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Grace Dent Finds ‘Damned Good Lunch’ at a Soho Institution

Plus all of last week’s restaurant reviews, reviewed

Berenjak, this week reviewed in the Times
Berenjak [Official Photo]

Baptist Grill

Five years ago, the idea that the grill might come back into fashion was laughable. Grill was a newly discovered verb, not a noun — something done, aggressively, to a chunk of meat or whole cauliflower, before coating it in pul biber and tahini; before dredging it through nam jim. The formality of the Grill Dining Experience — the white tablecloths, the carvery trolleys, the silver tureens of creamed spinach — felt like a pure Mad Men throwback: about as welcome around millennial tables as that era’s views on race, gender, and smoking.

Betting on restaurant trends is a mug’s game. After half a decade of dizzying innovation and creative proliferation, the meat-and-two-veg simplicity of that grill feels weirdly refreshing. As Jimi Famurewa diagnoses in his review this week, the grill is back, baby — this is an era of “grill revivalism.” There’s Kerridge’s, of course — already the subject of several critical raves. Marina O’Loughlin is in New York this week, checking out a grill named The Grill. And now there’s Baptist Grill in Holborn, appended to luxury hotel L’oscar London.

As is so often the case with hotel-adjacent restaurants, this one’s a strange study in contrasts. First, the room, apparent design brief: “Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, properly off on one.” Next, the clientele: suited folk midway through “muttered business lunches,” mainly. Finally, the food: “straightforward,” for the most part, though not always in a good way. Mushroom agnolotti are perfectly “effective” but “stingily sauced”; beetroot salad is “hampered” by extraneous frisée garnish. A “succulent, hulking” bavette is let down by “timidly spiced” chimichurri.

None of it is “bad especially” — but neither is any of it “innovative or precise or decadent enough to leave much of a dent”. Unlike the “special occasions only” heft on offer at Kerridge’s, Baptist Grill isn’t “shamelessly expensive”; it does, though, present itself as “luxury dining.” What it needs, says Famurewera, is some of Sexy Fish’s “deranged wagyu-topped extravagance,” or a dose of the Ritz’s “white-jacketed sophistication.” For now, Baptist Grill lives “in an uncomfortable no-man’s land”.

Oslo Court

For sepia-tinted throwbacks done right, look no further than St John’s Wood, where the Galician Sanchez family are still partying like it’s 1979.

Their efforts are assessed this week by Fay Maschler, visiting in bittersweet circumstances: the restaurant was a favourite of her late husband, Reg. Once inside, the Evening Standard critic is “transported happily into another world,” both by the décor — “wall-to-wall deep-pile blue carpet, ruffled net curtains, peachy-pink tablecloths and fanned napkins” — and the enjoyably retro menu.

The cooking is good and absolutely comme il faut. Roast pheasant arrives as a whole bird, for example: it is then taken away for carving, returning hewn into “gratifyingly juicy pieces.” What really makes Oslo Court truly unique is its “idiosyncratic,” borderline “surreal” vibe: a sort of maximalist “theatricality” embodied by outré flourishes like silver service that is enough to leave one of Maschler’s guests “tickled pink.” Restaurants are special to people for any number of reasons — food, sometimes, is among the least of them. In Oslo Court, the Sanchez family deliver an experience that “any restaurant lover would ‘get’.”

The French House

Another kind of throwback again over at The Guardian, as Grace Dent surfs the neoclassical French wave over in Soho. Neil Borthwick’s cooking above a Grade-II listed pub on Dean Street has already gained one critic’s approval; Dent, too, thrills to the blend of “all-new” and “not-new” on offer here, deeming it a thoroughly “welcome” addition to the 2018 scene.

The food delivers. From a “short, pleasing, changeable menu,” think goat’s curd on toast with confit garlic dissolving into “soft, translucent pearls”; think a “thoughtfully constructed” salad of squash, watercress, walnuts and Jerusalem artichoke; think lamb broth with “pungent, rich” Welsh rarebit, or brill in anchovy butter, with a side of “ridiculous, hips-be-damned” pommes aligot. This isn’t groundbreaking stuff: it’s “classic, earthy cooking” — and “a damned good lunch” to boot. The reports of the demise of this part of London have been very much exaggerated. “Soho isn’t over”: one of its most storied venues is very much “safe” in Borthwick’s hands.

Berenjak / Pitta Bun / Maison Bab

Part of Central London’s enduring success is the sheer diversity of food on offer. It’s possible to indulge in Modern British-inflected French food above a pub one moment, then stagger a few yards on and find somewhere entirely different. Like Berenjak, the new Iranian-inspired opening backed by JKS Restaurants — coincidentally also the first stop in a multi-venue kebab crawl hosted by Giles Coren this week.

Berenjak is probably the strongest of the three under consideration: breads are “excellent,” black chickpea hummus “delicious,” goat shoulder koobideh kebab is “delightful,” offering “firm, dense, perfectly seasoned meat.” It’s definitely better than the stuff on offer at Pitta Bun, which — despite “sweet” staff and “good” homemade bread — could clearly do with a little more love. Slow-cooked pork belly bun is “flabby and unremarkable,” with “no discernible char,” and an accompanying salad/sauce (tzatziki with tomatoes, onion, mint and parsley) comes on “strangely McDonalds-y.” It’s not “horrid,” but it is definitely “dull,” and at £9 for a bun the owners are probably “punching 20 per cent over the price point that is going to work here,” even “with tourists on tap.” Especially if the alternative is as good as Maison Bab, with its pork shawarma — “the depth of meat flavours, the sweet and sour, the rattle and hum” — and fondue fries: “Oh. My. God.” Maison Bab may not aspire to Berenjak’s authenticity, but for Coren, that doesn’t stop both of them, in their own special way, being quietly “mind-blowing.”

Sexy Fish

Berkeley Square House, Berkeley Square, London, W1J 6BR Visit Website

The French House

49 Dean Street, , England W1D 5BG 020 7437 2477 Visit Website

L’oscar

2-6 Southampton Row , London , WC1B 4AA

Berenjak

27 Romilly Street, , England W1D 5AL Visit Website

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