Street food in London is unrecognisable now from just a few years ago. Street markets such as Exmouth Street and Leather Lane – both in the Farringdon area – which were once dominated by fruit and vegetables and cheap cigarette lighters now seem almost totally given over to food stalls. It’s the world at your fingertips (or rather your taste buds) with everything from Mexican to North African to Thai to West Africa (and much else beside). Expect to pay around £5 for a main dish.
And this makes competing harder for fixed restaurants serving takeaways even if they have also had a tectonic plate change. While fish and chips (around for about 150 years), burgers (some 60 years old), pizzas, and Chinese (both about 50 years) and kebabs (also serving doners and shish versions for some 50 years) continue to predominate, there’s lots of newer ideas such as falafel, tortilla wraps, and a very old one that has come back in the shape of the pasty.
We’ve been conditioned to expect not too much from takeaways. Then came Leon to break that rule. It’s a chain with nearly 20 outlets in the London area with a new one due to open in Euston Station (now one of London’s biggest food outlets – revitalising an area with not much around other than a few pubs and the wonderful Indian restaurants on Drummond Street).
Leon provides a wide variety, originally based on the ideas of chef Allegra McEvedy. She bowed out in 2009 although retaining a financial interest.
The chain promises “gourmet meals in a box”. And it attracts loads of praise. Giving Leon anything less than five stars is just like criticising motherhood and apple pie. You don’t do it.
So here goes. My last visit to Leon will be my last unless I can be assured of better. It was just before 1.30pm on a fine weather day and – inexcusably – the choice was limited. I eventually went for the Chargrilled Chilli Chicken at £6.80 as it was still available. It did not taste much of chilli while the chicken content was, to put no finer point on it, mean. There was inexcusably and inexplicably there was no rice left as a side dish so I settled for chips.
My companion went for the Moroccan meat balls at £6.50. Lots of exciting sounding ingredients but a mediocrity on the taste test.
The person serving us forgot to include a fork or napkin in our takeaway bags – we only realised we did not have these when we sat down (outside Tate Modern) when we could not be bothered to return to complain. We ate with our fingers.
I am sure Leon management will argue that my experience should not have happened, that it is unfair to judge a successful London-wide formula on one occasion. It’s always hard to counter such assertions although one bad chain experience tends to put you off.
But with such a choice available, I’ll be trying somewhere else next time I want fast food for street eating.
Restaurants all over central London
Takes credit and debit cards
Verdict: Must stop sitting on its laurels