Among the usual what-the-fuckery that surrounds environmentally conscious tyre manufacturer Michelin’s annual star release, one elevation stood out four months ago. Comparing it to the Oscars, Mayfair toilet selfie destination Sketch’s Lecture Room and Library getting three stars would be like best picture 2020 going to Spies in Disguise — something so unexpected that it becomes the defining story of awards season. As actual winner Parasite’s resurgent box office figures demonstrate all too well, winning the ultimate accolade can bring a whole new audience in through the doors, interested to see whether the recipient can live up to the acclaim. For Evening Standard Magazine critic Jimi Famurewa, Sketch simply cannot.
Such is the “mad, hushed spectacle” and “high-grade silliness” at this “cheerfully exorbitant” temple of gastronomy, that it might be possible to endure the “clenched atmosphere” and “unconscionable prices” if the food were “unquestionably good.”
Indeed, it’s the “perplexing kind of awful that causes you to question both your sanity and basic culinary instincts.” Among a series of “sterile miseries,” crêpes arrive “fridge cold” and “smeared with an acridly soapy curried endive filling”; truffled black rice mousse has “the bilious, rubberised consistency of a hurriedly microwaved mug cake”; spiced vegetable consommé comprises “a performance art piece of raw veg scraps arrayed on the edge of a bowl of very salty bouillon powder-level broth.” That last one is part of a meat-free tasting menu which unfurls as a £125 “sustained, merciless attack on the entire concept of vegetarianism,” including delights like a “single baton” of salt-baked leek “black, bitter and sludgy like something prised from the bottom of a crisper drawer,” and — in the place of a fish course — “a very small, single quenelle of white wine sorbet.”
And if there’s less of an “audacious brass neck” to some of the meatier options — especially a “perfectly cooked” piece of turbot — there is still something amiss when the most excitable emotion is “mild satisfaction.” At its worst, a meal at Sketch is an actively “painful” experience — an onslaught of “palate-deadening buckets of premium ingredients” that purport to justify a £400 bill while leaving diners only “scantly fed.” Bibendum might love the place, but in Famurewa’s eyes this is “an example of the worst kind of brazen restaurant”: A “culinary carnival game to be avoided at all costs.”
This week, William Sitwell has him in his sights, and Humm escapes pretty much unscathed. The room may be short on “intimacy” — “like a first-class airport lounge in Qatar” — and the occasionally intractable front of house may be cause for no little “grrrrrring.” But from a “sublime” scallop amuse, to a “miraculous” and “novel” sea bass ceviche, to an “exceptionally, uniquely good” main of poussin, the food is rarely less than an advertisement for Davies and Brook’s “deep, complicated and complex” technique. And if Sitwell’s overall verdict is more equivocal “Hmmm” than rhapsodic “Humm!” this is perhaps due to the atmosphere, to service that’s “almost too attentive.” Eating here? A source of “clean, calm wonder.”
There’s more critic-approved Michelin-baiting haute cuisine available in SW1, as Tom Aikens’ Muse builds on a strong start a few weeks ago with a full-blown belter of a rave from Grace Dent.
Aikens’ 25-seat newcomer is an “eccentric, incomprehensible, wilfully weird and wholly unique” creation — “small, odd, bolshy” and “emotionally fragile.” But it’s also the source of langoustine tail “braised deliciously in armagnac”; a “glorious riff on cauliflower panna cotta”; a “malty and popcorn-strewn” pudding riffing on corn flakes and milk from the Auvergne; and “London’s best homemade bread” served with chicken butter. As projects go, this one is so personal that a meal there feels more like “10 courses of delicious talking therapy”. But that’s what makes it Dent’s “restaurant of the year” so far.
Bar Douro City
There’s similarly enthusiastic Big Dish Energy emanating from the City, as Fay Maschler revels in the Portuguese charms of the second Bar Douro.
Sure, the “menusplaining” that has dogged the industry for a while now is rife, but when the food starts arrive, it’s clear that the open-plan kitchen carries some “gifted” cooks. Among the smaller plates, suckling pig in bolo do caco is “lush, juicy and finely balanced”; fried eels are “encased in a fluffy tempura batter”; and clams à bulhão pato feature notably “handsome” shellfish. For best main, it’s a toss-up between the “ambrosial richness” of presa Iberica and the soothing crab in an arroz de sapateira; the “creamy texture” and “profoundly earthy flavour” of Azeitao cheese makes it a welcome diversion en route to an “irresistible” pastel de nata and the “winningly chewy filling” of a tarte de amêndoa. That the most expensive dish on the menu is a mere £20 “gives you some idea of the value here.” As Portugal’s economy flourishes and Boris Johnson casts around his man drawer for a compliant chancellor of the exchequer, Bar Douro represents an appealing “repudiation of austerity.”