This week Marina O’Loughlin is up in Harrogate supporting Norse, the small independent that took the radical step of remodelling itself entirely when the going got tough, then took the even more radical step of publicly admitting that things had not been OK. No argument with the intent, but the central premise (that people should visit independents or surrender to “cookie-cutter new-chain overlords”) is surely a little shaky. This is not a zero-sum game, as if independents lose out as chains thrive: everyone seems to be struggling, chains arguably worst of all (Byron and Jamie’s Italian have announced major closures; rumours abound that O’Loughlin’s bête noire Prezzo will be cutting costs more drastically than skimping on the odd pea.)
In a week in which the role of the critic once again came under scrutiny, the question of how restaurant reviewers should cover chains is an interesting one. They may seem anathema to everything a critic loves, but like “real” restaurants they still employ, feed and bring happiness to people; being blind and / or indifferent to their suffering seems a limiting way to approach a restaurant ecosystem that only truly thrives when every element of it is working in harmony.
Being steadfastly anti-chain can also get someone into a rather knotty philosophical bind. What makes a chain? An injection of cash from shady corporate types? Cookie-cutter venues with identical personalities? Multiple sites? If so, how many? Is Som Saa a “true” independent? Is Madame D?
And what about Indian Accent?
Grace Dent doesn’t care; she’s too busy drinking curry sauce out of the jug. Ooh, and it’s nice, too, as is an “outstanding” opening course of Kashmiri morels, and the soy keema (“one of the greatest” vegetarian dishes that Dent has ever tasted), and a serving of “frankly delicious” aloo chat.
About that chat, though. Alas, this is a meal that comes “heavy with explication,” where civilised conversation between dinner companions comes liberally “peppered” with interruptions and “expansive” digressions on each course’s provenance. This is clearly a place with a Michelin star on the brain — as such, the food is also “decidedly light,” with some portions verging on “minuscule.” It’s enough to mean that, as much as Dent “really rather liked” Indian Accent, she is certain that she will “never, ever go back.”
Talking of backs, this week Giles Coren is having lunch with a former Australian rugby fly half, Michael Lynagh. The venue is the London offshoot of Brighton’s The Coal Shed (yes, Fay’s been there already.) And — much like one of the rarer sporting achievements secured by Lynagh way back in 1984 — it’s something of a grand slam: to start, oysters are “excellent” and the roasted shellfish platter boasts “a good dry, smoky flavour and texture from the fire.” After that, though, the smoked goat shoulder is a true “thing of beauty”: “blackened and crispy, oozing its juices,” complete with “crisp” flatbreads and accompanying “rich, tangy sauces.” To use a term surely beloved by some well-known grilled-meat enthusiasts, this is just the “most epic” of kebabs, genuinely “perfect.” All in all, then, “a cracking meal,” both representative of Brighton and packing a “heft and seriousness” that feels very London 2018. With two critics and a World Cup-winning rugby player now having sung its praises, The Coal Shed is surely worth, ahem, a try.
Someone at The Standard is joining Theresa May on George Osborne’s naughty list this week, after both of its critics — in what is surely a first for any publication — ended up reviewing the same place a mere 24 hours apart.
First up, as so often, it’s Fay Maschler. Given Nuala opened before Christmas, this actually represents slow going for the sector’s resident queen of barging into unsuspecting dining rooms during opening service — so much so, one Twitter user was moved to wonder whether a conspiracy was afoot.
But come on! More and more London restaurants seem to be opening (and, eep, closing) by the day; a gal can’t be expected to hit up everywhere the moment its doors are unlocked. Perhaps more intriguing is the question of why it’s taken anyone this long to review Nuala, one of the most interesting and promising openings from the tail end of last year.
Perhaps the timing was awkward, perhaps the PR / #influencer strategy went awry. Perhaps, too, the venue itself was a bit of a turn-off: Maschler notes “overhead lights that bring to mind a visit to the dental hygienist” and “a central layout that seems to reference the ‘white collar’ in the development’s name” as she casts an only slightly icy glance around a space lacking in “visual magnetism.”
Fortunately, the food is a little more welcoming, with a menu packed full of “dishes that sound like excellent wheezes.” Some execution is a little off: Guinness-based sauce lends steak tartare “an overly sloshy, rather vexatious texture”; sweetbreads and cauliflower boast a promising “outward appearance” but are sadly lacking in “inward flavour,” most likely due to “underpowered” cheese sauce. Other stuff is much better, like “beautiful” chicken with chanterelles and a duo of potato preparations (actually the two “best” things on the menu.) Overall, despite the odd inconsistency on the plate, there’s a winning “friendliness” on show here; a “warm heart” beating in somewhat clinical surroundings.
Which is a verdict not entirely dissimilar to that reached by Julie Burchill — just in, uh, slightly different fashion.
How far a reader can make it through her review before the “Yo, is this racist?” klaxon starts up is a matter of debate, but it’s probably pretty early, and probably about the same time the “yo, is this totally hypocritical?” klaxon starts up, too. Not to drunk-shame a drunk-shamer, but for a writer to portray the Irish as a bunch of messy sots whilst herself polishing off two double gin and tonics, a glass of fizz, and a bottle of Pinot Noir over a two-course lunch — alcohol representing some 60% of the total bill — is an irony richer than any lamb-fat enhanced gratin Dauphinoise.
In addition to all that, it’s also (for the second week running) not exactly a great read, from the introduction of a supporting character jarringly labelled The Flâneur (probably not this guy) to the targeting of tired stalking horses like hipsters (they left Shoreditch a while ago, Bbz).
But outrage has always been the currency of proto-trolls like Burchill; getting too exercised about her (brief) ES Magazine career is probably exactly what she wants. Rumour has it that this may be her last spin of this particular wheel; rumour also has it that her likely successor is not exactly known for keeping his nose clean, either. Those poor editors can’t breathe easy again just yet.