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18 December 2010

Albannach, Whisky and Restaurant, London

Tonight I ate at Albannach (Scots Gaelic for 'Scottish') at Trafalgar Square, London. I used to do restaurant and pub reviews when I travelled a lot (you can read some of the previous reviews here) but haven't done one in a while. Tonight's visit has prompted me to get back into Gordon Ramsay mode.

First of all, I'd like to steer clear of the Scottish stereotypes. A place doesn't have to be dripping with tartan, heather and playing Kenneth McKellar for me to say it's authentic - we've all had enough of Scottish kitsch, but there are a few basics to get right. Albannach is in the Scottish heart of London - a stone's throw from The Scottich office, The Crown Court Church of Scotland, the world's oldest Scots Gaelic choir at Covent Garden and the meeting venue of the Gaelic society of London (founded 1777). No shortage of local experts then.

It's perfectly possible to be modern and relevant and still be Scottish. The revival in Gaelic, the growth of modern Scottish folk music with new interpretations on old songs, the kilt being cool to wear amongst young people at ceilidhs all goes to show you can be trendy and contemporary yet still be Scottish. Rstaurants such as Ghillie Dhu in Edinburgh are using Gaelic now - after all it's always cool to demonstrate knowledge of your own country, rather than ignorance.

The Albannach has trendy white antlers for decoration, but that's about as far as it goes. The music was I think American swing, the staff from somewhere in Europe. They didn't really understand Scottish cuisine and I had to explain it to them. There's some basics you really need to get right. I usually get served by Indian people in an Indian restaurant and get Indian music. I would feel a bit surprised being served by Chinese people in an Indian restaurant whilst African music was playing in the background, yet this cultural mix up seems completely OK when you're a Scottish restaurant in London. I'm not going to dwell on this too much since doing so might seem too stereotypical, the point is that when I go out in Scotland there's often non-Scots serving me and this is perfectly OK but the difference is that there they know the menu and can explain it.

For a restaurant trying to be up-market, there is a pretty dire selection for vegetarians, none of the vegetarian options being very Scottish. Best go elsewhere. I was a bit surprised too that for a restaurant priding itself on its whiskies and being a "restaurant and whisky" venue, that I was presented with the wine menu on seating, no whisky menu in sight. Perhaps a wine and whisky menu would be more relevant in the circumstances?

Having been a fan of McSween's haggis for about 20 years (and mentioning it in the Scottish FAQ, the first online guide to Scotland, since 1994) I went for the haggis main course. What a disappointment. It was a haggis tower, trying to be trendy but like a Bay City Roller in platform shoes 30 years too late, failing miserably. It resembled a haggis hamburger atop a potato slab. I looked for several minutes for the neeps (turnip) that was supposed to accompany it but eventually gave up and called the waiter. He explained the white stuff tasting like potatoes was turnip, and then went to get some more "neeps", which also turned out to be potatoes. After some more digging around in the potato slab I eventually found about a square inch of actual turnip, buried deep within the tatties (potato). There it was, small yet not perfectly formed, as it was undercooked and not mashed or even cooked properly. This was a potato slab with a hint of turnip buried deep within, rather than the traditional tatties, neeps and haggis in roughly equal proportions side by side on the plate. Accompanying this was an anonymous whisky, no mention of which one it was. For a place priding itself in its whisky knowledge, I would have though asking me which one I wanted or at least saying which one it was might have been a basic.

When the second helping of "neeps" arrived I had actually finished the main course at this point so had a helping of potatoes as an intermediate course. Nice. Not. Again, there were a few small pieces of actual neeps buried deep within, like finding the proverbial sixpence within Granny's Christmas pudding. However, I thought I would illuminate the staff with a few pictures from Wikipedia illustrating what neeps looked like as it seems they had never tasted it personally and mistakenly believed that mashed potatoes were in fact turnips. Huh? Shurely shome mishtake?

