A bona fide Battle of the Bastards this week, as The Guardian’s resident Turncoat Bastard comes to blows with ES Magazine’s resident Grace and Flavour Bastard over who can deliver the fiercest beating to London’s most critically reviled recent new opening.
This is heavyweight Kaiju movie stuff, with O’Loughlin’s descriptions of “ludicrous,” “end-days cooking” and “irritating” staff spouting “scripted spiels” matched blow-for-blow by Dent’s “unfettered derision” at the “wacky,” “confusing, underwhelming nonsense” turned out by the kitchen. Viciously creative similes abound: Dent’s quinoa and cucumber pudding scented with vetiver is “like being frottaged roughly by a goth in a B&Q garden centre”; horseradish buttermilk, for O’Loughlin, savours of “the acrid emissions of a toxic cuckoo.”
Dent is perhaps a tiny bit more positive, celebrating some white lentil, chorizo and pecorino doughnuts dismissed by O’Loughlin as “stodgy and salty and sickly.” But overall both pieces are pretty consistently downbeat: this is food that works better as an “appetite suppressant” in Dent’s book; “silly nonsense,” the work not so much of flavour bastards as “thoroughgoing, unremitting, absolute taste tossers” in O’Loughlin’s.
Factor in Fay Maschler’s equally bristling verdict and it’s clear that this food is not winning the critics over. Which is not to say that no one likes it: this may be StreetXO all over again, a place that leaves the pros cold but which nevertheless remains rammed by a public looking to get something slightly different out of their dinner. Dent’s closing line (“I know that its future lies in the fact that at least some part of you, deep down, wants to experience it, too”) gestures towards this, but a parenthetical plea to chef Pratap Chahal after one especially egregious addition (“woah, Pratap, mate, stop there”) may be timely, too. Perhaps this is an appropriate point at which to make some changes to the menu, dial back the wannabe “clever anarchy” in favour of something likelier to appeal to a larger swathe of potential diners. O’Loughlin sees the place as a token of what “greedy central London” can still accommodate, noting that “big money” has been sunk into it. But with warning signs flashing around the future of the market, the success of a disruptive, divisive place like this is by no means guaranteed. Better a sensible bastard than a bankrupt one.
Talking sensible, here’s David Sexton, casting his usual sober eye over the food produced by Parabola’s new chef patron, Rowley Leigh. There’s an obligatory mention of Leigh’s wonderful Le Café Anglais — man, those parmesan custards — before he gets down to business, noting that Parabola “suffers some of the same problems of remoteness from the street” that afflicted Leigh’s former haunt.
At its best, the food is quintessential Leigh: a smoked haddock, egg and anchovy salad preceding “classic” partridge in salmi representing “a perfectly balanced, wholly beneficient autumnal meal.” Unfortunately, return visits are “less convincing,” featuring “bland and disappointing” crab linguine and quantities of sweetcorn and yellow pepper soup that are simply “too much.” There is further praise for an “excellent” Barnsley chop and “well made” plum tart; there is further disappointment at a crayfish, cuttlefish, and red pepper salad (“over-perked up” with chilli, the cuttlefish “nothing special.”)
Not a ringing endorsement, then — though not a Godzilla-stomping-on-Tokyo demolition job either. Apparently a “more gastronomic menu” is inbound, which may merit a further look, but for the time being the most interesting thing happening here is Sexton’s theory (posited in his accompanying Week In Food) that “you’re either a Pret [a Manger] person or a Leon — and never the twain shall meet.” Sexton himself is a Pret man (and admits to having its tuna and cucumber sandwich FOR BREAKFAST); we all know where his colleague Grace Dent would stand. Who among the hacks is going to come out in favour of Leon?
John Walsh is at a family-run restaurant in Maidenhead for The Sunday Times this week, which is about as fun as it sounds. Highlights include him assigning Le Gavroche three Michelin stars, and a series of toothless, witless grandad jokes so atrocious that they will still be burned into the memory when a proper writer takes over the column a couple of weeks from now.
Fortunately, given Maidenhead is out of town, it’s a free pass on humour revolving around the Italian surname Dente and a Marx brothers film that came out in 1933, when Walshie was twenty-five.
Although it is tempting to load up the gif library for Walsh’s description of “a nubbly hockey puck of white crabbiness, moist with mayonnaise and reeking of the Norfolk coast,” it’s onward, instead, over to The Times, where Giles Coren (in a break from relaying reviews via Insta stories) is taking a look at Lorne. This is clearly fertile ground for a would-be reviewer: Coren is fifth in line after Grace Dent, David Sexton, Marina O’Loughlin, and friend of the column Lisa Hilton have all had a crack at it.
Based on this precedent, the basic template for a review of Lorne seems to be: say something about how the area around Victoria has transformed over the years; note the horrific Nova Food development blighting it with crap poké concessions; say something nice about how Lorne represents a sanctuary from all this, maybe even an oasis; note the impressive pedigree of sommelier / front-of-houser Katie Exton and chef Peter Hall; conclude that this is astonishingly good food given the price and the surroundings; entreat readers to go in spite of the deterrent effect of Victoria and all it stands for.
Coren locks down a pretty solid full house, dwelling longer than most on the Victoria stuff before extolling the virtues of a succession of dishes, variously “delicate,” “very beautiful indeed,” “lovely,” “pretty,” “lovely” (again), and “wonderful.” Not stuff we haven’t heard before, from other reviewers, but worth saying again, especially since — months on from those initial, glowing reviews — Coren reports that Lorne is still “almost empty.”
The mania for novelty that has driven the extraordinary growth of the London restaurant scene in recent years forces critics all across town in search of new openings to review; it drags potential customers to the shiniest and newest rather than the best; it means that, after a first run of reviews dries up, it can be painfully difficult for a place worthy of wider attention to get it: people (critics, the general public) move on so much faster than they used to.
And so while it perhaps isn’t especially entertaining to be reading the fifth similar-looking take on the same place, for a critic like Coren to have written it in the first place feels vaguely important. Lorne clearly is fantastic; it clearly deserves more bums on seats than it is getting at the moment. It doesn’t have the shine and splashiness of the corporate Nova Food development, but it has certainly received a lot more love from the critical community than the 17 restaurants there that Coren lists in his piece this week (small point but it’s actually 18 — Hai Cenato really is that forgettable.)
Maybe critics mean nothing in 2017; maybe the internet and social media have ushered in a new paradigm. But when this many people who do this for a living say somewhere is good (or, in the case of Flavour Bastard, bad) then there might be a grain of truth to it. It’s not like following the will of the people — instead of the experts — has led us anywhere especially great recently.