In order to make your name as a restaurant critic it's not enough to be the first on the block to discover all the hot new restaurants. You have to identify the latest food trends as well. We all know that the vogue for Asian fusion food has peaked, but what comes next? Will it be Italian food served sushi style, as pioneered by Shumi? The pared-down, poshed-up Chinese food favoured by Hakasaan? Or the Viennese coffee house cuisine currently on offer at the Wolseley?
One of the most promising candidates is soul food, that distinctive style of cooking invented by slaves in the American South in an attempt to spice up their basic rations. From a trend-spotter's point of view, it certainly seems to hit all the right marks. It has the smack of authenticity. It's suitably new and different. Most importantly, two soul food restaurants have opened in West London in the past 12 months: Ashbell's and Harlem. As any style journalist will tell you, two is a coincidence and three's a trend. All it will take is one more and soul food will officially qualify as the Next Big Thing.
Harlem is located at the unfashionable end of Westbourne Grove, where it ceases to be part of Notting Hill and becomes part of Queensway. From the outside, it looks more like a club than a restaurant since the entrance is guarded by three formidable-looking bouncers. In fact, it's both a club and a restaurant, with a drinking-and-dancing area downstairs that's open until 2.30am. One of the owners is the legendary music producer Arthur Baker--he's worked with all the greats, including the Rolling Stones--so the sounds are guaranteed to get people on the dance floor.
The restaurant itself is nothing fancy. Essentially a diner, it starts serving breakfast at 8am, with "supper" being the last meal of the day, available from Midnight until 2am. In between, they serve brunch, lunch and dinner. The interior is sepia-coloured, as if stained by too much cigarette smoke, and the walls are decorated with black-and-white photographs of famous soul artists. It looks like any number of cheap, East Village restaurants, which is presumably the idea.
The other patrons weren't exactly fashionable--they were too bohemian for that--but they were certainly an interesting-looking crew. I saw one girl at an adjacent table with bright green dreadlocks and an array of face jewellery that would put the kids on Brat Camp to shame. Could she be an "early-adopter", the elite urban tribe identified by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point who call the tunes that the rest of us end up dancing to?
So far, so good, I thought. I sat down with high hopes, my Zeitgeist-radar twitching with excitement. Alas, it all went pear-shaped when the food arrived. For my first course, I had fried green tomatoes with buttermilk scallion dressing, and then followed up with buttermilk fried chicken accompanied by "mac 'n' cheese" and a side order of onion rings.
The fried green tomatoes were alright, though not a patch on the ones available at 202, the Nicole Farhi emporium in the same street, but the buttermilk fried chicken was bland and stodgy. It certainly didn't need the added carbohydrates of macaroni and cheese, a meal in itself rather than a way of complimenting fried chicken. Admittedly, I shouldn't have ordered the onion rings, but by the end of the meal I felt as if I'd consumed about 5,000 calories and brought forward my inevitable heart attack by at least 12 months. From a purely health point of view, it wasn't that different from a Supersized McDonald's meal.
Alas, if the cuisine at Harlem is anything to go by, I can't see soul food catching on. It may be popular in the American South, where every third person is the size of a mobile home, but it won't find favour with London's weight-conscious restaurant-goers. One of the trademarks of this type of food is something called "gumbo". I'd always assumed that this was pronounced with a hard "g", but now I know better.