Brasserie of Light
Christmas, Twixmas, New Year — call it whatever, but late December is a weird time for restaurant reviews. Critics are often off-duty: either away from their usual beat rounding up best restaurants and best meals, or simply enjoying some well-earned respite and eating food that doesn’t come with a bill.
There’s still a bit of stuff going on, though: one last blowout before returning to the family seat; one last chance to check out a splashy new joint before the crowds descend en masse in 2019.
Take Marina O’Loughlin, who seemingly combines all three of the above in her visit to Selfridges’ brand-spanking new Brasserie of Light. Richard Caring’s latest has already received some pretty fulsome praise from the Standard’s David Sexton; O’Loughlin, too, finds herself thoroughly “infatuated” with the “luxuriously upholstered” stools, the “towering” walls, the “lavish fantasy” of the loos — the “whole ludicrous shebang,” in fact.
The menu scans as “Ivyish” — “so basic it should be lounging about in a pink tracksuit and Uggs, slurping a pumpkin spice Frappuccino” — but eats better than that might suggest. It’s “not at all bad,” courtesy of a kitchen happy to “give even the most pedestrian dish the full TLC”. Popcorn shrimp are “fat and sweet”; salad is “superfresh”; lobster spaghettini comes “rammed with perky slabs of seafood,” its pasta al dente, its sauce “tingling with chilli.” It’s all considerably “better than it needs to be,” given the location and the local traffic — and even if some of the presentation is a little “calculated,” being “designed for sharing — not with spoon, but with filters,” O’Loughlin finds she really doesn’t care. However naff and OTT Brasserie of Light may be, it’s still a “struggle not to be dazzled.”
O’Loughlin also finds the time to sneak in a quick visit to London Fields institution-in-waiting Bright, the subject of both critical raves and raised eyebrows at its occasionally too-cool-for-school vibes back in 2018.
This time it’s much more of the former than the latter: despite its “potentially hackneyed (hah) cool-kid checklist — location, decor, laid-back service, natural wine list,” this is a “properly grown-up” restaurant. The menu is “clever” but not “Clever” — content in a confidence that lets “ingredients star without dragging along a tap-dancing chorus line of accompaniments.”
Add this to a “relaxed, amused, utterly knowledgable” house style, in which the “beanie-hatted exclusionism” has seemingly been “dialled back,” and it’s hard not to fall in love with the whole thing. From “the dedication to sheer enjoyment” that characterises “every dish,” to the “real effort” that so clearly underlines surface “ease and insouciance,” O’Loughlin encounters “a restaurant that’s joyfully confident, not a beat missed, not a fluffed note.” Industry insiders and casual diners alike should take note: “this is how it’s done.”
Fortnum’s Bar and Restaurant
Retail-adjacent dining makes a quick return to the menu, as Jimi Famurewa invites his mum along to check out the new Fortnum and Mason bar and restaurant at The Royal Exchange. He goes expecting “soothing, lavish exactitude,” and by and large that’s exactly what he gets: the site “absolutely looks the part”; the menu is “a sensible edit of all the famous, fortifying things you want”; the food is just so, with enough of a twist to keep it interesting.
Scotch eggs are enlivened by the “lip-pursing tartness” of an accompanying piccalilli; smoked salmon benefits from the “added marine blast” of “nicely rustic” seaweed butter; ox cheek with horseradish mash disappears “tellingly quickly.” There’s a lone “duffer” of a dish — calves’ liver with “so-so” bubble and squeak and a “strange,” “synthetic” sauce — but generally, a menu that’s designed to hit the mark does so with great efficiency. There’s nothing “mind-fryingly inventive” about “some well-cooked British classics” and “a massive ice cream sundae,” but Famurewa can think of “few better places to briefly hit pause on life in the company of those you care about the most.” At Christmas, what more could you want?
Din Tai Fung
Coren is down with pretty much the whole experience — apart from that pesky queue, skipped courtesy of one of those phone calls only a national critic can make. Service is “swift,” “organised,” and “smiling”; the quality of the food, by and large, is “high.” Sure, there are “richer, fierier, more eye-popping versions” of the slightly “delicate” Din Tai Fung dishes on offer elsewhere in the world — Coren puts forward Baker Street’s Royal China Club, for one — but “at these prices” and “in these volumes,” the “repeated replication of the platonic ideal” of xiaolongbao is “nothing short of a miracle.”
More clamoured-for food over in Victoria, as Grace Dent finds plenty to write home about at the new Market Hall Victoria. Like the man who took over her Evening Standard Magazine column, she notes that this space feels utterly “mobbed,” but struggles to find it anything other than “lovable.” The “lovingly curated” list of vendors contains some real winners, from the “compelling” dal on offer at Gopal’s Corner to the “world-class” tempura atsu-atsu from Koya Ko. There’s also a more general, undeniable appeal: this is “a wholesome, multipurpose space that serves decent food, that your gran would enjoy visiting, and where you could meet a new mum with a baby. It’s somewhere you can reserve space for office drinks and be sure people can line their stomachs.” It may cost nine quid for “a glass of not-very-good wine,” and Market Hall Victoria may be “a souped-up food court much like you’d find in any shopping mall” at its heart — but this “spanking new” development is an advertisement for the future appeal of millennial eating habits “writ large.”
Rounding things off for the year was Jay Rayner, sneakily compressing a Best Restaurants list into a conventional review.
It works, because Lino in Smithfield “bellows 2018”: the restaurant bakes its own bread and culture its own butter; it is also “big on fermentation.” Meat and non-meat dishes receive “equal billing”; it is heartening — if also pretty on-trend — to see a kitchen working with “humbler ingredients” like beetroot and mackerel, rather than the “flashy marquee names” that used to crop up all over menus.
The results speak for themselves. That mackerel is “sparklingly fresh,” “grilled until the skin blisters”; that beetroot arrives with “an intense, savoury black garlic purée that demands to be licked off fingertips.” Continuing the theme, an oxtail and potato hot-pot is “an under-appreciated extremity braised down to its deepest, tangled best”; pumpkin and Jerusalem artichoke lasagne represents “the best of autumn raised up to the luxurious.” There’s even room for proper afters: croissant bread and butter pudding makes for a “dreamy combination of squidge and butteriness and sugar”; a custard tart with “the thinnest of cases” is flavoured with Earl Grey and “wittily partnered” with lemon sorbet.
Call it festive cheer, but Rayner joins his fellow critics in ending the year on an upbeat note: like many of the best places he visited over the past 12 months, Lino delivers “exceptionally accomplished” cooking and “good value” to boot. May everyone enjoy more of the same come 2019.