The race to the White House started up in earnest this week, so it’s perhaps fitting that Grace Dent kicks things off with a visit to Robin Gill’s new U.S.-Embassy-adjacent restaurant, Darby’s.
What she finds is nothing less than a “culinary bear-hug.” From “a menu you could whisper into someone’s ear as a niche form of ASMR therapy,” highlights include “decadent, airy” chicken liver mousse with an “unforgettable” Jerusalem artichoke and truffle ‘jam’; “heroically good” monkfish fillet, and the house riff on the growingly ubiquitous confit potato: “thick, crisp, SpongeBob SquarePants-shaped, concertina-style slices of heaven”. Service is “fast”; “excellent”; “knowledgeable”: factor in the “subdued lighting” and it’s a restaurant “to have up your sleeve for a multitude of eventualities: crowds, client dinners and date nights alike.” Darby’s “winning formula may be a well-worn one”, but here, it “never bores.”
There’s more directness on offer at the Guinea Grill in Mayfair, where Tim Hayward finds a cooked breakfast for the ages. Admirably, he starts with a bonus plate of devilled kidneys. each organ “fried precisely to its pink-hearted peak, not simply “devilled” but personally tossed by Baphomet in fiery boiling oils,” before the main event arrives. All the usual suspects are present and correct: “fudgy” black pudding; “spectacularly tasty” sausages; fried egg, “lacy at the edges from the frier”; bacon, “less of a rasher than a modest steak, with a substantial fat layer”; mushroom, “for health.” Taken together, it’s enough to leave any critic “quietly groaning”, but there’s something so “exaggeratedly extra” about it all that amongst the agony there are “transports of joy,” too. Hayward feels that in a world where “avocados have sapped our resolve,” it can feel like “the Full-Dress Ceremonial Breakfast is endangered.” Here, at least, he finds “hope.”
‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’ might be an appropriate slogan for Marina O’Loughlin’s destination this week. Sette, the new Italian at the Bulgari Hotel, Knightsbridge, is “an expensive dud” in every sense that “panders to its audience” of supra-wealthy with dishes like ‘susci’ and crudo “obliterated by the full lesser-branch-of-Nobu-worth of extras —preserved truffle, ginger, taggiasca olives, pesto.”
Everything on the menu is “over the top”, bloated with “luxury signifiers” that render each dish actively “nasty”: shortrib comes with farro ‘risotto’ “dolloped onto the plate with all the finesse of a disgruntled dinner lady”; duck and foie gras ravioli “seep a granular beige goo” and arrive with “an overreduced, sickly squeeze of marsala scribbled on top.” Main courses, too, are “as overaccessorised as a hooker at the Grand National” — puddings, “ditto.” Black cherry tartufata is “gritty” and “bland”, covered in shards of ‘crispy milk’ and submerged in ‘sweet corn cream’ — it’s hard to tell “whether to eat it or wear it like a fascinator.”
Perhaps it’s “naive to expect anything resembling value in this most rarefied neck of the woods,” but O’Loughlin emphasises the genuinely “exhausting ... anodyne opulence.” She finds no personality, no spark, no nothing: this could be “any expensive, faux-Italian restaurant in any expensive mall in any town, anywhere”.
Bob Bob Cité
For a similar bill — but much better food — instead head over to Bob Bob Cité, nearly two years in the making but increasingly seeming like it was worth the wait. Giles Coren follows in Grace Dent’s footsteps this week, and is similarly enraptured by Eric Chavot’s cooking. This being the City, there are plenty of “daft-arse caviar and truffle-baked oyster options”, but it’s also possible to navigate the menu and find “a pretty wonderful, classical French lunch.” Start with a “superb” onion soup, topped with a “great cheesy belly-flop of a Comté crouton”. Move on to a “delicious, rich, tarragony” chicken, morel, and sauternes pie, perhaps with a side of “fat, angry lobster macaroni cheese with its golden crunchy crust”. Finish with “an île flottante for the ages” — job done. Devotees of regional French cooking aren’t necessarily Bob Bob’s target audience, and it’s an open question as to how much the “Krug-swilling party boys” will appreciate this quality of cooking, but as the Brexit inferno continues to burn, “Bob Bob Cité will be as good a place as any to sit and watch the world end — especially if it ends before they bring the bill.”
Another lengthy genesis in Holborn: it was May 2017 when Gezellig popped up at Marylebone culinary incubator Carousel; fast forward more than two years and its search for a permanent site has finally come to an end. Per Jimi Famurewa, co-founders Witeke Teppema, James Comyn, Rebecca Mascarenhas and Graham Long have come up with “a hell of a space”: “a high-ceilinged, banquette-lined 50-cover room painted a cooling sage, strewn with drained wine bottles and already in possession of a clubby, lived-in air.” The cooking is similarly eclectic — “a happy pile-up of culinary ideas and influences, all anchored — for the most part — by precise, Michelin-grade cooking.”
Occasionally, (over)familiarity with the red guide can render things a little anodyne, and at times this is the case here: trompette courgettes are “carefully grilled and arrayed with ewe’s curd, broad beans, a minty green broad bean purée” but are in need of “some chilli heat or even acidity to push against all the slightly passive, verdant freshness.” Similarly, poached plaice with potato, leek and buttermilk is both “expertly done” and “a little one-note, taste-wise.”
The kitchen’s considerable expertise also results in pure, “palate-blitzing joyfulness.” Pot-roast turnip is quite simply “a stormer”: the vegetable “flawlessly cooked” and “garlanded with terrific, sorrel-draped duck hearts and livers.” The accoutrements are just as successful with a main course of lamb, a “blushing” fillet “swarmed by incredible things like herbed mash, jus-plumped capers and a roasted tomato taken to an uncharted realm of deep, bursting sweetness.” And even if a closing black cherry and chocolate savarin is “oddly dense.” Famurewa leaves converted. With its promise of abundant “wine-loosened mischief,” Gezellig is gracing its new home with a “sprinkle of gently grown-up magic.”
There’s sprinkling of a different kind going on over in Mayfair, as David Sexton takes the opportunity to lavishly relieve himself all over the wildly underwhelming and punchily priced ‘contemporary French bistrot de luxe’ Les Platanes.
Despite clocking the Evening Standard stand-in and sending some gratis foie gras his way, the kitchen seems incapable of getting pretty much anything else right. Lobster salad with fennel and nectarine is “flavourless, a silly little dish, the fruit slices a pointless “southern” addition to a very few pieces of unremarkable lobster.” As well as being “gritty”, clams marinière are “almost worryingly” lacking in basic “freshness”; a similar affliction besets a chunk of turbot, “tired to the point of having lost its native good taste.” Scallop and crab pelmeni are “thick and rubbery”; lemon sorbet with Armagnac and lime zest is “too raw and acrid to finish”; an £11.50 cheese course features “two little pieces of a sharp blue cheese” and a “half-moon” of “hard and flavourless” Saint-Marcellin. When a vegetable accompaniment — in this case, the stuffed artichoke barigoule that accompanies the turbot — is the best thing about a meal, things probably aren’t going 100 percent to plan; after the recent raves enjoyed by neighbouring Emilia, this is a salutary reminder that “the rich don’t always have it good.” Far from it, in fact: at Les Platanes, everything is “mediocre or worse.”