Three stars can be great news. When awarded by Michelin, they are — to some — still the most prestigious garland in all of cooking. Even when awarded by The New York Times, they’re cause for celebration: cause enough, at least, for recent recipients The Major Food Group to commission a tasteful ice luge in their honour.
In London, though? Not so much. Partly it’s due to the subtle difference in how stars are awarded here and across the pond: over there, restaurants have to work genuinely hard to get so much as one, which is how you get reviews like this, in which only two stars are awarded in what amounts to a rave. Over here, places seem to start with a couple of points already in the bank, which is how you get reviews like Fay Maschler’s of Core, in which the three stars awarded feel like damnation with the faintest of praise.
It’s quite the reality check for Clare Smyth to fall from Michelin’s three to Maschler’s, not least because London’s (question for spoddy fact-checkers: the world’s?) longest-serving restaurant critic might reasonably be assumed to have a better idea of what — and how — real paying customers will actually want to eat. So, the you’re-fooling-no-one informal décor might look great (and so very relaxed) but self-defeatingly it creates “hideous, angular, jarring acoustics.” As “genial” as the staff might be, the “flutering flock” of dudes in suits still look “like a convention of Mormons trained in tray-carrying.”
And the food? It’s good but not great — proper three out of five stuff: A “canapé tart of exquisite brittleness” is a “work of art”; sourdough bread and virgin Isle of Wight butter are “life-affirming.” But “copious” garnishes force the “innate sweetness” of a Charlotte potato into hiding; a lamb-braised carrot is “a sorry specimen,” accompanied by some yoghurt that has “turned up at the wrong party.” Grouse — that most topical of game birds — has suffered the indignity of sous-vide cookery, which produces a “flabby, liverish result”; it is a total “miscalculation.” Like any conscientious schoolchild’s botched arithmetic, there is plenty of working on show at Core; but Maschler’s review is a salutary reminder that there’s still a long way to go before Smyth can think about securing full marks.
We’re still in the not-great kind of three-star territory at Ollie Dabbous’ new project, Henrietta at The Henrietta Hotel, where Grace Dent finds lots to like but plenty to justify deferring a repeat visit, too.
At his now-closed namesake, a parade of critics ran out of superlatives and ways to proclaim that, yes, Ollie Dabbous was a very good cook. So whilst there was a slight fear that he’d come over all Tom Sellers and leave his talent behind on the Tube as he moved to a new postcode, it’s not really surprising that everything on show here is “ferociously delicious,” however “faffy” or “whimsical” it might appear — at once “knee-weakening” and “heroically satisfying” (come on, behave.)
But the curse of the hotel restaurant is a hard one to escape. The décor here is “troubling” — for all the team’s culinary ambition, it still feels like a “multi-purpose breakfast room,” not least due to “an abundance of shelving with not a lot on it.” Add the clientele — oof at this: “the lumpen, the flammable-fabric-clad and the roaringly regional” — into the mix, and Henrietta becomes a much harder sell. Perhaps one to save for a visiting aunt from out of town — the nice food and nonconfrontational setting could be perfect for her. As Dent acknowledges, this is Henrietta’s “gift” — “and also its problem.”
Prawn on the Lawn
There are far fewer problems on show, fortunately, up in Islington, where Marina O’Loughlin is in raptures over a darling little “temple to the piscine” and the “simple, almost primaeval pleasure” of “the freshest possible fish.”
She spreads the love far and wide, focusing in particular on a “genius” dish of crab, mooli and sesame oil and a “wonderfully meaty slab” of hake (the catch of that particular day.) But Prawn on the Lawn is such a success because even the little things — “beautiful” glassware, “a smart, shortish winelist,” “elegant” crockery” — are just so, adding up to an experience that sends someone not always easy to please “out into the street wreathed in smiles.” Her only real gripe is with that cutesy rhyming moniker — fair in any normal conversation, but not necessarily in the context of a London restaurant scene churning through new concepts faster than operators can smush together random words and trademark them as potential brand names. There is worse out there. There is, for example…
So. Jay Rayner at Fancy Crab. Another crustacean, another Guardianista journalist — but, unfortunately for the people who thought red king crab leg meat would be the cornerstone of a successful business model, not the same result.
Some obligatory blokeish banter to start — eating crab is like having sex, apparently, though Rayner leaves the simile hanging so it sounds like he’s still talking about doing it in his description of rolling up sleeves and abandoning “yourself to the mucky business at hand, with hammer, crackers and pick,” and a graphic digression into how “the white meat must be hard won, the brown meat scooped from nooks and crannies.” Yes, it’s time for this .gif again!
Anyway. Rayner doesn’t like this place one bit. It’s “designed to take the mess out of crab,” which makes it “an extraordinarily expensive way to wonder about the point of it all.” Then the food starts arriving and things get much, much worse: Fancy Crab is, in fact, “a terrible waste of their money and our money and everybody’s time”: wine prices are “excruciating”, chips “tepid”, chilli crab “a slippery, sugary mess, with no heat at all.” In fairness, it sounds pretty bad — the sort of concept-first, thought-last place that has proliferated in the wake of cautionary tale / cash bonfire Burger & Lobster. They don’t give out stars on top of Jay’s reviews, but in this case it doesn’t really matter. Three stars can be ambiguous, but you know what zero means wherever you see it.