How would you go about reviewing a restaurant? There are plenty of different approaches to telling us about some stuff that you’ve stuck in your mouth, although the dominant mode seems to be to use the present tense. For a writer, there are clear benefits: it offers an immediacy that means you can talk about the food without it feeling too dweeby or — far worse — sounding like a snooty Victorian theatre critic; it drags your readers along for the ride, making it easier to explain why something or somewhere works.
Here’s Marina O’Loughlin, singing the praises of Pascere in Brighton — so seduced she’s prepared to go the full Joe Wicks and pronounce the prospect of a repeat visit “proper tasty.” Here, too, is Grace Dent, toes curling “joyously” at the food (and deeper, more holistic forms of nourishment) on offer at Sibarita. A “spicy slant on a tuna tostada” is “excellent”; fried artichokes turn up “crisp and deliciously booby-trapped with a rich saffron aioli.” The verdict passed on the cooking should make the “talented, imaginative” head chef Krisztian Palinkas proud; the verdict passed on the place more generally (a “great, warm-hearted, gorgeously priced, delicious little restaurant”) should have owner Victor Garvey beaming from ear to ear.
Writing in the rear-view mirror has its benefits, too. It is far harder to tell a story in the present tense, which is perhaps why novelist-first-food-writer-second Giles Coren prefers this approach.
Certainly, it works out just fine in this week’s review of the restaurant at Sotheby’s, which is not so much a dish-by-dish deconstruction of what the kitchen offers but a terribly civilised account of a terribly civilised lunch break in a terribly civilised oasis just off Bond Street.
From the “perfect” menu, chilled pea soup is (was?) “smooth and dense and full of garden”; bread “excellent”; halibut “a thing of beauty”: just the “sweetest, flakiest, most perfect” bit of fish served with clams that are “plump and saline with a finish on the tongue quite redolent of sex” (time for this gif again, unfortunately.) Equally as worthy of comment, though, are a series of first editions of On the Origin of Species and “a table of two middle-aged men and a pretty blonde girl.” As Coren, in his final sentence, recognises, having a good time in a restaurant often has nothing “to do with eating and drinking at all”; if you’re not going to talk much about them in a review, you’ve got to be damn sure you can spin a good yarn instead.
Jean-Georges at The Connaught
Is there another way, though? Formal experimentations in the microgenre of restaurant criticism are few and far between: there is, of course, Pete Wells’ masterful (or should that be masturbatory?) takedown-apostrophe on the subject of Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen; you might also consider the meticulous dish-by-dish scorecards composed by Michelin astrologist Andy Hayler.
But a restaurant review in the form of a movie script? Surely brand new ground explored by Fay Maschler; and a perfect way of telling a story (about a married woman having dinner with both her current and previous husband) with fingers in pies both Pinterian and high farce.
On price alone, one especially farcical pie would seem to be the black truffle and fontina pizza at £29 a pop. Readers do not, alas, get a verdict on that one, though elsewhere crispy salmon sushi is “decidedly low-impact” and parmesan-crusted chicken and roasted John Dory are similarly underwhelming, a far cry from the “verve and innovation” you might reasonably expect from an entrepreneur happy to make beaucoup bucks from serving Donald Trump overcooked steak.
Only the gazpacho, pimped with raspberries, cucumber, black pepper and basil, is a true slam-dunk (“unusually fine”), although a peachy pudding at least clears the hurdle of justifying its £12 price tag. As credits roll, a three star review seems a little generous: you’re never in a good place as a restaurateur when the way your food is described is far more interesting than how the food itself sounds.
You wouldn’t normally consider that to be a risk with this week’s ringer at The Sunday Times, but they’ve only gone and sent him to Zobler’s. Red Ed at The Ned — Ned Balls — is the meme-singularity you didn’t realise you’d been waiting for; a match of subject matter and writer equipped to do it justice rivalling that David Foster Wallace essay on Roger Federer.
After a little confusion over how to order at a bar (“You look at the menu, go up to a side counter to order and pay, get a number and then sit anywhere”, apparently), Ed’s up to his kneidlachs in a mixed bag of Jewish deli food: latkes in need of sour cream and apple sauce to render them palatable on one hand; a beef hot dog that “looks fabulous” and “tastes even better” on the other.
There is an interesting hidden narrative that suggests an abandoned career as a writer of erotica (consider: “My beef hot dog looks — sprinkled with crispy onions and poking out of its bun”; “’It smells so good,’ she pines”; “Karen says she will definitely return and bring her mum”) but really it all sounds (and reads) utterly fine, utterly adequate. This is “fun and good value” food, in a room that is “noisy but not too loud”, in a building that is “fancy, but relaxed and welcoming”. Slightly less of the sensitivity to culture and context that you get in the verdict of one actual pro, perhaps (albeit not so far away from the views of another former Midland bank customer) — but maybe that’s to be expected. Certainly, it’s in keeping with the venue, a giant monument to financial hubris erected in the brief storm-eye between catastrophic recessions.
But enough of that for now! Variety among our writers is good, and important: some like their critics to yank them along on a madcap present-tense adventure; some like to be told a tall tale. Some like formal invention and creativity; some just like something Ronseal-direct that gets through the work of reviewing a restaurant without any fannying about.
You still have permission to be angry if this guy is back next week.