Names matter. There are few better indicators of what a restaurant will be about: Restaurant Gordon Ramsay? The chef as artist-genius, the guest a willing supplicant. P Franco? Informal, Italianate, a little inscrutable to outsiders. 40 Maltby Street? Food entirely devoid of ego or affect, indelibly tied to a specific time and place. Flavour Bastard? Just… no, dude.
The first impressions aren’t great in Covent Garden, as novelist-turned-ES-Mag-occasional Elizabeth Day takes issue with Henrietta Bistro: the no-longer-Ollie-Dabbous-fronted hotel appendage has “a silly name which makes it sound like one of the children who visits Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.” And yet the funny thing about names is that they’re not always a truthful representation of the thing they’re attached to: Henrietta Bistro is actually a “beautifully designed” space (“not a single flat-screen television in sight,” Day notes approvingly); it serves “excellent cocktails” and chef Sylvain Roucayrol’s food is, by and large, “a joy”.
This despite the ‘concept’ — this week in smallplatesplaining: “the problem with sharing plates is that you either order far too little or far too much” — and the presence on the menu of turbot, in Day’s eyes “a distinctly overrated fish”. Properly rated are some jamon croquetas, “served exactly how jamon croquetas should be”; chipirones, too, are “excellent”. A main course of rib eye with salsa verde and guindilla mustard is less thrilling (“nice but unexciting”); things pick up again at the back end with “sensational” ossau-iraty cheese and some warm chocolate tart, positively a “wet dream of a dessert”.
Unlike turbot, then, which “promises a lot and never fully delivers”, Henrietta Bistro promises little but massively exceeds expectations. Despite the name, despite the setting, despite the concept, it’s an “overwhelming hit”.
As noted in last week’s maritime extravaganza, a name like Neptune has some big galoshes to fill. Not just ocean-adjacent, but the motherfinning KING OF THE SEA, unleashing his bounty on an unsuspecting and wildly grateful capital.
For Tony Turnbull, it lives up to it. “Perfect” stracciatella with melon, tomato and mint kicks things off winningly; Spanish red prawns — the modish ingredient of the day — come “grilled to crispy, salty, smoky deliciousness”, while melon and crab gazpacho simply leaves Turnbull’s wife Amanda in “open-eyed wonder, lust written across her face”. And if a few dishes are a little more “workaday”, a final score of 8/10 lays it out on the line — this is an experience as “top notch” as the signature baked cheesecake.
For Grace Dent, though — as for David Sexton last week — Neptune promises much but delivers a little less, more whitebait than bluefin tuna. Dent notes the “precarious” nature of the team’s pre-launch PR strategy, the various strains of social media “influenza” courted on the grounds that this was “somewhere the cool crowd will adore”. But as gorgeous as it all is — and it really is “very beautiful” — the aesthetic doesn’t land quite so successfully once the Insta has been grammed and the boring old eating part actually starts. Sauce with sardine boquerones tastes “weirdly synthetic”; salt cod takoyaki are “cold, stodgy” and borderline “unappetising”. Hash browns with caviar may be a “pleasingly decadent” idea, but practically they’re close to a disaster, “neither delicious nor useful as a vessel off which to eat caviar”.
None of this is “hateable”, for sure — it’s just all a little “pedestrian”, “inoffensive”, “perfectly fine”. Dent is of course right that “worse things have happened at sea”, but it’s probably fair to say that better things have happened in London seafood restaurants, too.
Take Cornerstone, Tom Brown’s Hackney Wick temple to what Tim Hayward refers to as “fish-based” (as opposed to plant-based?) eating. Per the FT man, this is a “brave”, occasionally “shocking” project, given its willingness to “go off-road” and layer flavour on top of pristine seafood when orthodoxy would demand he leave well alone. But the results are frequently enough to make diners “sit up and howl”: roast hake is a “straight 10/10 in the technical round”, elevated even further by a “sumptuous” Café de Paris Hollandaise; cider-braised cuttlefish, too, is a “triumph”, its sauce “so complex, deep and rich that it could write a best-selling autobiography”. Brown’s is a high-risk concept, demanding as it does “consummate skill” from the ambitious kitchen. Fortunately, this is the second rave suggesting that this is exactly what it’s delivering.
