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Critic Jay Rayner on St Leonards: ‘Not So Much a Meal Out As a Funfair Ride’

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

Inside St Leonards in Shoreditch
St Leonards [Official Photo]

Neptune

Chalk it up to improving relationships between coastal suppliers and London-based cooks, perhaps; blame it, maybe, on collective fatigue after a half-decade of meat sweats. But London’s new restaurants are, finally and undeniably, embracing the ocean in all its bounteous potential. In just the last few months the city has seen turbot, cod’s roe, and bottarga at Brat; there’s sea trout, lobster and gurnard at Parsons, and oysters, scallops and brown shrimp aplenty at Cornerstone.

And now the naval-gazing continues at Neptune, which — with a name like that — was only ever going to be about one thing. But things don’t get off to the best of starts for David Sexton, reviewing this week for the Evening Standard: worst and foremost, it feels unavoidably like “a hotel restaurant”, any efforts to make the room a little more “casual and plush” (not to mention millennially “pinky and peachy”) singly “defeated” by “the scale and ornateness of the place”. Far from “boho and funkily salvaged”, the décor just appears “tired”; if “dim” pendant lamps do create some #vibes, they’re overwhelmingly “depressing”.

Things aren’t much better on the plate. Seabass crudo is emphatically “not thrilling”: “not ceviche, not sashimi, just lacking flavour”. A side-salad of piattoni beans comes with “odd and unappealing” garnishes; hake, too, is let down by its accompaniments, including a “watery” sauce and thoroughly “random” halved plum tomatoes. Like another dish of monkfish wrapped in ham, this is “nice enough” and perfectly “well-cooked” but clearly short of “punch” — no more and no less than “decent hotel catering”.

Given the room and the food, it is perhaps a “stretch” to hope — as the new owners clearly do — that this kitchen will transcend its setting and “become a popular neighbourhood joint as well as serving the hotel’s guests”. Much as Sexton insists it will be “interesting to see how it works out”, it’s clear he’s fully on board with his companion Catherine’s verdict, namely: “a bit more Poseidon Adventure than genuinely Titanic.”

Temper Covent Garden

Savvy operator that he is, chef Neil Rankin — who did as much as anyone to consolidate the city’s meatophilia with his original Temper in Soho — had already started to diversify beyond animal flesh long before our current moment. First came Temper City, with its curries, boutique gins and parathas; now its Temper Covent Garden, with an emphasis on that most timeless of crowd-pleasers, pizza.

Per Eater London contributor James Hansen, though, this latest offering is “soulless rather than stirring”. In comparison with the “thrumming” Soho original, this Temper is short on “heart”, “vigour”, and “joy” — even the décor is uninspiring (“blue and a room”).

The menu plays “Google Trends Whac-A-Mole” with its dizzying array of kimchis, lardos and harissas; when the food arrives (at times “with worrying speed”) the overall impression is of a document that “reads so much better than it eats”. Prawn and sesame cannoli (wut?) is “abject mush”, “school dinner slop”; a New England clam bake pizza barely survives “an annihilation of Tabasco-ish hot sauce”. Okonoimiyaki comes adorned with “sad fridge-cold crab”. Katsuobushi resembles “2B pencil shavings” more than it does bonito; crunchy nut cannoli is both “over-honeyed” and “claggy”.

There are occasional “flickers” of “life”, like a “smutty” Nutella cookie and a “spritzy” burnt fruit salad. But the overall impression is not of a thoughtfully composed dinner but of cynical “mugging off”: this is “David Chang lobotomised”, not so much a deliriously devilish firepit sending diners “to hell in a handcart” but a grimly corporate game of “trend bingo” that ferries people, disappointingly, “to purgatory on a bandwagon”.

Nuala

Anyone who visited the Smokehouse restaurants that Rankin helped to found will surely recognise some shared DNA at Shoreditch’s Nuala, given the common emphasis on open-fire cooking.

Critically acclaimed restaurants both, but perhaps not the immediately obvious venue for the sort of lunch or dinner that the munificent bid for in a charity auction. Giles Coren is a dab hand at hosting these things, and in this week’s review mentions previous sessions at places like Wiltons and Elystan Street — all of them “elegant, refined, comfortable, plush.” With another Chance to Shine blowout on the docket, and with vague memories of the raves that Nuala garnered in mind, Coren’s in Old Street in search of more of the same.

