Laurent at Café Royal
As a long, hot summer draws to a close, there’s a faint whiff of silly season in the air, even when it comes to London’s restaurant reviews. This is the time of year when thoughts turn to the big autumn openings to come, not the strange odds and sods visited in late August.
Even allowing for that, this week’s is a very strange set of selections. So lets kick things off with Jay Rayner chez Laurent at Café Royal, flogging a horse so dead that it’s already made its way into a laboured joke about supermarket burgers. Regular readers will remember it was here that Giles Coren punctuated an otherwise extremely positive run of reviews with a fire-and-brimstone evisceration of an “absolute howling dog of a restaurant”; it’s tempting to wonder whether Rayner saw Coren’s review, and in turn, saw the opportunity for a spot of one-upmanship.
He’s not pulling any punches: kale salad is “bitter and sour and relentless,” something “designed for a ruminant with four stomachs”; “flabby” bits of prosciutto crop up in a set savoury custard, “as if someone had accidentally sliced their finger into it and decided not to say a word.” Menu real estate dedicated to sushi and sashimi (very “Moscow, circa 2006”) feels like a waste of space, since tempura shrimp rolls arrive “soggy”; like Coren, Rayner marvels at the bonkersness of dishes like this rubbing up alongside stuff like leek and potato soup. Prices — especially for prime cuts of meat — are “stupid”; puddings are “spectacularly ordinary,” and even if a couple of dishes aren’t actively terrible, this is still a restaurant that provokes a simple, fatal question: “who is this for?” After a few successful flirtations with Tourondel’s other concepts in the U.S., Rayner was curious enough to check Café Royal out, but after this experience, he struggles to “imagine why anyone else will ever go there.”
L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon
For an example of how to do this stuff properly, Tourondel might well take a leaf from the late, great Joël Robuchon, whose Covent Garden atelier, Marina O’Loughlin reports, is still “bursting with energetic life.”
Much as the Sunday Times critic admits that she comes “not to praise M Robuchon but to help bury him,” she cannot help but be won over by the “intense kitsch” of the décor and signature more-is-moreness on the plate and palate, the “indelible house style.” Foie gras mousse with port and parmesan is “exquisite”; quail stuffed with more foie and served with truffled house mash is “a moment of undiluted luxury” all the sweeter for its flagrant disregard of “2018 menu buzz words.” Given the shower of additional courses — amuses, pre-desserts, mignardises — the set menu here for a mere 45 quid “is one of the best restaurant deals around”; O’Loughlin may have arrived intent on “hammering another nail into the great man’s coffin,” but she comes away undeniably “impressed.”
Talking of kicking the bucket, ES Magazine dinner guest Nick Curtis does just that over in Notting Hill, laying into this new seafood spot with real savagery (plus a love for puns reminiscent of an Andy Hayler blog classic).
He dutifully outlines this new opening’s unique proposition (“the food comes in buckets”), before noting the proliferation of dishes served on small and large plates, boards, and other more conventional kinds of crockery that run contrary to it.
Among this non-bucket food, squid ink crackers are “actively nasty”, “simultaneously brittle, ashy and greasy.” Bread is “on the stale side.” Salmon crudo is better, but will struggle to pass muster in today’s provenance-ocracy: it comes from “different suppliers.”
Buckets arrive “all at once,” to a two-word salutation from Curtis: “oh dear.” The batter on fritto misto and vegetable tempura in two separate pails is “thick and bland,” lending a “prevailing flavour” of oil; whitebait are “flaccid,” prawns “insipid”; some of the calamari is so tough as to be literally inedible. Arriving in another trash can, mussels in a lobster-brandy bisque are “smallish, brown and rubbery”; the liquor is “thin,” “tasting more of cream than of crustacean or booze.” A daily bucket cake (yep) is also bad, which is a pretty neat summary of the whole enterprise: much as the staff may be “pleasant,” the one “recurring note” from this singular and mediocre dining experience is “the hollow clang of a truly misbegotten idea.”
Masala Zone Soho
A more positive kind of tub-thumping over in the Evening Standard newspaper to close this week, as Fay Maschler bangs the drum for Indian mini-chain Masala Zone.
Maschler admits that she is hardly a “dispassionate observer” of professed “pals” Camellia and Namita Panjabi’s Masala World group of restaurants (comprising Chutney Mary and Veeraswamy, as well as the aforementioned diffusion line). But she feels moved to write on the subject, so “impressed” has she been of late by the “pitch and profundity” of the saucing and the “exuberance” of the snacks on offer.
Among those snacks, the lamb in pao sliders is “vehemently spiced”; chilli garlic potato chips are “totally irresistible”; sprouted lentil bhel makes for a “singular combination” of “goodness” and “crunch.” Among the larger plates, Bengali rizzala is “heady” with poppy seeds; seafood biryani made with iddiappam (fine rice noodles) is one “not to be missed.” Service remains “sweet,” even when Maschler manages to slide in incognito; even as the competition in this slowly-overcrowding corner of the market intensifies, here is evidence that members of the old guard with an eye on the right details can still go toe-to-toe with any number of newcomers.