When it originally opened, Gymkhana was a figurehead for the new breed of London restaurant: confident, hyper-competent and unambiguously delicious — a rebuke to the tired stereotype of bland, boring British food. Now, its recent history resonates in a different way, with an industry casting around for crumbs of comfort in the face of existential threat from novel coronavirus (COVID-19): what better time for a tale of triumphant rebirth after terrible misfortune?
Jimi Famurewa is first through the refurbished doors and is delighted to proclaim the Mayfair institution “stronger than ever”. The main dining room has been “deftly remodelled” and everything on show there acts as a forceful reminder that “they don’t muck about here.” Chennai chicken 65 is a blend of “tinglesome layered spice and mind-bending succulence”; tandoori lamb chops “as thick and scorched as a fist plunged into a sputtering volcano” are a riot of “juicy, flavourful tenderness”; pork cheek vindaloo is “an almost obscene, ruby-hued marvel of spoonably soft pig hunks, fathomless depth and a fierce bark of chilli heat”.
And yet much as the execution (and the bill) acts as a reminder that this is “the apogee of splurge-happy Indian dining,” there is still something “admirably democratic” about the whole affair – this is still the sort of down-to-earth place “to slurp at fingers and joyfully dab away chilli sweat”: Gymkhana may be a “palpably well-oiled machine” but it also “never forgets to keep primal pleasure at its core.” As a result, “this justified modern classic burns brighter than ever.”
Things are a little dimmer over in Shoreditch, where Tim Hayward isn’t quite wowed by Richard Corrigan’s latest, Daffodil Mulligan. There’s no doubting Corrigan is a “phenomenal talent,” and there’s something undeniably “laudable” in his attempt to “create something that is about a broader definition of hospitality” than most new restaurants. There are some “perfectly crisp” duck hearts with a “gloriously rare middle”; there’s an “excellent” homemade smoked sausage and a “transformative” wood-oven-roasted lobster.
But there are also some “pretty average” low points to reckon with, too — “unusually heavy-handed” dishes like a combination of crab, pear and lovage whose “delicate and beautiful” promise is destroyed by a “brutal” application of smoked paprika in a “thick dusting”; or the bass ceviche that has its “promising” setup ruined by the “powerful and polarising” presence of cloves. Dishes like these are in stark contrast to the “very high standard” of cooking elsewhere, and it is this contrast between high highs and low lows that makes the occasional failures feel “more pronounced.”
The Canton Arms / Bar Douro City
Things are far more consistently enjoyable at both of Giles Coren’s destinations this week — at The Canton Arms, he encounters “big juicy clams” cooked in cider with ’nduja and parsley; a rare roast beef that is “rough and red and ferrous, blackened in parts and full of chew and heft and peat and iron”; and a dark ale sponge that is “not just off the wall, but off the clock.” Anyone unwilling to make the “foodie pilgrimage” here is unquestionably “missing out.”
He comes to a similar verdict over in the City, where the new Bar Douro is just as “excellent” as its south of the river sibling. “Crispy spherical croquetes of the magnificent Portuguese sausage called alheira” are “glued to the corners of a pretty blue and white tile by blobs of punchy aioli”; “unbelievable” gambas à la guilho arrive “with enough garlicky juice for a loaf’s worth of lascivious mopping”; at £6, bacalhau “beaten into a juicy hash” with matchstick potatoes is both a “steal” and “a reminder of all that is most glorious about ancient Portuguese street food.” Top things off with some “top-flight” pasteis de nata, a “refreshing ten-year-old tawny port” and “a good espresso,” and it’s hard not to conclude, as Coren does, that here is “some of the best” Portuguese food “to be found outside the home country.”
Things may be less geographically specific on the menu at Boulevard in Soho, but Fay Maschler still leaves broadly contented. The room — very @AccidentallyWesAnderson in its pastel pink — is “mildly sexy”; the largely plant-based menu “steers you gently towards virtue”. Kohlrabi with salsa verde, celeriac and hazelnuts “has the inviting, comforting appearance of a tidily made bed”; the kitchen “burnishes, gilds and punctuates” a simple ingredient like rutabaga with additions like pomegranate molasses, pickled onions and chopped hazelnuts. A pork t-bone is less successfully garnished — “like a tired face,” the meat needs “a moisturiser,” not the proffered salsa verde — but things finish “happily” with chocolate & olive oil cake with whiskey custard and vanilla ice cream. To the typically “gratifying” cooking, add “amiable” staff and drinks priced at the “reasonable” end of the scale, and Maschler is happy to anoint Boulevard, and all its various “entertainments,” as a “welcome addition to Soho”.
Speaking of new additions: it feels like only yesterday that a raft of food halls were exploding in various corners of the capital like private equity backed mushrooms. And yet the critics that have visited them — from Grace Dent at Arcade Food Theatre to Jimi Famurewa at Seven Dials Market — have not exactly been blown away by the quality on show.
Unfortunately, Marina O’Loughlin’s verdict on Mercato Mayfair doesn’t buck this burgeoning trend. The setting (a deconsecrated church) is certainly “dazzling” and the fit-out job is “remarkable.” But for all the “raving beauty” on show, what arrives on the plate isn’t always as radiant. Pork gyoza are “unsettling”: their “the dough waxy and stiff”; the “impacted fillings plopping out at first bite in a disturbingly biological fashion.” Gnocchi are “soggy and waterlogged” and “come with the unfortunate garnish of a wiry hair”; pide are “decent enough” but constituted of undeniably “stodgy” dough. There are some high points — a “pneumatic and pleasingly blackened Neapolitan-style pizza”; a “properly ripe and porcine” wild boar ragu — but it’s difficult to get too excited about eating anything on “a tiny table while being constantly bumped by backsides of queuing customers.”
In truth, far from the panacea food halls originally promised, this is a worst-of-both-worlds experience: Mercato Mayfair “delivers neither the thrill of discovering real street food nor the comfort of a restaurant, inhabiting an unhappy valley between the two.” Things might be more bearable if the stuff on offer was really excellent, and maybe there’s hope for operations where it is. Here, though, “the food just isn’t good enough.”