Jamie’s Italian, Westfield Stratford
Sending The Sunday Times’ resident Queen Snobissima of Snobland to a Jamie’s Italian feels like a recipe for disaster to rival any ill-advised jerk rice pouch. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that fireworks ensue this week as Marina O’Loughlin rains fire and brimstone down on the hapless Stratford branch of the already-embattled chain.
Tagliatelle with truffles is actively “appalling,” tiny cubes of the tuber floating in “a honking, salty swamp of a sauce” like “mouse poos in soup.” Squid-ink mezzalune feature “decent” enough pasta but are filled with something only “vaguely fishy”; their sauce is “oily” and “split.” Among dishes from the specials board, ‘Nonna Marina’s Salina Chicken’ is “dismal,” “its skin flabby, its base incinerated”; it arrives on “waterlogged” couscous and “soggy” aubergine. To round things off, a titified tiramisu is “not an improvement” on more humdrum versions.
When O’Loughlin last ventured into this sort of territory — in a lightning-rod review of her local Wetherspoons — she was playing with fire; people wondered out loud (or, this being the Twitter age, did far worse) whether a populist pub group with no delusions of grandeur was really the proper target of a national critic’s scorn. Now, though, she feels on safer ground. In a market characterised by mass exodus from chain mediocrity, 80 quid for food and just a single glass of wine feels pretty outrageous, especially when every element of the ‘concept’ — from that food, to “mournful,” “disaffected” staff — is clearly “stale.” O’Loughlin’s eating on expenses, of course, but concludes “you’d have to pay me quite a lot to come back.” This time round, the majority would probably agree with her.
The River Café
On the other side of town — and definitely on the other end of the Italian food spectrum — Evening Standard Magazine new boy Jimi Famurewa goes back to the old school at west London institution The River Café.
It’s an intriguing move from Famurewa, suggesting he’s going to be spending as much time re-evaluating the classics as he is chasing heavily PR-ed new openings. This would be welcome — like St. John, Le Gavroche, or The Ledbury, The River Café has become such a fixture that it almost seems to transcend criticism. A column willing to hold these classics to account just as assiduously as a shiny new small plates joint would feel like a breath of fresh air in a critical community that can occasionally feel a little homogenous.
Having said that, anyone expecting the slaughtering of sacred cows from Famurewa this week will come away disappointed. The River Café is still great — and still “reassuringly expensive.” Any “scepticism” about the cost is “dissolved” fairly quickly during an opening salvo of mozzarella di bufala, a “salty-sweet mouth party” of a dish. And if some dishes — like some taglierini with girolles — are merely “okay,” there’s plenty more that’s “far better.” A final score of 4/5 stars doesn’t quite tally with Famurewa’s verdict that “some bucket list places truly live up to the hype,” but he comes away convinced of The River Café’s enduring value. This is a deeply “classy” place, that “can still teach you things about simplicity, care, and beautiful ingredients.” Even if the prices really do verge on “insane.”
For better performance in the bang-for-buck stakes, head on up to Stoke Newington, where Giles Coren finds a restaurant that has matured into somewhere “elegant, casual, and beyond excellent.”
This is cooking that is long on “soul and vision” as well as “beauty,” served in a room that is “almost comically instagrammable.” There’s delicacy on show here — in a “glistening and varied leaf salad” with petits pois and cod rillettes — but there’s also body and comfort, as in a “rich,” “eggy,” borderline “sexual” meadowsweet crème brûlée. A dish of Herdwick lamb — five “perfect,” “uniformly pink” slices with a courgette and parmesan cream acting as “the perfect condiment” is the Perilla approach in miniature: “simple” but not “dull”; “restrained” but still with a “saucy twinkle.”
As Coren notes, Perilla opened a while back to “good but not slobbering reviews”. This, then, is another entry this week that showcases the value of reappraising established places as well as piling on new ones. Perilla 2018 offers genuinely “wonderful” food and “warm”, “beautiful” service, and so Coren pulls no punches: so far has the restaurant come that it now belongs “right up there” — with restaurants like Cornerstone and Brat — as one of the “burning stars in the new London restaurant firmament.”
Coal Office Restaurant
To that elite company, readers also might consider adding Coal Office: A collector’s-item 5-star review from Fay Maschler should certainly advance the case. The “infectious” enthusiasm and “joie-de-vivre” of the front-of-house is a large part of the final score, as is the food — at times “dramatically served,” with the occasional “surprise incursion” of unexpected ingredients. It represents a sort of greatest hits of chef Assaf Granit’s “New Israeli” cuisine also sort-of on display at Palomar and The Barbary; while Maschler “never got” the former, and “never got into” the latter, here she has both got into and then got on with the place. With its “enlightening” cooking — crucially not “undermined by a depressing bill” — this new kid on the Coal Drops offers nothing less than “untrammelled joy.”
Xi’an Biang Biang Noodles
It’s more of the same to close this week, as Jay Rayner waxes lyrical, too — in his case, about Spitalfields-based Xi’an Impression half sibling Xi’an Biang Biang Noodles.
Food here acts as “a brilliant slap around the chops”: black fungus in vinegar and chilli is “an alarm clock for the tongue”; cold braised beef in chilli oil and numbing peppercorns is “luscious and compelling.” The house noodles, meanwhile, are “absurdly satisfying,” “the very definition of a joyous slurp.”
With its speedy, delicious cooking, this is a restaurant that “feels like it has been engineered for the current economic circumstances” — a “utilitarian,” “great value” concept “posited on high-volume trade.” Crucially, it doesn’t attempt to cut corners or mitigate impacts to appease the greatest possible number of punters: the food retains an “uncompromising punch” throughout.
Perhaps Jamie Oliver should take note.