When London’s critics next convene for a state-of-the-union lunch, it’s looking increasingly likely that beef will be on the menu: yet another high profile opening; yet another difference of high-profile opinion. Haymarket-via-New-Delhi import Farzi Cafe is the source of disagreement this week.
Marina O’Loughlin arrives not to praise the place but to bury it — ready to “snigger” after a wave of “prepublicity” that makes liberal use of the cringey hashtag “#Farzified.” She leaves a convert — if a slightly “devastated” one — everything she eats is simply “delicious.” Sure, “restrained this is most emphatically not”: think butter-roasted bone marrow, wagyu “blitzed into fleshy-smooth seekh kebabs,” naan topped with Cornish Cruncher cheddar. It is, however, all pretty “irresistible” — “palate-flooding,” “hectic excess” that somehow has just enough “assertive spicing” to keep it on the right side of “sophisticated.”
For Jimi Famurewa, though, this selfsame shtick just ends up feeling “dispiriting”, not to mention a touch “wrong-headed” and “more than a little behind the dining times”. It doesn’t help that execution falls away after a couple of “pretty good” opening bites: paneer tikka is “drenched” in San Marzano makhni sauce “with heavy shades of oversweetened cream of tomato soup”; paratha are “underseasoned”; wagyu cottage pie, meanwhile, is “almost impressively calamitous,” the meat “oddly gristly,” the mash “lukewarm.” Like that pie, Farzi Café’s “high-theatre” approach might scan as “enjoyably daft” if delivered properly — but for Famurewa, at least, it’s proof that “there is no point in needlessly modifying things that are already perfectly delicious.”
Certainly, there are some “delicious” small plates to kick things off, and some “extremely good” Hyderabad-inspired dal later in the piece, but beyond this things fall away precipitously. Lamb chops are “chewy” and — at two for £20 — another indicator that Mayfair is a different world when it comes to “the value of money.” Lobster is “juicy and crisp” but its red-chilli-jam sauce comes on like a “high-end version” of “late-night student-munchies.” Prawn curry and butter chicken come in what seem like “identical sauces of the lightly red, tin-of-Heinz variety,” both with “a similarly sickly, sweetly sour taste.” “Elaborate” puddings to close things off appear to represent this cosmetically enhanced old favourite in miniature: big on “design and technique,” but perhaps a little short on “actual, real joy.”
More dissatisfaction over in Wimbledon, where Fay Maschler can’t even be enticed back to Black Radish for a second visit, so underwhelming does she find the first.
Neo-bistro inspiration means a short menu and modish combinations like smoked eel with dashi, shimeji and maitake — unfortunately the ingredients arrive “slumped,” the eel lacking “unctuousness.” The game of expectations-vs-reality continues with underwhelming braised venison — “pieces of meat in gravy rather than the soft sauce-like stew envisioned” — and in a loin of Yorkshire hogget, where “flavourful meat” could have been “trimmed of its fat more assiduously.”
Maschler hardly seems to relish giving such bad news — especially since staff are “sweet” and “enthusiastic” and the cooking does boast the odd “clever conceit” — Bird’s custard ice cream; nice. Sadly, the “torturous fashion-consciousness” at work at Black Radish proves fatal — a slavish devotion to “current culinary tropes” and presentation “seemingly guided by magazine illustration.” A waitress may exhort Maschler’s table to find the experience “amazing” — in reality, so much of the experience “militates against spontaneous enjoyment.”
Altogether cheerier vibes to close this week from Grace Dent — with a fittingly upbeat restaurant name to boot. Nestled in one of the developments around Kings Cross that isn’t Coal Drops Yard, Happy Face is an affordable pizzeria — both “cheap” and “can’t-knock-it-down-cheerful” — from the same Spiritland team that recently rejigged the food at Royal Festival Hall.
But where that feels a little jumbled, things here are winningly straightforward: this is a “capacious, all-day, retro-feel, pocket-friendly joint” fully aware that when it comes to crowd-pleasing food, “the key is simplicity.”
So: “generous piles” of calamari fritti; “hot, crisp” zucchini fritti; “sloppy-enough, chewy-enough” and ultimately “sating” pizzas. Such “no faff, no fuss” brevity can feel “gaspingly brief” in London 2019, but there is clear wisdom is “not reinventing the wheel” when the wheel is perfectly good enough in the first place. Dent is happy and she knows it. Now: “clap your hands.”