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‘Memorably Awful’ — Critic Marina O’Loughlin on Knightsbridge Institution

Giles Coren enjoys a revelatory omakase — from an old friend — while Kym’s at the Bloomberg Arcade takes a knock

Mr Chow restaurant in Knightsbridge serves “memorably awful” Chinese food to Times food critic Marina O’Loughlin Mr Chow [Official Photo]

Endo at the Rotunda

Straight 10/10s from Giles Coren don’t come along that often. The Times man may have enjoyed a purple patch last year, in which each new review seemingly one-upped the one that came before in terms of excitable superlatives, but even then things were not entertaining the question of genuine perfection.

It’s fair to say he’s a fan of Endo at the Rotunda. Indeed, a 2013 celebration of all things Gymkhana is probably the last rave like it, and this time he goes one better than praising a nascent concept, by praising one not yet even in its soft launch.

It’s not like that matters too much, this being the sort of omakase experience where kinks to be ironed out are probably in short supply. From walking into the “breathtaking” space, from first mouthful until last, “indescribable perfectness” is the name of the game here — at almost indescribable prices.

In Coren’s eyes at least, it’s worth it. Signature dishes like house-made bread with spider crab, sea urchin and caviar offer a sensory experience “beyond imagining”; nigiri are “beyond perfect” — every single mouthful, in fact, offers genuine “specialness.” There’s a “quiet theatricality” to how the food is cooked and presented — more fundamentally, there’s a “beauty” to it, too. So good is the food, and so few are the spaces at the chef’s counter, that Coren’s conclusion is almost melancholic: “Everyone will want to be here. But almost nobody will be”.

Kym’s

There’s altogether less successful office block dining over at Bloomberg Arcade, where Tim Hayward can’t quite bring himself to agree with the consensus reached to date over Kym’s. Last year, both Fay Maschler and Marina O’Loughlin fell for the place hard — for the Financial Times’ critic, perhaps the most positive conclusion is that Andrew Wong has delivered “an almighty curate’s egg”.

Crispy duck with pancakes and plum sauce — “a soigné repositioning of a takeaway standard” — is undeniably “elegant” and looks the part but the duck meat itself has a “uniquely disappointing” texture — it is “dispiritingly lacking in the oleaginous quality essential for duck joy”. Three Treasure meats are also just OK — “competent” and “tasty” but short on “real fireworks.”

Steamed seabass, though, is “absolutely transcendent” — cooked “skilfully,” its broth balanced to “an acme of fragrance, sweetness and umami.” It’s enough to make everything else feel “borderline cynical” — factor in a “challenging price” that befits this “luxurious environment” and it gets even more maddening. Hayward would “do anything to eat the sea bass again — well, anything except go back.”

Orasay

Over in Notting Hill it’s another case of a well-regarded chef not quite locking in a critic’s endorsement, as Fay Maschler finds herself not quite falling for Jackson Boxer’s latest, Orasay.

Caveats are laid hastily on the table: she’s there soon after opening; a thoughtfully and sensitively decorated room undeniably make for “an attractive neighbourhood restaurant”. But there’s no getting around the fact that at this early stage the food doesn’t quite deliver. Perhaps it’s a question of composition: a punchily flavoured garnish atop some Barra Surf clams “swamps their innate flavour.” Or maybe it’s down to execution: rice pudding with rhubarb “hasn’t left institutional associations behind”; pasta in particular “seems not a strong suit of the kitchen,” comprising “stiff and chewy” agnolotti and pappardelle that “lacks the lackadaisical grace it should have.”

There are some positive signs: sea bream crudo with blood orange is “pretty and perky”; dark chocolate pudding with coffee sauce is “alluring” on the sweeter side of things. But much as Maschler may admire the “audacity” of a project like Orasay, regretfully she can’t quite “rave” about it yet.

Vivi

Maschler was similarly cool on the prospects of Centre Point nostalgia-bubble Vivi when she visited a few weeks ago; now it’s the turn of Grace Dent to open her food writer’s thesaurus in search of synonyms for ‘mediocre.’

So: there’s a “beast” of a mushroom vol-au-vent with pastry that feels “pre-cooked” and “ever so slightly dry,” plus “underdone” and “gnarly” roast salsify; there’s a burger featuring “beef of no named breed flanked by anonymous grilled cheese”; there are mushy peas which even at five quid are “not that exciting.”

This is the other thing worth noting about Vivi: it’s not cheap. That vol-au-vent is £19.50; the burger is £14; a pork chop comes in at £20.50. There’s no denying that no expense has been spared in creating such a “vast,” “luxurious” space, and so this is plainly somewhere catering “for a type of diner who has money to spend” — albeit one “who doesn’t get bogged down in the minutiae of sourcing and nerdish points-scoring.” “Gargantuan” and “gorgeous” Vivi may be, but there’s no ignoring the fact that it’s also “a little sterile.”

Mr Chow

On the plus side, at least it’s not Mr Chow. This venerable Knightsbridge institution may have ploughed serenely on for decades, churning out cash as it goes, but its status as genuinely critic-proof will doubtless be put to the test over the coming days as readers flock to a review from Marina O’Loughlin that hammers nails into coffins at every opportunity.

Things start off with six “prosaic” shengjianbao that “ejaculate scalding, greasy pork juice,” and the moneyshots just keep coming from there on out, featuring £40.50 crispy beef — “a small, miserable bundle of twigs” — “indifferent” prawns with spinach at £40.50 once again, and an Imperial Treasure-outswanking Beijing duck for £82 a head. And that’s before the Mr Chow noodles — “flabby,” “limp,” “knackered” carbs, topped with something so “pallid and textureless” it’s like eating “ground-up lip”: “the worst dish. Possibly ever.”

With a bottle of the cheapest white Burgundy this sumptuous feast comes to a scarcely-credible £231.65 — a ripoff so “blatant” and “shameless” it puts even surrounding SW1 to shame. Usually in situations like this critics will try to find something positive to hang onto, as a fillip for hardworking staff or a busy kitchen. But there’s no mercy here: Mr Chow is “a horrible, cynical restaurant.”

Gymkhana

42 Albemarle Street, , England W1S 4JH 020 3011 5900 Visit Website

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