In Spanish, manteca means lard; in Italian, the verb mantecare describes the act of adding butter to a dish — often a risotto — to deliver a rich, silky texture. Unsurprisingly, Jimi Famurewa is very much on board with a restaurant with such verbal pedigree. Focusing on the Soho newcomer’s fresh pasta or nose-to-tail butchery might be an “accurate” description, but he finds it wouldn’t “quite convey the correct level of excitement” about Chris Leach’s “sorcerer’s way with flavour.”
From “terrific” focaccia to a “ luscious” block of deep-fried pig head, to the “certifiably legendary” pink fir potatoes with smoked cod roe, things get off to the most auspicious of starts. Then there’s the “insistently rich” brown crab cacio pepe, a “succulent, smoky tire of pork belly” — oh, and a “beautifully short and crumbly rhubarb tart.” Just like the dining room’s “quiet, unobtrusive confidence,” it’s evidence of a “subtle genius” at play, fusing a “bangers-only approach” with “masterful” execution. Unlike some of the other fresh pasta restaurants that may be left exposed if Londoners’ pet obsession changes, Manteca feels “built to last”: nothing less than an “instant classic.”
If Manteca’s name requires a smattering of Romance languages to unlock, then the next restaurant’s requires intimate familiarity with western European mythology or Google — The Melusine riffing on folkloric accounts of a half-woman, half-fish water spirit.
Grace Dent is on hand at St Katharine Docks to deliver her verdict, and perhaps redress her own internal human-fish balance by getting amongst The Melusine’s daily-changing menu of impeccably sourced seafood.
A bluefin-tuna-rare score of 10/10 for food tells its own story. Taramasalata is “pungent” and “excellent”; fried squid is “fresh” and “crisp”; langoustines are boosted by a “fiery” jalapeno aioli. A whole plaice to follow is “delicious,” “its buttery, caper-heavy dressing elevating it with great aplomb”; blue cheese ice cream to finish is “compelling.” Somewhere as “self-effacing” as The Melusine might ordinarily struggle to get punters through the door; appearances, though, can be misleading. This is a “small kitchen turning out magic.”
Yes — it’s expensive; four courses come in at £98. And if the starters come on as a little “clever” and “coffee-table photography book pretty” — “artworks you admire very much in a gallery, but know you could never live with at home” — then the mains are enough to allay Rayner’s “cynicism about this kind of high-altitude culinary exhibitionism.” They are, quite simply, “two of the best plates of food” he has been “served in London in many years.”
Black cod is “what Nobu’s black cod would be if it learned some manners”; the signature duck has “has an uncommon depth of flavour and tension”; its fat “rendered”; its “spice-dotted” skin “crisp.” For “cooking of this quality,” “gastro-palaces like this” are arguably “worth the expense”; that said, Rayner leaves Davies and Brook contented but not quite enraptured. Much as some of the cooking might be “show-stopping,” Rayner doubts that a meal there is something he “will ever quite feel the need to do again.”
There’s more steely moneyed competence over at Chucs Belgravia — the latest branch of the plutocratic mini-chain reviewed this week by William Sitwell. The room is “opulently yacht-like,” all “pale wood panels and polished brass.” The menu — “one of those lovely concoctions that seems to be able to include every classic Italian dish you might dream of” – promises cosmopolitan reliability, and by and large delivers it: “competent” calamari are encased in “great” batter; zucchini fries are “delicious”; a truffle and lovage risotto is “exceptional,” its rice “exact on the bite”. One tiny “gripe” about service aside, this is a “very sleek, fancy and stylish” addition to the burgeoning Chucs “flotilla.”
If there’s an “anachronistic integrity in the actually physical presence of the owners” behind the counter, there’s evidence that Ramsden and Herlihy have been similarly present when it comes to menu development, too. Combining “fresh, perfectly steamed, plump” prawns with prawn crackers is evidence of “chef quality, end-of-level, boss thinking” going into a dish long before knives are sharpened and ingredients prepared; as is rupturing the “Euclidean integrity” of an egg mayo sandwich with the “idiotically opulent” but “frankly devastating” addition of truffle crisps. The product on sale may be “simple,” but it is “dignified” with “such thought, care and craftsmanship” that in the moment it’s “hard to imagine ever eating anything better.”
Not so at Barboun, if Evening Standard stand-in David Ellis is to be believed.
The problem isn’t that it’s appalling, more that it “zig-zags between good and bad, happiness and frustration.” On the positive side of the ledger: a “lip-puckering but punchy” Düshesh cocktail; “beautiful” blackened aubergine; halloumi saganaki “livened with honey and lifted by tart, pleasingly sticky apricots.” On the negative side: pretty much everything else. Smoked eel is “fine” but “missing smoke”; octopus is “chewy”; rump of lamb is “impossibly tough” and “impossibly dull.” Puddings nip in as a “late saviour,” but by then the damage has been done: tahini fondant might be “a dish to return for” but in truth there’s “little more” to recommend.
There’s a similar miscellanea of hits and misses over at Ethos, the meat-free self-service restaurant reviewed this week by Giles Coren. Presentation is by and large “fantastic,” with “bright, bouncing salads of every imaginable vegetable and fruit”; execution is a little more unreliable. Squash, served al dente, is “like eating footballs”; vegan mac and cheese is actively “filthy”: “sloppy old macaroni the colour of cat sick with the thin, abusive flavour of tinned coconut milk.” But the Thai sweetcorn fritters are “supremely addictive”; the turmeric cauliflower is “gorgeous”; and the house aioli “is one of the three or four great condiments of the 21st century and brings to vibrant life the myriad impeccable salads.” A weight-based pricing system is certainly “stacked against the vegan” in the value-for-money stakes, but overall it’s enough to have lured the Times critic back “ten or twelves times now.”
If the all-you-can-eat-plant-based-buffet trend is yet to gain mainstream traction, the bakery + small plates + interesting wines trend shows no sign of abating. Marina O’Loughlin casts an eye over three of the city’s big hitters this week: in Flor she finds an absolute “treasure,” the now-rote formula “done beautifully,” including interior design that leaves one “rapt” and some “unmissable” brown butter cakes whose “unassuming plainness” disguises “sheer, sticky sybaritism.” Things are less enjoyable over at Jolene: it might deserve its reputation as “one of the capital’s most beautiful restaurants” but O’Loughlin finds it “also a little full of itself too” — “promising more than it delivers” on the plate. In this regard it’s in direct contrast to her final destination, Oklava Bakery and Wine, where “rich and luxurious” muhamarra leads into a “crisp-squidgy” kikirdakli ekmek and the redoubtable Black Sea pide, a dish to make even “the most OTT pizza seem ascetic.” The fusion of bakery and restaurant may make “a lot of sense” for operators straining to fill seats, but it brings plenty of rewards for customers, too: namely, the distinct joy of “having cake and eating it.”