Friday, 6 July 2007

Acorn House Restaurant review: eco-friendly - but worth it?






Acorn House Restaurant is a restaurant which bills itself as eco-friendly, i.e. it tries to follow ecologically sound principles. Their self-description: "Acorn House is an exciting new restaurant venture offering exceptional quality food with a fresh, seasonally evolving menu. Every aspect from design through to delivery aims to be environmentally conscious and sustainable" - "With fresh seasonal menus, a dedication to healthy eating, environmental responsibility and a premium, glamorous appeal".

It offers training to 10 young adults each year in the eco friendly restaurant trade too, having been set up as a training restaurant for the local community by The Shoreditch Trust, Terrence Higgins Trust and Bliss Restaurant Consultancy: "Respect for all the elements involved and awareness of the resources used in the provision of food is central to our training ethos."

Seasonal organic food, healthy home-grown produce with a smaller carbon footprint and the like, at a reasonable price, from a restaurant which aims to be ecologically conscious and community-focussed? Sounds a very good idea, and they've had excellent reviews from food critics e.g. at the Times. So, I thought I'd try it out and do my bit to save Planet Earth, and went there for dinner on a Friday night.

Food

The food was fine, decent quality organic meat etc, but - but - the portions were far too big. It would be a lot more eco (and cheaper for all concerned) to serve smaller portions, and I wouldn't have felt quite so stuffed. Is it partly because my family have succeeded in conditioning me into being permanently guilt-tripped about wasting food? ("If it's on my plate then I have to eat it all or else it'll be thrown away and think of all those people who had to eat sawdust and insects during the war and like it!"). In a word, nope. The portions were just plain too big. My companion, who is somewhat larger than me (well most people are), and can certainly eat a lot more, thought so too.

The latte gave me the runs, but that could have just been my reaction to the purity of the milk. Or something.

Presentation and ambience

The presentation was dire. The food looked rather as though it had just been flung on the plate. Which was a shame, as the flavours were actually pretty good.

The one long room was large and airy with a modern minimalist feel, and the location was quite convenient, just five minutes' walk from King's Cross tube / train station. But the table was tiny. There was barely enough room for the plates never mind glasses. To add to the cramped ambience, the spacing between tables was ridiculously tight. It wasn't that full when I went, they could afford to space things out more, and surely they could afford bigger tables.

You were virtually rubbing elbows with the people on the next table, and if you have a penchant for eavesdropping on total strangers' conversations, well this is certainly the restaurant for you. I did learn from that circumstance that the restaurant is frequented by 20-something meejah types. Whether that's a plus or a minus is up to you.

At the end they gave you books with little seeds (which otherwise looked like those books of matches) you can plant - a very nice touch.

Pricing

The price was reasonable. It wasn't cheap but then you'd expect to pay a little more to pander to your conscience (and, to be less facetious about it, organic food is of course going to cost more). It wasn't unaffordably expensive though.

Service

As for the service, the wait staff and maitre d' were polite and friendly enough if you spoke to them, but not all were equally knowledgeable about the origins of the food and what went into particular dishes etc, which given the nature of the restaurant and its key selling point was unfortunate. Many diners who make the effort to go to Acorn House would be interested to know. The staff should have been trained to have the answers, or at least to go and ask if they didn't.

Also, they mostly addressed my companion, not me, e.g. asking what she thought of the meal at the end, but not me. Hellooo? I was eating there too, I am a live person (well, some may question that at times, but I was definitely moving my mouth, I think they might have noticed). There wasn't even the "excuse" of habitually addressing just "the man", as I went with a female friend.

Verdict

The idea of an environmentally sustainable restaurant is very laudable (the Times called it "the most important restaurant to open in London in the past 200 years" for that reason). Given the increasing concerns about global warming and other environmental issues, I'd love to see more restaurants based on the same principles, and I'd eagerly try them out too.

Don't get me wrong, the food tasted very good. But I'm afraid there are limits to how much I can put up with just to be more ecologically sound: I go to a restaurant for a good night out, not just the food. If I simply wanted a decent organic meal, I could stay at home and make it myself. Without wishing to sound arrogant, my home-cooked dinners are much better than mediocre or average restaurants', and much cheaper than the top ones'. I mostly cook rather than eat out or have takeout, and believe it or not actually I'm usually not a danger in the kitchen. I buy organic and seasonal food as much as I can, and food labelling these days is much better than it was, so I can tell where my food came from and pick and choose on that basis. I don't need to go to an "environmentally aware restaurant" to be eco, as my meals are already reasonably friendly to the environment.

