144 On The Hill
The promise of less-than-temperate Bank Holiday weather sent London’s restaurant critics scurrying for sunshine: One fled as far as Bordeaux; another to Leith. Fortunately, a hardy trio remained in the capital, and between them they tell a salutary tale of the Goldilocks-like ‘just right’ between too much and too little cheffy ambition.
Jimi Famurewa finds too little of the stuff at 144 On The Hill, a new hotel restaurant in Richmond. Its menu of “voguish odds and ends” — open rabbit lasagne, Roscoff onion slaw, jackfruit dirty burger — strikes Famurewa as the work of “an absentee executive chef,” and despite an “undeniably pleasant” room, the net effect is of food ruined not by “arrogance or even lack of well meaning effort,” but by a kitchen that is plainly “unprepared” to do its recipes justice.
Rocket salad comes as “an undressed clump of nearly past-it leaves”; venison scotch egg features “gnarly, waywardly pink meat.” Flat iron steak and Gressingham duck breast fare little better, the former boasting a “thick band of gristle through the middle of it,” the latter arriving as “two seeping pink slabs.” Potentially redemptive bread rolls are “dense enough to make serviceable prison weapons.”
Puddings, somehow, are even worse. A Knickerbocker Glory is “laughably messy,” “a layered ode to sickliness”; a Valrhona chocolate mousse offers a one-two punch of “the hellish graininess of improper tempering” and “chewy, mouth-glueing honeycomb.” It also looks — “and there’s no getting around this” — like “something freshly sifted from a litter tray”.
At moments like this, a critic’s only real recourse is a bit of gallows humour to leaven the “sheer hapless horror.” In its current incarnation, 144 On The Hill offers Famurewa and his fellow diners nothing less than “cooking as high slapstick.”
Far fewer laughs over on the too-much-ambition end of the spectrum. Former Pidgin chef Adolfo de Cecco serves Fay Maschler a seven-course tasting menu long on fine-dining-inspired “predilections” at his new Clapton restaurant, all tied up with “enthusiasm for foraging and for mystifying.”
Conversation is regularly “interrupted” by chefs delivering both dishes and explanations; as a school of service, its attraction “begins to pall after a while.” For Maschler, this is a crying shame, because the cooking can be “diverting”: a dish of dried persimmons served with duck liver and carrots makes for an interesting opening statement; whipped seaweed butter with house focaccia is “obligingly piquant”; meats during the main course are clearly “impeccably bought and respectfully cooked.”
Even so, there’s the odd creative choice that leaves the Evening Standard critic little better than “flummoxed.” Strawberries are dehydrated then rehydrated; Jerusalem artichokes are carefully fermented, but end up whirled into a “non-specific brown sauce.” There’s plenty of skill on show, but Maschler’s overall impression of Casa Fofó is less than glowing: “chefs with too much time on their hands and not enough comprehension for the potential for fun in eating out.”
And then there’s Llewelyn’s, a homely south London joint that has quietly gone about its business with an extremely photogenic Instagram account and an extremely low dose of critical acclaim. Until now.
The Instagram account is still photogenic: the Times critic Giles Coren closes things off this week with an account of a very contented lunch. Things start off well with a plate of “wonderfully tender bresaola, mild, nutty coppa and good salami with sharp little gherkins,” and further “lovely springtime stuff” follows: nettle soup; broad beans and peas on sourdough. Mains, too, are “joyful things.” A grilled plaice might be “a couple of minutes overdone,” but it is also “beautifully accoutred” with brown shrimp, monk’s beard, and buttered almonds. A “wonderful” dish of tagliatelle with rabbit ragù and wild garlic earns fulsome praise: “the pasta fresh and firm and long and deeply yellow, the rabbit mild and pink, the garlic pungent and grassy, the parmesan rich and salty, the whole thing slick and meaty, fresh and zippy, all you could want on a suburban south London afternoon with a cool glass of friulano.”
Perhaps the modus operandi at Llewelyn’s offers an object lesson for the Casa Fofós and 144 On The Hills of this world. Perhaps it offers nothing of the sort, especially given the Herne Hill gem has had two years to evolve; Casa Fofó and 144 On The Hill have been open mere weeks. What is certain, from these verdicts, is that Llewelyn’s has earned the acclaim that its two contenders would so crave: it’s “just a really good local restaurant.”