It’s a sign of how far PR and Instagram have started to bleed into conventional restaurant criticism that it feels like Allegra — Patrick Powell’s new project at the Stratford hotel — has been open for ages, to killer reviews.
In fact, Jimi Famurewa is the first critic to visit a restaurant that has only been fully operational for a month — and his review unearths the nuance that sometimes gets lost in the adoring money shots on social media.
To be clear, this is hardly a case of all style, no substance. “Fantastic” bread; a “pretty unassailable” pistachio choux bun stuffed with liver parfait; and a smoked cherry tomato tart with flavours based “on a thrilling knife edge” showcase every iota of Powell’s “uncommon creative energy, focus and technical meticulousness.”
Elsewhere, the focus seems to be on showing off the kitchen’s elegance, rather than delivering straightforwardly “satisfying” food. There’s a sense of “slightly obstructive cleverness” that undermines some of the mains; there isn’t a lot of love for the visibly “beswanked” hotel or the “grey-accented, faintly Nordic” room. Puddings, fortunately, get things back on track: a “belting” puff pastry ice cream partners honey cake; an “appreciably eggy” baked custard comes with”the sort of dreamy sabayon you’d happily fill a KeepCup with.” The “focus and poise” of these dishes means that, “whatever the grumbles about atmosphere and fussiness,” Famurewa is sure that “this is a special kitchen.”
The jarring contrast between Insta-approval and critical deliberation was also made apparent when the likes of Fay Maschler and Marina O’Loughlin got their hands on Jason Atherton’s The Betterment — both concluding that J-athers could, well, do better.
Perhaps those reviews have prompted some wholesale changes in the kitchen in the intervening fortnight — Grace Dent tucks in this week and declares herself far from scandalised.
For the third time running, there’s a cocked eyebrow over the name: “like a four-day Californian wellness retreat where everyone floats about in white, floor-length linen and a hose is sporadically placed up your bottom to wash out all the bad juju.” The room also gets few plaudits, with one section diagnosed as “awful, like a drab, grey breakfast room.” But otherwise, The Betterment has all the makings of a “thoroughly acceptable night.” The onion ‘flower’ with chive emulsion is “very delicious” and “definitely a must-order”; short-rib with Montgomery cheddar is an “assertive, umami-heavy, emotional battering of bone marrow-encrusted, meaty, cheesy decadence”; “generously portioned” dark chocolate cake comes with a “glorious, deeply scented” Tahitian vanilla ice cream and verges on the “world-class”. Blessed relief, then, for Atherton, in the face of a trend that was starting to feel worryingly terminal — and he will no doubt be heartened by Dent’s kicker, too. Atherton “may not have opened the best restaurant in the West End of London this year,” but he has at least opened “a more delicious one than Gordon Ramsay.”
There’s similar good news for the team behind revamped Notting Hill institution Julie’s, as William Sitwell echoes Fay Maschler’s early positivity, going over and above Tony Turnbull’s muted tone.
There are quibbles: the formerly “naughty” curtained-off basement alcoves no longer feel “saucy”; there is some faff securing a table in the “light and airy” dining room rather than in that “gloomy” basement. And with mains coming in at £30 or more, this will not be “the heaving establishment of old.”
But as the “immaculately presented” food arrives, it’s hard not to admire the “considerable finesse” that has gone into its preparation. A “beautiful” risotto topped with crispy kale and a dollop of crab is a starter of “faultless perfection”; an “extraordinarily good” piece of salt marsh lamb is an excellent companion to some “fabulous wine.” Sure, Julie’s 2.0 may be “more special occasion than neighbourhood gaff,” but for diners after a “rare treat”, Sitwell can “firmly recommend it.”
Much the same can be said of The Northall, the uber-swank restaurant within the Corinthia hotel — at least according to Giles Coren, who finds something special within the “jaw-dropping” dining room.
Prices are of course “keen,” but the food is undeniably “good”: duck liver and smoked eel crumpets are “warm and clean and elegant”; dressed crab is “delivered with restrained ceremony and of an elegance quite in keeping with the setting” and comes with “wonderful” sea trout. Handcut strozzapreti with sauce supreme and summer truffle is “altogether dirtier,” the pasta “firm and chewy and wheaty”; the sauce “a sticky butter with flashes of rural hen coop”; the truffle “quite wonderfully shroomy”; the whole dish a “rustic, chunky contrast” to the “shimmering urbanity” of the setting. The bill is “very large indeed,” but Coren deems it a small price to pay for something so “bloody marvellous”.
The prices might be lower at Lambeth’s Sticky Mango, but Fay Maschler seems just as impressed by the Asian fusion fare on offer. Soft-shell crabs occasion “a shriek of delight,” their “pillowy” exteriors lent “added crunch” by tempura batter and an accompanying slaw benefiting from the “extra punch” of sriracha. Crab dumplings in laksa sauce with quail egg and coriander oil are “energetically fought over”; duck fried rice is “a tower of song topped by a fried duck egg”; crispy buns “almost steal the thunder from a half Singapore chilli lobster red as a post box”.
“Devilment is in the detail” in all the dishes, but “magnificently so” in peanut nougat satay with smoked chocolate ganache and an “astonishing” and “eerie” charcoal ice cream. A later visit for the 11-course “taste of Indonesia” menu reveals chef Peter Lloyd to be “the most intense kind of nerd”. Not only is this “the approach you need and want in a chap immersing himself with love and respect in another culinary culture” — it’s also the starting point for an emphatically “great meal.”