Grace Dent in Notting Hill is the strangest East-meets-West mashup since Magnus Reid announced his WTF dining series at the W Hotel. So it’s only fitting that the Aussie tearaway gets a shoutout in Dent’s review of Core by Clare Smyth, as the epitome of what a chef in a truly casual restaurant looks like (sporting a Ramones t-shirt, “swigging natural wine and blasting out Butthole Surfers’ back catalogue,” mostly.)
As every critic to have visited Core has remarked, there’s precious little of that here: it’s still “full bells and whistles faff and finery.” But that doesn’t bother Dent, who ultimately considers it “something more” than an obligatory box-tick for her end-of-year list. Amuses-bouche are both “tiny” and “sumptuous” — “fine British produce served surprisingly” — while the Charlotte potato with roe and a “heavenly” white butter sauce (none of yer beurre blanc nonsense here) is even better. That lamb-braised carrot — so underwhelming for both Fay Maschler and Tony Turnbull — is A-OK in Dent’s book, as is the oxtail-stuffed Roscoff onion and a “delightful” skate / shrimp combo. Even the staff (a sticking point for some) get the seal of approval: they’re “adorable,” skilful dancers of the fine line “between Michelin-type primness and being a best friend you want to take drinking.”
This is exactly the sort of review Core needed after a lukewarm initial reception — one that acknowledges that whilst the setting’s DNA does not scream “fun,” it’s still possible to have fun there. It remains to be seen whether this will kickstart a renewed appreciation of what Smyth is trying to achieve in her corner of Notting Hill; in a week where Dent’s exclusion from her own publication’s list of important people on the London scene ruffled more than a few feathers, though, it would take a brave soul to bet against it.
Rochelle Canteen at the ICA
Two other names excluded from the Eat and Drink section of the Standard’s Progress 1000 are those of Fay Maschler and Margot Henderson. This shouldn’t be surprising —women have long been excluded entirely from lists like these, or smuggled onto them alongside their siblings and / or partners — but it’s still a little hard to swallow when inedibly chewy sandwich jambon-beurre magnate Jean-Michael Orieux (that’s the CEO of, uh, Paul) is able to find a slot.
It’s also sadly fitting that both should miss out: when the alternative history of the rise of Modern British food is written, they will both likely get a little more credit than they do at present. Maschler, of course, as a chronicler of the through-lines from Alistair Little to Jeremy Lee, and St John to The Clove Club; Henderson, double of course, as the fantastically accomplished cook whose wonderful Rochelle Canteen has remained (in Maschler’s words) “a hidden secret” to a world that has flocked to the other Henderon’s St John in zealous droves.
Now Margot Henderson and her partner, Melanie Arnold, have a new Rochelle Canteen, at the ICA, which Google says is an art gallery near St James’s Park. For Maschler, this is “a great move,” and while her ebullience dims a little after being reverse-ID’d at the museum entrance and told that “seniors are free,” hers is nonetheless a highly positive take, launching into a list of “items that particularly gratify” longer than some restaurants’ whole menus. Chicken liver pâté is “douce” and “rich” (ooh, yes); braised fennel sausages “dense and peppery but tender to the touch”; lamb cutlets “succulent”; a green salad “exemplary,” “with quite spiky personality.” All this before puddings, which “deserve a rave of their own.”
Quite whether they’ll get it depends on whether other critics will make the trek to a part of London ironically as much of a foodie “boondocks” as the original Rochelle Canteen’s surrounding Shoreditch was all those years ago. There are so many exciting young chefs in London right now, working on so many exciting new projects — Smoking Goat 2 opens in a matter of days! It will be all too easy for Rochelle Canteen at the ICA to get lost in the wash. Based on Maschler’s verdict, at least, this would be a crying shame.
Giles Coren could have visited Rochelle Canteen at the ICA this week, to be fair. He could have visited Flavour Bastard with Nigel Farage and given the place — and the bloke — an absolute rave, and it would only have been the third-most controversial and noteworthy thing to bear his name (catch Front Row on iPlayer, culture vultures!)
In another week, his paean to Ceremony, a “new restaurant and bar serving modern British dishes that happen to be vegetarian” would perhaps be more notable. He’s even able to overlook the fact that the place’s right-on concept is a 140-character tweet populated entirely with the about-to-spew emoji, celebrating Ali Dedianko’s joint instead as “an outstanding restaurant by any measure” — nay, one of the “most exciting small restaurants” to open in years.
Joe Stokoe’s cocktails to kick things off are “exquisite,” befitting their Milk & Honey heritage. Duck egg with polenta is “brilliant”; smoked yoghurt “dreamy,” and whilst there are a couple of technical flaws — both aubergine and leeks “could have been cooked longer” — pretty much everything is “utterly bang on.”
It’s an unusually positive take from a man whose own GP diagnosed him as basically “running on piss”, though his more familiar mordant side does shine through in a few places (not least the description of “natural vegan wines that look and taste like they’ve been filtered through a tramp.”) It’s even — gasp — optimistic, positing a future where the world “forgets about slow-cooked bloody mammal carcasses over charcoal for one goddamn minute and starts to think about what’s good for it.” Ceremony certainly seems like a step in the right direction.
Smoke & Salt
Another means of reaching the same end is minimising the emphasis the eating public puts on honking great hunks of prime-cut protein, exploring different methods of delivering the same depth of flavour without the attendant waste and ecological damage.
So, hello, Smoke & Salt, bearing the strapline “Modern dining/ancient techniques.” In Marina O’Loughlin’s eyes, this is a genuine contender despite its location in a shipping container; those “ancient techniques” ennoble a dazzling array of highly of-the-moment ingredients. So there’s plantain, and chicken hearts (together?); there’s new potatoes, and gorgonzola, and chimichurri, and chargrilled ox heart (hold fire on that “TOGETHER?!?!”: it’s a “perfect”, “successful marriage.”) In an on-the-nose Brixton metaphor, “proley,” “off piste” cuts like lamb breast are “poshed up”; a sustainable, “unloved” fish like coley is fashioned into “poetry” by the “fragrant” sauce of green peppers alongside it.
Places like this are the upside from the “topical outbreaks of gentrification” affecting neighbourhoods like Smoke & Salt’s; for every Champagne + Fromage (a 280-character tweet populated entirely with the about-to-spew emoji), Londoners might strike it lucky with somewhere genuinely “exciting,” delivering an experience “little short of bravura.” It’s a complex subject, but O’Loughlin suggests that dismissing the influx of “strawberry trousered” young money and “posh boys punting pecorino and prosecco” out of hand is a little blinkered: every so often it results in something for which the only appropriate response is “gratitude.”