An orrery is a mechanical model, typically representing the solar system. The one in Marylebone may have lost its Michelin-ordained star a while ago, but the recent refurb is surely intended to restore this, arguably the most lavish member of the D&D restaurant empire, to its rightful place in the firmament.
Mostly, in Marina O’Loughlin’s eyes at least, things are up and running like clockwork. Excesses of “titivation” aside, the food is generally as “excellent,” “silky” and “rich” as a starter of chicken liver parfait: think “wild garlic soup of supreme lightness” to kick things off, black leg chicken with mushrooms and Vin Jaune or tournedos Rossini as a main, before “a cheese trolley of honking, oozing splendour” — overseen by the in-house ‘frommelier, a prospect “marginally less boke-worthy than bingeing on a whole wheel of Stichelton” — and “deliciously springlike,” “elaborate” desserts to finish.
There’s no denying the “opulent excess” on show here, even if O’Loughlin does find the “service that nudges obsequiousness” and frequent attempts to prise yet more money from customers (including “set-price menus bristling with supplements”) a little hard to swallow. The whole package is not for her, really: the redesign seems to be targeted squarely at the needs of the predominantly “Rich But Slightly Remedial” client base. Blame it on O’Loughlin’s “neophile tendencies,” perhaps, but it’s hard to shake the thought that — as “sophisticated” as the offering may be here — in 2018 London there is any number of places that can offer similar levels of skill and execution, just “with a whole lot less starch.”
Places like Brat, for example. Tim Hayward’s review is remarkable not for being highly positive — join the queue, Tim — but for the extraordinary lexical breadth it manages to cover. At one end of the scale (no pun intended) is a sentence like: “Turbot are hench flatfish,” which deserves every journalistic award going; at the other, the description of some toast as a “magical product, a scorched shell encasing steamed crumb and redolent of the smoky hearth,” on which some whipped cod’s roe “reclines like a sated odalisque on a fauteuil” — truly, these are “bomb-ass eggs on toast.”
Somewhere in the middle is Hayward’s depiction of the specifically carnal pleasure of eating Parry’s celebrated turbot: “an orgy of breathtaking flavour” with the same “spectacular possibilities for seduction” as “any food you need to get your fingers in.” Things all get a bit The Shape of Water after that, with a neighbouring two-top “helping each other tear one apart” as Hayward stares at the “wreckage” on his plate pondering other circumstances in which he might “enjoy doing that” to something with a fin “quite so indecently much.”
Next on the recherché-noun-as-restaurant-name list this week is Sapling, with David Sexton trekking out to the “gastro-hub” of Dalston to review (east) London’s latest natural wine and small plates joint.
It’s not as anonymous as that makes it sound — it has, in fact, been “lovingly created to be its own thing.” The décor offers numerous “visual and tactile pleasures” and offers genuine “comfort”; nominative determinism case study Dan Whine (owner) has put together a list packed with “clean,” “startlingly good” biodynamic, organic and natural examples of his name. The food, meanwhile, “supports the wine generously” — “not over-ambitious, not over-stated.” It’s “decadent” in places, it offers genuine “clarity of taste” when that’s needed, too — the perfect accompanying accent in this “brilliantly conceived” and “devotedly delivered” newcomer.
A slightly rockier start to life, meanwhile, for Bryn Williams at Somerset House, which survives a slightly lukewarm verdict from Marina O’Loughlin only for another two of them — from Grace Dent and, uh, Labour MP Jess Phillips — to arrive just weeks later.
Simply put, when a loaf of soda bread turns out to be the “highlight” of your meal (as it is for Dent), things aren’t looking great. Some of the dishes that follow are unimpressive (beetroot with salmon is “simpler than a Celebrity MasterChef plate”); some (like “damp pork belly with a large wobbly piece of fat attached”) are actively “unappetising.” Roast cauliflower is “tough,” the dish a total “mess”; puddings are “clearly pre-made.” Dent and her date leave “as soon as possible,” “largely to escape the piped jazz muzak or any more cocktails such as the Blood and Mescal, served in a cheap highball glass, without garnish.” It is fair to assume she is not wowed by the experience.
Dent’s appalled hauteur is in stark contrast to the demeanour of the writer temporarily occupying her former ES Magazine spot. But as much as Jess Phillips strives to be “generous” and put the numerous issues she encounters down to “newly opened teething problems,” the fact is that no amount of spin can mask some pretty glaring, uncomfortable truths.
Service is brusque from the get-go, leaving Phillips and her companion “feeling spare” in a “sort of limbo area”; that same companion “made altogether better choices” from the menu, which is a diplomatic way of saying your food is pretty underwhelming. Best of all is some kale pesto tagliatelle — “just a big bowl of pasta, simply presented” — which would seem to pair uneasily with the “fanciness and fussing” that comes with such a “grand” location. Dent may be the professional restaurant critic, but Phillips gets to the heart of the matter most directly: “Bryn Williams needs to decide what it is.” And given the reviews it’s got to date, that reassessment should probably take place sooner rather than later.
A quick check-in with part-time critic, full-time London restaurant troll, Michael Deacon, to wrap up this week: a bao is apparently “a kind of Far Eastern bun, but much lighter than the bun in any Big Mac or bacon roll.” So, he’s still at it.
Daddy Bao, son of Mr Bao (no relation to the Soho / Fitzrovia Baos), comes out of it OK, to be fair. It’s a “nice place to be” — “relaxed, unpretentious, young.” Starters are fine but feel a bit like second thoughts; the buns themselves boast fillings that range from “juicy” beef to “gorgeously tart” pork. Astonishingly, to Deacon at least, the best of the lot is the tofu one (how astonishing that one of the most widely consumed vegetarian proteins in the world is capable of tasting “delicious”); you simply “wouldn’t guess” it’s not meat, and surely “there can be no higher compliment” than that. Except, of course, for his closing verdict: “Daddy Bao will fill you up, and pretty cheaply too.” If that isn’t a verdict worth plastering on windows and t-shirts, surely nothing is.