It threatens to be a big mistake. Nuala may be many things, but it’s not Elystan Street. In Coren’s eyes, in fact, it looks like “an All Bar bloody One”, with its “high, high ceiling”, “concrete floor”, and “big open windows to the traffic-bombed urban highway” outside.

Fortunately, the food manages to save face — both for Nuala and for Coren himself. Some “little pork crackling things” with jellied eel elicit “wows” from the table; beef tartare is “top class”; orzo with cuttlefish is a “standout” in an array of “really great” dishes — “everything brightly coloured, light, well balanced”. One less-than-charming interruption from a stockbroker aside (“I’m worth £20 million. I’ll pay two to sit with you!”), it’s an experience as “terrific” as Nuala’s way with chips, and one that comes with a side order of salutary lessons: first and foremost, “just because a place looks like the Gatwick Wetherspoon’s, it doesn’t mean they can’t cook”.

St Leonards

Also in Shoreditch this week is Jay Rayner, joining Marina O’Loughlin and Grace Dent on the obligatory critical pilgrimage to St Leonards. It’s a verdict as mixed as the pairing of bearded, tattooed Andrew Clarke and “nerdy”, “clean-cut” Jackson Boxer; a restaurant, in Rayner’s eyes, that walks “both sides” of the “thin line” between “that’s genius” and “what in God’s name were they thinking?”.

This is “food as a centrepiece to your conversation”, not “relaxing” or “unchallenging” in the slightest — “somewhere so cutting edge you could slice your arm off on it”. This approach does result in some genuine, memorable highs: raw scallop with samphire and elderflower is “swoon-worthy”; the storied tuna-bone caramel is the sort of thing to have visitors “ordering bread to chase dribbles about the plate”; “beautifully made” salted caramel tart comes with “perfectly balanced” cardamom ice cream. But there are also a few misses in the mix, too, possibly due to errors in execution — certain dishes simply “leave you wondering if that was what they intended”, such as a pairing of seabass with kohlrabi, which may look “fabulous” but is undermined by the “huge lumps” in which the fish is served.

In the case of the seabass, “challenging” for Rayner is a synonym for “I want to like you but I can’t”. It’s worth wondering if this sums up the St Leonards project more generally for the Observer man. On balance, he’s probably more on the “yay” than “nay” side of the fence: this is “not so much a meal out as a funfair ride”, the sort of place to leave many visitors “completely thrilled”. But he does acknowledge that, for some, it may be a case of “never again”.

Sabor

Fewer quandaries to close this week, as Marina O’Loughlin nails an uncomplicated rave to the door of Nieves Barragan’s Sabor. It’s a case of better late than never — O’Loughlin finds herself “suffused with regret” for not “rushing down” when the place opened, seduced instead by restaurants that seemed “twinklier” to her “magpie attention”.

But give it a chance, and Sabor is “just joyful”, “a restaurant to lift any jaded spirit”. Other reviewers have sung hymns to its cooking (though perhaps none as gif-worthy as O’Loughlin’s paean to sucking carabinero heads, “the second rudest thing you can do with your mouth, but the pleasure will be all yours”). So there’s nothing new, or surprising, in the Sunday Times critic also being utterly won over. But Sabor is an interesting reminder — as other, more avant garde places struggle this week — of the direct “pleasure” of “good ingredients, of salt and fat and fierce heat”. Sabor may not be “groundbreaking or revelatory”; it may not be “reinventing the genre”. But it is the kind of place to make O’Loughlin and a whole host of others feel “glad to be alive”.

Nuala

70-74 City Road , , EC1 Visit Website

BRAT

4 Redchurch Street, , England E1 6JL Visit Website

Elystan Street

43 Elystan Street, , England SW3 3NT 020 7628 5005 Visit Website

Sabor

35-37 Heddon Street, , England W1B 4BR 020 3319 8130 Visit Website

Cornerstone

3 Prince Edward Road, London, Greater London E9 5LX +44 20 8986 3922 Visit Website

The Principal London

8 Russell Square, , England WC1B 5BE 020 3553 9442 Visit Website

Magpie

10 Heddon Street, , England W1B 4BX 020 3903 9096 Visit Website

Wiltons Restaurant

55 Jermyn Street, , England SW1Y 6LX 020 7629 9955 Visit Website

Temper Covent Garden

5 Mercer Walk, London, WC2H 9QP

Parsons

39 Endell Street, , England WC2H 9BA 020 3422 0221 Visit Website

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