I ordered coffee and dessert. Normally in a basic restaurant, never mind one trying to think about being upmarket you get the dessert first then the coffee. Not so at the Albannach, when you get the coffee first then the dessert 10 minutes later.

It is difficult to see how this place has one the awards that it has, it would be interesting to see when the awards were actually given and if the current staff were involved in any way.

Surprisingly for a restaurant that couldn't be booked online and gave the impression of being full for weeks, the place was deserted. There were about 3 tables in use, 9 staff or so busying themselves doing apparently nothing in as many creative ways as possible. It might have been better on a coldish night if we hadn't been sat next to the draughty window with our coats on and tables near the bar were going empty, another mistake. Maybe it was the cold keeping people away, or maybe tonight's diners had found somewhere more attractive to eat.

I don't subscribe to the 12.5% service charge philosophy. If I want to leave a tip I will and if I don't like the service I like the option of not paying it. Should a restaurant find it's not making enough money, it should increase the food prices and not rely on a 12.5% service charge to make up the shortfall. I also don't subscribe to the philosophy of just because it's central London it's got to be expensive either.

Wetherspoons in Whitehall is but a 5 minute walk away from Albannach. When Wetherspoons serve haggis, it is also from MacSween's. They do neeps you can see and which are separate. They do mashed potato (tatties) too. They charge about 1/4 the price of Albannach, have a warm room and the portions are bigger too. So there's no justification in being ripped off just to look at white antlers.

Perhaps you could be a bit more Scottish and cool by playing Clarsach music, something by Capercaillie or the Red Hot Chilli Pipers? A menu in Scots or Gaelic would be helpful or at least to say they are available on request, it shows you might have been to Scotland recently where bilingual signs are becoming increasingly commonplace. You might even pick up some good Scottish words such as "Hogmanay" rather than the "New Year's Eve" menu advertised on the site. If you put Cranachan on a menu, surely using the Scottish word for turn of the year isn't too much to ask?

I had cranachan for dessert. Again, this was made by someone who didn't seem to have a clue. The dry oats sandwiched between the cream and fruit were difficult to blend together with the soup spoon. Try picking up some tips from a proper Scottish award winning restaurant such as the three chimneys or on the cover of the Scots cooking bible if you want to know how to make this. Come to think of it just about anywhere in the excellent taste of Scotland would be able to give this place the proverbial boot in the goolies. Perhaps Taste of Scotland should come down and give them some advice. The chef at Albannach is Jason Wilson. I couldn't find any info about him other than he had previously worked at an Argentinian restaurant (Gaucho Grill) but did note that along the way that Albannach were advertising on Gumtree for staff, a rather surprising location to be looking for upmarket staff.

Bio: The author is a Gaelic speaking Scotsman, used to work for the Scottish Tourist Board, who work closely with Taste of Scotland (although the opinions here are entirely my own) and wrote the first online guide to Scotland and which even has a food and drink section. The restaurant mentioned above in London has thankfully absolutely no connection with the excellent Albannach Hotel which has a highly coveted Michelin star.

01 December 2010

London school closure status

Please visit opencheck for the latest info on school closures in London.

For a quicker way of getting the info just for your school, you might be interested in the following steps. Once you have done this once, you can bookmark the page for quick and easy access in future.

I'll use Abbey Primary school in Sutton (the first school in the Sutton area dropdown) as an example, however this will work for any London school in the scheme.

Goto edubase and search for your school there. Enter the relevant details for town and establishment name to search for your school. Click on the establishment name in the search results and in the example above this will take you to this page.

Note the LA number (in this case 319) and the 4 digit school reference (in this case 2012) and combine them together: 3192012.

Now put that number into this URL (replace the 7 digits at the end with the number for your school)

Bookmark this page. Now you have a quick one-line up to date status for your school that loads very quickly.

Hope this helps.


24 November 2010

Manifesto for a modern society

It's been a while since I posted to this blog. Have moved to London, worked for Directgov, moved the blog to a new plaform, changed my main site hosting provider, changed the hosting provider for a site for No10, worked for News International. Well there's been a lot going on. In the meantime I've just found some notes I made a while back at the time of the Labour Leadership contest. Hope you enjoy them.

