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Only the Hardest Heart Couldn’t Warm to Ikoyi, Says Critic Grace Dent

Plus the rest of last week’s restaurant reviews, reviewed

Plantain with scotch bonnet at Ikoyi, the 2019 one Michelin star restaurant in London
Plantain with scotch bonnet mayo at Ikoyi in St. James’s
@ikoyi_london/Instagram

Poon’s

If, at some point in the future, London’s restaurant critic beat gets the HBO prestige TV show treatment it so obviously merits, the casting will be a doddle: Jemaine Clement could do Jay Rayner standing on his head, while Alexander Armstrong can doubtless do a pretty good imitation of his brother-in-law Giles Coren by now. As for Fay Maschler, it could only be Dame Maggie Smith, not due to any real resemblance between the two, but because there is simply no one else who could deliver the line-readings with such a unique blend of charm and bite.

Take last week’s review of Poon’s, a three-out-of-five verdict that reads, on the surface at least, decent enough. But note, on closer reading, the myriad almost-imperceptible paper cuts: much as the thousand-year-old Pi Dan eggs are “pleasant” enough, and the wontons in chilli oil “should certainly be part of an order,” there’s not much else here that escapes unscathed. There is “little trace” of the “beguilingly spectral” flavour of wind-dried bacon in claypot rice; Hainanese chicken is “arid” and impossible to commend; Hakka pork belly is “dark in not a good way,” as “virtuous” as pea-shoots stir-fried with garlic are, they are hardly “absolutely essential to your wellbeing.” All of this, unfortunately, is “food that needs more work.”

This pop-up evolution of the original Poon’s may well be “moving with the times,” but Maschler is clearly far from impressed, seeing instead the story of “a venerable father dreaming of his early life in Macau and a daughter in Christian Louboutin stilettos click-clacking into what is for all of us an uncertain future.” The implication behind this — that daughter Amy is merely playing host while chef-consultant father Bill “needs to crack the whip more sharply in the kitchen” — is, when expressed more starkly, a pretty brutal one. But that’s the beauty of Maschler in full dowager duchess mode — it’s only once she leaves the room that you realise quite how profoundly she has cut to your core.

Meraki

The Times food editor Tony Turnbull once again takes the reins while Giles Coren flits off on another jolly, checking in on Arjun and Peter Waney’s newish Greekish joint, Meraki.

As far as the corporate credit card is concerned, Turnbull goes full-on Expendables, racking up thirty-two quid in a matter of seconds over some teensy-tiny mezze (plus an extra fiver for some pitta bread!); costs continue to mount, fast and furious, with the mains, including a 28-quid bream and a beef kebab costing £26.

It is all “nice enough,” which probably says all there is to say about the specific brand of premium mediocrity the Waney Bros are trying to peddle. “Shameless” attempts to upsell things further — including bringing food Turnbull didn’t even order and trying to flog it to the table — abound; two meatballs come to a tenner. Expensive, intermittently OK food, then, in a Welcome-To-Airspace-anonymous room; an “international, rather than specifically Greek experience” offering unnecessarily expensive versions of relatively simple fare that does not benefit from the special treatment.

The message from Turnbull, after all this? “Come on, guys,” “show some self-respect”.

Ikoyi

Despite a similarly crunchy bill at the end of dinner, no such rebukes from Grace Dent over at The Guardian — and no chance whatsoever of the restaurant in question ever being called anonymous or anodyne.

Here, instead, are some of the adjectives used: “complex”, “peculiar”, “challenging”, “unique”. If this sounds like a Maschler-esque attempt to conceal criticism in plain sight, the review as a whole doesn’t really read like that — instead, they feel like the only appropriate ways to describe Ikoyi’s singular “Lagos via The Ledbury” approach to fine dining.

There is absolutely a risk that someone coming to the “loveless,” “hopeless” St James’ Market development expecting “authentic” West African food might find themselves profoundly “confused,” but submitting to chef Jeremy Chan’s “mashup of tribute, innovation and cultural trickiness” has its benefits, too; go in with the right mindset, and “your boundaries will be tested beautifully.” It may not always be “delicious,” but as an envelope-pushing new opening it is “clearly important.” Twin this with staff ferrying each course to the table “brightly and politely,” and a soundtrack banging out Warren G’s ‘Regulate,’ and for all Ikoyi’s complexity, one thing is clear: “only the hardest heart couldn’t warm to all this.”

by CHLOE.

To wrap up this week, sentient waxwork George Reynolds (meta, yes) jumps onto the ES Magazine dinner guest merry-go-round, getting under the skin of Covent Garden-based American junk vegan import by CHLOE.

It’s a restaurant getting plenty of hot social media action from a certain kind of (would-be) “influential” Instagram user, and accordingly food is “dressed” and “composed” to suit, presented in room boasting “eye-catching” décor, clearly designed with the timeline in mind.

Things, unfortunately, are somewhat “less impressive” to eat. Sandwiches and burgers are “especially bad,” although the signature mac and cheese — “overcooked pasta topped with musty mushroom ‘bacon’” — is little better. There are occasional rays of light to be discovered among the list of veganised British classics — especially tofu wrapped in seaweed and deep-fried to represent fish, its batter “shatteringly crisp.” But messing up the cooking of some chips, or serving mashed garden peas in place of the promised mushy ones, suggests quite how “misguided” by CHLOE.’s UK entry strategy has been. In a country no longer short on delicious, fresh vegan food, this heavily-processed, “fake”-tasting iteration of it feels far from “natural” — even in its first UK site, there’s no mistaking the hallmarks of “an American fast-food chain.”

Or, as another GR known for his temper tantrums might put it: “by CHLOE.? More like bye, Chloe.”

By Chloe

24-43 Russell Street , London , WC2B 5HA Visit Website

Poon’s Pop Up @ Thé Alchemist

131-133 Central Street, , England EC1V 8AP 020 7683 0271 Visit Website

The Ledbury

127 Ledbury Road, , England W11 2AQ 020 7792 9090 Visit Website

Meraki

80 Great Titchfield Street, London, Greater London W1W 7PR +44 20 7305 7686 Visit Website

Ikoyi

1 Saint James's Market, , England SW1Y 4AH 020 3583 4660 Visit Website

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