Tutti “Tuscan Grille”, Freeport, Braintree

Another chain to review.  My views on chains are well known to those who read these pages regularly, so what better way to start than by quoting Marina O’Loughlin from the Guardian on chain restaurants, since she states the facts with such glorious eloquence and simplicity:

“No, I don’t love a chain restaurant.  With few exceptions, they appear to care little about you and me – we’re not guests, we’re footfall – and even less about what’s on the plate.  As long as they can lure enough mugs through the door happy to shell out for food that has been bean-counted down to the last haricot, why should they bother?  The city centres already colonised, they’re now sending out oily tendrils into the suburbs and sticks.  Some seem specifically to target genteel market towns: Prezzo, for instance, is as perniciously dedicated to Lebensraum as Tesco Metro.  These places suck the passion out of cooking and service.  The last time I tried a Prezzo – yep: mug; but there was little choice – the dish I ordered had none of its billed petit pois.  It returned with an almost-frozen fistful dumped on top.  They might as well have spat them at my bonce through a peashooter, Beano-style.”

These places have however done their segmentation and their focus groups and designed menus at price points designed to appeal to aspirational Mr and Mrs Joe Public, who doesn’t care about food quality and provenance but does care about being seen somewhere stylish.  I’ve been withering about chains in the past for very good reasons, not least the standard of food and service failed to deliver the goods (they often have impossibly high staff turnover ratios), the menus were so absurdly long that you know very little if anything is actually cooked freshly from scratch, and because, as Marina says, they lack the passion and care to make dishes from the best local ingredients to surprise and delight the punter.

So forgive my immediate scepticism of Tutti, not least because it seems to be dominated by marketing rather than food.  For clarity, I need to ask one key question: why does this chain style itself a “Tuscan Grille”?  Is that supposed to impress us?  Are we so shallow that the extra “…e” will entice us through the door?  Or, given that the Italian for “grill” is “griglia”, is it simply pretentious pseudo-Italian marketing tosh?  This is an important point, since domination by marketing-speak is generally a means of disguising that the food itself is not very good.  Hmmmm… research needed then.

Not much digging is required to find that Tutti is part of the Unchained Restaurants chain (which sounds a little like the Ministry of Peace in 1984). This is what the website says:

Tutti Tuscan Grille is part of the Unchained Restaurants group based in the Scottish Borders and operating restaurants from Essex to Edinburgh.  With a turnover in excess of £2m and employing more than 50 people, it is one of the most successful small businesses in the area.

Rob & Jules Reeley started the business in 2003 in Braintree, Essex by buying the Arbuckles Restaurant from Freeport. Tutti Tuscan Grille was launched in February 2004 utilising their experience in both the restaurant and recruitment and training industries.

Based in the Borders for more than eight years, they have two girls, Lizzie aged 8 and Bella aged 12 and a crazy dog called Kipper.

They believe in great value home cooked food utilising the best available ingredients and authentic recipes and are passionate about providing fantastic customer service.

In addition to their restaurant in Braintree, they operate Nachos Fiesta in Galashiels, the Goblin Ha’ hotel in Gifford, East Lothian and will soon announce their next venture in Edinburgh.  Owners:

Rob and Jules Reeley
Unchained Restaurants Ltd
Station Road
Tel: 01578 750770

Ah, so Tutti has a human face and is run by a couple, not a corporate conglomerate.  People who care about home-cooked food (in spite of the absurdly long menu) and, hopefully, the Billy Bunters (rhyming slang for punters, for the uninitiated) coming through the door.  Has to be worth a try, then!

So then to Freeport and the original site of the Reeley empire.  This is one of a number of restaurants lining the frontage to the Freeport designer village, including Pizza Express.  In itself it is not imposing, nor especially characterful.  The interior is a barn painted in burgundy and white – too big and with dreadful acoustics.  A bar at one end seems very distant, while the few customers on this Tuesday night were gathered at the far end.

We made a good decision to start with cocktails, though it took a short while after we were seated for the waiter to find us and take orders. It was worth the wait, since he proved charming and efficient, and the Woowoo and Margherita both excellent.

But initial signs on another Italian chain are not promising when the “Tuscan Grille” is not specifically Tuscan at all.  The menu does include a claimed Florentine steak (of which more anon) and a number of other Italian regions, but the “traditional favourites” on the bill of fare are something of a world tour, taking in, for example, Mexico (“Sizzling Fajitas”), quite a lot of France (“Salmon Thermidor” seems somewhat removed from the lobster of the French classic), even America in the form of “Surf and Turf.”  Let’s admit the truth here: this is a chain menu, not a purist menu of any description.

On which subject, my starter was gambas pil pil, which as any student will tell you is Spanish rather than Italian.  It was also pretty darn good in that these were proper prawns, cooked whole and butterflied.  A good dish indeed… but for the lack of bread to soak up the garlicky oil.

