Difference of critical opinion alert! Just a few days after Jay Rayner lambasted the very, very expensive mediocrity of the food at Imperial Treasure, Fay Maschler has an altogether more enjoyable time of it at this big-ticket St. James’s import.
Whilst acknowledging the “brazenly extravagant” nature of some of the dishes — and their attendant prices — Maschler is nonetheless impressed. The signature duck — served in multiple courses, unlike Rayner’s one-and-done half-fowl — is worth both the hype and the £100 price tag: it “looks to be the creation of a master carpenter working in mahogany and lacquer” and tastes even better, its “little squares of frangible skin” in particular boasting a “remarkable depth of flavour.” Pancakes alongside — “light, layered, fluffy and, importantly, hot” — gain the accolade of being the best Maschler has ever tried; a “light but labyrinthine” stock served with some Chinese cabbage is “in its way as impressive as the duck,” almost enough to make the pre-launch “PR tooting” about Michelin stars and World’s 50 Best Awards rankings feel “relevant.”
Factor in lunchtime dim sum service, and things look even better. Xiaolongbao feature both “bold” stock and a “superior” filling; prawn toasts are “big and busty”; prawn and pork siu mai are “absolutely comme il faut”. “Tops of all” are crispy golden net prawn cheung fun, their “pretty-as-a-picture” appearance concealing “velvety” prawns and “a brittle hidden layer of tempura”. There’s real substance under surface style, in other words — which isn’t a bad description of the restaurant more generally. Sure, it’s a special occasion splurge, and at those prices, punters are surely looking for craftsmanship — at Imperial Treasure, in Maschler’s eyes, at least, the craft is nothing short of “masterly.”
Mare Street Market
After such precision, the jump across town to Mare Street Market feels a bit like walking out of an artisan’s atelier and into a warehouse crammed with bric-a-brac. Per Jimi Famurewa, it’s “a lot.” A “capacious,” “neon-bathed” space boasting a host of “E8 attractions, seemingly pulled out of a bucket of ideas marked ‘Things Millennials Apparently Quite Like’.” There’s a florist, deli, coffee shop, liquor store, and podcast-recording studio; there’s also The Dining Room, where there is food. Perhaps a little too much of it.
“Muddled overeagerness” is frequently the name of the game: there’s more than the occasional “spark of imagination” but it’s often offset by “either unfortunate sloppiness or needless maximalism — or both.” Cod comes with a “golden-crisped skin” but is “hopelessly overcooked”; duck breast is served with “decent” Parmesan polenta but is let down by “tomato-less, alleged wild mushroom ragu.”
Much as this swing-for-the-fences approach does result in some absolute clangers — none worse than a “lumpen” Russian chocolate cheesecake with “wincingly tart” poached rhubarb — it’s hard to hate it entirely. Grilled scallops with miso butter sauce deliver “proper slurpable decadence”; barbecued short rib is “lifted” by a “terrific” prune and date brown sauce, which balances “fruit and spice on a knife-edge.” Such “spine-stiffening” forkfuls suggest there’s real talent at work — it’s just a shame it gets in its own way from time to time. It doesn’t take a newly-blooded Marie Kondo acolyte to realise that what The Dining Room at Mare Street Market could really do with is “an old-fashioned bit of decluttering.”
More unnecessary faff over in Clerkenwell, where weird culinary-decision making and “bizarre” crockery combine to dilute William Sitwell’s experience at newly opened Le Cellar.
Given the restaurant’s name, it’s no surprise that it’s both French and heavily focused on wine. The by the glass selection comprises an “elegant treatise against abstinence” — so far so good. But with a website advertising each dish as ‘a definite eye and mouth orgasm’, the cooking looks to be on slightly shakier ground. The simple stuff — “wonderful” serrano ham; “melting, deeply rich” pig’s cheek — is probably the best; the more ambitious fare, like the “terrible,” “utterly hopeless” squid-ink buns enclosing a scallop burger, and the pineapple spaghetti, suggests that the kitchen could dial a few things down. This probably extends to the presentation: sea bass sashimi comes on a “vast brick of salt”; those pork cheeks arrive in a bisected wine bottle. It’s a shame, because the fundamentals here are actually pretty promising. Just “a few tweaks,” and Le Cellar could be “parfait.”
Brasserie of Light
As multiple reviews have already confirmed, no such tweaking is necessary at Brasserie of Light — Richard Caring’s latest restaurant seemingly having arrived, fully formed, as a bona-fide critical thirst-trap.
Grace Dent certainly doesn’t stray from consensus, celebrating this “splendid-looking, twinkling, expensively hewn” temple to “vaguely affordable largesse” and its food that is somehow “much better than one would imagine.” Basics are strong: ham and gruyere croque monsieur is “pungent” and “buttery”; fries are “hot” and “crisp”; roquefort salad with endive is “well-balanced” and “sharply delicious.” Among the mains, black cod with charred broccoli and “vibrant” wasabi mayo might well be the best; top among the puddings might be the ‘Fallen Fruit,’ which is pleasingly “preposterous in a Heston-type way.” It’s all “infinitely prettier,” “more flowery and finickity” than the stuff at Caring’s original Ivy — but no less successful for that. Along with approximately 99 percent of London, Dent needed some convincing that a decent restaurant could belong in a department store. After multiple visits to this corner of Selfridges, she has unequivocally “seen the light.”
Poor old Jay Rayner probably wishes for a little less illumination over at Olle, the final stop on this week’s tour. Sitting in one of this Shaftesbury Avenue Korean joint’s “brightly lit picture windows” is an experience in its own right — but one worth enduring, for both the food and the “uncommon grace and charm” with which it is served.
Korean fried chicken is a textbook example, its “double fried crunch” creating “ricocheting echoes” in “every cranial hollow and cavity”; seafood pajeon, meanwhile, is “full of the crunch of still pert spring onions, the softness of mollusc and crustacean, and lots of crispy frilly bits.” Among the grills, it’s probably wiser to choose one of the mixed selections than to plump for wagyu at “punishing prices,” but with that out of the way, it’s hard to go wrong. This is somewhere to come and “hunker down” in chilly winter months, and proof that brightly-lit windows on tourist thoroughfares should not always be ignored: Olle is emphatic evidence that “sometimes you really shouldn’t just walk on by.”