Food Special: Luton Officially Eight Times More Special Than Dunstable

If your new year’s resolution is to eat less, lose weight and save money on eating out, you’ve come to the right place. Only one week in to 2014, Luton has delivered generous municipal support designed to galvanise your intentions for post-festive restraint in the form of news, released yesterday, that no fewer than 16 of our local eating establishments achieved a round and umami-rich zero in respect of food hygiene, as assessed by Luton Borough Council in conjunction with the Food Standards Agency.

The zero-rating in food hygiene implies that there is a need for ‘urgent improvement’ in respect of food preparation and handling and the cleanliness of premises. Following recent similar stories about High Town’s own Hajeez Peri Peri (now under new management), Ambala Sweet in Dunstable Road, and not forgetting the delightful episode of rat infestation at How Cha Noodle Bar in September, it is disheartening to learn that so many more of Luton’s foodie firmament have turned out to be black holes rather than local stars.

While I don’t know all of the establishments on the list, three of the insalubrious sixteen caught my eye in particular: SuperSam, on High Town Road, promoter of orange paint and purveyor of eastern European foods; the Brewery Tap, beloved haunt of University of Bedfordshire staff; and Meah’s on Park Street, which I’ve long had in mind to visit following a recommendation by a friend (I will think again).

SuperSam: Not so super, it seems.

A little further search on the FSA website suggested that for 5-star establishments in Luton, you either need to head for the airport, where any number of bland corporate concessions have nevertheless managed to establish good food hygiene practice, or to Kent (home of Luton, Chatham). Alongside the 16 zero-ratings, there were a further, staggering 114 local food businesses in need of ‘major improvement’ and awarded only one star, including (worryingly) High Town butcher Zimsa, HT Curry, High Town Kebab, Delicja Polish Food Shop, May Sek Oriental Cuisine, Cemil’s Kebabs (local friend Grumbly Bob’s favourite) and Best Kebab.

After seven years of living in Luton, I can hardly say I’m surprised, but I do wonder at the complacency of traders who seem to do so little to merit our custom. ‘Difficult economic times’ aside, there is a growing resident population with relatively high levels of disposable income (in work, often renting, many with young families) who are willing to pay for decent take-away food and meals out where they could have reasonable confidence in cleanliness and provenance.

For sheer balls-out dauntlessness, you have to hand it to Lutopia for proving time and again the resilience of what I henceforth designate the Yoga World & Pesto thesis. YW&P, we recall, centres on the idea that Luton is so truly a town of untapped potential that there is space yet for hope and aspiration in a way that is simply not the case in towns and cities already laid waste by gastropubs, artisanal bakeries and micro-breweries. That dream you had of opening a café or setting up a second-hand bookstore? Do it now. Luton needs you.

(Yoga World & Pesto notes in passing that our Dunstablian neighbours only managed a paltry two such zero-ratings, leading us surely to conclude that Luton is officially eight times more egregious than its neighbour. Eat dust, Dunstable.)

Not all, however, is lost. A few local establishments – rated four and five – offer bacteria-free eruptions of hygiene excellence along Luton’s culverted river of gastronomical mediocrity. That’s not to say that they necessarily serve anything of particular foodie interest, but what they do serve is likely at least to be hygienically prepared. The following list is by no means comprehensive, and I concentrate my attention, as ever, on the parts of town I know best.

In High Town, local favourite and irono-cool hipster hangout the Scandi achieved a maximum rating of five, along with Peri Peri Grill House on Hitchin Road and the Painters Arms, which achieved a 5-rating in 2011, though I’m not aware that they serve any food of great substance. Marjorie’s, now officially the centre of High Town’s literary scene, and the Freeholder, are still awaiting inspection.

Foodies Sandwich Shop and Abam both manage a very good rating of four. The mysterious no-menu EKO Food Court came in with a respectable rating of three, as did the Mediterranean Coffee Shop and Perla, the Polish canteen that opened in the premises formerly known as Siedemnastka, at no. 17 High Town Road.

In Round Green, Chicken George is the perhaps unexpected star with a maximum score of five, with the formerly lady-bothering-with-post-prandial-roses Baltistan and H Collins Butchers following closely with four.

H Collins Butcher, which I’ve not previously mentioned on this blog, is another of those apparently timeless establishments, like Briganti Tailoring, that will probably close when the owner retires. (Predictably enough, I’m one of those near-vegetarians that could be persuaded to eat more meat if there were a vibrant local butcher ready to support and inspire my interest in ethically farmed produce and cookery. H Collins Butcher does not, sadly, suggest itself conspicuously in this category.)

In the town centre, the ever-dependable Roti Shack on George Street pulled off a 5-rating to complement their delicious Caribbean street food and friendly service, along with ‘Indian tapas’ restaurant Papa J’s (I really should do a review on both of these). Also in this category we find Monna Lisa, Gino’s Café, Raj Indian Restaurant (Adelaide Street), Red Chilli restaurant (Wellington Street), Mamas Kitchen in the indoor market, and Zumo Smoothie Bar. Tim’s Kitchen, which I’ve previously reviewed, garners a very good 4-rating.

Desert’s Rose, which abandoned its part-stuccoed façade at around the same time as the council removed extraneous ‘street furnishings’ from the rest of Bute Street, is rated a three.

Fresh fruit smoothies and excellent meze at the Desert's Rose

Fresh fruit smoothies and excellent meze at the Desert’s Rose

As always, comments are very welcome. What are your local food suggestions?

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