Club Mexicana at The Spread Eagle
Grace Dent is almost vegan now, which is almost interesting.
This is not to detract from the importance of one of the UK’s foremost critics championing an increasingly meat-free diet — merely to observe there is a lot of confusion along the spectrum between “full” veganism and the old-fashioned John Bull model of British eating: Brexity, gouty Full English and all. Chief of which, of course, is “flexitarianism.” When a word can encompass a conventional meat patty with a bit of mushroom added to the mix, it is clearly no longer fit for purpose; as Eater London contributor Anna Sulan Masing has observed, the time has come for it to “do one.”
Fittingly, at The Spread Eagle in Hackney, customers have to bend several degrees beyond normal omnivory. This “cheerful, gregarious boozer” has gone the full nine vegan farmyards, even purging drinks made with animal-unfriendly finings from its menu.
But it doesn’t bang on about it: “You can see the weight lift from meat-eaters’ shoulders when they realise this is just a normal gastropub experience,” without the side order of ideology. Dishes are “vibrant,” but also offer “a sense of belonging and of finding comfort in the recognisable” like the “oddly realistic” nori-and-tofu “tofish.” As with everything even adjacent to the vegan movement, there’s plenty of scope for debate over concepts like verisimilitude and authenticity — Dent lingers on the nonsense of calling “pork” tacos made from mushroom anything other than “mushroom” — but crucially “no one at the Spread Eagle”, whether staff or customers, is “in the mood for this argument.” They’re all too busy having fun.
Meanwhile, Kate Spicer, per ES Magazine’s headline, “gets down and delicious” in Soho. She’s at Evelyn’s Table — the latest tiny and ultra-clandestine / no longer novel (?) hidden chef’s tables tucked away in back rooms. Specifically, in this case, “through a secret downstairs door marked private with a peephole.”
Once discovered, the food’s pretty good, actually. Opening statements are a little off: grilled and escabeched mackerel is “perfectly executed” but the two methods aren’t necessarily good companions for each other; “delicious” smoked eel is let down by a “weird” spiced beet sauce. After that, though, things move “into a different realm of awesome”: deep-fried artichoke is a “ying and yang” of “chewy and crispy outer leaves” and “clean-tasting tender heart”; fish soup boasts an “epic broth of roasted fishbone stock and loads of booze”; tarte Tatin is “achingly perfect and sticky to its soul.”
At the end of it all, Spicer says, Evelyn’s Table is “pure class.”
“Class” is unfortunately not a word that could be directed in the direction of Abd el Wahab, Marina O’Loughlin’s destination for this week, though those who care about these things might settle on “pure.” This Beiruti import offers a seductive promise to those involved in the “unseemly fetishization” of authenticity — those weird “acolytes” to its “cult.” But as O’Loughlin recognises — and as places like Club Mexicana and Evelyn’s Table suggest — all that really matters is whether stuff tastes good.
And at Abd el Wahab, not all of it does. Mezze at the start are “gorgeous” (with prose to match: savour O’Loughlin’s description of how “radishes snap with peppery crispness” and feel one’s resistance to your teeth); various dips and sauces including notably “silky” hummus and “brooding” mhamara are “several notches above the norm.” After that, though, the wheels come off: “sinewy” chicken livers in pomegranate molasses and “leathery” seabass are both “violently overcooked”; similar evil has been done to the mixed grill, “frazzled into a fistula.”
Whilst O’Loughlin’s conclusion — “a chain’s a chain, irrespective of its heritage” — strays a little into questionable territory (what of the recently beatified Santa Maria?), what is not up for debate is how “dejected” this visit leaves the critic and her pal. Even though many may have escaped the cult of authenticity, it can sometimes be difficult to avoid being dragged back in. After an experience like this, though, O’Loughlin realises she’s been comprehensively “suckered.”
Is there such a thing as being reverse-suckered? If so, that’s what has happened to Tim Hayward this week, who admits he really wasn’t “expecting Titu to be that good,” since its gyoza-heavy concept seemed “a gimmick too far.”
And yet. An opening snack of lotus root crisps is “light, welcoming and utterly exceptional”; soft-shell crab salad is “a gorgeous, generous thing,” and the dumplings themselves — the slight “disappointment” of a wagyu black pepper number aside — are singly “brilliant.” There is a verve and inventiveness offset by top-notch technique on show here — chef Jeff Tyler, Hayward claims (in an only slightly dad-dancing simile) “understands balance like a unicyclist in a snake pit.” Far from being “amusingly pretentious,” Titu is “precisely the opposite”: a “genuine joy.”
More genuine joy on display from Fay Maschler stand-in Frankie McCoy, who replicates the Evening Standard legend’s trademark swiftness to the door of new openings, barrelling into Ollie Dabbous’ Hide mere moments after the Instagram-friendly lighting and American Psycho car elevator have been switched on for the first time.
The Sparknotes version? This is a “fabulous, barnstorming success”, despite the “cringingly arrogant” nature of the pronouncements made before opening (Above, apparently, is aiming for two Michelin stars). All of this big talk would be cause for at least two stars’ worth of delicious schadenfreude if Dabbous and co failed to execute, but fortunately the food more than delivers: It is “so bloody good.” If the stuff at Ground-level is “angelic,” “a lesson in balance, richness tempered with flower-powered acidity,” Above takes things up even further: a “stupendously” executed procession of “brilliant,” “intelligent” dishes that, in sum, result in a “flawless meal.”
There’s a thought-provoking digression from McCoy about the root cause of all that flawlessness and the “palpable unfairness” of somewhere so moneyed opening with such swagger in an increasingly distressed market. But McCoy instead instructs her readers not to “overthink it” — this is “five-star food,” with Dabbous at his “most fabulous yet.”
To close this week, The Times’ restaurant critic is at chef Tomos Parry’s Shoreditch critic-honeypot. Above all, this critic is presumably delighted that Googling “Giles Coren Brat” now no longer returns that tirade against his own subeditors as the first result; that aside, this remains an exuberant review of an “absolutely stonking” restaurant, its success arising from a “special” mix of “beautiful” room, “excellent” staff and “mind-blowing” food.
One signature detour to the gif library aside (for the phrase “it gets the mouthful started and helps the dry sausage slowly yield up its magical fat”), this is the sort of review that critics have been lining up to file for weeks now — which, of course, is not to say it will be any less impactful. A building consensus like this is the best thing a new restaurant can hope for, and this review will burnish Brat’s legend even further, from the “game-changing,” “epochal” chopped egg salad with bottarga that Coren pronounces “the greatest single new dish to be invented in this country in decades” to the signature turbot, “done as perfectly as such a fish can be.” Even for him, Coren has been decidedly loquacious of late; even making allowances for that, though, this is an unqualified rave.
Or, as Tomos Parry doubtless now knows it, business as usual.
Update: Coren has since described Brat as “the most exciting new restaurant in Europe.”