Marina O'Loughlin reviews
Friday, March 07, 2014 - Presentation is as overwrought as the concept, a multiplicity of swoops and swirls and little jugs. With guinea fowl (overcooked and dry; thank goodness for the "nib-infused organic milk yoghurt") comes a disembodied poultry limb standing to attention like a guardsman. I've ordered slow-roast shoulder of Herdwick lamb, the meat – already sticky, almost jammy, with a jug of even stickier "cacao balsamic" gravy...Despite the quality of the chocolate, the cumulative effect on me is a bilious one: I'm as queasy as if I'd necked a family-sized Galaxy selection box.
Friday, February 28, 2014 - Almost every dish trails a wisp of fragrant smoke: fat little anchovies you can eat like lollipops; flatbread oozing smoked butter. The burger is smoked Basque beef, with sticky idiazabal cheese and frilly fried onion rings. There are ribs, falling off the bone, with a sticky quince glaze that makes my pupils dilate. Octopus is a sexy beast indeed, butch but tender, sweetened by a tangle of peperonata. (I'm pausing here for a brief moment at the recollection of chips fried in Ibérico fat, dunked in chorizo ketchup.)
Friday, January 31, 2014 - We have precision-cut slivers of 24-month-aged Trevelez jamón, sweeter and nuttier than more pedestrian Serranos. There's whipped lardo, melting languidly over sourdough toast, meatier than this snowy backfat usually is and packing a porcine punch. Tacos are messy and immoderate, stuffed with slow-cooked pork (of course), their ripe corn still discernible through the sweet-sourness of muscovado sugar and cider vinegar, earthy little black beans and sludge of guacamole. Neatly sliding off the bone, baby back ribs come in a treacly, smoky marinade.
Saturday, January 11, 2014 - Our food is bland and forgettable: from "truffle" popcorn lacking even a ghost of the alleged flavour, to shrimp with grits (a mushy southern US version of polenta), it's like invalid food; they've even managed to find insipid chillies. Fried chicken features flabby bird: more grease-bound chippy, batter thick as a MasterChef greengrocer, than evolved comfort food. It comes with "spicy coleslaw" that isn't. The fries – tepid, pallid, limp – would make McDonald's blush.
Saturday, January 04, 2014 - Our food comes, as is fashionable, at the whim of the kitchen. But these aren't courses anyway, they're canapés. Tacos the size of communion wafers, topped with teaspoons of this and that: pork pibil, sludgy and slow-cooked with a backnote of orange and chilli; a morsel of soft-shell crab, cleanly fried, with heavenly cebollas curtidas on top. Nice enough, but at £12 for three, I'd prefer wow.
Saturday, December 28, 2013 - If I were to try to find a word to sum up Merchants Tavern, it would be confidence. The confidence to accessorise a generous hunk of pork belly with little more than roast cauliflower and savoy cabbage, sophistication coming from an almost throwaway blob of the most intense, bitter grapefruit purée. The confidence to put a cheese and ham toastie on the bar menu...And, of course, to dish up a small saucepan of bloody good mash when everyone else is doing triple-fried chips rammed into flowerpots. This is a restaurant with the chops not to have to try too hard. Sheer class.
Saturday, December 21, 2013 - We resist the blandishments of the trout. But, with the exception of a (tiny) crab starter that features glorious shellfish with delicate, lightly pickled cucumber and the freshness of sorrel, the rest of what we eat is equally austere. Minuscule carrots, again with a touch of acidity, are almost raw and served with mandolined discs of radish. This isn't lunch, it's the 5:2 diet...But I forgive everything because the wine list – long a whispered, greedy little secret among the capital's bibulous – should be preserved for the nation in the galleries above.
Saturday, December 14, 2013 - Pork belly – a huge serving – features a hectic homage to the carrot: orange glazed; purple scattered with bacon-y dust; processed into a mousse-like sauce. Puffed pork rinds provide contrast and crunch. Oh, and there's a slow-braised pig's cheek, too. It's vaguely exhausting...I suspect the gallerists will be delighted to have us uncultured restaurant critic types scratching our heads to make sense of it. But is that art?
