Hater of PR nonsense (and lover of the new Dishoom!) Chris Prowler fired off a typically thought-provoking tweet the other week: “You know what London food journalism needs? More lists with exactly the same places on them.”
Critics can play a part in this process, in which restaurants today almost feel like self-fulfilling prophecies: they are hyped pre-opening, which means people rush to cover them, which means they gain more visibility, which means more people rush to cover them — layer in the viral power of social media, and there’s little wonder so many picks start to look so similar.
All of which is cause to celebrate Marina O’Loughlin’s gently perplexed take on Cub in The Sunday Times. This is a restaurant that’s had its fair share of publicity but this is a review short on definitive so-hot-right-now pronouncements, other than O’Loughlin’s admission that she feels “on very shaky ground altogether” at one of the “oddest” places she can remember visiting.
Despite the odd, borderline exhausting side orders of concept — respect to O’Loughlin’s friend asking “Is any of that food?” — the stuff coming out of the kitchen is “never less than interesting, often bewitching” — equal parts “curious” and “rather magical.” Staff are both “lovely” and “vaguely evangelical,” which sounds about right: this is a place where zero waste ideology is rammed down your throat along with yer dinner, so much so that the net result is something that’s “more than satisfying from an intellectual perspective” but “perhaps not so much” when it comes to delivering “visceral” pleasure, or even “the mildest buzz.” Cub is, in its own way, “exhilarating and inspiring,” but there’s a sense O’Loughlin is just as exhilarated by the reuben she admits to wolfing down as a post-dinner dinner at Monty’s Deli just round the corner.
Grace Dent ticks the very same boxes in her Standard column this week: Brasserie Zédel the lucky beneficiary of her praise, Serge et le Phoque the unlucky recipient of an eyeroll of Liz Lemon proportions at its “luxurious, yet ridiculous” setting, actively inhospitable booking process, and snotty “sneer” of welcome.
Things sharpen up once Dent reveals herself as the person behind her anonymous booking: the “f**k it’s a critic klaxon” sounds and suddenly it’s all sweetness and light: “a small army” descends and begins to treat her “like peak season Gaga.”
Unfortunately, all this fussing is not enough to save some fairly uninspiring, meanly portioned, ambitiously priced stuff plonked onto the table: water is nine quid per bottle(!!!); onion soup lacks “any meaningful trace of onion”; trimmed lamb appears only as the merest “small suggestions” of flesh. The highlights — a “genuinely delightful” ceviche; equally “delightful” monkfish — are good enough, but in the context of a £300 dinner one might reasonably expect to see a few more of them. At Zédel, Dent notes, dinner is 30 quid a head and they treat everyone who comes through their doors “like a duchess.” After an initial fairly positive review from Fay Maschler, this is a pretty stinging rebuke for the Serge et le Phoque team and for the sort of European Phoqueboys who frequent The Mandrake in the first place. But it sounds like they’ve earned it.
Altogether happier news over at The Coal Shed, where Fay Maschler thrills to the work of a “savvy kitchen” that is “open to global influences but not overcome.” Décor characterised by “a lavish use of polished wood, Japanesey glazing and genial leather” creates a comforting Hawksmoory (ever so slightly Coco de Mer-ish?) vibe; the food more than lives up to this expectation-setting.
But in a slightly unexpected way. As much as a prime rib is “a treat and a great piece of meat”; as much as Maschler and her party “discover pleasure” in Norfolk quail; as much as a “luscious” octopus tentacle delivers a range of different sensations “dependent on girth” — this is first and foremost “an unpredicted festival of the potential in vegetables.” There is true “glory” in the “intricacies of flavour” delivered by iron bark pumpkin with quinoa, miso, mushroom, lime, and seaweed; coal-roasted carrots are “seductive”; chips are “exemplary.” A cheering verdict for those slogging away at the coalface, then — and equally heartening for anyone invested in the fortunes of South Bank restaurants more generally. With recent arrivals like Lupins and Pique Nique — and with the broader revival of Borough Market — things seem to be looking up just south of the river; now all they need is somewhere decent by the National Theatre, and one of London’s most inexplicable culinary wastelands will finally be fertile soil again.
Finally, Parabola. If this week’s Times review by Tony Turnbull feels a little familiar, it’s because David Sexton essentially wrote it two months ago: this is a paint-by-the-numbers retread that hits many of the same beats, not to mention the second time we've had the critical equivalent of Panda Cola on the case rather than a icy glass of full-fat Coke
Yes, Rowley Leigh is a great chef; yes, Kensington Place was a great restaurant; yes, that parmesan custard with anchovy toast is a great dish. Yes, Parabola is in the Design Museum, which is a weird, uncomfortable, “remarkably inhospitable” space for a cook of Leigh’s directness and homeliness (an “ultimate passion-killer” in Turnbull’s book); yes, the old boy has still got the moves on the pots and pans front: duck with blueberries is “textbook” (aha!); scallops with girolles and persillade are “majestic”; Romanesco flan is “delicious.” Yes, Parabola therefore represents a sad squandering of Leigh’s lion-in-winter years — this is a chef who may still be cooking the kind of food that people (of a certain generation and with a certain predilection for musty old claret?) want to eat; unfortunately it’s undeniably in a place where no one will want to eat it.
Sad, really — and no less sad on the second time of reading. Perhaps it’s wrong to hold critics to this sort of standard — there’s probably not a huge number of people in the middle of the David Sexton reader / Tony Turnbull reader Venn diagram; the vagaries of filing deadlines etc mean that quite often it’s possible to review somewhere unaware that a fellow critic has already sent in their copy on the same place. But a bit of self-policing wouldn’t go amiss — we certainly don’t need more restaurant lists that look identical to one another; we could probably do without reviews that feel identical, too.