Still, I'll probably give Acorn House Restaurant just once more chance sometime to see if they've improved.

9 comments:

Kirk said...

I'd pass on the latte next time. :-)

And I like sawdust covered insects, just hard to find them these days. Now there would be an eco-friendly restaurant.

Susan956 said...

I mused while reading what I would consider eco-friendly. 'Friendly' I find to be such a relatively empty word these days mind you in this sort of context. It can mean having a GreenPeace jar on the counter to drop change in :)

My list off the top of my head:

1. Recycled paper napkins or if the restaurant used linen then the washing of the same would be done in phosphate free detergents and so on. No bleaches (so one may have to look at colour et al of the linen so as to minimise staining)...hmmmm.. thinking..thinking

2. No overt wastage across any area of the restaurant - menus to food to lighting et al

3. Restaurant lighting and heating via solar or parallel energy saving system

4. Cooking completed via energy saving system

5. Usual issues of organic foods without sprays et al

6. The choice offered as to whether you are happy with keeping the same cup for coffee as opposed to being given a new fresh cup etc. I've seen this happen where all manner of items are freshly offered during the course of the meal or if you ask for a second 'something'. I'm more than content as a rule to have my glass or cup re-used.

7. The architecture of the building being designed in such a way as to maximise light during the day and minimise heating/cooling via supplementary methods.

8. Toilets having half flush, recycled paper loo rolls and appropriate cleansers and hand washes et al.

9. I really dislike loudish music in restaurants and generally prefer soft tones but why not some natural music - a lot of it is out there with waterfall sounds and bird calls and ocean murmers.

10. Waitstaff using appropriate pencils or refillable pens.

Can't think of anything else just yet tho I guess one doesn't want to see rare timbers from Amazon forests in any evident sculptures :)

Susan956 said...

Kirk!! Not if they are endangered species and the sawdust comes from an endangered tree! Egad!

Improbulus said...

Kirk - you're prolly right... And I echo Susan about the insects! Even though insects can be a good source of protein. Or so I hear. *crunch*

Susan - you make a very good point indeed about "eco-friendly", I'd been thinking overnight of updating my post on exactly that issue. Your list is very interesting and very sensible.

Now the thing is, the main pages of the Acorn House website are bland beyond belief e.g. "The philosophy". Anyone can spout platitudes about how they strive to be carbon neutral etc.

What one wants, or type As like me anyway, is concrete details - such as were mentioned in the Times - as to exactly how a particular venture is putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to the environment, or indeed anything else.

There is a webpage with more precise info on how Acorn House tries to be environmentally friendly, but it takes several clicks to find it. It should be right up front, in my view, the first thing you see when you click "The philosophy". Furthermore, the staff should know the info on that page off the tops of their head - as I mentioned, some certainly didn't when I asked.

I'd be interested to know what you think of their list, Susan.

Dr Sue said...

I'll take a look and get back to you. I also have issue with 'talk' not meeting action and I do find it highly questionable that the staff don't seem to know the issues. You'd think if the business were that intent on being carbon neutral et al that people interviewed for positions would be expected to hold some basic knowledge as well as being overtly interested. You'd think management would train their staff not JUST for the sake clientele may ask question but because their interest is material. I'll come back to this once I have a chance to look. My Master's degree was about conceptions of environmental phenomena so at least this is within my sphere of knowledge and I have a very critical eye :)

Dr Sue said...

I had the opportunity to look more quickly than I had expected so do feel free to omit previous post at your discretion.

I skimmed the page and then read more closely. The skim gave me the impression that a) items were too generically couched giving loads of 'outs', and b) there was too little reflection/discourse *where in particular* those outs (read potential excuses) were offered.

Whilst one accepts their information is meant to be reasonably pithy and is not a thesis, I feel they could have done a little better.

Now to specifics and I'll use their own headers:

Water:

How monitored, how does minimisation occur? Is grey water used in garden areas? What water is recycled and/or purified and what is not? Why isn't the water that is not recycled, not? (This may simply be a function of what technology can offer at this time etc. They should not be afraid to say they can't locate all the solutions they would like).

Their second point "road miles" is obscure and has more than one potential meaning in the sentence. Plastic? This in itself needs exploration.