More east London rhapsodising over at the Sunday Times, though somewhat unusually at least some of it is on the part of a chef-restaurateur, Jackson Boxer explaining to Marina O’Loughlin that his aim for the restaurant was to afford his guests “a sense of time beyond the indecipherable rush of contemporary modern culture”.
As the dialogue between cook and usually-anonymous critic suggests, O’Loughlin is familiar with Boxer and his work — she’s a “huge fan” of his other collaboration with chef Andrew Clarke, Brunswick House. But whatever “weight of expectations” she brings to the table are more than fulfilled in Shoreditch: this “sleek, urban, almost austere beauty” with its “love for the primal beauty of heat on meat and a devotion to feeding us with generosity and warmth” is quite simply “revelatory”.
In Boxer and Clarke’s kitchen, “classicism and technique” commingle with “mad genius”; the results — like the foie gras chawanmushi, a “bravura riff” on the Japanese staple, or the “exuberant” roast duck — suggest there’s method in the madness. No ifs, no buts: St Leonards is simply “a classic in the making”.
Talking of classics, here’s Akira, the sort-of-sequel to Soho flash-in-the-pan Engawa, visited this week by David Sexton and named, it turns out, not after the 1988 sci-fi masterpiece but for its executive chef. As the presence of the word “executive” might suggest, this is no Sushi Tetsu-sized labour of love. Rather, it’s the upstairs restaurant at the new Japan House on High Street Kensington; the conflicting interests here — there are also Japan Houses in LA and São Paulo — may explain the slightly strange goings-on when it comes to the food.
As restaurants go, it’s altogether “grander” and “more remote” than Engawa’s jewel-box approach to sushi and sashimi; so grand is it, in fact, that at times it comes across positively “overwhelming”. “High-impact lavishness” is the name of the game here — think “amazingly soft and gelatinous pork belly” with “a huge blob of mayonnaise on top”. There’s egg custard; there’s also wagyu beef of “improbable unctuousity”. Salmon eggs are “flabby”; pudding is “another creamy custard”. It is hard to escape without “feeling clobbered by fattiness, sweetness and saltiness”; it is hard to escape, too, without spending a simply “potty” amount of cash. Overall, this “fussy, over-rich cooking” leaves Sexton cold and a little alienated; it feels “strangely at odds” with the “clean minimalism” of the broader Japan House project, too.
Strangers’ Dining Room at the House of Commons
Cornerstone, St Leonards, Neptune — much as (in the past) no one ever got fired for buying IBM, no one in 2018 London can really be criticised for reviewing and / or providing coverage to a big name. But there is a sense in which this cycle can become self-perpetuating — new openings with the money to bring in the big PR agencies carve out a place for themselves in the news cycle; writers feel duty-bound to cover them because of their (perceived) prominence; reviews beget more attention and ultimately further reviews. The big names just get bigger.
Unfortunately, the final review this week doesn’t exactly provide a ringing endorsement for taking the road less travelled. Jay Rayner is at the House of Commons, paying 180 quid for the pleasure of three courses of thoroughly “mediocre cooking”. The menu is “overwritten”, the product of a kitchen “straining at a modernity it might have read about once in a magazine.” Crab with crème fraiche (also: pineapple!) is “loose and floppy”; main courses come with “over-reduced Marmitey sauces” and “vegetables that have been less trimmed than given the full Brazilian”.
Rayner is unstinting in his final verdict: this is “banqueting food at a ring-road hotel”; “cutting edge as cooked by people who haven’t eaten out enough”. Given most members of the public don’t have the time or resources to eat out anywhere near as regularly as professional restaurant critics, a recommendation — or a demolition job like this — from the Observer man probably still carries a fair bit of weight; not for nothing do some restaurants proudly present their press clippings on the front window. What’s in a name? Quite a lot, actually.