The vegan explosion of the past few years is certainly worthy of attention — but for every article charting the lifestyle’s spiralling rise, there should probably be at least a couple of paragraphs published in response, lest everyone get carried away and pronounce it a “mega-trend” prematurely. As Marta Zaraska’s Meathooked explains so eloquently, there are a whole host of culturally implanted factors that stand in opposition to a meatless society — as much as the fabled north London metropolitan elite may seem to be gorging on tofu and tempeh, there are huge swathes of society where plant-based diets have, to put it lightly, a perception problem.
In Jimi Famurewa’s eyes, Hackney’s Mao Chow might be a good place for the nonbelievers to start. The space may be “truly miniscule” and decidedly “no frills,” but the food here is a “more convincing advert for veganism than any number of ‘bleeding’ burgers or breaded slabs of gluten,” delivering “a noisy assault of chilli, crunch and pulse-pounding deliciousness.” To start, smacked cucumbers arrive looking “a little dull” in their brown pickling liquor, but pack a “a bright, sharp chime of black vinegar, sesame oil and crisp, fragrant fried garlic” that is “pure Technicolor.” Among more substantial dishes there’s a “dreamy bowl” of soy mince dan dan noodles and the “knuckle-dustered punch” of mapo tofu, but this kitchen can do more than Sichuan-pepper-packed “face-melters.” Mushroom dumplings are clearly a product of “micro-engineered flavour-building”, their filling humming with “meaty fermentation”; the fried mushroom bao is practically “bursting with assertive spicing” but delivers a “slow-building, perfectly calibrated knockout.” Aesthetes might call the place “rough-hewn” but “in a food landscape dominated by blockbusting slickness,” there’s something alluring about Mao Chow’s “small-scale, ramshackle approach” and “unexpected craft.” To palates grown leaden with prime-grade animal protein, this is food that “feels like a gleeful, fizzing tonic.”
Meat is also firmly not on the menu a few minutes away in Shoreditch, where Marina O’Loughlin rejoices in head chef Helen Graham’s Tel Aviv-inspired vegetarian fare at relative newcomer — and one of London’s hottest restaurants — Bubala.
This is a menu that runs the gamut from “mmm, nice,” all the way through to “bloody hell, that’s eye-openingly gorgeous.” Hits include a “truly electrifying” house riff on Turkish ezme, at once “apparently simple” and “so much more than the sum of its parts”; “fiendishly good” confit potatoes with Aleppo-pepper-dusted toum, a “crisp, delicate, ungreasy” testament to “haute-trashy cooking done absolutely right”; and “fat slices” of aubergine, soaked in date syrup and “slathered” in zhoug, “vivid with the tongue-pinging likes of green chilli and coriander.” The décor is “done on a shoestring” but with cooking “so technicolour” the “surroundings barely register”; even an occasional “heavy hand” with the olive oil is forgivable when the results taste so good. A dish of ful medames with laminated flatbread is “almost too rich,” its flavours tending towards the “overbearing.” And yet it is impossible “to stop eating it” — a neat case study of how, at its best, Bubala is simply “irresistible.”
Wild Honey St James
Much the same can be said for the food at Anthony Demetre’s relocated Wild Honey, which this week adds Giles Coren to the ever-growing list of critics to have passed through its doors. Starters are “beautifully presented and beautiful in the mouth”: “firm, cool” smoked eel with horseradish and cucumber; “truly dazzling” pig’s head with endive, nduja and gherkin to offer an “acid bulwark” against the “dark,” “rich,” “barnyard tug” of the pork. There’s a “deep and nourishing” ribollita, and some winning gnudi, too, but “best of all” is *that* dish of handcut macaroni cacio e pepe with “richly sauced” crisp boneless chicken wings. “Quite perfectly textured” main courses of beef and pork belly continue the strong performance — but from here on in everything else is thoroughly undermined by inattentive and “tortoise-slow” service. When a national newspaper’s restaurant critic is in for dinner, it is, to state the obvious, not a great look to leave the dining room floor “deserted for minutes at a time,” or to bring unordered dishes and then charge for them on the bill. It just looks “sloppy” of a “posh gaff” like this to fail to “hire enough staff to serve its guests”; even making allowances for perilously thin margins, having more bodies present would be “in keeping with the quality and ostentation of the restaurant.” It might be an isolated incident; it might be evidence of an attempt to cut costs — whatever the cause, in this case, a “total collapse” in the front of house means Wild Honey’s “impeccable cooking” and “delightful grandeur” are thoroughly “spoilt.”
Unfortunate nominative determinism alert: there’s probably a bit of room for improvement at Jason Atherton’s latest in Mayfair, too. Certainly, a final score of 3/5 stars from Fay Maschler suggests as much, starting with a “butterfingered choice for a restaurant name,” and continuing into some “thumping” music, which “contributes to a nightclub crossed with boardroom atmosphere.”
It’s much the same story with the food: among the starters, steak tartare is “perhaps the best dish” but is “oddly presented” in a cut-glass bowl; alongside it, curry velouté with smoked chalk stream trout on a potato cake is a “captivating notion” and its “flavours do chime”, but “the textures of the fish and its potato bed are unappealingly flabby”. Among the mains, the roast chicken with trompette mushrooms and Albufera sauce is “irresistible” on paper but proves a “disappointment” on the table with its “dense texture” and “lack of innate flavour,” even if its sauce “pretty much saves the day.” Ox cheek tortellini are “way too resilient”; their flavour “hammered” by a “thin” and “salty” jus and “detumescent” horseradish velouté. The notion of betterment may be all about continuous improvement — every day, in every way, getting better and better. Based on this verdict, Atherton and co may need to accelerate the process.