Smoking Goat Shoreditch
Some restaurant reviews deserve better than a 200-word precis banged out through bleary eyes on a Sunday morning (thanks, three-hour make-your-own gin masterclass at The Ginstitute!) To the list of modern classics like Ryan Sutton’s take on Per Se, or this coronation of Ollie Dabbous, or this evisceration of the ghastly Paesan, one might now consider adding Fay Maschler’s review of Smoking Goat Shoreditch.
What all of them have in common is their timeliness: a sense that they recognise that this restaurant represents something eloquent about its specific moment in time; they are reviews not so much of a place but an ethos.
As Thai-American chef Kris Yenbamroong has recently articulated, the word “authentic”, in certain contexts, leads to a weird arms race — restaurants and diners one-upping each other to find the least-white, least-Western menu item and herald it as the most authentic expression of Thai / Sichuan / Maldivian food. Which, of course, it isn’t: authenticity is meaningless in a culinary world where regional ‘classics’ like carbonara and pad Thai are actually younger than a recent Sunday Times restaurant critic.
And so it is timely for Maschler to be visiting the new Smoking Goat — to highlight how the melamine plates and bowls “contrast oddly” with the setting’s “handsome sturdy wooden fixtures and fittings”; to note how the “forbidding” front door and front-of-house welcome jars with the restaurant’s purported inspiration (late-night Bangkok canteens); to lament how fealty to a higher cause dictates that the way the food is served and garnished renders it occasionally “fundamentally unapproachable.”
That food is generally good, if perhaps a little lacking in “precision of preparation” when compared to the much-lauded Kiln. But as Maschler notes in parting, here in London, “we are not in Bangkok” (nor, for what it’s worth, in Chengdu, or Mumbai, or Male). Her final diagnosis is that this is a restaurant practically “paralysed by the notion of authenticity” — that management need to dial things down a little on the virtue-signalling front to allow the whole enterprise to “swing more merrily.” Because if a restaurant experience isn’t fun, what’s the point of having it in the first place?
East London Liquor Company
Just ask Marina O’Loughlin. Fortified by her daily bath in Dom Ruinart, and with a nosegay clutched to her face to shield it from any noisome stray aromas emitting from surrounding public houses, this week she ventures to Hackney, where she finds “a fairyland for grown-ups,” true “Narnia for enthusiastic boozehounds.”
The East London Liquor Company is a distillery first, and bar / restaurant second, so hopes are high for the cocktails on an “intriguing” list. Fortunately, the Pandanmonium is “ravishing”: both “bittersweet” and “packing an almighty punch.”
Everything seems long on punch, in fact: from the “staggering” measures that go into the house special Negroni and martini flights (oof), to the cholesterol content of a menu packed with high-quality “drinking food.” A hangover and / or a bill of fare especially heavy on cheeses puts something of a strain on O’Loughlin’s usually peerless descriptive powers (though props for rediscovering the lost Cannibal Corpse track “creamy innards” in a burrata), but even when sober there’s not a lot wrong with fried scamorza or ‘nduja arancini (“fiery little beauties.”) Whilst it’s not a slam dunk across the board (“pizzas are perhaps decent rather than stellar”), and whilst it’s not quite the hipster holdout she’d initially thought it was (“there’s even — yikes — a group menu”) it’s still a dizzying, purely pleasurable “head rush” of an experience. A place selling simple, inexpensive, fryer-friendly food to soak up the excesses of a wide range of strong drinks for a clientele just trying to have a good time? Sounds familiar!
Dragon Inn Club
Meanwhile, fellow Murdoch-bankrolled controversialist Giles Coren takes a break from his usual nonchalant, just-in-it-for-the-money-to-buy-liposuction-for-my-son stance to reveal that, yes, he does care. Cares so much, in fact, that he describes fleeing the “crowd of caterwauling Labour MPs, self-hating centre-left columnists, furious Twitter eggs and professional sociomediapaths” hounding him after his Mr Hyde-like op-ed alter-ego dropped him in it yet again to take refuge from them in a so-called ‘secret hideaway’ Chinese restaurant.
It’s called Dragon Inn Club and it’s in Pimlico: a neighbourhood that plays host to all sorts of restaurants. This one seems to have tried to cram them all under one roof: the description posted online runs “illiterately but with gusto” across multiple sentences, box-ticking items from any manner of flights of fantasy as well as promising to be “an authentic Chinese bar, small plates restaurant and barbecue destination” which also “specialises in hot pots.”
Phew! Perhaps unsurprisingly, an offering this broad does not translate to excellence on the plate: dim sum are “fresh, but not exciting”; beef with chilli and sesame is “disappointing”; beef soup with noodles is just plain “dull.” There are a couple of better choices — two ways with Sichuan chicken are both “very good” — and the place’s “daft eclectic look” has a certain charm, but really this was never about the quality. “Sometimes,” Coren concludes, “all a lunch place has to do is give you shelter from the storm” — given the increasingly Hopkins-esque timbre of his recent opinion pieces, he might want to ask the nice chaps at the Dragon Inn Club to hold him a table on a permanent basis.
Walking side by side by Coren — if only in the geographical sense — is Grace Dent, who this week travels up to Tufnell Park, and to vegetarian sensation Ceremony.
It’s “noisy”, it’s “fun”, it was her “little secret” until being “warmly frottaged” by Coren just a few days earlier. The odd “slightly worthy” low note aside, the food is all great, too: coconut milk suffuses sweet potato curry “heroically and fragrantly”; Parmesan dumplings in white bean stew are “delicious” and “plump”. It might not be vegan, but this is no deterrent to Dent and the “youngish”, “fun-ish” demographic filling its tables. Like a T-800 who also happens to love New Order, she’ll “be back”.
His recent forays into #Crockpot aside, it’s hard to imagine a less vegetarian-friendly chef than Neil Rankin. From his earlier stints at Pitt Cue and Smokehouse to his duo of Tempers, he’s proved himself a master of meat-forward cookery (hailed as such by the Observer Food Monthly awards) — even if the critics (professional or otherwise) haven’t always agreed.
And so it’s interesting to read Rhik Samadder’s take on Temper City, as he moves onto Felicity Cloake’s turf in The Guardian. Anyone familiar with his review of the Lovecraftian Egg Master will know Samadder can be laceratingly funny; in his first crack at the restaurant reviewing gig he turns out to be another inspired call-up from the subs bench (even if food editor Bob Gran-Leith announced him three days early.)
Temper City, per Samadder, is the Kevin Dillon to Temper Soho’s Matt: “cursed by comparison.” At its worst, it’s a muddle of “confusion”, pure “identity crisis” on a plate. Korean haggis “is the sort of madness you’d scribble on a pad at 4am” (Rankin is known for keeping his nose clean, but with any other chef, you might even suspect illicit substances were involved in its conception); the menu “straddles” curry and steak but the cutlery laid out alongside is nonsensical: “trying to eat bavette with a fork and a spoon is like living an Alanis Morissette lyric.”
And while some stuff is “sensational” (and even that haggis is “decent”), there are plenty of dishes let down by the odd rogue element. Foam bananas are “superfluous” on an otherwise “achingly homely” pudding that is “ruined” by their presence; a “lovely” fish curry is disappointingly mild; “insanely sweet” roast coconut and “over-heavy” roti conspire to undermine otherwise “pleasing” thalis.
There’s a lot going on, basically — so much, in fact, that “you don’t know where you are.” The “provocative fusions” and “meaty machismo” come on a little strong; in the final verdict, this is “addled enthusiasm” that “could do with tempering.”