New restaurants are so old hat. This season’s most achingly on-trend power move is the flex refurb — investing the sort of capital you could use to open a handful of fresh concepts to give your existing one a new lease of life. First, it was Tamarind — where the million-dollar lick of paint failed to mask the fact that the food hadn’t quite kept up.
Fortunately, in the case of erstwhile Heddon Street celeb-magnet Momo, the investment in rejuvenation seems to have paid off. It’s reviewed this week by Fay Maschler, who finds the North African influence of old still very much present and correct — both “honoured” and “astutely refined”.
Harira is “hauntingly spiced”; pieces of beetroot “shiny as jelly” crop up to enliven octopus tentacles “encrusted with crunch but tender beneath” and to lend another flash of colour to a dish “scattered with vivid chips of green pistachio nuts”. Roasted cauliflower and chickpea salad is simply “beguiling”; the ‘classic’ house couscous, meanwhile, arrives topped with merguez, lamb cutlets and chicken kofte, but the grain at the heart of things is far from overwhelmed — “feathery” and “seductive”, this is “a basic elevated to a high level of sophistication”.
Things are perhaps a little more “decorous” here than they used to be, but the vibe is far from stilted: staff are “attractively laid back and keen to serve”; there is a basement bar opening soon that is sure to be “a happy hunting ground”. But Maschler is adamant that it is the food that should “star” on social media — there is a “cohesion and an awareness of tradition” on show from new chef Hervé Deville’s kitchen that “comes as a blessing and relief” amidst “the current flourishing of culinary gobbledegook”. Heddon Street’s somewhat sheltered location may make this one of the harder places to track down, but in its “newly beauteous space” Momo remains a “glittering oasis”.
Xier / XR
Proudly flaunting the refurb trend is new Marylebone twinstaurant Xier / XR — a Hide-style attempt to stack Michelin-baiting fine dining on top of something a little more all day.
Per Jimi Famurewa, at this early stage the formula isn’t quite working. For sure, despite possessing a “clunky name that wouldn’t look out of place above the door of a provincial escape room”, the idea of launching not one but two restaurants in the current market is “an interesting flex”. But the execution at more casual XR isn’t quite up to scratch, meaning that the “imaginative cooking” ends up feeling somewhat “shackled” by a “compromised, overly finicky set-up”.
The bread’s good, at least. “Oven-warm” and “fragrant with rosemary”, this is “God’s own sourdough” — a fitting accompaniment to some cheering opening statements that include crispy squid served with a “thin but zippy” dill mayo and some enoki and truffle arancini that do “their oozy, unctuous thing with a welcome waft of East Asian depth”
Unfortunately subsequent dishes — mains in particular — land with markedly “less success”. A butterhead lettuce salad cries out “for the sharp poke of something savoury”; aubergine parmigiana is “stodgy”; pulled beef cheek arrives “slopped in a characterless brown jus” and in possession of a “strange sous-vided ‘wetness’ on the tongue”. Puddings — especially “an amazing corpse-reviver of a coffee ice cream” — restore a bit of credit, and it may well be the case that the food upstairs at the fancier (fanXier?) Xier represents a “purer manifestation” of chef Carlo Scotto’s vision. As it is, though, things feel a little “hazily rendered” at present — “dividing may not always be the best way to conquer.”
Baptist Grill / VIVI / Master Wei
If that’s the case, no one told Giles Coren, who files one of his patented Russian nesting doll-style multi-destination reviews to round things off this week.
First up is Baptist Grill, reviewed relatively recently (and relatively favourably) by William Sitwell. But a winning homage to the grills of old is not what the Times man experiences: quite simply, it’s “not nice”, all “loud 1980s disco music”, “lighting too dark to let you see the menu”, and “waiters in gold spangly tuxedos interrupting your conversation”. There’s “nothing madly wrong with the food” — assuming, that is, “you like that style of fancy things concocted on paper by an offsite executive chef who could probably cook you a nice meal if he tried but is just phoning this one in”. There’s the occasional “fun riff” like a Coronation crab salad, but really it’s all a little too “fancified” for its own good, leaning too heavily on “mimsy brown smears” that are an edible “waste of time”. And at over £200 for a light-ish lunch, quite possibly a waste of money too.
Things are “more fun” at VIVI, where the “huge bright space” leaves even a jaded pro “wowed”. But the 1960s revival fun doesn’t quite carry over onto the plate — the dishes are “not only visibly drawn from the old days” but “every bit as nasty as they used to be, too”. “Jammy” prawn cocktail comes with “triangles of cheap bread”, quiche Lorraine is “very salty”, souffle is “boaky”, scampi are “dry and powdery”, and (ahem) “a hard, brown cylindrical breast of chicken like a rustic dildo with a bit of garlic butter inside” is “every bit as bleak and wrong as any chicken Kiev ever was.” Ouch.
Those in search of “proper food” should instead head tout-de-suite to Master Wei, where Guirong Wei continues the legacy of Highbury sibling Xi’an Impression by continuing to serve “indescribably perfect little plates” of Shaanxi cuisine. The staff are “relaxed and jolly”; the food is “as fresh, homemade and refreshingly different as ever”. The surrounding Midtown area may not “deserve it”, but at least of the three restaurants he visits in the area, Coren has found one that he can unambiguously “love”.