Seven Dials Market
The biggest trick that the recent rash of food hall/food theatre/market hall/food market operators ever managed to pull was convincing Londoners that their concepts are a hip, fun alternative to restaurants. Somewhere fast and casual where different people knock out a dazzlingly wide array of global fare and the bar makes bank isn’t the recipe for an edgy disruptor — it’s just a branch of Giraffe on any given Sunday. As the market market slowly saturates, simply opening the doors isn’t going to be enough to draw the punters in — every trader will need to be top, and on top form.
Take, for example, the curated curate’s egg that awaits Jimi Famurewa at Seven Dials Market — one of the splashiest food markets of the year. It can be hard to get the vibe right in spaces this large, and the “atmospherically hollow” main room doesn’t get things off to the most auspicious start, leaving things “strained,” “a bit chilly.”
Fortunately, the food — “mostly good and, occasionally, terrific” — is generally a saving grace. Whitebait from Ink arrives “as a pile of fryer-puffed, golden mini Zeppelins coated in pungent, spiced seaweed salt”; guava-glazed fried chicken from El Pollote is “an even sharper knockout,” the “flavoursome, dramatically cragged poultry” covered in “an unruly Pollock painting of sauce” and “ably abetted by bronzed, forcefully crisp” yuca fries. Chiang Mai sausage ‘bao wow’ from Yum Bun delivers “a similarly effective helter-skelter of sweetness and heat”; pasta from Franco Manca spin-off Strozzapreti ticks boxes for “nuance, punch and maximum comfort.”
Disappointments — including aubergine with “a cold spill of slightly cloying, whipped tofu” from Yum Bun and “sickly, dense” doughnut holes from Big Shot — don’t derail things totally, but it’s clear that Seven Dials, like several other similar operations, is “not perfect.” In Famurewa’s eyes, that doesn’t really matter: even if he’d be reluctant to “build another evening around a trip,” anywhere offering “harried Londoners a quick, generally delicious fix” is an innovation he can “very much get behind.”
From one 2019-defining trend to another, as Fay Maschler checks into another of the fancy seafood places that seem to be popping up like anemones all across the capital.
Not to be confused with The Sea, The Sea, Seabird is in fact located atop the Hoxton hotel — confusingly, this one’s in Southwark. Initial signs are promising: “lighting is flattering, planting abundant, staff buoyant, cushions plump, skyline views captivating.” There are demerit points for a menu and concept “explained at pedantic length” and the somewhat cheeky/“optimistic” guidance to order large volumes of sharing dishes averaging out at thirteen quid a pop. There are also wtf points for the concept of a ‘mermelier,’ which, ugh, and please turn it down points for “the gastronomic tinnitus of quite loud background music.”
The food also runs the gamut from happy-making to irksome. “Markedly good” pan con tomate and some “inventive vegetable assemblies” start things off promisingly; sea bream crudo “mislays its virginity in an overload of garnishes”; both Iberico pork presa with “an exhilarating natural gravy” and Basque seafood stew “unreservedly gratify.” Clams are “distressingly gritty”; Bola de berlim for pudding “ably fulfil their role.” Seabird: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
The zeitgeist box-ticking continues over in Shoreditch, with Marina O’Loughlin boarding yet another carriage of the fresh pasta bandwagon.
This time, it’s Officina 00 — and if the menu has the occasional accent of “inauthenticity,” O’Loughlin is decidedly “not bothered” when the results are this “delicious.” The basic formula — “take the classics as the base note, then go riffing away wildly” — transforms fritto misto into a “simply brilliant” combo of fried pollock with “the glossiest” squid ink mayo; “pungent” smoked ricotta in place of the more common sage butter lends “tiny, fluffy” gnocchi “a kind of Bonfire Night enchantment.” There’s nothing “random” or “scattergun” about this cooking: “thoughtful” is instead the watchword here, as in circular ‘occhi’ stuffed with pork “slow-cooked with wine and masses of sweet onion into a delirious slump” and “dressed with buttery meat juices, a kind of parsley pesto and provolone cheese.” Some of the prices feel a “teeny bit steep,” but “there’s serious industry at play here” — and a commitment to an aesthetic “more Manhattan than Modena” that means, for O’Loughlin, Officina 00 can legitimately claim to “extend the vocabulary of pasta”.
There’s nothing so boundary-pushing at the revamped Julie’s in Notting Hill — per Tony Turnbull, chef Shay Cooper’s cooking is instead “still hostage to his posh hotel roots, serving the kind of small, polite portions marooned in expanses of white plate that leave you hungry — unless you had the foresight to eat before you came, of course”.
After Fay Maschler’s generally positive take last week, this is less of a ringing endorsement — sea trout with tomatoes and ginger is “bright and fresh” but hardly the sort of thing to get “tastebuds yammering”; chicken comes with a “ferociously vinegared” tarragon sabayon; ox cheek is “lukewarm” and lacking “any depth of flavour.” If the cooking is a bit “so what,” the décor is “overlit” and visibly “moneyed.” as though “Julie has tired of the boho rock’n’roll life, married a banker, moved to Chelsea and bought herself a Porsche Cayenne.” This “newly polished corporate pleasure dome” may look “plush,” but Turnbull finds the facelift has “completely sucked the fun out of a Holland Park institution.”
If Julie’s was an ‘it’ restaurant back in the day, 2019’s hottest opening is arguably Borough Market’s Flor — and it has a glittering collection of rapturously positive reviews to prove it.
Until now. Jay Rayner leaves “exhausted and confused,” perplexed by a succession of dishes that “simply doesn’t hang together as a meal.” Some of them, admittedly, are “very good”: tomato and feta tart is pure “summery loveliness” encased in “miraculously short, crisp pastry”; clam and Spenwood flatbread is “a cracking idea,” and one the Observer critic would “happily meet again.”
Otherwise, Rayner finds dishes that are “bizarre or clumsy or, whisper it, just not very nice.” Lardo is “cut so thickly” it smothers anchovy toast like “a duvet”; raw summer vegetables may be “artfully chosen” and “crisp” but are also “exceedingly bland,” not helped by a tahini dip “completely unsuited to the job” of making the crudites “more than themselves.” Even the bread misses the mark: the crust is “fabulous,” but the crumb is “weirdly moist, as if underbaked.” All in all, he diagnoses the menu as “a bunch of edible things, corralled together on one piece of paper, with very little to say to one another”: There’s too much “dissonance”, too much “discord.” Rayner may have walked in with “high expectations,” but he leaves “trying to work out what happened.”