It’s been so long since a restaurant backed by industry titans JKS Restaurants received anything less than critical ecstasy that some could be forgiven for thinking that the adulation is unanimous. Fay Maschler’s three star review of JKS’ latest, Berenjak, comes as something of a shock: after Giles Coren’s brief, but promising, take last week, it appeared that the stage was set for yet another procession of praise.
There is still a fair bit of it in Maschler’s verdict: black chickpeas lend hummus a “more refined look— and taste — to the catering pack stuff so frequently encountered”; guinea fowl khoresht is “outstanding”; ditto poussin, whose cooking has taken it to a “dark and juicy place.” Let’s not forget a “joyful” side order of rice: the staple carb enhanced with a “significant amount of goat butter.”
There’s also a fair amount of misses. Panir sabzi is a “mean little gathering”: a “wimpish bundle of greens,” not the “bouquet of bountifulness” more commonly encountered at this stage of a meal. Goat koobideh kabab “lacks vivacious seasoning”; another kabab — this one a riff “on a post-piss up doner” — sadly “loses quite a lot in translation.” There are a few other misfires: over-diluted sharbats are “a bit of a washout”; the wine list is “punitively short”; service feels “full of too much information.”
All of this, of course, can be fixed. JKS being JKS, it probably will be, too: the last place to encounter this sort of reception —Trishna — may have struggled at first, but the best part of a decade on those hiccups are a distant memory. One criticism of Maschler’s may therefore sting a little more: her observation that “corporate backing” has “rationalised, prettified, sanitised and bean-counted” this particular concept, turning a “rip-roaring tradition” into “what might even be a proto-chain.” A rollout may be part of Berenjak’s future; it may not — more reviews from London’s critics almost certainly will be. For the disinterested observer, they should make for interesting reading.
Up next, another difference of critical opinion, as Marina O’Loughlin delivers a slightly less rapturous reception of Two Lights than the one filed a few weeks back in the Evening Standard.
The place may be “heaving” and boast the “overbearing air of being absolutely where the action is,” but where the real action is, on the plate, a few things turn out “flat.” Flamed mackerel has been mishandled to a state of “wooly” unpleasantness; grilled shortrib is “an unyielding chore”; whole globe artichoke “starts off as a joy” but also “ends up a bit of a slog,” not helped by the “grouty” miso-sunflower dip alongside.
Of course, this is far from a “bad restaurant”: when it’s done well, the “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” approach favoured by the kitchen — “big flavours, judiciously wielded” — results in more than the occasional “flash of genius.” Things just aren’t quite clicking overall: the restaurant might need to “work on the generosity,” especially with a hefty bill that “dampens the fun.” This may tick all the boxes for the regular clientele, but despite multiple visits, O’Loughlin can’t quite “feel the love.”
The French House
Somewhere long on critical love is Neil Borthwick’s The French House, with critics both local and national falling over each other to sing its praises. Tim Hayward becomes just the latest this week, rejoicing in dishes like mussel chowder — “the absolute, unquestionable best one . . . ever” — and a glorious, “pointedly unmessed with” Barnsley chop. Even the cheese board is good here — “not a vast selection, just what you need” — and puddings keep up the high standards, not least a lemon posset “so close to perfect they’re shipping it to Cern to have it measured.” Hayward (correctly) observes that “there will be many reasons that restaurant critics love The French House,” but for him the most notable is Borthwick’s singular ambition simply to “do something very, very well.” Another reason might be that in a world “feverish with an incessant drive for novelty and expansion,” The French House is very obviously “going nowhere.” It might display a different kind of ambition to somewhere like Two Lights, but that doesn’t make it any less “perfect.”
Copy + paste from above. Tom Brown’s Hackney Wick gaff was all the rage a few months ago; now Jay Rayner becomes the next to big it up: “blimey, Cornerstone is good.”
There’s praise for the restaurant’s signature, a.k.a. “the thinking man’s crumpet”; there’s more for “perfectly cooked” hake, a “ripe, foamy pillow of cod brandade,” and a skate wing, “cooked to the point when it practically removes itself from the cartilage,” topped with a “deeply savoury,” “luscious” chicken butter sauce. It’s great, basically, even if the toppily-priced wine list is a bit of a “crass” pisstake, even if the slightly industrial space can come on a little “hard-edged” at night. But ignore these trifles: the food is what really matters, and in this dimension at least, there’s no debate. “If you’re staring round the room, you have completely missed the point.”
Bin Bin Q Barbecue Market
Somewhere decidedly not on the mainstream radar next up: a sort-of supermarket, sort-of Chinese barbecue restaurant just off Euston.
It’s reviewed by Giles Coren, who finds much to recommend. Squid comes ”perfectly seasoned and fire-blasted to a brown stickiness”; steamed oysters with glasses noodles, meanwhile, are “just dynamite.” Perhaps more worthy of comment than the cooking — even though it’s mostly “very good indeed” — is the intriguing detail that Bin Bin Q Barbecue Market is basically invisible on UK search engines but has a healthy presence on Weixin / WeChat, the monolithic Chinese social media network. Has the arms race for new restaurant intel has just entered a new phase?
Seamless segue alert! Also entering a new phase is Mayfair’s Met Bar, reborn recently as Gridiron, and welcomed to town by Jimi Famurewa.
As befits the 2018 Grill Revival, Gridiron’s fare consists mostly of “smartly modernised takes on steakhouse mainstays,” like short-rib Kiev and XO-juiced wood-roasted scallops. Pick of the pack is probably the roast turbot, a “hefty wedge” magically “coaxed by heat to that mystical sweet spot of bone-sucking succulence” familiar to any recent visitor of Brat. It’s served with “a lavish, outrageously creamy puddle” of chicken butter sauce (micro-trend alert!), the sort of stuff you “shamelessly slurp up,” even in full view of “ritzy-looking neighbours.”
A few bum notes in service and execution are hardly “deal-breakers”; more fundamental to Gridiron’s chances, perhaps, is the sense that even dishes as winning as the “delectable” chicken fish can’t quite “neutralise the sting” of a bill that “feels unmistakably Mayfair.” In a city where a whole host of less expensive options exist, it probably comes down to a question of personal taste: Famurewa, for one, would be happy to “spend the cash.”