Manifesto for a modern nation
1.    Withdraw over time the state funding of religious schools. The state should support religious buildings but not the religious education of children. The state’s inspectors should be able to inspect all aspects of religious teaching.  The study of religion in historical context and understanding of the world is important, but religious studies should be optional
2.    The health service should be free. This means eye tests, prescriptions for all and essential dentistry including check ups. Why make the middle classes pay for prescriptions yet rich people get heart operations for free. This inconsistency dates from how well dentists and opticians lobbied in the days the NHS was set up and really has no place in the 21st century.
3.    Abolish ‘Sunday’ laws. We live in a country where some people are non-religious and others observe days other than a Sunday. There is no logical reason why shops and the sale of alcohol should vary on a Sunday just because it is a Sunday; we want a modern nation where one religion should not dictate terms to all irrespective of their religious background. Personally I also find it annoying in England that I can't go out for the day and enjoy myself in the countryside then do the shopping when I come home. The big shops shut at 5pm.
4.    Abolish discrimination of all kinds. As an employer, I cannot hire on the basis of age. That is illegal and justly so, yet if I wish to go into self-employment , there are grants available for young people. This simply disadvantages older people with commitments and makes it harder for experienced people to set up in business. This inconsistency and others like it must end if we want to live in a fair society. Why have one rule for employers but another for government grants?
5.    Encourage a culture where going to the pub is seen as a social family occasion, including children. This culture works well on the continent. By all means ban drinking to those under age, but children should be able to see adults drinking responsibly and growing up with that good example.
6.    Ban the inclusion of service charges in restaurant bills.  If I want to leave a tip it should be optional, not mandatory. This will allow fair and transparent pricing.
7.    Require all call centres to have a maximum queue time of 1 minute and allow the person to request a call back after this time. Too much time in this nation is being wasted hanging on hold listening to hold music rather than being productive. The contact centre industry has deemed it acceptable that people can be waiting for 20+ minutes plus to get a call answered. This is a totally inefficient use of everyone’s time. How are we supposed to get anything done if we're stuck on hold listening to "your call is important to us". Well if it was, you wouldn't need the message because you would have already picked up the phone.
8.    In a modern digital society where paying electronically is increasingly the norm, all prices regardless of the means of payment must be the same and there will be no minimum charge or extra fees for using electronic payment methods. The banks to get their acts together to reduce the charges passed onto merchants accordingly. If I can do micropayments or buy a song on itunes for less than a pound, there is no possible justification whatsoever for a £5 charge to buy an airline flight other than “everyone else is doing it”.
9.    The study of British customs and traditions to be encouraged to give people a sense of identity.  Welsh to be available in all Welsh schools, Irish in all Northern Irish schools and Scots Gaelic or Scots in all Scottish schools, local culture and history in English schools. This isn't a political statement, Northern Ireland needs to look to the rest of the UK to see it's not a political statement in Scotland or Wales. Having children grow up not knowing about their own local placenames and history is totally inexcusable for a modern educational system (my local school banned Gaelic for instance and my children’s school taught about the Chinese new year but couldn’t teach about pagan Hallowe’en). What sort of education is this?
10.    Repeal the act of settlement. The monarch should be free to marry a person of any faith or none. In the event that the monarch themselves is non Anglican, the head of the Anglican church to pass temporarily to the next in line to the throne or someone who works in the church full time (e.g. Archbishop of Canterbury or similar). Scotland manages on the basis of having an annually elected head, perhaps a lesson here for England?
11.    Create a democracy act that allows the views of the people to overcome political self-interests. Should it be clear that 30% of the electorate wish to express their views on a subject in a formal referendum, then that referendum shall be held and political parties free to campaign for whatever position they prefer.  Not holding the referendum is an insult to democracy (e.g. the lack of a referendum on a Scottish parliament whilst the Conservatives were in power 1992-1997).
12.    The Royal Family should be taxed the same as everyone else but considered as a company. The company income includes income from crown lands, and tourism effect of the royal family. Add this up, take off corporation tax and the rest is theirs to live off.  I think they would in fact be better off under this arrangement, which seems fair enough. This isn’t a pro or anti royalist move, merely that I think the present system of funding is unfair and doesn't reflect their true value.
13.    Recognise that England and Wales together do not in any sense form a nation. Thus “The national curriculum” “the national trust” being only entities that refer to England and Wales should be properly renamed to reflect a correct sense of identity.
