There are a lot of different ways to be cool in London. In part, this explains the dazzling diversity of the capital’s restaurant scene — there are enough #squads and sub-cliques to keep any number of different “concepts” in business. There’s “The Breakfast Club Club”, those hardy souls willing to brave an hour-long queue for a plate of bacon and eggs; there’s the Instagram Brunch Club, willing to endure much the same for one. perfect. shot. of a pastel-hued alt-milk latte. There’s the Sexy Fishermen, the Flavour Bastards, the acolytes of Saints Leonard and John; there’s the Hedone-ists and Noble Rotters and thoroughly spoilt Brats. And much as they may disdain other foodie tribes as inferior, off-message, untrendy, the simple fact remains that restaurant coolness as an idea remains purely subjective, as hidebound by time and place and idiosyncrasy as taste in music and fashion.
That said, cool sometimes reaches a tipping point. A critical mass forms around a specific school and approach; what starts out small — the niche preserve of a few manic obsessives — spills over into the mainstream and begins to alter its direction. For no good or particular clear reason, a few cool people can make a surprising, disproportionate difference.
For Grace Dent, Bright represents one such rubicon: “by this time next year”, she predicts, restaurants everywhere will be “knee-deep in replicants of Bright’s katsu sando”. This “future-facing”, “whip-smart” restaurant, with its “painstakingly pondered-over” menu may offer “unfamiliar” and “challenging” food, but more often than not it’s “beautifully executed”. Courgette with basil and burrata curds is “breathtaking”; continuing the green theme, the house Genovese pesto offers all the pleasure of a “sensuous body rub”. Even the “tiny”, borderline “self-effacing” pizza fritta manages to be “remarkable”.
There is “swagger” aplenty here, but its offset by the warmth of the welcome (“so bloody affable”) and the sense that there is substance to go with all that style. Bright could content itself with being a cool-kid magnet and leave it at that, but for Dent it represents something far more laudable: somewhere that genuinely presents a “new way of looking at things”.
Sambal Shiok may not offer new ways of looking at the food of Singapore and Malaysia, but it’s no less cool or popular for that — whispers abound of a chock-full reservations book and would-be walk-ins confronted with the sort of wait time more usually associated with an In-N-Out pop-up.
Don’t expect the lines to get any shorter now Giles Coren’s stuck his chopsticks in. In this week’s Times he proclaims it “a place of glory”, with “bright and jolly” service, “perfect”, “off-the-clock fantastic” sides like pickles and fried chicken, and a “very, very good” laksa to boot. And if the signature soup isn’t 100% to Coren’s liking — “wonderfully” spicy but otherwise “underseasoned” — it is one of those dishes, like pho or ragù, where personal preference can have a major bearing. Ultimately, “Sambal Shiok is a place of joy and great cooking”; truly “a beautiful thing to have in London”.
Sadly there’s less enthusiasm over in Mayfair, where sometime Eater London contributor and — check out that photo! — handsome food blogger Ed Smith is less than blown away by the latest branch of Dubai-São-Paolo-Monte-Carlo clubstaurant chain Bagatelle.
Some of the T&Cs on the website border on the actively inhospitable (“visitors may be asked to present their passport”), which may explain why Smith and co arrive to a “near-empty restaurant”. Or perhaps it’s the décor, done up in inimitable rich people “did you furnish this in 1988 or 2018?” style.
To be fair, staff are “attentive”, and the menu isn’t a total car crash: truffle-heavy Bagatelle signatures (“credit card catnip”) rub with only slight discomfort against “a general scattering of the seasonal and well-sourced” that probably evidences Chiltern Firehouse chef Dale Osborne’s touch.
When it arrives, the food is pretty OK, too. Asparagus salad is perfectly “decent” though “might have enjoyed an extra splash of dressing”; some “finger-licking” prawns a la plancha make for “grand” eating. And even if the other main course, an Iberico pork chop, turns out a little “grey and tense”, it’s not that bad — “nearly delicious”, in fact.
The problem, really, is the cost: even in Mayfair, racking up 110 quid a head with no wine border on “staggering”. For “destination pricing” like that, you need to be offering something remarkable on the plate. But here it’s “nothing to swerve for” — and so it’s hard to argue it’s worth much consideration: even those in possession of a small fortune “could spend that money so much better elsewhere”.
Plutocrats in search of richer pickings — or normal Londoners looking for spanking fresh fish — could do worse than make the trip over to East Dulwich. Here, chef Paul Holmes takes advantage of his location — wait for it! — Next Door to a branch of the fishmonger Moxon’s to turn out a range of maritime-influenced bar snacks, small plates, and sharing platters.
Per Fay Maschler, the result is something every bit as “charming” as the service: battered cod tongues with curry sauce make for a “brilliant assembly”, at once “daring” and “docile”; “fashionable” celeriac combines with mozzarella, watercress, pickled shallots, honey and hazelnuts in “a jamboree of a dish”; a “fervent” lemon tart rounds things off in deeply “likeable” style. Flirtations with Noma-endorsed root vegetables aside, Holmes may not be striving towards any sort of modishness, but that’s far from a black mark against his restaurant. Next Door remains very much “vaut le detour”.
Jay Rayner rounds things off this week at Calum Franklin’s temple to all things encased in pastry — adding to the glowing verdicts delivered closer to the restaurant’s opening by Grace Dent and Tim Hayward.
Unsurprisingly, one thing features heavily in Rayner’s selections from a famously “pie-fetishising” menu: the hand-raised pork version, hot out of the oven, is a “bold expression of pig” with a case that “snaps and crunches” appealingly; it comes with a “brilliant” gravy that “speaks loudly of reduction, calves’ feet and care”. The curried mutton number is just as good: “a wonder of soft, yielding meat and potatoes in a robustly spiced gravy”. Sides and puddings — including a “perfect” Paris-Brest” — indicate that standards remain high across the board, though for obvious reasons are relegated to afterthought territory: quite frankly, anyone coming here and not sampling one of Franklin’s “pastry-clad wonders” would have to be a “complete idiot”.