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Grace Dent Finds ‘Life-Changing’ Crème Caramel at Divisive New Restaurant

Market Halls Victoria charms Jimi Famurewa, and another flash Mayfair restaurant disappoints Marina O’Loughlin

London’s best new restaurants: Coal Drops Yard restaurant Hicce impresses Guardian food critic Grace Dent with its “life-changing” creme caramel Hicce [Official Photo]

Hicce

Hicce’s status as a divisive restaurant is confirmed this week — and, indeed, mentioned in Grace Dent’s review of the place. Where Marina O’Loughlin and Fay Maschler were left a little cold, Dent acknowledges that “others might find Hicce challenging,” but nevertheless enjoys the experience “very much.”

Cocktails are “marvellous”; staff “bright-eyed,” “warm,” and “attentive”; the signature muscovado crème caramel simply “life-changing.” There are touches that “may bewilder” — punchy cheeses served as a starter; skewered, charred broccoli with tangerines served at all; but after a mouthful of mackerel with radicchio and kumquats — “an enjoyable, bittersweet slap across the face” — it’s clear that the good kind of bewilderment is also a strong suit. As with that crème caramel — a dish once “tragically safe” redeemed with “modern-day swagger” — there’s a fun-filled iconoclasm at work here. Ultimately, “there’s joy in the fact that Hicce doesn’t care.”

Market Halls Victoria

Hicce, of course, is one of the flagship openings in the monolithic Coal Drops Yard project doing an “admirable, but not adorable” job of rejuvenating the once-unloved area around Kings Cross. A few minutes on the tube will take hungry Londoners to the other restaurant / rail transport crossover event of the year, Market Halls Victoria.

This development hasn’t quite received the same critical scrutiny as its glossier Thomas Heatherwick-designed cousin, but perhaps that comes with the territory. Its offering — an assembly of stalls knocking out limited menus from bankable restaurants-proper — does somewhat resist easy categorisation into a cohesive dining experience.

It’s something that Jimi Famurewa wrestles with during his verdict. Market Halls Victoria is “hectic,” and “intensely casual”; it’s a “a communal, clamorous, anathema-to-dining-traditionalists sort of a place”; it will “very probably rub some up the wrong way.”

And yet, bar a few “mild disappointments,” the bits-and-pieces approach to dining that the place promotes largely works. Among the disappointments are an “overly dense,” borderline “humdrum” torta caprese from Nonna Tonda and the underwhelming fare knocked out by Breddos Tacos spinoff Super Tacos — far “punchier,” and far more successful, are offerings from Koya Ko and the Marksman’s Bunshop. Best in show are probably the “ruffled,” “heavenly” roti canai on offer at Gopal’s Corner — served with “terrific” fried chicken and an enjoyably “coarse” mutton curry, bristling with “blooming chilli heat”. All in all, Market Halls may suffer from some of the “bustling, liminal chaos” of the rail terminal opposite, but when the food is this good, it’s no wonder that so many Londoners — Famurewa included — are “practically taking up residence.”

Camillo Benso

For evidence of why London diners are getting excited about the Market Halls concept — and are bankrolling similar projects across town — look no further than a duo of reviews in the Times and the Sunday Times this week. Both underline just how unsustainably expensive ‘conventional’ restaurant dining can be.

The first, courtesy of Marina O’Loughlin, takes a look at Mayfair Italian newcomer Camillo Benso, and finds the offering to be “defiantly mediocre.” It’s not bad, per se, but it delivers a lot less than it promises to. Vitello tonnato is let down by its “joke-shop sick” dressing; truffle pizza shows “little sign of its prized ingredient” — just a “compost of mulchy fungi and a thuggish belt of truffle oil” atop a “dense, tough, and oversalted” dough. Things aren’t helped by a visibly snooty “attitude” from the front of house — when even cannoli are “lamentable,” it helps to offer a bit of humility, but instead, all Cammilo Benso offers is “arrogance.” At the best part of a hundred quid a head, this new Mayfair opening manages the unthinkable in being so deeply typical of the area — it makes even O’Loughlin feel “retroactively better disposed towards Jamie’s Italian.”

Casa Cruz / Leroy

If a hundred quid a head for mediocre food seems steep, then how about a total dinner bill of ONE THOUSAND AND TEN POUNDS AND NINETY SEVEN PENCE for six people?

These absolute scenes play out over in Notting Hill, at sort-of Argentine clip joint Casa Cruz, reviewed by Giles Coren. As is so often the case when big bucks are involved, none of the food is great. £18 vitello tonnato is “rough,” £84 slow-cooked lamb is mysteriously and unpleasantly “stinky,” a £9 side of polenta is just “yukky.” On top of this, a “whopping” 15 percent service charge is just: “Scream. Barf.”

Things are better over in Shoreditch at Leroy: goose rillettes are “lush”; quail comes with a “delicious” sauce; boudin noir is “rich” and “tangy.” But things aren’t much cheaper: Coren and company still rack up a bill of £218.59 for two — not helped by a couple of “naughty” additions — which for a midweek bistro lunch feels like “a lot.” Value is subjective, and there’s no denying that Coren’s scores reflect a far more positive overall experience at Leroy than at Casa Cruz. As prices continue to rise, though, diners will care more and more about where their disposable income goes — wherever they are in town.

Brasserie of Light

Unglamorous though it may be, what punters really care about in cash-strapped times is competence — the sheen of quality and skilled execution that justifies prices at any point. Caprice Holdings mastermind Richard Caring has made this his bread and butter in the past few decades, and he’s back at it again with Brasserie of Light at Selfridges.

Per David Sexton, he’s picked up just where he left off with Scott’s, J Sheekey, The Ivy, et al: the room is a “a masterclass in creating a glitzy, clubby feel,” the lighting is “cleverly modulated,” and staff are “abundant, expert and quick.”

And the food? Like the “perfectly delicious, hot and crisp” wild mushroom and truffle arancini, it’s “just the thing.” Think hand-dived scallops with red peppers, fennel, and capers, or flat-iron chicken with truffle mash, or steak tartare: bistro classics, done right. While the location at one of the world’s most famous — and expensive — department stores may suggest that this is more “out-of-towners’ delight” than somewhere for Londoners, that shouldn’t detract from what Caring and his team have achieved. Brasserie of Light offers “nothing to startle,” but it’s also nothing less than exactly “what you want in a brasserie.”

Sunday

169 Hemingford Road, , England N1 1 020 7607 3868

FARE

205 West Wacker Drive, , IL 60606 (312) 217-8041 Visit Website

J Sheekey

28-32 Saint Martin's Court, , England WC2N 4AL 020 7240 2565 Visit Website

The Ivy

1-5 West Street, , England WC2H 9NQ 020 7836 4751 Visit Website

Casa Cruz

123 Clarendon St, London, Greater London W11 4JG +44 20 3321 5400 Visit Website

hicce

, , England N1C 4DQ 020 3869 8200 Visit Website

Seven

Brixton Station Rd., Brixton, Greater London, London, 44 0207 998 3309 Visit Website

Leroy

18 Phipp Street, , England EC2A 4NU 020 7739 4443 Visit Website

Marksman

254 Hackney Rd, London, Greater London E2 7SJ +44 20 7739 7393 Visit Website

Lamb

94 Lamb's Conduit Street, , England WC1N 3LZ 020 7405 0713 Visit Website

Bright

1 Westgate Street, , England E8 3RL 020 3095 9407 Visit Website

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