Santa Maria (Fitzrovia)
It all makes sense now: Michael Deacon doesn’t care. He’s been doing this for long enough for any trace of genuine interest in the role to have emerged — any scintilla of curiosity or drive to get better at the job. But it hasn’t, and he hasn’t, and he doesn’t. How does it feel to be an actual restaurant critic at another publication and know he is out there, undermining your honest hard work by association? How does it feel to be one of the flight of excellent food writers at The Telegraph and to have this patently unqualified dude as your nominal colleague? How much contempt do the powers that be at the Telegraph have for the art of food writing in general and restaurant criticism more specifically, that they should elevate someone like Deacon into his role, and leave him in it despite his utter unfitness for it glaring nakedly from its pages every single week?
It’s not about the review of Santa Maria Fitzrovia, really: As Marina O’Loughlin pointed out, there are elements of the offering there that may well merit the two stars Deacon dropped on the place. But it’s much more about how the review is couched: as with his recent Indian Accent farrago, it’s food writing that lays out a thick-as-mince starting point (“curry house” fare is superior to all other Indian food, Pizza Hut pizza is superior to all other pizza) and doesn’t really deviate from it. The payoff — the clever inversion of this wilful ignorance, the expertise behind the faux-naivety — never materialises.
It’s a joke on ‘foodie pretension,’ of course — Men’s-Rights-Activist-Twitter-level trolling. And yes, ha ha: how silly it is that people give two stuffs about different regional styles of pizza, or bother to learn some of the technical terminology about pizza-making so they can discern those styles more readily — especially when perfectly serviceable words like “sloppy and floppy” exist. But think of the outrage if a prestigious UK publication employed an arts critic whose default mode was to mock the concerns of the readers nominally most interested in his or her column; think of the disregard this position entails for the thousands of people working in the sector. Most of Deacon’s readers will doubtless not care at all, but to make it all about them is to tell only half of the story. Restaurants have employees; they have owners. The response of Santa Maria’s, in this case, is the only appropriate one: if Deacon is going to treat his job as a joke, he better get used to being a punchline.
As a palate-cleanser, here’s unofficial voice of a generation Joel Golby, best known for his writing for Vice on late-millennial malaises like the property market, Take Me Out, and Gregg Wallace. His review of Hoxton’s Via Emilia is the sort of thing Deacon is reaching for, presumably: a funny, conversational jag that turns a slight shortage of subject-matter expertise into a comedic strength.
The restaurant comes out of it alright, too. As Golby recognises, they’re onto a winner with the concept: “Food from the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna is really good, so let’s just serve that.” Starters are various hams and cheese with gnocco frito; main courses (pasta, “obviously”) are similarly endearing exercises in “simplicity.” Tiramisu to round things off is “conversation-silencingly good”; Di Sorbara Lambrusco alongside is “fruity and plummy and just the right amount of rich, and sort of like a very delicious cough syrup but also not.” Golby may not be an authority on food, but he is unquestionably an authority on existing in Brexit London, so when he identifies somewhere that “makes you want to give up on British life and move immediately to northern Italy,” it might be worth a look. Unlike the exercise of trying to find a reasonably priced flat in Zones One to Three, Via Emilia comes “highly recommended.”
As does Brat, in a stunning revelation that will surprise precisely no one. Initial social media buzz has been so overwhelmingly positive that it would be a minor miracle if reviewers did not find themselves similarly entranced by Tomos Parry’s new place. As the winner of this week’s for-what-it’s-worth award as the first critic of any repute to get her verdict in, Fay Maschler duly makes mention of the influx of influencers, “most of whom posted Instagrams of the dishes quite a while before the official opening” (sass levels: this gif), but she doesn’t let this distract her (too much) from the task at hand.
“Everything and especially the cheeks” of the signature turbot, a contrast in “gold” and “toothpaste white,” can contentedly be eaten in the company of a “subtle” sauce boosted with the fish’s own collagen and gelatine; “eminently shareable” roasted duck and lamb emerge “equally triumphantly” from the grill. Even if “provenance is not all,” produce like the “douce” baby peas that come accompanied by Carmarthen ham, or the “miraculously self-seasoned” Sicilian tomatoes “grown on seaside saline soil” and served as a side (say that out loud) reveal Parry’s gift and / or mania for finding ingredients “magically in their pomp.”
