In the same week that viewers of Dunkirk are forced to endure a truly terrible trailer for an upcoming Agatha Christie reboot, Marina O’Loughlin becomes the next critic to board the Orient Express headed back to 1930s Taiwan via that weird part of Rupert Street. But — Kenneth Branagh’s facial hair! — she refuses to join her co-conspirators in sticking the knife in, bucking against the lukewarm critical consensus that has formed to date and pronouncing it, instead and in all facets, “quite simply, gorgeous.”
The restaurant’s Pullman-esque interior is as stunning as ever — add booths “upholstered in Ladurée macaron colours” to the concordance of lovelorn descriptions — but some crucial remedial work appears to have taken place in the kitchen and on the menu.
No more chicken feet, suggestive of Donald Trump’s shrunken mitts; rejoice instead in bak kwa jerkies, each presented with a patissier’s care and representing (not unlike something slipped to Melania on the rare nights they’re in the same state together?) “a leathery little pleasure.”
Thrill, too, to the shou pa chicken, its “star-anise-scented chunks of breast and crisp shards of thigh”; note the change of garnish alongside the char siu pork (formerly leeks, now cucumber); consider the renewed appeal of the once-underwhelming rice selection, each dish “swollen with opulent fats.” Doff your cap to all involved in the no-doubt-painful process of rehabilitating what was increasingly looking like a beautiful mis-step; alternatively, pause just a moment to question the point of any sort of food criticism, if a restaurant can go from clearly “disappointing” to something embodying “gravitas, wit, and style” just by tweaking a couple of dishes on the menu. Perhaps XU really is good now; perhaps it’s still wildly inconsistent and one critic got luckier than the others. Who knows?
Golden Dragon / Bang Bang Oriental
Shaking any trace of existential crisis off with a resounding “Bang Bang, you’re fed” (headline guy, that really the best you got?) we’re off to the races in Colindale, where Fay Maschler is doing an O’Loughlin at The Ned and sampling a range of different concessions in a single sitting.
At Golden Dragon, ingredients like turbot, abalone and foie gras make something of a mockery of the cash-only policy; service ranges from the professional to the genuinely clueless. Fried Mantou buns are the best thing about messy chilli crab — as they always are: don’t @ me, Singaporeans, but your signature dish is not great — and “warm supple pancakes” receive better press than Peking duck. Mixed seafood ho fun are the best of the bunch — reason enough to return in their own right.
On another lunchtime, on another floor, is the food court. “Mystery fry-up” of intestine enlivens congee from Hakka Southern Chinese; there is nothing anywhere near as exciting at Yaki Ya, with its “lacklustre” yakitori, “tepid” miso soup and “stone-cold and unsalted” edamame. Somewhere in the middle is Royal China, with its “predictably sound” dim sum. Worth a drive up to near St Albans, then, maybe: if you do, “take accomplices.” Headline guy: would ‘Hunger Pangs? Group Hang at Bang Bang and Gang Bang the Whole Shebang’ really have been too much of a stretch?
Meanwhile, let loose once again on hapless young male staff, self-appointed “red wine-stained sexual harassment vehicle” Grace Dent lingers over every delectable, definitely-would-bang detail at Pique-Nique: highlights include “ferociously delicious jambon beurre baguettes”, a “perfect” raspberry soufflé and an “enormous, warm and unctuous” vol au vent sauce Nantua, in Dent’s eyes a choux-in (sorry) for critics’ end-of-year Best Dishes lists.
It all combines “deftly and deliciously” to sound utterly charming, not to mention more than a little sexy: some “naughtily charming cleavage” here, a “stiff curfew” there. Headline guy’s response to this knee-trembling frisson? ”Another place to be furious over never having time to visit.” And you thought you had a tough week!
You might seek to blame the recent money bonfire at The Guardian on its giant, humiliating “let’s bin the Berliners” flip-flop, but they’ve made plenty of bad small decisions, too. Purely from the logistical position of having to write this column every week, I’m glad Marina O’Loughlin’s review drops early these days, but I can’t believe it does anything to help shift actual papers. Proper writing should be something to wait for and savour, surely — not an apologetic release on a Friday afternoon.
It also has the side-effect of ceding the Saturday morning floor entirely to Giles Coren, depriving us of any number of lazy weekend lie-ins, tabbing between his column and Marina’s, marvelling at the different ways skilled writers can skin the same cat.
But this week he’s reviewing Lupins, which MO’L visited as recently as June, so let’s compare feline pelts once more, for old time’s sake. She doesn’t spend anywhere near as much time getting to the point; nor does she spend anywhere near as much time perving over poor Natasha behind the pass, who is probably still recovering from the sight of a naked Jeremy Clarkson that she had to endure (for all I know daily) whilst gigging as a private chef — not the sort of chap you want to keep waiting for his tea, even before he strips down to his Richard Hammond.
Both welcome the civilised way that dishes arrive at the customer’s — rather than the kitchen’s convenience; both celebrate the “sweet” bulbs of young spring onions “rolled in corn meal and deep-fried”. Both, uncannily, gloss Coolea as a Gouda-like cheese; both roll their eyes in ecstasy at the crab thermidor (Giles goes with “cheesy, fishy, hot and deep”, which, this gif.) Both, in their own way, make me very interested in a visit to SE1, ASAP.
David Baddiel’s children’s book, AniMalcolm, is out now (HarperCollins, £6.99), so it’s a shrewd bit of tie-in marketing to publish an extract from it in the guise of a Sunday Times restaurant review. The Kricket boys come out of it well enough — their food variously pronounced “great”, “delicious”, and “very tasty” — but like Rachmaninoff looking on in horror as a child with no hands limbers up to play his Piano Concerto No 3 in Db minor, the dominant emotion at having got through it unscathed is probably relief rather than wonder.
Rather than slog through his review, with its imprecations against foodies looking down on Anglo-Indian slop, I’m going to recommend you read Bee Wilson’s masterful unweaving of the complex patchwork of immigrant stories that explains the rise and ensuing fall of the British curry house. Get to the end of it and you’ll realise (if you don’t already) that writing about food is not just about pronouncing things variously tasty or (per Baddiel) insufficiently wet — it’s a subject as rich, complex and detailed as history itself. “Anyone can be a food critic,” Baddiel claims — but it takes work to become a good one.