As our political class ploughs doggedly onwards in its quest to make Britain shit again, Grace Dent slogs out to Deptford, one of the resurgent corners of London where like-minded food enthusiasts — many of them, it should be noted, not long-term residents of the area — have conspired to transform “a postcode which works as a punchline” into “a less gritty, more ponderous place.”
She’s at Marcella, where the “gorgeous and chipper” staff ferry around Padella-style plates of “heavenly and relatively pocket-friendly, seasonally changing pasta,” as well as larger sharing-type assemblages. Given how easy it is to get to — 10 minutes from Cannon Street, people! — Dent is moved to “officially declare Deptford fashionable,” which the locals will no doubt love. Visiting Zone 1-ers should be wary, though: with friendly service, reasonably-priced food, and a Negroni at just six quid, Marcella won’t feel very much like their city at all.
For a glimpse of what might happen to Deptford once the moneyed Central Londoners get their gentrifying paws on it, look no further than Da Maria, in Notting Hill, which — as Jay Rayner reports — is currently under threat because a grubby landlord wants to make a cinema foyer a bit bigger.
The slow erasure of family-run places like this from the London landscape — cf. cherished Islington eel shack M. Manze — is the nasty, unspoken side effect of the market’s ceaseless clamour for nu-chainz like Franco Manca on every street corner; as Rayner recognises, a restaurant like this isn’t just “a nice thing,” a “quaint” reminder of what was once and never will be again. Instead, Da Maria is a “vital resource” and “the kind of place that keeps a city like London both human and, more to the point, humane.”
The food sounds pretty good — spaghetti aglio olio pepperoncino is “all bite and slipperiness”; salami is “perfectly oily”; braised meats with roasted aubergine are the grace-note on a “proper dinner at the end of a long day.” From a kitchen where “pastry is clearly a strength,” tiramisu “needs to be tried by everyone else attempting to make one.”
But quite frankly Rayner could have butt-tweeted the description of his dinner and it wouldn’t have mattered. Just like Da Maria itself, this review is about far more than the food; it’s about the use of a national platform to try and halt a specific case representative of a broader — and worsening — issue. Da Maria isn’t just a restaurant, it’s an idea: that even in a city of London’s inhuman size and scale, “there is still a place for those on lower incomes.” Fingers crossed the city does not lose it.
Brixton is a little further down the gentrification path, although in fairness Salon —visited by David Sexton this week in Fay Maschler’s absence — has been around since 2013, practically long enough (in today’s dizzyingly fast-moving development cycle) to qualify it for Blue Plaque status.
Salon, though, has not stagnated as the neighbourhood around it has exploded with creativity — and there’s no better evidence of its continuing evolution than its recent — and, if Sexton is to believed, highly successful — refurbishment and relaunch.
A set tasting menu is a high-stakes play: when it goes wrong, it’s a “nightmare,” “like being stuck watching a hideously protracted bad play that you can’t leave and have actually to ingest.” Fortunately, in chef Nicholas Balfe’s capable hands, dinner is “altogether a pleasure,” “quite distinctive yet well-balanced, carefully thought-through and expertly executed.” Highlights include “remarkably good” mackerel with elderberries and horseradish, “original and delicious” coco de Paimpol beans with girolles and Berkswell, and a blueberry sorbet with toasted almonds and fig leaf oil that provides a “full bowl of fruitiness” at the end of a “perfectly planned” meal. A great success, then, as Sexton’s four shiny stars would testify — though he does remark on the somewhat homogenous nature of the clientele, concluding that London is “not always so diverse after all.” It’s hard to imagine anyone saying that of Brixton when Salon first opened.
As rumours abound that The Sunday Times has finally found its full-time successor to AA Gill, this week the paper adopts a novel alternative to the supermarket own-brand Avengers pulled together to plaster over the very obvious gap left in the great man’s wake: don’t bother printing a review at all. A bold strategy, for sure — and probably preferable to tosh like this.
Whoever it turns out to be, they certainly won’t be able to top the intrepidness of Marina O’Loughlin, who ventures this week to “the bottom of a scruffy flight of stairs on the Edgware Road” to find Malay food worthy of the Roti King himself — no kidding, owner of the Euston institution, Kalpana Sugendran Sugendran, is actually eating there when she visits — in a setting that seems “almost calculated to repel.”
Fried squid is “excellent,” roti with “resonant” split pea and turmeric dahl “wonderful.” Among the “humongous” main courses, nasi lemak is “a riotous spread,” whilst a “sweet and sticky” beef rendang is hailed as “a powerhouse of a dish.” All very enticing; all, in summary, “food to make an expat sigh for home,” even in this “curious outlier” among the concessions dotting the Edgware Road’s Little Beirut. Sometimes life’s like that, though — just because something’s unlikely it doesn’t mean it won’t work out.
The Game Bird
Something else to file under “unlikely”: Giles Coren out of his Kentish Town stomping ground. This normally only happens in extreme circumstances, and sure enough, it’s lunch with the editor of The Times that has dragged him away from his beloved NW5. He’s even put on a suit for the occasion (albeit one that makes him look like an extra from The Night Manager).
With a name like The Game Bird, grouse is very much on the menu, but as the “metrosexual grandchild of Jewish immigrants,” Coren is more than happy to admit his unwillingness to stray too far from domesticated poultry: “the mere smell” of “any bird apart from chicken” enough to make him “want to cry and puke at the same time.”
So poor old Esther. But lucky old James Durrant, whose chicken Kiev festooned with summer truffle Coren pronounces “utterly historic” — “crisp on the teeth then superbly soft and buttery, tangy but not high with the garlic” — in the course of what amounts to something of a rave review.
Buzz seems to be growing around what Durrant is delivering from the kitchens of The Stafford Hotel — his steak and ale pudding featured in what Giles would refer to as a local paper’s roundup as far back as May — and this latest celebration of his unfussy but careful cooking suggests that the London scene may finally be reawakening to the joys of ingredients and preparations last enjoyed unironically in the 1970s. Add Calum Franklin’s gorgeous pastrywork — shout out to this shout out from Rene Redzepi! — and the priapic vol au vents (vols au vent?) and soufflés at Pique-Nique into the mix, and a bona fide #trend seems to be emerging. A cultural allergic reaction to Flavour Bastardry, or a twisted psychological coping mechanism to prepare for the denuded 70s-worthy restaurant landscape that will barely exist post-Brexit? Here’s hoping it’s the first; here’s fairly compelling evidence it’s the second. Still: those blue passports, tho.