Five-star reviews from Fay Maschler are like London buses: you wait ages for one, and then several crop up near major tube stations. Yes: after awarding full marks to Kings Cross’ Coal Office just a few weeks ago, Maschler now bestows the same honour on Kym’s in the Bloomberg Arcade near Bank, praising what feels like pretty much every dish on the menu.
A selection: among the ‘three treasure’ array of meats, pork belly boasts crackling that is “a thing of wonder”; soy-poached chicken, meanwhile, is “at the same time powerful and ethereal.” Sichuan aubergine is “the apotheosis of smooth savouriness”; silken tofu with century egg is “fabulous”; French bean fritters are “wreathed in smiles of the lightest batter piqued by chillies and black pepper.” Oh, and the Xi’an city lamb burger and the pork and shrimp ‘bao bao’ are also “most definitely not to miss.”
Maschler could go on — and does. This, surely, is one of the very best signs for a restaurateur: a critic so overwhelmed with joy that large swathes of the review are simply given over to sharing their enthusiasm. It’s early days for Kym’s yet, and Maschler admits that elements of the interior design are “slightly weird,” but when so much of the food on offer represents “essential ordering” it’s hard to disagree with the Evening Standard critic’s conclusion: “more tables will surely be needed.”
A quick trip up on the Northern line to our second destination this week: why, it’s none other than former Maschler favourite Coal Office, reviewed this time round by Giles Coren.
Coren is unconvinced by the “very long, narrow room” and certainly isn’t a vocal fan of the “very loud” music, but even he admits that “the food is good”: “unquestionably delicious” and “of very high quality.” It may not be typical Seder night fare, the real McCoy, but when aubergine has been Josperised to “a heavenly squish” and even the bread is “out of this world” it’s hard to care too much about fidelity.
His one complaint: this stuff is good but “sometimes there is too much of it on each plate.” Boiled eggs in an octopus tentacle sandwich? Ottolenghi-ish dustings of “blackberries and pomegranate seeds and blobs of this and that”? It’s enough to invoke “that piece of style advice from Coco Chanel about looking at yourself in the mirror before going out and then taking off one thing…except take off maybe three things.” An overall score of 7/10 follows this advice to the letter: not a bad result, certainly, but far from Maschler’s perfection.
Tim Hayward doesn’t award scores out of five or ten but 7/10 would probably just about cover his verdict on Lina Stores, too. Or perhaps even a 6: it’s clear Hayward wants to love this offshoot of the adored Soho deli as much as his fellow critics, but he quite simply “can’t.”
The intention is mostly there: this is food that comes from a good place, “a culture and tradition that cares.” Somehow, though “it falls short”: deep fried lemon slices garnishing octopus are “a bit of a shocker,” tasting “even more alarming than they look”; the spaghetti component of spaghetti with Dorset crab, lemon and chilli is “excellent” but the dressing is “underwhelming,” “more aromatic than crustacean.” Ricotta and herb gnudi are perfectly “well flavoured” but “lose their identities in the sauce.”
All symptoms, perhaps, of a more fundamental malady that Hayward diagnoses: it’s all “too considered, too arch, too designed”; misfiring not “through cynicism or greed” but perhaps through “a mistaken direction” or maybe “a surfeit of corporate strategising”. The food is merely “competent,” “on-brand but soulless”; the service is “efficient” without being “warm.” Lina Stores may have the history of one, but it ultimately “lacks the heart of an authentic ‘trat’.”
Sure, service may be a little “clenched” and there’s something a little off in how this “grandly pillared room” has been “painstakingly pubbified,” but really it’s what happens that on the plate that matters most and, in Famurewa’s eyes at least, what happens on the plate here is little less than “a gastronomic assault on your brain’s pleasure centre.”
This is, quite simply, “five star food”: the now-famous Claude-Daniel risotto is “a masterful, head-spinning balance of delicacy and gluttonous excess”; butternut squash soup is so “abominably creamy” that Famurewa comes over all Gregg Wallace, bellowing out random adjectives (“Salty! Sweet! Fragrant!”) through a gleeful grin. Deep-fried brill is accompanied by chips fried with “Hadron Collider precision,” an “elegant” pease pudding and a “sublime” curry-style Matson spiced sauce; brown butter tart with buttermilk ice cream, meanwhile, hums “a remix of the same sour-sweet tune.” The bill certainly “shunts all this into Special Meal Territory,” but no one has ever pretended that Kerridge is aiming for the quotidian here: his Bar and Grill, instead, has all the hallmarks of “an unmistakeable blockbuster.”
It feels like forever since Week in Reviews featured Sunday Times critic Marina O’Loughlin, and this week she is well and truly back: back, with the singular blend of schadenfreude and hands-over-mouth horror that can only occur when an anonymous but high-powered restaurant reviewer visits an incredibly high-end place and is treated like dirt.
In all fairness, the food isn’t really the problem at all. New chef Alex Dilling is “clearly talented” (albeit “in that ‘fine dining’ way where dishes are tiny, exquisite jewel boxes of technique and precision.”) Certainly, “if there’s an opportunity to torment the food, it’ll be grabbed by the collar,” but that almost comes with the territory in a place like this; as a Caesar salad ice cream cone — one word review: “Why?” — indicates, this is exactly the sort of “performative, tortured, effete, decadent nonsense” that has been giving Michelin a bad name for years. But it’s hard to take Dilling to task too much: this particular disaster “isn’t really his fault”.
The real issue is the service, which is “old-school in the worst possible way.” Far from the “immaculate” standard that should be expected at this price point, it “frequently descends into an idiotic pantomime,” all “whispering and glaring” and “brushing of crumbs from starched linen.” And when it isn’t being “patronising” and “too present,” it’s brusquely detached: O’Loughlin and company have to “beg, and beg” for bread and a menu; a senior member of staff bringing over some petits-fours (also begged-for) “can hardly conceal his distaste.”
We feel a frisson of pity for staff in moments like these — if only they’d known! — but it’s overcome pretty swiftly by the realisation that no restaurant on earth should treat their customers — however (in)significant — in a way that makes them feel like “unwelcome plebs.” In a year in which even Michelin seems to be moving with the times, places like the Greenhouse don’t just encapsulate “the lunacy of the upper reaches of gastronomy” — increasingly, they feel “less and less relevant,” too.