Wulf and Lamb
Welp, that’s one prediction for 2019 ticked off the list. William Sitwell’s tenure at the Telegraph begins in a spirit of reconciliation, with the plant-based restaurant Wulf and Lamb the only logical destination for a get-together with Selene Nelson, the vegan journalist involved in their now-infamous email exchange.
If only Sitwell had scanned Grace Dent’s review from February last year before picking this particular place. Regulars will remember that as a self-described “primal scream” of rage and disappointment; Michael Deacon’s successor isn’t quite so exercised, but still finds plenty to dislike. First, there’s the bafflingly rigid service — “you need to order food before you get a table” — and it’s followed by a series of underwhelming, meat-free dishes. The burger is clearly “reheated,” a “concoction of dried nothingness”; roast sweet potato wedges are unpleasantly “flabby”; mac-and-not-cheese is “old and tired,” a million miles away from the “deep and warming” comfort food classic. There’s no denying that this is an ambitious concept: serious money raised; “serious business plans pitched.” Much as the owners “want to be flag-wavers for the vegan revolution,” their venture still scans as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”: “it looks like a tasty lamb, but you definitely can’t eat it.”
Din Tai Fung
Like Giles Coren before her, Dent manages to find a way past the comedy queue, or, “the sort of war of attrition from which Stephen King could milk 500 pages.” But she’s even less impressed by what she finds at the end of it: a dining room “that will divide diners,” serving food that’s largely “pleasantly inoffensive” rather than actively delicious.
It would be nice if there was more of that “pleasantly inoffensive” food, too. The dishes unavailable weeks after opening could fill a conventional menu in their own right: no prawn with angled gourd, no crispy wontons, nothing fried, no puddings whatsoever. It’s obviously Din Tai Fung’s prerogative to serve and not serve whatever it wants, but this list of unavailable items “might be a handy thing for one of the managers, of which there are about 17, to go and tell the people queueing for five hours outside.”
Given the mountains of “pre-bluster” and “hype,” Din Tai Fung was always going to struggle to blow the pros away, and so it proves here. There would be “nothing at all wrong” with the place if you arrived “expecting nothing.” But given the “buzz,” it’s hard not accept total perfection. “Anything less than that is a letdown” — which, for Dent, sums the place up just fine.
Meanwhile, Tim Hayward finds himself somewhere at the other end of the foodie thirst trap spectrum — albeit only a few hundred metres away as the crow flies — at the new Harry’s Bar, just off Bond Street.
This is another outpost of Richard Caring’s ever-expanding empire, and like the enjoyably maximalist Brasserie of Light it seems to match over-the-top décor with better-than-expected cooking. The room is composed entirely of “blisteringly obvious signifiers” of posh Italiana: think “dark wood, mirrors, table lamps, white-jacketed waiters, Dean Martin on the speakers, thick carpet, brass fittings, cushions on the chairs and branded damask napkins”. Far from being “cynical or inauthentic,” though, the place works: it walks the walk as well as it talks the talk.
“The food is stupendous”: stuffed courgette flowers are “spot on”; linguine alle vongole, too, is “absolutely on the button”. A lobster risotto is “just ridiculous”, too. Taken together, it all coheres into “some of the best executions of a particularly delightful Italian idiom” that the Financial Times man has tasted “in or out of Italy.”
Sure, the whole venture is, on one level, “a monumental fake,” but while this restaurant is a “pastiche,” it’s a “brilliantly executed” one. Chef Diego Cardoso is plainly “a truly outstanding cook”; in knocking out a succession of “classic crowd-pleasers,” he’s “doing God’s work.” Harry’s Bar may teeter constantly “on the edge of self-parody,” but Hayward still leaves “in a happy haze.”
Perhaps the team at the Como Metropolitan Hotel could ask Caring to cast his eye over their latest restaurant — since it is precisely his steely-eyed attention to detail that it seems to be lacking.
This per Jay Rayner, at least, who is drawn in by some promising indicators — consultant chef Richard Turner; the Fiona Beckett wine list; a menu like “a whole new verse of My Favourite Things” — but finds it more “a case of so nearly but not quite.”
First up, it’s “all but impossible” to disguise the “hotel side-room location”; in keeping with that hotel side-room being smack-bang in the heart of Park Lane, pricing is “punchy,” too. Not all of the food lives up to its price tag: scallop with smoked roe and paprika butter is “odd and underwhelming”, with an “underpowered” sauce; XO tempura monkfish is “nice-enough” but the marked absence of proper XO funk means it is “slightly less than was claimed.”
Simpler stuff is better: burned leek with beurre blanc and summer truffle is “thrilling”; grilled pork chop is cooked with “skill, care and attention”; Tunworth cheese mash with trotter and crackling comes on like “aligot with added outrageousness and intent”: “rich, deep and intense.”
It’s enough to leave Rayner wishing for “more moments like this” — or dishes like the “majestic” English honey mincemeat tart with which he rounds things off. At its best, Gridiron is clearly well worth a visit, but for now, in Rayner’s eyes, it is fatally “uneven.”
Funnily enough, Fay Maschler comes to a similar verdict on Rohit Ghai’s fancy new Chelsea digs, Kutir. This “prettily furnished” and “softly upholstered” Chelsea townhouse looks a million dollars or more, given the postcode; portion sizes, though, are SW3 skinny and border on the “demure.”
Aloo tiki bites are “diverting” enough but at eight quid a pop serve to “embellish a bill that mounts up eagerly”; Nargisi kofta “would be even better with more minced lamb wrapped around the egg.” Better among the starters is a scrambled quail egg and truffle naan, while highlights from the mains include a “tenderly pink” duck korma with “vibrant pickle” alongside, and a guinea fowl biryani in which the drumsticks remain “surprisingly juicy.”
Unfortunately, there’s an unwanted running theme: “mistakes that can sometimes happen when tradition is sacrificed to new-fangled.” The worst offender in Maschler’s eyes is probably the 24-hour lamb roganjosh, arriving as a “neat rectangle of meat in one piece,” rather than the expected casserole. While far from a terminal error — an accompanying offal-stuffed samosa practically “saves the day” — it does stop things from feeling like a full slam-dunk. Ghai’s ambition is as clear as it is admirable, but it’s telling that one of Maschler’s favourite dishes is a chicken tikka masala from the Classics section of the menu: an “aide memoire” that foregrounds “what it is many of us find loveable about Indian food.” Kutir offers “fine ideas,” and is many things, but on this evidence, loveable isn’t yet one of them.