Where have all the critics gone? After a bumper edition in which all but arch food snob Marina O’Loughlin filed London-centric copy, this week everyone’s left off up north. Jay Rayner’s getting shirty about being ignored — him! Ignored! — in Edinburgh; Felicity Cloake is looking ever-more permanent at The Guardian and waxing lyrical about Joro in Sheffield; and the scourge of Ramsgate is dropping some top-notch shade on The Wanker Behind The Curtain before saying some nice things about Home, in Leeds.
At least you can count on the Standard. Here’s Grace Dent, in Chelsea of all places, getting on the Bahraini food train before “two blokes called Quentin and Casper could inevitably begin bastardising sabzi and serving it at festivals from a repurposed horse box, accompanied with a whimsical tale of their post-Harrow travels and cooking bromance in Arabia” (you can see why Chelsea seemed an odd choice of destination.)
She’s at Villa Mamas, the first London venture ventured by Roaya Saleh, a chef who Dent classifies approvingly as a member of the “School of Women Getting S*** Done.” That s*** essentially seems to be a menu of “relatively teensy” portions of “hit and miss” food — delivered, it must be said, in a “gorgeous little terrace” and with “bright,” “effusive” service.
Among the misses, lamb sabzi is “pleasant enough” but a bit steep at £20.50 for “the sort of portion one might absent-mindedly eat while waiting for dinner”; puddings taste “disappointingly pre-made” and “rather loveless.” Among the hits, though, there are some real superstars, in particular the kaskhe bademjoon — an expression of “aubergine at its very highest self” — and the machbous deyay, a “soft”, “warm”, chicken pilaf.
Best of all is the tahcheen, which Dent doesn’t even order, a “wondrous”, shepherds-pie like concoction of saffron rice, chicken, pine nuts and barberries. Still, there’s always next time; Dent “will go back.”
Question: what does the reader think of the use of “inhalable” as a term to describe food?
Fay Maschler has a very clear position on the subject, which many readers might well share. But there are certain foods — foods that, to be enjoyed at their best, must be savoured fresh and piping-hot — where “inhalable” surely is the right term to use: think of a bowl of ramen, the peculiar suck and slurp (yes, OK, self-awarding the gif this week) necessary for truest appreciation of the steam and aroma thrown off by too-hot noodles and broth; think of Italian arancini or supplì, fresh out of the fryer, the comically puffed cheeks and sharp intakes of cooling breath required to avoid a visit to the burns unit.
Or think of the croquetas at Rambla, the “perfect spheres with a crisp shell” that Maschler reports enjoying so much in her review of Victor Garvey’s latest venture. If these aren’t the very definition of inhalable, the perfect use-case for the word, then [insert joke about inhaling one’s hat.]
Anyway. The review’s a popping-molly-as-the-sun-rises-during-Sónar rave. Jamon is “first rate” — not always a given; cough, London tapas bars — but takes second place in the impeccable-produce stakes to l’Escala anchovies with Hedone sourdough. There is approval for Garvey’s astonishing dish of velveted hake with anchovy and cava cream and morel mushrooms; sea bass a la plancha is “another stunner.” Even desserts are “delectable” — not always a given; still coughing, London tapas bars — and, at £5, consistent with the excellent value that runs throughout the menu, even if (given the spenny Soho setting) prices like these “seem like soft opening or soft in the head.”
Maschler is upfront about her admiration of, and friendship with, Garvey, but this doesn’t feel like a perfunctory backslap, giving a mate a leg-up. Critics have reputations to uphold; if punters visit somewhere on their say-so and find it disappointing, authority slowly starts to slip away. Tripadvisor, Yelp, and eejits on Instagram are perhaps hastening this process anyway, but for the time being the voice of the critic still matters. So when Maschler writes, of Rambla, that “It is not often that authenticity is handled with such a keen collector’s eye for gastronomic advances”, it might be worth taking her at her word. Just as long as that word isn’t “inhalable.”
In The Restaurant Serge et le Phoque
Talking of Ramblas, Giles Coren takes the torrija this week for a TWELVE HUNDRED word digress-introduction to this week’s review, a love letter to the charms of Professor Christoph Ribbat’s 2016 treatise Im Restaurant, newly released in English translation. The book sounds interesting enough, in a Teutonically worthy way, although talking about it does allow Giles to name-drop Sartre and Proust (let’s see those two virgins win the Bad Sex In Fiction award!) so maybe that’s the real point.
Eventually he gets to the restaurant he’s actually writing about: Serge et le Phoque, formerly reviewed, of course, by Fay Maschler. He’s there with his mother, “because if Fay liked it I reckoned my mum would”, which may well be the first recorded instance of damning somewhere with Fay’s praise.
In fairness, he’s reasonably positive about it too: along with “delicious” foie gras (duh), there’s a “wonderfully erudite and utterly French” skate salad; whilst crispy squid are “a bit of the bendy side”, tempura fish and chips are “excellent.”
And that’s about it — an afterword of three miserly paragraphs capturing a quick lunch. Possibly a little disappointing if you’re the team that has worked so hard to make Serge et le Phoque a reality — but just imagine how delighted Christoph Ribbat will be.