The Sea, The Sea
“Genuinely exciting” and “Chelsea” usually sit about as well together as “European tournament winners” and “North London football clubs”, so it is with the greatest of haste that this week starts off with a trip to SW1 to see what all the fuss is about.
Marina O’Loughlin is at Leandro Carreira’s new digs, The Sea, The Sea — and as well as a room “refreshingly free of nautical kitsch,” she finds genuinely “smart,” “brilliant” cookery. Mussels in miso broth may be “a study in relatively conventional subtlety”, but other than that the kitchen has jumped in at the deep end: “ravishing” crab is accompanied by “tuile-delicate waffles flecked green with seaweed for scooping”; yellowfin tuna tartare acts as a “curiously beefy foil” to chopped Marinda tomatoes; “taut curls” of squid come with a pesto of pine nuts, sake and sea herbs. These dishes “contain a multitude of ingredients,” “the seafood is allowed to shine: pure, sparkling, pristine.”
Just last week Tim Hayward was commenting on how hard it was to prepare seafood in this manner, and Carreira and team have seemingly managed to toe the fine line between collating a “borderline insane collection of flavours” and creating dishes that will make diners “gasp with pleasure.” The cooking here is “so simple, so clever, so glorious to eat”: for anyone “devoted to sparky-fresh seafood,” The Sea, The Sea packs a genuine “thrill.”
Damper squibs over at The Soak, where Jay Rayner finds a modish emphasis on pickling and fermentation but also a sense of inconsistency that makes dinner feel like “a game of battleships”: “you have no idea whether the dish you’ve ordered is going to be on target or far out in the deep, storm-lashed sea.”
Hits include an opening salvo of pickles, “crunchy and thrilling without being wince-inducing,” as well as some diced cured venison “with a pleasing bite” and some lamb belly fritters that pack “a huge hit of meaty lanolin.” To finish, a dark chocolate and honeycomb baked Alaska is simply “masterful.”
There are also plenty of misses. Cider-pickled eggs with hazelnuts and chicory are “a grim reminder of 1970s pub food”; hot and sour pickled prawns with a lime and carrot salad “reads beautifully” but instead comprises “a dull plate of crunchy, rubbery things.” Tomatoes with fregola are “floppy and underseasoned”; aubergine tempura is “an insult to deep-frying”; cured trout is wholly “flavourless.”
It’s not just “uninspiring” — it’s actively “extraordinary” that “the same kitchen” can be responsible for such wild extremes of quality. Factor in a bizarre booking system and the whole experience is “deeply unsatisfactory.” Perhaps more worryingly, it’s also “seriously, inexplicably weird.”
As conventional wisdom goes, it’s never too late to make a third Xi’an Impression — and Wei Guirong has done just that in Holborn with her first solo venture, Master Wei. Giles Coren made some approving noises about the place as part of a local roundup a few weeks back, but generally the biang biang and liangpi have flown under the critical radar in the months since it opened in March.
Cue a visit from Grace Dent, who receives “an assertive culinary hug” from the kitchen — and, it must be said, a “comedic level of neglect” from the front of house. At its best, this is a clear example of “substance deliciously overriding style”: there are the “dank delights” of spicy wood ear mushrooms, or the “piquant” intrigue of some “remarkable” shredded chicken and “magnificent” sliced kelp. And the signature noodles are, of course, “emotionally stirring” — all “comforting carbohydrate” and “oily, hot, peppery umami undercurrent”. Some dishes, like the cumin burger and xin jiang noodles, don’t quite hit the same heights — the former’s bun “like something you might find vacuum-packed at the newsagent”; the latter suffering from a somewhat “watery” sauce.
Master Wei may not be perfect yet — a meal here still definitely comes with some “highs and lows.” It’s still “pretty damned good.”
There’s much less bang (and biang biang) for buck in Mayfair, where Giles Coren finds much of the offering at the tasting-menu-only Hide Above a little “meh.”
It’s not that the food is bad: the opening snacks in particular are “divine mouthfuls”; there are a host of “delightful” little touches on subsequent courses. Perhaps it’s the room, with its “ceilings too low for magnificence”; perhaps it’s the “dreary” oak tables “incongruously dressed” with “towering wine tulips and coiled glass carafes of insane pretentiousness.” Perhaps it’s the puddings — somewhat “disappointing after the earlier fireworks.” Or maybe it’s just the bill, which comprises “real money” for a meal in which you “eat hardly anything.” Whatever the reason, the Times man leaves “satisfied but unfilled.”
Could the same be said of Fay Maschler after her visit to the Irish-influenced Myrtle in Chelsea?
Certainly, that chef Anna Haugh “can cook is not in doubt.” Basics like soda bread are “delicious”; pomme puree is all “buttery richness and smoothness”; a buttermilk panna cotta with rhubarb and cinnamon doughnuts is “a superb assembly, light and wibbly and painterly with the acidity of the fruit challenged by the soft sugary cheeks of little doughnuts.”
But there’s a sense, too, that the “slightly constipated techniques and tropes that tend to gather Michelin stars” have had too overt an influence on Haugh’s cooking. Portions are “stingy”; ingredient quality is “excellent” but “rather priggish in presentation.” Wine mark-ups are, ahem, “exacting.”
Myrtle is undeniably a “captivating notion” on paper, but it needs a little tweak for the time being. Factor in a little more “brio,” a touch of “generosity,” a general “loosening of stays” — “maybe even a nip of recklessness” — and there’s every reason that this entrancing formula will work.
Four Legs at The Compton Arms
For slightly more robust and filling fare than that at Hide or Myrtle, punters could do worse than check out The Compton Arms, where Four Legs is knocking out “a gently surprising, unapologetically carnivorous, quicksilver take on pub food.”
This per Jimi Famurewa, who finds some “immensely cheering” things on the short A5 menu: new potatoes come “heat-wrinkled and blitzkrieged with thyme,” alongside “judiciously garlicky aioli,” whilst pork belly skewers offer “drippingly moist, flame-blasted scraps of pig beneath a subtle, sweet marinade.” And then there is the cheeseburger — a “gorgeously ragged, thickly charred ship’s wheel of a patty,” “carefully adorned” with gherkins, “an idealised riff on Big Mac sauce,” and a “buttery spill of melted cheese,” it’s at once “nostalgic,” “restrained,” and “almost psychedelically beefy.”
Subsequent dishes may not deliver quite as much satisfaction: fried chicken with collard greens and asparagus with sauce gribiche both suffer from “wincing levels of salt.” But for those with the appropriate “threshold” for the “preposterousness” of eating food like this while an Arsenal match blares on the T.V., Four Legs offers genuinely “forward-thinking Modern British cuisine.”