When it was Rita’s, the site at 175 Mare Street received a bevy of pretty similar reviews. Marina O’Loughlin thrilled to the daily specials made by then-chef Andrew Clarke, but left otherwise underwhelmed, bemoaning food “for people whose tastebuds haven’t matured much beyond Year 5.” Jay Rayner found it good, trashy fun but noted more than a few flaws beneath the façade of Hackney hipster coolness; Fay Maschler was perhaps the most positive of the lot, sympathetic to the relative inexperience of the young team, drawn to their “muscular” way with ingredients.
The site at 175 Mare Street is now Carte Blanche, Le Bun co-founder Andy Taylor’s first restaurant proper. ES Magazine repeat dinner guest Joel Golby’s review indirectly raises an interesting question: do sites have DNA, something inherent that remains even as ownership and branding change?
Looking back at Rita’s legacy, not much seems to have changed since. On a cosmetic level, this isn’t all that surprising: the room is still “weird” and “narrow”; those pink banquettes are still present and correct. But the similarities go beyond that, into the distinctively east London vibe of the place itself, the staff (“delightful and many magnitudes cooler than you or me”) — even the menu of haute-junk food.
Cauliflower buffalo wings are “perfectly chunky and muscular bites”; a bone marrow and truffle cheeseburger is “unctuous, subtle and perfectly textured,” far from the “overwhelming meatfest” it threatened to be. Star of the show is a Nashville fried oyster, the kind of thing you end up “thinking about idly for days afterwards.” There’s enough sophistication on show here to rescue dinner from the sort of fare eaten “from a tray outside Boxpark”; whilst Carte Blanche is not exactly breaking the mould in a Hackney already pretty long on small-plate-and-natural-wine-bars (“it is, beyond the town hall and the big Tesco, basically all the place is now,”) there’s enough wit and skill on show here to make it “a welcome addition.”
Far more stately and enduring pleasures over in West London, as Fay Maschler (re)visits classic, classical Medlar. She — along with Giles Coren and AA Gill, though not all at the same time — was first there back in 2011; the best part of a decade has done little to change this “comfortably bourgeois” venue. “There is no dicking around with small plates and sharing here.”
Instead, there’s the “light-hearted” joy of burratina with peas, broad beans and truffle (on top of which chicken skin crackling “astonishes and delights”); there’s Cornish brill with a “beautiful quilt” of garnishes, the £4 supplement attached “definitely worth it.” There are slightly more outré combinations like smoked eel with cherries and borage; there are more old-fashioned assemblies like belted Galloway, “soft as butter,” with herbed actual butter and mushrooms. In keeping with the west London setting, apricot financier for pudding is “absolutely fabulous.”
Seven years is an age in restaurant terms: here is a demonstration of what it means to be built to last. Where most 2018 restaurants entail “a far-flung postcode and at least six ingredients you’ve never heard of cooked over rocket fuel,” Medlar contentedly ploughs its own furrow. Despite “dramatic” and “wholesale” changes to the industry, it’s reassuring to note that there is still a place in today’s London for such “steady expertise”.
Reviews of Brigadiers to date have noted a similar steely-eyed competence on the part of owners JKS — Giles Coren and Frankie McCoy admiringly doffing the cap at what the Sethi siblings have wrought without necessarily falling head-over-heels for its Gymkhana-meets-sports-bar-meets-Bloomberg-terminal aesthetic.
To that list, add Jay Rayner, who hits many similar beats in his Observer review. The “extremely professional” Sethis have created a place that “feels like a direct response to the financial institutions surrounding it,” an “overtly male” space in which diners can experience “the clash, bash and bass drum thump of Indian food with hobnail boots on.”
As others have noted, flavours here are “massive”: “the culinary equivalent of the amplifier in Spinal Tap which goes up to 11.” Chickens wings come “blackened in a furious spice crust and then doused in a thick butter sauce”; bone marrow beef keema with chilli cheese kulcha is “hugely compelling.” Also “huge,” also “meaty,” are the mains: lamb ribs come “pelted with spices,” just one in a series of “very good, very intense dark brown things.” If it does all feel a little “calculated,” it’s largely forgivable — there’s plenty here to lure Rayner “back through the door again.”
Fingers crossed there’s something to lure the rest of the nation’s critics back to London next week — but to wrap up for now (in the absence of Grace, Marina, Giles, and Tim) let’s settle for Michael Deacon.
He’s at Rovi — in his eyes, “the country’s most Guardian new restaurant.” By which he means: “so metropolitan, so liberal elite, so coconut water, so Greenpeace-reusable-shopping-bag in jute.”
And yet he loves it! Seriously, folks, “the food is terrific”. It’s “largely vegetarian,” of course (classic Guardian), but not completely: the crumpet lobster toast, for example, is “warm, rich, in parts floatily soft and in others satisfyingly crunchy” — just “outstanding.” Ditto the squid and lardo skewers: also not vegetarian; also “lovely.”
There’s also praise for the celeriac shawarma, even if it brings to Deacon’s mind the sort of kebab people “might buy at an unsuitably late hour while operating at less than maximum mental capacity: basically, a pocket of flatbread stuffed with the shavings from what appears to be an elephant’s leg rotating on a spike behind the counter.” Ah, yes: the “elephant’s leg.” Bête noire of would-be kebab gentrifiers like Chifafa (RIP) and Fanny’s (LOL). Fortunately, this “Guardian kebab” is nothing like that dirty, unhealthy thing people from the Middle East have been slinging for centuries: unlike those kebabs, this one is “juicy”, “chunky”, and “glowingly spiced.”
Rovi is quite simply “great”, its every dish a canvas of “layers and shades and subtleties.” It’s enough for the Telegraph man to declare himself “fully Guardian-ised”, confessing “I’ve just knitted a kaftan out of couscous and donated it to a yoga retreat for sociology lecturers.”