Marthas142a St Vincent Street,
0141 248 9771
£ – inexpensive
££ – mid-price
£££ – expensive
££££ – very expensive
Take it away, Martha
Review published on 16/01/2012 © Sunday Herald
You can spend an awful lot on lunch without eating well. A takeaway sandwich or salad, and a sweet bite to finish, can easily clock up £5 a day, and its likely to be crap. The person who thought up the idea of chilling sandwiches should be shot: refrigerating bread is a bad American habit. And you cant taste a salad when its chilled to Siberian wintertime.
My heart sinks when I find myself in a location where all I have to choose from is that loft insulation-style bread, factory-farmed chicken, push-button cheddar, cotton-wool tomatoes and aged iceberg lettuce. Those revolting chainstore salads that taint the mouth for hours with dressings made from larger-than-life industrial ingredients, such as lemon extract, are possibly even worse, what with their aggressive flavour profiles and fraudulent tastes.
Organised, financially prudent people take a packed lunch to work, recognising that not only do they save a fortune, they eat better too. And when I get my act together, Im always favourably surprised by how last nights leftovers, and random bits and pieces of food from the fridge, taste pretty good the next day. But not everyone has the time or the inclination to make their own lunch, so the nearest sandwich bar has a captive audience.
With the opening of Marthas in Glasgows office land, I sense a major breakthrough. This new takeaway/café obviously takes inspiration from the Leon chain in London, which revolutionised fast food, offering people cheap, nutritious, tasty options to be eaten on the hoof. There are Leon-like dishes Moroccan meatballs, falafel wraps but Marthas has developed the concept considerably, emphasising seasonality and local sourcing. Whats more, the kitchen has a team of chefs cooking and baking food from scratch on the premises, much of it served hot. The result is far too good to be left to office workers. Marthas serves the most affordable, high quality, healthy food youll find in central Glasgow.
Marthas menus are inspired by the best seasonal Scottish produce. Its suppliers are small, progressive producers. An ethical awareness shows in items like Freedom Foods chicken, free-range pork and Fairtrade beverages. Its so easy to eat healthily here, yet also have absolutely delicious food. Marthas does show a keen interest in super-nutritious, seasonal foods, but you can tell that foodies rule the roost.
We sat in; Marthas is clean-cut, spacious and modern in a bright, warm, cheery way. A feast that, in retrospect, would have served four, came in at under £30. It was all good stuff and patently ultra-fresh. Any trepidation that we were in the hands of well-meaning health freaks was blown away by the hot, char-grilled chipotle chicken with avocado salsa, which showed a mastery of flavour with its absolutely addictive smoked jalapeno chilli sauce. I havent had a better or more generous-hearted mackerel salad, with its vibrant green spinach, golden and purple beetroot, airy quinoa, crunchy seeds and sprouts, matchsticks of sharp apple and knock-out lemon and horseradish dressing.
The pearl barley and chicken soup, a snip at £2.65, was just what you crave on a dismal winter day. Main courses come with nutty brown basmati rice and Marthas slaw, a seductively crunchy alliance of cabbage, kohlrabi and carrot in a light yogurt dressing. The warm winter salad was unstinting in its abundance, full of grilled plum tomatoes, nicely charred and roasted carrots, parsnips and celeriac on a bed of lemony borlotti beans, with crumbled feta and salsa verde on top.
The homemade lemonade is restrained in sweetness and theres a long list of herbal teas, but dont be under any illusion that Marthas is some sort of health spa. It has a pastry chef who produces dream-like wobbly panna cotta with Alphonso mango, a wicked deconstructed millionaire shortbread (with salt caramel) and spectacularly good hazelnut praline tarts with textbook short pastry.
Marthas bursts on the scene with it high standards, great palate and affordability. Much more than a sandwich bar, its an extraordinarily useful city-centre asset to be used throughout the day, for breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea.
The fast and the curious
Review published on 08/05/2012 © Sunday Herald
I dont normally do this up front but Im going to say it: I like this place. Its bold. Its different. You should try it. But its important to add that none of the above is because Marthas is anywhere close yet to the smash-hit sensation it perhaps could be.
Now when did I decide this? It was on my second visit actually. This afternoon, on my own, reading the paper while idly taking the flimsy plastic lid off the tub of hot red dragon pork, being suddenly hit by a waft of gingery, savoury deliciousness, tasting that succulent slow-roast meat and the spring-onions a go go in the rice. Thats when I realised: actually, this is better than I first thought.
Then there was the super-pea salad. A spiky piccalilli on the side, a watery but full-flavoured Dijon mustard coating the peas, pea-shoots, edamame beans and chunks of sticky, sweet, smoked Ramsay of Carluke ham hough giving it real oomph. Much, much better than it looked. But that tepid beetroot, ginger and apple juice sold in the sort of floppy, clear plastic container that went out of fashion in the 1970s? Aw, just forgettable. Marthas headline coleslaw? Not for me either. Too wet, too sharp from the yogurt dressing and utterly lacking in sweetness.
So what is this Marthas thing? On paper? Its Scottish fast food for the health conscious. Its every restaurant reviewers buzz words, proper sourcing, clever presentation, calorie and allergy counted yet attractive dishes served fast and oh-so fresh. And so the menu tells you. Loudly. Again and again. If that sounds dangerously patronising, preachy and smug its not. No, really. Though when you look closely at the sourcing list theres perhaps a bit more foraging through the Yellow Pages than the culinary undergrowth.
Imamu chicken, chipotle chicken, koftas and falafels make up the attractive core dishes from Scots ingredients. So what was the problem? This morning? That was my fault. I persuaded Des and Phil that we didnt actually need that fabulous gingerbread they serve at Rose & Grants at Glasgow Cross and should head up here to James Salmons striking 1902 art nouveau hat-rack building and try Marthas. Our first visit. A surprise? Yes. Surprising to walk into the ground floor of one of the most beautiful buildings in Glasgow and find a fast-food restaurant with a long counter, a condiments bar and one of those stainless-steel slidey chute things. Firing out alfalfa burgers.
Anyway, I had the chipotle chicken wrap and a tiny chocolate pot with a salty kick. Des had a imamu chicken wrap with sumac, poppyseed and yogurt. They were fine. Packed with fresh vegetables but not overpowering the meat. Phil had one of the few cakes made on the premises.
Yet, when we finished, the speech bubbles above our heads all held the same symbol a giant question mark. It was a bit ordinary. If youre not really interested in calorie counting or fat counting and flavour is as important as sourcing, especially if you are able to control what you eat at home, then it was largely a so-what.
And the decor in Marthas is bewildering. Is it a joke? Are we supposed to chuckle at the sub-McDonalds seating, the brash colour scheme, the harsh lighting, even that chill counter looking like its straight from Costa? If not then its all a bit uncomfortable, unwelcoming, cold and not really for lingering in. Its a great weakness.
The pricing. Now this is their great strength. Everything seems to be under a fiver and if you avoid those plastic cupped drinks, exceptionally good value. Add that to the hot dishes I had in the afternoon, the glow from eating well, and I can see where Marthas is coming from. With significant tweaks I can also see where they might be going: far.