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Marina O’Loughlin Does Not Like That Ned

Another critic is disappointed at XU — plus a review of the rest of last week’s restaurant reviews

The bar at XU
Carol Sachs

Il Cudega

We begin this week with an apology. Due, perhaps, to one too many nerve-settling Negronis, ya boy singularly done bad in last week’s review review, asserting that the Standard’s Fay Maschler was still on holiday and hadn’t filed copy. Erroneous! Erroneous on both counts!

So — sorry, Fay — here’s a quick plug of her quick plug-pulling on the mojo-free Meraki, before we move on with her to Il Cudega, in London Fields, newly open in the evening. “The passion is palpable” at this deli-cum-restaurant devoted to the food of Lombardy. Spaghetti juiced with butter and black summer truffle is a “wondrous assembly”; praise rains down like the self-same shaved tuber on the “rippling golden pond” of a risotto Milanese.

As a breaded cotoletta accessorised with a stark lemon wedge (and terrible accompanying photo) suggests, there is “virtue in simplicity”, too, but even allowing for the odd miss (“dense and creaky” ravioli) there is enough here to push London’s longest-serving restaurant authority to ecstasies both hedonic and linguistic: note the tumble of adjectives ennobling “slender restrained homemade focaccia”, the celebration of “subtle, Lucullan” (me neither) cured meats. It’s enough to restore a somewhat jaded writer’s “shaky faith in life”, which is all the endorsement I need, and all you should, too.


XU

As she so often does, Maschler established the dominant narrative around XU, the belt-and-braces capital-r Restaurant follow-up from the team behind Bao. The lukewarm terms of her initial mixed-bag three-star review were echoed by Giles Coren a few weeks ago; now it’s the turn of Grace Dent to damn it with not-entirely-fulsome praise.

Dumplings at XU
Carol Sachs

We gain an important lesson on how to pronounce the damn place’s name (“Not zoo. Not Sue.”), before a celebration of the “gorgeous, slightly peculiar, cramped yet characterful, wood-panelled, Wes Anderson-style” room. Unfortunately, despite the presence of a cocktail that has Dent guaranteeing “the world will feel better within two tiny mouthfuls” (what is it with these Standard critics and their malaise? I blame the constant dread of bumping into George Osborne), the food doesn’t quite live up to the setting.

The foie gras gold coin is a “soggy, somewhat underwhelming affair”; the seabass is “pretty but wet without much texture” (it’s not just you: both descriptions reminded me of having sex with Harry Styles, too). Things are either robustly flavoured but not wholly enjoyable, or — is this even worse? — purely “inoffensive”, “neither decadent nor massively memorable.” The sheer number of critics filing copy about it indicates that XU is undeniably hot, undeniably important, undeniably exciting — but this is yet another review confirming that it’s also undeniably “disappointing.”


The Ned

My expectations for the food at The Ned are so cosmically low I can’t ever imagine being disappointed by it; still, it’s grubbily thrilling to see it get a Rosa Klebb-worthy pointy-toed kicking at the feet of The Guardian’s resident agent of chaos as she completes a marathon of endurance eating at practically all of its restaurants — for a lover of the finer things in life, the sort of punishment dreamt up by a vengeful god (should that be vengeful Bob?).

Things start badly at Café Sou (by the transitive property, not pronounced “XU”), with a “a wan, underseasoned, flabby apology” of a Comté Omelette (don’t search for that on Urban Dictionary, whatever you do). Despite a “splendid” vitello tonnatto, things ain’t much better at Cecconi’s, which “singularly fails to deliver”; it’s bloody expensive, too.

Going off the verdict passed on Kaia, I’m not sure the rumoured astronomical consultancy fee being bunged the way of a certain well-known influencer is the best use of Mr Ned’s money: in the first recorded instance of edible mimesis, the food there is all utterly gorgeous but offers those consuming it exactly nothing.

Things go from bad to worse to worst as the day draws to a close: “irritating”, “boring” Clean Eating nonsense (including the “direst” fish taco in existence) at Malibu Kitchen, before the “two-act tragedy” of the main courses at Millie’s Lounge, featuring “carrion”-like lamb and “truly heinous” roast chicken. In a place where all of the concessions “look exactly the bloody same” it’s perhaps unsurprising that standards are uniformly low: even the cocktails, not least an “ill-advised” Nedgroni — yes, NEDGRONI: imagine being exactly stupid enough to think that’s clever and you’ve just discovered the place’s target customer — are a disaster. But it’s worth remarking on the totally divergent parallel narratives — ecstatic Instagrammers on one hand, unimpressed critics on the other — that have formed around this extraordinary “mall for people with more money than taste.” Can anyone else smell the bullshit emoji?


Plaquemine Lock

My mistake: it’s just John Walsh! Fortunately for all of us, he’s writing about somewhere outside London for The Sunday Times this week, so you’ll have to read the piece for yourself to assess whether he gets away with using the phrase “edgy and badass” without looking like your dad dabbing as his divorce goes through.

The ‘outside London’ rule also forces Giles Coren out of contention this week, so it’s down to the pianist from the Jay Rayner Jazz Quartet to unpick Jacob Kennedy’s Plaquemine Lock, still only relatively recently opened in Islington.

A couple of genuinely unpalatable sweeping generalisations about the rich, storied cuisine of Louisiana aside — I’m not sure the good burghers of New Orleans lining up outside Galatoire’s in their Friday finery would concede that theirs is “filthy”, “poor people’s food” — Rayner is generally sympathetic to Kennedy’s endeavours: gumbo is “deep” and “luscious” (“in a thickened liquor so profound it can give focus to an aimless life” — more critical ennui!); the smoked pork boudin a “fine example”, “coarse ground and deep flavoured”. Pounds of crawfish are deemed worth the effortful work; fried chicken comes with the “revelation” of pickled watermelon.

Only thin watery collard greens truly “miss the mark”; puddings, whilst solid, could be improved with a little more attention to the details. It’s Kennedy’s attention to these little things, after all, that allows him to celebrate “the virtues of the rough-hewn and the hardcore”, as in a bowl of shrimp and grits that, like that clip you once saw online, “will stay with you for the day, and probably the day after that, too.” Hardcore prawns indeed.

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