Much has been made of St Leonards, perhaps the most-reviewed restaurant in town since the heady days of Tomos Parry’s Shoreditch turbot supremacy (terrible band name). Much has been made, too, of the ying-and-yang contrast between its two pilot lights, Andrew Clarke and Jackson Boxer, the latter bearded, tatted, and deeply scruffy; the former clean-cut and impeccable, even when photographed in impromptu fashion on his way out the door.
But until now, the prevailing critical wisdom was that this pairing was a good thing — opposites attracting, and all that. This week, FT critic Tim Hayward ventures in a slightly different direction, suggesting these two clashing styles and approaches to food — despite their manifest quality when appreciated singly — can result in a form of culinary cognitive dissonance when taken together.
At one end of the spectrum, salmon with raw cream, “subtle in the extreme”. At the other, “potent, elemental fire-food,” like a “muscular” side of hispi cabbage with pork fat and XO crumb. It’s not like it isn’t good — with the exception of some “tough and stringy” leeks with “diffident” almond cream, the food is “fantastic”. It’s just that there’s a “lack of coherent narrative” that can leave things feeling “out of kilter”. There’s skill aplenty on show here, but at present these “two exceptional and very different talents” aren’t quite gelling. If they continue “working on and fine-tuning the collaboration,” though, there’s no reason to think Boxer and Clarke’s new place won’t end up truly “outstanding”.
Actually outstanding this week is Giles Coren. This per, erm, Giles Coren, who seizes upon an English Language student’s dissertation analysing his writing in relation to another critic’s — especially the claim that he has “helped to transform the genre”.
And it is indeed hard to imagine Brigadiers without Coren, or the host of other critics that filed ecstatic reviews of older sibling Gymkhana back in the day. They — and the thousands of equally delighted paying customers — helped to forge a new path for Indian food in this country, exposing the mainstream British palate to the thrilling world beyond chicken tikka masala.
Here, that means “rich and aromatic” oxtail samosas, “feather-light” minced guinea fowl patties, “the most amazing” wagyu seekh kebab, and a “grandstanding” preparation of Sikandari kid shoulder. The atmosphere may feel a little “shiny and plush and Dubai-like,” but the food is undeniably “on fire” — for all its “superflash” aesthetics, Brigadiers is also “bloody marvellous”.
The Duke of Richmond
What with Frankie McCoy’s similarly caveatted rave a few weeks back, there appears to be a consensus forming around Brigadiers. For a reminder that critics don’t always agree, look no further than Hackney, where former stablemates Marina O’Loughlin and Jay Rayner politely differ on the execution of Tom Oldroyd’s French-inflected pub menu.
For Rayner, it’s a case of more is more: you simply “have to admire” the “luscious, greedy, thigh-rubbing instincts” of a kitchen willing to put a crab chip butty or a girolle-scattered vol-au-vent on the menu. There’s nothing “prissy or mannered” about the food, but there is still care taken over it: Rayner notes, approvingly, that the puff pastry is made in house (“both a small thing and a big one”); he thrills to the simple, direct quality of the cooking — the chips in that butty come “still hot” and “still crisp”. In the past, the best thing that could be hoped for in a pub was that the food would be merely OK — in Rayner’s eyes, The Duke of Richmond is “an awful lot more than just reliable”.
Unfortunately, for O’Loughlin, “reliable” would have been a good place to start. Like Rayner, she is drawn in by the “sexily French” accent in which the menu speaks to her; like Rayner, she notes the spirit of “riotous excess” that informs some of the dishes. Unlike Rayner, though, she finds those dashes of excess a little, uh, excessive: a confit tomato tart fine is made “over-rich” by a “cloying great dollop” of crème fraîche; sea-trout arrives “genuinely swimming” in butter. There are also a few blips in the kitchen: chips “taste like they’re frozen”; Old Spot pork rump is “short on juicy succulence”. It’s not like O’Loughlin is wholly down on the place: this is “interesting food,” and an “excellent” remoulade gives an indication of how good this stuff can be when done right. It’s just that, for now, it’s not going to leave anyone “raving”.
Copy + paste over at ES Magazine, as Ben Machell finds himself underwhelmed by high end Turkish joint / monument to swollen executive pay-packets Rüya. This is “highly wrought” food to match the similarly fancy décor, which comes on all “dark wood, crisp tiling, low lighting and touches of gleaming brass”. But it’s “a little too precious” to really succeed: seabass comes buried under a “gloopy royal rumble of ingredients”; spiced duck livers are “hard going, flabby and dull”. And while things do improve, and there are even occasional bright spots — especially the yoğurtlu kebap, which pairs “juicy slices of Wagyu beef” with a “rich” tomato and garlic base — it’s hard to determine much enthusiasm on Machell’s part. Rüya may be plenty “opulent” but it’s plenty “prissy” too — and at the end of the day, “a little bit bloodless.”
The Evening Standard three-out-of-five ennui continues at the paper proper, with Fay Maschler dropping the same number of stars on Crouch End Italian sequel Florians 2. But where Machell’s read like a 2.5 rounded up, Maschler’s has the feel of a 3.4 rounded down — there’s a lot more to commend here than condemn.
Among the negatives, service on Maschler’s first visit appears cursory at best, with her table “tolerated” rather than welcomed and a glass of champagne arriving comprehensively flat. On the plus side, things improve markedly with the arrival of the food. Lobster tagliatelle, with its “silken, almost see-through strands of dough” and “rich sonorous sauce” is the “star” of a selection of pastas that also includes a creditable tagliatelle with guanciale and broad beans. Veal liver comes with more “perky” beans; the “rich filling” that comes with a chicken paillard “contributes juiciness” and saves it from possible “austerity”. On a repeat visit, Maschler is “warmly welcomed” and she and her companion Max Halley enthuse about the steak sandwich, vitello tonnato, and “built to order” tiramisu. Combine all this with a “notable” wine list and things do begin to look more rosy; so much so that Maschler resolves to leave the list of grappe “for another time”.
Last but certainly not least, Grace Dent follows in Giles Coren’s footsteps along the Holloway Road to Sambal Shiok, Mandy Yin’s temple to “the value of laborious faff”.
Yin’s painstakingly prepped pastes and arduously simmered stocks make for superior laksa, “a hot, sunset-coloured, shrimpy, umami, soupy face-slap of a bowl”. The same is true even of the vegan version, an “unfathomably good” twist with a profound “depth of umami”.
Other dishes are not relegated to afterthought territory, either: Assam fish curry is “fiery” and straight-up “excellent”; the gado gado salad is “a plate of pure joy”. Even some fenugreek crackers with tomato salsa are “outstanding” — “gloriously freshly made” and “brimming with earthy charm”.
This “small family restaurant” located smack-dab in the middle of “an area where family dining truly thrives” has all the meticulously prepared ingredients to become a magnet for “people from every corner of country”. Moreover, the cross-section of cuisines and influences that it represents — “the cooking of Kuala Lumpur with a Penang, Malaccan and Holloway Road twist” — feels quietly important. After a week that left divisions in the industry exposed and raw, Sambal Shiok is a winning reminder that “there is more in this country that unites us than divides us, and it’s never more evident than at dinner.”