Arcade Food Theatre
On paper, the modernised food hall is the perfect solution to the various maladies afflicting London’s restaurant scene. For restaurateurs, spiralling business rates are defrayed; footfall is theoretically guaranteed. For punters, the constellation of top-notch talent makes a visit an all-killer-no-filler-no-brainer that’s just waiting to be shared on social media.
Unfortunately, real life doesn’t take place on paper — and Grace Dent’s at times puzzlingly withering verdict on Tottenham Court Road food hall poster child Arcade Food Theatre suggests that, in her eyes at least, it might not thrive and survive as the bona fide industry juggernaut that interested parties hope it will be.
It may be “luxuriously built” but Dent says that “most things are difficult,” comparing it to an “exhaustingly modern” hotel which makes her “weep for the dependable functionality of a Premier Inn.” In a minimalist flourish, there is no signage explaining “where or how one should sit, pay, or collect food”; there are also “no drinks available at many of the food stands” — just like at Market Halls Victoria. A small glass of Coke comes in at £2.50, in line with what Dent calls the “punchily priced” economics of the place at large.
Some of the food is excellent: the Black Sea pide from Oklava is “delightful” and “definitely decadent”; Dent labels the almond croissant from Pophams “London’s best.” But the “incredible pedigrees” of the vendors aren’t enough to salvage an experience that feels like it emerged from “a chaotic blue-sky thinking meeting gone awry.” At its launch, the Arcade Food Theatre geotag on Instagram was overwhelmed by invitees saying they had “an amazing, thoroughly seamless experience at this brilliant, clever new food hall concept”. Dent’s summation: “frankly, I don’t believe them.”
For a rather more enjoyable form of food theatre, hungry diners might head instead to Camberwell, and the recently opened Nandine, where Jimi Famurewa doubles down on the love shown by Jay Rayner a few weeks back — so impressed he finds himself “struggling to conceive of anyone stepping through its doors without falling in love.”
Partly, it’s the “seductive” origin story, partly it’s the “sneakily cool” vibe, partly it’s the price, which is “‘hang-on-they-must-have-left-something-off-the-bill’ cheap”. Mainly, though, it’s the feeling of “pure hospitality” that emerges from Pary Baban’s cooking, from the “vibrant introductory dips” — a “rollicking primer on the ways Kurdish food pulls from neighbouring regions” — to the courses that follow, “a prolonged blur of torn bread hunks, messy forkfuls and indecent groans of pleasure.”
A couple of “minor blots” — underspiced dolma, a slightly unconvincing mahalabia coconut milk pudding — aren’t enough to alter Famurewa’s conviction that this is one of the most “fun, culturally meaningful and generous” new London restaurant openings out there. As Pary’s “burgeoning empire” of “intimate” restaurants and cafes continues to swell, Famurewa is convinced that “its extended family of devotees is going to grow and grow and grow.”
The Fancy Fork at Farmer J
If Nandine represents Londoners falling in love with a school of Middle Eastern cookery less prevalent in the capital, David Sexton’s destination this week feels a little more familiar. Founded in 2017 by Israeli businessman Jonathan Recanati, the Farmer J mini-chain has already expanded to three sites, and has apparently built up quite the following for its Ottolenghi-ish “fieldtrays.”
Neologisms and “effusive mission statements” abound in the casual lunchtime-oriented sites, including the “juddering” puntastic summary: “we give a fork.” There are even more forks given, presumably, at The Fancy Fork, an evening restaurant appended to the King William Street location, where the Evening Standard critic finds himself preparing to sample River Cafe alum Shuli Wimer’s food.
It pretty quickly becomes clear that “she’s good”. Flavours are “perky and fresh”: tuna tartare with chilli, coriander and tahini is a “refreshing, fishy dip” for Sardinian pane carasu; baked zucchini flowers “full of ricotta perked up with basil and lemon zest” are actively “delicious”; bone marrow toast with toasted brioche and softened onions is “a real treat,” a “cushy adaptation of the St John classic.”
The usual “pounding music” is less of a winner; some slightly underwhelming laffa bread is also a “disappointment.” But factor in a “short, canny” wine list and “exceedingly vibrant service” and there’s plenty to recommend getting fancily forked. The Farmer J enterprise certainly “doesn’t undersell itself,” but even the most leery punter will likely find themselves “richly enough entertained”.
When it was still purring with quiet excellence in Mayfair, Wild Honey was the polar opposite of The Fancy Fork in its style of self-promotion; since its relocation to a St James Sofitel, the capital’s critics have been slowly finding their way to Anthony Demetre’s new digs, and finding more of the same reassuringly competent cookery that originally made his restaurants such gems.
William Sitwell joins the pilgrimage this week, finding on the menu “a magic-carpet ride across Europe” in its Cornish sardines, gazpacho, burrata, Galician octopus and Welsh lamb. It’s allegedly enough to leave someone feeling “quite dizzy,” but fortunately the food is grounding and grounded across the board: that gazpacho is “incredibly good,” its seasoning and temperature “completely on the button.” The increasingly famous cacio e pepe macaroni with chicken wings is a “moreish dream”: the pasta “just perfect,” the bird “crisp and boneless.” Demetre’s riff on bouillabaisse — a deconstructed take reconstructed on the plate by the diner — is a “DIY dream.” With so many influences, in lesser hands the menu might have produced an inconsistent mishmash of culinary touchpoints. Instead, much like that deconstructed bouillabaisse, the “sum of the parts” here is “just gloriously epic.”