Friday, 4 June 2010

Pop In to Popham

Like many others, we watched Big Chef takes on Little Chef, often in horrified fascination – most of that horror being reserved for Ian Pegler's excruciating screen minutes. Didn't he just talk the most astounding amount of bollocks? Didn't he?!

Pretty much all of what Pegler said and did annoyed me, not least the fact that he seemed so proud of himself for getting Heston onboard despite having failed, so it seemed, to have done even the barest minimum of research on his new consultant – Heston being so much more than snail porridge and liquid nitrogen, as the food at the Hinds Head so clearly shows. Unlike Mr Pegler, Heston could very clearly see that, in order to retain loyal customers and remain true to what the brand represents, whilst also attracting lots of new customers, the answer lay in offering greatly improved quality in a fairly traditional menu of British classics. Not a watered down Fat Duck. (Or, as Pete and I variously referred to it, Little Duck, Fat Chef or Dat Fuck). Thank goodness Heston ignored Pegler's constant clamouring for blue sky thinking and stayed firmly within the box.

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Pete doing a little blue sky thinking

And one more thing, Mr Pegler, about your bloody blue sky thinking: whilst a sunny day with clear blue skies certainly lifts my spirits, I can think just as creatively and work just as effectively on a grey day as on a sunny blue-skied one, thank you very much.

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Pulling in

So anyway, despite the press fanfare at the time, we never did visit the newly updated Popham branch until a couple of weeks ago. Google-mapping our route from home down to our cosy B&B in Broadwindsor, Dorset I zoomed in on the half way point and spotted Popham, which of course set off the ping ping of my memory! From there it was just a quick skip, hop and jump to checking the address of the Little Chef and deciding to stop there for lunch on the way.

Both Pete and I had strong childhood memories of Little Chef, Pete even more so than I, as his family always took their holidays in the UK and his dad never, ever took the motorway route anywhere. But visits during our adult years had always proved disappointing with cheap ingredients letting down simple dishes, not to mention the disgusting "scrambled" eggs, a truly vile creation.

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In case we couldn't find our way from the (branded) car park into the Little Chef itself

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Does this mean a member of staff could take a crowbar to my Honda and I'd have no recourse?

It was strange entering the familiar interior, still sporting those blue sky ceilings and vivid red table tops. Service was friendly and we were soon seated at a vast table between comfy padded banquettes. I ordered the Hereford Steak and Abbot Ale Pie (£7.75), described on the menu as an individual, handmade pie with a baked suet crust, served with mushy pea mint gravy. Pete went for the Cheeseburger (£7.99). The burger is described as a chargrilled quarter pounder hamburger made from 100% British organic beef, served in a toasted bun with relish, sliced tomato, lettuce, gherkins and served with fries. One can add bacon and/ or cheese to that. We also ordered a side of chunky fries (£2.95) and a couple of coca colas.

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memorabilia

After ordering, I couldn't resist browsing the historic memorabilia on a nearby wall – photographs of Little Chef restaurants and staff, historic menus (one of which looked so familiar) and other little bits and pieces.

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The wait wasn't too long for freshly cooked/ heated dishes

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hereford steak and abbot ale pie

Whilst I didn't care for the mushy pea mint gravy (either in appearance or taste) the pie itself was pretty good. I was particularly impressed with the pastry which had a lovely texture, lightly crisp on the outside, dense and moist inside – just as a good suet pastry should be. The filling was tasty too though I'd have liked it to be more generous and with a higher ratio of meat to carrots. But pretty good, overall!

The chunky chips were good too – crispy exteriors and soft inside.

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cheeseburger and fries

The burger was good too - the bun, salad, gherkins, and burger were all decent. The only criticism really is that either the pattie needed to be bigger or the rest of the burger smaller. The fries were really rather good.

Given that we thought the food pretty good, but didn't have space for dessert, we opted to stop again on the way back from our Dorset trip for a second handy half-way point lunch. On this occasion we ordered the Chilli Con Carne (£8.95), described as spiced minced beef with tomatoes and kidney beans, served with pilaf rice, soured cream and grated Cheddar cheese and the Scampi (£7.85), listed as breaded whole-tail scampi from sustainable sources in Scottish waters, served with fries, salad, tar tare sauce and a wedge of lemon.

