Serge et le Phoque
So the stars are out again. Eater London’s position on this year’s Michelin guide — low on shocks, high on tried-and-tested old hands and a formal, narrow view of what represents laudable food — should be fairly familiar by now, so there’s no need to spend any more time cautioning that picks like these risk stifling the sort of weird, wacky, interesting projects that keep London fresh and relevant on the world scene.
That said, it will be interesting to see, come 2018, how the tyre-peddlers treat Serge et le Phoque, newly opened in The Mandrake Hotel. Its pedigree suggests a complex relationship with the anachronistic French index: on one hand, chef/restaurateur Frédéric Peneau was there when Le Chateaubriand first unleashed bistronomie on an unsuspecting Paris, before unleashing an altogether more lukewarm take on this fair city before its denizens quite knew what they were in for. On the other, this place’s sister in Hong Kong is the proud owner of one Michelin star.
Or, to raise yet another hand: who cares? As Fay Maschler suggests, there is so much “rascally merriment” on offer here that to indulge in this sort of prognostication is to risk missing out on a whole set of more imminent pleasures. From the “warmth and bonhomie” that suffuses the atmosphere, to the “comfortable” seating and “well adjusted” sound system, it’s clear customers are in very safe and confident hands. Extraordinarily, this professionalism doesn’t cost an arm and a leg: prices are “relatively modest”, which in a hotel, in central London, in 2017, is as close to a bargain as it’s possible to get.
Food is similarly tasteful in concept and execution: “nothing extraneous added, no ingredient not pulling its weight.” Highlights include a “masterful” tranche of cod with zucchini flowers and artichoke puree, and a “vivaciously roasted,” “helpfully carved” pigeon on an arroz negro larded with black pudding. And despite the odd Asian accent and showy modern incursion, there’s no doubting this place can knock out the classics, too: best of all are noisettes of “immaculately trimmed” lamb with “buttery silk potato puree.”
It’s not all perfect — or, as Maschler winningly puts it, “not everything sings.” Even so, a “heavy-handedness with pasta” aside, this is pretty close to full-blown hosanna territory. Originally hailed as “London’s most glamorous new restaurant,” Serge et le Phoque is now one of London’s hottest, full stop. Maschler’s review is another indication that the city has far more better and more interesting places to eat than can be shackled by one little red book.
That said, a betting man might already want to put some serious money down on Ella Canta being in Michelin’s headlights come Autumn 2018. A celebrity chef in a Park Lane hotel, offering a “modernist expression of culinary cuisine”? Sign up motoring journalist and part-time food-enjoyer Amanda Stretton for a second year and prepare some awkward post-awards banter, because this place has got “thoroughly predictable single star” written all over it!
Weirdly, though, it actually looks quite fun. Some of this, surely, is down to Grace Dent herself, who — given enough gin — could probably make dinner with John Walsh in a home counties bistro sound enjoyable.
But the infectious “wild-hearted swagger” of the décor and “decidedly bouncy” atmosphere — on top of “a large, stiff margarita with Patrón Silver and guava marmalade” — could probably get even Walshie buzzing. The food is far from secondary: bacalao negro is “sumptuous”; a riff on carnitas is “enticing”; a salad of nopales is “highly decent.” An altogether intoxicating affair, then — and the nagging suspicion that Dent was still drunk when she wrote the review surely won’t bother the team at Ella Canta at all, who are now proud recipients of a rare full-house of her stars. And in the grand scheme of things, does anything that Michelin can throw at you really matter more than that?
Core by Clare Smyth
Giles Coren lives on Instagram stories now. And why not? After the breakout success of that mortifying contretemps at Adam Handling’s Michelin-Bib-Gourmanded The Frog E1, there was no better time to sack print journalism off for good and pivot to video. There have been hints of difficult second album syndrome, but surely it’s just a phase: the next stone-cold classic can’t be far behind.
In his absence, Tony Turnbull fills in with his signature unfussy style. Except this time he’s packing some flame emoji, slagging off “boring blogs” that “score a dish out of 20” (Ouch! Andy Hayler, please report to the burns unit) before taking a fair run up at Clare Smyth’s “stupendously expensive” new place, Core.
Turnbull notes that removing the “soft furnishings” from a space like Core makes it no less “terrifying” when really it’s the size of the final bill that scares people: given the “gouging” 15% service charge on top of an entry-level £65 a la carte that renders it basically “impossible” to get out for under £100 a head, this is still a deeply intimidating experience. Tony’s take? Simply “taking the piss.”
Fay Maschler reviewed this place months ago now, so this is nothing not seen before. The food doesn’t appear to have changed much, if at all: the snacks are still pretty solid (especially that ethereal, perfect tomato and macadamia tart); the braised carrot is still pretty shaky (“less yielding than you’d expect”); puddings are “of the highest order.”
But Core’s humblebraggy high-low food — however “impeccably cooked” it might be — leaves Turnbull pretty cold: “I just don’t feel the love,” he complains, possibly also referencing the abandonment he feels now that his star critic is off shouting at leaf-blowers with Monica Galetti. Clare Smyth’s tight “control” on her kitchen “somehow sucks the joy out of the eating, as if it’s designed to flatter its investors rather than its customers.” That’s a pretty solid burn: not just of a restaurant that feels “hostage to Michelin,” but of the red guide holding it captive in the first place.
Quality Chop House
The closing slot this week must, of course, go to Marina O’Loughlin, and her final Guardian column. What a run it has been, encompassing multiple new worst restaurants in London (from Sexy Fish to Flavour Bastard); ponced-with atrocities in the city of her birth, and the Dubai-mall-foodcourt horror of The Ned. And some nice places, too — places she helped foist onto the London scene before most people had really heard of them: the subterranean Roti King and stark-walled Lyle’s; cosy Honey & Co and newly-gonged A. Wong. To become a restaurant critic is to take ownership of a platform: doing this sort of good — casting a light on interesting, exciting, fun, independent places; delivering a robust kicking to the shins of inhospitable, high-concept, high-ponce moneypits — is certainly one way of using it, and arguably the best.
But going from the social media wailing and gnashing of teeth, you’d think it was her final column ever, before she returned to the great dining room in the sky (decidedly not Oblix at The Shard). Guys: she’s not dead! Her next piece is literally next week! Sure, there’ll be a paywall in front of it now, but it’s a small price to pay.
Until then, it’s The Guardian, one last time, and a swansong at Quality Chop House, which has only improved since O’Loughlin’s first visit in 2013. Back then, the menu changed terrifyingly regularly: so fast, you’d occasionally hit “po-faced” selections such as “cold, tough blackface lamb with a weaselly green sauce” or “jarringly hot” smoked mackerel. These days, the “supremely talented” Shaun Searley is at the very top of his game, delivering an “almost pitch-perfect meal,” from dainty but punchy snacks, to a “ravishing” take on grouse, to a Salisbury honey tart as “sweet and wobbly as an ingenue.”
It’s basically a rave, and a reminder that chefs and restaurants grow, and change, and improve. Critics, too. After her stints at Metro and, of course, The Guardian, it’s time for the next iteration of MO’L. Next Sunday’s Times will be appointment reading.