Restaurants change. If somewhere can evolve from offering a short prix fixe menu at under £40 per person, to boasting one of London’s more ambitious tasting menus in the six or so years after opening, can it really be described as the same restaurant?
Marina O’Loughlin offers up an answer in casting an appraising eye over The Clove Club in Shoreditch, as it enters its golden years as one of London’s seminal destinations, and finds that Isaac McHale and co have continued to evolve and perfect their craft: In 2019, this is inarguably “a great restaurant.”
Partly it’s the food: from “opulent” scallops to “ravishing” lobster, from beef of “almost multidimensional beefiness” to “the utopian ideal of a blackberry Bakewell tart,” this is a masterclass in both “sophistication” and “intellectual fluidity” from a kitchen whose “firecracker creativity” verges on the “sublime.” But there’s more to it than that: the room is “all light and jolliness and bustle”; the timing of courses is “perfect”; the progression from dish to dish is “as carefully plotted as a novel.” Match a brigade this good with a front of house “of Olympic-level shit-hotness,” and the results are plain to see: this London institution is “better than it ever was.”
O’Loughlin was one the first critics to draw attention to the important work being done at Hoxton’s OKN1, the full-service restaurant attached to New City College, which has now also drawn the attention of the Observer’s Jay Rayner.
Creativity-wise, Flavour Bastard this ain’t: “nothing will surprise you with its inventiveness,” and “no envelopes are being pushed.” But this doesn’t mean that the team here won’t “sate your appetite very nicely, with dishes which combine blessed familiarity with faultless execution and at a price that makes sense.” Ham hock and chicken terrine is “a perfect bit of classical training made flesh,” “loosely textured and robustly seasoned”; chicken Kiev is “plump and crisp, and filled with a righteous basting of garlic butter”; chips alongside are “hand-cut, hot and crisp”; “double-cream-thick” posset comes with “crisp shortbread biscuits that snap between fingers and teeth.” On paper, it might not look like a menu “for which trumpets will be sounded.” But the chefs cooking these dishes are undeniably “our future,” and it may well be “in good hands.” OKN1’s slightly utilitarian space may come across as little more than “functional,” but as Brexit looms, Rayner is convinced that “the key thing is that it functions very well.”
Creeping slowly westwards across town, the next stop this week is the pop-up turned permanent Holborn fixture Gezellig, where Wieteke Teppema and co can add Giles Coren to their list of satisfied visitors.
The room may be “bafflingly gigantic,” but the “very, very good” food fills it with aplomb. “Bold” and “bright” flavours enliven “dishes focused in many cases on excellent vegetables”: “sweet and earthy” pot roast turnip with duck hearts; the “glistening ruby chunks” of salt-baked beetroot with “luminous pickled cucumber.” Then there’s the “truly epic” main course of cauliflower steaks, some “drenched in seaweed butter” and garnished with sparassis mushroom, others “crusted with breadcrumbs and sat on by twigs of deep-fried samphire,” the whole thing “subtle and sweet-savoury, mushroomy, rich and multifaceted.” Add a “good wine list” and some “friendly service” to the “top cooking,” and subtract the occasionally “dodgy” music, and the result is still very much a positive one: this would be a “great place for larger groups.”
Just like the Dutch-but-not-really-Dutch Gezellig, Isla at the Standard in Kings Cross uses the dexterity afforded by its island inspiration to draw ideas and influences from, well, pretty much any landmass surrounded by water. Certainly, its formula is enough to draw approval from William Sitwell, who finds the odd streak of “fashionable pretentiousness” in the menu descriptions easy to forgive, since most of the dishes are “very good.” “From the sea” might instead... Get in the sea.
Pea hummus is “fresh,” “springlike,” and “a little crunchy in texture”; ceviche with lettuce and herbs is “silky smooth”; a “triumphant dish” of marinated tomatoes is “wonderfully gunky and syrupy with an added little crunch of breadcrumbs.” A “deconstructed and uncooked” fig tarte tatin — “not caramelised and not clever” — may not be worth a detour, but pretty much everything else is, including a “deep and dark and wonderful” slab of Iberico pork with chimichurri. Nestled in what Sitwell calls a “wonderfully creative” redevelopment is, he is sure, a “rather lovely restaurant.”
There’s a similar sense of the occasional misstep being warmly forgiven over in Notting Hill, as Tim Hayward praises Jackson Boxer’s Orasay as much for its “genuine creativity” as the execution of certain dishes.
The clear ambition on show here can sometimes result in a misstep or two: potato pancake with cod’s roe — an otherwise “perfect dish” — is slightly “undermined” by overly sweet pomelo kosho; portion sizes are “confused”; it’s possible to be “overcome by richness” in assemblies like smoked eel with razor clams, lardo and egg noodles.
Yet Hayward finds it impossible to overlook the “glorious intent” behind these not-quite-successes: Boxer is clearly a “phenomenal cook, inventing hard, with courage and brio, and working with excellent ingredients”. A dish like radishes with “bloody lovely” tonnato mayonnaise strikes the perfect balance, a “smart little tweak” on “the classic pre-meal foofery of a thousand dinner parties.” Moments like this are all Hayward needs to reassure him that in time — perhaps like The Clove Club of above — the “already exceptional” Orasay will grow into genuine “excellence.”
If a million lovelorn Instagrams are to be believed, Chris Leach and David Carter’s 10 Heddon Street is already on a similar trajectory.
Based on her visit, Grace Dent will be “sure to follow” Leach and Carter when the duo eventually relocates to Soho, largely because “there’s a sense here that nothing leaves this kitchen that hasn’t been puzzled over and preened to make it perfect.” An opening herb and fennel salad is “heavenly,” “a fantastic, bold alignment of chilli, mint and sharp citrus”; “pillowy” fresh focaccia is equally “outstanding.” A brown crab cacio e pepe is altogether “saucier” and “pinker” than the drab common-or-garden variety, absolutely “heaving with fresh crab,” but the title of “prettiest dish of all” probably goes to the “plump, pretty parcels of sweetcorn ravioli delightfully teamed with girolles and peppery nasturtium leaves.” Tagliatelle with seaweed butter is a noble supporting act, “slippery, salty and glorious, with a pale green dusting the colour of a mermaid’s bouffant.” 10 Heddon Street may be yet another in London’s infinite production line of fresh pasta restaurants, but it’s clear that it’s slightly more than that, offering “a heady blend of the new and trendy mixed with something that will never get old — a full stomach.”
Hot May Pot Pot
A clutch of reappraisals and recontextualisations takes an unexpected swerve towards the genuinely novel in its closing moments this week, as Fay Maschler tucks into Harbin-inspired Sino-Siberian hot pot in Knightsbridge.
At a place predicated on dunking bits of produce in broth, the “care taken in purchasing” on the part of the restaurant is vitally important, and here it seems “immaculate”; broths have also “been composed fastidiously.” As far as opening statements are concerned, salads are uniformly “perky,” and also priced at a slightly more “user-friendly” level than the “ominous” price-on-request delicacies like lobster or geoduck. Hot May cabbage is “crunchy and numbing in equal parts”; red oil lotus root has a “subtly fibrous texture”; Momma’s potato salad resembles Russian salad Oliver and is also “jolly good.” Among the mains, wagyu, cabbage and red onion pancakes are “delicious”; among dishes for the pot, “do not omit to order the Garden Set, where vitamins can be seen to be prancing among the leaves, herbs and fungi.” Despite the moneypit location and some obviously “huge” investment in the “sumptuously appointed” two-storey space, wine markups at Hot May are “surprisingly reasonable” — just one of a series of reasons Maschler is “happy to be telling” London about it.