Energy:

We 'try'. This could mean they don't sometimes; they do at others. It's a hit and miss expression and they have no explanation of what 'green electricity' actually means. How do they monitor? Do they use bills as gauges only? Do they do daily checks on the meter box? If they see usage is climbing how do they set about to bring it back? Natural light is good. Why aren't solar panels being used to take advantage of day light/sun for a range of purposes?

Transport:

"We use". Who exactly? Do they ensure that all suppliers adhere to this? Do they pick up their own supplies and no suppliers deliver? Boats. Hmm..well, a lot of boats have created environmental hazards. It may sound satisfyingly olde worlde and it in fact may well be appropriate however what sort of boat? A ship? A sailing craft without engines? Do they ensure the ship is well maintained (to minimise spills etc) and how do ships address the need to bring food in quickly without spoilage? More information required.

Suppliers:

"We buy fair trade where possible".

I would welcome some examples and some explanation as to when they may not be able to do this. This additional info could be on a supplementary page but, as a critically thinking consumer, I would like to see it somewhere. I don't expect venues to be 100% on everything but I WOULD like to know THEY are aware of their shortfalls and are happy to explain why they come about (as I suggested previously).

The strict fish purchasing policy for example. What does that mean? They will not buy fish caught via long lines? They will not buy fish known to inhabit polluted waters? They will only buy fish from licensed suppliers?

What does "positive" animal husbandry mean? That livestock do not come from feedlots? Poultry from caging facilities? How do they evaluate such things? Via RSPCA or similar? A statement is repeated in this set on their page.

Carbon:

The "customer's carbon footprint". This is, forgive me, somewhat of a twee phrasing. It is highly inadequate, potentially illogical (depending on their meaning) and this is a topic unto itself.

We recycle:

Tell us why you cannot recycle that 20%. Educate us. What does "up to date methods" mean?

What is the time frame for that testing program with Councils? When may we expect an update on this site on that?

The cutlery issue is more apropos for takeaway diners. Given many people carry their takeaway food home or to an office where cutlery already exists, what incentive is offered to customers who say "no" to Acorn providing cutlery? Good to see however that cutlery, when requested, is reusable (tho I would be interested to see what they mean by this as most I've come across is plastic which is reusable - just that the quality is poor). What does "eco-sensitive" mean?

Good to send packaging back however has Acorn acquainted themselves with the life cycle of said packaging? In other words, does the supplier re-use or do THEY throw it out? There is a chain of activity that sometimes needs following through if one is dedicated to the issue.

I agree with portion sizes being offered although I would be interested to see what potential price disadvantage re this may exist for the client base.

The dry recyclables and soil etc. How is soil used for the restaurant? In pots and gardens? What happens when and if that usage is saturated? What happens to the soil? I would have assumed the greater intent would have been the devouring of food scraps.

Good to hear about the herb garden.

We use:

Partial repeat of what has been said before. If you involve school children there needs to be some sort of curriculum provision and worksheets etc. I would have thought the avenues here for a restaurant were rather limited. (Understandably). This said, there would be room for older students to take charge of certain monitoring activities and thus for the restaurant to be seen to embrace the concept of external regulation and review.

We don't use:

Again repeating and a poor usage of the header. "Industrial farming" is too broad a term.

So... I would recommend they create a glossary and define their terms across all areas and then generate an adjunct page with examples and further information.

I'll leave it there as my post is long however I would welcome commentary.

Dr Sue said...

Dr Sue LOL I just started my own blog (to experience the exercise of that) and used that nic. Now it's haunting me. A load of people call me this and it's meant amicably so I trust it will be taken in that light here in blogland.

I had meant to add. Does Acorn have rain runoff going into water tanks? Doesn't sound like it. They probably should look to this but then they would need to reassess the roof garden and the potential run off of soils etc from that.

Improbulus said...

So do you get mixed up with this Dr Sue? (first on Google search results if you try searching "Dr Sue"!) I think she's great, by the way, & it's no bad thing to be mistaken for her..

Improbulus said...

And more on Acorn House, thanks very much for your expert perspective on the environmental issues.

I agree with what you say about the training. I'd make some allowance for the fact that it's meant to be a training restaurant, so the staff are still learning on the job, and some of the newer ones may not be as au fait with the issues as we or the management may like!

You make very good points about the specifics of what they say. I agree, a glossary plus separate page with the full details and less vague tweeness is really what they ought to be producing if they are truly serious about their aims and about educating the public at large. Let us see whether they do..

I won't go into all of your points one by one, but I'd comment that by "green electricity" I suspect they mean they are on a "green tariff" as it's referred to here in the UK.