When Gordon Ramsay opened Lucky Cat in Grosvenor Square last year, he was probably hoping for the sort of hype bonfire that usually accompanies flashy Mayfair openings. Instead he encountered … A regular bonfire largely of his own making, as critics queued up to add gasoline to the flames and — worse yet — compare him unfavourably to new neighbour and former protégé Jason Atherton.
Now Marina O’Loughlin nails Ramsay’s other, less-heralded opening in the same postcode: his eponymous Bar and Grill. Unlike Lucky Cat — “a 1920s Shanghai nightclub as imagined by a Love Island contestant” — this is a far more anodyne proposition, “somewhere Alan Partridge might bring his own big plate, a corporate banality designed by Cheers nostalgics.” The food, designed for “comfort-scoffing,” is similarly lacking in character: “wizened” mushrooms taste “of dried herbs and old car seats”; fries could be confused with “catering-pack jobs”; buffalo wings arrive in a “face-sweatingly over-vinegared glaze.” Even the usual Ramsay luxe flourishes don’t land: a 300g steak for £38 is “gristly and ungenerous”; a lobster roll comprises “frozen-tasting crustacean in a Pepto-Bismol-pink sauce that tastes of old garlic.”
Sides are similarly “expensive and unsatisfying” and it all adds up to a “dreary trudge of a meal” that “nudges £170 for two” and is precisely “zero fun.” It’s enough to make O’Loughlin feel profoundly “sad” for the whole endeavour: “the sad chips”; “the sad logo seared into the top of the sad lobster roll’s bun”; “the huge sad TV screens”; the “sad, transient clientele.” It’s quite something for someone with Ramsay’s three-Michelin star heritage to have opened somewhere so “basic” — O’Loughlin is “willing to bet” that his Bar and Grill even “makes Gordon Ramsay sad too.”
A rather more positive consensus is forming around a project from another chef who rose to fame in the 1990s — Muse, Tom Aikens’ new tasting menu nook in Belgravia. After Grace Dent recently anointed it her restaurant of the year so far, Giles Coren leaves almost as impressed by the food, albeit with some constructive criticism on how it’s served.
Early canapés are “eye-catching” and the house bread is “warm and crunchy, treacly, and made from a sourdough starter with a longer life story than most chefs.” There follows a “cracking little mackerel dish,” some “very pretty and good” variations on beetroot, and a “crazy” combination of langoustine, pig’s trotter and lardo that somehow makes “all the sense of the world” in its “masterful holding together of flavours from wildly opposing corners of the kitchen.” Retired dairy cow is “great”; pudding is “brilliant”; all in all, it’s “fascinating.”
The only problem, really, is the tension between the “evocative” menu and the slightly mechanical, “introverted” way in which dishes are introduced. As the same spiels are delivered “verbatim” across the dining room, and attempts to engage with the servers are met with “not a titter, not a glance, not a nod,” it’s enough to make Coren “wonder why” Aikens should bother with this approach in the first place.
Still, in the scheme of things, this is a minor point. If “you’ve got money put aside for silliness and you like toweringly ambitious, grandiloquent cooking, in small portions, with a lot of talk, a lot of backstory, in a pretty house, in a posh part of town,” Coren reckons you’ll probably “like Muse a lot.”
For those with rather less disposable capital, David Sexton provides an equally likeable but far more affordable alternative in the form of Gallic burger restaurant Big Fernand.
The South Kensington digs are “charming,” with a “handsome blue awning” and décor that acts as a “merry caricature of froggiedom” (?) The food is similarly “tasteful,” and actually “seriously good”: burgers are “sensibly proportioned, not bigs, not whoppers, certainly not dirty, but sanely sized and not over-filled,” with “distinctive” toppings and “good quality” patties. Fries alongside are “excellent”; there’s even “good wine at modest prices.” This imported chain is a thoroughly “pleasant” place to “sit, eat and even linger” — “a perfect expression of Frenchness.”
At its best, this is a place “capable of proper magic” — somewhere that “justifies all the frantic attention.” Tacos al pastor are topped with “meat freshly winnowed from the twirling trunk, tumbling in juicy, deeply marinated amber shreds, heaped with brightening coriander, cubed onion and hunks of griddle-kissed pineapple.” Chorizo tacos add “the messy drip of delectable crimson liquor to the equation,” but are nevertheless surpassed by the suadero, the brisket’s long braise resulting in something “hypnotically rich.” Add on some “fantastically fresh” guacamole and a “vivid rainbow of house-made salsas” and it’s not an exaggeration to call this one of the most “exhilarating food discoveries of the fledgling year” — “a heartfelt triumph that blazes as bright as its light bulbs and puts this slept-on stretch of the capital firmly on the culinary map.”
Since the outbreak of COVID-19 earlier this year, Chinatowns around the world have also, sadly, been slept-on. Food writers have already exposed the baseless scaremongering that partially informs this mass exodus, and are urging punters to vote with their feet; to close this week, Jay Rayner does so in enjoyable fashion at the Gerard Street Four Seasons.
Char siu arrives a “deep, reddy brown, and in pleasing thumb-thick pieces”; it is “eye-rollingly savoury,” especially when paired with its accompanying “heap of Chinese cabbage,” carrying an “obligatory moat of dark, sweet-savoury liquor, which could be sipped neat as a restorative.” Roast duck — “the skin dark lacquered, most of the fat rendered, the meat soft and sensuous to the tongue as if braised” — is “self-contained and self-assured”, with no need for pancakes or hoisin; “big curls of salt and pepper squid” come in a “fine, lacy batter.” And if the excellent restaurants now surrounding Four Seasons are a reminder of how “Britain’s Chinese restaurant offering is more diverse and exciting than it’s ever been”; Rayner anoints a meal there as a timely reminder to “go and support your local Chinese restaurant.”