It is unlikely that Steely Dan wrote their 1977 classic ‘Deacon Blues’ specifically about the joylessness of this week’s Telegraph review. Then again, it’s also unlikely that anyone high up at The Telegraph particularly cares about the comprehensive ignorance towards his subject matter displayed by Michael Deacon, his being a sinecure informed by the David Baddiel “anyone can be a food critic” line of thinking. “Deacon writes about politics,” the millionaires giving him the gig no doubt thought, “how hard could it possibly be for him to turn his hand to writing about something as lowly and straightforward as food instead?” Well. For an answer, just look to The Financial Times, where Tim Hayward reviews the same restaurant but may as well be writing in a different language. Deacon drones on about communal dining (it’s like school dinners; it’s about conviviality) — totally blind to the fact that for an operator in these trying times (not least one paying Soho rents) it’s the best possible way of maximising the return on one’s floorplan. Hayward, by contrast, is attuned to the area’s context and history, appointing Pastaio the latest in a long line of low-cost, high-satisfaction Soho trattorie going back as far as the 1960s.
While both deliver similar verdicts on the food — a couple of “underpowered” dishes aside, mostly it’s “completely delightful”, with “great ingredients, careful cooking and crowd-pleasing combinations” — it’s the way they do it that is so instructive. Nominally, both Hayward and Deacon turned in restaurant reviews this week. But only one of them was doing the job of an actual restaurant critic.
It’s been a chastening week for Jay Rayner, after the abject and total humiliation of failing to second-guess this very column. So it would feel gratuitous to draw too much attention to a similar act of attention-seeking trolling in this week’s review, namely his contention that “Palatino is a far better Roman restaurant than most of the restaurants in Rome.” Still, responding to it is a handy practice exercise for that point over the Christmas season when the uncle you don’t see very often starts banging on about Brexit, the will of the people, and bendy bananas. Smile and nod, smile and nod. Of course, yes, haha, so true. Be back in a sec — just going to get a refill!
Anyway — Palatino’s good. Tonnarelli cacio e pepe is “soothing” but packs “a grown-up mule-like kick”; rigatoni with pajata is a marriage of “insistent” tomato sauce and “deep,” “soft” intestine. For the purists, veal saltimbocca is “precisely as it should be”; for those willing to take the odd shortcut, pre-sliced rum baba is “both a cheat and a piece of cleverness”: it “looks nothing like a rum baba should” but “eats exactly right.” This is the most positive take to date in a steady drip-feed of Palatino coverage (Giles reviewed it in February; David “anyone can be a food critic” Baddiel tried to but had burnt his mouth on soup). And as Stevie Parle continues to expand his empire, the knowledge that all is well on the Roman front will doubtless be a source of comfort.
Talking of empire-building, here’s the new Dishoom. Oh and here’s an absolutely horrible, out-of-focus,1970s-grainy photo of the place, adorning Fay Maschler’s review.
Fortunately, more care seems to have gone into the cooking at the latest in the Thakrar bros’ mini-chain: mutton pepper fry, “purring with spices”, is exclusive to this branch and is a genuine “highlight”; keema pau is “delectable”; fried baby okra are “thrillingly brittle and almost savagely spiced”. If service slips a little in plonking Maschler and her sister at a table by the loos (“known as the O’Loughlin in my trade”), it proffers genuine “warmth” the rest of the time — enough, certainly, to make up for the odd misfire from the kitchen, like the “dry, over-charred” meat in a lamb boti kebab, or the signature black dahl that “tastes more like something tipped out of a tin”.
Maybe it is, but when so many Londoners “rave” about the group as a “spicier, cheaper, cheekier version” of what Corbin and King have executed so successfully at The Wolseley and elsewhere, can anybody really be said to care?
“Who cares?” might be a polite articulation of Giles Coren’s concerns about Nobu Shoreditch in The Times this week. Certainly, nobody seems to give much of a toss about welcoming guests into the space: staff at the main desk show “no interest” in Coren and his wife. No one cares about presentation, either: lunchtime bento boxes come “dotted with sticky thumbprints”. Nor does anyone in the kitchen seem to care about producing decent food: edamame are “on the old side, more khaki than green”; maki rolls are “dreary”; vegetable donburi is “simply too boring to eat.” All together it amounts to a “tolling bell” for a chain looking increasingly “moribund”: as the basically empty dining room attests, as little as Nobu seems to care about its customers, those customers seem to care about Nobu even less.
There’s an enjoyably splenetic tirade against the “cacophony of soft launches, invites and what- bloody-have-you” infecting “social media timelines like a plague of positivity,” but there appears to be some real substance on offer here, too — the “desert-island” roast duck just a highlight of a “mostly sensational” menu.
Importantly, it’s a current darling of Instagram — those STUNNING #dumplings — where things fall apart a little. “Shallowly ordered with their photogenic qualities in mind,” they actually “aren’t as decorative as the publicity shots” and could in fact “do with a bit of refining all round.” It’s almost like the role of the influencer is “mutating” to the “rather more sinister” role of enabler, with little link between something’s splashiness on social and its inherent quality. Ah, yes — THAT.
No such social media shilling needed for the new (slash same old) Joe Allen, visited this week by Grace Dent. Despite the relocation, it’s more of the same: same “fine, face-melting cocktails,” same “jubilant, jam-packed” room, same “perfectly decent” food — dishes like “grilled swordfish served in a lemony, oily, capery slick of loveliness with a carby hit of smashed potatoes” that offer all the warmth and welcome of a “hug on a plate.” As critics battle to be the first to file copy on the buzziest, biggest new opening, it’s nice sometimes to take a break and enjoy instead “a lovely dinner in a venue that celebrates the pleasures of good company and a convivial vibe.” Even Jay Rayner approves.
Cloake notes (“without judgement”) the presence of a “glossy crowd” drinking champagne at lunchtime and getting up to air-kiss each other; also without judgment, Southam Street seems to offer exactly the sort of food these people both want and deserve.
It’s a grab-bag of pan-Asian, pan-American influences: picanha steak and duck baos and avocado toast with wakame butter and strawberry chawan mushi and chips with cheese and curry sauce. Potentially exhausting, but executed OK in places: that steak is “soft and juicy,” that toast comes with a “perfect coddled egg,” that chawan mushi is “lovely.” Some of it is not great (the duck in the bao is “dry” and sparse), whilst some of it is actively vile: the chips are “every slimmer’s fantasy,” “pallid,” “soggy,” and topped with “congealed” cheese. It is this disaster that leads Cloake to speculate that maybe the food here is “a bit of an afterthought”: whist there’s undeniably “some good cooking” on display, the “glamorous locale” and “fabulous” wallpaper — not to mention those champagne-swilling, air-kissing west Londoners — seem to be what’s really on show.