How does Heston Blumenthal’s Channel 4 makeover of Little Chef Popham compare to the classic British roadside restaurant? A restaurant review of Heston Blumenthal’s new Little Chef at Popham.
All my memories of Little Chef are from my childhood. These days I can easily complete a two hour trip without a deep-fried meal and complimentary lollipop.
We’ve all passed a Little Chef at some point, rotting on the side of the road like a discarded time-capsule from the 1980s. But because so many of us have those childhood memories, almost everyone I knew had an opinion about Channel 4 series “Big Chef Takes on Little Chef”, where Fat Duck chef Heston Blumenthal attempted to revive the chain and its image.
It pains me to admit that I didn’t enjoy the show, basically a 4 hour advert for the BMW 5 Series disguised as Wife-Swap meets Kitchen Nightmares. But hidden amongst the show’s grey, absurd management caricatures and tedious jokes about liquid nitrogen, were signs of an amazing 21st century roadside diner experience.
Rather than just review Popham on its own merit, we thought it’d be fun to compare it with a traditional Little Chef restaurant. By accident we ended up eating at their now-closed Sedgefield branch, recently in the news for far more tragic reasons.
Here’s how the two experiences compared…
Still the standard beige-brick bungalow that all Little Chefs come wrapped in, but with some nice incidental details, like varying tones of red used on the signs.
Still the standard beige-brick bungalow wrapping. This time looking a lot more tired. Varying tones of red on the signs probably more due to wear and tear than design.
You’d expect the chalk body-outlines to be outside Sedgefield, but it’s actually Popham which boasts this feature…
Popham is impressively modern. The show reduced Ab Rogers involvement to a voice-over during a brief montage of renovations. I’d argue the setting is just as important as the new menu in the makeover. And Popham’s interior is brilliant, all white, red and sky-blue (literally, with the ceiling tiles). It’s the sort of place George Jetson might take his family to.
Weird layout of six-seater booths or communal high table, as if they only expect crammed people carriers or lonely sales reps. There’s also an area of low couch seating near the door, presumably for people who just want a tea and a wee, but this was closed during our visit. We were initially seated at the centre table, but any length of time up there leaves you feeling quite exposed, so for an indulgent 3-courses we spread ourselves out in one of the booths.
The canteen of an old people’s home? A dinner party in an abandoned leisure centre? Here’s a great game to pass the time on a long car journey: thinking up ways to describe the tired interior of a traditional Little Chef.
All blonde wood, conference chairs and fake drapes, you suspect the property hasn’t been redecorated since the mid 80s. Every inch shows severe signs of wear.The dimensions are striking. Even with one section permanently cordoned off they’ve managed to squeeze in 60 – 70 covers. Ambitious for a kitchen no bigger than a Ford Mondeo.
The seating feat is achieved by having tables and chairs of Lilliputian dimensions. Some suit must’ve calculated that this layout gives them a faster turnaround and maximum profits. Sitting so close to total strangers that you can hear them chew would make anyone eat up and leave as quickly as possible. Cutlery is so flimsy it’d make Smartprice ashamed.
We arrived at 11.30am and walked into a scene of disaster recovery. Two lonely staff were tidying the breakfast mess, like medieval serfs clearing a castle of plague victims. Despite this they couldn’t have been more cheerful or friendly.
Heston Blumenthal’s menu for Popham Little Chef is brilliantly efficient little pamphlet of traditional British fayre (all with mash or chips) and a Homepride-style classics like Chicken Tikka and Spag-bol. Tons of desserts.
The standard Little Chef menu is bewildering by comparison: a massive slab of cardboard that folds out like a flat-pack furniture box. It’s greasy-spoon meets Findus boil-in-the-bag, plus the 70’s thrill of grilled meat. Gammon and pineapple, anyone?
Here’s a freakish thought: Until The Crown and Dinner at the Mandarin Oriental open, Little Chef provide 60% of the mere five places on the entire planet where you can eat from a Heston Blumenthal menu. A full three courses had to be ordered.
Scottish Mussels (£5.25)
What are your criteria for scoring mussels? For me bad ones are overcooked and rubbery, or have a strong, gloopy sauce that hides their flavour. Popham’s are nothing of the kind: vibrantly Technicolor, served in a cauldron-like piece of Staubs cookware. Sauce is light and delicate, you want more bread to mop it all up. A brilliantly sourced and well cooked dish.
My Little Chef meal of choice as a child. Again, it may be embarrassing to say it because this is a roadside café, some of the best scampi you’ll eat at this price.
Not a hint of greasiness on each massive, cispy-crumbed piece. Inside they’re light, succulent and, once again, cooked perfectly. Minimal salad for show. My favourite touch: the wedge of lemon has been wrapped in muslin, so you don’t get pips all over your food.
Fish & Chips – served with “the smell of the chippy” (£8.45)
Another revamped classic. We couldn’t pass up a version with the Heston treatment. Plus, they made a fuss of this dish on the telly.
Batter is the real star of the show, with a glass-like texture that shatters as you bite into it. It’s meant to be more bubbly than this, so technically this should’ve been better. It was still incredibly crisp and wonderful. Chips are thick and robust, really crunchy on the outside. Not sure these are quite the triple-cooked ones, but certainly worthy of being here. The portion of peas is pretty meagre, but they’re plump and moist. Tartar sauce is tangy and very good.
