The Duke of Richmond
To revisit one of restaurant criticism’s oldest chestnuts after a week in which — if only for a few fleeting moments — the city’s only anonymous-by-choice critic let her protective veil drop: does anonymity matter?
Fay Maschler’s welcome return to The Evening Standard underlines the importance of this knotty question, and is a case study in why it remains so naggingly persistent. Maschler admits she knows (and likes) The Duke of Richmond’s chef-patron Tom Oldroyd; for her first visit, she requests that he set her a table aside. Second time round, though, the reservation is under someone else’s name, and Maschler slips in “unseen”.
Zero points to Gryffindor for anyone who guessed that the two experiences are wildly different. The menu may be a “delight” — “French but arguably not exactly as the French know it”, with “little twists” courtesy of decidedly “east London sensibilities” — but its execution varies pretty significantly: Chez Allard-style duck is “truly excellent” on the first visit; dishes like scallop with white asparagus or lamb sweetbread vol au vent are “standouts”, too. Four weeks later, though, things are decidedly “less exuberant”: tomato confit tarte fine comes on “the wrong sort of pastry”; the house burger is “tepid”, “congealed” and borderline “doddery”. Service — previously brimming with “buckets of charm” — is now just “unfocused”; while there are still some clear highlights (most notably a “masterpiece” of a beef and onion pie) it’s hard not to feel this is a decidedly inferior experience all round.
A Dalston pub is not the same thing as Le Cirque, the Manhattan institution where Ruth Reichl, in her seismic first review for the New York Times, famously experienced ludicrous extremes of treatment when recognised as opposed to incognito. New openings struggle with consistency more than most; the volume of people simply standing and drinking in pubs can sometimes wreak havoc with service. But it’s hard to disagree with the two object lessons from Maschler’s review: one, “it is nearly always essential to visit a restaurant more than once before writing it up”, and two: at certain restaurants, being recognised really can make “the most enormous difference”.
Then again, one argument against anonymity is that in some circumstances it simply doesn’t matter — no amount of advance warning and desperate fawning can save somewhere with fundamental flaws in concept and execution.
This week, ES Magazine’s roulette-wheel columnist procurement process lands upon a bona-fide celebrity: singer-podcaster Jessie Ware. And as “charming” and “knowledgeable” as the staff at Chokhi Dhani may be, they cannot save an “empty” restaurant from feeling atmosphereless, or the “unorthodox” fare on offer from missing the mark at pretty much every juncture. Spicing is occasionally “overpowering”; garnishes feel “superfluous”; and as much as the kitchen has flashes (delusions?) of “grandeur”, most main courses feel like “one-flavour wonders”. This is a menu and a restaurant “set in a no man’s land” — the setting may be “opulent” (and, in the case of price-tagged trinkets displayed at the table, literally for sale), and it may be laudably “ambitious”, but the ancillary activities offered alongside — palm-readers, henna, live musicians — suggest that Chokhi Dhani’s core focus may be a little too diffuse. Whether it’s a nameless blogger reviewing, or a famous pop star, style over substance can leave a nasty taste in the mouth.
Back in the centre of town, decidedly mixed tastes in one of the capital’s most famous mouths, as Jay Rayner descends upon Covent Garden to assess whether Ugly Dumpling can ever hope to become a swan.
Maybe it can? The setting itself lays out the tensions on show here fairly starkly: a bright (if “tiny”) upstairs set in opposition to the dingy floor below, “a dungeon of a space”. In the same way, much as this street-food-turned-bricks-and-mortar concept might have “worked when it was mobile”, things here are “profoundly mixed”. On one hand, far superior versions of the so-called ‘street food classics’ can be found just a few minutes away in Chinatown (“the skins will be lighter, the fillings plumper, the whole execution just so much better”); on the other, ‘new favourites’ offer something “much more fun”: salmon is positively “silky” and comes with a “zesty” coriander dressing; there is “fire and sweet” in a roast pepper sauce that agreeably offsets a halloumi filling that would otherwise feel “a touch salty”. The benefits of this zany approach are most obviously encapsulated in an “exceedingly silly” cheeseburger dumpling, a classic example of the foodstuff category “shouldn’t work but does”.
This isn’t a bad summary of the whole Ugly Dumpling endeavour, really: prices are winning, side dishes impressively done, and even if desserts are as “hit and miss” as pretty much everything else, there’s still something to be celebrated about this “deeply imperfect”, “ludicrous” place — at the very least, it’s enough to leave Rayner marvelling at “the weird overheated inventiveness of the world”.
Laurent at Café Royal
Less of a sense of wonder a few streets away — unless it’s Giles Coren wondering what the hell he was doing booking into Laurent at Café Royal in the first place.
It’s a disaster, basically: the room’s a nightmare (somewhere you “wouldn’t in a million years want to eat in”); the globetrotting menu, featuring sashimi alongside leek and potato soup, is not just “misguided” but actively “absurd”; the wine is “wildly overpriced”; the food is honest-to-goodness “horrible”.
Coren doesn’t say whether he was recognised, but it’s entirely possible that he was — anyone supposing that a critic getting spotted necessarily means the quality of the meal will improve as a result may be overlooking quite how much this specific kind of pressure can knock a kitchen and restaurant off its game. Service seems panicked (wine glasses are filled “almost to the brim”); seasoning has its levels of salt and acid amped up to extremes that lend Coren’s tongue “the sense of having licked the bonnet of an old brown Volvo after a thousand-mile drive across North Africa in August.” That said, there’s precious little to suggest that on another day things would have been much better — or that better is a level that this place can attain. Laurent at Café Royal is, quite simply, “an absolute howling dog of a restaurant.” Woof.
Happier scenes to close this week, though getting to them requires no little effort on the part of Marina O’Loughlin stand-in Dolly Alderton, who finds herself battling an absolute howling dog of a hangover at the chef’s table under The Blue Posts.
Things get off to a rough start with a “frantic” front-of-houser pursuing Alderton with an iPad and “the urgency of a bounty hunter” to check her reservation; what with a “length ordering preamble” there’s a worrying moment when it all seems “a bit too concept-heavy”.
But then the food starts coming, and the fear recedes a little. Courgette flowers are “reliably delicious”; razor clams see their “delicate sweetness” beefed up with girolles; bucatini with mint, goat’s cheese and broad beans represents “a combination as predictably comforting as the Shipping Forecast”. Sea bass is worth any amount of obligatory provenance spiel; a “sharp, custardy” lemon tart briefly erases the concept of friendship and turns Alderton and her companion into rivals.
It’s enough to leave even the most discombobulated of souls “satiated and soothed”, but it comes with a warning. For food “so delicious” and with “space so limited”, booking in advance is “a must”. Booking under your real name, though? That’s a harder one to answer.