Isla at The Standard
The turn of the millennium was a golden age for big ticket hotel restaurants, with various white, male British culinary bruisers — Gordon Ramsay, Marcus Wareing, Simon Rogan — being joined by god-tier foreign imports like Hélène Darroze in essentially defining and codifying the Central London Fine Dining Template. Of late, though, the template has diversified slightly. Hipper and maybe even savvier operators have opened cooler spaces, recruiting a new generation to lend an additional patina of modish chic to their dining rooms. Think of last year’s Instagram sensation Neptune at The Principal in Bloomsbury, or Calum Franklin’s Holborn Dining Room at The Rosewood, or the new, more progressive tasting menu spot Da Terra at the Town Hall Hotel in Bethnal Green.
And now there’s Isla at The Standard in Kings Cross, fronted by chef Adam Rawson and soon to be joined by the London restaurant debut for Bristol’s Peter Sanchez-Iglesias. Jimi Famurewa is first through the doors this week, and finds “thoughtfully conceived” and “commendably well-travelled” food that is nevertheless “a little lacking in a certain distinctive pizazz.”
The simple stuff is best: a “gutsy” duck rillette, “intensified by a golden topsoil of breadcrumbed chicken skin” makes for an emphatic opening statement; “hugely gratifying” cep fuzi, the pasta “topped with truffle and thickly glossed with a lavishly eggy sauce” is a decent companion piece to “the sudden, jolting high of Ibérico pork,” the meat “deep-charred, tender and slicked in a mellow chimichurri.”
Apart from that, though, it’s a little bit meh. The dressing on a side of broccoli tastes like “sweet, store-bought honey mustard mayo”; fig tatin makes for “a decent enough mush” but seems “fiddly” in “such a hiply rendered room.” And maybe this is part of the problem: in “a psychedelic, mid-century eye-popper” of a space, some of this stuff — even the better dishes — scans as a tad too polite. Rawson is “clearly a talented, versatile chef,” but Famurewa wishes that “more of The Standard’s swaggering aesthetic attitude were evident on the plate.”
Things are both more assured and more delicious at another of the capital’s nu-wave hotel dining rooms, with Anthony Demetre’s relocation of Wild Honey from Mayfair to St. James’s rendering Fay Maschler decidedly abuzz with excitement.
The new space may not quite “replicate the panelled glamour of the St George Street premises,” but “with the help of baby-blue velvet upholstery, halo chandeliers and interesting art, the eating-in-a-hotel vibe has largely been obviated.” It probably helps, too, that the cooking is noticeably better than most hotel fare: charentais melon with lardo is an “astonishingly good” starter, lifting a “well-worn combo into another sphere.” The Insta-magnet cacio e pepe with crispy chicken wings is also “beautifully enacted,” “the seasoning erring pleasurably on the side of fierce and the textures a well-judged match.” Among the mains, bouillabaisse is punched up by a “powerful” rouille and boasts a broth “as deep, dark and powerful as the ocean”; even if a couple of things are amiss with another dish of barbecued quail, “all is forgotten and redeemed” by a summery fricassee, the sort of assembly that could “triumph whatever the weather.”
Things wrap up with a wild honey ice cream and an English custard tart that is “almost indecently good” — a true testament to Demetre and the “undeviating dedication to his craft” evidenced in his restaurants, whatever the setting.
There’s more consummate professionalism from experienced hands across town in St John’s Wood, as Grace Dent settles into the comfy surrounds of Corbin and King’s latest restaurant, Soutine. This “pretend-Parisian” bistro is, “as the kids might say,” a “gigantic mood,” a snug fit among other “noisy tableaux vivants” like the Wolseley and Delaunay; as it is everywhere in the group, the food is certainly good enough to pass muster. If the kitchen staff isn’t using “the very, very best ingredients,” they’re certainly “using what they can be proud of while still keeping the lights on”: “inky” wild mushrooms come on “soft, buttery brioche”; coq au Riesling is a “silky, decadent pot of cream, booze et poulet”; among “passable” puddings the tarte fine aux pommes is “best of all.” It may not be haute gastronomy, but it’s pretty bloody “affordable,” and a “heaving” dining room tells its own story. The “archdukes of ambience” have done it again.
Martha’s is also, as the kids might say, a big mood — an American-inspired all-day spot in Soho with drag acts in the evening and a suggestively sassy online presence. Oh, and an unfortunate track record when it comes to allegedly blocking attempts from mainstream media to review it.
William Sitwell may find himself the next critic to get the cold shoulder after his trip this week, since he comes to much the same conclusion as Jay Rayner did a few weeks back.
The “swanky,” “beautifully lit” dining room out back may be all kinds of “great,” but Sitwell is plonked unceremoniously up front, in a space “more pub than diner.” The menu is dirty, the drinks list is “crumpled” and “upside down.” The food is similarly topsy turvy: a “stodgy” dish of courgette flower comes with “tired” peas, “flabby” courgette sticks and “little cubes of things that looked like beetroot but would have left you none the wiser in a blind taste test.” Cajun salmon rocks both “burnt skin” and “overcooked flesh”; fried chicken is “as tired and spent as Martha herself.” Sitwell allows that the place might be more of a “night time bird,” when a collection of “merry drinkers” will perhaps pay less attention to what’s on the plate. During the day, though, there’s no denying that it needs to “sharpen up a bit.”
A similar raising of basic standards might not go amiss at Pomona’s, either. Tony Turnbull visits the California-inspired Bayswater stalwart this week, finding borderline “frenetic” service that makes it practically “impossible to relax and enjoy the meal.”
It’s a shame, because some of chef Ruth Hansom’s cooking is “very good indeed.” A “posh tian” of crab, watermelon, and confit egg yolk winningly combines “sweet flesh” with accents of “freshness and richness.” Halibut with Jerusalem artichokes is “perfectly judged” and “brought to life” by a “delicious fennel broth loosened with a slick of chervil oil”; monkfish with corn and oxtail is “equally good.”
Other dishes are “pretty as a picture” but somewhat “less successful”. Tomatoes, watermelon and feta make for a “miserly assembly job, not even the sum of its parts”; mashed avocado is tainted by “bruised dark bits”; eel with tomato and aubergine struggles to “hang together as a dish.” Perhaps Hansom’s fine dining training is jarring with the house “Cali-Scandi-Instagrammy vibe”; perhaps a less flustered staff would render things more enjoyable. Either way, it’s a “curate’s egg of a meal.”
For food cooked and served with proper care and attention, look no further than Nandine, the latest opening in Pary Baban’s evolving micro-chain of beloved Kurdish cafes.
Every plate to arrive at Jay Rayner’s table is “a vivid rush of saturated tones, worthy of Technicolor in its pomp”; such intense colours “promise flavour,” and that promise is certainly “not broken.”
Mezze dips include hummus “made sprightly and bright by the addition of lime,” yoghurt and tahini boosted with “the fresh crunch of diced cucumber,” and a “sweet and smoky red pepper purée” bejewelled with “shining beads of pomegranate”. At just £5.50 it makes for “an extremely diverting plateful.” Seven-spiced chicken is “tender and crisp”; baharat fries might well make for “one of the prettiest bowls of chips in Britain”; the “famed” house baklava comprises “fragile crowns of crisp pastry, filled with crushed nuts and drenched in sugar syrup and made fragrant by the application of dried rose petals and attention to detail.” London is, Rayner concludes, “all the richer” for restaurants like this — the sort of place offering the sort of food at the sort of price that can “restore your faith not just in eating out, but quite possibly in humanity in general.”