If a city’s restaurant critics vote with their feet, then this hasn’t been a great week for the capital, with the nation’s scribes travelling as far as Glasgow and Newcastle in search of a decent meal.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story: there is still only one place in the U.K., after all, that could possibly have the traction to attract Swiss uberchef Daniel Humm and the associated pomp and circumstance that accompanies any new opening from the Make It Nice group. And if last week’s first-look review from Giles Coren suggested that Davies and Brook represented some of the worst excesses of big city dining — plenty of style, precious little substance — then Fay Maschler this week offers a five-star corrective that will be music to Humm and co’s ears.
Looking around the redone room,“no expense has been spared,” but “it’s worth it”: the lighting is “chivalrous,” and “obliges food and customer alike”; the décor suggests “a guiding spirit with more than a passing interest in art.” The little extras that punctuate a relatively punchy £98pp four-course menu are certainly not “freebies” at that price, but are absolutely “outstanding,” as are some “irresistible” bread rolls.
Plainly, “this is a kitchen with no shortage of chefs”, but there is admirable “restraint” on show: The signature duck whose coating Coren likened to cat litter is “perfect,” its accompanying sauce civet offering a “lesson” in “histories ancient and modern.” And yet it’s not all buttoned-up Northern European reserve: There’s a certain winning “insouciance” to serving black cod in the part of town that Nobu Matsuhisa once called his own, and a “velvety” chocolate bar with coconut ice cream for pudding “justifies every Bounty recently avoided in the Celebrations tin.” It may be expensive, and the company slogan may be a little “Cummings-like”. But when it comes to making it nice, “someone has to.”
Loyal Tavern / Lore of the Land
After finding the theatrical flourishes and hands-on service at Davies and Brook a little too on the nose, Giles Coren finds a happier medium this week at two separate gastropubs. At both, it’s the front of house that sells the experience: the welcome at Loyal Tavern in Bermondsey is the sort of thing to make punters “absolutely joyous,” and the food — courtesy of former Duck and Waffle chef Tom Cenci — is not half bad either. Crispy chicken skin crackling comes with a hot sauce and blue cheese dressing, “like hot wings without all the meaty stuff,” and a salad of roast beetroot and orange with dates, tamarind and toasted seeds is “nicely wintery and kind of medieval (the sort of thing Good King Wenceslas probably ate in Veganuary)”; a “lovely” skewer of spiced lamb and a “smart” little scoop of mince pie ice cream drizzled with date molasses also feature among a succession of “perfect little winter mouthfuls.”
The staff at Guy Richie’s Fitzrovia gaff The Lore of the Land are also “effortlessly lovely” — a neat fit for an appealingly “rickety” building whose unused rooms ripe for exploration and “stunning” copper bar make for a venue that’s “a joy just to be in.” There are “excellent” pâtés and parfaits, there is “delicious” baked brie, there’s “wonderful” roasted duck “with the breasts sliced down like a tagliata” and “absolutely the crunchiest roast potatoes you can imagine,” there’s “great” cheese and puddings to finish. But in a way, all this “excellent food” doesn’t matter. What really sells the experience in both venues is “the love and the fun in the furnishings and above all the joy in the workers that make these places sing”. Coren’s wish is therefore simple: “Let them be a template for the year to come.”
Grace Dent has also hit upon a restaurant template for 2020, and it looks a lot like Bank House in Chislehurst — the former bank now in the hands of erstwhile Gordon Ramsay international group CEO Stuart Gillies.
It’s easy, really: just open “an incredibly decent neighbourhood wine bar and restaurant” with which even a national critic “really cannot quibble.” Somewhere “unpretentious, welcoming and warm-spirited,” with “an eye for detail,” “an imaginative menu” and “brilliant,” “well-trained, unobtrusive and cheery” service.
When it comes to the food on the “brief but meaningful” menu, too, “there is a middle ground between ‘house burger’ and ‘excruciating tasting menu’, and Bank House has nailed it”. Buttermilk chicken “appears in a crisp, tempura batter and smothered in barbecue sauce, blue cheese and spring onion,” and it’s quite simply “marvellous: just the right amount of sweetness, sharpness, crunch and smoothness.” “Perfectly judged” plaice comes with “sweet” beetroot and “soft and salty” parmesan and offers “a nice refuge from both extremes.” Tiger prawns come with a harissa “that will knock your socks off.” Even the house cocktail is “fiendishly drinkable”. It’s “posh”, but “not too arsey”; it’s enough, really, to leave Dent asking a simple but fundamentally incredibly complex question: “why don’t more local places do this?”