Well, thank goodness that’s sorted. After a period of bitter critical strife — in which Fay Maschler and Jay Rayner drew battle lines over £100 Peking ducks — the conflict finally has a resolution. Enlisting his sister paper’s critic, Marina O’Loughlin, for added authority, Giles Coren of the Times goes above and beyond this week, to bring the public a definitive verdict on hot-button fine dining Chinese restaurant import Imperial Treasure.
Drumroll… it’s good. “Absolutely top-notch,” in fact: best among the dim sum is probably the “unbe-freaking-lievable” golden net prawn cheung fun — “six mouthfuls of genuine heaven” — though siu mai are also “very excellent” and the Ibérico pork roll is just “perfect.” Chiming with the Evening Standard’s Maschler, Coren also thrills to the “wonderful” pancakes that come with the signature duck; benefiting from Jay Rayner’s lambasting of Imperial Treasure’s parsimony, he also gets to enjoy a “deliciously filthy climax,” courtesy of a second serving of said waterfowl — Maschler received the same privilege.
Such “divine awesomeness” doesn’t come cheap, but it’s not even that much of a ripoff, if visitors come as a group, order right, and don’t indulge in a wine list short on “bottles that cost less than a young doctor’s annual salary.” Consider this matter resolved: unlike the critical landscape of late, Imperial Treasure is “close to faultless.”
No sooner did the nation have closure on one big-ticket opening, than another restaurant schism yawned in front of the British public.
Tim Hayward is responsible, expounding the argument — tentatively proposed in Giles Coren’s review-in-passing — that Berenjak is actually pretty worth a visit; far from a tepid 3/5 as doled out by Fay Maschler.
Hayward follows Maschler in noting how the interior has been “comprehensively ‘Polpo-ed’” — artificially distressed to make it look “like the HQ of the Brigadas Internacionales in the winter of 1937.” Unlike Maschler, he’s rather effusive about the food: dips “start in places you feel at ease but take you somewhere exceptional”; jujeh kabob tond witnesses poussin “grilled to crisp juiciness,” its side salad utterly “spiritually cleansing.” This is food that “speaks of a cuisine of far greater refinement than many of its customers expect” — and as such, the presence of the British kebab-house-influenced kabab torki on the menu is “actually quite depressing.” This is a minor quibble — the main takeaway is that Berenjak is “extremely good.”
A slightly more positive 3/5 from Maschler across town, who finds plenty that “tempts” on chef Adam Hardiman’s menus at Haggerston newcomer Madame Pigg.
Hardiman has clearly “not mislaid the connection between appetite and gratification that many chefs hawking suds and puddles at the base of small ceramic bowls seem these days to do” — on the plate, this translates into “familiar food ratcheted up by spices and influences from far-off lands executed with cheffy expertise and élan”.
This might mean “loquacious” charred leeks twinned with romesco, or “delectable, suavely seasoned” slow-cooked tomato soup enriched with soaked bread, or “enticing” chicken livers prepared satay-style. Among the mains, things are even more “rich and rewarding” — think Hereford rib-eye with sticky onions and bone marrow butter or slow-cooked pork belly with pak choi and mint. And if there are occasional misfires — lamb chops are “overcooked and gnarly”; some aspects of the service are a little shoddy — this barely detracts from the enjoyment of food that “does its stuff,” enlivened from time to time by the occasional “bright idea.” Like a certain Muppet, what Madame Pigg lacks in subtlety, it more than makes up for in undeniable “vibrancy.”
There’s a similarly slightly scrappy, slightly zany charm to Stoke Newington’s newest Scandi-Portuguese portmanteau, Moio, reviewed this week by Jimi Famurewa.
This “warmly run endeavour” is doing “fascinating, freewheeling things” in an historically troubled location in Stoke Newington; there is something admirable in how owners Carolina W Seibel and João Ferreira Pinto have “stuck so madly to their guns,” which serves to make their victories “all the more thrilling.”
Those victories don’t come at every step of the journey. Meat dishes — “mulchy” pork knuckle; pastrami with “cymbal-crashing” bits of smoked garlic puree and “jarringly bitter” slices of black radish — are a bit of a letdown; an early snack of morcella sausage feels a little “meagre.”
But to go with the lows there are also some undeniable highs. Celeriac vichyssoise with frozen grapes is a “deeply creamy hug of a thing,” with the “joltingly cold detonation” of the grapes providing a “complementary hit of fresh sweetness” — “oh, wow.” An early foie gras terrine delivers a careful balance of “whacking great flavours” and “mystical, whipped lightness.” And best of all, perhaps, is the Queijinho de Azeitão: a “trembling, forcefully lemony” custard tart on a salted almond cheesecake base, served with frozen berries — a “dynamite, salty-sweet accord between Iberia and Scandinavia” that acts as a “reminder” of this kitchen’s “crackpot ability.” It may not be the most consistent, and it may be in need of a “few tweaks.” but dishes like this are enough to leave Famurewa emphatically “rooting for everyone at Moio.”
If Moio’s concept-spiel is a doozy, it’s still got nothing on Caractère, whose menu laid out into abstract ‘traits’ caused a few furrows of consternation in first-look reviews. It’s perhaps to the restaurant’s misfortune that this week its mission statement runs up against Grace Dent’s common sense approach to unnecessary restaurant mithering: “opaque” is just the start of her condemnation.
But despite a philosophy that “people with English literature MAs specialising in magical realism” would struggle to “decipher,” Caractère still ends up coming out of it rather well. It helps that the food is frequently “utterly delicious”, and that chef Diego Ferrari is apparently “some sort of zen master of flavour,” capable of coaxing “quite breathtaking” qualities out of his ingredients whilst producing dishes that are at the same time “perfectly sating.”
Even a genuine “car crash” on the service front can’t kill Dent’s vibe too much — and nor can a wine list that “heads swiftly into the 75-quid range, before hurtling into £300-£400 territory.” For all the forced cleverness of its menu, fundamentally there is “lots to love” here — enough to ensure that even hardened pros like the Guardian critic “remain curious”.