Sunday, 4 October 2009

Review: Time Out Eating & Drinking 2010

The Time Out Eating & Drinking guide is the only London restaurant guide I've ever bought and I usually buy a copy every 2 or 3 years. Time Out's magazine and website provides invaluable advice on eating out in London and it's no surprise that their guidebook is equally comprehensive. In particular, I enjoy their detailed and knowledgeable coverage of non-European restaurants which is far superior to what other critics knock up.

The guide follows a set formula opening with a readers' survey, some editorial (eating out in the recession), review of the year, awards, Hot 100 and a 'where to' guide before launching into the reviews proper. The main body of the guide is split into sections either by cuisine e.g. Chinese or by genre e.g. Gastropubs. There are also sections for cheap eats and drinking.

The guide is easy to follow with red stars awarded to very good restaurants and green stars denoting cheap eats. My favourite feature is the menu guide for different cuisines that translates and describes foreign food terms. It's thoughtful touches like these that set Time Out apart from the competition as well as encouraging diners to be adventurous.

Now this wouldn't be much of a review if I didn't have a moan and the first thing that irritates me are the awards. I'm not sure why the awards place so much emphasis on the new with 'Best New....' comprising eight out of ten of the awards. In particular, 'Best New Design' really riles me as trendy design often masks deficiencies in the kitchen especially in London. This award is a bit like a best costume design Oscar – nice but not what you go to the cinema for.

I'm not sure how I'm going to review the rest of the book as guidebooks aren't really meant to be read cover to cover. Also there are whole sections; I rarely dip into (vegetarian – no thanks). So I'm going to mainly focus on the 'Noodlesphere' – apart from Japan & Korea as my knowledge of these cuisines is patchy at best.

Despite the Chinese guide being one of the larger sections, I was disappointed to see the lack of coverage of the emerging mainland Chinese dining scene. For example, are there really only two Sichuan restaurants in London, Bar Shu and Snazz Sichuan worthy of mention ? In the case of the latter, it isn't even the best Sichuan restaurant in its neighbourhood (that's Chilli Cool – review soon). Although I haven't checked them out yet, a quick reccie on the blogosphere identifies more Sichuan places worth trying such as the imaginatively named Sichuan and No 10.

The other non-Cantonese places featured are the bleeding obvious such as Ba Shan and Baozi Inn whilst more earthy places like My Old Place are absent. There's also no mention of places serving Dongbei (North East China) and Fujian cuisines. The Cantonese places listed are less contentious although I can’t believe Hung's is ignored whilst the inferior Cafe de Hong Kong and HK Diner are featured (I promise I’m not in the pay of Hung's). For dim sum, all the usual suspects are listed with some far flung outposts such as Golden Palace in Harrow and Mandarin Palace in Ilford also present. A useful guide to dim sum is also included.

What hacked me off the most was the inclusion of Cha Cha Moon and Ping Pong – dreadful places that are examples of trendy design taking precedence over culinary excellence. The review of Cha Cha Moon reads almost like a PR release and bears no resemblance to the place I tried last year. I remember the XO vermicelli – a couple of prawns in a gloopy sauce (with only a hint of XO sauce) with bits of pork scratchings scattered on top of vermicelli – being particularly hideous. Other dishes fared little better with tasteless stock in the soup noodles and dumplings that fell apart. And don't even get me started on the idiot staff who work there. At least Ping Pong's take on dim sum gets a bit of a shoeing which then begs the question what the hell is it doing in the guide.

There are no obvious omissions in the Malaysian, Indonesian & Singaporean section but there really aren't that many places to miss out. But I can't believe that only three places on the 'Pho Mile' are listed in the Vietnamese section. The Oriental section also bugs me as it consists mainly of places that master none of the cuisines featured on their menus. I'm pretty sure that many of the featured restaurants e.g. Dim T would fail to make the guide if this section didn't exist.

Time Out laments the prevalence of dumbed down Thai food in the capital and whilst the Thai population in London is relatively small, I think more of an effort to track down authentic places where Thais visit could have been made. Some research on the blogosphere reveals 101 Thai Kitchen and Addie's Thai as places to try. I also have an idea where the Thais might go but I'm keeping this a secret for the time being ! Overall, the Thai section is a bit disappointing with few red stars awarded. Mind you, the red star restaurants featured aren't all that special, in particular I can't believe that Busaba Eathai was awarded one – it's good but not red star good.

On the rest of the guide, favourite Indian and Italian places of mine are missing as are a couple of gastropubs I like but for some reason I feel less strongly about this. As I reach the end of the review, I realise I may have been too hard on Time Out - whilst it's easy to moan about a few omissions, it's takes a lot of hard work and dedication to compile and maintain such a comprehensive guide. OK - it isn't flawless but the Time Out guide is definitely worth buying for its insightful and incisive reviews.


  1. i think yr right!! it's really weird that time out misses some of those places, esp when it's pretty easy to find out abt them from places like chowhound or on other food blogs.

  2. (also it's annoying bcz they spend a lot of time patting themselves on the back abt finding the most authentic places)

  3. I 100% agree with your comments on Cha Cha Moon and Ping Pong, and re: Szechuan food - I am not a fan of either the food or service at Bar Shu, so it pains me to see it get so many kudos.

    That said, you're also right that a ton of work does go into compiling these eating guides, and it's too easy to point out what's wrong with them versus what's "right" about them.

  4. I'm guilty of just being cheap and thus looking online at the Time Out reviews. I have to say I'm looking more and more towards Urbanspoon for restaurant reviews.

    Very cynical of me but I wonder if some places get listed because they've taken out some advertising space...

  5. Whoops, wanted to mention london eating too. While each review has to be taken with a grain of salt, you do get a good sense of what the restaurant's like.

  6. Anon - I think we agree 'could try harder' applies to the Time Out guide, in particular for non-Cantonese Chinese and Thai places. In so far as self-aggrandisement in the media goes, I'm afraid that's par for the course.

    A-in-L - Style over substance is a major bugbear of mine and looking back over my post, I can't believe I let Baozi Inn off the hook although it isn't as bad as CCM or PP. Bar Shu is also a tad over-stylised for my liking but I remember the food being OK - having said that it's been a long time since my last visit. For Sichuan food, my fave is Chilli Cool which will be reviewed in my next post and it's somewhere I think you'll like having read your old review of Angeles.

    Su-Lin - You're right to be cynical ! But Time Out are one of the good guys as there are many places that advertise in the guide that aren't reviewed. With the advent of the internet, I agree its worthwhile to check out a number of sources. I also look at London Eating and Urbanspoon but more often than not the opinions I value the most are those of my fave blogs.

  7. I was really disappointed with this year's Time Out eating guide and it's really made me doubt how much they actually know about Chinese Food! The entry in question is on Haozhan when the reviewer was astonished that edamame was served and how this was a sign that the chef is very open minded and willing to serve Japanese food.

    Edamame is eaten ALL the time in China in the summer. I grew up in Shanghai in the 80s and we never thought of it as a foreign food

  8. Anon - you're not the first to point out that the critics at Time Out aren't half as clever as they think they are! That said there are London critics out there who are far more ignorant than Time Out.