Restaurant reviews are this column’s lifeblood. It stands to reason: no reviews to review, no column. So this may well be the time to put things on ice for a couple of weeks, as the papers’ halls are decked with Christmas content and the critics return to happier climes away from London. This week, Marina’s up in Glasgow, saying seductive things about chips with tobacco onions and hollandaise, and trying to pass off a bottle of wine as pudding. Guardian food editor Bob Granleese has seemingly burned all his freelancer budget down the nags, leaving the nation bereft of a Guardian review of any description. And those energetic young bucks firing CVs in the direction of ES Magazine may as well send one over to The Times, too, since Giles Coren obviously no longer wants the job — Season 2 of Amazing Hotels had better be worth the multiple weeks he’s forced his readers to endure Tony – The Tiger – Turnbull’s meanderings (“They’re…not grrrrreat!”)
So thank goodness — in so many ways — for Fay Maschler, a genuine pro in an age of short-attention-spanned flibbertigibbets. She’s down (just) south of the river at Duddell’s — as is her wont, so soon after opening that they haven’t yet put the art up.
A dissonant mix of “chatter, clatter and piped music” provides a minor distraction as it “ricochets” around the currently bare room, but fortunately the sounds of contentment issuing from the Standard critic’s table soon drown it out: king crab sweetcorn soup is “a perfect balance of savoury and sweet”; chicken steeped in a deeply umami broth boasts “layers of flavour that they don’t even chirp about in Bresse.” At Sunday lunch — Maschler visited during their very first service, which everyone involved no doubt very much enjoyed — it is perhaps unsurprising that “a certain amount of chaos reigns,” but execution remains impressive: har gau dumplings pass “with flying colours,” the black pepper duck pumpkin dumpling (try saying that five times fast) is “a beauty.”
Again, these are early days, so the kitchen may be excused the odd miss like the beef and foie gras on toast. But there’s no denying what is generally a very positive verdict on this Hong Kong import: this is “canny,” pleasingly “old-school” fine dining, “not a dud in any way” — rather, a “glorious wind-up to the year.”
For many in the foodie media set, a “glorious wind-up to the year” involves getting steadily, but comprehensively pickled over a multi-hour lunch at Otto’s. Stories abound of any number of your Twitter follows getting properly blotto at this Gray’s Inn Road love-letter to la grande bouffe — and indeed Grace Dent’s review of the place begins with one, politely declining to name the “heavily refreshed” acquaintance who got lost between courses and fell asleep on a staff sofa (she needn’t have worried.)
Along with The Sportsman in Kent, Otto’s is one of those great unimpeachable institutions beloved of hacks — the site of so many boozed-up seshes that the memories involved are permanently soft and fuzzy, the associated coverage uniformly positive to match.
So it’s interesting to see Dent suggest, in her typically strident voice, that maybe the Emperor is flashing a little more flesh than everyone else is willing to admit. Goat’s cheese and fig tart is “a syrupy, claggy affair,” smoked salmon merely “deeply unobtrusive.” Some food — prepared a la minute, and tableside to boot — takes an age; some of it, when it arrives, is lacking anything but the most cursory of garnishes, despite the fact that no sides are offered on the menu. It’s expensive, too: a far-from-satisfying dinner for two comes to the best part of two hundred quid.
Of course, restaurants are never just about the food: here, “conviviality” is taken to “semi-hysterical,” “full high dramatis” extremes: owner Otto Tepasse comes from the old school, and offers a “very old-school manner of hospitality” to match. If, per Christopher Hitchens, it’s an unforgivable sin to be boring, then Otto’s is certainly not that. If — per a writer who isn’t a cigarette-smoking, whisky-drinking cliché that toxic millennial blokes quote to legitimise a lifestyle and outlook tediously ripped off from Mad Men — the truly unforgivable sin is to charge large amounts of money for stuff that isn’t always good, then Otto’s might actually be a little more guilty as charged.
Simpson’s in the Strand
The final review this week is from Jay Rayner, who finds himself deeply disappointed by the renovated, relaunched Simpson’s in the Strand. The food here always used to be exemplary, if of a certain style: a kitchen that “laughed in the face of modernity,” knocking out a combination of “the best kind of leftovers” (ham hock fritter with fried duck egg, yes please) or “what school dinners hope to be when they grow up.”
Now, though? Sadly, the ownership’s attempts to “revive and refresh” the place have succeeded only in removing every trace of “everything that made the place what it was.” Modish smoked egg yolk is pointless alongside the pink-slime textural nightmare of steak tartare pureed to the consistency of “something that could be sucked up through a straw.” Like some Masterchef judges, ham hock terrine is “far too cold and far too dense”; like an early-round Masterchef dish, beef Wellington is nothing short of “calamitous,” with “practically raw” pastry the most egregious of a litany of sins (it’s £42, too, FYI). Pudding is “a moment to mourn,” whether “hard and unyielding” baked Alaska or “rough and undersweetened” cranachan. Only “excellent” beef dripping roast potatoes and a “deep and powerful” peppercorn sauce — and the “delight” that is a room full of “cheery, enthusiastic” waiters — can salvage anything for the credit column, but it’s nowhere near enough to offset a long list of disappointments and straight-up misfires. Simpson’s used to be great, in its way — in this new incarnation, though, it’s a place Rayner simply “can’t love” any more.
Or, as some twisted commenter on Twitter joked:
Simpson’s in the Strand? More like…
...Simpson’s. In. The. BLAND.
New gifs, please.