We kick things off this week in Islington, as Jay Rayner visits the new home of the chef formerly known as James Cochran, and still in most senses known as James Cochran, but not in certain contexts legally allowed to call himself James Cochran.
Rayner pays fair heed to the “tortuous” / “really, really weird” trademark issues surrounding the restaurant, but is quite rightly more interested in the occasionally “terrific,” consistently “bold, imaginative and fun” cookery. Lamb comes “beautifully accessorised” with cod’s roe, artichokes and the “carefully managed astringency” of black olive; the addition of bagna cauda turns cauliflower into “a pleasing bruiser.” Buttermilk rabbit is “moreish,” while jerk-spiced hake is “a brave and brilliant dish.” Even puddings — where modern restaurants tend to “wimp out” — maintain the high standards: pretty, balanced, and “sweet in all the right places.”
The one flaw at the moment is probably the service: there is “an air of just-managed chaos,” with dishes arriving “in a weird order” and a waitstaff that “comes and goes like cloud cover in April.” There’s “enough interesting stuff going on” for Rayner’s verdict to remain overwhelmingly positive: Cochran’s restaurant may need “a little focus” in places, but at its best, his food really is “touched with brilliance.”
Rochelle Canteen at The ICA
The need to find a special art-adjacent restaurant for a special themed issue of Evening Standard Magazine probably explains our next entry. It’s still interesting to see what Jimi Famurewa makes of Rochelle Canteen at the ICA: the received wisdom is that restaurants don’t really find their feet until several months after opening, so reviewing almost one year in is arguably fairer on the restaurant. Try telling that to a readership desperate to know whether a much-hyped new opening really is all that.
Unfortunately for those anticipating a paradigm-shifting reappraisal, Famurewa’s verdict ends up pretty similar to those first through the door. Fortunately for Famurewa himself, though, this still means he enjoys a pretty “special” lunch.
Chicken hearts on toast may be “an almost hilariously grim-looking Guernica of a dish,” but it packs “trippily intense poultry flavour”; brill comes away from the bone in sculptural, “buttery flakes” and is punched up with a garnish of “potent” aioli. To close things off, plum and almond tart is a still-life study in ensuring sour fruit is not “bullied” by sweetness. Even with a glass or two of “very good” house red, the sheer “reasonableness” of the bill induces “pleasant surprise” — one of the few surprising things at what has steadily become “one of the more quietly spectacular places to eat right now.”
First up, the surprising news: Fay Maschler’s review of Kaki features precisely zero transcriptions of phone calls between prospective customers and restaurant management. It does, however, contain a series of eminently sensible-sounding pro-tips about how to do the experience right: “round up quite a few companions”; “explore the Chinese way with potatoes”; “choose at least one of the chef’s specials”; “order in fits and starts.”
Three separate visits from the Evening Standard critic tell their own tale: Maschler is keen to “get to grips” with the “long list” of dishes on offer (in “huge” portions, to boot.) She thrills to “creamily, soothingly pristine” tofu offset by chilli oil “throbbing with ma la”; dry-fried green beans with minced pork, meanwhile, are “elegantly and copiously prepared.” Braised trotters in brown sauce provide an “atavistic tug” of British staple HP but are also a winning advertisement for how “creatively” combined flavours can “captivate.”
It’s not perfect: smacked cucumbers are erroneously underdressed; service is borderline “peremptory.” But there are undeniably “rewards” on offer “when you look for them,” not least the “hallucinatory” flavours of sea bass “bobbing beneath a carpet of facing-heaven red chillies.” An unwitting lightning rod for controversy, a buzzworthy new opening, a capsaicin-rich portal to a higher dimension: a restaurant’s position on the Eater heatmap has rarely felt more deserved.
We close at the close of a hell of a week for Giles Coren — what with the release of the Times 100 Best Places To Eat and a masterclass in how not to write about the Sichuan-Chinese restaurant above. On this occasion — with a Dante-esque appropriateness, after his “failure to communicate” defence of the apparently indefensible — Coren spends the entirety of his meal at RedFarm being buttonholed by owner Ed Schoenfeld.
Schoenfeld’s chattiness is almost enough to obscure what Coren actually orders. Cheeseburger spring rolls are “beautifully made, pretty as hell” and taste like something you’d eat “in your naughtiest dreams”; the Insta-iconic Pac Man dumplings may look “strictly for the kids” but are still “well made” and “a pleasure to eat.” Crunchy vegetable and peanut dumplings and shrimp-stuffed shishito peppers are both “exquisite,” and there are probably lots of other good things on offer, too, but Coren doesn’t really have space for it, what with all the Ed Schoenfeld stuff going on. Schoenfeld himself gets a 10/10 for his troubles, though it’s probably not great news for his restaurant that Times readers know more about the age of his two sons than they do about the quality of the soup dumplings.
Coren pronounces the food at RedFarm “delicious,” and even considers it worthy of inclusion in the Times Top 100. Schoenfeld may consider this a job well done, the acclaim a result of his keen ministrations, but it doesn’t take a master close-reader of subtext to see that such hands-on service can actually hinder, rather than help, a critic’s appreciation of a restaurant.