“Don’t hate the player, hate the game,” entreats Grace Dent, in the aftermath of a dinner at Nobu Shoreditch where she has just blown through a scarcely-credible £278 in under two hours. It’s worth pausing to question the nature of that game in 2017, with many doom-mongers predicting the total collapse of the mid-market as Brexit fears decimate the labour market and drive ingredient costs Shard-ward. Should critics even bother going to these “silly” moneypits built for “affluent tourists” — places that are only going to become more out of the reach of the lay diner as the market polarises ever-further? Does a new opening like Clare Smyth’s Core — democratically priced at a hundred quid a head, minimum, once you factor in service and any drink that isn’t air conditioner vent drippings — really deserve the coverage it’s getting? Should the city not, instead, be giving more attention to concepts like Mission Sato, where a skilled chef is exploring a different path, one involving delicious, careful food at prices that won’t leave you in need of a crippling payday loan?
Something to chew on, maybe. Certainly more to chew on than Grace gets through at the latest Kardashian-friendly outpost in Nobuyuki Matsuhisa’s empire. It’s all perfectly nice, of course: this, added to the “sleek opulence” of the setting, is why these restaurants have done so well. But who — really — cares about merely “decent” shrimp tempura, “mini goujons” of black cod, a “tiny platter” of beef, or “teensy likkle salmon and avocado tacos at five pounds a shot”? Be grateful: sometimes critics go to these places so you don’t have to, even if you could afford to in the first place.
Instead, for your consideration, let Fay Maschler offer you (deep breath): “West African-inspired food cooked by a Chinese-Canadian chef in a restaurant named after a prosperous part of Lagos that was home to the Nigerian business partner installed in a soulless West End precinct.” A dazzlingly diverse, complex mouthful — and that’s before you’ve got your gob around dishes bedecking British produce with “West African regalia.”
Occasional “culinary quips” — sidebar to chefs: don’t feel you have to offer these — don’t distract or detract too much from food pronounced variously “profound”, “rather delicious”, and “not to be missed”; the cocktails offer the same “titillating undercurrent of unfamiliarity (for some of us anyway)” that make Ikoyi such a novel, intriguing proposition. As beloved institutions fold and StreetXO stubbornly refuses to go out of business, it feels increasingly rare to see the good guys triumph, but perhaps we should be cheered by the final verdict: this is a genuine “win-win for London.”
With the odd exception, Maschler’s beat confines her entirely to the fine city that Ikoyi ennobles; this publication’s scope — the clue’s in the name! — is similarly circumscribed. So, as winning as things sound in Broadstairs, where Marina O’Loughlin is grinding the full Pepper Potts over the tiny Stark — comic book nerds able to verify that this joke works, don’t @ me, ever — it’s over to The Times, where Jason Statham stunt double Tony Turnbull is going full Chev Chelios on Bar Douro.
He’s there with his daughter, and the dad jokes and dad politics stack up faster than the empty plates of petiscos: once we’re off to the racists (sorry, races) with one gag about how Iberians say “sheet” like “shit”, it’s almost a shame that we don’t get riffs on “fork” and “piece” to complete the commemorative Daily Mail “Historic Brexit Vote” tea-set. Also groanworthy is a mini-tirade about small plates, which is as disingenuous (dude, it’s a literal bar; it’s literal bar food) as it is stale (the food comes in a weird sequence and the bill adds up fast? Next you’ll be saying you can make courgettes into something approximating the form of spaghetti!)
If this all feels a little tetchy, it’s at least in keeping with the tone adopted by Tone himself, as he gets to grips with a series of disappointingly “muted” dishes. Croquetes de Alheira are “stupendously good”, but it’s all downhill from there: tomato salad is short on both “seasoning and a properly acidulated dressing”; octopus “insufficiently charred” alongside a “slick of watery sweet potato purée.” Compared to grilled sardines, evocative of the Algarve, pork Alentejana is “less transportative”: both “stripped of all punch” and bedded (zinger alert; please prepare yourself for a zinger) “atop a purée so white and bland I assumed it was made by Cow & Gate.” Daaaaaaaaad!
Bang Bang Oriental Foodhall
The “outside London” rule fortunately also spares us another turgid turd of a review from The Sunday Times, where this week some posh boy with bad hair and worse prose is ripping into a small independent place for yucks from his public school mates. Handsome devil, mind.
So it’s back on the North Circular up to Colindale, where Jay Rayner is taking an exploratory poke around the same stalls that Fay Maschler could not quite bring herself to endorse fulsomely a few weeks ago.
Royal China-branded dim sum at One 68 are “more than creditable,” though they do not quite scale the heights of the Royal Chinese empire on Baker Street (in any of their locations, the “bouncy”, “cloud-like” char siu buns are well worth a look.) Bubble tea from Chatime receives the teenage vote but not the critic’s; similarly unloved are LongJi’s “extremely bland” Singapore noodles. Thai Silk and Four Seasons are much more likely to represent “money well spent,” whilst perhaps the best of the bunch is Xi Home, and its “generous” array of “slippery, snowy-white steamed pork dumplings, alive with spring onion and sesame oil”. Whilst pausing to note a couple of logistical niggles that do indeed sound irksome — no one wants to have to go out of their way for extra chopsticks, chilli sauce and soy in a place like this — Rayner gives Bang-Bang what is likely to be a self-perpetuating fillip: it will, he predicts, “be rammed for the foreseeable.”