¿Cómo se dice “Sh******t” en Español? is surely the question being asked at the InterContinental this weekend, as Giles Coren drops something unmentionable from a great height directly onto Martha Ortiz’s doormat at Ella Canta.
In fairness to him, just weeks on from his evisceration of The Square, this also feels like a place that very much had it coming: In Coren’s eyes, another joyless Mayfair money pit ripping the proverbial out of people too bored and wealthy to care.
The final scores (1/10 for food, 0/10 for service, location, and value) reflect a comprehensively miserable experience, comprising service that alternates between “menacing” and entirely absent, “utterly filthy,” “inexplicable” food, an altogether “depressing” setting within one of London’s least lovely hotels, and an excruciating final bill of £421.88. As Scotch Egg Pundit Oisin Rogers observed on Twitter, this is the sort of experience that might be remedied by an attentive GM offering to comp a couple of drinks, but the general contempt displayed by the staff means instead that this is a total disaster. Coren is clear — he calls Ella Canta “the worst restaurant I have ever reviewed.”
Wulf and Lamb
Ella Canta, of course, was reviewed relatively favourably by Grace Dent, in an article so buzzed on super-strength premium margaritas one could practically smell the Patrón on its breath. Differences of opinion like this between the big names are pretty rare; as last week’s two two-for-the-price-of-ones for the price of one illustrated, broad consensus is far more common, and far more boring for readers.
So Dent’s increasing interest in vegan fare is welcome in a couple of senses: it opens up the universe of possible subjects for a review much more widely, and it means proper critical scrutiny is being given to something that is increasingly looking less like a fad and more like a whole new paradigm.
Unfortunately for Wulf and Lamb, a new-found interest in plant-based eating has not diminished Dent’s appetite for tearing chunks out of operators when they get it wrong. And woah do the Wolf and Lamb guys get it wrong, repeatedly rendering Dent “inwardly furious” until she finally gives voice to her rage in a self-described “primal scream” of a review.
Where to begin? The service charge on top of an ambitious bill when Dent and company are “untroubled by basic hospitality” for half an hour? Salad “sodden with unlovable vinaigrette”? Some “dry, reheated, unseasoned” potato wedges? A cashew cream mac n’ cheese that comes “welded to its bowl”?
Whenever food culture is seized and reinvigorated by a new animus, there will always be places like Wulf and Lamb sneaking in opportunistically through the back door, “creaming money off diners” who do not yet know any better. Among the exciting new wave of vegan openings, there are also places like this: “financially stacked, clean-eating, CrossFit pant-wearing,” less a source of hospitality and nourishment than a practical joke on the gullible.
*Extremely Gordon Ramsay “X? More like Y!” voice*: Wulf and Lamb? More like Wulf and LMAO!
More critical differences of opinion over on Berners Street — and more than a suspicion of someone trying to move onto this column’s turf — as Jay Rayner kicks back against people preaching that “the best Thai food is sold for buttons from street stalls” and hating on Greyhound Café for its fusion-heavy menu “because they think it will make them sound worldly and clever” — people, in other words, like Katie Glass, who fell into precisely this trap in her ES Magazine review.
Valid questions about the (ir)relevance of authenticity aside, Rayner also seems a bit more taken with how well the kitchen actually goes about executing some of this stuff: herb garden and vegetable broth is “powerful and soothing,” there’s a “generous” hand with portion sizing, and — most importantly of all in this age of one-and-done sensations — there are plenty of things “to come back for,” not least the Happy Toast, enriched with salted caramel and condensed milk, the sort of gut-bomb Elvis might have rustled up for himself during his last years. With gloriously trashy combinations such as this, Rayner argues that Greyhound Café deserves much more than our scorn — it deserves, in fact, “our deep respect.”
More respect in the direction of Bombay Bustle, which, despite seeming to have slipped through the cracks somewhat since opening last year, finds a committed fan in Marina O’Loughlin.
Starters seem especially strong: goat keema pao “thrums with flavour,” a genuine “tour de force”; adipoli prawns “make the palate do a tango of pleasure”; another snack of gram flour and masala potato is simply “exquisite.” And if the main courses “don’t quite come off” in comparison (“weaselly,” “wooly” chicken; “medicinal” Nilgiri jheenga curry, breads that “lack airy buoyancy,”) they’re the exception that prove the rule: generally, the “vivid, exhilarating spicing” on show is enough to leave even a palate as exacting as O’Loughlin’s utterly “dazzled.”
‘Janet Street-Porter Does Argentine Food’ resides in the very upper echelons of terrible Alan Partridge TV pitches, and the average reader coming to opening sentence of her review of Chimichurris (“In politically correct Britain, writers tackle some subjects at their peril”) may be tempted, in the interests of self-care, to sack the whole thing off as a bad job, like de-friending that childhood acquaintance who now posts Britain First videos on Facebook under the comment “Interesting…”
But this is hardly a car crash, even if some of the descriptions will not have the Maschlers and O’Loughlins of this world looking nervously over their shoulders (paprika makes things taste “really earthy”, apparently), and some of the comments might strike some readers as a little on the questionable side (“I took two gay friends who love eating meat and have no special dietary requirements — these days, they are thin on the ground in inner London.”) It even makes old Chimichurris sound like it might be worth a visit. A plate “featuring my two favourite meaty delights” (black pudding and chorizo) are both hits, with the former (described as “obscenely rounded and perky” in a phrase that will definitely get the gif librarians interested) receiving a 10 out of 10 score from one of her punchlines (sorry, ‘friends.’) Empanadas are “beautifully crimped and stuffed with tuna and spicy chicken”; steaks are “perfectly done” — it all comes together, in JS-P’s summation, to create “a good neighbourhood hangout,” however “bleak” its Southwark surrounds.
The Garden Café
An altogether leafier, more pleasant setting for the other Evening Standard review this week, as David Sexton finds himself at the Garden Museum in Lambeth. Completists will doubtless remember its restaurant, The Garden Café, from the very first Week in Reviews, where its riff on Modern British cuisine was the recipient of fulsome praise from Jay Rayner, with only a couple of quibbles about the logistics taking it down from a total rave.
For Rayner then, read Sexton now. As one might expect from a kitchen staffed by Primeur and Lyle’s alumni, the food has changed plenty with the seasons in the interim, but remains, at a more fundamental level, unchanged, still “stripped back to simplicity, the better to honour its fine materials.” Think dishes like cured brill with monksbeard and blood orange, burrata and spinach on toast, and lamb leg with purple sprouting broccoli and anchovies. Think repeated use of the adjective “good,” that curiously Hendersonian St. John affect that imbues well-sourced produce (“such good cheese”) with something approaching moral virtue. Think “minimalist descriptions” all round, really, including on the wine list — actually a perfectly reasonable bugbear for Sexton, who finds the lack of clarificatory information quietly infuriating.
But this, like the lack of both high chairs and a sweet wine by the glass, is only a minor quibble: this is a “brilliant solution to the vexed question of how to create a place attached to a museum,” offering dishes that for all their simplicity are “definitely memorable.” Like the museum that houses it, The Garden Café is tiny, but “a treasure.”