To a capital increasingly savvy about the distinction between string and egg hoppers, late 2019 brings exciting news, with not one but two bright, modern Sri Lankan restaurants opening their doors in Soho.
The first, Kolamba, made its debut a couple of weeks back (the second, Paradise, is just around the corner where Spuntino used to be.). And in Grace Dent’s eyes, it’s an endeavour well worth supporting — a “very personal” project from owners Eroshan and Aushi Meewella, as though they’re “eager to show the best of the street snacks, family dinners and teatime treats they remember from home.”
From the opening ‘Bites’ section of the menu, pilchard and potato fish cutlets are “delicious,” as are “sweet” and “flaky” jackfruit patties. Mains are “equally joyous”: monkfish curry is “judiciously seasoned”; red lentil parippu is “rich,” “nuanced,” and “soothing”; the accompanying hoppers are “delicate, spongy and yielding in all the correct places.” Even the diced tomato sambol with lime juice, green chilli and red onion is “so very good, it would go with literally anything.” Kolamba may be “small,” but its owners offer “big, bold lessons” on “the joys of Sri Lanka.” Simply put: “You’d be daft not to take them up on it.”
Up in King’s Cross, Giles Coren falls similarly head-over-heels for every aspect of dinner at Decimo — delivering a markedly more positive verdict than Fay Maschler’s more equivocal take from last week.
The bar is “dramatic”; the dining room is “large,” “decadent,” and “sexily lit.” The food is similarly seductive: gambas blancas are “sweet and meaty and plump and just thrilling to have in one’s mouth”; Cornish crab with jalapeño and lime is “as attractive as anything and just exquisite to eat, fresh and sweet with a sparkling chilli heat miasma around it”; tacos arrive “as lovely as a Bond Street jewellery display” and taste just as good, collapsing “into a deliciously complex collision of flavours.” Throw in some “top class” vegetables, some “wonderfully smoky” cocktails, and the “captivating” view from the bathroom, and it’s easy to understand why Coren awards 9/10s across the board: Decimo offers “basically, everything you could possibly want from a restaurant bar free food and a shag in the loos”.
If Coren’s verdict on Decimo represents a welcome uptick in positivity for Peter Sanchez-Iglesias and co, for the team at Bubala it’s business as usual, as the Israeli-influenced vegetarian fare wins over another critic.
This time, it’s Jimi Famurewa signing praises. In a “burbling, busy room,” ordering from a “long, enticing” menu, the ES Magazine critic finds “the sort of resounding feed dished out by a matriarch who might complain you are getting thin, even as they grab a love handle.”
Laffa bread comprises “bubbled, immaculately seasoned sort-of naan” — “perfect for greedy scoops of smooth, harissa-dribbled pumpkin tirshy and a snowscape of labneh with mellow, toffeed confit garlic.” Mushroom skewers and fried aubergine offer enough “enthralling meatiness” to appease any carnivore; the Insta-favourite potato latkes are “delicate and golden and just about worthy of the hype.” And if the ful medames is just a little “workmanlike,” a “heady, terrific” salted tangerine, date and tahini ice cream more than redresses the balance. The “snap of distinctiveness” that characterises the house cocktails is arguably at the heart of the whole Bubala enterprise — as many diners try to eat less meat, this is a restaurant that “makes it seem like the simplest, sanest thing in the world.”
The raves keep coming for another of London’s hottest new openings, too: Jay Rayner is the latest to anoint Ben Tish’s Norma as one most definitely to watch — nothing less than “the kind of effortless crowd-pleaser that takes serious work.”
It starts with the “classy” ambience, produced by the sort of “downlit glow” that engenders “a sense of intimacy, without requiring you to be so close to your neighbour you can detect their deodorant.” And then the food starts to arrive — “crisp” and “blissful” spaghettini fritters; “golden triangles” of chickpea bread and a “strident and aromatic” salsa verde; slices of sea bream with a “pinkish glow,” boosted with “peppery olive oil” and “the salty orange promise of bottarga.” Of course, with that bream coming in at £14, a meal here is “no one’s idea of cheap” — but this is the sort of menu that “allows you to get at the good stuff without selling your least favoured child to pay the bill.”
There is “reasonable choice” on the wine list below 35 quid a bottle, and when a “classic,” “pleasingly starchy” dish of tagliolini with pine nuts, raisins and sardines comes in at £9 — or indeed when a central London dessert menu actually “takes the question seriously” and delivers something as good as the “star turn” salted caramel ice cream brioche — it becomes clear that this restaurant “delivers on the potential of all those involved.” Norma, in Rayner’s eyes, is that most “joyous” of things: “a new restaurant genuinely worth being excited about.”
The generally positive vibes don’t quite last until the very end this week — David Sexton’s merely so-so experience at Legare, on Shad Thames, providing something approaching a bum note.
The food isn’t really the problem: sourdough is “excellent”; stracciatella with sobrasada is (to Sexton’s surprise) “very liquid and delicious”; pasta dishes across the board are “satisfying,” including “ever so silky” pappardelle in a “good” ragu.
More problematic is what Sexton deems a “stark,” “tight-packed” and “functional” dining room — but even this is the sort of space that “could nonetheless be made welcoming by attentiveness, courtesy and warmth, Italian-style”. Instead, he receives something a little more conventionally “British” — “intermittently absent” and, more often than not, “less than fond.” It’s as if “the serious endeavour of the restaurant didn’t require any base cajoling of the customer” — but as any restaurateur worth their salt knows, “it does, it does.” As a London increasingly inundated with pasta joints may well come to realise: “Man does not live by pasta alone, however fresh.”