If Thatcher was Britain’s Bonaparte, then Blair was most certainly our Louis-Philippe. It was during the reign of the latter that the bourgeoisie came to dominate the status quo in France, and they needed somewhere to gather. Not for them the salons of the aristocracy – instead, they invented the destination restaurant, imitations of which sprung up all over Paris to cater for the wannabes.
Blair was undoubtedly our most haut-bourgeois leader. But what of his gastronomic legacy? Does it survive, or does it, like some ruined Empire man in a Balzac novel, limp around dressed in the tattered remains of its pomp? What, more to the point, is a Blairite restaurant?
The answer is: ASK Italian. If you want to know what bourgeois speak is for ‘depressing’, let me tell you: it’s those clueless tourists you see sitting alone and miserable in branches of ASK. You watch them walking in and feel an urge to shout: ‘DON’T DO IT!’ We have better to offer. We really do.
Surely, you think, no Britisher would ever sink to such pitiable bowels. No one is that sad. Yet this was exactly what I found myself doing last Friday night: sitting solo in an ASK Italian outpost at the source of the M4 in West London, reading the new Robert Hewison and thinking ‘how very Will Self of me.’
But aside from my meal, there was no scoffing involved – it was not an ironic gesture. Anglo-Italian food is the staple food of Blairism – think of the Granita deal, Jamie Oliver, TB’s lunches at the River Café. Think of Tony Hayers, the fictional embodiment of New Labour’s management cadre, ordering his fettuccine al’arrabiata as Alan Partridge gawps before him.
It colonised the high street. Walk down the main drag of any middle-class town in Britain and you can be sure to see a branch of Pizza Express, ASK, Prezzo, Carluccio’s or Zizzi. If, like me, you grew up during the Blair years these places are the fundament of what restaurant food should be. They are our bread and butter (or, more thematically, our pane e oglio), our epicurean lingua franca. Which is good, but not that good.
I ordered what might be the most Guardian pizza in the history of gastronomy (a margherita with olives and artichokes, 45p shy of a tenner) and a large glass of quite nice Chianti. (The most Blairite of wines?) Hewison’s book sat before me, arguing that through a combination of jargon and managerial incompetence, New Labour had destroyed anything worthwhile about what the party itself termed ‘the creative industries’.
One couldn’t help but reflect. ASK was founded in 1993, but didn’t really establish itself til Blair got going. Granita, after all, was always too elitist an establishment to fit into New Labour’s patronising Weltanschauung. ASK, though, fitted the ‘democracy of quality’ bill perfectly. Cheerful service, pastel-blue walls, unexceptionable but predictable food. In the post-Blair era, it has survived. But it hasn’t done much more.
So to the meal itself. I had no starter, (you can’t on your own) and my main was just tarted-up stodge, doused in oil and stingey with the extra toppings I’d ordered. As I mentioned, the Chainti was quite nice. Read any metaphor you like into that. But let me return to the point: I was sitting in a branch of ASK, alone. How was it, I don’t hear you ask. It was bloody good, actually.