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Marina O’Loughlin Finds Deceptive Simplicity at Neo Bistro

Plus a review of last week’s reviews — and what they say about London restaurants right now

Beetroot and duck at the “deceptively simple” Neo Bistro

Neo Bistro

After a week spent looking at the different approaches taken by critics to their work, it’s only fair to turn attention this time round to the market itself, where innovation also abounds. Novelty, for example, is hard-coded into the DNA of Neo Bistro — not, only slightly disappointingly, a theme restaurant celebrating the Matrix franchise, but a new-wave-of-bistronomie-kinda-place housed in an unloved corner of Mayfair (“uncharted territory for the branché and cool”) and visited this week by Marina O’Loughlin.

Like the subgenre of food she’s describing, this is a “deceptively simple” display of the craft from MO’L, with idiosyncratic signature flourishes (“while the Harwood Arms is impressive, well, it’s the full braying, red-trousered Fulham”) are a match for anything Alex Harper delivers on the plate.

That stuff does all sound quite good too, though: deep when it needs to be (“murky, mushroomy butter”; beetroots “anchored by a resonant, unbilled base note” of duck liver parfait); enlivened by “unexpected bursts of fruit” when it needs a little more vim and vigour. All in all, “beautifully assured cooking” in a “relaxed, approachable environment” — exactly what you want to hear both as the owner of a new place and as a prospective customer thinking of visiting one.


Neo Bistro, though, is still, at heart, a bistro; London these days can offer even more. Not content with producing Aulis, Simon Rogan’s clandestine 8-seater in “an undisclosed location” — a spiritual successor to Fera, a restaurant that everyone forgot was there — the city is also nesting ground for Magpie, a State Bird-Provisional trolleys n’ trays concept brought to you by the same duo as Pidgin in Hackney, and which the lads were no doubt hoping Fay Maschler would take to like a duck to water.

Instead it’s more of a case of a bird of prey seizing on a plump hatchling, as prodigious talons dig in and find real purchase. The food — apparently following a repetitive formula of “a small amount of a lead ingredient, a blob of smooth emulsion and something gritty for contrast” — gets a reception little better than the “tepid” temperature at which it arrives; lamb neck is given a particularly hard time: the pricing “jests” given that it “arrives tasting of nothing much.”

The dim-sum style dishes mount up into a total that quickly becomes “unconscionable” even to someone who recently visited Jean-Georges at The Connaught; a friend in the business — though not, one might argue, a friend to the business — concludes it’s a case of “emperor’s new clothes.” Setting aside personal affiliations, it’s hard not to wince in pity when an ambitious new spot meets with this sort of disapproval; it is also worth noting that, as seasonal as it might be, some of the grousing — especially around questions of originality and a slow-to-change menu — feels a little uncharitable given that this Magpie is still a mere fledgling. As the recent critical rollercoaster endured by XU indicates, a review like this is by no means terminal; twitchers across town will no doubt hope that this is just another case of the early bird catching the, uh, worst.


Over in Notting Hill, Clare Smyth is trying something new, too, in her own way. Where usually it would be The Evening Standard carrying the first eagerly-awaited review, this week Andy Hayler swoops in for the scoop, and deems the whole experience a very solid 17/20. Nibbles are 17/20; crab royale 16/20; the Isle of Mull scallop 19/20 (NICE!); the Charlotte potato 17/20. Skate maintains the high standard — 17/20 — although on the flipside, at 13/20 a lamb-braised carrot must rank as a serious disappointment. Highlights from the rest of the meal include some totally 18/20 petits fours and a wholly 17/20 meringue with pear, poire William sorbet and lemon verbena.

But it’s the closing paragraph that’s the source of contention (for who could argue with those scores?), in particular Hayler’s claim that “It is nice to see a restaurant aiming high on culinary ambition, at a time when so many London openings are burger joints or hipster places trying to impress diners with how cool they are rather than the quality of their cooking.” This predictably drew the ire of some of the more boorish elements on Twitter; it does rather beg the question of the different guises that ambition — and indeed, impressing diners — can take. Gunning for Michelin stars — or, more accurately, pretending you’re not gunning for them but still serving multiple multi-course tasting menus with all manner of amuses-bouche in a room staffed by a lot of dudes in suits — is certainly one form of ambition, but is it the only one? Is London not so hot right now precisely because there are so many different and exciting talents at work, all trying new things and (mostly) seeing them succeed, from the bottom to the middle and the middle to the top?


Certainly, a Hayler-constrained view on ambition would exclude Tuyo, a cutesy hideaway on Broadway Market where Grace Dent finds sanctuary from the area’s many “roaring bellends” and “affected, scrunch-faced gluten-phobic girls,” “harvesting basic-bitch Instagram content” (content like this?)

It’s not like Tuyo is doing anything new, per se. More that its particular range of ambition encompasses a “reasonably priced,” “Brexit-boshing,” “glorious European, Middle Eastern mishmash of small plates” — all, crucially, “with an extra oomph” that serves to elevate them from the mundane Morito clones clogging certain parts of town (cough. Cough. Please pass a glass of water to help alleviate this cough.)

In a digression that could be addressed directly to the city, Dent explains that she chose to review Tuyo in the first place “because London is full of chefs who cook with no heart, making an opera of their meagre talents.” The diagnosis is not a million miles away from Andy Hayler territory, really — but the cure prescribed (chef Ricardo Pimental’s “genuinely wonderful tapas-type things at about £8 a plate”) could not be much more divergent. And isn’t that the point of living in a city, really? Opening oneself up to plurality of opinion and experience, and all the possibilities for discovery and excitement that come with that?


Take Jay Rayner’s random-ass experience at Picture — a four year-old restaurant in Fitzrovia that proves that it’s not just the new places that are doing things worth our attention. Dinner there is a “happy accident” booked via an app; obligatory grumble about pricing aside (don’t worry: he’s back onto natural wine next week) this review will probably turn out to be a happy accident for the reservations book at Picture, too.

Unlike a party soundtracked by the Jay Rayner Jazz Quartet, it’s something of a rave: the food is “exceptionally good”, packed with “massive flavours” combined purely on the grounds of “making sense together.” It is, in short, “the kind of thing London does very well right now,” which is where Jay pretty much leaves things, and where this piece will, too.