Whether or not by pure coincidence, things get verrrry breathy in ES Magzine’s review of Kettner’s Townhouse by Joy Lo Dico, who becomes the latest guest critic for the publication: Sausages are eaten on the sofa in bathrobes, breasts are stroked, flesh is served “pink” and “plump,” “sweet sauce” is dripped down shirts, crème brulee is shared before “an invitation to the rooms above” (and the potential for a naughty zeugma) is extended.
It’s all very MFK-Fisher-via-Phantom-Thread kink, in other words: heady prose straining against its accursed old-school British restraint. It’s fun, in a Carry On Up The Townhouse kinda way, but a little quaint in an era when the average influencer’s Insta Stories is dripping with oozy money shots. Food used to be what repressed English people subbed in because they couldn’t write about sex; highlighting the parallel between bone marrow and another “primal urge” that deliquesces in a similar fashion feels ever-so-slightly redundant in an age when images of both can be smartphone-Googled in a matter of seconds.
Anyway: Kettner’s. As members of @IGBrunchClub — perhaps following the eighth and final rule of IG Brunch Club: if this is your first time at IG Brunch Club, you have to ‘gram — would no doubt attest, this is a place that gets every aspect of hospitality just right: presentations occasionally “spectacular,” staff “charming,” dining room looking a veritable “picture.” This is a place offering a very specific, seductive set of “charms” — its “grace and propriety” are not so overbearing that they preclude the potential for “seedier” pleasures. There is “drama” here, “surprise” too — to borrow the waitress’ approving response to Lo Dico’s every whim, Kettner’s is simply “purrrfeeect.”
Lo Dico, of course, is the first critic to review the new Kettner’s, which must be terribly sad for her. As any fool knows, being the one to file the hot take on a hot new opening is a deeply naff, crushingly arriviste thing to do; it would be a very weird column indeed that remarked on, celebrated or in any other way validated this sort of behaviour.
Be more like Grace Dent, Joy! Not for her, tussling for primacy with Andy Hayler, Zeren Wilson, Tim Hayward, Michael Deacon or Fay Maschler (HELL of a dinner party guest list, that). Instead, she’s content to swan in whole months after opening, to deliver her verdict in her own sweet time.
And that verdict is… pretty similar to everyone else’s, actually. Not stylistically, obviously: signature Dentian (Dental?) flourishes abound here, like her description of the “minor British victory” of advancing through a queue, or the almost-imperceptible shade thrown in the direction of “the London food set” virtue-signalling its love of whole-animal cookery by “faffing about with dead piglets and feigning joy at ripping off their charred ears.”
But the overall scores — whether expressed as a Maschlerian 4/5 stars, or the 8/10 awarded here — tell a familiar story. It’s mostly very, very good, but not all. So, there’s THAT baby prawn and egg dish (“scene-shifting cuisine”), there’s the chicken oyster bocadillo, a “shameless but enjoyable take on Burger King’s chicken royale.” There’s a “sumptuous” beurre blanc on some purple sprouting broccoli, there’s the winningly “naughty” chocolate bombas. But there’s also a frit mariner that Dent merely considers “puzzling,” there’s an overabundance of white pepper on many dishes, there’s a rhubarb tartaleta that for all its technical skill is simply “too-tart.” None of which makes the review a referendum against Nieves Barragan, described here (approvingly) as “an earnest, quietly forceful woman running her kitchen crew like Gatwick air-traffic control.” But this is yet another piece making the point that, much as there is “lots to love here,” there’s also “lots that could be a little better”.
Marina O’Loughlin has similar things to say about second statement-making restaurant to have opened at Somerset House. And the first, come to that: Spring, per her friend’s simile at least, is a bit like Tilda Swinton: “beautiful, accomplished, awe-inspiring, but a little chilly.”
That lack of warmth permeates throughout the grand old building: much as O’Loughlin wants to fall head-over-heels for Williams’ restaurant, the best she can muster instead is “a kind of awed respect.” It’s all supra-competently done, occasionally “astonishing,” and not without the odd trace of “firecracker, if occasionally magpie, creativity.” Unlike most high-end clip joints it’s actually indulgent in places, too, putting out combinations that permit — maybe even encourage — the “pleasurable transgression” of double-carbing.
But something doesn’t sit quite right. Perhaps it’s how fervently the place drinks its own PR Kool-Aid, steering hard into the boring, borderline dangerous mythology of the “celebrity chef.” Perhaps it’s the behaviour of the staff, most of whom comport themselves “as though a smile or a bit of a chat might crack their cool.” Perhaps it’s the room itself, an “awkward space” subdivided into linked chambers purpose-constructed to get the Giles Corens of this world horripilating over whether they’re in the “wrong” one. Perhaps it’s all of the above — whatever the cause, if Spring is Tilda Swinton, Bryn Williams is Kenneth Branagh. It might be “amply furnished with talent,” its offering might be “pretty much guaranteed to deliver the goods” — but at the end of the day, it’s just the teensiest bit “unlovable,” too.
No such issues over in Smithfield, where Fay Maschler finds the “agreeably timeless” Bowling Bird (which actually opened relatively recently, at some point last year) winningly “happy in its own skin.”
This despite an offering that doesn’t quite suggest total harmony: a fairly unremarkable room with some heating issues, a male-heavy clientele presumably there for the meat cooking “at the restaurant’s heart” (plus the promise of “vast claret consumption”) but which must also navigate scary flashes of modernity and Brexit-busting globalism like blue corn tostadas and lemongrass aioli.
Somehow, though, it works: that meat is “exceptionally well-flavoured” and “munificently served”; those more faddish accents, like the wide-ranging wine list, are “elegant and discursive”. The location just round the corner from St. John (and in the shadow of whacking great meat market) may force visitors’ preconceptions in a certain direction, but they’d be wrong: truly, this is “a restaurant for all seasons.”
Strange scenes to finish up this week over at The Observer, where out of nowhere a restaurant review descends into the verbal equivalent of dad dancing. To the UK’s noble history of cheesy music pundits — Smashie and Nicey, Alan Partridge, Tony Blackburn — we might consider adding Jay “two pianists are joined on stage by a gang of other musicians to form one of the tightest house bands I’ve seen in years” Rayner, who is seriously hip to what the hot cats at Studio 88 are serving, mama.
Apart from the food, which comes exclusively in paper cones or on we-want-plates slate and is terrible, obviously. Rayner expects as much going in, so this isn’t so much a restaurant review as it is a Jazz Quartet crossover event, an Infinity War of chart hits, baby. You might shrug (if you weren’t having such a good time DANCING, that is) but it’s occasionally interesting for criticism to spread beyond its typical stomping-grounds — if it can lead to better and / or more thoughtful catering at somewhere like Studio 88, it’s a diversion worth taking. A quick glance at Twitter suggests Rayner won’t be in London for the next few weeks (and that he’s been searching for his name again?); fingers crossed that when he comes back to the capital he continues to stray from the beaten path. Knowing Me, Jay Rayner, Knowing You, London’s Lesser-Explored Restaurants. Aha!