2018 is just a week old, but the backlog of reviews to review is already alarming. Take an eye off the ball for a few days — to spend some much-needed time with family and loved ones, say — and, locust-like, the city’s restaurant critics will have descended on a host of new places, mined them for delicacies, and moved on, still hungry, in the hunt of yet another meal.
And so this week, for one week only, a slightly different approach, as the reviews in review becomes the reviewers in review. What have the city’s critical favourites been up to whilst the rest of London has been making merry?
After a year of staying in every Amazing Hotel out there and getting bladdered on first-growth claret with the face of Walkers on a whim, Giles Coren shows no sign of slowing down as he accelerates through Christmas and into the new year without so much as a passing glance to the rear-view mirror.
First up it’s Westerns Laundry, where he thrills to almost every aspect of the experience: the food (“bold, complementary combinations of strong flavours, vividly coloured, confidently plated”), the service (“energetic and soulful and funny”), even the esprit de corps of the whole Westerns team (“everybody on board and damn well meaning it.”)
There’s a lot of other highly laudable and interesting stuff about the restaurant’s debt to the Modern British tradition, and in another week there might even be time to interrogate it. But for now it’s on to Yen, and a thoroughly old school lads’ lunch with Tom Parker-Bowles. There is “wondrous” tofu to start, after which slightly less wondrous tofu (with wakame, this time) and tempura courgette “with a very faint hint of grease” come as something of a “letdown”. Fortunately, “brilliant” sushi — described in a tumble of technical vocab that exposes the faux-modesty of Coren’s serial claim he’s not a proper restaurant critic — rights the ship, before eel and wagyu and soba all combine to produce a warm and fuzzy feeling and confirm that Yen really is in possession of “a first-rate kitchen”. Offering some pretty first-rate sake, too, if the £350 bill for lunch for two is anything to go by.
Over the wall at Coren’s sister paper, a newly resolute Marina O’Loughlin can rightly feel disgruntled to have been excluded from a Fitness Special edition of the Sunday Times Magazine (in favour of Tom Kerridge, no less) — especially since her one review of the season was occasioned by a desire for “the culinary equivalent of colonic irrigation” after a lunch of “lascivious, retro excess” at the dependably debauched Otto’s.
But Little Duck — The Picklery offers more than “dutiful,” “hair-shirty” ferments and pickles — and even those ferments and pickles are “piquant” and “pleasurable,” a veritable “bitch-slap to the palate” (new year, new gif!) Beyond that, the menu ranges from “a celebration of beige and bland” (chickpeas with “first-class” sourdough) to “chaotic, sexy, wintry” dishes like a kale, mushroom and rabbit pastry, to a delicate assemblage of salt cod with clementine and marjoram: it’s equal parts “butchness and sophistication.” Far from a grim slog through raw kale and underdone pulses, this “new virtue” is in fact a distinct “pleasure” — and with half an eye on the twelve months in front of us, O’Loughlin contends it might well be “the future,” too.
It won’t have been all fun and festivities in the Rayner household, what with the paterfamilias still banging out copy to meet deadlines on both Christmas and New Year’s Eves. First up is Sushi Atelier, whose impressive pedigree — it’s from the Chisou crew — is a good indicator of what customers will be getting: food that’s “impressive without being neurotic,” from a kitchen whose “interests lie more with the raw than the cooked.” A tartare of seabass and butterfish “bursts with green chilli”; sushi is simply “beautiful,” with sea urchin “best of all.”
Similarly beguiling is Treves and Hyde, which also delivers that magical (but elusive) formula of “simple things done exceedingly well.” Cheese puffs “melt away to nothing on the tongue,” pork belly with its “subtle striations of fat” tastes “like the very best bacon,” duck confit is “soft and crisp-skinned”. Comfort food, sure, but not without plenty of attention to “the killer detail”: breadcrumbs for crunch, barbecue sauce for acidity, goat’s curd for elevating buttered carrots. Just the knowledge that this is the first in a posited chain to leave an unwelcome sourness in the mouth — but as Rayner observes, this may well be one of the few ways to maximise the likelihood of success in brave new 2018. After all, it’s certainly not looking like plain sailing out there — even for some of the chains.
But here’s cause for optimism in the form of the first critical verdict on Parsons — delivered, as ever it seems, by Fay Maschler. After a masterful encapsulation of the charms of the small, lovable Covent Garden site, Maschler gets stuck into the menu, particularly enjoying the croquettes, which — “tanned, fat and rubble-rough with panko crumbs” as they are — simply “must not be missed.” Admittedly, “bills mount up” on the back of dishes as “irresistible” as the lobster mash, or a “plus plus plus” fish pie. Admittedly, too, it’s not all exemplary: pork and seaweed chipolatas are “not as thrilling as you might imagine,” the crab pissaladière (“such a clever conceit”) is “let down by the wrong sort of pastry, not lascivious enough.” But there is an undeniable “bright spark” in the kitchen, and similar flashes of inspiration seem to have struck owners Ian Campbell and Will Palmer, too: not for nothing does someone like Maschler invoke someones like Corbin and King on the subject of attention to detail. As a similarly buoyant review from Tim Hayward suggests, a “deceptively simple” restaurant like Parsons may not constitute the reinvention of the wheel — but Londoners should still feel “blessed” to have it in their lives.
While Felicity Cloake dutifully keeps her seat warm at The Guardian — joining the Stevie Parle love-in with a review of Pastaio that doesn’t quite top William Sitwell for hyperbole — Grace Dent has the little matter of a final Evening Standard column to get through before she can move on to pastures new. Leandro Carreira’s Londrino is where Dent realises she has finally reached “the end of the road” for dining within the confines of the M25 — a bite of “semi raw” potato, “Dr Seuss-style, pond-green, mustardy coriander slime” and “lukewarm yolk” enough to tell her everything she needs to know about this ambitious but ever-so-slightly divisive new opening.
The “semi-edible whimsy” on offer here does possess “a beauty and a usefulness” in its own right — in dishes like the “dark, heavenly, filthy” whole mackerel with savoy cabbage melted in seaweed butter, or the “magical, ethereal” whey and smoked honey ice cream. Perhaps more importantly, though, places like Londrino also “lead the way”, their food “bastardised and modernised” in kitchens outside London, their recipes “pilfered” and “flogged” by “cooks in the provinces”. An interesting way to endear herself to the very chefs whose output she will be sampling as the Guardian critic, perhaps — but hardly atypical of the forthright, confrontational style so many have come to love and will surely miss. The best of luck, then, in her new role — just maybe don’t look too closely at those regional “foamy smears”.