When it comes to Britain’s relationship with non-Western food, this has been an especially poor week. First there was The Guardian, with its vaguely dog-whistle-y piece about Chinese takeaways and ready meals, then came the Morrison’s Katsu Chicken Pie. Then there’s this, in which a critic at a national newspaper — rather, the reliably mark-missing Michael Deacon at The Telegraph — compares the pioneering, modern cooking at Indian Accent with the fare at his local “curry house,” sadly now closed due to hygiene inspectors discovering its kitchen “full of mouse droppings.” It’s a real shame, Deacon opines, because the biryanis there were quite possibly the “creamiest” he’d ever tasted — certainly preferable to the “weird,” “bemusing” stuff on offer here.
Where once in the past nonsense like this might have passed unchecked, in 2018 there is no place to hide. In fewer than 24 hours, Fuchsia Dunlop had ensured that the Guardian changed its headline and penned a response that undermined many of the original article’s claims; in fewer than 24 hours Tim Anderson and MiMi Aye had taken to Twitter to expose the insouciance and frequency with which brands indulge in this sort of false representation.
In fewer than 24 hours, too, food writer Sejal Sukhadwala had listed the various ways in which Deacon’s “shockingly stupid” review had left her (and others) “seething,” citing the absurdity of his initial comparison, the jarring implication that Indian chefs should stick to “curry house” fare, and the lack of specialist knowledge he displays.
To return to a regular theme of this column, not everyone can be a food critic — to write about that something you put in your mouth, is to also write about people, history, culture. Get it wrong and an injustice is served to all of the above — a review like Deacon’s is not vaguely humorous broadsheet blundering, it is an insult. It is no wonder that Sukhadwala is outraged; the Deaconian mode of thinking is pigheaded and as out-of-date as the term “curry house” itself. In 2018, readers and consumers surely deserve better. Encouragingly, the speed with which lazy, prejudiced journalism and branding is exposed these days suggests that it might actually arrive.
Deacon is the not the first critic to visit Indian Accent; it is a curious anomaly that Jay Rayner is not the first critic (after Raven Smith delivered a so-so verdict a few weeks ago) to visit Clerkenwell’s United Chip. Rayner is at least slightly more positive about the place, singling out the “proper” chips, the “unimprovable” batter, and an “extraordinary” battered sausage. Perversely, the only real issue is the curry sauce, which is “far too bloody good” an example of what is usually a “culinary abomination.” And if Michael Deacon feels aggrieved that Rayner has gone unrebuked for subjecting a foodstuff to the same treatment that he inflicted on Indian food — practically demanding it curtail its ambition to correspond more readily with his preconception of what it should be like — then he’d probably have a case. But he also sort of wouldn’t. Nobody said this stuff was easy.
Critics, in fact, have to grapple with knotty questions like this all the time. Take the issue of authenticity, and straying from tradition: in the case of Indian Accent, it’s absolutely right and fair to expect any review of the place to be alive to what it is trying to achieve. Yet as the standout episode from new Netflix series Ugly Delicious, ‘Shrimp and Crawfish,’ makes clear, fealty to the old ways can also be the most important thing in the world, depending on who you ask.
It is hard, for example, to imagine the owners of Santa Maria, Pasquale Chionchio and Angelo Ambrosio, tolerating any apostasy against the “total cult” of Neapolitan pizza: in Marina O’Loughlin’s eyes, these are self-appointed “standard-bearers,” leaders of the “less blessed,” serial ejectors of customers who have not shown “sufficient reverence” to their religion. For an iconoclast like O’Loughlin, it’s “an irresistible red flag,” yet for all the early suggestions that this is going to be a (deep) pan — one owner blocking the entrance, wearing “an infuriating hat”; “cramped,” “chilly” surrounds — she leaves this church a convert.
The bases are far more “sophisticated” than your average daily bread: “pillowy, elastic, bronzed, not blistered.” The tomato sugo on the San Francesco is a “small miracle”; benedictions rain down on the “very good” nduja and “delicate” fiordilatte topping the Santa Paola. Even if the accompanying side dishes aren’t as #blessed — aubergine parmigiana and bresaola carpaccio smack of “afterthought” — there is still more than enough to keep the “purists” happy. And — with the revelation that the fennel sausage is from Yorkshire, not Campania — a suggestion that even the most ardent members of the faith can learn to accommodate new beliefs.
Of course, the benefits of this sort of culinary promiscuity are on full display at Sorella, with its modern Britalian riffs on salumi and pasta. Giles Coren doesn’t let the fact that he’s essentially getting Grace Dent’s leftovers deter him from delivering as close to a rave as he gives in the weeks where he’s not coming over all UKIP and railing against Romanians again: strong scores across the board for somewhere he deems “an excellent restaurant.” Home-made sourdough is “top-class,” a starter of egg yolk and artichoke is “sharp and elegant,” tagliatelle with pork and nduja ragu are “robust,” “as rich and meaty as anything.” Coren is there with a former colleague, one of the old school, and in the past the idea that it would be possible, in Clapham, to find somewhere “cooking dishes of this quality, so focused, so well balanced, so adventurous and hearty” would have been “absolutely ridiculous”; we should all be happy to be alive in a time where local restaurants like Sorella exist, not just merely good but actively “great.”
It’s faintly ridiculous to imagine the Fay Maschler of way back when using her column to provide a helpful gloss for an acronym meaning “hard as a mother---ker.” Leaving aside the intriguing questions opened up by that last piece of information — it’s hard to see her as resolutely pro-Watch The Throne, although perhaps she loves Yeezy’s earlier work — Maschler does indeed go in pretty hard on chef Matt Osborne’s new project, Hām, thrilling to the “breezy buoyancy” of his menu and the “impressive” fashion in which the kitchen executes it. Things like Herdwick lamb shoulder are “judiciously cooked” (though if we’re awarding points for things that are “spot on,” Maschler surely takes the cake with her description of the “benign chewiness” of pearl barley); at brunch, meanwhile, the produce involved indicates that “in this household the pursuit of quality never lets up.” Shouty acoustics — a feature that architects “seem mostly to ignore” these days — are the only grounds for “complaint”, though they don’t feel like a major black mark: like the local Sacred gin served in the house negroni, this is something of a “discovery,” “right on the doorstep.”
More good things outside Zone One, as the former Mr Millie Mackintosh and Lip Sync Battle UK host Professor Green makes it two ES Magazine critic debuts in two weeks with a half-sung, half-rapped paean to Peckham’s Coal Rooms. It’s certainly different from last week’s review; it is eye-opening to read the phrase “the tacos were the absolute guv’nor” in the column until recently occupied by one of the better food writers in the country. But this sort of stunt-casting may not be a bad strategy from the magazine as it (presumably) tries to get eyeballs back to its print edition and online display ad carousel. Looking bigger picture, it may just be a fun diversion that it’s pointless to take too seriously; it may implicitly cheapen the art of restaurant criticism. Alternatively — snobbery be damned — it may be the sort of rebuke to the old institutions that chicken connoisseur Elijah Quashie thought-provokingly promised. As this week’s Telegraph review showed, it’s not like all of those institutions are repaying our faith in them.