After last week’s feast, the famine. As foretold, Giles Coren is out for lunch with his restaurant bros in Brighton; as might well be expected, the national critic beat has taken both Grace and Marina out of town. Long-time friend of the column Michael Deacon declined to file anything following his funny tweet about carrots, which may be the best food writing he’s ever done.
And then — like London buses — two critics come along at once. Both Jay Rayner and Tim Hayward find themselves at Nuala — a restaurant that finally seems to be getting the attention that its impeccable credentials cried out for when it opened last year.
It’s a generally positive verdict from both, though in Rayner’s case it’s more a question of a decent average score as the resulting midpoint between some high highs and low lows. Things get off to a “serious start” with snacks packing “an awful lot of flavour on a small surface area”; starters, including a “unique,” “profoundly nourishing” dish of squid with almond cream have Rayner “swooning”; there’s also an approving nod towards Honey Spencer’s “brilliant” wine list, that separates out the funkier natural stuff from the more conventional-tasting (sommeliers: this is… a good idea?)
The next few acts are less successful: suckling pig is “merely OK,” the fireplace pumpkin with cheddar is “a mess of a dish”; puddings “read well, but amount to little more than those creamy things in a bowl.” In Rayner’s eyes, this simply isn’t good enough: not with the clear “form” of the people behind Nuala; not at the price they’re charging. There are “brilliant moments” here, for sure, just “not enough of them.”
Hayward may find himself welcomed back in a little more warmly: Niall Davidson’s restaurant, for him, sets a “new benchmark for hospitality,” with the “warmth of welcome, cosseting, informal service and joyous appropriateness of the food” all combining to create something thoroughly winning. The FT man is willing to forgive the odd miss — in particular that fireplace pumpkin — when the upside is the flashes of “genius” that appear on the plate: salt-baked beetroot “worthy of lyric poetry,” “sublime” potato and cabbage side dishes, a “fabulous” combo of sweetbreads and cauliflower rarebit. And if it all seems to have gone to his head somewhat — there’s a whole grossed-out subdomain reserved for phrases like “lardo lingerie” and “the convoluted cortex of the gland” — he’s to be forgiven for his enthusiasm: Nuala is quite simply an “inexplicable, uncomplicated joy.”
Another two for the price of one over at Roganic, where the Telegraph’s Kathryn Flett and ES Magazine’s latest name out of a hat respond to Simon Rogan’s elaborate tasting menu with the same sort of amazed bafflement as Grace Dent did last week.
In rather different ways, though: Flett begins with a joke at the expense of a black student before getting into the various puns employed in the naming of Rogan’s different enterprises. And if Roganic is “bad(inage)ly named,” its room is “badly designed,” too: all “brutalist lighting” and “bafflingly ugly orange leather banquettes.”
And despite “delightful” staff, the “phenomenal,” “wow-factor cooking” produced by the kitchen leaves Flett cold. This is dinner as “drum solo,” pure “auteur-egoism” rather than something mindful of a “paying audience” paying serious “Mayfair money.” As a restaurant, rather than an exhibition of culinary prowess, Roganic leaves “a lot to be desired”; even if there are clear red flags to suggest Flett may not ever have been interested in this sort of place (beware a critic working in any medium who describes something as “pretentious”) it’s perhaps difficult to argue with her assertion that Roganic simply doesn’t offer the diner anything conventionally “fun.”
Or maybe it’s simply a question of bringing your own fun. Nicky Haslam takes his usual joie de vivre into the experience, and it’s amazing how the same things seen through a different pair of eyes can, in turn, look totally different: the room, to him and his guest, is “charming”; every bite “pretty fin, raffinée and delicately surprising.” There are clear highlights, with burnt milk and blackcurrants the best of all, but — as conveyed through Haslam’s enthusiastic and somewhat exuberant turn of phrase — there’s a general mood of contentment throughout. Again, this doesn’t come cheap, but it is both “substantial” and “delicious.” Which, for Marylebone, starts looking very much like good value.
And so to Peckham, and Kudu. David Sexton is deputising again as Fay Maschler gets existential in India; he finds himself somewhere almost as “expansive” and “welcoming,” whose seating arrangement helps to create a “clubby, sociable mood.”
Despite that name and chef Patrick William’s heritage, the South African element is “actually not much more than a pleasing inflection to a Modern British style”: think brioche with lardon butter (crikey), or pheasant with crab apple, or chicken liver parfait with leek ash crackers, rather than bobotie and boerewors.
The main thing is that this fusion-ish food works pretty successfully on the plate: pig’s head tortellini are “fantastic,” among the larger plates, braai lamb neck and onglet both deliver “intense hits” of flavour, with “emphatic support” from their accompaniments; puddings, too, are “demonstrative.” Sexton makes a fair point about how desirable strong statements like this are in a neighbourhood restaurant like Kudu, but based on his verdict, this is “stand-out” place, delivering “an amazing set of statements about what tastes right, right now,” not a local at all, but a destination in its own right.