Where have all the critics gone, and should Londoners start to worry? Is the capital’s pre-eminence as the gastro-destination of choice under threat? Grace Dent may as well write for The Cumbrian for all the time she spends in the Guardian’s liberal metropolitan elite stronghold; Jay and Marina are out discovering dazzlingly good food in Birmingham and Doncaster; even usually-dependable urbanite Michael Deacon has headed off to York. Is it a simple quirk of geography and timing? Or (and whisper this really quietly) is the procession of supra-hyped big ticket new openings and identikit plant-based concepts within the M25 actually a bit of a homogenous snoozefest?
The answer’s no, probably. Nevertheless — and not for the first time — Week in Reviews offers a prayer to the patron saint of London restaurants, Fay Maschler; both for fulfilling a prediction made in last week’s instalment, and for providing a reason for the column to exist at all today. She’s first through the doors at Chase Lovecky / The Clove Club’s Two Lights on Kingsland Road, and suggests there’s plenty to keep hungry people interested: not least some striking Modern American food cooked “with innate sensitivity and joy.”
Putting crab on beef fat chips (more properly, putting crab on “finely layered deep-fried potatoes so greaseless they leave no trace on the paper beneath”) is “just a brilliant notion”; a flatbread bearing mussels and Brussels sprouts is also “extra special”. These are both a little more successful than the modish but ultimately disappointing riff on a katsu sandwich, breaded sardine being “considerably less seductive” in Maschler’s eyes than the more common panko-crusted pork.
Among heartier dishes, there’s a similar story of clear standouts and less impressive also-rans. Sausage is used to stuff guinea fowl breast “to salubrious effect”; more sausage meanwhile (grouse, this time, with coco beans and figs) is the “hero” of this part of the menu, “easily outbidding” the “unsuccessful clash of cultures” embodied by roast artichoke and sunflower seed miso.
And even if other elements of the experience aren’t quite to Maschler’s taste — pudding “photographs better than it eats”; the “hideously” loud soundtrack is “almost unbearable” — there’s more than enough here to suggest that the Evening Standard critic has taken a shining to Chase Lovecky’s restaurant. Maybe this is because there’s an enthusiasm at work here that actively precludes taking a dim view of the place: like the staff themselves — “quite the sweetest” — Two Lights seems “dedicated to giving folk a good time.”
There’s damning with faint praise; there’s also praising with faint damnation (see above.) But, there’s also the less nuanced brutality that emerges when a critic really has it in for a place — showcased this week in Tim Hayward’s Financial Times column. Hayward takes issue with pretty much every element of Tom Dixon and Assaf Granit’s Coal Drops Yard collaboration, Coal Office.
It’s hard to blame him: he is, he admits, “in a lot of pain,” a function of the spectacularly uncomfortable seating arrangement, a veritable “triumph of design over physical ease.”
Style rather than substance is a recurring theme for Hayward: the staff are “elegantly accoutred,” but “about as tightly organised as a bag of rats”; the food “looks so enticing laid out on the plate” but is revealed as “a snare and a delusion” upon actually starting to eat. Chicken live pâté “arrives as a Kandinsky,” but its accompanying pool of honey renders it “way too sweet”; tomatoes in a tomato salad are “the sort currently disappointing audiences across the country”; ox cheek and a priapic octopus tentacle come in a “well-flavoured” broth, but for star ingredients, both are “subtly flaccid.”
After an initial five-star rave, followed by a fairly positive review from Giles Coren, this is a worrying decline for the team. It’s also an interesting reminder that nailing hospitality involves a lot more than knocking out a few plates of food and wowing the first few guests through the door. Other splashy new restaurant openings in the area should take note: it may talk a big game, but — in Hayward’s eyes — this version of Coal Office “falls short of the promise of its original design.”
Jimi Famurewa would probably say the same of his target this week — once he’d got his head round it being “a real, actual place” and not, say, “an elaborate prank.” But real Marylebone’s Yeotown Kitchen most assuredly is, even if the Evening Standard Magazine man finds it “truly fascinating” that “people would willingly — repeatedly! — eat something” as heinous as the house ‘Bounce Back’ burger (vegan “cheese” burger comprised of lentils, onions, and quinoa.)
All other elements of the place are perfectly “fine”: “nice,” “brightly done up” décor; “zesty” kefir drink; “prettily chopped” wellness / ‘Beauty’ fruit bowl. But, “oh god,” that burger: a “dense” patty, producing a “sudden, sulphurous wave” of aftertaste, accompanied by “five thick planks of limp sweet potato wedges” and a side-salad packing “an intense bitter flavour vaguely redolent of crunching through a paracetamol.” It’s enough to leave Famurewa thoroughly “perplexed”, especially when other outfits have “turned plant-based junk food into such a compelling, genuinely droolsome proposition.” Yeotown Kitchen appears to have forgotten the central tenet of getting people to eat less meat and more veg: “just make it really, really tasty.”