Sometimes it almost feels like restaurant criticism is an art and not a science. What, for example, to make of this week’s first brace of verdicts on modern Turkish import Yeni — one a barely-qualified rave, the other a no-holds-barred panning?
Leading things off in the ‘pro’ corner is Jimi Famurewa, dropping his first-ever five stars for food on a “spectacular meal.” Per the ES Magazine critic, this is Anatolian fare that has been “modernised and reappraised without losing any of its grit, soul or assertive, rough-hewn deliciousness” — think an “incredible” dish of cig kofte tartare with potato and egg yolk, or “invitingly charred” octopus tentacle with a “killer Ottolenghi-ish tangle” of bulgur wheat, chilli, and sour cherries. It certainly doesn’t come cheap — 125 quid for two with “hardly any booze” suggesting that pricing “reflects the realities of rent in one of the more financially brutal parts of town”. But it’s absolutely worth it for one of the signal meals of 2019 so far — leaving this critic, at least, “soothed and pleased” in equal measure.
Beginning with that winning descriptor, “a major car crash,” it’s fair to say Jay Rayner’s review is at the other end of the spectrum. Aside from the “touching grace” of the front of house team, there’s little to recommend this version of Yeni, where it’s a close-fought battle for title of most “calamitous” dish: is it the £21 charged for a “huge slumping package” of vine leaves stuffed with chickpeas and labneh? The £26 charged for “ravaged strands” of beef atop “a tombstone of soggy bread?” A “mediocre” panna cotta for pudding at 9 (nine) pounds sterling? Who knows: what is certain, in Rayner’s eyes at least, is that this much-heralded newcomer “weds underwhelming, occasionally disastrous dishes” with “the kind of in-yer-face pricing that gives the entire restaurant business a wretched name.”
The Drunken Butler
Of course, sometimes, a difference of critical opinion is understandable. Restaurants evolve as they age: standards dip, or issues get fixed.
And, one-day-a-week-feasting-menus are introduced which leave hard-to-impress critics giddy and reeling. Marina O’Loughlin, in this case, is the beneficiary of chef-proprietor Yuma Hashemi’s redirection of his “immense talent” away from “decorative, tweezery dishes” and towards his Persian Sundays project, which arrives on the table as a “delicious wave,” an “adventure” into a range of dishes that are to Western palates “as bewildering as they are enchanting.” Really, it’s “the best kind of menu”: one as “horizon-broadening” as it is “grin-inducing.”
And that’s before the meal’s crowning achievement: “dear lord, the tahdig.” This is a “head-spinningly good” version of the classic rice dish, its grains “so light and fluffy,” its crust “so bronzed and heady with butter” that it quite simply “floods the senses.” This is “home cooking elevated until it delivers all the comfort, overlaid with a flourish of clever sophistication”; cooking that’s “as welcoming as it is thrilling.” With its “unhurried” pacing and “beautiful” presentation, “none of it feels like London,” but perhaps that’s exactly the nub. Persian Sundays at The Drunken Butler aren’t just “very special indeed” — they’re actively “life-affirming.”
It was Fay Maschler who was originally left a little cold by Drunken Butler 1.0, and it was Hashemi who received her verdict with markedly less chill. Perhaps in a few months’ time O’Loughlin will come along to redirect the critical conversation around Vivi, too. Right now, this is another fairly underwhelming affair for the Evening Standard critic, who extends a desultory dining run of late with yet another so-so experience.
The shtick at this new Centre Point opening is swinging 60s / Mad Men glamour, which leaves the operators with the clear “quandary” of how much to “adjust for modern appetites.” Using “miserable little defrosted prawns” and “a Marie Rose sauce with no edge” in prawn cocktail may scan as authentically terrible, but it’s hardly a winner in 2019 — ditto “vapid” sauce with duck à l’orange, “tasteless” chicken Kiev where any semblance of “thrill” is “absent.” and devils on horseback that are far from a “gratifying” bar snack. Maschler ponders whether or not she’ll go back “when Crossrail opens” — based on this evidence, Vivi will be lucky to survive that long.
For nostalgia done right, look no further than L’Escargot: now in its 123rd year of operation, but still going strong.
Tim Hayward is the latest critic to visit this Soho institution, and he finds it in rude health: short on cheffy “twists and tricks”; long on “predictable things” done with “unexpected brilliance,” like a Roquefort and endive salad put together “with precise balance and finest judgment,” and better still, in a portion “big enough to fill a washing-up bowl.” Or there’s the “deep broth” of a French onion soup, followed by the luxury of “exemplary” Tournedos Rossini. “Novelty is not the point” at L’Escargot — and it never has been. It is “glee-inspiring” to see the latest incarnation of this storied restaurant “reconnecting so comfortably with its own tradition” — to experience such an “unspoilt, luxurious, romantic environment” and discover such “reliable food, made outstandingly well” within it. Like a deeply classical tarte au citron receiving an unmistakably 2019 description, the brand-new-same-old L’Escargot is never anything less than “wholly peng.”
Some permutation of “wholly peng” has to date been the unwavering critical consensus on Richard Caring’s latest, Brasserie of Light. And in closing things off this week, William Sitwell does nothing to rock the boat, concurring that this is a restaurant every bit as “sensational” as the 30-foot flying horse that adorns it.
Like that giant Pegasus, it’s not exactly subtle: the menu is “big and blowsy”; dishes are equally adorned. But the cooking really is good: zucchini fritti, for example, are “excellent,” “sliced beautifully thin” to deliver “that perfect degree of moreish crunch with just a hint of grease.” Spaghettini with lobster is “similarly accomplished,” the lobster “cooked to tender greatness.” Even the closing ‘chocolate bubble,’ an OTT confection that could have been “a little too Ben & Jerry’s for a posh gaff like this” ends up “an elegant lucky dip,” with “the softest mousse” offset neatly with a “texturally perfect” chocolate crumb. There’s substance as well as style in this “sparkling, twinkling palace” of a place; one might even say that this restaurant... Has wings?