Gilly’s Fry Bar
There’s only one conceivable place to start this week’s column: the Grace-shaped dent in ES Magazine’s restaurant coverage created by the announcement that The Guardian has appointed a full-time replacement for Marina O’Loughlin, herself only a couple of months in at The Sunday Times.
With only a few columns left in the tank before the influential Dent goes off to pursue what the Standard euphemistically termed “other projects” (talk about consciously uncoupling), she will doubtless be keen to sign off in style. And what better way to do so — and to prepare for a role taking her out of That London — than a trip up to Finsbury Park, and a self-styled “sort-of Japanese Northern-English chip shop”?
Gilly’s Fry Bar, per Dent, finds the perfect Goldilocks point between its two culinary influences — a “delicious hinterland” where “glorious” battered sweetcorn scraps, “excellent” halloumi with honey, “beautifully done”, “earnestly sourced” seafood and “unforgettable” deep-fried Celebrations all coexist in near-perfect harmony. It is, undeniably, “a bit strange” — “unique and a little befuddling” — and it maybe does feel a touch too soigné given its influences (flavours “a touch muted”, dainty presentations in small bowls “unlikely to appease visiting out-of-town Northerners.”) But these are quibbles, since Gilly’s is, ultimately, “one of the oddest but nicest” openings of the year.
The team behind Hovarda are probably wishing Fay Maschler had been similarly de-mob happy. Instead, happiness feels a million miles away in a review that fillets its “politically tactless” seafood-heavy “Aegean” menu as methodically and icily as any fishmonger could.
Yellowtail in citrus dressing “brings to mind that useful product Cif” (ouch!); marinated prawns are “out for the count” under their dressing of flavoured oils; the textures of raw mackerel and avocado “do each other no favours.” Among the mains, baby chicken is “too salty to be eaten” and lamb cutlets are “scorched” — given the prices charged (at £12 for a bottle of sparkling water, a 15-quid Negroni starts to look worryingly like good value) this all starts to feel faintly “ridiculous,” the very “opposite” of the roguish, “gadabout” vibes summoned by the place’s name (it means “vagabond” in Turkish).
Restaurant critics talking about pricing are rarely worth reading — it’s hard to feel sympathy for someone who is paid to waste someone else’s money — but Maschler’s great gift, when she gets on a roll like this, is to make the outrage feel personal. When a half-lobster “not much bigger than a langoustine” is £39, a “dull” ribeye comes in at £33, and lunch for two tops out at £236.25, it is hard to disagree with another word summoned from Hovarda’s Greco-Turkish homelands: this is the work not of a rascal, but a “kleptomaniac.”
Gul and Sepoy
Jay Rayner talking about pricing — like Jay Rayner talking about natural wine — is usually cause for something of an exasperated eyeroll: the sort of indulgent, change-the-conversation head-shake one might give an elderly Brexit-voting relative after they’ve soiled themselves for attention at a family gathering.
But the pricing is worth dwelling on in his review of Gul and Sepoy, the third in the scarily fast-expanding empire from the Gunpower gang. The delta between prices available online and prices Rayner was charged to actually eat the dishes in question may be due to the restaurant being in the final days of its soft opening — cue throat-clearing about the ethics of reviewing it in the first place — but markups like this undeniably leave a nasty taste in the mouth.
It’s hard to enthuse about “underseasoned” potted pork, “dreary” daal, and “bland” mutton fry when some of them cost more in real life than they do online; it’s unsurprising that the net result leaves Rayner unimpressed. After all, the risk of entering the market with a “modish,” self-consciously “clever” concept like Gul and Sepoy’s is that it puts even more pressure on the restaurant to stick the landing. Even if he is not technically correct in his assertion that “until now Harneet and Devina Baweja have had only hits on their hands” (unless he has achieved nirvana and somehow permanently blanked Lisa Hilton’s horrifically mean-spirited pan of Madame D from his mind), here, the so-so execution twinned with some “distressed” décor and a distinctly “chilly” room leave Rayner cold in more ways than one.
Slightly better news over at The Sunday Times — but only slightly, as Rayner’s former colleague Marina O’Loughlin is left merely lukewarm by Pascal Aussignac’s revamped Club Gascon.
However intently the newly-titified room “whispers luxury in your ear like a practised seducer,” however “languidly” the menu displays one particular “controversial organ” — like Aussignac’s use of foie gras, the indulgence here is “overt, overstated, in yer face” — O’Loughlin can’t help but wonder “who the hell all this is for?”
As “glorious” as the foie gras with spiced canelé — truly “a creation to surrender to” — might be, there’s plenty amiss here, plenty to detract from the “delirious richness” and render it “cloying” instead. Surprisingly, given the place clearly has a certain kind of stars in its eyes, there are “too many little missteps”: roast chestnut is “almost burnt into carbon”, food comes unnecessarily “cuckoo-spat with foams,” like the sea urchin jus “splattered saltily” over venison carpaccio. And if all that makes O’Loughlin a lock for the gif championship this week, it’s probably necessary to introduce a new one to celebrate her peerless description of a foie gras dessert as a dish “so utterly dissolute it should probably come with an ortolan chaser.” Congrats!
It all adds up to somewhere more for chefs, or “gastrotourists,” or “the sort of people whose drivers have ferried them from the Connaught or the Dorchester” than for local Londoners. Even if O’Loughlin is willing to place it above its peer group of “trashy” concierge recommendations like Sexy Fish, Novikov, and Heston’s “bizarrely overlauded” Dinner, this doesn’t feel like much. Somewhere “so adult” may be “a seductive place to be,” but after a while it starts to feel “more chore than divine decadence.”
How unlike Ikoyi, which — to Giles Coren at least — offers African-inspired fusion cooking which is “brightly coloured, cleverly spiced, beautifully balanced, incredibly photogenic,” and which “ought, by rights, to be a monster hit.” Ought by rights, but doesn’t seem to be at present: during Coren’s visit, the room was “getting on for empty,” suggesting the “nobody is going” and raising the very real prospect that “if it carries on like this it will go to the wall.”
It’s easy to see where Coren’s coming from in his consternation. In a scene that grows ever-more homogenous with every PE-backed chain rollout, “we will all be the losers” if we end up without Ikoyi’s “fantastically well executed,” “wondrous,” “delicious” food, which peaks with a “crowning glory” dish of jollof rice, “popping with wit and history”. To lose all this would indeed be a crying shame. Equal only, perhaps, to the shame of not witnessing the next time Coren bumps into a certain Evening Standard critic, after quoting Ikoyi’s owner saying “I don’t think Fay Maschler’s review got us a single booking.” That, alas, is something the good people of London can do nothing about. But in an age when even a newspaper restaurant critic fears “we are reaching the end of the era of relevance for newspaper restaurant critics,” there may still be merit in following the advice of someone in the know. And that advice is simple: “book it and go.”