Are we done with authenticity yet?
This week, it’s David Sexton’s turn to reopen the debate, with his review of Kyseri, the new restaurant from Selin Kiazim. Per Sexton, her cooking at Oklava has in the past been compared to that of Yotam Ottolenghi, but to him it seems “dedicated to a greater authenticity and less wanton invention than that” — not that he “can judge the authenticity of this cooking with much authority.”
Of course: writing about it demands authority and depth of expertise. A critic who blanket-asserts that Turkish food is “quite a new offering here” or who pronounces the food in Green Lanes “monotonous” is probably not best-placed to talk about the authenticity of Kiazim’s manti. So why bother trying in the first place?
It’s a shame that Sexton gets so tangled-up in these questions, because it overshadows (somewhat) some pretty fulsome praise for what Kiazim and partner Laura Christie are doing here. House-cured pastirma is “wonderfully tender and aromatic”; red lentil çiğ köfte are “delicious”; veal sweetbreads “tremendous.” The cooking in general displays a “distinctive palate,” with a “winning commitment” to offal and other big flavours — “gloriously earthy” celeriac; “delectable,” “punchy” pasta, “terrific” puddings “satisfyingly balanced between sweet and sour.” Distracting questions of authenticity be damned — Kyseri is “a good place to go altogether”; a genuine “treat”; the sort of place that “only a restaurant culture as vigorous and varied as London’s makes possible.”
Sexton, of course, recently featured in these pages with a Schrödinger’s cat of a review of Leroy, which — depending on perspective — was either a misleading and misguided attempt to middle-aged-mansplain Shoreditch restaurant culture or an unqualified rave.
This time round for Ed Thaw and co, though, there’s no ambiguity: Grace Dent is in the house, and she is loving it. In her eyes, this is a “dark, noisy, naughty wine bar with a pleasing menu,” serving “great produce” without “standing on ceremony.” Smoked trout is a “world-class dish”; lamb sweetbreads are “filthily good”; spiced purple broccoli offers all the pleasures of (ahem) “a rosy-cheeked ramble through an organic allotment before finishing up with your knickers around one leg and eating a Bombay Bad Boy Pot Noodle.” To conclude, muscat crème caramel is “light, banging, boozy and pretty much perfect”; the hospitality offered throughout to the nationally famous TV pundit and critic is “joyful and unpushy.” Dent’s final verdict — alongside a hat trick of 9/10s for food, atmosphere, and service — brooks no argument: “this is what restaurants should be like.”
When the nation’s restaurant critics next convene their monthly meeting high up in an Alpine ski lodge or in the bowels of a dormant volcano, expect the atmosphere to be a little on the chilly side. In the red corner, Grace Dent, fresh off her love letter to processed food and the “MSG-sprinkled class war” against it. In the blue corner, Marina O’Loughlin, self-appointed “poster girl for appalling restaurant snobbery,” still wiping the blood off her hands after eviscerating the entire chain restaurant sector. The two articles don’t make for an apples-to-apples comparison, but at the very least it’s apples-to-pears — it’s certainly an interesting quirk of coincidence for a piece like Dent’s to be set in relief by one savaging “indifferent,” “mass-produced” chain fodder; it’s a salutary reminder that — whatever the ‘it’s just dinner!’ brigade might argue — the work of a food writer is never not political.
Another thing that’s interesting to note: the word “chain” does not appear once in O’Loughlin’s review of The Petersham. This high-end central London big-ticket opening may not look much like a Wahaca or a Byron, but it is an expansion of a much-loved original and as O’Loughlin’s experience there unfolds it’s clear the new branch suffers from many of the same issues afflicting the mid-market operators currently in existential crisis.
Rose-petal prosecco cocktails are “sugary-sweet” and symbolically “flat”; everything that follows ranges from “vaguely acceptable to properly naff.” Crab and fennel salad is “not unpleasant” but that’s about all that can be said for it; even less can be said for O’Loughlin’s main course of hake with spring vegetables, so “forgettable” that she eats it “without it even registering.” Across the table, the pal’s chicken is “spectacularly inept”: “a big, dry, skinless breast marooned in a khaki mushroom goo” with “lurid yellow mash,” actively “poopy in its presentation.” Puddings, unfortunately, are even worse: a honey tart is “simply nasty,” the sense-memories “dark and crystalline and thuggish.”
Putting it bluntly, “this new Petersham has none of the insouciant, bucolic charm of the original.” A classic story, in other words, of restaurant substituting quality as it rolls out in the hunt for oversized returns.
Someone has already written something about Hām — Fay Maschler was there way back in mid-March, exploring three different meanings of the restaurant’s name: the Old English for “home,” the more familiar word for a preparation of pork, and the “urban slang” for “hard as a motherf**ker.”
Giles Coren is there this week, and goes H.A.M. on the Old English stuff — so much so that there’s barely room left to deliver his verdict. Briefly put, the place is “lovely” — “warmly lit and full of nicely dressed middle-class locals,” with a “wonderfully tight” menu that changes daily in accordance with the produce available — the “most exciting” consequence of the 1980s wave of ingredient-led evangelism from the likes of Chez Panisse and The River Café.
All the produce in the world can’t help you if you can’t actually cook, though, and fortunately Hām has the bases covered in that department, too: quail with artichoke and kombu is “sweet, clear and uncomplicated”; gazpacho with rainbow trout is “excellent”; tempura vegetables offer a genuine “thrill” in their “mastery” of battering and frying. Mains and puddings continue the sequence of “very precise cooking” but there’s an admirable restraint to the “laid-back plating” reflective of chef Matt Osborne’s Australian heritage (formerly of the Ledbury, hence the precision). Given Coren’s notorious unwillingness to stray far beyond his familiar North London surrounds, this represents a real find: not just a “brilliant little local restaurant” but “Hām sweet Hām.”
ES Magazine’s latest recruit Sophie Heawood brings it home this week, adding to the flurry of excellent reviews already garnered by chef Tom Brown at Hackney Wick’s newest restaurant, Cornerstone.
Oysters are straight-up “sexy”; scallops so fresh “you can almost taste their muscle memory of swimming” (hold up: scallops swim?!). Heawood’s prose, too, is fresh: lime pickle described as “a total slut” (“the sort that would steal your girlfriend and you’d just let it”), or pollock called “a firm, kind, gentlemanly fish.” There’s some more conventional restaurant writing too, as in her praise of various other “thoughtful, small, sweet sharing plates,” but the varied tone of the review feels in keeping with the “mild anarchy” of the neighbourhood. And if that mild anarchy has been a deterrent to visitors in the past, Heawood predicts it won’t be one for much longer — sure, the area might still feel a little far-flung, but when the food’s this good, “who cares?”