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Toby Young
Friday 27th August 2004

Hoxton Apprentice

ES Magazine - 27th August 2004

By Toby Young

Compared to the other trendy establishments in Hoxton Square, there's something a little unusual about the Hoxton Apprentice. To begin with, the name of the restaurant doesn't contain any spelling mistakes, which is more than can be said for Bluu or Yelo. Then there's the fact that, unlike the White Cube, which is a cream-coloured oblong, it actually does what it says on the label.

The Hoxton Apprentice was set up by a charity called Training For Life that specialises in helping the long-term unemployed. To that end, the restaurant currently employs 12 trainees from the local community--and it will replace them with another 12 trainees, and then another, every six months. It's a bit like Fifteen, Jamie Oliver's restaurant just round the corner, except the managing director, Mike Dowding, swears that they came up with the idea first. According to him, the Hoxton Apprentice was the brainchild of Prue Leith who set up a similar restaurant in South Africa in 1997. She's a trustee of the current venture and pops in two or three times a week to see how her charges are getting on.

It's quite hard to maintain one's objectivity when reviewing a restaurant like the Hoxton Apprentice. The whole venture is so worthy, you can't criticise it without sounding like an old misanthrope. Of course, this problem wouldn't arise if the Hoxton Apprentice was an unqualified triumph. I went on a Wednesday lunchtime with two women who worked for Orbis, a charity aimed at treating preventable blindness that's based round the corner. While they both adored their main courses--one had a steak with roasted vine tomatoes, the other goat's cheese ravioli--my Thai green curry left me a little cold. The chicken was on the dry side and there were too many things floating around in the sauce that I couldn't identify. It wasn't a disaster, and at £8.50 it wasn't overpriced, either, but it was no better than something you could have got at the noodle bar next door. Perhaps I should have tried the "Big Fat curry Dusted Chips". When John Prescott opened the Hoxton Apprentice back in May he singled them out for particular praise.

The managing director assured me that they usually do between 40 and 60 covers at lunchtime, but on this occasion there can't have been more than 20 customers. Given how high the ceilings are, the Hoxton Apprentice is one of those restaurants that really needs to be full before it has any atmosphere. The building used to be occupied by a Catholic primary school and, because it was originally designed by Augustus Pugin, it's listed. This means the present designer, Paul Daly, hasn't been able to do much with the space. It's so cavernous it looks more like a church hall than a restaurant.

It was hard to get a sense of what sort of clientele the Hoxton Apprentice appeals to, given how sparsely populated it was. There were three men wearing identical grey suits and another party, more casually dressed, who could easily have been website designers. At least there were no Hoxton fins in evidence. Indeed, for all its connection to this notoriously fashion-obsessed part of London, it could have been located on Chiswick High Street.

I don't want to sound churlish. I suspect I was just unlucky, having picked a bad day to visit and a bad dish to sample. If I was to go again, I'd return on a Friday or Saturday night, when Hoxton Square really comes alive and the Apprentice, along with every other restaurant in the vicinity, is absolutely heaving. And next time I'm going to make sure I order some Big Fat Curry Dusted Chips.

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