Luckily, my friend could not finish the garlic bread in her choice of starter, a deconstructed bruschetta.  That is, bruschetta with the tomato and garlic topping deposited cold in the centre, with warm garlic bread on the outside of the plate.  In all my years, I’ve never seen bruschetta served like that, and frankly I don’t think it’s any improvement.

The moment I saw Florentine sirloin steak on the menu, I knew that was what I had to order, not least because I was robbed of a return to Florence to eat this mouth-watering delicacy last year due to illness (not mine), but also because doing it right is not just a case of throwing a slab of meat on a charcoal grill.  First, consider the derivation of your raw materials, here described in an excellent blog by Emiko Davis:

The star of Florentine cooking is of course, the bistecca Fiorentina – a T-bone steak at least “two fingers” thick, grilled over coals until rare and best served alone, without sauce or even lemon. I even had a retired Florentine butcher tell me that with a proper Florentine bistecca, meaning the steak that comes from a Chianina cow, you do not even need to add salt. The meat is so tasty it needs nothing to add to it and you shouldn’t cover its natural taste. Of course, there are those that are partial to a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a fresh grating of black pepper.

I’ve also seen it cooked with rosemary twigs, though served au naturel would be the best way to showcase a really first class product.  The bad news is that while Tutti says it sells “premium quality steaks” I can see nothing whatever on their website or menu about the provenance of the raw materials used, what breeds, where and how they were raised and by whom, nor how long they were dry-aged.  This is surely a serious omission for a restaurant with pretensions of serious quality dining?

In this case, it is a 10oz sirloin steak.  What is there to distinguish it from other box standard cheap & cheerful sirloin steaks to warrant the title Sirloin Steak Florentine?  A pat of pre-ordered garlic-and-herb butter, apparently.  I’d say in practice it was a competently cooked steak but not remotely true to the tradition claimed by the title, and not filled with melt-in-the-mouth succulence, flavour and tenderness but slightly tough, sinewy and chew – most definitely not the noble beast from whence a true Florentine steak would have been extracted.  It is prima facie evidence that the food served has been selected for cheapness, and lives up to the marketing bilge not one jot, nor one iota.

Said cheapo steak was accompanied by a huge mound of crispy Italian potatoes, parmentier via the deep frier, some tired rocket and half a grilled but cold tomato.  As Marina says, weighed to the last bean.

My companion’s spaghetti carbonara was tasty and pretty decent, but then you would worry if a restaurant could not make a halfway decent job of something so relatively simple.  A respectable but not outstanding Merlot-Sangiovese accompanied our meal.  We both went for a creme brûlée for dessert.  It was a reasonable brûlée – not the best and not the worst, but not worth anything like the £5.15 charged.

In the event that Mr and Mrs Reeley read this feedback, I hope they will realise some of their boastful claims are nothing but hype, and that customers can see through that.  I would much rather they were honest and said it’s a restaurant serving a range of dishes manufactured in a factory somewhere and heated on site.  It’s not anything special, as the marketing buzz words would inevitably lead you to believe.  So is this a fair and reasonable statement to make:

They believe in great value home cooked food utilising the best available ingredients and authentic recipes and are passionate about providing fantastic customer service.

In my estimation, no it isn’t.  The Reeley’s reeley could easily do far better, starting with stripping away some of the fancy descriptions.  A short menu of good, honest, home-cooked food would have been fine.  By and large, this was not it.  Grills, pizza, pasta, seafood, cocktails… Tutti is trying to be all things to be all things to all people, and falling down in the process, but the hype and spin makes things a million times worse.

And Marina has them to a tee… so please, please, PLEASE – go to an honest restaurant dedicated to serving fresh local ingredients from prime suppliers.  Leave the chains to die a death.

4 thoughts on “Tutti “Tuscan Grille”, Freeport, Braintree”

  1. Hello, many thanks for taking the time to comment about your experience at our restaurant in Braintree.
    I take your comments on board, appreciate the positive bits and accept that your thoughts are genuine about how we compare with authentic Tuscany.
    We have been in Braintree for almost ten years now and our menu has evolved greatly over the years mainly as a result of trial and error and listening to our guests.
    Our first menu was approximately 50% of our current offer and included many more traditional and authentic dishes, however, our customers are varied by time of day or week, age, needs and wants – if they don’t order veal chops (for example), there is no point listing them.
    I would also point out that we (Mr & Mrs Reeley) read all feedback in person (good or bad), enjoying the positive and attempting to remedy any negatives wherever possible. The vast majority of our food is freshly prepared on our premises using traditional (but adapted) recipes and can honestly say that other than a few desserts there is very little that is “manufactured” off site.
    Again, many thanks for your comments
    Rob Reeley

    1. Actually, I would love you to serve veal chops – and the best Italian in Braintree, La Piazza, often does. I’ve eaten excellent veal there twice!

  2. Andy I enjoyed to review. And feel its a shame Tutti’s is not more authentic, but this is Braintree and thats the point, I would like to feel I walked into a part of Italy instead of a Grill in an Essex town, when I walked into Tutti’s

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