Saturday, November 16, 2013 - The dish that sums it all up is a deep-fried Clarence Court duck egg, a sausageless scotch, its orange yolk oozy and rich, on "mushy" peas of equally vivid hue and taste, with crisps of Cumbrian ham. Cocktails are made with "Coco Pops milk" and served in glass cartons with retro straws. It's the Atherton look, and it goes beautifully with its surroundings: a tingly mix of fun and fabulousness...And so, polite burger or not, I'm going back. I'm a sucker for a bit of the ol' razzle-dazzle.
Saturday, November 02, 2013 - Every week there's a different menu. You might find athanu: slices of fresh mango spiked with tingling spices into a kind of instant chutney. Or one of their insanely good bhujias: onion or broccoli, fried till crisp, the batter aerated with a fizz of bicarb. Or mhutia: crunchy wafers laced with ajwain (carom) seeds, like poppadoms with attitude...You get the very real sense that you're enjoying the hospitality of talented Gujarati home cooks, without needing to be invited into actual Gujarati homes. Which is a privilege I'm happy to cross town for.
Saturday, October 26, 2013 - The first Two Fats landed in 1989, and today's menu, bar a few rogue sightings of chorizo and tamarind, wouldn't have looked out of place then. There have been reports of raspberry vinegar, which I thought had been against the law since shoulder pads roamed the Earth. And the plating… Trios and timbales and spears of chive: it's like the millennium never happened. There's a symmetrical drum of white rice perfectly centred on a plain white plate. Around it are five fat, lightly chillied prawns on their salsa of, er, couthy mango, pineapple and pimento. The only sign that we're not time-travelling are a few scattered microherbs. I might scoff, but it gets scoffed, smartish.
Saturday, October 19, 2013 - It does what it does with aplomb: fluffy gnocchi bathed in fruity robiola cheese, punctuated by almost caramelised shards of guanciale (pigs' cheek bacon). Homemade honey gelato – as blowsy as soft-serve, so not really gelato at all – provides a light, sweet finish. The only also-ran is an octopus dish, the muscular tentacle over-charred, its mattress of borlotti and n'duja simply odd: the beans are overcooked, the onions almost raw, and there's just a ghostly suggestion of the sausage. Otherwise, it's all good. These new kids on the block are on to something.
Saturday, October 05, 2013 - It's a shame she won't experience the sweet, pearly scallops with romesco sauce crafted, I'd guess, from peppers blasted by a charcoal grill. And ox cheek, rich as chocolate fondant, savoury as Marmite, with cauliflower cheese that breathes a fug of ripe fromages and inches the dish towards overkill until you stumble across the odd bracingly sharp pickled floret. Or stovies, a traditional Scottish ribsticker, here translated as chunks of just-collapsed potato bathed in a thick lamb jus with tendrils of onion.
Saturday, September 28, 2013 - The mains can't quite handle the pace: there's a tendency to over-reduced, vinous sauces, treacly and overwhelming, especially in an ox cheek dish so overpoweringly beefy it would make a vegetarian faint from several paces. I'm not sure a "burger" made from squid and tuna is altogether a genius idea, but I love pigs' cheeks cooked until crusty outside and almost spoonable within...Still, it's a glamorous gaff. If the staff got a boot up the jacksie, it could be a welcome addition to the shrinking pantheon of London's properly grown-up restaurants.
Saturday, September 14, 2013 - That this derivative throwback exists in the same street as Moro and Caravan smacks of sheer gall. That it's rammed to its walls demonstrates how depressingly easy it is to snow the punters. Paesan's corporate speak whiffles on about "cucina povera" being "a way of life" and talking "from one paesan to another". The owners are also responsible for the tourist trap Pasta Brown in Covent Garden.
Saturday, September 07, 2013 - Our meal is a series of small thrills. From the little explosions of taste in a pea dish – thyme buds, lemon verbena jelly, mint granita – to the almond milk that comes with small rectangles of pork belly, it makes you beam with pleasure at the knowledge there's more to come...I'd far rather be eating Robin Gill's wonderful food here, with his wife Sarah in her slouchy shorts singing the praises of their quirky and alluring wine list than in some constipated temple of haute cuisine.
