Jimi Famurewa is the first critic to review Newington Green restaurant and bakery Jolene, which feels slightly surprising. Perhaps it’s those pesky availability heuristics at work: in recent times, a certain sliver of the food-loving world has made a beeline for Stoke Newington — and then posted about the experience on Insta, natch. It’s only natural to expect the national critics to follow suit.
As Financial Times critic Tim Hayward’s take on Jolene sibling Westerns Laundry makes clear, co-parents Jeremie Cometto-Lingenheim and David Gingell aren’t necessarily in the business of pleasing the masses. Natural wine remains a lightning rod; there’s the hackneyed (but still very Hackney) small plates issue to contend with, too.
Famurewa’s verdict acknowledges the “indisputable,” “effortless cool” of N16’s hottest new opening. Indeed, he almost seems relieved to find such “hearty,” borderline “medieval” food on offer. It’s true that only a few weeks after opening, there are still a few teething problems on show: garlic and rosemary flatbread is dusted with “far too much salt”; braised beef on a “sludge” of bone marrow and bread is “mildly underwhelming.” Otherwise, it’s all good: to start off, house bread is “terrific” and a bitter leaf salad is “skilfully balanced”; heartier dishes like a “powerfully cheesy” pumpkin-spelt risotto and a “lastingly pungent” rabbit ragù are “gratifying rib-stickers,” as is a “bubbled, blistered pile” of Jansson’s Temptation (a “big, Scandi bear hug of a thing.”) As this list of dishes indicates, there may be more than a “touch of stodginess” to Jolene’s cooking — worthy of “Westeros”; when winter is coming that’s probably no bad thing. There are, after all, “far worse places to hibernate.”
Neil Borthwick’s cooking feels like the polar opposite to what might be termed the ‘east London school’ of 21st century cooking — very classical, very simple, fluent in the culinary Franglais befitting of a ‘French’ house in the heart of Soho.
Given that this “opposite” could also be seen as a worthy antidote to prevailing London restaurant trends, it’s no surprise to see the first of a likely parade of critics making her way to its doors. According to Fay Maschler, there’s plenty to recommend a trip. The “short” menu, “handwritten with brio,” offers dishes like pappardelle with “raucous” beef cheek ragù, or a slow-cooked lamb stew so winning that it “would have seduced Elizabeth David.” But Borthwick can also do delicate: brill with anchovy butter is “a handsome sparkling tranche of fish”; clearly, he can do puddings, too: vanilla and nutmeg tart is a “consummate sweet triangle with which to rule off the meal.” It all feels very apt for a place so rich in history, so full of “fascinating” photographs documenting its past. The French House may not be reinventing any wheels, but that doesn’t stop it feeling like its own little slice of “heaven.”
Maschler, of course, was also first through the door at Caractère, the Notting Hill outpost from Roux family scion Emily and her partner Diego Ferrari. She liked it without reaching too hard for any superlatives; this week, the Times food editor Tony Turnbull comes to much the same conclusion.
Early doors, seared mackerel is an “exemplary piece of fish, lifted by the chlorophyll hit of pureed parsley,” veal sweetbreads with artichokes, olives and harissa represent “a masterclass in glandular cooking.” There’s “dexterity” to spare in other dishes, too: turbot with cauliflower is “beautifully cooked”; cod with crispy potato and lardo (oof) is quite simply “sensational.” The “only disappointment” comes from the meat courses: lamb is “clobbered” by its spicing; oxtail ravioli still just look a bit weird, though Turnbull’s simile (“like a pair of flying saucers that have crash-landed in a pond of finely cubed root vegetables) surely takes second fiddle to Maschler’s invocation of “condoms on an island.”
These flaws are minor quibbles: a more-than-solid score of 8/10 is proof that Roux and Ferrari are building some decent critical word-of-mouth. Dishes like the celeriac cacio e pepe are certainly priced “toppily,” and it’s clear that £££-signs remain “far from low” throughout. This still manages to represent something of value, especially for the neighbourhood: Turnbull suggests that Ferrari’s cooking could easily go toe-to-toe with Michelin-starred neighbours like Core and The Ledbury — executed with the best of them, at a fraction of the cost.
Talking of executioners, here’s Grace Dent, sharpening her axe and fresh from last week’s ritual disembowelment of Zela. The gimmicky fare on offer at Red Farm seems like it will be the latest casualty — we’re talking Pac Man dumplings, for heaven’s sake.
Except, it doesn’t really turn out that way. Dent, in fact, finds the “joyful silliness” on offer in Covent Garden to be “so incongruent with the modern British restaurant scene” that it’s actually fairly “appealing”: Red Farm is not “elegant,” it’s not somewhere for “purists” — it’s a “different dumpling entirely” that prides itself in offering “big, daft, delicious fun.”
Pastrami egg rolls may pack in “calorific largesse” but they’re also “wickedly delicious”; there’s a similar blend of “high finesse and 3am stoner experimentation” on show in the “moist” and “delicate” cheeseburger spring rolls. The quality of execution is key: far from the “atrocious, under-seasoned, loveless slop” on offer elsewhere in this specific part of London, this stuff is cooked with wit and skill. Like those Pac Man dumplings, somewhere like Red Farm may “offend and delight in equal parts” — but Dent can’t help finding it “rather adorable.”
We’re talking Jiangnan, and Marina O’Loughlin is talking Restaurant Hé in Holborn. The Sunday Times critic finds herself “intrigued” by the food on offer on this central London side-street: dishes like pepper sauce steamed sea bream, “an incredible collision of delicacy and savour,” or Jinling signature salt-water duck, a “remarkable,” “extraordinary thing.”
The sheer unfamiliarity of these preparations is enough to persuade O’Loughlin to bring in the big guns. Eater London contributor Fuchsia Dunlop provides valuable context but isn’t necessarily fulsome in her praise — after multiple visits, though, O’Loughlin realises she doesn’t particularly care whether the food at Hé is authentic or not. It’s a “chic little spot” — one “absolutely” worth checking out. It may be authentic, it may not; Jiangnan food may soon come to conquer the U.K.; it may not. Regardless, eating at Restaurant Hé is “never less than absolutely fascinating.”