Even as a chill wind blows through the city’s restaurant scene, London’s thirst for vibey wine-and-small-plates joints apparently remains unslaked.
Jimi Famurewa starts things off with a visit to the latest: Highbury newcomer Top Cuvée. The formula may be established by now — the familiar “relaxed culinary hipness” is certainly present and correct — but that doesn’t stop chef Dan Miller and the front of house team from springing the odd pleasant surprise. This is somewhere bringing “a new energy, a flavourful wallop” and a winning “playfulness” to the table, resulting in an “instant neighbourhood hit.”
Food is quite frequently “properly, blissfully good”: “pungent” sweet potato, blue cheese and sage croquettes; a “turbocharged” terrine. A “fantastically sloppy” burrata, meanwhile, is offset with roast pumpkin and “coarse dukkah pushed to the very limit of its salty, spiced smokiness”; Miller’s “dynamic way with voguish vegetables” is underlined by a “gorgeously warm” dish of baked beetroot, reeling from a “beautiful, sharp uppercut of a vinaigrette.”
There are “a couple of slight disappointments.” Cod with oyster emulsion is “a bit parsimonious and textureless,” while a braised pig cheek with celeriac and hazelnut ‘pesto’ “has not quite enough meaty savouriness to stand up to those powerfully sweet sides.” But really, this is a “grin-widening” experience — factor in an “almost criminally low bill,” and the only real reaction to somewhere so “warm and generous and inclusive” is sheer “joy.”
Fare Bar and Canteen
One of the pivotal figures in London’s vibey wine-and-small-plates joints renaissance, Michael Sager has since moved onto delivering a broader food and drink offering at Fare Bar and Canteen.
Per David Sexton, it really does offer “a bit of everything”: coffee, cocktails, pizza, wine, and sit-down stuff consumed from plates in a variety of sizes. Unfortunately, “a bit of everything” covers things pretty accurately on the food front, too. “Tender, earthy and smoky” golden beets with hazelnuts and “good, fresh, sweet” clams with green garlic and courgettes deliver at the downstairs restaurant; mains, though, are “less popular.” Ricotta gnudi are “a bit cloying”; pork schnitzel is “dry and unrewarding”; Suffolk lamb shoulder is “unctuous” enough but at £22 feels “steeply priced.”
Things upstairs are more casual, designed with a more millennial form of promiscuous culinary “browsing” in mind. Sourdough pizza is undeniably “good,” especially when “aromatised with lashings of powdered black truffle and oil”; wines by the glass are “fairly priced”, too. Keep it simple here, and it’s more than possible to find something to “hit the spot”.
For Marina O’Loughlin, the OTT maximalism of its continent-hopping approach to ingredient sourcing is a feature, not a bug: the results are properly “bewitching,” in fact. Lobster toast is “succulent,” its dipping sauce “an evolved take” on Vietnamese nuoc cham — the sort of deeply “exciting” opening statement that begs to be “inhaled.”
One slightly frogspawny garnish aside, it’s all good, really: mussels are “plump” and “sweet,” “shimmering with oil infused with cascabel chillis”; there’s a “deft touch with citrus” apparent in the “pungently mouth-puckering” seasoning that accompanies a skewer of “the fattest, smokiest prawns.” And then there’s the celeriac shawarma, which “deserves every letter of its accolades”: the root “smoky and almost toffee,” the pitta enclosing it “pillowy” in the best possible way. The room is “as soigné as the man himself”; the martinis are “excellent.” But it’s the food, not the booze, that sends O’Loughlin out into the world “enlivened, energised” — “almost intoxicated.”
Also on the lash this week is William Sitwell, who discovers a little-known gem from the Southern Rhone on the list at Baptist Grill — at £11 a glass, “amazing value” compared to the absolute rinsing by Coravin on offer at Beck at Browns just a fortnight ago.
The robust, ferrous qualities of Syrah and Cinsault seem well suited to the fare on offer here — any self-professed grill offering a ‘40oz Mini Axe’ as a main is laying its stall out fairly unambiguously. Starters are dainty and finessed, even surprisingly so: crab comes in a “neat” cake with a light curry sauce riffing on “the flavours of coronation” — “an inspired mix.” It’s “a really wonderful dish,” as is a bowl of agnolotti, decently “al dente” and with a garnish delivering “a crunch of almonds and the rich tartness of preserved lemon.”
And then onto the main event, which duly arrives “like a sultan and his entourage” — “a fabulous piece of meat,” “pink and full and flavour.” Garnishes include “perfectly oily” and “unctuous” bone marrow, bordelaise sauce, ravioli stuffed with snails, truffle mash AND fries. With dishes like this, with a statement room — “an altar to maroon” — surrounding them, with a menu long on foie gras and oysters, Baptist Gill may offer a very specific kind of pleasure — but that doesn’t make it any less “theatrically splendid”.
A different set of ambitions — executed with equal success — are on show at Angelina, where Jay Rayner is initially leery at the idea of Italo-Japanese fusion but finds instead “a beautifully intentioned, low-key experiment” — “a gentle treatise on what Japanese and Italian cooking have in common.”
This is “curious”, “thoughtful” food, in short tasting menu format: fritto misto / tempura to start, “in a crisp, lacy batter overcoat which snaps easily.” Alongside, raw stuff: “candy-pink” Sicilian prawns, “sweet and slightly sticky,” “lined up on the plate like commas”; sea bream, “the translucence of mother of pearl.” Next, risotto with unagi — maybe not packing quite the requisite “wobble,” but “a plate of loveliness all the same.” Meat is onglet, “thoroughly beefy”, and “coarse-cut” house-made sausages, “with a rugged back note of the duodenal and the farmyard.” Pudding is panna cotta, “lick-the-bowl-clean good” but still “a bit of a shrug,” given the deep bench of traditions the team have to pick from.
It’s hard to begrudge them too much. Angelina is “such a sweet venture,” “so cheerfully fanboyish in its devotion to the subtleties of both cooking traditions” that the heart warms to it just as much as the head worries it “will gain only niche novelty status.” There’s a simple solution, fortunately: “book to eat there.” According to Rayner, “you really should.”