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chilli con carne

The chilli con carne was pretty good – a lot better than the cheap versions so beloved of pub chains. Instead of cheap meat and the acrid taste of raw spices, this one was nicely spiced and seemed to use decent meat.

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scampi

The scampi was very nice too. I didn't love the tartare sauce but the scampi was moist within, crunchy without and the fries went down a treat.

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jubilee pancake

This time we had space for the nostalgia-inducing Jubilee Pancake (£3.95) – the handmade pancake with black cherry compote and a choice of vanilla bean or soft whip ice cream sounded so much better than it's original namesake – the last time I had this just a few years ago I couldn't finish it, so awful was the cheap, chemical-tasting fruit filling and the tasteless pancake. The new version was lovely, with a soft, light pancake, delicious fruit compote and simple soft whip ice cream.

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loo art

The loos still play those bizarre sound recordings (which are impossible to make out over the sound of hand dryers and flushes anyway, and just sound like some bloke has walked in to the ladies' loos). Many of the food-related messages and cartoons on the wall are fading.

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bill and beans

Bills are delivered with a handful of individually wrapped Jelly Belly jelly beans, a nice touch.

I'm glad that Ian Pegler has left Little Chef (though feel pity for whoever now has to nod agreeably to his inane corporate speak) but sad that Little Chef hasn't rolled out the Heston menu to the rest of it's branches. That's said, The Little Chef website makes mention of "an emphasis on provenance, choice and quality ingredients, using suppliers introduced to us during the development of Heston’s concept". Whether this goes far enough to tempt the nation back into the chain as a whole remains to be seen.

7 comments:

roastpotato said...

It's good to see that the comments were taken on board. I know there was the recap show recently, but I wonder if the Popham branch's profits have increased since Hestonisation?

Good to hear that oaf Pegler has moved on though.

Gary

goodshoeday said...

Interesting. I have no memories of Little Chef, I don't think I've ever been in one despite taking all my holidays in this country as a kid, we just never went there. But that's possibly because we had a picnic lunch with my Mum's delicious home-made meaty pie for the journey!
If I was passing Popham I'd probably give this a whirl.
And yes Peglar was excruciating.

May said...

Great write up! I am still not convinced about the Little Chef menu, Heston or not, but maybe if I am in that part of the world, like you say, a decent pit stop.

Good thing Ian Pegler has gone. That programme just highlighted how backward and close minded some senior management in this country can be. They need to " think out of the box" a little more and "embrace change" and they will see how "the blue sky thinking" has hit the bottom line.

Laissez Fare said...

Dear Kavey,

Lovely post, and nice you made it there. We tried to go there as a detour when driving to places outside of London but it never quite worked out. Doesn't seem as good as maybe it was in the beginning just after the re-launch.

Like you, and the other commenters, I am sooooo glad that annoying moron Pegler has left Little Chef alone (I can't believe he couldn't grasp Heston's logical and common sense approach to re-vamping the chain, which unfortunately doesn't seem like it will happen now), and I just feel sorry for who he'll start BSing next - waste of space and of blue sky.

Hope you're enjoying your Friday.

Best,

LF

Kavey said...

Having a lazy day indeed!
I think you are right that it's not quite as good as in the immediate aftermath of the relaunch - I'm sure that they've cut down on quality of some of the side elements such as the tartare sauce. But in general, they seem to be doing a good job - the suet pastry in my pie, for example, definitely impressed me even if the small volume of filling didn't!
xx

The London Foodie said...

What a fun post, really enjoyed reading that! The pics of Peter are quite entertaining too, he looks very pensive in the first one, and then terribly bore in the second picture! Great.

Luiz @ The London Foodie

Steve said...

Interesting to hear your take on the upgraded Popham -- we just recently saw the TV program out here in NZ (I too thought Pegler a tit) and hoped that things had improved nationwide by now, though clearly not.