23 Jan 2009

Printing Palates

A HACK from a national newspaper recently lured me to lunch at his brand new H.Q. All was not well within its wavy, gleaming glass walls. Apparently the canteen was in critical condition. An imported catering company “barely able to cope with the numbers” was making meals a misery. I dutifully cancelled ‘Claridges’and made my way to the temple to type…
Designed by Dixon Jones, architect behind Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House, it looks far too trendy for the nether regions of still seedy King’s Cross. The first thing I noticed was a line-up of letters on coloured sticks facing the pavement. If you move about they fall into place, spelling ‘The Guardian’. Apparently a night shifter naughtily rearranged these to spell ‘The Grauniad’, ‘Private Eye’s’ nickname for a paper once so riddled with unintentionally amusing typos that it allegedly misspelt its own masthead.
It is a magnificent space overall, fluid and glossy like an ambitious advertising agency, although certain design details are easily derided. There are the day-glow ‘think pods’ with their Big Brother chairs, and an interview room with a disconcerting poster of Al Pacino projecting his trademark, vacant look. In the ‘break-out’ areas thepassionate are expected to gesticulate. They can lie down in the ‘crash-out’ areas afterwards. And should staff wish to demonstrate their love for Mother Earth, they can make a date with the papier-mâché ‘pledge tree’, carpet-planted and shaped from yesterday’s news. Gazing at its ‘leaves’, inscribed with eco-friendly intentions, I must admit that I sensed my appetite slide away. Nearby an antique printing press is marooned, like a model of a mower on Astroturf. It is all distractingly playful.
A sense of enforced casualness continues into the canteen. We found a seat along a banquette swathed in Paul Smith stripes (which clashed with my shirt). Huge diffusing lampshades hover Christine Keeler chairs. Tables are low, the temperature high. Whilst the long corridor felt like an airport lounge, it is not planes that soar by, but occasional weary ‘putt-putting’ barges along a surprisingly idyllic canal.
A nutritionally intolerant individual masterminds the menu. It dangled, artfully, from a bulldog clip. It was the only printed item in the building which dared to shun The Guardian’s font We queued to collect ‘Chorizo, Pinto Bean, Coriander, Potato & Onion Broth’ which, it advised in red was ‘wheat, dairy & gluten free’, then ‘Lamb Tagine with Prunes & Almonds served with Lemon, Chilli & Coriander Couscous’- ‘dairy, wheat and gluten free’. It also described itself as vegan. A curious slip for a building bulging with proof-readers…
The soup had a sweaty sheen and a sticky texture. The processed, rudely pink chorizo had lost its spice long ago. Perhaps it is a cliché to say it, but I have seen better-looking sick. It was served with a stale sponge of focaccia which bore an uncanny resemblance to loft insulation.
The wine that, a few years back, used to be available at Farringdon Road, is now a distant memory. All that is left is a ‘hydrotap’ supplying free flowing rainwater harvested from the roof.
Prunes are not high on my list of ideal ingredients, particularly outside breakfast time. I actually found it quite a complex task to excavate any amidst fifteen or so of the grimmest infant carrots I have ever seen. The withered witches fingers were simultaneously cooked yet undercooked, stiff yet bendable and arrestingly repellent.The ‘free from’ couscous was acrid, like ‘Cif’ and the ‘vegan’ lamb arid. I would rather munch straw. The whole jumble was mercifully camouflaged by a powerful yet anonymous blend of spices.
Pudding was tolerable, thank goodness: a decent British crumble. This is a dish so retro that it is post-modern. The price of the fibrous forced rhubarb with golden, gummy custard was also classic (£1). The hack sensed we had accomplished something. “Not many people make it this far you know - only the older journalists and ex public school.”
Two silvery-haried veterans sat opposite: Jonathan Steele, roving foreign correspondent and Duncan Campbell, crime writer and senior correspondent. Exasperatingly they disproved the pudding theory, crunching through apples which they probably brought in anyway.
As we escaped, turning the corner towards the rotunda atrium, there was a lengthy line of people patiently waiting for one of three microwaves to ping free. This microwave meltdown was an indicting sight - people bringing in their own leftovers from home. Another microwave is on order to cope with demand.
Aside from the meal’s final, grudging concession to British cuisine, the food was oddly ambitious yet fatally un-motivating. It made airline food look glamorous. By being deliberately unpalatable, people were being prevented from loitering and forced back to their desks. A wretched irony considering that the papers produced within this otherwise extravagant building are without doubt the most food focussed…

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