Friday, 27 January 2012

A Visit To Chipotle...

What do you get if you cross an enthusiastic American with lots of avocados and a member of Blur? Well, this article for Scout London, since you ask...

Fast food is fast food, right? Well, we’re not so sure. Whilst some establishments enter the race pumped up on steroids in the form of artificial additives, MSG and the cheapest of cheap ingredients, others focus on natural nutrition and plenty of prep to get the desired results.

We couldn’t possibly comment on most of the establishments out there, as their techniques are shrouded in behind-the-scenes secrecy. Though from the looks of this recent ‘insightful’ article, it seems The Sun’s hard-hitting food correspondent Alex James was convinced by a few factory tours that a Greggs’ sausage roll and a piece of deep-fried chicken “in a nice box” can be almost as good as coffee and TV.

It was before this revelation that we were invited down to the latest branch of Chipotle on Baker Street for a bit of light-hearted community indoctrination about how their food is made, from the American boy-wonder given the job of expanding the chain’s 1,100-strong US branches into the European market.

You can call us cynical if you like, but we were well and truly prepared to dislike the restaurant, or at least to be ambivalent. With the likes of homegrown Mexican maestros Daddy Donkey and Benito’s Hat around, do we really need a corporate mega-chain from across the pond?

They must have been good at the indoctrination, then, as we were slowly but surely won over.

It was reassuring to hear of the restaurant’s sourcing policy, using only British meat and cheese, and finding as much local veg as possible. And more reassuring still to hear that they imported fresh tomatillos from their homeland, as tinned ones simply won’t do and the UK doesn’t grow enough of them. It was nice to see the mildly pained expressions on the faces of the staff given the task of de-stoning vast quantities of avocadoes because all the guacamole, along with the chutneys and relishes, is made fresh on site.

We had an early morning wander into the kitchen’s chiller, where pots of slow-cooked beef and pork in varying taco-friendly sauces were being filled up for the day ahead, and witnessed the incessant lime squeezing operation that is involved in cooking the Chipotle way, as well as the large crates of coriander being delivered. We’ll forgive our host for calling it cilantro.

We also got an impromptu insight into the logistics involved in setting up restaurants that source locally, hearing of a planned Parisian branch put on hold as good quality produce from the area could not be found, at least not within budget – a challenging issue for fast food outlets which don’t have the luxury of charging the prices which well higher-end restaurants do.

If the proof is in the pudding, a seductively meaty pulled pork taco (“carnitas”) which we embellish with a mild but heavy-flavoured roasted tomato salsa is hard to argue with. And keen to test the continuity, another filled with slow-braised beef brisket (“barbacoa”) which we picked up incognito at London’s other outlet on Charing Cross Road is equally as well made, richly flavoured and generously filled.

Despite the fact that London’s notoriously lacklustre Mexican offerings have improved immeasurably over the last couple of years (thanks for the kick up the butt, Wahaca), we’ve still got something to learn from the yanks. And for that reason, we’re welcoming Chipotle with open arms. It’s interesting to note that a few of our American friends who’ve popped by have commented on the difference between our stores and theirs, favouring the London approach. Let’s hope that once the chain inevitably grows beyond the current two locations, the quality doesn’t get diluted along the way.

Find the restaurant locations and more information on the Chipotle website, and rest assured that London’s staff are nothing like this.

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