Main fault here was the “smell of the chippy” accompaniment. To Heston this means you get given an atomiser filled with pickled onion vinegar to enhance the flavour of your meal. To our waitress this mean spraying vinegar on our hair. I hope you guys have better luck.
Braised Ox Cheeks (£9.85)
You can’t be a food lover (and a bloke) and not order this dish. On TV this was portrayed as one of Heston’s outlandish dishes, but I suspect it’s just an update of one of his older recipes. Nowadays ox cheeks aren’t outlandish at all though, there’s recipes for them all the time in the food mags.
It’s a rich, unctuous dish. The cheeks have a big flavour yet a melting texture. You might not notice just how special it is at first, but it’s the subtle elements that really make it stand out. This mash would normally be too buttery and rich, but here feels like the perfect, decadent accompaniment.
Chocolate Truffle Slice (£3.95)
One of Blumenthal’s favourite ingredients, you couldn’t not order the popping candy cake.
As a cake: very good. As a popping candy delivery platform: less successful. We were hoping for something along these lines, a thick slab of space-dust that practically blows your mouth open at the first bite. Not unlike the birthday cake they serve at the Fat Duck.
Popping candy loses it’s pop when exposed to heat or moisture, so here you get a light sprinkling fresh from the packet to preserve that crackle. The cake is thick, moist and delicious with a deep flavour and zingy, sticky passion fruit layer.
Heston has a lot of prior form with trifles, there’s this recipe with green tea (which appears on the Hinds Head menu) and his preposterously complex Perfection version. Ordering this is academic research, not a childish desire to get more popping candy. Honest.
It’s disappointingly small, served in one of those little plastic pyramids supermarkets use for the posher ready-made desserts. I do love the freeze-dried strawberries, which provide an element of chewy scientific lunacy.
Full of tangy fruit and gunky cream,you also get a decorate-it-yourself trio of popping candy, crumble topping and chocolate rice crispies. All are needed to bulk out the tiny portion size. Really this tiny treat is about enjoying the gimmicks.
Total bill: Approx £50 with drinks
With flagship Popham out of the way it’s on to…
Olympic Breakfast (£7.45)
The iconic Little Chef dish. As a working class Northern lad I was hoping this would provide at least half my required daily pint of saturated fat. Perhaps due to the Heston influence, and the chain’s desperate need to evolve, you get a fairly decent, reasonably well-cooked meal.
Bacon is ok, the egg is free range and the sausage is unexpectedly rich and flavoursome. It’s even more shocking when you realise that, if you put a glass of juice on the side, this meal gives you three of your five-a-day! So it’s not only surprisingly tasty but surprisingly healthy too. You’ll still get plenty saturated fat from those fried potatoes though. Very British
Scampi & Chips (£7.75)
Satisfies your primal cravings for deep fried carbs and protein. The flavourless peas, with a texture like wet cardboard, should be regarded only as a decoration. I genuinely pity the kids who get grief from their parents for not eating these particular greens.
GF pointed out the nostalgic value of this dish: “It reminds me of school dinners” she said. It did, and that is the best we can say of it.
Jubilee Pancakes (£3.79)
At last! I used to covet these pancakes as a child. Whenever our family stopped at Little Chef I’d spend all meal pestering my parents to get this dessert for us, even though I never usually managed to finish my main. Dad never caved in, his wallet had probably taken enough of a battering.
They have a suspiciously spongy texture… almost like one of those vacuum-packed pre-made ones you get at the supermarket! Aggressively sweet cherries too, and a disappointing lump of ice-cream. I wanted an old-fashioned brick shaped serving from one of those flimsy cardboard cases.
We liked it, but only because of the nostalgia value. Otherwise this really is quite a woeful thing, even under four quid.
Total bill: Approx £20 with drinks
The standard Little Chef menu is a mix of good and bad. Mostly bad. The Olympic breakfast is a pricey-but-excellent take on the greasy-spoon Full English. Sadly, the rest of the Harvester-goes-Smartprice menu seems as tired and outdated as the pitiful decor.
The new Little Chef isn’t just light years ahead of the rest of the brand, its light years ahead of every other chain restaurant I have ever visited. Put next to one of those frozen-food misery-factories like Frankie & Benny’s this humble roadside diner outclasses its peers in every conceivable way.
Since its TV debut, Heston’s fans have made Popham a destination restaurant. I can’t guarantee that all of you would think it was worth our 200-mile round trip, but I would be incredibly happy to see bulldozers clear every grim Bella Italia in Great Britain, so Heston-format Little Chefs could spring up in their place. That way everyone could enjoy the fantastic experience they’ve created there. The format has been extended to branches in York and Kettering. Go there as soon as you can.
UPDATE : Chief Exec Ian Pegler recently announced his departure from Little Chef. Although an absurd caricature on the show, Pegler was the man responsible for bringing Heston Blumenthal in to revive the Little Chef brand. He had plans to extend the new format across the whole chain. His departure means these plans have effectively been cancelled.
This is a massive shame. I’d secretly hoped they’d grow into one of the UK’s leading chain restaurants over the next decade. Now it looks like they’ll continue to flounder along as they always have.
Please, if you can, visit York, Kettering or Popham, and show Little Chef’s management what a draw these places can be. It benefits all of us to have great places eat.
Have you eaten at any of the new Little Chefs? Or maybe you’re a huge fan of the traditional Little Chef experience. If you’ve been to either recently, or just have fond memories of going, please leave a comment below.