14.    Upon leaving public service, the prime minister to pay for any security arrangements required as a result of their activities from their own funds. There is no reason why current tax payers should foot the bill for famous former public servants to become even richer via signings, etc.
15.    Where the government undertakes the random examination of tax affairs or the random selection of businesses to complete forms for the government’s benefit, the government to reimburse accordingly. Same applies for jury service. Noone should be out of pocket for fulfilling a mandatory public duty by random selection, this is an “unlottery”.
16.    Following a general election, the party which has won the most seats is given the first opportunity to form a government, as in Scotland.
17.    Members of the House of Commons to refer to each other by their common name and not their job title. It is the House of Commons after all, not the house of jobtitles
18.    There should be some leeway for young children to be able to cycle on the pavement. Seems like common sense. Equally cycles in London to be fitted with number plates. I see almost total disregard for traffic lights in London from cyclists. Time they followed the rules of the road, as a pedestrian I'm fed up having to avoid cyclists that ignore red lights.
19.    Give notice that all leaseholds on properties to be abolished following a suitably long timescale. The idea of buying a property only for it to revert back to someone else’s ownership eventually is little better than feudalism, leaseholds are comparatively rare in Scotland compared to England, time for England to reform and keep up.
20.    Allow parents to make the choice between themselves who takes time off work to care for a child. It should be the parent’s choice, not the state expressing an assumption the mother might take up to a year but the father has to return after 2 weeks.
21.    Require all organisations to take due care with personal data. This includes but is not necessarily limited to the fact that companies house publishes directors names and dates of birth online at minimal charge and freely available to anyone. Completely unacceptable
22.    Make opting out of junk mail the default on the electoral register
23.    The government to invest in startups so that is sees a return on its money. It works for universities.
24.    Prostitution to be taxed and legalised so that it can be controlled and policed more effectively. The revenue to be used to protect those forced into it against their will. I don't like it, I don't want it happening, but accepting the reality that it happens allows both people to be protected and taxes to be raised.
25.    Marrying your cousin to be made illegal
26.    People to be allowed to register at a GP of their own convenience (ie near their work) if their own local GP does not offer evening or weekend appointments.
27.    The BBC licence fee to be abolished and raised from income tax. Far too much time and money is wasted on collection and non payers.
28.    Vehicle licence duty to be abolished and a visible MOT disc/ insurance disc to be shown instead to visibly show if the vehicle is safe and legal. The lost revenue to be transferred to the cost of having the MOT done. This works in Ireland.
29.    Hereditary and religious peers to be abolished. Religion and accident of birth should have no place in objective lawmaking.
30.    If 16 is legal to marry and have children, then it should also be old enough to vote.
31.    If having a ranked voting system is good enough for selecting the Labour Leader, it is good enough to also vote MPs into office.
32.    Laws on musical performance are inconsistent and badly implemented. If a football crowd in pub sings “You’ll never walk alone” (a copyrighted song) no one seems to care. Yet if a guy in the corner with a guitar sings his own material, the venue needs a performance licence. Surely we can legislate better than this?
33.    Airline security to be consistent. If we are trying to defeat terrorists then being able to walk onto a BA flight without photo ID yet requiring a passport to do the same flight on Ryanair is wholly inconsistent
34.    If a person goes bankrupt in their private life, this should not affect them being a company director provided that the said company has no debt facilities. After all, being a company director might be the person’s quickest route to paying off their debt. Forcing them to work for someone else could well lower their ability to earn and pay their debts back.
35.    The creation of a universal contactless payment method for businesses and a tie up with major payment providers. Millions of hours are wasted maintaining manual accounts each year, mistakes are made in accounts and in tax calculations. It should be possible to tie up a payment method directly with a business’ accounts such that the transaction in the high street is filed correctly automatically (including VAT), reducing the capacity for fraud and error
36.    Smoking in cars to be made illegal. First off it is at least as distracting as using a phone, secondly the smoke film builds up inside the car increasing glare at dusk and reducing visibility and thirdly stats have shown that smokers as a group are more comfortable with higher levels of risk. Car insurance companies to ask people if they are smokers and then premiums adjusted accordingly.
37.    Smoking in a car with children in the car to be made illegal, smoking within a home where there are children to be illegal, fines to be increased for dropping fag ends on the pavement. It causes cancer. If you inflicted cancer on your children via other means you'd be locked up. Why should smoking be any different?
38.    National Insurance. Why? Get rid of it and roll it into income tax. Tax system in this country is far too complicated.

