Five reviews this week, running the gamut from the very best to pretty damn mediocre. Jimi Famurewa kicks things off at the top end with a visit to Flor in Borough Market, which now seems locked in as a firm critics’ favourite.
This is food that “hits a sweet spot between the unexpected and the familiar,” that hones in on a magical alchemy of “thoughtful, modern refinement and messy, chin-dripping joy.” House sourdough is bread “as religious experience,” “squidgy as moist cake, with a fresh tang.” Lardo-draped anchovy toast is a “brackish uppercut” early in the meal; similarly “lively” is a pair of “bubbled, oozy flatbreads”. Among the mains, lamb ribs combine “ravishing, golden char and soft, fat-seeping succulence”; among the puddings, brown butter cakes are nothing less than “little, dimpled miracles of flooding, fudgy sweetness,” their taste resembling that of “the hollowed-out heart of the greatest sticky toffee pudding imaginable” — just “astonishing.” Given the pedigree of the team involved and the “lightly challenging, immensely skilled approach” also on show at older sibling and essential London restaurant Lyle’s in Shoreditch, Flor may well be “the least surprising restaurant success of the year.” But “that doesn’t make it any less dazzling.”
From the dazzling to the merely very bright, as Sardinian newcomer Lume leaves Fay Maschler radiating positivity in Primrose Hill.
The interior may be “simply decorated and serious,” but the food has a sunnier disposition. Lamb tartare with pecorino emulsion sounds like “a slightly weird construct” but “as much as it startles, it works,” the lamb “brightly seasoned.” Pappardelle with rabbit ragu is “sinuous” and “luscious,” “served in just the right amount and cooked to the perfect point.” Guinea fowl with creamy potato and black truffle is “much appreciated,” too, especially as “they aren’t stingy with the potatoes.”
There are a few quibbles elsewhere: octopus is “a mite chewy”; the chef’s preference for “the bitey end of al dente” somewhat undermines a couple of pasta dishes; flourless chocolate cake is “rather dour.” But order right — and engage in conversation about the biodynamic wine list, a “considerable part of the pleasure” of dining here — and it’s hard not to be entranced. There is something “engagingly bygone” about this “unpretentious” setup, and something undeniably “joyful” too.
Previous verdicts on Parrillan have exuded similar levels of delight. But before the buzz grows so hot that the roof of Coal Drops Yard spontaneously combusts, here comes Grace Dent to pour a little cold water over those sizzling tabletop grills.
The idea of asking people to pay “premium prices” to cook their own food, outdoors, in the United Kingdom, may not be “terrible” — but to Dent, it’s certainly “peculiar”. There’s no denying that the food is decent: Cantabrian anchovies are “those very good ones, like unforgettable, caramel-coloured wonders”; the patatas pandera is “very delicious”; the various proteins to plonk on the grill are all “impeccable.” But there’s also something singular about the spectacle of a place “heaving” with punters “ploughing through money like Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas anchored off the shore of Antibes,” with that potato costing a fiver, those anchovies coming in at £12, a single scallop at nine quid. It is possible, Dent concludes, to “grow weary” with the idea of cooking one’s own dinner, and paying for the privilege. And at that point, she surmises, Parrillan doesn’t look like a barnstorming stroke of genius. It just looks a bit “silly.”
There’s nothing silly about the next destination this week, and if there were stars for laudable projects, OKN1 — a collaborative kitchen and training restaurant attached to New City College — would surely be basking in the glow of five. As it is, Marina O’Loughlin hopes that any criticism will be taken in the “helpful spirit” in which it is meant.
Since education is also on the menu here, it’s no surprise that the actual menu is wide-ranging, all the better “to give the trainees as thorough [...] an experience as possible.” “Beautifully done” popcorn chicken with sweetcorn relish rubs up against grilled asparagus with a “clever and beautifully executed lovage aioli”; those dishes are followed by a “relatively simple” Suffolk bacon chop with fried egg — nevertheless “nailed” by the kitchen — which in turn acts as a foil to a “more complex and sophisticated” plate combining hake, potato, chorizo and roasted peppers.
This may not be “knock-your-socks-off” cooking, but it is undeniably “good” — “fine and decent and absolutely worth all of our time”. So much so, that “you’d have no idea you were in the hands of students.” Finishing things off with a cupcake “every bit as sweet as the whole operation,” O’Loughlin feels a glimmer of hope for “the chefs of tomorrow,” which is just as well. Given a certain semi-significant event looming on the horizon, “we’re going to need every one we can get.”
B&H Garden Room
Perhaps OKN1 could send a couple of its trainees to the Bourne & Hollingsworth Garden Room — going off Jay Rayner’s faintly appalled review, they certainly couldn’t do any worse.
The view, admittedly, “is spectacular.” The waiters are “nice.” Other than that, the restaurant commits pretty much every sin “against good taste and good manners” it is possible to imagine. The food is quite simply “terrible,” a “brutal exercise in portion control and failed staff motivation.” £10.50 buys four “tough and underseasoned prawns” skewered with three “flabby and undercooked mushrooms.” £10 buys a crispy kale salad whose “cold” leaves “leak vegetable oil into your mouth as you bite in.” £14 buys a roasted cauliflower so scantly roasted “it looks like once-boiled cauliflower that’s been resting in the back of a fridge, perhaps in a recycled ice-cream tub, looking for a purpose.” There’s “cotton wool” chicken, there’s a “completely split” chocolate marquise, there’s a riff on the classic Ivy dessert that arrives as “a deep bowl of cloying white chocolate soup, bobbing sparsely with abandoned berries which have lost their chill and are drowning.” It’s bad, basically, and it’s at least 60 quid a head, spent on a menu that is the edible equivalent of “eager dad dancing.” But as this altogether dispiriting evening makes clear, a kitchen “attempting to find the culinary pulse” will always struggle if it does so “without ever understanding the things it’s trying to do.”