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Critic Jimi Famurewa Finds ‘Special’ Food at a West African Institution

Old Kent Road’s 805 is a hit, while Robin Gill’s Darby’s and Mayfair darling Emilia receive compliments tempered by concerns

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805 restaurant on Old Kent Road in London gets a brilliant restaurant review 805 Restaurant [Official Photo]

Mortimer House

After a pair of raves in the same week from Marina O’Loughlin and Fay Maschler, the signs were promising for Fitzrovia’s Mortimer House. Now Giles Coren joins the party, thrilling to the enjoyably “crazy” fare on offer in the main restaurant.

The menu is both of no fixed abode and clear in its heritage, “like a Giorgio Locatelli or Francesco Mazzei has been locked in a room with Yotam Ottolenghi (and maybe José Pizarro as referee) and told they can’t come out until they’ve made some stuff they’re both happy with.” Herb tortelli with pistachios and smoked burrata are “magical”; there’s a “massive, chunky” caponata alongside a veal cutlet that’s “grilled pink and juicy on the bone.” Grilled Norfolk chicken is “sweet and juicy with a lush, sticky gravy”; it comes with sweet potatoes and a “big grilled Amalfi lemon.”

At times this food feels like “a new kind of cuisine”, but there’s no denying how “brilliant” it all is on the plate. Going off how “rammed” the dining room already is, Coren believes that Mortimer House’s unique blend of “precise, classical Italian techniques given a little Tel Aviv slap around the chops” may make it one of 2019’s most coveted reservations.

Emilia

After a series of glowing reviews, Mayfair’s Emilia has also started to make a convincing case for being acknowledged as one of the best new restaurants of 2019. But just as Jay Rayner’s otherwise ecstatic verdict last week faltered a little on the question of price, so Tim Hayward finds something slightly amiss in his visit for the Financial Times.

It’s got nothing to do with the food itself, which is all “precision and finesse.” An “elegant” rendition of vitello tonnato comprises “lightly flavoured” meat and a sauce that is “purely umami,” a study in “sensitive expression” rather than the more common “butch and muscly” clash that can occur in this dish. It might be debatable to what degree smoked eel tortellini in brodo are “in any way ‘Italian’” but there’s no denying that the combination is “wholly delicious,” as is rose veal saltimbocca with carrots and rainbow chard: “so elegant, so accomplished.” For Hayward, cooking like this, inside Bonhams auction house, really does represent “art in a gallery setting”.

But that’s also part of the problem. In “an environment where restraint borders on austerity,” such promising cooking has a harder time truly flourishing — not when it comes to the “charming and professional” staff, but in the very setting itself. Emilia may be “gorgeous,” but for this critic at least, it suffers from surroundings that “subtly undermine the pleasure.”

Darby’s

There are similar misgivings expressed about a nailed-on critic’s favourite south of the river, as Fay Maschler leaves Darby’s with slightly more lukewarm feelings than Grace Dent did last week.

Here, it’s the execution that’s a little off. Not, for sure, in the sheer “delectability” of ricotta agnolotti with courgette and olive; nor in a “pleasingly gleamingly plain” tranche of fish offset with “ridiculously lush” beef fat potatoes; nor in an “ace dessert” of burnt honey cake with reduced-milk ice cream. It’s elsewhere that things are a little more questionable.

An otherwise “perky” salad of mackerel, grilled red pepper and tomato is undermined somewhat by the “surprisingly fugitive” presence of the fish. The “feeble texture and flavour” of spatchcocked chicken suggests it may have been “pre-cooked” before its barbecue sauce glaze; the accompanying side of early summer vegetables is “an overcooked, over-buttered little stew with the abrasive flavour of chard dominating.”

It’s far from terminal, and Maschler is at pains to sing the praises of the “delightful” service and the “lofty” and “magnificent” space. But three out of five stars tell their own story. The Evening Standard critic will definitely be back, but it may take a bit of work before Darby’s joins it siblings — The Dairy and the “estimable” Sorella — in her affections.

