Ruth Reichl became restaurant critic for the New York Times in 1993, launching her column with a now-legendary (perhaps even instantly legendary) review of Manhattan institution Le Cirque. As recounted in Garlic and Sapphires, her threequel to Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me with Apples (AKA “Fuck Me with Apples”, to borrow Giles Coren’s alt-title), Reichl’s hugely variable experience at Le Cirque — bundled into the smoking section and served indifferent brown gloop when an unknown, feted and treated to champagne and lobster when recognised — was the reason she sought to remain anonymous throughout her restaurant-reviewing career.
If Marina O’Loughlin had a similarly formative experience early in her professional life, she certainly hasn’t made it public. She, too, has chosen to remain anonymous, though not out of veneration for Reichl (Garlic and Sapphires is, to her, “the most pompous book I’ve ever read about restaurants”) — but, rather, because remaining as outwardly unexceptional as the rest of the public — eating as everywoman — is, in her eyes, the best way to make “something that’s wanky and elitist accessible.”
It’s interesting to think what the late AA Gill would have made of all this. Every stitch of fabric he wore was a reminder that hiding, anonymous, in the shadows was not for him; as a long-time Chelsea resident he was no stranger to elitism. But — like his fellow Scot — he was an arch-skewerer of pomposity, a truly knowledgeable eater of and thinker about food, and gifted when it came to turning all that eating and thinking into prose. Despite the differences between them, there’s a clear affinity there, too: it’s the most obvious reason why the eventual choice for his replacement felt not just good but satisfyingly correct.
Gill’s well-worn brogues are no easy ones to fill, particularly at the first time of asking: over the years, his readership came to expect something truly idiosyncratic, and for the would-be successor the horrible, nagging question was always how to give it to them whilst also allowing enough of your own voice to come through. Seriously, this can go badly wrong.
O’Loughlin accordingly toes a delicate line in her first column in the late, great Sunday Times’ critic’s slot. She pays due homage to the man she calls He Who Came Before (presumably it’s him; it might be Ed Balls), going so far as to schlep over to Spencer Matthews territory to review Natural History Museum overspill storage unit Le Colombier.
“Review” might be a bit much, actually: this is more of a meditation on Gill, his “pyrotechnic” accounts of “mythical places” that O’Loughlin — like so many others — thrilled to as a reader, when the idea of writing That London’s most prestigious restaurant column was a fantasy as distant as Glasgow from SW3. There’s some mention of the food — mostly terribly comme il faut, from “extremely fine” grouse to “heavenly” oeufs en meurette, with the odd exception like “limp” French beans and “pallid” tarte tatin. But like so many of Gill’s old columns, this isn’t about the food. Those expecting a Ruth Reichl style atom bomb of a debut might leave disappointed, but all that can come (she has plenty of firepower in reserve.) This, instead, was the story of a torch being handed over — classily, respectfully, and for good.
Over at The Guardian, into the breach vacated by that artist formerly known as Bastard Turncoat gamely steps Felicity Cloake. Hi, Felicity! And congratulations: a this-gif nominee at the first time of asking, for the confession that “I can’t help coveting my mother’s poached Yorkshire partridge: juicy as you like, paired with a sweetly meaty, house-made cotechino sausage, for which I would happily travel south of the river.”
And there’s more — “wafer-thin, melt-on-the-tongue rashers of milky fat are the perfect gilding for plump, vinegary bivalves” — in what is actually a fairly impressive debut. As the artist formerly known as Marina O’Loughlin’s friend pointed out, this was always going to be something of a poisoned chalice, but the author of The Guardian’s long-running How To Cook The Perfect… column is obviously skilled at cherrypicking the best elements to get a recipe right.
So it’s off in Fay Maschler’s ever-intrepid footsteps to Winemakers Deptford, with a Grace Dentian riff on the creeping gentrification (get ready to delete as appropriate) blighting / enriching this corner of London. The writing itself offers a respectful nod to the O’Loughlin school of unfussy, demotic descriptions of food: a meringue is “pleasingly squidgy”; gurnard comes with “a delicate tangle of leeks vinaigrette.” That food is generally good, too (bar the odd miss like that meringue and a “damp” pistachio cake) and it works harmoniously alongside a diverse (slash “obscure”) wine list.