24 April 2010

Fed up with rip off hotels

A rant at the hotel industry and their standards.

I am fed up being ripped off with crap food, especially crap food that is overpriced and you take all evening to serve me.

Where do I start? Cereal loaded with sugar. Muesli is supposed to be healthy. So why only serve varieties with sugar in? This makes as much sense as automatically putting sugar in everyone's tea or coffee and makes no sense for anyone trying to eat healthily or on a low sugar diet. In 1997 I suggested this to Benedict's of Belfast and they got in muesli with no sugar. I stayed in that hotel in a contract for 7 months and when I returned for a random visit last year they were still serving it. Must have made sense I guess and maybe more people than me liked the sugar free muesli, you can even leave a bowl of sugar beside it for the sugarholics (add to taste).

Bacon. It's supposed to be reasonably crispy. A pile of bacon drowning in its own fat that looks like it has been steamed and has more fat on it than bacon just doesn't do it for me. This isn't just me, the other guests were complaining about it too. Why do you think it's acceptable to put out such inedible crap? Shall I call Gordon Ramsey up to tell it to you straight?

Coffee. It's supposed to be fresh and tasty to wake up guests in the morning. Usually however you have instant chemical coffeesoup in your room with a barely adequate amount of milk unless you are sad enough to be staying by yourself. Alternatively you could venture to the breakfast area where I'm sure it's been stewing since 6am. Why don't you do a deal with one of the semi-reasonable high street coffee chains who I am sure would welcome the expansion opportunity or at least have a cafetière available in the room so I can make it myself.

I also know that £5 bowl of soup probably cost you less than £1 for ingredients and 2 mins to heat up so unless your waiter earns £4 for 2 mins work (£120 an hour) I don't buy the rip off. I also don't get the £10 min for a main course either, nor the £3 for a pint, all of which I frequently decline in preference to an entire meal with food and drink, no hidden service charges AND a proper VAT receipt correctly itemised from a Wetherspoons pub with change from £8 (usually less). They can deliver decent food on a budget, why can't you? They also take 10 mins to serve me usually rather than the best part of an hour unlike hotel restaurants while I get bored waiting and wondering how much the hotel will charge me for the 'service'.

I had completely had it tonight when I thought I would try the restaurant. I had to ask especially for the menu. Clearly a tactic that you use so that when people sit down and ask for a menu, you've already 'got them'. Most normal (not hotel) restaurants have the decency to put a menu on public display so you can make your mind up first. Having thought it overpriced, I was just going to have a starter (the famous £5 soup) but then ventured to the bar to see what they had there only to be told they didn't serve food. Except the nuts I spotted and then had to ask if there were any other edible items they sold also not classified as food, such as crisps etc. I then popped out to the car for 5 mins then returned to the restaurant only to find it closed. No warning when I was there 5 mins earlier, no clearly indicated signs indicating their hours, nothing. However, I could get exactly the same food on the menu delivered as room service to my room. I was going to ask if having then had it delivered to my room I could bring it back to the bar, be sociable and annoy all the other hungry guests being told by barstaff that they didn't serve food.

