Like the vast majority of people this Bank Holiday weekend, the capital’s restaurant critics seem hell-bent on getting out of town. Marina’s up north, savouring The Moorcock Inn and throwing shade at the “bellicose American bullyboys” who used to frequent online food forum eGullet. Grace is in Gloucestershire, getting angry at “experimental jazz fusion kedgeree.” Speaking of, Jay finds himself up in Glasgow, under the spell of Alchemilla. Keith Miller’s in Oxford, Nick Lander’s got the week off. And Michael Deacon hasn’t filed anything at all, a marked improvement on his usual output.
So thank goodness for Tim Hayward, who is giving The Week in Reviews something to do with his verdict — and the first review from a fully-fledged publication — on Bright in London Fields. Bright, of course, has quite the hype-backlog amassed behind it already, with previews and weekend recommendations featuring it prominently. So it’s interesting to see if — in the eyes of the pros — it actually delivers on all this promise and cuts the proverbial mustard.
Thankfully, it does. William Gleave, Peppe Belvedere and co are producing “beautiful food” in a “completely seductive setting,” a setting suggestive of “uniquely Antipodean laid-backness” blended with “savage work ethic.” The menu offers “hit after hit”: those scarlet prawns are “astonishingly fresh”; their shells “crisply scorched”; the insides “as close to sashimi as you’re going to get.” Raw scallop and celery in apple-vinegar broth is a member of a new category of dishes Hayward is choosing to label “wet salads”; argue over the term as much as you want but there’s no denying this is an “invigorating”, delightfully “clean-tasting” affair. Among main courses, rare-breed Swaledale pork chop is a “rich” slab of “authentic pigginess”, the flesh “juicy” and “kept just to the correct side of pink”; grilled chicken with harissa may not be “rocket science” but it does represent “very good thinking followed by even better cooking.”
Hayward is a thoughtful writer, and a cerebral one too: the thoughtfulness of the prep work and execution on show here clearly appeal to him greatly. This even extends to stuff that isn’t actually cooked: a pairing of Coolea with sourdough and hazelnuts is all the more “smart and brave” for its humility. Unlike some other much-hyped restaurants which have hidden behind flaunted ambition from the get-go, the overall vibe at Bright is one of “quiet self-confidence.” It takes wit and talent to do just the right thing to top notch ingredients; importantly it takes courage, too. As with that cool, Coolea combo, this is a menu whose simplicity masks some “serious nuts.”
There are some serious nuts on display at Scully — along with any number of seeds, grains, pulses, ferments and spices. They are, in fact, the first things you see as you walk into the restaurant — an Insta-friendly multi-hued larder next to a slightly less Insta-friendly meat fridge.
In the old days, Giles Coren couldn’t have cared less about that larder, or that fridge. 2010 Giles Coren — subject of a satisfyingly catty Guardian opinion dunk — in fact opined, “I think photographing one’s food in a restaurant is easily as rude, disrespectful and brutish as … dropping one’s trousers in the middle of the room and taking a massive dump.”
So what are we to make of the information that Coren took the equivalent of six separate massive dumps during his visit to Scully, photographing everything from the lighting to the menu to that meat fridge? Is it again time to ask “U OK, hun?” with regard to his burgeoning Instagram addiction? Or is it cause for optimism that he might one day recant his criticism of the “flabby” tribe of food blogger-photographers in full, since he is now looking awkwardly a lot like one of them?
Answers on a postcard, please. For the time being: the review. Food-wise, nothing is especially bad — the restaurant is, in Coren’s eyes, a “decent” enough place. And the (wet?!) tomato-coconut salad with tomato shrub is pretty undeniably “great.” But there are a couple of flaws in execution that remove some of the gloss — broad beans are not double-shelled; a black-shallot aioli may look striking but feels like a poor relation to a classic yellow one — and a sense that things on the plate are “not as exciting” as they promised to be. It’s damning with faint praise, in other words — plus a fair bit of damning with actual damnation, in particular the opprobrium heaped on the “sterile”, “ghastly” St James’s Market development. To put it in terms that 2018 Coren might recognise: sure, he’s happy to like, but regram? No way.
Not a single like over at ES Magazine, where self-professed adherent to the religion of Italian food Mina Holland takes a long hard look at Fulham’s Ardiciocca and deems it edible “punishment”.
The bad times start with the concept — ‘gluten-sugar-dairy-guilt-free’ on paper, “existential crisis” in reality — and get worse with the delivery. Undercooked duck egg atop fermented Jerusalem artichoke boasts an albumen still “clear and quivering”; red quinoa salad tastes unwholesomely “of fridge”, cod comes with “intensely salted” black rice flour polenta. Holland has no time for this sort of “mimicry” of non-gluten-free dishes: it is both “inaccurate” and “disappointing” to be presented with these inferior iterations (see also: the “luminous” matcha tea ‘gelato’.) There is plenty of scope to consult the annals of Italian cookery and find guilt- / gluten- / sugar- / ideology-free food that “raises eyebrows for the right reason”: its “deliciousness”; unfortunately, Ardiciocca hasn’t quite done that here. As well as the “problematic” cluster of “semantic issues” that a tag like ‘guilt-free’ brings with it, pretty much everything ends up tasting like “an experiment gone wrong”.
24 The Oval
To wrap up, the review that (probably) launched a thought-provoking tweet. Susannah Butter’s take on 24 The Oval will probably be remembered less for what it has to say about the restaurant and more for the (micro)backlash to its slightly paint-by-the-numbers description of a non-central-London neighbourhood, all Zone One snark (“harsher critics wonder if it’s even generous to call it an area”) that doesn’t really advance the conversation or take it anywhere helpful.
For the team behind 24 The Oval, this would be a shame, as much of what they’re doing is worth praising. In an “unpretentious setting” boasting “plenty of natural light”, the team of former The Dairy / Wild Honey / Paradise Garage chefs are producing “perfectly judged” dishes like wild mushroom ravioli and “succulent” poached chicken with lettuce and peas. This is obviously “carefully thought-through food” with “nothing intimidating or showy” and “no panicked recourse to unfamiliar ingredients just to stand out.” Butter predicts an “invasion” of non-Oval residents; the residents themselves are probably more bothered by a headline claiming there is “finally” a “good reason to go” to a part of the world they call home. This is the nub of the problem, really — cooking this “self-assured” clearly does deserve a bigger audience. But it also deserves to be given some better context.