More than anything else, though — and as with her more regular Guardian column — it’s Cloake’s personality that shines through: anyone willing to write about taking her parents and dog out to southest-eastest London and happily admit “we’re cool with not being cool” displays a winning lack of ego. No indication yet if this is a one-off or the start of something more permanent — but no complaints here if it’s the latter.
From blushing debutantes to blushes of a different kind. It’s been a real rollercoaster for Giles Coren recently — on one hand, fronting “a new low for BBC arts coverage”; on the other, authoring The Best Insta Story Ever. In The Times this week, he’s giving a first-hand account of the latter: the specifics should already be familiar — critic calls stranger in a restaurant a “fuckbag”; stranger turns out to be said restaurant’s chef-proprietor — but that doesn’t make them any less amusing to revisit.
Given Coren’s total mortification and its probable impact on his objectivity, it’s tempting to perhaps knock a couple of points off the tally he awards Adam Handling et al, bringing his verdict more in line with the “universally sneery” reviews of his fellow critics (a jibe at their “fat arses” might be harder to square, especially given how dad-bod-jacked he’s looking these days on his frequent topless Insta Stories.)
Certainly, he doesn’t seem to have a lot of love for the odd “patronising injunction” on the menu, and reins back the impulse to “mock” its headings of Garden, Sea, and Land. There’s definitely some good stuff, too: “sensational” chicken-enriched butter, “fine” (as in good, not merely adequate) plaice schnitzel, “spellbinding” mac and cheese. But those “fat-arsed” critics never denied that The Frog wasn’t capable of doing delicious things; it was the faint smugness that informed everything from food to décor to menu injunctions that left them cold. Might that smugness extend to an owner doing admin in front of paying guests? Hospital pass to Jay Rayner!
Another young chef who didn’t win Masterchef is James Cochran; his snacks-and-flatbreads concept, James Cochran N1, leaves Grace Dent a little perplexed in the Standard this week. There is “devilish” Scotch bonnet jam adorning Cochran’s “highly inhalable” signature buttermilk fried chicken, perhaps the highlight among food which “rocks with both Kingston conviviality and a Glasgow end-of-the-night Munchy Box order.” The “Snacks” section of the menu in particular represents “glorious tapas for the tipsy”; if Dent is less enamoured with the occasionally “underwhelming” flatbreads, it’s a little lost in her “faintly hysterical” befuddlement at the setup more generally. This is a unfortunately just a “strange restaurant,” “selling flatbreads for £14 in a badly lit room, upstairs in a shopping centre.” As much as James Cochran’s food, at its best, delights — and that chicken really is very good — Dent’s review suggests there’s something more fundamentally awry. Maybe it can be solved by a menu tweak, or a refit, but when a generally charitable critic suggests your choice of location is akin to building a “multimillion-pound papier-mâché eco-wigwam next to a river,” that’s pretty unambiguous feedback.
Also unambiguous — though this time, fortunately, positively so — is Fay Maschler’s verdict of Untitled, in Dalston. Chef Rob Roy is presenting “interesting evolved food,” with two “masterpiece assemblies” (one involving lamb, the other aubergine) in particular offering “instant total pleasure” (unable to wean himself off austerity economics, editor George Osborne has apparently banned all commas from Standard copy.) The “enticing invitation” to “eat the whole menu” of 11 dishes should not be overlooked: paired with “wittily complex” drinks from “the Howard Hodgkin of cocktail lists” (do keep up) and “handsome solicitous service” it represents “notable value” at £52.50 for two people. Only the “bashful” name and hefty, forbidding, “shut-seeming” door seem to offer a deterrent: “few customers arrive” for both lunch and dinner when Maschler is there. Something to remedy quickly, people!