Questions abound in restaurant criticism world this week. First up: Where is Fay Maschler? It feels like forever since the Standard’s actual critic delivered her last review; whilst Sexton has deputised admirably in her absence it’s still a little disappointing to open the paper (or, rather “load up the eyeball-melting ad-collage that is the Evening Standard Online”) and see one name not t’other.
Anyway — she’ll surely be back soon. In the meantime, another puzzler: should restaurant critics review places like Feast Canteen, more of a glorified food court than an actual cohesive capital-r Restaurant? It kind of seemed OK when Maschler and Jay Rayner were slogging out to Colindale and Bang Bang Oriental Foodhall, perhaps because in places like Singapore this Hawker Centre model is actually pretty prevalent. But somewhere you can buy burgers, noodles, pizza, tacos and wings all under one roof surely feels simply too disparate to be reviewable as a single experience.
Sexton nevertheless steers into the possibilities for cross-cultural dining it affords, sampling chicken wings from three different vendors and Patty and Bun’s monstrous Smokey Robinson, a “clinically insane” behemoth whose very bulk renders Sexton deeply “nervous.” For the more risk-averse, there are “cool refinements” on offer from summer roll specialists Sinchow, but these seem muted compared to the “total impact” dishes everyone else seems to be pumping out. This is Feast Canteen’s greatest lure for some, and greatest deterrent for others: this is food “designed to wow,” its chilli and spice “hitting hard” with “huge flavours”; in other words, it’s food “for a generation who expect what they eat to be shouty entertainment.” If this seems a teeeensy bit reductive (British gastronomy didn’t exactly conquer the world when your lot were in charge, Dave), the point is still a fair one. For those expecting the simpler pleasure of food “that tastes simply of itself,” Feast Canteen could well just seem “baffling.”
Question two this week (or three, whatever): should restaurant critics review places like United Chip? The old buffer’s argument would be ‘no’: this is a mere fish and chip shop in Clerkenwell, not a proper restaurant doing starters and puddings and fancy stuff like plates.
But — as Navneet Alang argued in a brilliant piece for Eater dot com — a response like this is couched in all sorts of problematic biases and preconceptions; biases and preconceptions that it is in the interest of the institution of restaurant criticism to perpetuate. Open the field up to just anyone reviewing just anywhere and suddenly those cushy sinecures and cosy industry relationships start looking vulnerable: things might actually start to change.
On the other other hand — dude, it’s just fish and chips. Being the site for this sort of discussion was surely not the intention of the team behind United Chip, who probably just want to make some money selling good food to a grateful clientele.
Unfortunately, they don’t quite hit the mark on that front: ES Magazine review carousel participant Raven Smith is left merely lukewarm by a place selling this most “traditional” of foods in a manner that seems designed to cater to the notoriously “transient” millennial mindset. Everything just seems “a little off”: there’s no queue, robbing the experience of the usual delicious anticipation; the décor is more like a “sanitised American diner,” complete with dumb comedy signage; there’s a plethora of flavoured salts and vinegars that just lead to “decision fatigue.” Even if the food is good — which it is, despite disappointingly thin tartare sauce — it’s hard to ever imagine this place as a “dine-in destination.” Instead, the regular presence of Deliveroo drivers mark United Chip as a mere “pitstop,” “dining for the digital age” — given this, for all its virtue-signalling about its eco-friendliness, Smith is probably right to worry that United Chip’s model is inherently “unsustainable.”
Yet more questions spring from Giles Coren’s column this week. Like: is this the first restaurant review ever WhatsApped in from an Amazing Hotel? And: should restaurant critics take freebies?
Again, there are two camps. Camp one, of course not, argues that all a critic has is his or her integrity — sully that by accepting grubby backhanders and free dinners from PRs and chef pals and you might as well jack it in and become an Instagram Influencer for all the credibility you have.
Camp two, don’t be stupid, argues that every single restaurant a critic ever reviews may as well be a freebie for the effect it has on their bank balance — once you’re spending Other People’s Money, questions of value go out of the window entirely since the amount of skin in the game is dramatically decreased. That’s before getting into the multiple ways in which chefs and PRs can win over and influence the opinions of critics that doesn’t involve comping their entire meals, the soft power diplomacy employed within and without of restaurants. Retweeting a review, liking an Instagram post, setting aside the best table, sending over some snacks or a glass of fizz — none of it’s explicit, but it’s naïve to think every single critic is immune to the effects, or that they should be.
That said, reviewing a comp feels a pretty pointless exercise. Caveat it all you want, but it’s pretty hard for readers to take any recommendation at anything like face value: the suspicions of quid-pro-quo reciprocity are just too strong. In fairness, Coren takes great pains to emphasise quite how “free” all of the fare at Coya was — this verdict is where Week in Reviews will leave things, too.
A respite from any such awkward quagmires over at The Guardian, as Grace Dent has an uncomplicatedly wonderful time at Sorella. As (relatively) cheap and cheerful new openings like Pastaio and Rambla boom, Dent is probably correct to identify “Michelin-flirting whimsy” as one “chief casualty” of the current brutal climate; “as the restaurant world tightens its belt”, customers are more likely to want to unbuckle theirs after eating satisfying, simple, delicious food than they are to fiddle around with “nitpicky,” “puzzling plates.”
All of which is to say that Sorella delivers on the comfort front, and then some. Ricotta with tapenade and a puddle of parmesan is food “for eating swiftly, not Instagramming”; cep gnocchi with wild mushrooms are “outstanding”: “thick, heavenly lumps of wanton carb action.” Fried potatoes are “irresistible”; puddings are the sort of things about which people get antisocially “territorial.” When Sorella was The Manor, Dent left “educated, but not wholly fed” — that “wholly” hinting at a sort of nourishment that is spiritual and emotional as well as physical. This time round, there are no such complaints, and no such shortcomings: Sorella is “unfussy, but at the same time fabulous”.
There’s a pleasing symmetry to Tim Hayward reviewing Londrino: for one thing, it was the final restaurant Dent covered at ES Magazine; for another, it seems the polar opposite of Sorella, offering exactly the sort of Michelin-courting fiddliness that Robin Gill and co have apparently abandoned.
Chef Leandro Carreira has worked in some of the world’s most progressive temples of gastronomy and, per Hayward, “doesn’t wear his training lightly”: think “asceticism”, think “almost aggressive minimalism,” think “austere works of art,” think “largely empty” plates, think food you consume not just physically but also “intellectually” and “philosophically.”
Think also: but does it actually taste any good? For Hayward, the answer isn’t an easy one: as much as he clearly admires Carreira’s “courage” to do things so entirely on his own terms, he cannot quite bring himself to love the results. Dishes frequently look “immensely important” but are “bafflingly uninspiring” to eat: flavours are “pale and wan,” hitting the palate “weakly,” if at all.
Leaving customers impressed but not sated is a risky strategy as the chill winds of 2018 seem not yet ready to relent on the the restaurant market. The final question of this week’s column, posed by Hayward, is one that no one, these days, should have to ask: “for the love of God, where’s the deliciousness?”