What’s the deal with airport food? It shouldn’t be as bad or as limited as it is — and it isn’t, in some countries. Unfortunately, the U.K.’s wait for a decent in-transit meal just got a little longer, as a Soho restaurant concept that seemed purpose-built to give hungry travellers a viable alternative suffers something of a crash-landing in this week’s ES Magazine.
For Jimi Famurewa, take-off is “passable” thanks to a “forcefully spicy” bloody mary, but Spuntino’s starters herald a significant patch of turbulence. Pea and feta salad is a “broad mass” of greens and “faintly roasted squash” that comes with “not nearly enough dressing”; the once-signature truffled egg toast — formerly a “legendary luxe-filth spin on egg-in-the-basket” — arrives as “a sad, strangely cold brick of bread” under a “honking, gluey duvet of melted fontina/Gruyère mix” and “oil-splashed egg.” The nosedive is arrested slightly by a “bracing” potato pan hash, but even the good stuff is let down by shoddy execution: the “slobbery charm” of an Eagle Rock hot dog is undermined by an “unpleasantly mushy” frankfurter and a garnish of crisps “rendered uselessly soggy” by a “thorough drenching” of condiments.
Service is “sparky and capable” throughout, and some allowance should be made for the undoubtedly “haphazard” performance of a “kitchen still finding its feet,” but in Famurewa’s eyes, there’s something more fundamental amiss here. Spuntino Heathrow feels like “an off-key cover version,” and to observe “one of London’s more pioneering, nimble and focused concepts” endure such a marked “watering-down” is nothing short of “dispiriting.” If the U.K. ever gets the airport restaurant food it deserves, it will need to be a lot “better, cooler and tastier than this.”
This “welcoming,” “gorgeous neighbourhood joint” is the product of a “new wave of highly relaxed yet incredibly drilled hospitality”; even better, it knocks out “enticing,” uncompromising “deliciousness” that truly “leaves you sated.” Top of the charts is probably the celeriac ravioli with dashi butter — high praise incoming: “the greatest vegetarian dish ever”— although there’s also plenty of love for the “stinky, earthy but ultimately devourable” duck rillettes and a “decadently charming” espresso and hazelnut choux pastry. The grab-bag of influences on show at Levan feel knowingly selected, designed to deliver exactly this kind of charm, but as the many nearly-but-not-quite attempts at this sort of restaurant illustrate, there’s a big difference between talking a good game and playing one. Fortunately for Balfe and co — and for diners — Levan is never less than “entirely compelling.”
Din Tai Fung
If Levan represents one of late 2018’s biggest successes, Din Tai Fung must go down as one of the pre-Christmas period’s greatest disappointments. To go off the reviews published to date, it’s certainly not bad — just lacking that essential pep that gets jaded restaurant critics up in the morning and gives them something to look forward to.
Tim Hayward is the latest to join the disaffected hordes — though not, it must be said, the hordes queueing outside, courtesy of a VIP pass arrangement that only feels 99 percent ethically icky. The hope, perhaps, is that leaving a critic thus “beholden” will guarantee positive coverage. It doesn’t.
Wontons are merely “fine,” short on “sodium and chilli content”; the signature xiaolongbao are “very good” from a technical point of view but also “a bit stingy in the salting department” — perhaps, Hayward speculates, “that’s what you need to do for true international appeal these days.”
Indeed, Hayward is left feeling that a seamless production line — and eventual rollout — is the priority here, rather than providing guests with a genuinely warm, engaging experience; with its highly visible displays of “control and cleanliness,” the Financial Times critic wonders whether Din Tai Fung is designed for “customers who worry that Chinese food is somehow scary or unhygienic”: his overall impression is of a boisterous culinary tradition that has had “the volume turned down.” Perhaps after five hours’ queueing it’s enough to make people happy, but it can only leave Hayward “strangely sad.”
Happier vibes are on show over at the Royal Festival Hall, although it’s questionable how much said vibes come from the food Spiritland. The “needlessly effortful” fare not really enjoyed by Fay Maschler includes “Tower of Babel” mash-ups like ‘galotiri, friorelli, medjool date and date molasses, almonds’ and ‘chicken, parsley and chervil root, pear, shallots, fig vincotto’, both of which exhibit a “sweetness that doesn’t belong”; when a relatively simple dish like potato with rosemary and Parmesan oil is met with a “sigh of relief,” it’s clear that all this “complexity” hasn’t been delivered with the “sedulous attention” necessary to make it sing. This is a “fundamentally pleasurable” venue, but until it can deliver something more “rewarding” on the plate, it will continue to hit more than the odd bum note.
Far more consistency to close this week, as Jay Rayner revels in some “faintly ludicrous” décor but fundamentally “very good” cooking at Pucci Mayfair. This reboot of a 1990s stalwart may not do anything hugely ambitious, but its “essentials” are more than solid: a pizza’s crust is “remarkably thin,” pleasingly “bubbled and singed”; when topped with “nose-tickling” ‘nduja, “snowy burrata,” and “a dribble of honey to soften the chilli hit”, it constitutes “a fine piece of work.” Some of the small plates are fine pieces of work, too: “long-braised” beef “pulled into tangles and slicked with lip-sticking jus” comes “heaped” on a “silky mound of hummus”; a “sizable” duck breast is “crisp-skinned and pink”; baby gem and treviso salad with parmesan and anchovy is “bitter and salty in all the right places.” Not everything hits the mark — so-so calamari rings “really are baffling,” little better than “elastic bands” — but really it’s hard to get properly angry when there’s something “chilled, white and Italian” in one’s glass and a parade of “1950s bangers” on the stereo. Pucci Mayfair may be more about “visiting the past” than it as an act of foodie pilgrimage for the Observer critic, but in travelling back to the olden days, it’s still possible to have “a very good time.”