The Coal Drops Yard project in Kings Cross is the signal hospitality development of the year — a giant, face-meltingly expensive agglomeration of oh-so-2018 signifiers and bankable talent.
Beneath the surface, though, the backlash is mounting. The very things that make it seem like such a locked-in winner — the swanky design, the hip new concepts, the breathless hype — make it veritable catnip to the city’s restaurant critics, most of whom have now visited at least one restaurant at least once. Verdicts range from the ecstatic to the lukewarm to the hyperbolically aggrieved, but so far no one has delivered the final knockout blow, the definitive skewering.
Until now. Fittingly, it’s at Hicce — literally “of the moment” — fittingly, skewers are literally involved. Marina O’Loughlin’s wielding them, jabbing both in the direction of the restaurant itself, and the development that hosts it: “every bit as much of a mall as Westfield.”
The food’s not all bad when taken individually: starter-y bits feature “excellent” fish; ‘hot sticks’ (read: skewers) are nice enough; seared Brussels sprouts with hazelnut and kohlrabi make for truly “delicious stuff.” But the issue is really one of cohesion: rather than a combination of things that go together, dinner is more like “a mildly disorganised indoor picnic or barbecue,” a “procession of tastes and sensations with no discernible shape or flow.” Matters aren’t helped by execution coming “unstuck” somewhat with the main courses: pork with reblochon is an “unlovely guddle of oiliness and overkill”; lamb neck is “tough” and “sinewy” and barely improved by its “strident” mojo sauce.
It’s “a bit of a hot mess”, basically — and it’s not hard to extend this criticism to the surrounding area. Hicce delivers “ideas rather than dinner”; Coal Drops Yard, by extension, is long on style but short on substance. Although “undeniably striking,” both manage “to be admirable without being entirely adorable.”
Things are altogether better at Levan, where the Telegraph’s Guy Kelly answers this column’s prayer for more south-of-the-river coverage with… a review of a south London restaurant covered the previous week.
He’s not at fault, in fairness — and it’s not as if Nicholas Balfe and team will be complaining, as another highly positive critical thumbs-up lands on the doormat. There’s now-mandatory praise for the comté fries: “it’s cheesy chips, but the cheese is the chips”; there’s a nod to an “immaculately balanced” cod crudo with grapefruit; there’s delight, too, in the potato, black trompette and Vacherin pie, described by the front of house as “the meatiest vegetarian pie you’ll ever eat,” and delivering on that promise in “smoky,” “dense” spades. All in all, four and a half stars tell their own story: with a restaurant like Levan calling it home, “reports of Peckham’s death have been greatly exaggerated.”
Kin and Deum
Happily, the same can be said of traditional Thai restaurants — ones run by actual Thai people, rather than the enthusiastic acolytes of David Thompson that seem to have dominated swathes of the London scene of late.
Giles Coren brings this heartening news in his review of London Bridge’s Kin and Deum. The menu is “slight” but the cooking boasts “the undoubted depth, complexity and freshness of spices ground to order”: Thai dumplings are a “delight,” fried aubergine a sheer “wonder,” beef massaman curry “quite the perfect dish to see off a bitter, wet, English November afternoon.” There’s lightness of touch here, too — in a “nourishing” coriander root broth, or in “delicate” bua loy dumplings to finish things off. The cooking may not be reinventing the wheel, or pursuing the latest northern Thai Isaan hype-wave, but that’s hardly to its detriment. It’s somewhere to go if “you like Thai restaurants the way they used to be” — “only much, much better.”
St John Bridge Theatre
Also river-adjacent this week is Jimi Famurewa: he’s at the Bridge Theatre, checking out the newish offering from Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver — a tighter, more concise version of St Johns Clerkenwell and Bread and Wine that nevertheless captures some of the “strange, singular magic” that makes both predecessors so special.
Root vegetables come with an “enlivening” horseradish cream; scraps of pigeon — “little salted prizes” — mix more than happily with pickled walnuts, beetroot, watercress and a “terrifically measured,” red onion-infused sauce. Among the heftier offerings, lamb neck broth delivers “20-tog winter warmth” — and then, as ever, there is the house rarebit, that “glittering, thickly coated miracle of squidge and crunch that makes you question why you ever bother eating anything else.”
A dish of “off-puttingly fridge-cold” mackerel is the only downer, suggesting this almost fast-food version of two restaurants largely dedicated to slowing down is “as much an exercise in refined prep-work and skilled assembly as it is cooking.” But when this “noble, ballsy experiment” delivers, it’s not like anyone cares. More than anything, St John at the Bridge Theatre is a “a testament to the irrepressible appeal of truly iconic dishes.”
Wagamama High St Kensington
If St John was one pillar of the 1990s British Restaurant Revival, then surely — for very different reasons — Wagamama was another. Dishes, ingredients, seating arrangements and whole ways of eating that now feel second nature to Londoners can trace at least some of their heritage back to the chain started by Alan Yau way back in 1992.
So — much as critics usually only review rollouts like this to dunk on them from a great height — it feels like an opportune time for David Sexton to take a seat at the long wooden bench and scribble on the menu in front of him: Wagamama, after all, has just been purchased by The Restaurant Group for a knock-down £559 MILLION. Investors presumably expect at least some upside in return for their troubles; in today’s restaurant climate, is one of the nation’s unsung heroes built to last?
Not necessarily. Ramen dishes “lack the intensity and authenticity of those at Shoryu, Tonkotsu or Koya [?],” but there is still “pleasure” in their “dependable” qualities; side orders like an “insipid” miso soup or “inedible” raw salad are probably ones to “avoid.” Since the restaurant’s early 2000s heyday, there have been changes “for the worse”: the room is “dimmed” due to a recent paint job; the music is louder; a new floral gin and tonic is “like a naff Christmas tree in a glass.” It’s enough to leave Sexton more than a little concerned. Here’s hoping The Restaurant Group will show its new restaurant group all the “nurture” that it so clearly “deserves.”