The food at the recent collaboration dinner between Copenhagen’s 108 and Great Portland Street’s Portland was fascinating, if only because so much of it, in its tweezered, labour-intensive perfection, didn’t sit very easily with the gutsy (albeit still highly finessed) stuff that usually comes out of Merlin Labron-Johnson’s kitchen. This is no bad thing — it’s exactly why people are happy to pay money for one-offs like this: to be provoked, to have horizons broadened. Collaboration is here a reminder that restaurants have personalities of their own, a proprietary genome that it’s a critic’s job to unravel.
All of which is to say things are looking good for Noizé, newly opened in what was once Dabbous, and reviewed this week by Fay Maschler. It’s immediately obvious that “happy satiety” is in the restaurant’s very bones, spurning monstrous price tags and tiresome virtue-signalling for “happy toing and froing about when you would like a table.” Adjectives like “rustic,” “convivial” and “genial” abound in descriptions of the room, the conduit a service style heavy on “flexibility” and “customer consideration.”
The food is similarly geared towards delivering maximum satisfaction: Cheddar gougères “should not be missed”: squid, smoked bacon and apple is “felicitous chaos.” Main courses run the gamut from “punchy” to “neatly” put together; an array of “classic puddings” — baked Alaska, apple tarte fine — sit “comfortably” in succession. All this boosted by a wine list that has “plenty to detain you” (although “carafes would be good” as a halfway house between glass and bottle.) Noizé’s DNA does not appear to be complicated — “nice people serving extremely pleasant food and wine efficiently in a comfortable place” — but based on this verdict, at least, it appears built to last.
But restaurants are made as much as they are born. Salon 2.0 won David Sexton over following a “refurbishment and a re-ponder”, and this week it’s Grace Dent’s turn to rock down to just off Electric Avenue and contribute to the “growing buzz”.
The offering is “a little more complex” than it was in the past, but that doesn’t mean it’s “any more formal”: this is still very much one to class under “no-faff”, even if dinner comes down to a choice of two set menus. From the shorter one — “life is too bloody short to agree to any chef’s extended menu” — nduja croquettes are superlative, packing “substance, crispness, heat and sweetness”; duck comes with “sweetly pretentious but lovable” accompaniments (life is too short, too, for “titivated carrot”, this week’s entrant into the this-gif running.) Black pepper ice cream that accompanies roast apple is confusing — either “archly delicious” or “a culinary abomination” — but no less intriguing for that. Though this version of Salon is one that has only been live for a few weeks, Dent is happy to speak in essentialist terms: it may be “experimental” and therefore “possibly challenging to some diners,” but it’s “completely worth leaving one’s postcode for.”
Without a refurb / re-ponder like Salon’s, restaurants are fairly unlikely to benefit from a critical re-evaluation. Narratives form early: it takes a brave writer to challenge a consensus once it has been iron-clad on Twitter. More often than not, subsequent reviews simply serve to reinforce what someone else has said before.
So it is with Jay Rayner at The Game Bird, a restaurant previously reviewed by Giles Coren. After his weeks in the provinces, Rayner falls on chef James Durrant’s food with alacrity, recognising — as Coren did — that this is not about “neophilia” or “grinding restlessness,” but “execution,” (fine) “continuity,” (fine) and “eternal verities nuzzled up to and whispered sweet nothings at” (umm.)
Particular highlights are the “theatre” of the smoked fish trolley (complete with “a choice of condiments to make you giggle”) and the “soft-steamed doughy loveliness” of a beef and ale suet pudding. This is followed by the “perfectly tempered” dark chocolate of a “glamorous, shiny” Black Forest gateau. All of which is mere preamble to a Lyle’s Golden Syrup sponge with custard: an unimpeachably good thing to round off a menu full of them. Which isn’t exactly a surprising thing, given what Coren said about the place originally. But if all people wanted from restaurant reviews was a yay/nay verdict, the art form would have died long before now. As Rayner’s closing words recognise, a review can be many things: a mere “list of dishes;” a piece of “social commentary;” a “love letter.” The fun’s not just in the verdict: it’s in how it arrives.
Jean-Georges at The Connaught
Coren himself is the poster boy for this school of reviewing: shaggy dog stories with the admission of real dog-shagging if that’s what will get the biggest laugh.
This week’s review of Jean-Georges at The Connaught is a case in point. Couple of preliminary lines about a personal bugbear — this time, critics referring to their dining companions by a mere initial, AKA “a nobody talking about a nobody” — before pivoting into self-skewering territory — referring to his dining companion by a mere initial — and using the carefully-honed formula to tee up some thoughts about the restaurant in question.
Those thoughts: it’s fine, little better. The room is “spacious” enough but feels “a bit bolted on” to the grand old hotel; the food is rarely actively unpleasant but doesn’t exactly get much beyond that. Crispy rice is in “dental disharmony” with the raw salmon adorning it; prawn salad offers crustaceans both “plump” and “sweet” but suffers from “too much dressing” and a superfluous “scattering of unadvertised enoki mushrooms.” A £25 cheeseburger is the experience in miniature: alright to look at; promising at first, but ultimately “bland” and “one-note”, doing its duty in fulfilling the theory of diminishing returns. More fun to read about than to visit, in other words — as with transatlantic compatriot Ryan Sutton at JGV’s most recent, most populist, most terrible New York location.
P.F. Chang’s Asian Table
File P.F. Chang’s Asian Table under the same. Whilst readers of Marina O’Loughlin’s new column could witness her dunking on the Ramsgate Wetherspoon’s, adherents to the old Guardian slot got the slightly less brutal, but no less damning spectacle of Felicity Cloake taking a paring knife to one of the illest-advised American imports since that time Dan Barber made everyone super-conscious about waste by charging fifty quid a head for some scraps on the top of Selfridges.
It’s bad, guys. Like, top-to-bottom. Many of the staff “have the crepuscular air of people reluctantly working out their notice in purgatory” — among dishes that are “all too easy to push aside”, General Tso’s chicken is “a pallid pile of dry pieces of breast painted with an orange, sugary gloop” and Singapore noodles are “a matted tangle of angry orange vermicelli laden with so much curry powder that each mouthful has the vicious bite of a dose of TCP.” Even the ice cream is grim: coconut ash savours grittily of “something washed up after an oil spill”.
Fresh off a Mindhunter binge, you might ask if badness like this is a question of nature or nurture: after all, a lot of poor decisions have to be made before something like P.F. Chang’s Asian Table can come into existence. To a certain extent, it doesn’t matter: all a critic is interested in is whether it’s good in the first place, and whether people should bother spending their money there or steer well clear. And Cloake’s feedback on this point is unambiguous: fittingly for an export from Trump’s America, this is “a truly international embarrassment”.