Myrtle

Maschler was also a little cool on Anna Haugh’s Irish-inspired newcomer, Myrtle, when she reviewed it a few weeks ago. Not so William Sitwell, who drops four-and-a-half stars on the place, celebrating a restaurant that itself acts as a celebration of “the best of Ireland.”

Black pudding wrapped in crisped potato is a “miraculous little plate,” “a fabulous juxtaposition of rustic flavour and fine-dining presentation.” Equally “finely judged and balanced” is a main course of roasted salmon with crushed potatoes — a “wonderfully simple and delicate” dish. Like the cooking, the room is “soft, delicate, modest and welcoming”; combine with “excellent” service and the result is somewhere as “cheery” and “upbeat” as it is “hospitable.”

805

In these characteristics, at least, it has a lot in common with 805, the venerable Old Kent road institution that has been serving excellent value Nigerian food to grateful customers for almost two decades.

This week, Evening Standard Magazine’s Jimi Famurewa is one of them, enjoying one of the “more special, sneakily impressive” meals of the year so far. From an “exhaustive” menu, beef suya offers “the perfect pleasure-pain see-saw of overwhelming spice and the compulsion to keep eating”; fish pepper soup entails “a thick, flaking raft of tilapia in a vast, fragrant broth humming with ginger.” There are, “of course,” mounds of jollof rice, “tangy and slightly smoky with a blooming lip-prickle of heat, wreathed in fried plantain, chicken and valiant suggestions of salad”; perhaps the only slight bum note is the “dramatic” whole grilled ‘Monika’ fish — “a bit of an overcooked chore” in a restaurant where portions are already “of the ‘visible-from-space’ variety.”

While Famurewa is uneasy about how West African food has been co-opted as the latest “Hot Dining Thing”, 805 represents something more conservative, “a comforting sort of stasis.” Its “familiar hits of starch and sauce” are “rendered as the almost idealised vision of what they should be”; the net result is “the sort of unusual, gratifying experience that can get under your skin,” the sort of place customers leave not only “resoundingly fed” but also “maybe a little bit addicted.”

Bugis Street Brasserie

A sudden veer off the beaten track concludes this week at Bugis Street Brasserie, the second in a run of Alan Partridge-worthy hotel restaurants visited by Jay Rayner after the recent, disastrous, Cromwell Road Holiday Inn.

Except this one’s actually good. Housed in the Millennium Gloucester Hotel, BSB certainly doesn’t offer much by way of vibe, its room “a masterful study in beige.” But there is real “colour and drama” on the plate, in some genuinely superior renditions of Singaporean classics.

Chicken satay are “smoky pieces of heavily spice-rubbed thigh,” their sauce built on “layers of spice and aromatics.” Laksa is a “satisfying slurp,” its broth “a huge bash of chilli and stock and coconut,” the prawns on top packing real “bite.” Nyonya pork is belly with “jelly-like fat,” served in a “bubbling and spitting” clay pot — “a dish for which the words ‘yes please’ were invented.”

Maybe it will never be a destination restaurant like some of the stops on this week’s tour — really, it’s more like “the sort of place where people come alone at lunchtime for a single plate of good food, and feel very comfortable doing so”. But in a London capable of sustaining such a rich and diverse range of restaurants, that doesn’t stop Bugis Street Brasserie from being worth a little love and attention — not least when it makes such a “true claim” for them.

Bonhams

101 New Bond Street, , England W1S 1SR 020 7447 7447 Visit Website

The Dairy

15 The Pavement, , England SW4 0HY 020 7622 4165 Visit Website

805

805 Old Kent Road , London , SE15 1NX Visit Website

Ottolenghi

287 Upper Street, , England N1 2TZ 020 7288 1454 Visit Website

Sorella

148 Clapham Manor Street, , England SW4 6BX 020 7720 4662 Visit Website

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