Blame Anthony Bourdain, the tattooed Keith Richards lookalike whose book Kitchen Confidential brought rock ’n’ roll to food writing 15 years ago, but I wonder whether many food writers don’t have a bit of war correspondent manqué in them. You can’t turn on a cookery show without seeing some doughty gourmand duking it out with a sheep’s intestine or wrestling a squid into submission. A welcome flipside to the vanilla-perfumed prettiness of the post-Bake Off world, perhaps, or the expression of the need to inject some Hemingway swagger into what might otherwise be perceived as a bit of a girly activity. Food critics trade face-offs with culinary oddities the way hardened hacks swap war stories at the Frontline Club, recalling that time they ate the locust in Vietnam, or swallowed a bowl of fermented mare’s milk under the unforgiving eyes of a yurt full of Mongolian tribesmen. Because food is macho, right? It’s virile and sexy and brave, and has nothing to do with spinning baskets of caramelised sugar or fretting about the texture of a brunoise. Like Hemingway, they protest too much — everyone knows that Papa didn’t really “liberate” the bar of the Paris Ritz — he was just desperate for a decent martini, once the real fighting had been done by the grunts. Show me a former war zone and the hacks won’t be far behind, wittering on about how the bullet holes really give an edgy flavour to their artisan espresso.
Belgrade is having a moment as one such destination. Now that complicated business with Milošević is over, this beautiful, ravaged city, high on a plateau overlooking the Danube, is regenerating itself as the hipsters’ mini-break of choice.
The warehouses along the riverfront have become chic post-industrial hangouts, full of impossibly long-legged girls and their excitingly dubious boyfriends, enjoying Japanese-Pacific fusion at Toro or white truffle pizza at Communale. Shelled-out buildings and former Communist concrete monoliths turned artists’ squats only add to the cool factor, but with that, the face-off between hot and authentic begins.
For real Balkan food, my man in Belgrade assured me, one has to eschew the pretty people’s hangouts and get down and dirty with the locals, which meant a trip to Potkovica, a restaurant so authentically horrible that no tourist has ever heard of it.
The space was tiny, or maybe that was just because the majority of customers were so massive. Serbian men are all man. The joint was thumping with turbo-folk, a kind of gypsy violin mixed with the worst of Celine Dion, which was apparently dreamed up by the former dictator to bludgeon the populace into aural submission. It also exuded an attractive odour of ancient cigarette smoke and rancid cooking fat. I applaud smoking sections as much as the next intelligent being who likes a fag, but I also like to see the menu through the nicotine. Except there was no menu, because Potkovica serves one thing: horse tartare. With chips. It came looking like something the horse had already eaten, a glistening lump bathed in pasty sweat, surrounded by surprisingly delicate quenelles of — what? “I wouldn’t eat those,” my companion warned me. “It’s margarine.” Quenelles of margarine? This was my Hemingway moment. Finally, I got to play with the big boys.
Except that I couldn’t do it. Placing a pure lump of hydrogenated vegetable fat which looked as if it had been hanging round since Serbia was in Yugoslavia in my mouth was more than I could contemplate. The raw horse was rather good, with a very smooth, paté-like texture and a lean, gamey taste. Spread on crisp toasts, it would have made a decent picnic for a night on the barricades, but I couldn’t fool myself. I had been faced down by a Balkan delicacy. I couldn’t even manage a chip.
Back in London, Barnyard on Charlotte Street also promises an authentically rustic experience, suitably prettied up for the urban rover. It’s the casual offering from Ollie Dabbous, the brilliant young chef whose eponymous restaurant round the corner in Whitfield Street opened to a rush of rave reviews and a Michelin star in 2012. Ollie is a delightful man and his food is truly extraordinary, which makes it all the more startling that he should have put his name to a concept which is such unmitigated crap.
The interior looks like a country kitchen reimagined by the Sylvanian Families, an achingly awkward juxtaposition of faux rural and faux industrial. The waiters wear flannel shirts and hay is involved, but the food manages to be even clumsier and more relentlessly patronising than the décor.
The menu is divided into Pig, Cow and Lamb, because obviously it’s macho to call a spade a spade down on the farm. Cubes of adequate cornbread came in dinky brown paper bags, with a dreary salad of chicken, grapes, almonds and tarragon and a bavette with dill pickle and black treacle. The meats oozed a positively Balkan amount of grease, as though they had been squirted with oil in the prep line to give them that genuine street food mouth-feel. That is, slimy and regrettable. The food had been slapped onto the plates with an aggressive lack of finesse, the ingredients disassembling themselves sadly, wanting nothing to do with one another. Sides of chicory with mint and lemon and of charred broccoli in vinaigrette were not actively foul, merely negligible.
Potkovica was nasty, but Barnyard is nasty in an infuriating, disingenuous, condescending manner, flaunting the amateurism of its kitchen as a badge of hip sincerity. Unless one were actually in a besieged city, I can’t imagine what kind of posturing idiot would actively want to eat here; certainly no one who’d be much use with a grenade.
Masculinity and food are in a complex place. The distance between man the hunter and man the consumer has never been wider, yet the lumbersexual’s need to prove his prowess with a gizzard has never been greater.
It can’t be an accident that the sub-moronic “paleo” diet fad is based on the supposed preferences of our early Homocene ancestors: caveman food for men who are actually frightened of a baguette.
I don’t know whether homo erectus ate horses as well as drawing them, but if you want to be reminded what a real man looks like, serve him a margarine quenelle. Time Out lists Barnyard as one of its ten best London restaurants this year. Presumably they don’t employ Serbians.