London? More like Lon-don’t! Only slightly gallingly for a column that feeds like a parasite on reviews of the city’s restaurants, this week many of our critics are to be found beyond the M25. One’s following in Zeren Wilson’s footsteps at Sorrel; another’s going what she might call the full Alan Partridge, complaining about the capital’s noisy restaurants catering to “infants” as she seeks refuge from small plates and communal tables in Norwich. And all the while Grace Dent waits in the wings, poised to make her entrance under a snazzy new masthead that weirdly appears to have borrowed its font from The Laughing Heart.
Not Michael Deacon, though. Travelling through space is for suckers, and Michael Deacon isn’t one of those. Bored of being confined to the physical realm, Michael Deacon has instead developed the enviable ability to travel back in time.
This week, he’s in 1970. For how else to explain his observation that chefs make “next to no effort” for vegetarians, that his wife is “all too used to finding only one vegetarian dish listed under the starters, and only one listed under the mains,” that vegetarian dishes are often “almost mockingly unimaginative” ranging only from “bog-standard risotto” to “bang-average salad”?
The only alternative would be that he’s a halfway-decent political commentator who’s been shoehorned into a job for which he’s woefully under qualified, that he’s talking nonsense, mate, doesn’t have a clue; that he’s spoon-feeding his readers outdated clichés because he doesn’t care and he knows that they don’t really, either. The notion that this country — yes, even the Brexit-voting provinces — offers nothing to vegetarians in 2018 is so wrong as to be actively contemptuous, a straw-man (like the one he erected to deliver a barrage of sick burns to communal dining a while back) so lacking in substance it’s barely worth consideration at all.
And how different to the work of dear (best?) friend of the column Jay Rayner. This is a how you do a restaurant review, kids: venture to somewhere up and coming (Deptford, in this case) to sample a cuisine under-represented in the centre of town (Sichuan); do so whilst employing enough quirkily questionable phrasing to exhaust any number of gifs.
Where to start? The expression “gloriously ring-burning”? The contention that ordering Peking duck in a Sichuan place is “like popping into a brothel and paying for a chat,” because Sichuan is “food as action movie,” “all bash and crack”? The simile comparing grilled green peppers to Padrons “that have been hanging out around the back of the bike sheds with the tough boys, learning brilliantly filthy habits”? The head-scratching descriptor / implausible party game “glorious offal pong”?
It’s a fun read, and Sanxia Renjia comes out of it very well. When a restaurant offers robustly spiced dishes, there is a risk that critical coverage will descend into sub-Bourdain macho posturing that focuses on pure chilli heat rather than the full range of the kitchen’s capabilities (see: any number of reviews of Kiln). Here, though, Rayner pauses to appreciate “defined moments of subtlety” amid the maelstrom: the “velvety,” “pale,” “interesting” broth that comes in a seafood and tofu claypot; the “gaspingly, achingly fresh” black fungus that arrives in a zippy salad.
Of course, there’s plenty of the more robust stuff, too: “unfathomable depths of flavour” in ma po tofu; hotpot like a “cheerful, brawling hoodlum;” dry fried pig’s intestines compared to “andouillette that’s been away on a gap year, got a tattoo and started smoking dope to prove it.” Which may, in the final analysis, be one simile too far. But which, like the rest of the review, does a pretty good job of selling Sanxia Renjia’s charms. The Deptford renaissance continues apace.
Five stars from Fay Maschler used to come along about as regularly as a hen goes to the dentist, but lately the Standard critic has been doling out her highest honour faster than Victor Garvey can make paper at the recently beatified Rambla. The latest recipient, Mayfair’s Indian Accent, is an import from Delhi via New York — a globetrotting origin story that translates to something equally cosmopolitan on the plate.
The menu ranges all over the subcontinent — taking in everything from “delicate” potato chaat to “extraordinarily rich and savoury” khichdi — but is perfectly, content, too, to “borrow and adapt” from other cuisines (even if, as in one riff on Peking duck, it does so somewhat “cheekily.”) Puddings are also “preternatural,” a sure sign that a kitchen is firing on all cylinders. With a menu on which “so much beckons,” there is a real danger of over-ordering, but the whole experience remains exhilarating, as if a “new life-giving force” has come to London in chef Manish Mehrotra’s carry-on luggage. This is Indian food, certainly, but it’s also decidedly — thrillingly — “not as we know it.”