Kicking off this week is Grace Dent, and her latest trip south of the M25 results in another savaging for a shoddily executed new concept. Even more so than Soane’s Kitchen a few weeks back, her latest subject feels especially worthy of scorn: Zela seems designed for warm and rewarding hospitality, but the cynical extraction of as much cash as possible from the restaurant-going public.
Its signature, neologistic invention, ‘Meppon’ cuisine, promises a fusion of “the best Mediterranean produce with Japanese techniques,” and Dent initially — if perhaps not one hundred percent sincerely — praises the “bold, pioneering spirit” behind it. But, yikes, it falls short on the plate: white fish tiradito “tastes of very little”; shrimp al ajillo gyoza have “semi-raw skins”; a roll of toro uramaki contains such “roughly, unevenly hand-chopped” fish that the final dish “looks like a crime scene.”
Even the vibes, which could have been a source of fun — think: “the sort of joint in a Fast and Furious movie where top-brass baddies go to discuss business with their slinky model molls in alligator-skin pelmet skirts” — end up feeling rather more pedestrian. Service begins “effusively” enough but slips alarmingly quickly to “no one serving at all”; the “living greenery” ostentatiously “bursting from walls” has rather the opposite of its intended effect, engendering a “West End hell portal Rainforest Café” atmosphere. “Clearly,” this ‘new dawn’ Meppon cuisine twinned with “thumping” house music is “still very much in its infancy”; unfortunately the overall impression is less child prodigy, more problem child — and one with undeniable “teething problems” to boot.
Vermuteria / Barrafina Coal Drops Yard
Also in its infancy is the set-up at Coal Drops Yard — or CDY, to bestow on it the sort of naff alt handle developers seem obsessed with coining.
David Sexton cheekily packs in two reviews for the price of one, though gives over most of his column inches to Anthony Demetre’s latest joint Vermuteria. Unfortunately, for somewhere so unlike Zela in so many ways, the overall verdict is not entirely dissimilar: this is clearly somewhere still with some growing up to do. So soon after opening, food proves “elusive,” finally arriving “TWO HOURS” and “many supplications” later. It’s fairly decent: ribollita is “well made and homespun”; grilled quail with white beans and girolles is encouragingly “reminiscent of the food at one of those many happy lunchtimes” at Demetre’s former restaurant, Arbutus. It’s nonetheless difficult to look past some of the “less fixable” stuff, like the constraints created by the bar-restaurant’s single oven and dual induction hobs. Perhaps it’s a little too premature to say, but it would be “a pity” regardless if somewhere with such evident pedigree were let down by its own “practical limitations.”
More accomplished, at least on first impressions, is the new Barrafina. As with other iterations of the Hart bros’ formula, the menu here is “extravagantly tempting,” with old classics like “perfect” pan con tomate jostling up against “astonishingly good” morcilla croquetas and an “extraordinarily intense, peppery, glutinous cazuela” of pig trotters and red prawns. Again, it’s early doors for this Catalan-influenced offshoot, but based on Sexton’s first glimpse, at least, the verdict is clear: “it’s a cracker.”
Gamma Gamma / Rovi
Rarely content to be outdone, Giles Coren fires back with three reviews in one this week. The Berkshire jolly is inadmissible to this column on a geographical technicality, so two-v-two it shall remain.
Gamma Gamma will almost certainly be less familiar to the majority of readers than Yotam Ottolenghi’s much-PR’ed Rovi; if would-be customers can get over the concept, it sounds like it might be worth a look. To be fair, that’s quite a big if: the artwork is “bonkers,” the music is “deafening”, the room “narrow”, the food a “stone-cold mental” mash up of Japanese and Indian styles with a “bomb in a zoo approach to meat sourcing” that results in zebra, ostrich and kangaroo sharing menu real estate. But somewhere in amongst all this is evidence that “someone” involved with Gamma Gamma “can unquestionably cook”: a many-ingredient ceviche is “well constructed”; banana spring rolls are simply “sensational.”
Of course, it’ll still have quite a long way to go to gain any sort of market share from Rovi, cemented as “a proper modern restaurant” — a consensus that Coren’s mini-review will do little to alter.
Here the room is “clean” and “well-lighted”; here, there’s “no daffy fusion to get your goat.” In its place is “sincerity, veracity and admirable commitment to eating vegetables,” such as tempura stems — “exemplary deep-fried weeds” — and charred peppers on polenta, which are “very pretty and very spicy indeed.” Among the more carnivorous options, the signature lobster toasts are a “little stodgy” for Coren, and certainly “not an improvement” on Anglo-Cantonese prawn toast; things look up, fortunately, with the arrival of onglet with fermented green chilli and the Jerusalem mixed grill of “rich” and “tangy” chicken offal.
Even if those meatier selections prove more interesting than the now “legendary” celeriac shawarma, the general mood is highly positive indeed: Rovi offers “generally exceptional cooking” in a “quiet and mellow” but unmistakably “confident” setting — a highly successful “new departure” for “an epochal restaurant chain admirably reluctant to rest on its laurels.”
Fresh off his Great British Menu success, James Cochran has a whole new set of laurels to rest on, should he want to — as another positive review for his new Upper Street home filters through, he’s probably starting to realise that his unique gift for finding the sweet spot between taking risks and pleasing crowds brings its own set of rewards.
The latest set of plaudits come from Jimi Famurewa, who is drawn to several dishes that are looking increasingly like signature Cochran flourishes. White Devon crab tartlet conjures “the bracing essence of a wind-whipped seafood stand”; buttermilk jerk chicken, its crunch “ingeniously boosted by a scattering of crumbled corn nuts,” entails “gorgeously craggy” pieces of “succulent, patiently brined bird” enhanced by ”tongue-prickling blobs of scotch bonnet jam”.
The peak is a pudding billed as a ‘malted Hobnob’ — a stack of biscuit, malt, banana cream, cocoa nib ash and goat’s milk ice cream that takes every aspect of the 1251 experience “up several levels.” It may be “wholly NSFW,” but it’s also kind of a perfect metaphor for what Cochran does best: “soulful, foot-on-the-amp cooking” that is able to transcend the everyday thanks to its touch of “joyous, grinning nostalgia.”