This week, after a lengthy sojourn in India, Fay Maschler has returned, and it’s good to have her back on the scene.
She’s at Sabor, though for once she isn’t the first through the door, having been scooped by a whole host of bloggers, critics, and Andy Haylers. She’s still able to put her own stamp on things, though, celebrating in her inimitable style the various delicacies to be found on “Calle de Heddon.” Downstairs at the counters, chilli on pan con tomate “brings in the castanets” and monkfish tempura is “a brittle cloud, an ethereal crunch”; upstairs at the Asador, Empanada Gallega is “a work of art” and roast pork “falling easily apart under its frangible skin” comes with the sole but very welcome addition of “a thrillingly large jug of clear gravy.” For pudding, THAT rhubarb and marscapone tartaleta is the “best rendition of this exigent stalk” that Maschler has ever tasted.
So, why does Sabor still sit second in the London Spanish rankings, its four stars shining a little less brightly than Victor Garvey’s five at Rambla? A meta-analysis of the various critical verdicts delivered to date throws up some interesting recurring themes: Sabor is extremely competently executed, but hasn’t left anyone in total ecstasies. Is the gutsy, soulful fun of the bar menu running up against the more conventional Michelin-baiting restraint and precision of the counter? Where does the Asador, which opened later, fit into the mix? Has Michael Deacon ever actually eaten in a restaurant before?
After last week’s column, positively groaning with noodly questions, we can perhaps leave the interrogation here. Nieves Barragán Mohacho’s restaurant may not be five-star perfect, but it’s undeniably a welcome addition to the London scene — the “intimate”, “uncompromising” work of a genuine “mensch.”
While Maschler is probably still working out how to feel after being described as both “mature” and “relevant” by one of four male judges to determine CODE’s list of hospitality’s most influential women, her latest sort-of colleague over at ES Magazine is unlikely to be worrying about considerations like age and relevance any time soon.
Yes, in contrast to the recent crop of Wayback Machine timehops to an editor’s wish list from 2002, this week they’ve actually gone and brought someone young, scrappy and hungry in to have a crack. Hungry is important: debutant Frankie McCoy’s review of Café Hampstead is the sort of thing you get when you let someone genuinely interested in food loose on the subject.
Unfortunately, Café Hampstead is what you get when you let people who couldn’t give a toss about food loose on a captive market: a “weird” dissonant menu featuring hummus alongside schnitzel and pizza alongside the words “fusion-style.” At its worst, it’s “awful,” even at its best it’s little better than “harmless gastropub fodder,” “a bit pierce film and microwave” (this with the exception of some genuinely “delicious” snacks.)
As confident and assured a debut as this is, there is always a risk in being overly definitive about anything: McCoy’s assertion that there are no good restaurants in Hampstead, for example, is likely to raise the hackles of the great (like Fay Maschler, whose sister Beth runs The Wells), the good (there’s at least 13 of them), or even Giles Coren (long-time champion of the excellent Jin Kichi.) There’s precious little space for nuance in a short column, and so perhaps this is to blame — but even if it isn’t, that’s probably OK, too. After what feels like months without it, a little youthful exuberance is exactly what ES Magazine needed.
Then again, who says you need to be in your twenties to be exuberant? Marina O’Loughlin at The Ritz is one of those perfect fusions of restaurant and reviewer that comes along all too rarely: a self-professed lover of long cap-L Lunches and high camp getting to grips with a room and a menu purpose-built to deliver both in spades.
That said, her glowing verdict is not a given. As “the only person to arrive at The Ritz by 38 bus” — as the sort of person who more frequently comes to Mayfair not to bury restaurants but to raze them — O’Loughlin is not a member of the hotel’s core demographic. Here, though, this simply doesn’t matter: The Ritz is “truly democratic,” since “everyone who sallies through its gilded doorways is made to feel like princess or potentate.”
With food like this, it’s not hard: freshly grated Périgord truffle falls upon baked celeriac like “an inky snowdrift of sheerest luxury”; turbot sees its “innocence comprehensively sullied” by a “dramatic and voluptuous” sauce of champagne and caviar; a “priapic” chocolate soufflé is a “throbbing testament to overegging” — the sort of “richness overload”-cum-“climax” of which “one mouthful” is more than enough.
Despite its Michelin star, this is fine dining that sounds like ridiculous, knowing fun: from the “flamboyant” décor in “a riot of pastels,” to the cheeky tailcoated staff upselling champagne on the grounds that it’s “perfect for Instagram,” to the “deliciously naff” musical selections in the foyer outside. O’Loughlin may leave “dizzy with opulence,” but even as readers at one remove it’s hard not to get into the experience, to come over a little breathy at the sheer lavish excitement of it all. The Ritz’s website entreats customers to “step into a five-star world”; anyone coming to the end of O’Loughlin’s review may well feel they have already done so.
If it’s not entirely surprising that O’Loughlin falls for The Ritz’s charms, it’s not exactly astonishing that Jay Rayner doesn’t like Farm Girl Café, either. Given it sells “a holistic and healthy yet comfortingly simple approach to Australian Café culture,” a Rayner shellacking is almost a given; it’s far more of a shock to learn, at the end of the review, that his beverage of choice alongside a medium-rare Honest Burger is not a craft IPA or bottle of Barbaresco but (cue blue and yellow Edvard Munch Scream emoji) a nice glass of Sauvignon Blanc.
Still, Rayner properly lets rip here, indulging in increasingly baroque flights of simile: out-of-season globe artichoke has been “boiled until it is as soft and rank as Grandma’s cabbage”; carrot hummus is “grainy,” “deathly,” and presented so as to suggest someone “had an intimate accident and decided to close the loo door and run away.” A whole new wing of the gif library is needed for Rayner’s description of cashew aioli (“the kind of discharge you get when you torture nuts”); turkey schnitzel, meanwhile, “has the texture of something Timpson’s might one day think about using to re-sole my brogues.”
There is a noble tradition of British restaurant critics dunking on places like Farm Girl Café from a great height; a curious observer might wonder whether such violence is in the service of anything, or whether it’s just the modern-day equivalent of a Roman emperor goading the crowd at the Colosseum. In 2018 there’s also the very real question of readership metrics, the numbers of page views, shares, likes and RTs content can generate — and with it, the knowledge that an especially brutal demolition job is always going to play well to the gallery. Rayner claims to be pained by “the squandering of ingredients and of people’s time,” but like a cool 175ml of Oyster Bay with a nice bloody cheeseburger, it’s worth asking whether he’s enjoying himself rather too much, too.
One final stop this week to check in on the naughty step, AKA The Times, where Giles Coren proffers another PR-powder-puff-promo (this week, somewhere in Jori White’s bewilderingly diverse portfolio), in which the only thing actually being reviewed is a member of Romania’s emigrant workforce. As the twitter authority on this sort of thing might well opine, Coren can keep it.