Since her appointment to The Sunday Times in 2017, Marina O’Loughlin has shown herself to be more willing than most to check in on the capital’s grandes dames as well as its thrusting up-and-comers — as likely to be spotted indulging in old-school luxury at The Ritz or Club Gascon in Zone One as she is getting her small plates and natty juice on in east London.
This week it’s the turn of Mayfair institution Locanda Locatelli, and it’s easy to imagine a certain suave Italian waking up with a smile on his face for the next few days: per The Sunday Times critic — as per Eater London — this remains one of the capital’s essential gems: the food and service still very much “cut the mostarda” seventeen years after opening, “pasta especially”. Dressed with savoy cabbage, leeks, black pepper and Bitto cheese, pizzoccheri are “majestically rough-hewn and rustic”; ravioli del plin are “both delicate and meatily robust”; gnocchi with porcini just “heaven”.
And if secondi are “atypically complex” in comparison — perhaps as a sop to Michelin, like the “unnecessary” petits fours that round off the meal — there is still “excellence” on show “in every detail”, from thoughtfully deseeded tomatoes in a salad to the “angelically rosy” cuisson of some roast duck to the occasional “generous flourish” like the legendary bread basket (“so good and so much of it”). The “chilly” room may not quite have kept speed with the capital’s hospitality industry, but in every other aspect the skills of a “supremely talented chef” shine through and result in an experience that is pretty close to “divine”.
Things are a little less successful over at Farzi Café in Haymarket, where William Sitwell joins the queue of faintly baffled critics not quite wowed by its funky ‘Farzified’ riffs on contemporary Indian cuisine.
Confronted by a menu that “about as clear as a legally binding backstop”, Sitwell resolves to take a more traditional path through it, but — in one of an ongoing series of incidents in which a restaurant’s owner should really have left well alone — some doubtless well-intentioned freebie dishes end up costing Farzi Café dear. It’s a shame, because the stuff Sitwell actually orders is mostly “lovely”: arancini are “tasty, delicately spiced intriguing mouthfuls”; chicken tikka is “miraculously tender”; a bowl of dal is “deeply dark and ghee-filled”. If that were the lot, things might have turned out OK — but because of those additions (avocado, snails, a wagyu cottage pie) the overall experience is closer to “being force-fed an international all-you-can-eat buffet.”
Sure, with its natural wines and plastic pastel crockery Peg has a certain “preciousness” that “may be mildly triggering for people who want to just book a proper table and have dinner in a familiar way” — but the “stealthily complex” food is “so very, very good” (and “crucially, joyful in its execution”) that its hard to begrudge the place a little swagger.
Given its proximity to the robata grill, it’s no surprise that the cooking is a blend of “blackened char” and “face-slaps of umami”: “richly juicy” chicken livers are “lifted” by fresh horseradish; bunching onions with a “scorched, caramelised crust” come with a “generous sloshing” of pickled kumquat yuzukosho; “plump” chicken thighs are served with a “similar, effectively acidic” green chilli sauce. These assemblies — like Peg itself — feel “simultaneously relaxed and manically drilled”; it may scan as a “touch snacky and insubstantial” for some but this would be a mischaracterisation: the “anchoring principle of fastidious, deep-bore deliciousness” behind every dish ensures they are always more than the sum of their parts. Famurewa may arrive a tad sceptical but there is such “single-minded, minor-key brilliance” on show here that he leaves genuinely “blown away”.
The giant overhead induction hoses that festoon the dining room at Seveni, in Elephant and Castle, serve a similar purpose — albeit blowing away of a more literal, pragmatic kind. This Northern Chinese barbecue joint offers punters the chance to charcoal-grill their food from the security of their own table — smoke is therefore very much an occupational hazard.
Per Jay Rayner, it’s worth the change of clothes: go “mob-handed”, and it’s possible to enjoy “an awful lot of noisy, elbows-out ‘Pass-me-a-napkin’, ‘Yes-I’ll-have-another-beer’, ‘What-the-hell-is-that?’, ‘Don’t-eat-the-chilies’, ‘Who-wants-to-try-the-lambs’-brains?’ fun”.
The “vibrant, rust-coloured” house spice mix of cumin, chilli, salt and sugar enlivens almost every dish it touches, from “hot nuggets of skewered lamb” to “sizeable” king prawns. There’s also a separate Sichuan menu offering stuff like fried chicken and pig kidney; subtler flavours are also available in dishes like stir-fried Chinese chive with egg (“the most savoury of herb-flecked scrambled eggs”). It’s a lot to take in — a food offering as “larky and boisterous” as the vibe. It may come off as “seriously intimidating” to the uninitiated, but it’s well worth summoning the courage: so “be brave and walk through the door”.
So widespread has a sunny kind of Middle Eastern-inflected cuisine spread across the British cultural consciousness that stepping into a restaurant like Melabes these days feels second nature. That wasn’t always the case, of course — but David Sexton is on hand this week to close things off with a reminder of how much we have gained in this act of cultural assimilation.
This newish Israeli joint on Kensington High Street may not look like much — presentation is “straightforward” at best. But there are treats on the somewhat “cryptic” menu, all the same: Mediterranean chicken comprises pita stuffed with “delicious pieces” of “spicily marinated” thigh and a “brilliantly fresh” and “herby” chopped salad, boosted with a welcome dose of amba, “the sour spicy mango condiment that adds such zing in the right amounts.” Breads are “marvellous” — in fact, pretty much everything is “extraordinarily good”, from velvet hummus (“a kind of ultimate version”) to an “almost absurdly pleasurable” baba ghanoush. Packed “full of flavour”, “memorable for its freshness”, this is cooking that verges on the “irresistible”. In its unadorned frontage, Melabes has thoroughly “undersold itself”: “it deserves to be packed”.