So tonight as I was hungry and actually needed more to eat than nuts (even if the bar didn't classify them as food) I went to Tesco, bought long life milk, sugar free cereal, plates, cutlery, juice, bread, fresh fruit (not available in your restaurant, why?), coffee, cafetière (so I don't need to drink instant chemical soup) and a bottle opener for less than the price of two meals in your restaurant, thus saving me eating breakfast with you indefinitely and at least the next two evening meals. Saved a fortune and of course I can also eat whenever I like. Result. Healthy eating for a 1/3 the price of overpriced unhealthy food. I have also considered buying a microwave for £30 and putting it in my room so that I can enjoy a Tesco curry and rice for an amazing £1.50 rather than the £15 and long delay with it would take you to serve up pretty much the same thing. After 3 days, I'm already in profit (and I can eat my food in less than 10 minutes).

Look this isn't just a stereotypical stingy Scotsman story. There's a number of points here - one is that when I'm in a hotel I actually want to eat healthily and 'normal' food, not joints covered in unpronouncable incomprehensible French names trying to be pretentious. Nor do I need huge portions, starch, carbohydrates and overcooked vegetables. I actually want food that's reasonably close to what I would eat at home, portion size and with tasty fruit and vegetables. I also don't want to wonder why you charge 3x the price of Wetherspoons, your food is nothing special and by the way your beer is probably crap too. Serving 6 types of lager and no ale isn't much of a choice really. As someone in a hotel on business I also resent my week being whittled away waiting for a table, waiting for my order to be taken and waiting for my food to arrive. Once in a while is OK for a special occasion, but when it becomes a regular nightly event because I travel a lot, it eats in not only my time when I could be catching up on work or getting an early night but also when I might like to go for a walk and enjoy the local sights. Wetherspoons can take my order and serve me in 10 mins, why does a restaurant like to block a table out for over an hour with slow service the main cause?

Anyone else think the hotel industry needs a good kicking? As a starting point, if you want the lowest prices for a bed, try this remarkable Hotel search engine which I use very regularly and which makes finding hotels a lot easier.

06 April 2010

UK General Election

Today Gordon Brown is predicted to call the general election.

Here's a few more predictions

In 2006 I said an uninspired Labour would feed into the hands of the SNP in Scotland and the Tories in England. Within a year, the SNP was in government in Scotland and in 2010 the Tories are leading in the polls UK wide.

In 2007 I predicted the resignation of Tony Blair, the SNP winning the Scottish elections and the Tories winning the UK elections in 2010.

In 2008, I predicted on the BBC website that 2010 would see Labour lose and Gordon Brown off to a well paid job in the City and the SNP a good 10 points in front.

In 2010, we see the SNP a good 10 points in front, and of course the Tories in the lead UK wide.

The polls have been wrong before - hopefully the number crunchers will have taken 1992 into account - but the predictions are looking good so far. I'm not much of a fan of the Tories, including the lack of help in sorting out the red tape I got from my then MP Alistair Darling, but anything has to be better than another 5 years of Labour.


09 March 2010

BBC fail - my correct name is not permitted

BBC Fail
BBC displays another example of the Scunthorpe problem. I am no longer allowed to use my name on the BBC site. See the screendump (click to enlarge) and also my previous experience with Microsoft on this issue in 2004.

11 February 2010

Gaelic events in London Feb 2010


Seo agaibh (mar fhàidheil .pdf) an àireamh a’s ùire de’n chuairt-litir LUNNAINN NAN GÀIDHEAL – 02/2010.

Attached (as a .pdf file) is the latest edition of the newsletter GAELIC LONDON – 02/2010.

Le beannachd mar a’s àbhaist



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