Appearances can be deceiving. Nowhere is this maxim more applicable than kitchen hygiene. Take Heston Blumenthal's two-Michelin-starred London restaurant Dinner, where it's socially acceptable to pay £17 for frog's leg porridge, or - if you're not a complete fucking peasant - twice that for something called "Powdered Duck Breast".
At those prices, you'd expect to punch in your pin and walk away with (at the very worst) a sense of overwhelming financial dread; not the kind of weapons-grade diarrhoea that gets you struck off international flights. However, this past February the restaurant was forced to close for a week after dozens of staff and diners came down with norovirus.
In a vaguely similar incident, Cu Tu - a Vietnamese place in Shoreditch that lets you bring your own cans of Tyskie - also had to close temporarily after inspectors found a decomposing rat under the cooker and a smattering of rodent shit peppered all over the restaurant.
It's the job of the FSA (Food Standards Agency) to protect us and our plumbing from this kind of scatalogical oppression. If an eatery fails to provide adequate hygiene standards, the FSA can close them down. If it's, say, one bowel infection away from closure, it's slapped with a zero-star rating.
According to the agency, these zero-star places are "likely to have a history of serious problems". Why, then, they're still allowed to serve you food, I have no idea - it's a bit like Foxtons going, "There's an arsonist always trying to burn this place down, but it's probably OK for you to move in" - but, for whatever reason, they are.
I had a browse of the agency's UK-wide list of zero-rated restaurants - the "Top 100 Places to Contract Gastroenteritis", if you like - and found that plenty are located in the capital. It was time, I thought, for someone to give a few of London's dirtiest spots a go, to try and answer the question cultural theorists, environmental health officers and Trip Advisor reviewers have been asking for millennia: does bad hygiene always mean bad food?
Being a fussy eater, vegetarian and lifelong hypochondriac, I was anything but the ideal candidate. But "do you want to go and eat some shitty food and see if it makes you violently ill?" is a pretty hard sell, so I decided to put all my personal failings aside for one day and bite the bullet myself.
My first stop was Cummin' Up, a Jamaican café in Lewisham. The name made me think of a warm orb of bliss starting in my belly and washing over my face and fingertips. The name was deceiving.
The first thing I saw when I walked in was a heated container housing amber patties of some description. I asked what they were. The lady told me chicken, beef or salt fish. I wasn't quite ready to go the whole meaty hog, so I went for the salt fish option, which was warmed up and served to me in a wet bag. It immediately scalded my fingers, which I figured probably wasn't such a bad thing, as at least some of the bacteria might have been obliterated.
Lifting it to my mouth, the patty smelt sweet and musty, like a malted milk biscuit. On first bite, the pastry was chewy and surprisingly inedible. However, the real delight lay within; what squirted into my throat is best compared to piping hot congealed ejaculate. It was hard to swallow, but once I did the salty stuff quickly started forming a gel around my tonsils.
Walking to the bus stop, I had to induce a coughing fit to get back to breathing properly. Was that stomach acid I felt cummin up into the back of my mouth? It was, and it was highly unpleasant.
Next up was Damascu Bite on Shoreditch High Street. From far away you wouldn't know what this place was; the universal kebab house identifier (a neon sign covered in yellowing photos of food that no one could ever conceivably want to put inside their own bodies) was absent.
In fact, it wasn't until we got right up to the window that I spotted the rotisserie poles holding up two large chunks of meat. One was dark brown, the other a pallid beige. Were these moulded out of different animals? Had one just been left out to oxidise for longer than the other? Only the man behind the counter could know.
It was far too early for a kebab, so I chose the nation's other favourite: a burger.
The toasted bun was desiccated. It reminded me of the stale ones my nan would insist on defrosting for me, despite the fact they'd probably been living in her basement freezer since my mum was a child. The patty wasn't how I remember the meat from my carnivorous youth; instead of supple and edible, it was soaked in grease and studded with viscous beads of oil. Bone dry inside, it had the texture of a month-old sponge.
Granted, I might not know much about meat these days, but I do know my condiments. And this mayonnaise? This mayonnaise tasted very old. Teetering-on-the-edge-of-solidification old.
It was time to move on.
From slimy meat to slimy everything, the next place on the tour was a hallowed shrine to grease: Cocotones Restaurant Now! in Stoke Newington. Unfortunately, it seemed we'd come too late - though the FSA website still listed it as a zero-star establishment, since July of 2014 it's apparently been the proud owner of four hygiene rating stars. Mind you, I'm not sure how, as the kitchen looked in a similar state to the first two places we'd visited.
I asked for the menu, only to realise all the food was already sat out on the side. The owner - incidentally, the nicest man I've ever met - gave me a choice of various animals in an array of coagulated sauces. I picked the safest option of fish with a side of rice and peas, which was then reheated in a microwave.
Seriously, though, this guy was excellent. We hugged and high-fived and joked around, and were having such a lovely time that I almost forgot he could be giving me toxoplasmosis.
Back to the food: two Magikarp on a plate, sealed with radioactive orange sauce. The rice and peas were worryingly lukewarm, and all I could think about was my mum telling me not to reheat rice. I suddenly got really worried about tapeworms.
However, riddled with guilt and the need to please this lovely man, I kept spooning the toxic rice into my face. And when my stomach told me it was definitely time to stop, I asked Jake, the photographer, to buy a plastic bag from the corner shop so we could subtly shovel the remainder of the food in there.
(I'm sorry, you beautiful human being - you were fantastic, but I didn't want to spend the subsequent bus journey throwing up down the back of a stranger's neck.)
The fourth stop, Royal India in Stoke Newington, looked the fanciest so far; they were displaying lots of stickers that suggested they'd won some awards. What for, I couldn't be sure, but they certainly weren't for hygiene.
I took my prawn puri out into the street. The pancake had a metallic sheen of oil and was as thick and heavy as a wallet full of coppers. I picked it up to discover it was hovering on a good centimetre's worth of grease.
The slimy batter was uncooked, so I used it as a caveman utensil to shovel the curry into my mouth. My stomach churned. It was touch and go at this point. Luckily for my insides, my evening was coming to a close.
For the zero-starred tour, it was only fitting to end with an east London institution: Kebab Zero.
As I entered, I instantly noted two things. One: "Blurred Lines" was playing over the PA. Two: it smelt like a petting zoo. I thought I'd go for their speciality, a doner kebab.
Nothing about what I held in my hands seemed fit for human consumption, and it took me a good five minutes to build the courage to raise the stinking strips to my lips. I've had some foul things in my mouth in my time, but this was something else. I immediately spat it out and offered the kebab to Jake (he'll eat almost anything), but even he turned it down.
The one positive mark I can award Kebab Zero was that while it may have tasted foul, it delivered precisely what it promised: zero hygiene, zero taste, zero satisfaction. The remnants of what might well have been animal arse holes swilling around my mouth, all I wanted to do was scrub my teeth until my gums bled.
One-hundred percent unsurprisingly, there was a definite correlation between the hygiene rating of an establishment and the edibility of its food. At its best, what I was served had been digestible; at its worst, the plates were of the quality I'd imagine you'd find in an 18th century borstal.
Of course, the mind is a powerful thing. If you suspect there are thousands of parasites going at it all over your meal, it's probably not going to taste that great. But really, all of this did just straight up taste of raw sewage - I don't think there was a lot of psychological conditioning at play.
Overall, I'd recommend you stay away from restaurants that might give you an intestinal disease. A simple piece of advice, I know, but one that far too many people choose to ignore.
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