Opening perilously close to the Christmas holidays, there was always a risk that Mei Mei, in Borough Market, would fly under the radar at launch — and that it would have lost the all-important patina of novelty when London’s restaurant critics opened up the Rolodex for 2020.
Happily, not one but two find themselves perched on its cosy bar-stool seating this week, relishing Elizabeth Haigh’s parade of Singapore-inspired deliciousness. For Tim Hayward, this is nothing less than the work of “London’s most promising young chef.” The lack of seating on which you can “actually park your human arse” might be “uncomfortable” elsewhere, but no matter here, where “the experience is mainly one of leaning forward into the food . . . face into the bowl.” With “sufficient greed and inquisitiveness,” the kaya toast “can be converted effortlessly into a side dish”— a “flat-out, howl-at-the-moon filthy good” one at that. But the “set piece” of a meal here is undeniably the Hainanese chicken rice — it possesses “magical qualities,” boasting an “incredible subtlety of clean, clear aromas and flavours.” Hayward might not expect to encounter it “propped up at an open-air counter under a railway arch,” but this is actual “genius” available for mere “pocket change.”
Somehow Jimi Famurewa is even more effusive, dropping a full 5/5 on “vividly expressed, generous” food. There’s praise, again, for the Hainanese chicken rice — a “sneakily bewitching” dish of “life-changing flavour” — but nasi lemak topped with some “show-stopping” fried chicken, its coating “decisively spiced,” its crunch as “diabolically effective” as KFC, wows Famurewa even more. A closing cup of coffee “sweet enough to make you lightly hallucinate” is just another “admirable example” of Mei Mei’s “specific brand of cheap, fast Singaporean hospitality, presented without awkward fusion flourishes or nervous concessions to Western sensibilities.” He concludes that Haigh has created “something truly breathtaking.”
Bong Bong’s Manila Kanteen
There’s more admiration on Hackney Road, where the street food duo formerly known as BBQ Dreamz have opened their first restaurant. Grace Dent is first through the doors, and she encounters some “pleasing bowls” of aubergine kare kare and pata; a “feisty” chilled noodle; a whole roasted tilapia “well worth the effort to dismantle”; and “large, hot, crisp banana and cinnamon spring rolls with a generous scoop of some of London’s best, ridiculously rich vanilla ice-cream to finish.”
Certainly, this isn’t a “stand-on-ceremony kind of place” — more of a “take your family and friends and get stuck in kind of joint.” The décor verges on “totally bonkers” at times, and the vibe is “childlike and slightly chaotic, but also very confident”. Dent finds it impossible to dislike somewhere this obviously “warm-hearted,” and announces her intention to go again “next Sunday.”
Madera / La Chingada
Its name may mean ‘wood’ in Spanish, but things are less chipper over at Madera, a high-rise erection in Oxford Circus’ Treehouse Hotel that leaves Fay Maschler decidedly unexcited.
Things start badly, with a £17 (seventeen pound) cocktail that is “unthinkably, undrinkably sweet.” They swing to the opposite extreme of badness with pico de gallo “so bland” it needs salt and pepper, also required for flatbread “grudgingly spread” with “roasted garlic avocado puree” and “little dobs of feta cheese.” A vegan Caesar salad without any of the components of a Caesar salad seems “something of a misstep,” although given this is central London basic, 2020 edition, there is “unsurprisingly” a whole separate vegan menu. Slices of carne asada sit “mournfully” alongside “dull” black beans; any hope for enjoyable calamari frito is “lost in the darkness of at least one too many sessions in stale oil.”
“Any link to real Mexican cooking”, in other words, “seems tenuous” – a criticism that could not be levelled at Maschler’s other destination for the week, the outstanding La Chingada in Surrey Quays. Chicharrones with “confident vibrant salsas” manage to “set the scene” in far more promising fashion; lying in the “crunchy cradles” of their tacos, “flavourful meats tricked out with onion and coriander” are further “piqued” by more house salsas. Those tacos start at £4.50 for two which certainly “compares well” with Madera, especially since “at less than half the price they are several times as gratifying.” It may be less central than Madera, but as a rare highlight in London’s Mexican scene, La Chingada is “whatever the Nahuatl is for vaut le détour — if detour it is.”
The Yard by Robin Gill
There’s more hotel-adjacent mishap in Westminster, where Jay Rayner finds an “unappealing, ill-conceived and graspingly overpriced catering operation” under the auspices of Robin Gill’s latest opening at Great Scotland Yard.
In fairness, some dishes aren’t so bad. There’s a “very jolly” pork jowl, “pan-burnished, sticky-glazed and laid under a crisp crumb”; for pudding, there’s a “clever” chocolate mousse in a “crisp pastry shell.” Beyond that, pickings are slim, too often undermined by the lavish “application of dairy fats.” Jerusalem artichoke soup is “ludicrously creamy” and unimproved by a “tiresome punch” of truffle oil; a sea bass ceviche “wallows in a pond of creamy sauce.” Worst of all might be a bowl of cavatelli with “cloyingly sweet” pumpkin sauce; or perhaps that label should in fact go to a £26 plate of gnocchi with cauliflower florets, a dish that tastes of “laziness and gross profit margin”. The bill for all this is “asphyxiating”: Lodged in the former headquarters of the Metropolitan police, The Yard is a venue “where crimes were once investigated.” These days, it’s a place “where they are being committed.”
Lina Stores Kings Cross / Circolo Popolare
Giles Coren just about tops Rayner’s assessment by utterly eviscerating Big Mamma’s Circolo Popolare in Fitzrovia — before stopping into the new Lina Stores in King’s Cross to raise a further stink there for good measure.
Coren wanted to use the latter as corrective to Circolo’s shoddy maximalism, but unfortunately, the food isn’t “much good.” Globe artichoke “blasted to hell and smothered in cheese and breadcrumbs” is “a hellish conception” with “no flavour of artichoke”; cime di rapa with chilli and garlic and pine nuts and a “sloppy” ox cheek ragu are both “way too salty”; orecchiette with lamb sausage, cime di rapa and chilli is deal-breakingly “gritty.” Polenta with roast mushrooms is admittedly “excellent” but tonno tonnato is “bland,” roasted fennel is “undercooked,” and roast Jerusalem artichokes are a “terrible mess.”
It’s yet another lukewarm take following Grace Dent’s disappointed review a few weeks back; perhaps the Lina Stores team can at least take solace that they’re not working at Circolo Popolare. “Everybody loves” this maximalist Fitzrovia temple to la dolce vita — in Coren’s eyes, “everyone is wrong.” The interior looks like “a bomb’s gone off at a garden centre” and its storied booze-bottle décor lends the room “all the warmth and intimacy of a Calais booze-cruise wine warehouse.” The cooking is “forgettable” in general even if a “rich and umami-filled” mushroom bruschetta is “wonderful” — “cheap filler for hungry children,” from “composty” pizza to “sloppy” pasta to “bog-tedious” chicken skewers. This may all play well for the people thronging the room “for social media,” but Coren’s verdict is altogether more withering: “The dumbest restaurant in England.”