I recently brought the phrase “Helping people explore places with positivity” into my Twitter bio to explain not only my professional job but also for this blog. I love to write about things and give others the Lowedown (play on my surname klaxon) on where is worth going and where is not. Every time I step through the door of somewhere my fingers are crossed that the review will be positive as nobody likes a Debby Downer but that is not always the case. I love to write good reviews about places because generally the food, staff and concept deserve it and I appreciate the time they have taken to find me and contact me with an invite.
This is one of those unfortunate moments where I tell you a tale of woe based on my partner and I’s experience at the celebratory launch party of Bianco43 in South Croydon. Not all reviews can be positive because sadly not all places can be great and I have a responsibility to be honest to you as readers even when I am invited to an event like this one for free. The décor was questionable but perhaps just part of a rustic feeling they were going for, the staff seemed unhappy and the ambassador (the guy who pays the bills rather than being the boss) said all of the wrong things in the space of just a few sentences.
Whenever I meet people involved in a food venture their enthusiasm for the food and the desire to cement their location for decades and generations to come oozes out of them and fills the air. Last night was a first though when the ambassador came across and started a discussion with us, as he went on to do with every table, saying how he challenged us to find a better Italian restaurant in London with the same price point. A bold claim but looking on Tripadvisor you quickly discover their Blackheath, Greenwich and Trafalgar Square branches hardly have overwhelmingly great reviews and how Vapiano regardless of branch location come up the same, if not better, across the board.
He went on to describe how their demographic was people that could come once every month or two rather than just once or twice a year and explained how unlike Boxpark they were not aiming at a really young audience (which explains the little crèche section they have to allow parents to enjoy their meal as well). It seemed like he was keen for the restaurant to build up a loyal following from Croydon and the surrounding areas.
That sounds like raw enthusiasm and like somebody who is really passionate about expanding their restaurant and see it bloom and develop in front of his eyes but when asking him about what made them choose Croydon as their next location the answer broke my heart. After telling me about how “Croydon is the new Shoreditch and it’s more accessible to people who do not want to go to Central London and pay travel to get there” they chose Croydon based on council investment to make the area look prettier and how they think it is going to bring more established restaurants to the Restaurant Quarter in South Croydon to allow them to sell the restaurant for a quick profit.
An awkward laugh from me and a wry smile and he took that as his cue to leave our table and go and have a chat with another group of people. I was half tempted to get up there and then before any food had even come out and write a whole piece on the décor and the vulgar approach of the ambassador because nothing puts me in a worse mood than being told “Croydon is the new Shoreditch” because I care about how much further my rents are going to rise y’know.
I took a big gulp of my warm white wine, the second glass I had was much cooler despite staff complaining about a broken fridge, and took a look at my surroundings whilst my partner popped to examine the toilets. The less said about the wine the better; if the house white and red wine were not watered down or of the lowest % then I would be really interested to know what it actually was as it had a thin consistency and the flavour did not linger in the back of the throat.. it was not that it was a really good quality wine either as it was not smooth to swallow or aromatic to the smelling senses. There were thin prints of pizza and abstract art nailed onto the walls, though the nails were only half in, and it had that rustic and cool ‘half-finished’ look about it. It is usually a look that you can tell the company has paid more for it to appear half finished but after hearing about bog-standard cubicles and buckets with stones at the bottom instead of traditional sinks the feeling quickly became ‘this was done on a shoestring and my god it shows’. The kitchen was open and you could see what was happening but the kitchen staff looked incredibly uncomfortable as wine glasses dotted on the restaurant side behind what I assume is the pizza oven came close to being knocked off by people’s handbags as they passed by to the toilet.
After half an hour of sitting in there, I always like to sit at opening events like this as it gives me a good sense of how sound travels and how comfortable the seats are, I was shuffling around in my wooden and wicker seat needing a cushion or something for comfort. The chair itself was adequate but the size of the table to have four seats around it was ridiculous. My partner and I kept clashing knees and whilst the ambassador had sat next to me he had being nudging the unused chair into my kneecap because there just was not enough room to fit that many people around it comfortably. But I held out, moved my chair back from the table, and tried to convince myself it would get more manageable.
Unlike the previous openings I have gone to, such as Spiaggia, the food was just put down on one table which was not even particularly central and people had to launch themselves towards the table to get anything. Despite many attempts from my partner he managed to mainly score some mozzarella, bruschetta and two of these balls that I think contained rice, mince and tomato but I am not 100% sure as well as a small amount of tomato pasta which apparently had aubergine in but not of that found its way into my portion.
There were further signs of them wanting to save money in the food itself. The mozzarella was not the best I have ever had and instead had a more rubbery and less creamy texture to that I am used to and the lack of any seasoning on it did nothing to enhance the hidden flavours of such quality of mozzarella. The tomatoes were fresh and vibrant and mixed with garlic and a little seasoning the topping of the bruschetta was enjoyable, although the bread was over toasted and did not seem as fresh as you might expect from a restaurant on opening night. Those weird ball things I mentioned (looking at the menu there is no clear name for them) were tasty and pretty much the only thing that I truly enjoyed eating for the whole time we were there – a plate of those and I would have been happy.
But eventually we moved away from the starters and onto the main courses with the first being the pasta.. a pasta that was generally al dente, which I am fine with as I know we Brits are often butchering pasta within an inch of its life, but there were bits that were rubbery and undercooked to a point of raw. The dish itself tasted strongly of tomato but it seemed to lack much in the way of seasoning, a good crack of pepper would have really given it a boost, and the distribution of everything was poor. I would have asked my partner to get a few more mouthfuls for me to see if I just had an unfortunate section but there were no serving spoons at the table so everybody was having to battle to get pasta on their plates with forks – a further sign that their method of serving was not particularly great and there seemed to be a lack of labelling as to what anything was supposed to be.
Along the way we had our shared empty plate snatched away from us which meant that when we went to get more food, when some finally arrived, there were no plates to put anything on and everybody was looking a bit bewildered by their plate being taken if there were no replacements. Some staff seemed to come along and grab empty glasses away whilst others were over cautious and nervously asked if the glass was done with and it seemed there was no balance and perhaps even a lack of training and organisation on the staff front (which is something I always blame on the management rather than the staff themselves because they can only do so much without guidance).
The above video is from the start of the night. The music that I am about to describe was approximately 3× louder than that here and until the following point I did not realise we were sitting under a speaker.
After the live singing stopped and the music started to blast out of the speaker to the point where the level of noise was making me feel sick (think being in a club where the music is vibrating through your body because you have some how found yourself next to the DJ), and given the poor quality of the majority of the food on offer, I decided that was my cue to leave. We left just after another table near us left and just before another group wandered outside and down the road too; both groups were muttering about the lack of organisation and the poor quality of food so my partner and I were not the only ones unimpressed. We had been there for two hours and not consumed that much food and I was not keen to wait on the fight for the pizzas as the crowds around the food table continued to increase as people got more hungry and faces showed impatience.. if they were to ever actually arrive. Apparently they did arrive and pictures I have seen show rather one too many burnt patches on the oven baked crusts (dark patches are expected but there were one too many blackened circles for my liking).
I feel my partner’s tweet is a good summary “would recommend @bianco_43 if you want Pizza Express with worse food, more property speculation and décor inspired by a slum landlords shed”.
I am considering giving the restaurant a go when a standard service is in full swing to see how staff act and what the quality of the food is like when they do not have people standing staring into the kitchen expectedly. If I do return I will do a follow up review to let you know if it is better, the same or worse than these first impressions. Otherwise feel free to search online for other reviews to get more perspectives as this is just my personal opinion.