Coren. Parker Bowles. Lineker. Downey.
In an alternative universe where the general public cared as much about restaurant people and footballers visiting Michelin mausolea as they do about high-budget Hollywood action spectaculars, this might be the core lineup of one of the genre’s more dependable franchises (“Plus Campion. And Hayward. And Shearer. In… The Expandables.”)
Instead, it’s just four “lads” going for lunch at a restaurant that looked decades old when Anthony Bourdain visited it in the year 2000. Not much has changed, it seems: still “rammed” with waiters “swarming hither and thither”; that same staff still delivering an exasperating verbal potpourri of “endless enquiries” and “lengthy explanations” laced with a stark “inability to answer any supplementary questions.” Both “pointless and a bit rude,” really — not what one might expect from what is “meant to be three-star service.”
On the food front, it’s also a case of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: the signature cheese puffs as “as fresh and hot as ever” (plus c’est le même choux?); that old stalwart the lobster ravioli succeeding in “not disappointing” as it has for decades. Since Clare Smyth’s departure to pastures not-so-new, the kitchen hasn’t gone completely bonkers: it still has the good sense to respect the “inherent excellence” of ingredients like scallops and foie gras. But at times it simply cannot help itself, as recorded in one of the medium’s great extended similes: two cylinders of turbot and langoustine arrive looking like “two willies of different sizes who had loved each other very much in life, preparing for a Viking burial at sea.”
This is lunch as “homage”, lunch as “elaborate game” — at once “functionally perfect” and “exactly what the people who come here want.” But if you don’t want to play ball, it’s something else entirely: there’s more than enough in Coren’s tone to suggest that, like that dish of phallic surf and surf, this is ultimately all just “very silly.”
Also faintly absurd, with its excesses of “anachronistic folderol”, is Pascal Aussignac’s Club Gascon, which leaves Fay Maschler 3/5 tepid in her first visit post-revamp and relaunch.
The exasperating “daintiness” and “not-altogether-welcome retro feel” of some of the presentation — “foams are not resisted”; “Delia would reel away from the dots of sauce that spatter some plates” — echoes the tone of the menu, with its “tweely described” dish of “Dover sole, crab and friends” and its amuses-bouche under the title Mon Invitation à Manger, or MIAM (think “yum yum”, or perhaps “va va vom vom”, in French.)
This is a shame, because the food itself is “mostly delicious”, boasting “attack and invention” from the start, a series of “small but perfectly formed assemblies” in the middle, and some “straightforwardly delectable” puddings. There is an “eye for colour, delicacy and transfiguration” evident throughout; at the same time the sommelier Julien’s interventions are “as tactful as they are creative”. Perhaps, on balance, M Aussignac might feel cheated of at least a fourth star, but restaurateurs around London should see this as a salutary reminder: don’t f*** with Fay’s food!
But things are worse over in west London, where Grace Dent likens the name of Mahiki Kensington’s restaurant to “a sexual term millennials might use.”
Similar levels of ickiness — things “revolting, surprising and non-consensual” — abound at the latest outpost in the Mahiki empire. Revolting: the “misplaced arrogance” of a “terse cut-and-pasted demand for a credit card” from all prospective diners. Surprising: the adequacy of seared salmon sashimi with truffle ponzu, “dinner’s highlight.” Non-consensual: the supergreen spinach salad that a member of staff “makes a fuss of mashing tableside and squirting with jizz-like sauce.”
Everything else runs the gamut from “unlovable” to “lacklustre”, although things border on farce during the latter part of dinner. Pudding is not served, unless the customers want it, in which case it is. When it does arrive, some forty minutes later, it comprises a “burnt fondant” with a melting inside that savours “non-temptingly carcinogenic”. A gormlessly contented Gregg Wallace gurn this is not.
All a bit of a bust, really — and one where few elements (from the “testy instructions” of the staff to the “low effort” sides) are spared Dent’s wrath. Pufferfish in a barrel, perhaps, but anywhere with this sort of reputation for “banter” and “boujiness” almost certainly had it coming; even more so somewhere so obviously “determined to treat potential diners as a mere annoyance getting in the way of the VIP party tables who’ll spend silly money from 10pm.” Stick that in your treasure chest and drink it, mate.
Happier news, fortunately, over at national treasures and publishers of excellent content The Guardian and Observer. First up, Felicity Cloake visits Rambla. Initial chagrin at being offered a “boring” British G&T overcome, she proceeds to enthuse with varying levels of ardour about pretty much everything on the menu: the “amazing”, “outrageously cheesy” oxtail Canelones (“the most pleasure you’ll get in Soho for a fiver these days,” even in the age of burgers like these); the “big, rich flavours” of some clams and mussels with spider crab butter; the “exquisitely delicate” cod sashimi (“pretty as a picture, but infinitely nicer to eat”); and two triumphs of ingredient sourcing (“complex, nutty” jamon iberico; “deeply satisfying” anchovies with sourdough.)
There are a couple of “slightly duff notes” (“fridge-cold and woolly” tomatoes; “underpowered” croquetas), but make no bones about it: as the 10/10 value for money score indicates, this is chef Victor Garvey’s second critical slam-dunk in a row, with rumours of numbers three and four coming hot on its heels. Now, if he could only fix those gin and tonics…
London is a big enough city to have room for an infinite range of different restaurants and customers for them: part of the knack to being a good critic is appreciating that, whilst a restaurant may not be for you, it may be for someone.
That said, there does seem to be a secret recipe for currying favour with many of our leading critics: as the scorn for the idiosyncratic excesses of Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, Club Gascon, and Pufferfish indicates (and as the rave for Rambla reinforces), sometimes a little simplicity goes a long way.
Take Jay Rayner at the new Rochelle Canteen: an “uncluttered space”, all “clean white lines and daylight”, “the unmistakable child of St. John in Farringdon.” In keeping with its pedigree, this is more of the same Hendersonian “self-consciously gutsy, old-fashioned kind of cooking”, “solid and sustaining”: radishes with whipped roe, Jerusalem artichokes with Dijon, braised oxtail, bacon and rabbit pie. But a little more complex than the usual blanket terms thrown over this stuff would imply: “British cooking, by way of summers in the Dordogne.”
This is “a lunch of all the good things”, which leaves Rayner “intoxicated” despite not having touched a drop of wine. A longer column than this would have room to meditate on just why it is simple things leave professional critics so profoundly contented (although this classic essay by Helen Rosner is arguably the final word on the subject.) Ultimately, maybe it doesn’t need paragraphs of verbiage, since Rayner manages to get it down to just four words: simply put, “this food feels right”