Eyebrow-raising scenes over at The Telegraph this week, which gleefully brings us a major exposé: people are using Instagram, rather than Tripadvisor, to seek out new restaurants. Scoop-wise, this is in the same territory as “discovering” that bears upload most of their content in the woods, but the piece does lead with one striking claim: that Instagram “is superseding Tripadvisor as a source of restaurant reviews because customers prefer looking at pictures to reading text.” Where do restaurant critics fit into this evolving landscape? The average review is certainly text-heavy — is there still space for thoughtful critiques, or is a pivot to hi-res photography and single-sentence captions long overdue?
Take Grace Dent’s 750-odd words on Bancone. Sure, in the past people might have wanted all the deets on how this “majestically straightforward” zero-concept restaurant knocks out “casually orgasmic,” “deeply affordable” plates of pasta like “paper-thin, sublimely al dente” fazzoletti swimming in walnut butter or braised lamb tagliatelle; they might have wanted the broader social context around the rise of Bancone and places like it (somewhere “you get a really lovely dinner and you don’t weep when the bill appears”), especially as costs and restaurant closures accelerate in lockstep.
In 2018, though, who could be arsed to read all that? Plate of pasta emoji, 3x heart eyes emoji, maybe this gif for a true multimedia experience. Job done.
The issue with the emoji-led approach is that getting restaurant reviews from Instagram is a bit like getting art from a toddler with three crayons, two of which are the same colour — it still technically belongs to the medium in question, but it’ll almost certainly be lacking in nuance, shade, and complexity.
Tim Hayward’s review of Westerns Laundry needs every one of its 800-odd words, and could arguably occupy many more. The knotty issue is nothing to do with the food, which Hayward pronounces “great”: squid croquetas are “outstanding,” “intensely mysterious” things served with “an aioli they could use to break up riots”; grilled brill head and collar, meanwhile, would “delight people who like eating stupendous food even more than those who like Instagramming it.”
But not for the first time in 2018, the issue comes down to the wine. Hayward claims that Westerns’ list of exclusively low-intervention selections leaves him (and, by extension, the layperson) effectively “blind” and “trapped,” creating a “stressy” environment and, even worse, making for “an inhospitable evening.” In Hayward’s eyes, natural-only lists run the risk of “ignoring most customers’ expectations” — in doing so, they represent nothing less than “blinkered arrogance” on the part of the restaurateur. The verdict certainly lights the touch-paper of a debate that could occupy any number of retaliatory Instagram posts. It’s an ideological question that will run and run — aggrieved operators could reasonably counter that there’s a vaguely patronising tone to takedowns like these, a hint of the snoot that once characterised the critical establishment’s response to nouvelle cuisine, molecular gastronomy, and new Nordic cuisine.
Ultimately, though, that’s academic. What matters more is that, for now, natural-only lists are a clear deterrent for many critics, and a clear barrier, therefore, to many restaurants attracting the audience that those critics write for. For Hayward it makes for a slightly sad, possibly even conflicted realisation: that there is “no honest way” he can recommend Westerns “to a general diner.”
A similarly chilly paucity of endorsements on show over at The Evening Standard, which, in adding N1 occupant Tish to recent reviews of Hām and Café Hampstead, takes one step closer to replicating the restaurants page of beloved local north London rag Ham & High.
Words this week courtesy of Frankie McCoy, a newcomer to the area, but already fluent, it appears, in the language and customs of the old country. Jewish food is “about being part of a community” — it may not be complicated “but it’s stuffed with love and layered with nachas (pride).”
Tish, unfortunately, offers little of the above. The menu is “inoffensively fine” but fundamentally “not good” in execution: meatballs have “the pallor of an Ikea bumper pack left thawing in a car park”; ox-tongue comes “naked” and “morgue-chilly”; salads are not helped by “schizophrenic additions” like orange salsa or goji berries. Granny Anny’s bean soup has “the consistency of cement,” while beef goulash is in fact “a small portion of a grey meat boiled to the texture of doormat, in a wet cough of broth.”
Oy, and indeed vey. Plainly, this is food in which “zero love” has been invested — a restaurant hoping that an “expensive refit” and a “costly location” will do all the heavy lifting. But “there’s something fundamental missing” from Tish — much as born-and-bred Jews might kvetch about what could feel like an oversimplification of their culinary tradition, what’s really absent here is “soul”.
Soulless would be a fair characterisation of more than the occasional ES Magazine cameo of late, but at least this week it’s not a criticism that could be levelled at the restaurant under review: thumbs-up emojis abound over on High St Kensington, as June Sarpong delights in newcomer Zuaya. She characterises it as “west London fine dining with gilt accents, situated in an upturned tropical rainforest” (sounds familiar), and the food lives up to the setting: house ceviche makes for “an elegant marriage of fragrance and tartness, light but satisfying at the same time”; sides like “perfectly prepared” fried cassava and “nicely judged” quinoa pair nicely with a “flavourful”, “substantial” dish of baby chicken. And if a commitment to a “lighter, healthier” form of cooking sometimes strays into the domain of the “ungenerous”, Zuaya still offers “much to recommend”.
More positive vibes over at The Observer, as Jay Rayner revels in the warmth of welcome and general spiritual contentment offered by the team at Mayfair’s Stem. The menu in “good clean English” may be “full of the language of nowness” but “the words don’t quite tell you the story” of what makes Stem so special: the “attention to detail” in chef Sam-Ashton Booth’s cooking, the quality and competence that reassures a diner that they can “trust this kitchen completely.”
An opening chive and green bean tart showcases this care to an “extraordinary” extent; other dishes scarcely suffer by comparison. It’s all “precise” but none of it is “tweezered and nerdy”; the staff, meanwhile, are a “delight.” Perhaps best of all is the price — given this location, given this quality, given this generosity, it’s “enough to restore your faith in humanity.”
To close this week, Marina O’Loughlin has her faith restored in liberté, égalité, and fancy-ass poulet, indulging in Bermondsey’s Pique-Nique.
O’Loughlin had previously been left cold by a menu long on dishes either “tweaked to oblivion” or which simply “didn’t scream quality”; even the widely-adored Poulet de Bresse set menu seemed, to O’Loughlin at least, “overhyped and underwhelming.”
Now, though, things look and feel markedly better, starting with a short menu that has “the lyrical, lovely brevity of a haiku.” Cuttlefish carbonara is “magnificently successful”; cod aïoli is absolutely “comme il faut,” the fish “flaking into tender sections,” the garlic mayonnaise “pungent and sexily pugnacious.” Even the relics of the previous regime are simply “done better” now, like pâté en croûte with its “crisp pastry,” “succulent meat,” and “joyously bouncy, rich and lemon-scented meat jelly.” Of course, none of this is “fiendishly complex”; it still takes skill and care to render dishes like this as “lovely” as they now are. So, kudos to the new chef and the new menu; kudos, too, to the team, who — rather than “resting on those early-days, poulet-pimped laurels” — have kept at it, pushing their “Frencher than France” concept as far as they could. As a happy consequence, their restaurant has “matured” with all the “aplomb” of “an excellent claret.”