There’s lifting the lid on something, and then there’s ripping it off with abandon and pouring the contents all over the floor. Giles Coren takes the latter approach in his review of La Goccia this week, outlining — in exhaustive detail — the process by which he and his colleague Marina O’Loughlin (“the second best restaurant critic in England”) divvy up the pizzetta of who reviews what each week.
As roundabout intros from the nation’s foremost Love Island pundit go, it’s a surprisingly poignant one, with its fleeting glimpses of life with O’Loughlin’s legendary predecessor (no, not him). But it’s also a timely one, explaining as it does how Coren should be writing about La Goccia when just last week O’Loughlin dropped a Caravaggio’s worth of shade on sister / neighbour restaurant The Petersham.
Fortunately for the Boglione family, probably still in recovery after last Sunday’s events, Coren takes pretty kindly to the place. The ability to eat al fresco in a “picturesque”, “impressive”, and altogether “lovely” courtyard probably helps matters, as do “delightful” staff. A few cocktails and two bottles of Gavi de Gavi can’t hurt, either. But there’s no denying that the food generally locates itself somewhere between “brilliant” and “very good”, featuring dishes like “spot on” fried courgette, “out of this world” burrata (“so much better than the ones they usually fob you off with”), and “simply historic” sage leaves stuffed with anchovies. Prices are “incredibly keen”, and if a couple of things don’t quite land — like some “flaccid” agnolotti, and grilled quail simply “too chewy to enjoy” — Coren is still left feeling giddy after a “stunning” lunch. Fittingly, La Goccia is the diametric opposite from the ripoff high-end place it faces: it represents “outstanding value” given the sheer “quality” it demonstrates “in every area.”
It’s been a while since the respected critic Coren dismissed as “the guy on The Observer” graced these pages with his presence; after so long, welcoming Jay Rayner back into the fold is almost like reuniting with an old friend.
Rayner feels the same way about Henry Harris’ Farringdon gastropub The Coach; he’s more than upfront about his warm familiarity with both the venue — a regular hangout for Guardian and Observer staff in the good old days when articles were printed on paper and didn’t all finish with a ‘Since you’re here…’ donation plea — and the man in charge of restoring it.
This isn’t the first glowing review that Harris’ gaff has received, and it probably won’t be the last: his menu of Francophile haute “nursery food” (“a list of things that says everything will be fine”) seems precision-engineered to get “a particular sort of bloke” (like this one, and this one?) very excited indeed.
Steak tartare is a “loose mound of mustardy loveliness”; that grilled rabbit may not be a “complicated plate of food” but it’s still “extremely satisfying”. And if Rayner’s professed “interest” in the place and its success maybe leads him to overlook a few tiny blemishes that he might view more critically elsewhere, there are little tweaks of generosity (crumble served, “encouragingly”, with both ice cream and custard) that suggest Rayner would have warmed to it anyway. The Coach may not be avant garde or flashy, but that’s exactly what makes it feel so “very welcome”.
It’s more of the same, really: calf’s brains with black butter and capers are a “sheer delight”, gazpacho “beautifully chilled”, choucroute alsacienne “pretty wonderful”, especially since it’s served with “the sort of smooth mashed potato that is really just showing off”. Sides go uneaten, evidence of dishes “substantial enough not to require augmentation”. Like everyone’s dream pub grub, this is food that’s hearty, comforting, and above all “delicious”. Someone really should ask Harris his secret.
Just off Oxford Street, Magpie offers very few people’s idea of dream pub grub. But for critic (and podcast guest!) Tim Hayward, the creative “noodling” that co-owners James Ramsden and Sam Herlihy have clearly put into their “cheeky”, “fascinating” food produces results that are undeniably “endearing”.
Lardo with pickled jalapeño “really shouldn’t work” but is “a cracking combo”; cod brandade with polenta and some “honking” kimchi may also be a little unconventional but is no less “lovesome” for that. Other little tweaks — “indiscriminate” in their “larceny” from the global larder — serve to elevate more normcore preparations: “properly minging” taleggio makes for a “surprising” but wholly “welcome” addition to a steak tartare; subbing saucisson sec for “all-too-obvious” chorizo in a dish of mussels is utterly “inspired”.
With typical acuity, Hayward description of this restaurant — “it’s like they have brought a Hackney local to Mayfair” — cuts to the quick of why Magpie may have been a little divisive when it first opened; an evolution or two on from the embryonic version reviewed in not especially glowing terms by Fay Maschler, though, Hayward feels it has become somewhere “hard not to love”.
This isn’t a “po-faced”, “curated” space doing a poor job of hiding its “ambitions for rapid expansion”; it’s “low-key” and “comfortable”, running on a “combination of enthusiasm and love of food, backed with proper craft”. The “collaboration” that has gone into the menu and broader dining experience could presage disaster, but here the overall effect is “quite ravishing”.
Hayward featured in the Week in Reviews just a fortnight ago with his highly positive verdict of Bright; this time round it’s the turn of David Sexton to deliver a similarly glowing endorsement of what Will Gleave and Peppe Belvedere’s kitchen is turning out.
Celebration of the duck hearts doused in “umami dynamite” XO sauce and of the “beautifully restrained” pasta are nothing new or especially noteworthy, given the reputation this fledgling spot has already built for “good eating rather than showy cooking”.
But Sexton’s scepticism about the “insiderish” presentation of the all-natural wine list (“long and demonstrative about where it finds its values”) is worth remarking on, particularly in the context of comments about there being a “strong code” at work in the “happy room of thirtysomethings”, all attired so similarly so as to suggest a “dress code was being observed as rigorously as if it was for tea at the Ritz”. It’s enough, really, to make him feel he should be “wearing a flashing tiara” spelling out the words “BOURGEOIS DICK”.
Sexton is right that “all restaurants attract their own tribes” (see: The Coach, and a particular sort of blokes); they also attract critics with strong opinions about them. In recent months there seems to have been an increase in reviews decrying the excesses of what might be called Thirtysomething Restaurants — cf. the uptick in buzzwords like “hipster”, “East London”, and “natural wine.” Much as the thirtysomethings may roll their eyes, there’s a counterpoint to be made, too. Sexton’s teensy note of condescension and his chosen method of measuring a clientele’s diversity (“one Asian face only”) may not sit quite right, but this review is still a salutary reminder that bubbles do form through exactly this sort of ideological self-selection — and that being on the outside looking in is never as nice as being on the inside looking out. For it to work as hospitality, hospitality needs to feel inclusive; perhaps rather than growing frustrated at critics failing to get a hot new opening, it’s worth asking what restaurants can do to make themselves more gettable in the first place.