Après Giles, le déluge. After the first review of cheery dopamine-addict Tom Kerridge’s new London gaff last week, here comes another: Grace Dent, this time, hitting the same extremely positive notes that never quite develop into a full-blown symphony of praise.
£32.50 fish and chips are £32.50 but do feature “the finest, freshest, most ethical brill” and a batter that is “a masterclass in whipping and dipping”; the accompanying chips boast an “ethereal, golden shimmer” — “special, once-in-a-lifetime chips.”
Really, Dent knows she’s treading on a below-the-line landmine with a review featuring prices like this — the question of value is so subjective that even mentioning the £29.50 glazed lobster omelette starter verges on “antagonistic.” These are undeniably “punchy” prices, but pretty much everything on Kerridge’s “short, alluring menu of big British crowd-pleasers” leaves Dent absolutely “delighted”. Whether a “masterful” beef rib with bone marrow sauce, or a “joyful,” “aggressive” blackcurrant leaf ice-cream, this is “a British restaurant that celebrates British things in a charming and non-laboured manner.”
It’s not like anyone is pretending that these are everyday indulgences. The room is “grand,” and the vibes are “jolly”: this is “a big, broad and brassy birthday treat-type of restaurant.” It’s hard to put a price on that sort of thing, really — by the end of Dent’s review, £32.50 doesn’t seem that much to pay after all.
It’s a timely visit — and not only because it seems to suggest a growing (and welcome) trend of critics reappraising the capital’s most storied institutions. There’s also the fact that — ever since Clare Smyth vacated the premises to do her own thing — there’s has been a slim and schadenfreude-titillating chance that the world’s most famous tyre company may retract one of its shiny Michelin stars from one of its shiniest chefs. Can Smyth’s successor Matt Abé continue to deliver the goods?
Well, now, let’s not be too hasty here. But Maschler’s eventual score — 4/5 — suggests not everything is quite as up to standard as it should be. Qualities like “finesse” and “depth of flavour” are present and correct, but “considerably more pronounced” in the £120 main menu vs the cheapo (£70!) lunch deal. Lunchtime pasta is “tough,” while dinnertime foie gras with smoked duck has clearly been “the recipient of much more TLC”; lunchtime skate — in being portioned into a rhombus shape and fried — has lost its “lovely sexy gelatinous quality,” and therefore delivers considerably less “impact” than dinner’s turbot.
There’s all the usual high-end jiggery-pokery but little of it leaves Maschler “smitten” — service is so attentive as to feel like being “in intensive care”; a “leitmotif” of sauces poured at the table is one of many little flourishes that create the sensation of “time travel — backwards — in the realm of eating out.” A great many of the relevant boxes are ticked — the food is frequently “pretty as a picture” and often approaches “work of art” execution — there’s plenty “missing in action” here, too. Things like “spontaneity,” or “munificence,” or “emotional connection” — all things likely to be “attributes of restaurants you love.” On today of all days, it’s a salutary reminder of the things that really matter — to us, and to Michelin.
Consolation Bib Gourmands at the ready: next up, it’s a Thai place.
In fairness, little of Kin and Deum’s offer suggests high-end gastronomy is the goal: the origin story isn’t a million miles different from that of Los Angeles linear equation Night + Market, in which a traditional Thai favourite (in this case, Suchard) has been taken over by the next generation.
Accordingly, as Jimi Famurewa records, “subtly modernised homeliness” is the vibe here, extending from the “approachable” but ever-so-slightly “rough-hewn” food to presentation that is serviceable but “unlikely to set Instagram aflame.”
But appearances be damned: the flavour is what really matters, and the restaurant more than delivers. Shiitake spring rolls are “hot” and “delicate”; gra pow with tofu and vegetables offers “a well-drilled dance of forceful heat and necessary sweetness,” “improved endlessly” by a side of jasmine rice crowned with a golden fried egg. Beef massaman is “even more of a knockout”: both “powerfully fragrant” and “patiently cooked”. The place’s “warm-glow backstory” and its menu cooked with “flair, care and the odd unexpected flourish” are more than “appetising” enough.
Despite evolving views on the concept, there is still more capital accorded a critic reviewing restaurants that correspond with the idea of “authenticity.” It’s a problematic question: on the one hand, there can be a colonialist-explorer narrative to accounts like this, with a fetishisation of otherness; in other cases, there can be something laudable about critics using a massive platform to foreground new openings whose owners are cooking food on their own terms.
Whether or not he meant it, Giles Coren’s Times review of Caledonian Road Sichuan restaurant Kaki falls into both of those categories. He’d already taken to Instagram Stories to sing its praises; this week the full review arrives, and it’s a rave.
Tofu with preserved egg and scallion is simply “a joy”, its “cool, milky blandness” an ideal foil for intensely “piggy”, borderline “challenging” but undeniably “compulsive” braised trotters. Boiled seabass in chilli oil is also a study in contrasts, its “smooth, white and sweet” flesh a “perfect” companion to the “fire and salt and deep savoury tug of the cooking juices.” Specials — rabbit, frogs legs — are also “delicious”, genuinely “wondrous to consume”; twice-cooked pork, too, makes for an “incredible dish.” It all combines utterly winningly — for those of Coren’s readers not up to speed on regional Chinese food, a perfect introduction to “the multilayered mystery and magic of Sichuan cooking.”
Rayner is struck by how much of a “lane swerve” Rovi represents for Britain’s favourite pomegranate-magnet-magnate: this is a “modish” restaurant — live fire, a kitchen that “ferments with gay abandon,” and that “takes hungrily from others” rather than ploughing its own furrow.
But he’s also struck by how well it all works: there may be a new, “uncluttered simplicity” to the food but it more than “makes an argument for itself.” Lobster prawn toast is the Anglo-Cantonese classic “re-engineered by someone greedy enough to get their hands dirty”; sweetheart cabbage has been cooked down into “louche, buttery petals.” Celeriac shawarma is an outright “show-stopper” — a “killer idea, brilliantly executed” — and even if the apricot clafoutis that Rayner samples is a little “heavy,” he nevertheless leaves contented. All in all, “this is vivid, thrilling stuff.”