‘We wondered what fast food would be like in heaven,’ said Henry Dimbleby, co-creator of the eight strong ‘Leon’ chain of cafés in the capital (and another in Kent’s Bluewater mall). ‘We wanted to provide an alternative to cold sandwiches from clinical fridges, and the likes of KFC, where a moment’s pleasure is pursued by an afternoon of sleepy guilt. We’ve tried to recreate fast food’s visual cues and speed in a healthy, sustainable way, albeit without resorting to mung beans and calorie counting...’
So friendly that his wife describes him as having ‘social tourettes’, Dimbleby had summoned me for lunch at his first venue on Carnaby Street, which he opened and managed from July ‘04. Adhering to what I would interpret as a rather masochistic policy of ‘endeavouring to turn every complaint into sunshine’ (which must irk editors of concierge sites) I was the latest candidate for conversion.
So, what had gone wrong? After a frustrating day, I recently indulged in a faceless spat with Dimbleby via social networking site, ‘Twitter’. Leon’s food was ‘lacklustre’, I cantered into the keyboard, ‘aesthetically impoverished’ and ‘bland’ to boot. Exacerbating, three others chimed-in, complaining of meagre portions and over-enthusiastic nutritional claims...
We met at 1pm, although the customer facing clock was four minutes slow, a subtle suggestion that they could eke out more minutes of lunch-break leave. Clad in a piped black velvet jacket, Dimbleby greeted staff like friends, telling a massive, but smiling muscle-bound waiter that he ‘doesn’t get smaller.’
Sipping Portuguese Sagres below a rain-pattered sky-light, I took in the cosy dining room. Amongst the Technicolor decor sat a Technicolor clientele. Creatively hairy men shoe-horned into day-glo tank tops and Uniqlo drainpipes rubbed narrow shoulders with near catwalk fresh women. Reading my thoughts (or following my stare) Dimbleby mused, ‘I never thought Leon would attract so many gorgeous women. It wasn’t our intention to make it cool, because cool can be alienating. I think they like the idea of taking guiltless pleasure from our food.’
Walls were pasted with holiday snaps which spanned generations, including one of the original Leon, father of Dimbleby’s business partner, John Vincent. Looking bronzed and louche, he has apparently become ‘an unlikely pin-up for the gay community’ despite now being in his 70’s.
Mustering an impressive amount of enthusiasm for one who eats at Leon every lunch-time and twice weekly for dinner, Dimbleby accurately anticipated my requirements, asking, ‘I expect you’d like the most flavoursome dishes?’
Freedom Chicken, Shades of Mackerel
Alas, things begun badly. On finally opening a pot of hummus, a child on the next table looked palpably distraught at its contents, only to be chided by his parent.
But what did I think? Dimbleby covered almost every inch of our wooden tabletop with boxes and tubs - but not one napkin! Lightly smoked mackerel (selected, apparently from a tasting of 13 types) was imaginatively served with earthy beetroot. Moroccan-style minted lamb meatballs from a father and son run farm severed easily under my plastic fork. Shredded ‘freedom’ chicken nudged tenderly cooked veg from Reynold’s of Ridley Road. It came with a dip so thrillingly spicy that my nose ran. The producer endeared himself to Dimbleby and Vincent because ‘his hands were black from picking walnuts when we met him.’
Owing to limited space, more complex food is crafted at a central kitchen in Park Royal, including exceedingly good cakes like the Valrhona and orange brownie magicked from pulverised almonds rather than flour.
Compared to my experience at Spitalfields a year prior, portions seemed bigger and dishes, in large part, delicious. However, scoffing from cardboard still evoked the sensation of dining from an envelope. I also craved more moisture in the meatballs and overall, a sprinkle of salt.
Lunch also provided an opportunity to delve into Dimbleby’s past. He has been the ‘Peterborough’ gossip columnist for The Telegraph, staged under the legendary Bruno Loubet (although he is yet to scramble an egg) and (of less appeal, because I can’t fathom what they do) worked as a management consultant. In leaner times, he has lodged in rooms let by friend and seemingly unflappable restaurateur, Charlie McVeigh.
Aside from his own and McVeigh’s ventures, Dimbleby loves dining at Anthony Demetre’s ‘Arbutus’ and ‘Wild Honey’ restaurants, as well as Mitch Tonks’ ‘Seahorse’ in Devon (also top of my hit list). In talking-up Tonks’ signature scallops with white port, he even admitted harbouring ‘a man-crush’ for Britain’s most high profile fisherman...
Fans take note, another outlet is planned on High Street Kensington. Dimbleby also continues to move towards near complete recycling of packaging; indeed he captivated two antipodeans with an explanation of how water bottles spun from corn are biodegradable – ‘excellent miniature greenhouses when dug into soil.’ Admitting a phenomenal sweet tooth, he revealed a new pudding from April, a fairtrade organic banana split topped with nitrous oxide canister cream, toasted almonds and icing sugar. ‘I like the tension between naughtiness and nostalgia,’ he said, inadvertently summarising Leon’s whole philosophy. ‘In fact, I’m even thinking of taking all the other puddings off the menu and putting little cards on the table to draw in attention.’
Dimbleby is also holding a campaign to lure evening diners with candles and table service, a reasonably locally-sourced wine list, and chorizo and grilled chicken dishes.
Would I return? -If I was a time poor office worker rather than a freelancer with flexibility, I could be drawn to Leon’s bright marketing and rejuvenated flavours. Whilst not quite my idea of fast food heaven, it is several stages on from the competition of expensive identikit bready rectangles, intimidating portions of plastic-tubbed lettuce, mean pie fillings, not so fresh sushi and soulless soups...
Incidentally, in case you’re wondering how Dimbleby got into Twitter, then thank his TV Presenter friend, Richard Bacon. Bacon once sent a missive to followers asking whether Dimbleby should, as he desired, ‘put Bovril on the menu’. 70 people immediately said no.