Events like the royal wedding are a dream come true for content writers.
See: Michael Deacon at Dean Street Townhouse, Harry and Meghan’s first date venue. Also see: Bellamy’s, said to be the Queen’s favourite restaurant, reviewed this week by Jonny Woo. In any other week, this would be a baffling choice — 92 year-old west London shut-ins are not normally known for their taste in restaurants, after all. This week, though, there’s *that* editorial hook, and so readers are treated to observations about the “modestly elegant” room with its “typically stylish French prints”; the “wonderfully flavoursome” Virgin Marys; the “clean and mineral” native oysters; the “intense, rich flavour” of the iced lobster soufflé; the “perfect and simple” avocado and prawns.
People who care about the royal family often have visions of a magical, mythical Old England, all Blitz Spirit and cups of tea and Great British Bakeoff village fête jam tart politics. In this Britain, spinach and broad beans are served without continental fussiness (“no smashing or smearing across the plate, thank you very much”); in this Britain, a flute of Minstrels is a deemed a “jolly finish to the meal.” In this Britain, Bellamy’s represents “refined perfection in the secluded heart of Mayfair”; in this Britain, words like “secluded” are left unexplored for suggestions of privilege and social division. Jonny Woo at Bellamy’s could have been an interesting examination of how the royal family — and its choice in restaurants — relates to today’s Britain; instead, it just perpetuates the same tired myths of old.
A bit like Sargeant’s Mess, really. Per Frankie McCoy’s review, this new opening near the Tower of London dollops out “poor, overpriced imitations of British classics,” with few (if any) redeeming qualities. Atlantic prawn cocktail “tastes like a rained-off picnic”; fish and chips is “entirely without flavour”; gammon is “tough enough to saddle a horse.” Timings are off throughout — starters and mains arrive simultaneously, pudding comes “90 seconds after ordering.” It’s all so bad, in fact, that it single-handedly threatens to revive “the stereotype of terrible British food.” The name, pun and all, is clearly intended to evoke the food of Old Britannia in all its mushy-pea-hued splendour; given the execution, though, a very different sort of nominative determinism is at play. Put simply, “this restaurant is a right royal mess.”
There’s plenty of mess over at Bodean’s, too, but precious little royalty — unless you count queen of (almost) vegan eating Grace Dent. In fairness, it’s hard to follow a ‘plant-based regime’ when the only vegetarian (let alone vegan) offering is mac n’ cheese. Bodean’s customer base is accordingly self-selecting — “duped tourists and potential incel freedom fighters bulking up on protein,” mostly. Even they, surely, cannot find much to love here, so bad is the cooking: babyback ribs are “cremated”; burnt ends “taste of jam and have the consistency and vibe of something a kidnapper might begin posting back to your parents.” Sides — “unseasoned,” “loveless” coleslaw; “overcooked” okra — are uninspiring; banana split is not so much pudding as “passive-aggressive act.”
This is “some of the worst slap-dash nonsense masquerading as hospitality” that Dent has ever experienced. And amid all the talk of the casual dining apocalypse — and with fresh fuel seemingly being added to the fire weekly — it’s all too easy to forget one thing: as tough as market conditions are, “diners voted with their feet,” too. Britain’s taste has “grown more refined”; many have no patience, now, for the mediocre. With its lazily meagre offering and slipshod execution, Bodean’s isn’t fast casual — it’s simply “too bloody casual” for 2018.
Whilst there’s doubtless plenty of anxiety about (especially surrounding the future of chains), the number of new independents coming to the market suggests there is still some optimism out there, too — young chefs confident that their offering is good enough to thrive even in an environment like the current one.
In Tom Brown’s case, at Cornerstone, this confidence doesn’t seem to be misplaced. This, at least, per Giles Coren’s review. This being Coren, there’s the usual dadsplain-trolling of a scarily unfamiliar part of London (Hackney is an “undeserving war zone east of nowhere,” says the 48 year-old from Kentish Town), but geography doesn’t really matter when the cooking is so “out of this world.” Oysters pickled in gherkin vinegar are “sensational”; raw hand-dived scallops are “sweet and fresh” (and, at £18 for three, admittedly pretty “expensive”). Unusual elements like lime pickle and coconut yoghurt render boring old monkfish “sparkling”; potted shrimp on a warm crumpet is quite simply “a thing of dreams.” These (and many other) dishes are all “perfectly made,” the product of a kitchen “every bit as confident, British, brilliant and beautiful as Tomos Parry’s Brat in Shoreditch.” The contrast with the Bodean’s of this world could not be more pronounced: in its imagination and attention to detail, Cornerstone is a restaurant of “supreme quality.”
A Restaurant of Supreme Quality is probably the sort of thing that the team behind Beck at Browns would stick on their website. But for the second week running, it all leaves a critic fairly underwhelmed. After Russell Chambers had his go in the spotlight last time, it’s over to Jay Rayner, who says much the same thing (even — why? — going on about the deep-fried caperberries). This is “over-engineered,” “awkward” food — none of it “actively unpleasant” but all of it ruinously expensive and lacking in anything approaching the “comforting.” It’s all symbolised by the 24-quid starter of cacio e pepe adorned with langoustine tails: so underwhelming, so “pointlessly spendy.” There may not be anything wrong with it, but — like the restaurant it appears in — it does all start to feel wholly “unnecessary.”
To close this week, what feels like the final word on Hide, delivered by Marina O’Loughlin. For all the raves the place has garnered along the way — here’s another, from Nick Lander — there has also been the odd suspicion (as voiced by Grace Dent) that all is not well in the tripartite kingdom of Above, Below, and Ground. It is one that nags at O’Loughlin during her visit, despite an “intoxicating” menu; it is felt most keenly in the disjunction between the “poetry” of what is described and the “production-line quality” of what actually arrives on the plate.
With a floorplan this huge, it’s probably inevitable that the kitchen’s output would verge on the “robotic,” but for all its “perfection” this is food that feels “a little polite, a touch twee.” There’s more than a hint of that hoary critic’s nemesis, the sous vide bag, in the “uniformly pink” oblong of lamb and monkfish suggestive of “Birds Eye boil-in-the-bag cod”; the instant-Insta-icon acorn pudding may look the business but it eats and feels like “an incestuously close relative of the tipsy cake from Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner,” another place that left O’Loughlin profoundly “unmoved.”
Dinner isn’t a bad analogue, really: they share the same “international hotel dining room aesthetic” and “beige-taupe-brown-yawn interior design,” all of it a coded shorthand for “naked Michelin-star ambition.” And with that ambition — “a confidence hurtling towards arrogance” — comes the potential for snobbery and exclusion — how much will the member of staff who originally refused O’Loughlin access to the bar Below (“somewhere Alan Partridge might take a date after the owl sanctuary”) be regretting that decision today?
Much as O’Loughlin thrills to Ollie Dabbous’ obvious “talent,” this temple to “filthy-lucred, noisy blandness” is not the restaurant it “deserves.” It will doubtless be a “roaring success” among a certain demographic (“branded onto the speed dial of every executive concierge service on the planet”), but however “slick and smooth and polished” it may be, there’s something missing here, too. However regretfully, O’Loughlin is also decisively, decidedly, “not impressed.”