The full giddiness of Christmas silly season is well and truly underway, so it is perhaps only fitting that Grace Dent finds herself at the first Ivy Asia to open in London. Fitting because this new addition to the sprawling Ivy empire is “so ridiculous” that “eating here requires the same mindset as when watching a Jason Statham film: thinking is not going to help.”
From a “Shrek-green, bubbling Vesuvius glass floor” and a “candyfloss-pink glass stairway” to “lifesized models of samurai warriors by the urinals in the gents,” it’s “ostentatious”; it’s “incongruous”; it’s “showy and daft.” But for Dent, it’s also “joy-making even as you sweep through the doors.”
The food might be secondary but it’s also “fairly decent”: tuna sashimi is “fresh” and “fatty”; steamed prawn dumplings are “plump yet delicate”; soft-shell crab bang bang salad packs “enough peanut, sesame and fresh crustacean” to make it “a star of the show.” Puddings are also “worth the wait,” with service yet to “find its feet” and at times “hysterically slow.” The restaurant’s deliberately vague embrace of “44,579,000 square kilometres of food traditions” might be cause for maddening, but Dent encourages diners to “relax your brain,” in pursuit of enjoyably OTT rewards: “No one can say, in difficult times, that The Ivy group saved its skin by being boring.”
There’s no denying that this “shimmering” new opening feels like “a Mayfair incursion into Soho,” offering a “chi-chi lifeline” to “people in suits in Soho who yearn for some Mayfair glamour.” Sitwell sees it as a “bold move,” especially once some “staggering” costs are factored in.
It’s certainly “comfortable,” and already “draped with beautiful people”; the food finds a similar sweet spot between ease and glamour. Octopus roasted in charcoal is “excellent,” with a “tart flutter of parsley on top”; tuna tartare with Brussel sprout leaves is “ingenious”; “al dente” and “charred” tenderstem broccoli is “very fine.”
It’s not all perfect: a veal paillard is “just a little tough”; a “sharp and unfriendly” bottle of wine feels pricey at £45 and the sommelier’s response to complaints about it is just as acid. Still, Folie undeniably has “atmosphere” and “the confident, sophisticated service of a grown-up establishment at ease with itself.” If all goes well, after sinking a reported £5m into the fit-out, owner Guillaume Depoix “might just escape with his shirt in 25 years’ time.”
Also relatively new to the scene is Sam’s Riverside in Hammersmith, where Fay Maschler finds a highly pleasing aspect and food that nearly lives up to it.
A “bracingly sensible” menu of Anglo-French dishes “sports some creative curlicues”, but execution could do with a little refinement in places. “Charring verging on burnt” certainly “doesn’t help” an octopus tentacle; “characterless” veal breast comes with “tough” grilled leek; pieces of fruit added to a Queen of Puddings constitute nothing less than “lèse-majesté. Better are clams with braised trotter and white beans, which “provide a mellifluous mix of meatiness and a potent broth for the innocuous beans to shoulder”; the Robuchon-inspired house mash, with its “unconscionably large amounts of butter,” somewhat “compensates” for the occasional misfire and “points towards that plus creamed spinach as must-have side dishes.”
Drinks are “well considered”; the problems, in general, seem “easily fixed.” With some “deft footwork” it is eminently possible to find a “reasonably priced meal” here — one with “a very special view.”
Simpson’s in the Strand
Rather more longstanding is Simpson’s in the Strand, a 191 year-old institution whose reputation, Jimi Famurewa declares, is “justifiably legendary.”
After a year featuring some “quite dispiriting run-ins with supposedly ‘iconic’ (sic. ‘tired’) restaurants,” Famurewa approaches feeling “a pang of unfestive apprehension,” but this concern is misplaced. Yes, Simpson’s is “steeped in the ceremonial tradition you’d expect from a place that basically invented domed trolley service,” but “from the well-chosen craft beer to staff who have been emboldened to show a bit of cheek, warmth and personality, it has shrewd modern edges where they count.”
The food is great: “the bountiful, skilled stuff of dreams; a waistband-bursting riot of British classics that deliver the sort of pleasure that goes straight to your brain’s hard drive.” Devilled eggs arrive “piped with decisively spiced mayonnaise and layered with the double crunch of chicken skin and a scrim of melba toast”; beef Wellington is “hefty, luscious and beguilingly supported by creamed spinach, belting cauliflower cheese and a fairly outrageous golden-brown pillar of fluffy-middled fondant potato”; beef from the carving trolley is “tender and flavoursome,” “generously heaped” on the plate in “rosy, fanned hunks.”
The bill tops out at 160 quid, “a fairly hilarious figure for essentially two courses each and not much booze.” But it’s “completely worth it”: “worth it for the exceptional cooking, worth it for the thrumming, unstuffy atmosphere and worth it for that glow-giving, Yuletide sense of occasion.” As the last few years have shown, “appetites change and restaurant empires crumble.” But what Simpson’s offers “will surely never go out of fashion.”
To conclude this week, a very different sort of institution, as Jay Rayner visits South Norwood’s Bluejay Café with Observer guest editor Stormzy.
Salt fish fritters are “crisp and soft”; a “glossy” oxtail stew boasting a “deep sauce made rich from the melting gelatine” is “sweet and salty and rich and sustaining on an afternoon with more than a hint of winter about it”; curry goat “has a powerful kick of allspice and Scotch bonnet.” As an “extension of the domestic,” places like Bluejay Café can be “unfairly overlooked and underestimated.” But reducing them just to another place to eat would be an error too: they are “much more than just restaurants”; “a way of reasserting cultural identity, one heaving plateful of the familiar at a time.”