It is impossible to miss Haugen, a multi-floored, pagoda-shaped, alpine-themed fondue restaurant that’s appeared in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, east London. As erections go, it is remarkable. Look out for the multitude of white faux-fur rugs draped over terrace chairs, the twinkling amber lights, the DJ booth and the après-ski vibes. Or the après-retail therapy vibes, because Haugen is a Las Vegas version of a Gstaad mountain lodge that’s been hammered up outside Westfield Stratford on the main drag to West Ham’s football stadium. The ground floor cafe-bistro serves breakfast from 8am and then fondue and schnitzel until around 10pm. The rooftop bar offers ski-themed cocktails such as the Saint Bernard and the Black Diamond. A more formal, pricier restaurant will open on one the upper floors in due course. Haugen is colossal, shimmering and jaw-dropping. To give an idea of scale, the private booking info claims it has potential for “exclusive events of up to one thousand”. That is a whole lot of yodelling and melted gruyere.
On the West Ham match day I ate there, all the restaurants in and around the Westfield shopping centre – Busaba, Wahaca, The Real Greek and so on – were protected by barriers. Security guards and police routed the football crowds away from anything smashable, with Haugen being closely guarded. Whether similar measures will be in place come spring 2022, when the nearby Abba Arena opens, is unclear. How rowdy are Abba fans? Will the £200 tickets to watch holograms cavort to Dancing Queen leave any spare cash for raclette, Berner würstel and tartiflette?
The one fact I do know is that Haugen is the humongous, ski-lodge-themed, multi-use, schweinshaxe– and black-forest-gateau-serving leisure space that literally not one diner was crying out for, but it’s here now and, frankly, I’m fixated.
On my first attempt to eat here, I sat for 25 minutes being ignored while legions of staff floated rudderless and unmanaged. I left without eating, but felt rather bad afterwards. Here, I thought, is yet another post-pandemic, post-Brexit gargantuan restaurant project setting sail, whether or not the staff are trained, and I should learn to accept the new chaotic normal. The second time, Haugen had clearly got wind of my appointment and the brightest and best staff were on hand; the emmental and appenzeller were quickly on the melt and my fondue appeared with great alacrity.
Haugen could be rather lovely in a kitsch, take your friends for a laugh kind of way, but what’s sabotaging it presently is the quality of its produce. A “classic” mountain fondue is for a minimum of two people at £22.50 per head. Admittedly, the heralding at the table of the bubbling caquelon of melty cheese with requisite long-prong forks is a fun moment, but then one surveys the things to dip into the goo: biteless, cheap silverskin onions; forgettable, unseasoned, steamed new potatoes; an unlovable plate of poor-quality speck, coppa and stale cornichons; a large plate of stale bread. Of course, many will argue that the bread is supposed to be stale, but, at £45, this began to feel like an assault. Fondue is purposefully simple: it is dipping miscellaneous things in communal cheese, mainly for sociable purposes. However, those items should be excellent. In the past, I’ve eaten showstopping fondue with crisp radishes, pickled vegetables and delicious hunks of crusty bread that left people fighting for the final cheesy smear.
A starter of grilled autumn squash consisted, quite hysterically, of one diminutive slice of squash hiding among a vast plate of rocket leaves, like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now. A portion of Severn & Wye smoked trout was smaller than my palm, and arranged in two pieces; it was dry and arrived with an egg cup full of quite good celeriac remoulade for £12.50.
Haugen’s semi-open kitchen is evidently busy, with several chefs arranging food on plates, but they are utterly hampered by someone’s desperate need to make profit. Nothing felt or tasted as if it has been made from scratch. We ordered two cakes for dessert: a slice of sachertorte – a chocolate marzipan cake – which was pleasant enough, albeit clearly mass-produced, and at least looked appealingly glossy in Instagram photographs (phew, thank heavens); and an allegedly twice-baked cheesecake that tasted vaguely of vanilla and came with a small pot of purple compote that may have been blackberry but was actually blueberry.
As is the case with many of these huge, tourist-magnet restaurants, Haugen relies on a one-time clientele who will be bedazzled by the decor and unquestioning of the menu’s prices and provenance. This pains me. There is fresher, better grab-and-go food in the M&S food hall a short walk way, even if you do have to eat it on the wall outside the Holiday Inn. I’ve tried my best to love Haugen, but my overall tip re their fondue is fon-don’t.