Critics, like wolves, have hunting grounds — signature areas of geographical focus just as distinctive as any element of written style. Map their reviews and stories emerge that give an insight into the human being behind the mask of objectivity: of return trips to hometowns to visit friends and family, perhaps; or of open returns to London on the Pendolino, taking in a new joint adjacent to one’s Hackney residence one week, then somewhere near one’s Cumbrian country seat the next.
Giles Coren is most often found within a stone’s throw of his Kentish Town front door. And so it is this week, as he makes the arduous slog all of 20 minutes up the hill to Hampstead, and the café that shares its name.
Part-time critic Tanya Gold proclaimed this “a new addition to north London’s underwhelming restaurants” whole months ago now; while Evening Standard stand-in Frankie McCoy couldn’t bring herself to be massively more fulsome in her praise a few weeks later.
Coren, too, struggles to deliver much by the way of a rave: whilst the food is “by no means terrible,” even the highlights (like burnt aubergine and a plate of grilled prawns) are “nicely done” rather than eye-openingly so; everything else is pretty flawed, from the fried calamari marred by “heavy” batter and “unwelcome” curry powder, to borderline “inedible,” “thoroughly cooked through” lamb cutlets, to a panna cotta with “too much gelatine in it.” In a sense, though, these flaws don’t really matter: with its culinarily promiscuous menu (including pizza!) this was never really going to be the sort of place to get critics in a lather. More important is the fact that the place is “totally rammed,” which — in the current climate of “ubiquitous high street restaurant failure” — represents “a hell of an achievement in itself.”
Talking about achievements, this week Michael Deacon makes it to the penultimate paragraph of his review without saying something infuriating.
It was all going so well, too — some harmless fun-poking at overblown restaurant concepts, an understandable leeriness in the face of “loud” décor and a “strange blend” of musical choices, some interesting colour about the “large and varied” menu of Uzbek / Central Asian dishes.
But then — after the “tough and dry” lamb shashlik, and the “hearty” house special that lends the restaurant its name — comes pudding, and the offering of “literally just some grapes” for six pounds. “What,” Deacon asks, scandalised “would make a serving of grapes special enough to cost £6?”
One wonders what Deacon would make of dinner at Chez Panisse, where a bowl containing a scant handful of fruit can cost double this, or indeed of Japan, where a bunch sold for almost a thousand times as much. One also wonders how a newspaper can employ a restaurant critic whose best explanation for why fruit might be expensive is “maybe they wash them in unicorn’s tears.”
Osh, in the final analysis, is “all right”: its cooking boasts a “nice use of spices” and there are “lots of different dishes to choose from.” It might also be openly, avariciously on the make with its pricing. But Deacon’s refusal to even consider an alternative explanation — or even, on an expenses budget, to see what six quid’s worth of fuss is about — doesn’t exactly do him, or the restaurant he’s reviewing, any favours. It’s not just the lack of expertise that’s troubling here; it’s the lack of curiosity.
For greater willingness to try new stuff, see Ben Machell over at ES Magazine, a publication which — after a very bad start and some bum notes since — seems to be finding a sweet spot of zippy, energetic voices from people untainted by restaurant industry politics but curious about food.
He’s at Freak Scene, the Dinosaur Jr track turned Farringdon pop-up / turned Soho pop-up. Quite a mouthful, before one even gets through the door; the maximalist fusion-y cooking does nothing to dial down the intensity. For Machell, though, it’s all good: chilli crab and avocado wonton “‘bombs’” are “fresh,” “crisp,” and “perfectly balanced between slow-burning heat and citrus tang”; despite reading like “a dare,” Loch Duart salmon sashimi ‘pizza’ with truffle ponzu, wasabi tobiko and jalapeño is “so, so good”: “a pincer movement of texture.” The honey-hoisin pork belly lettuce wrap with mussels and pineapple sambal is “best of all”: like practically everything on the menu here (a somewhat dutiful salad underneath “great” hanger steak aside), it’s “fresh, flavour-packed and fun as a night spent drinking with friendly strangers.”
Chef Scott Halsworth’s approach may not be for everyone; for every Grace Dent or Jay Rayner there is also a Fay Maschler, waiting to dismiss this style of cooking (“you can tire of umami.”) And — without reading into things too much — the name, the Pixies-heavy playlist and the “cool” prospect of Hallsworth slamming shots at the bar or drinking one of his “cheekily named” cocktails could take things into the murky territory of the rockstar chef.
That said, Machell believes there’s substance behind all this style: it may read like “Wheeey, this is a laugh!”, but it eats like “actual witchcraft.” Deeper philosophical questions be damned: most important of all, Machell and his companion leave “greasy-lipped and ridiculously happy.”
Slightly more sedate pleasures to finish this week over at the Evening Standard proper, where David Sexton heads to the Petersham Nurseries in Covent Garden to check out this monster expansion of the beloved Richmond original.
It’s bigger and bolder in all senses: a “super-swell,” “exhilarating space,” projecting “faded, almost haphazard grandeur” — “a heck of an image,” suggestive of “riches casually treated,” “an eye for confident juxtapositions,” and “a combination of ease with an undiminished expectation of high service.”
There’s more of the same visual grandeur on the plate, too: an unsurprising emphasis on seasonality and sourcing, “cutely served.” And yet for all its outward beauty, the specifics of the execution remain “a little imprecise as yet.” Pastry for a pretty pea crostata is “mealy and underbaked”; chicken with mushrooms and wild garlic is perfectly “enjoyable” but the breast is “a little dry.” There is a risk, with image-led cooking like this, that things are “more exciting to look at than to eat”; this is definitely the case here with an otherwise perfectly “conventional” fillet of hake, dressed New Romantically with “frills” of “ornately arranged” vegetables and edible flowers.
And if that isn’t true of a “dreamily good” chocolate with olive oil ice cream, then Sexton’s reservations still stand: this is more “pastoral fantasy” than anything else, pure “lifestyle aspiration.” More robust (but scarcely much cheaper) riffs on Italian food exist across the courtyard at younger, smaller, homelier sibling La Goccia, where “startlingly good” dishes like asparagus with olive oil and lemon or baked nespole with cream are a “revelation” for all their simplicity. Could it be that “a little less fuss and fewer petals” translate to “a lot of pleasure”? Petersham Nurseries: schooled.