I'd certainly make more effort to stop at them when travelling. I believe then I'd be in line with the Little Chef idea that travellers on long journeys will make multiple stops at Little Chefs as they traverse the country.

It's going to be very interesting to see the final TV programme and discover whether or not Popham has turned a profit. I hope that Heston is successful, as it would be a real shame to lose a brand as iconic as the Little Chef in amongst all the other casualties of the economic crisis. Either way, I'm pleased to have experienced it as it will either form the blueprint for all Little Chefs across the country, or it will revert back to the current mediocre menu but keep its decoration and perhaps become a bizarre curio of Hampshire roadside eating. “Hey, do you remember when?...”

No comments: