It all started with a press release. In early July, RIGO’ burst into the collective consciousness of prospective reviewers with the announcement of its soon-to-be-signature dish: “sea urchin with bagna cauda, quail egg and fermented milk.” Which, this gif.
Now, two months on, Grace Dent is the first to take one for the team and shlep out to Parsons Green. And boyyyy does she go hard at the self-important, joyless, mithersome experience, an embodiment of everything that’s wrong and outmoded about fine dining.
It’s all horrific: from the endless harping on about chef Gonzalo Luzarraga’s life story (“I now know more about Gonzalo’s life than I do of Jesus Christ’s and I spent the 1980s in a hardcore C of E primary school daubing up Crayola paint murals of the resurrection,”) via the yawnsome laborious mansplaining of each dish (tomato tart arrives “sadly without a large side portion of STFU,”) to the so-so execution of a procession of vaunting Michelin-bothering dishes (cappellacci “little more special than a mini-mart chiller cabinet”; hangar steak “stewed to a soft mush”; the “autopsy” of a deconstructed Black Forest Gateau.)
Who, honestly, wants to eat stuff like this in a year like 2017? Food can, of course, be a source of both pleasurable escapism and homely comfort; sterile tasting labs like RIGO’ and HR Giger shrine Vespertine offer neither. A theory to consider: the more visual trickery and narrative overlay the kitchen and waitstaff have to provide, the bigger the cracks they’re papering over; the more likely it is they have something to hide. As this excellent (and unfairly underloved) tweet suggests, in RIGO’s case it’s a restaurant that was perhaps pretty much dead on arrival.
Something else dead on arrival is all that grouse flocking into London kitchens that no one should be eating, really. But wait! Here’s Fay Maschler, defiantly poking her tongue out at the game police — making the (fair) point that “convincing arguments can be made on both sides,” before eventually siding with the grouse, “in the sense of liking to eat them.”
This means not only proffering a guide to where to get the best stuff, but also seeking it out for her own consumption at The Don Restaurant, where Frederick Forster, former head chef at The Ritz, has set up shop. It’s just as well grouse is on the menu, because precious little else seems to be: scallops, lobster and lamb are all 86’d; even a Negroni is hard to track down.
What’s left over all sounds OK, though Maschler is not exactly in ecstasies. As three-star reviews go it’s certainly more positive than this one; as responses to being chided go it’s certainly more mature than the final two minutes of this. Caviar comes with “very pleasing tiny blinis”; the wine list is “notable,” with some “rewarding choices by carafe.” And that grouse? It’s “just the right side of rare” — a status (drumroll please) that the poor old hen harrier surely wishes it could aspire to.
Perhaps Maschler’s visit will draw a parade of fellow critics to The Don — certainly, she seems to have kickstarted a procession to Magpie, which receives not one but two write-ups this week. In the first, Lisa Markwell revisits similar themes on the logistics-atmospherics front — the trolley-based concept is “a terrible idea,” the “overbearing” music “drowns out what the waiters are saying” — but is altogether more positive about the food, celebrating the “alluring,” “terrific” cookery of dishes like the fried chicken coq au vin, Japanese Caesar salad (suggestion: kaizen salad?) and beef tartare with taleggio. Given the operational kinks, all of this risks going to waste in London’s competitive, ever-tightening market: the Magpie team “need to turn it around quickly” otherwise “the food crowd will move on.”
The verdict is fairly similar in Michael Deacon’s piece for The Telegraph; he, too celebrates the food as “terrific.” Prawn toast in particular is “gorgeous”: “hot, fat, and decadent.” Like Maschler, he’s less than enamoured with the lamb neck (“a little bland”); he also finds the puddings “weird,” not least a chocolate and sorrel number that “looked like a mound of soil dug up by a cat. Tasted like one, too.”
Like that description, Deacon’s is a review that makes sense on a surface level but becomes properly unhinged under further scrutiny. Critics, he claims in an opening spiel, enjoy novelty, which means novelty is good, which means Magpie is good, because it’s outré, intense flavour combinations are novel. Except in its main courses, which are not novel, which are therefore bad, which means that the puddings should be good, because they’re novel, but instead they’re bad, because they offer “novelty for novelty’s sake.” This runs 100% contrary to Deacon’s claims that (for critics) “Novelty trumps all. Pleasure is a lesser concern,” which dictates that they should actually be the best thing about the meal for a “jaded reviewer” like Deacon.
This is loose prose from someone apparently being paid by the synonym (“groundbreaking, bold, radical, seminal, revolutionary”; “stuff, provincial, dim”; “this subversive innovator, this trailblazing auteur.”) It’s pleasing to see somewhere new and ambitious celebrated for its ambition and novelty, but the weird, wholly artificial binaries that Deacon creates (novelty / pleasure; critic / non-critic; restaurant critic and “critics of books, music and the rest”) aren’t helpful — for reader or restaurateur.
The India Club
It is fair to also claim that Deacon is simply wrong. Take the destination for this week’s Marina O’Loughlin review, for example. The India Club is about as un-novel as it gets: decades old, the sort of dying breed of old-school curry shop whose passing has been lamented by this unusual trio: David Baddiel, Howard Jacobson, and Bee Wilson.
Whilst the lamb is “genuinely fine,” the food, otherwise all “dun-coloured ennui,” doesn’t even sound very good: prawn bhuna “verges on nasty”; supermarket naan a veritable “culinary crime.” And yet O’Loughlin loves the place, awarding it 10/10 for atmosphere and value for money and making multiple repeat visits.
The unhelpfulness of those binaries that Deacon crowbarred in is obvious: sometimes pleasure comes exactly from a place’s lack of novelty: people thrill to The India Club because it offers the same sepia-toned charms as the novels of EM Forster, as “side streets in unknown cities where old milliners and haberdashers miraculously survive”; in a city like London a place like this is “a curio, a living, breathing museum piece, a pearl.” A critic attuned purely to the hottest new openings offering the most cutting-edge new stuff will necessarily miss a place like this; their readers will likely be the poorer for it.
Caviar-declining man of the people Jay Rayner spends this week in the dunce’s corner for his review of Jean-Georges at The Connaught (it’s expensive, apparently), so it’s left to Giles Coren to close things out by loving pretty much everything about The Oystermen, which offers not novelty but the simple pleasures of “Coven Garden fish restaurants in the days of old.”
Coren begins with an only-slightly-grovelling apology to the team at XU — along with the recent Guardian review, a further sign that the rehabilitation of a onetime critical curate’s egg is close to complete — and then it’s on to the seafood: oysters hot and cold (buffalo-style especially “gorgeous,” champagne aioli alongside some tempura specimens “supersexy”); “beautifully presented” Penzance squid and mackerel boasting “unimpeachable freshness”; “perfectly cooked” plaice. All — apart from the “unclassy” addition of a £3.50 surcharge for some bread — with a side of “charming” service and coming together in sum to represent “the best new fish restaurant to have opened in London in yonks.” How novel, how old-fashioned, how purely pleasurable.