Split any city in half with a river and funny things happen. In 2018, the physical act of crossing such a slim body of water couldn’t be easier; mentally, it’s still a powerful barrier. The Thames’ effect on London’s restaurant critics is striking: in the past fortnight, zero out of 10 reviews have seen them venture south of the river; look back further in the archives and the figure barely improves.
The reason for this probably isn’t straightforward, and likely has as much to do with proprietorial stomping grounds as it does geographical snobbery. Nevertheless, here’s hoping that south London resident Jimi Famurewa will continue to shine a light on this relatively under celebrated part of town — and that others follow in his footsteps.
Based on his review of Levan, there’s plenty to recommend making the journey. This “gently grown-up operation,” with its food long on both “ambition and comfort” at “reasonable” prices, feels like “a significant arrival.” The menu is “tight” and “dud-free” — “each omitted dish feels a little painful.” Pickled sardines are “pretty” but also plenty “punchy,” boosted by “gorgeous, golden aromatic olive oil.” Comté fries are “soothingly cheesy,” as is a croque monsieur, positively “clattered” by black pepper and “rich” béchamel — truly a “gooey, dirty thing.” A pasta dish of celeriac and Jerusalem artichoke makes for an “indisputable banger”; so does a “terrifically sticky” tarte tatin. While there are a few early teething problems, proportions are occasionally “slightly askew,” seasoning is a little off at times. But so much of the experience at Levan is so good that Famurewa is bullish about its chances: most will leave the place “extremely happy.”
The same probably can’t quite yet be said of Hicce — also at a similarly embryonic stage, but not quite delivering the goods for a visiting Fay Maschler.
Opening statements seem promising: rye bread is simply “outstanding”; rillettes alongside are undeniably “rich and fine.” Other experiments are less successful: carrots alongside tuna prosciutto “need brinier brine and / or more steeping time”; salmon, sesame and fennel ‘hotsticks’ are nice enough but “a bit sparse for £10.” Iberico pork ribs also need a bit more work to be “truly beguiling”; in other dishes, promised accents of miso with potatoes and pecan and chilli in a chocolate tart go missing in action. It’s not terminal, by any means, but things don’t feel on point — almost as though Hicce was “opened to order” by the powers that be at Coal Drops Yard, not “when they felt absolutely ready.” There’s enough here to suggest good things in future, but for now the general vibe — like the menu — is “sketchy rather than substantial.”
It’s been quite a change in fortunes for the restaurant, with an initial warm verdict from Fay Maschler countered by a slightly less contented analysis by Marina O’Loughlin. Dent’s review probably won’t help matters, even if it does single out a few elements as definitely praiseworthy, not least the “delightful” service and “delicate” bonito with mustard and pickled onion — a clear “highlight.”
Unfortunately, such moments of pure, uncomplicated pleasure don’t come around all that often: this is a dinner that “educates,” not one to make punters “drool.” The Insta-famous sardine sando is “largely forgettable”; the custard tart is fine but leaves the Guardian critic “a little cold.” There’s no doubting Two Lights is “an important London opening”: these are dishes that other chefs will “riff on” or baldly “rip off” for months to come. Dent is “glad” to have visited for this reason alone, and looks forward seeing Lovecky’s work “filter through the country’s kitchens” as its influence spreads. But that’s not quite the same as leaving the place “sated.”
There’s altogether more fulfilling fare over at Tish in north London, where Jay Rayner looks a little askance at a menu “trying to be all things” to a predominantly Jewish clientele, but is nevertheless impressed by how the kitchen delivers more classical fare. There’s a “very good” salt beef sandwich, for example — and the chicken soup is also “a beautiful thing”: “crystal-clear and full of depth.” Some of the service is a little odd — subbing in chicken for veal schnitzel, without prior warning — and as puddings go, an “undercooked” and “under-sweetened” gooseberry strudel is practically “an arrestable offence.” The all-kosher wine list is pretty “peculiar,” too. Despite the missteps, there’s a lot to be said in Tish’s favour: it’s “bustling,” it’s “noisy” — it’s “already full,” in fact, and will more than likely “stay that way.”
The Ivy St John’s Wood / Gazelle
Those not already full to the brim with multiple Giles Coren reviews in a single week will be rejoicing again this time round, as the Times man once again gives us a few for the price of one.
First up, it’s the Ivy St John’s Wood, all “sprauncy” décor and “busy, busy, busy” dinner-time crowd — an indisputably “glitzy” spot, “twinkly and fun and lively.” Alas, initial impressions are misleading: the service is criminally slow and the food is just “meh.” Crab linguine is “dull and unsexy”; truffled orzo “bland, bland, bland”; the celebrated monkfish and tiger prawn curry is “a soggy mess,” an “absolute pig of a plateful.”
It’s really the polar opposite of Gazelle in Mayfair, where the food is “incredibly tasty” but everything else is “hilariously ill-conceived.” Colours in the dining room are “hideous”; giant black-and-white photographs of body parts that decorate the room are “at once irrelevant and terrifying”; at 14 smackers a pop the “teeny-tiny” cocktails are “a total rip-off.”
And yet, that food. Beef with caviar is “deeeee-licious” — “red and fat and sticky” and “utterly perfect.” Like pretty much everything else on the menu, it’s “beautiful and pointless in equal measure,” a study in “exquisite” plating and “immense flavours” bolstered with a “wit” that reminds Coren of elBulli. Courses like squid with sandalwood and scallop with caviar and yeast are “dishes for the ages” — “beautiful,” “molecular,” even “funny.” All served up in a restaurant that otherwise has “absolutely nothing right about it at all.” Even with many years of service on the restaurant critic beat, it’s hard to recall “better food in a worse restaurant.”