When Mark Wahlberg announced a London branch of his burger chain, Wahlburgers, a scathing takedown from at least one critic felt about as inevitable as a ninth Transformers sequel.
Readers coming to Grace Dent’s review hoping for a Pete-Wells-on-Guy-Fieri-level bodying, however, may leave a little disappointed. It’s not that Wahlburgers isn’t bad — because it is bad. It’s that Dent’s disappointment with the place stems from crushed hope: it might, just might, have been good. The menu is “a laminated bombardment of calorie-drench potential deliciousness,” heavy on OTT descriptors that get Dent “very, very excited”: sloppy joes; house-made chilli; tater tots; boozy milkshakes with frosted icing.
What arrives at the table is so overpriced and so haphazardly executed it verges on “puzzling.” Sweet potato fries come in a “half filled” cardboard carton and are “burned”; mac and cheese comprises “undressed, cheap penne” delivered “sitting in a puddle of thin cheese soup.” The burgers are slightly better — with a plant-based Impossible version taken out of Wahlberg’s hands actively “delicious” — but also punchily priced in the £11-14 range. Service is “worse than untrained”: it’s “that sort of trained where they’ve been drilled in answering seven questions only, and anything off-script or requiring empathy or gumption is best avoided”. Best avoided, too, is the Birthday Cake frappé — a “long, straight pint glass filled with what looks like vanilla Complan,” rendered “literally inedible” by a texture “thicker than porridge” that “will not suck up the straw.” Ultimately, the cooking at this branch of Wahlburgers leaves the Guardian critic with only “the deepest of umbrages.”
The discontent continues over in Notting Hill, where William Sitwell follows in Fay Maschler’s footsteps in not being especially wowed by anything happening at 104 Restaurant.
A flair for the “unusual” stymies enjoyment at the get-go, with rotating chairs and unwelcome dried lentils clinging to an opening canapé causing the Telegraph man to exhort: “make sure you check to ensure innovation is functional, not unsettling.”
Also unconventional is the choice of Sardinian, rather than English asparagus; also unsettling is the lemon zest strewn over its “woody” white “proboscis.” Sea bass is “decent,” but has been “left in the pan roughly 26 seconds too long,” its skin “just burnt.” Challans duck is “cut too large” and “a little undercooked and chewy”; chocolate moelleux is served “sadly too cold” to “appreciate the chocolate”; passion fruit sorbet is “too frozen: an icy shock rather than a palate cleanser.” Sitwell is the first to admit he is being “pernickety” in focusing in on the minutiae, but that is exactly “the point.” Especially at a restaurant as “teeny-weeny” as the 14-seater 104 Restaurant, the devil is in the details.
Up next, that rarest and most enlightening of curiosities: a genuine difference of opinion between two writers usually so in lockstep that they often end up at the same destination together.
The restaurant in question is Siren, the new seafood place in the Goring Hotel overseen by seafood king Nathan Outlaw. For Marina O’Loughlin, Outlaw and Co are more than “entitled” to the “enviable swagger” displayed on the restaurant’s website: opening accents like “superb” home-made bread and a “perfectly all’onda” crab risotto are everything one could want to eat in a “traditional luxury hotel”; then comes along a cuttlefish black pudding “to thrill and startle.” Main courses are perhaps a little overdone, but O’Loughlin diagnoses cooking “that makes your eyes roll back in your head with pleasure.”
Fay Maschler, meanwhile, is serving eye-rolls of a different kind. For her, the restaurant’s name serves as a “warning device” for some “exuberant” pricing and so-so execution. Coating “a small piece of tasteless turbot” in a “puffa jacket of batter” is scarcely “defensible”; there is more disappointment in “dark and murky” mackerel with green sauce, “blandly innocuous” cured monkfish, and a crab risotto that “lacks seasoning”. Things look up with a “noble” tranche of hake and a “textbook” burnt cream, and there’s more praise for that cuttlefish black pudding, “a punchy good deed in a disappointing world.” It may still be “early days,” but with prices that at times act as a “turn off,” Maschler finds in Siren less an alluring maiden, and more a genuine cause for “alarm.”
There’s a similar tension at the heart of Giles Coren’s column this week, as he finds a mixed bag at Quique Dacosta’s rice-and-Quique-Dacosta-centric newcomer, Arros QD.
There’s a “tricksy ... molecular vibe” to the starters, which are long on the show-off flourishes that inspire a “strange alteration of ‘Wow!’ and ‘So what?’” in the Times critic. But they’re undeniably “very accomplished and very beautiful” — “as much like El Bulli as you’re going to get within a spit of Goodge Street station.”
Also impressive, albeit in a different way, is the signature paella Valenciana — a “massive thing for two people that could happily feed three,” dotted with beans, “incredibly tasty tiny artichokes,” rabbit, and chicken, all heady with “deep, rich, rustic flavours.”
The contrast between these two modes of cooking perhaps explains why Coren isn’t more fulsome in his praise. Arros QD is both “a temple of progressive gastronomy” and “a monument to simple old food values” — Coren also finds that it works triple duty as “a show-offy bar-cum-nightclub.” Ultimately, “it works in parts, grates in others.”
For Jay Rayner, the only thing that grates about newfound Mayfair darling Emilia is the prices. This being the centre of central London, things are undeniably at the higher end of the spectrum: the £15 starters and £32 mains enough to exercise a certain kind of critic into a “spittle-flecked rage.”
But look past this — as Rayner is able to — and punters will find all the ingredients for a “lovely night out,” not to mention “an object lesson in the value of doing just a few things exceptionally well.” “Super-crisp” courgette fritti to start are “miraculous,” their wild garlic aioli a “bowl of oniony, garlicky outrageousness.” A classic vitello tonnato has been given “a buff and a scrub,” while also “staying true to itself”; simultaneously “earthy” and “classy” tagliatelle with rabbit ragu is “a grand bunch of forkfuls waiting to happen.” Middle White pork saltimbocca and its accompaniments are tied together by a “glossy jus”; desserts are similarly “precisely calibrated.” It might all come with a caveat — namely, “some big numbers come the bill” — but Rayner deems “some of London’s best Italian food” worthy of being “royally screwed.”
Tayēr + Elementary
It’s left to Jimi Famurewa to deliver the only uniformly positive take of a very busy week, as he checks out TāTā Eatery’s bar snacks at Tayēr + Elementary, and encounters some truly “awe-inspiring” mouthfuls.
*That* katsu sando somehow lives up to the hype. Boosted by a “walloping smear of shrimp shallot XO sauce,” it’s certainly “pungent,” but the other elements of the dish combine to create “an intricate marvel of savoury depth, slightly sour fruit and wanton, polyphonic crunch.” Two word verdict: “just, wow.”
Lardo fried rice is “just as satisfyingly complex” — a “careful dance of sophistication and Cantonese takeaway comfort” in which richness is offset by “a sharp clump of pickled kohlrabi,” and flavours are further elevated by “a lip-tingling slick of chilli oil.” Dining solo, Famurewa is by this point “too stuffed” to fully appreciate the braised ox cheek quesadilla, its rice paper tortilla fried “to brittle, bubbled transcendence”, but on the basis of these three dishes his recommendation is unequivocal. “Fizzing with imagination and casually presented rigour,” the food offering here really is “something formidable.”