There is a concept, in sport, called the commentator’s curse. A pundit will observe that a certain player has been performing well, only for that very same player —— seconds later — to commit an absolute howler.
This is just as true of football or cricket as it is of the great, decades-spanning sport of restaurant criticism. Just last week, this column observed that Giles Coren had been on something of a roll of late — dropping high scores on Brat, Cornerstone, Brigadiers and Cora Pearl in a matter of weeks.
This week, predictably, the curse strikes back. Haute-Odessan Mayfair clip joint Babel House is — for all its best efforts — a trend-breaking dud, and even if Coren is at pains to treat it as sympathetically as possible, it’s hard to extract more than a couple of positives.
Among them: the setting in “pretty” Bruton place, the ministrations of a “charming” head waiter, an opening statement of “unbelievably delicious” pike caviar. After that, though: “nothing else edible.” Beef tartare is “roughly chopped” and “sinewy,” packing only the “bland, bottomy scent” of truffle oil. Herring pâté is also “bland”; lamb tongues with morel, truffle oil and something labelled only as “crème” are worse still, “bland to the max.” Factor in some beef stroganoff brought as a substitute (“a veritable flavour vacuum”) and it’s hard not to feel at least a frisson of pity in this specific instance. In any other week, this feels like somewhere that Coren would avoid reviewing to spare some well-intentioned but hapless operators unnecessary blushes. But with an upcoming family holiday leaving him out of opportunities to review anywhere else, Babel House’s fate was sealed. As Alex Ferguson once famously said: restaurants, bloody hell.
Maschler detects more than a hint of Bruno Loubet in this new venture — the French chef’s “ability to penetrate the soul of vegetables” is present in this project as it confidently articulates “a new definition of virtue, health, temptation and redemption.”
Under temptation, file “bulbous” crumpet lobster toast — “not cheap but worth it.” Under redemption, tempura-fried vegetable trimmings, served with elderflower vinegar and “tickled” with Sichuan pepper. Hot tomatoes with cold yoghurt feel like they belong under virtue or health, but offer “palpable pleasure”; somewhere in the middle of it all sits celeriac shawarma, “a stroke of absolute virtuosity.” Among puddings, apricot clafoutis is genuinely “superb.”
Pricing — at Sunday lunch in particular — threatens to derail things a little: grilled halibut at 48 quid for two “adds too much weight to the bill”; a mixed grill of chicken offal is also “confidently priced” and a rare example of something “not worth the outlay.” Factor in some winners among the main courses (including an “exhilarating” squid and lardo skewer) and a “lively” Palestinian pick from a “carefully selected” wine list and the positives more than outweigh the negatives. Maschler and Ottolenghi are pals, as she admits, but one thing is clear: there have been plenty of well-publicised issues with the extraction, but Rovi seems, finally, to have a powerful fan.
The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for Rüya, the Mayfair-based Anatolian joint which — fun fact! — boasts the same backers as fertile human Salt Bae’s chain of Nusr-Et restaurant.
Per Grace Dent, like its rendition of monkfish buğlama, this place is “heroically awful” — surprisingly so, given the first impressions presented by its “fabulous, world-class” bar. Things on the food front start badly, and get worse. An isli patlican that “tastes of relatively little” makes for “an inauspicious portent”; Black Sea pide with slow-cooked egg yolk tastes “more like egg and soldiers in Surrey” than “a feast of the senses in Istanbul.” That buğlama comprises “four pieces of slightly tough monkfish in a clear broth similar in taste to Heinz spring vegetable soup,” with a price tag of £28 rubbing salt into the wound; a side-salad of artichokes is a “drab, tough, bitter affair.”
There are occasional flashes of something approaching quality — the “nicely rich” lamb topping of a lahmacun; “exceedingly delicious, soft, yielding” short rib. But it’s impossible to shake the fact that there are “better places” out there in Central London, let alone on Green Lanes. It’s often the case that with big-name foreign imports that their customers go into the experience knowing “there is more authentic, more delicious food happening elsewhere”. In Rüya’s case, though, a more enjoyable experience can be found “literally everywhere.”