We are not quite in the promised land: Maschler is moved to “tut-tut about the lack of foresight shown in unheated plates”; there is an “admirable” list of sherries but “annoyingly” none come served by the glass; a combination of spider crab and cabbage reads more like “one of those blind dates that don’t lead to wedded bliss, or even a second date”. But there is a genuine “homey quality” to everything, not just the burnt cheesecake with rhubarb: staff “move surely and confidently” through a space conveying “the feeling of this being a family affair.” Despite the name, this is no arriviste Shoreditch upstart — “not a brat at all,” rather a restaurant where “contentment flows unimpeded.”
Arriviste Shoreditch upstarts ahoy over the road at Rascals, though — you know, the totes banter sister restaurant to Nathan Barley punchline Ballie Ballerson.
Initial press releases suggested this would be the sort of place to give professional and amateur restaurant-goers the full howling conniptions; it is perhaps unsurprising then that Marina — “when I first read the publicity material for Rascals, I thought it was a joke” — O’Loughlin doesn’t see the funny side.
Whilst noting, correctly, that “none of this matters” to most of the people who pass through Rascals’ doors, O’Loughlin has a game stab at reviewing the food on offer, observing (probably charitably) that it ranges from “edible to post-comedown nightmare.” Under “edible” (just about), file lobster mac ’n’ cheese and tempura squid; at the other end of the spectrum, battle with a cheeseboard that “looks recently liberated from the discounted shelves at Morrisons” and the “unspeakable horror” of hamburger spring rolls, “the meat grey, the grease leaching down chins and wrists while hardening into the kind of tallow secreted by the worst kind of Scotch pie.”
Clearly, most of these are “things you’d only eat when paralytic”; clearly, getting paralytic is very much part of the deal; clearly, by O’Loughlin’s own admission, these two factors mean she is hardly the target audience. It doesn’t really matter; there’s no denying the pleasure to be had in watching this sort of forensic evisceration, equal parts cold-blooded murder and dispassionate autopsy, take place. But seeing O’Loughlin’s talents directed towards somewhere so clearly inferior is a bit like Roger Ebert reviewing 2004 atrocity White Chicks: the interests of the likely customer and the interests of the likely reader are highly unlikely to overlap. This is not to say it still doesn’t make for entertaining reading, but should criticism be useful, too? Answers on a postcard addressed to the total legend in the ballpit!
The Asador at Sabor
Or should that be the piscina de bolas? Don’t ask Giles Coren that: he no habla Español, a fact that — per this week’s review / therapy session notes — makes him deeply “sad” because it closed off a whole world to him for far too long.
It’s a world described in in a tumble of minutely observed detail to rival Coren’s portrayal of Thai street food in his review of Nahm from nearly a decade ago: it’s almost impossible to read of “the hot sun on peeling alabaster walls,” “the chill glamour of the cathedrals,” “the light beer chilled all the way to the nozzle of the ceramic tap,” “the cocido served in three acts at ancient restaurants in cellars beneath Madrid” and “the lechal lamb cooked slow in cooling bread ovens at Pedraza, northeast of Segovia” and not fire up EasyJet in search of a cheapo flight to Seville, Barcelona or San Sebastián at the earliest convenience.
The review’s yet another barnstormer for Nieves and co, of course: that’s de rigueur by now. Observers know the pig’s ears (“golden and crackly with pungent aïoli and a squeal of paprika”) are fantastic; they know “lamb cutlets of intense pinkness, juiciness and charred complexity” are, too. They know the suckling pig’s meat is “warm, soft as cake, sweet on the tongue with its lemony juices”; even if they had not previously considered that its scent conveyed “the high anal swirl of the slop bucket” (and needed to visit a previously unexplored corner of the gif library as part of dealing with that) the point remains the same: countless critics have now visited Sabor and given it their blessing; almost every single one of them has found interesting, different, amusing ways to say essentially the same thing.