Giles Coren has been handing out the plaudits in recent weeks. First came Brat, with its bottarga-enriched egg salad, “the greatest single new dish to be invented in this country in decades.” Next was Cornerstone, a restaurant of “supreme quality,” every bit as “confident, British, brilliant and beautiful” as Tomos Parry’s place a few Overground stops west. Just last week it was Brigadiers, serving “some of the best Indian food in the country.”
It’s not like these restaurants don’t merit the acclaim — everyone from other critics to ecstatic Instagrammers has been singing their praises. And it’s not like there haven’t been some stinkers in the mix, too (yeesh, Laurent at Café Royal). But superlatives can lose their power if they arrive in packs; when everywhere’s somewhere, nowhere’s anywhere.
So it’s hard to know what to make of Cora Pearl, the latest recipient of a Coren rave. This Covent Garden-based younger sister to Mayfair courtesan Kitty Fisher’s (in whose company Coren exerted himself most pleasurably in the past) retains some of its sibling’s “loucheness”: “cosy” benches, “pretty” glassware, “loud” and “funky” music. The food dances between a similar set of adjectives: “lovely” tomatoes come with goat’s curd and lovage; “perfect” agnolotti balance the lightness of peas with the “earth and bite” of grated summer truffle. “Excellent” cod is all the better for being “properly cooked,” “none of your sous-vide shit”; rose veal is not lacking in “depth and beefiness” and is felicitously accompanied by a “delicious” bordelaise sauce and chips which sound like they’ve legged it over from The Quality Chop House. Taken together, the chips and bordelaise sauce make for, “the dish of the year. Dish of the decade. Dish of the effing century”; a final blended score of 9/10 suggests Coren is willing to put his money where his (very contented) mouth is.
There is another explanation for the recent rash of high scores, of course: there have been some very, very good new openings in London of late. Coren just seems to have been to most of them. Not caring about being the first through the door has its benefits: time to take stock, assess the consensus, and visit somewhere when it’s already got a couple of months under its belt, any kinks ironed out.
Others have not been so lucky: after the so-so Florians 2, Fay Maschler makes her way to Gazelle this week. Unfortunately, dinner at Rob Roy Cameron and Tony Conigliaro’s sort-of Mayfair sequel to Dalston’s Untitled suffers from the “formlessness that afflicts a lot of modern dining.” Things “get off to a static start” with the now-hoary three-course-spiel about how dishes are “designed to share and we should choose four or five each, the ones in the first column are more like starters and yadda, yadda, yadda.”
On a carb-lite menu, the food occasionally feels lacking in substance. Two faux-pastas of squid and mushroom pack flavours that “bring a smile” but are short on texture and bite; cherry tomatoes and berries “can top or tail the meal” but not in a particularly exciting way. “It hardly matters.” Flavours in maybe-sous-vided turbot seem to have “legged it to Brat”; presa with pig skin may be “sturdier,” but “the divvying up and shy spooning of juices” required does not make for superior sharing food. Puddings, “restrained in their sugar impact,” “constitute an element not to miss”; ditto Tony C’s “teeny” but “punchy” cocktails. It’s all perfectly pleasant, but the “timorousness” suggested by the restaurant’s name permeates every element of the meal. Gazelle may be dainty and pretty, but something about it “doesn’t translate excitingly into an eating experience.”
Far more nominative dynamism is on show south of the river: it’s hard to get more swaggering than a name like Forza Win. Per Jay Rayner, there’s more than a jot of nominative determinism to it, too: this “exceptionally brave venture,” “run by delightful staff,” is one of the London restaurant scene’s most potent weapons in the battle to “vanquish the bland”.
An “excellent menu of Italian classics” is especially “striking” for the “sheer quality” of the ingredients on show: “taut-skinned and buxom” tomatoes in a panzanella “leak sweet juices over your lips”; “firm” bortlotti beans are enlivened by more tomatoes, onion, and “the best kind of tinned tuna.”
If those dishes suggest that the food could be “a little too careful and refreshing,” there’s “abandonment” to spare here, too: A fried cheese sandwich comes on like “the sort of thing you could imagine eating in bed after midnight, drunk”; slow-braised lamb and celery marry one another to form a “butch” ragu. The “star,” though, is a whole spatchcocked chicken served with a “generous squirt” of lemon juice, its skin “crisp and slightly sticky,” its meat “soft.” Along with a “light-textured” milk chocolate pot enriched with a dollop of caramel, it makes for “one of those meals that leaves you mouthing platitudes about the simple things done well.” But really, at the end of the day, what’s the secret to a winning restaurant beyond “good stuff to which better things have happened?”
For more appealingly fresh and Italian-accented fare, cross the river and make for Trafalgar Square, and Bancone.
It’s reviewed by Jimi Famurewa, ES Magazine’s second repeat dinner guest in a fortnight, following Ben Machell’s return last week. Could the months-long game of musical chairs finally be coming to a conclusion? Who knows? One day, a book will be written about this peculiar post-Grace Dent interregnum, with its eyebrow-raising cameos and salacious rumours of full-time replacements. Perhaps they could call it The Hunger Games.
In Famurewa’s eyes, Suzanne Collins’ dystopian Battle Royale epic isn’t a bad analogue for the modern London restaurant scene, either: in this “haphazard and unforgiving landscape,” mortal danger lurks round every corner.
Fortunately, Bancone seems built to last. Its menu feels “thoroughly 2018,” offering the sort of “nonna-core” haute-comfort that has seen Lina Stores and Padella packing the punters in. Arancini boast “layered, complex flavour” as well as “bangingly oozy centres”; charred hispi cabbage with chilli is “outrageously good,” “bursting with deep, nutty moreishness and low-flickering capsicum fire.” Pastas are unsurprisingly successful: pappardelle with oxtail ragu “won’t win any innovation awards” but its “fat, sunshine-yellow ribbons” bathed in “a thick, rich, salty gunk” are still the source of much “heavy breathing.” “Fresh, subtle, robustly garlicky” cuttlefish tagliatelle, meanwhile, may be even better.
It’s not reinventing the wheel, in other words, but in a volatile market a bit of dependability is no bad thing. There’s an “unshowy sure-footedness” to Bancone, “a confident zip” that elevates it from merely reliable into somewhere capable of attracting “curious walk-ins.” The past 18 months have shown that the market can be staggeringly unfair, and that even the best-planned projects can struggle. “If there’s any justice,” though, “Bancone will keep filling up.”