Casa do Frango
Like Casa do Frango, say. This at least per ES Magazine dinner guest Frankie McCoy, who finds “beautiful” small plates and “excellent value” Algarvian barbecue chicken at the Bermondsey newcomer.
The room’s a “gorgeous” space, all wood floors and “artfully exposed” beams — very “we’re not in Nando’s any more, Toto” chic. Snacks like chickpeas and salt cod “glossed with excellent mayo” or “absurdly generous” octopus rice do nothing to dispel the illusion, and the chicken itself — zesty, spicy, with “sticky caramel skin” — defies description beyond “really, really nice.” Which, let’s face it, is all anyone could ask for when the mercury rises: it might not hold up against London’s showier offerings year-round, but for 2018’s record-settingly scorching summer, Casa do Frango might well be the “ideal restaurant.”
For more high-impact cooking, head over to Freak Scene, which — after relatively glowing coverage in ES Magazine and The Times, now gets a boost from the FT’s Tim Hayward. In his eyes, this is a menu long on “chef-cleverness” but blissfully free from “poncey cheffiness” — dishes “chosen to stimulate rather than impress.” And if some of the stimulation offered by the banterous cocktail list is rather more unwelcome — a “stupid” name like Wet Pussy “wasn’t funny in the 1980s and today borders on the actionable” — it’s just about redeemed by the “unrestrained, sweaty, muscular” cooking; the “kind of food that people who love food, love.”
There are chilli crab and avocado bombs (“a neat little bundle you can sort of throw past your teeth while yelling ‘Fire in the Hole’”); there are miso, black cod and sushi rice tacos that feel like a mini-homage to chef Scott Hallsworth’s past at Nobu but are “far more robust” than anything A-list celebs might chew on. Also robust — the “standout dish,” in fact — are mushrooms, sealed and baked with soy, mirin, garlic and butter: the sort of aroma-explosion you willingly “bathe your entire head in”.
It’s all “accomplished, never poncified, always gorgeous” — but it’s also hard to construct these mini bites into anything approaching a “regular dinner”: such “powerful hits of sensation” are simply “too much” when “piled together.” But that isn’t really the point of Freak Scene, as Hayward recognises: this is the sort of booze- and flavour-heavy place that imbues a self-professed “long in the tooth” food writer with a profound “nostalgia” for “post-service piss-ups.” Given its central London location and that cocktail list, Freak Scene isn’t big, and it certainly isn’t clever. But it still boasts an undeniable “rough-edged charm.”
There’s both charm and rough edges to spare in this week’s final restaurant — Sunday Times critic Marina O’Loughlin finding herself equal parts amazed and appalled by the unique Dammika’s, which offers Sri Lankan food by way of Victoria.
This “plain, almost spartan little joint” knocks out food that occupies every slot on the spectrum from “terrific” to “gnarly,” some of them simultaneously: mutton roll is a “vast, priapic unit” with “all the subtlety and delicacy of a Bible Belt preacher” in its “palate-walloping” chilli kick; kottu kottu “is almost the living incarnation of ‘hot mess’,” “the sort of thing you might inhale in front of Real Housewives after a night on the piss.” Black pork curry boasts an “almost hypnotic depth”; “old-school” chicken curry, “excellent” and “oily”, is also well worth a look. So too are the egg hoppers, which probably represent “the star of the show.”
Less conventional things happen, too, sometimes only sort-of successfully: coconut roti is “unyielding,” while lamprais is both “riotous” and “pungent”, borderline “reeking” with what might be shrimp paste. Service is long on what O’Loughlin diplomatically refers to as “idiosyncracy,” but really that’s almost part of the charm. Dammika’s may feel a little “unreconstructed,” it may be less “sophisticated” than “sleek” Soho operators like Hoppers. But in the midst of Victoria’s “spreading rash of sanitised glass-and-steel developments,” does it offer a singular and striking experience? “God, yes.”