Saturday, August 31, 2013 - The irritations of the day slip from me as easily as the rabbit slips down my neck. It is gorgeous: the meat silky and slow-cooked, still tasting quite definitely of bunny; the mash of the Robuchon school, rammed with butter, rich and luxurious. There's a light, creamy, mustardy sauce that just – just – stops short of richness overkill. I want to anoint myself in it...I'd come here weekly if I could. This is reasonably priced food designed to deliver pleasure from chaps who know how to have a good time. They've recreated a France viewed through rosé-filled glasses.
Saturday, August 24, 2013 - There's pigeon breast, deep burgundy, just the right side of over-ripeness. It comes with a delicate, pastry-wrapped pastilla of the rest of the bird, confited and scented with cinnamon and scattered with pistachios, garnet-coloured morello cherries and a sauce with the sour-sweet note of rosehips. A surprise: one of those morellos turns out to be intense cherry jelly, with a vanilla crisp as its stalk.
Saturday, August 17, 2013 - In among the short menu of corn dogs and the inevitable burger (with pineapple and bacon jam, obviously) are some lovely, cheffier things: wild seabass with passion fruit and pickled ginger; salad from Keveral Farm. The quality is a little startling: Clarke is obsessive about sourcing, utilising a network of indie suppliers. The aged Dexter ribeye I order is so ripe in flavour and buttery in texture, it's hard not to eat it open-mouthed.
Saturday, August 10, 2013 - Some dishes are successful assemblies: baked beetroots with creamy goat's milk labneh with a sharp, medicinal note from dill oil. (Loubet enjoys the brightness of goat's milk; it turns up again in a dessert of pannacotta with candied cherry tomatoes.) Or a harmonious salad of endive, peas, runner beans and Roquefort...This is sunny food, California dreamin' dishes. I'm tickled by the idea that it's a large Frenchman who's delivering this fresh, almost feminine food.
Saturday, August 03, 2013 - Calamari have the air of items released from decades of cryogenic freezing. They loll off the fork, as flaccid and weary as a Playboy magnate. Their "aïoli" simply isn't: it's a lurid yellow dollop that's never met a clove of garlic in its miserable life. It gets worse: a fine bit of steak, nicely charred and pink, has a new kind of torture inflicted on it: "coffee and chipotle bbq" sauce, aka brown gloop that tastes as though it's had Nescafé and Tabasco flung in...Underneath the cackhandedness, the lumpen crowd-pleasing, there's evidence of fine produce. But it simply doesn't stand a chance against the force of the concept.
Saturday, July 20, 2013 - We have the full 10 courses, at £79. Well, you feel you must. We have spongey boiled sole on to which is poured an onion broth so powerful and jammy, it gums the lips together. Sole is a delicate fish; it doesn't stand a snowball's. There are the inevitable "jokes": pickled mussels whose shells are edible – pastry stained with squid ink – and twigs made of seaweed. I hazard these are more fun to dream up than they are to eat.
Saturday, July 06, 2013 - McHale has a way with a vegetable. Asparagus comes with a dollop of gochujang (Korean fermented chilli paste), mayo and ground black sesame, a feisty trio. What's billed as a salad, a beautiful, painterly dish, delivers bursts of intense pleasure: perfectly slow-poached pheasant's egg, snowy-white almonds, crisp, peppery radishes with their leaves, chive flowers, tendrils of creamy, home-cured lardo, the sweetest, greenest peas… Oh, so much more.
Saturday, June 29, 2013 - I love the clever, urbane menu; I love the wine list, brimming with desirable arcana...Rabbit, as tender as a goodbye kiss, is butched up by slabs of spicy morcilla, then soothed by fresh peas. As the blood sausage is cut, it leaches into the light broth, giving it a sexy, murky depth. Fat roasted scallops are served with lardo di Colonnata and those punchy little scapes. It all just works.
Saturday, June 22, 2013 - Familiar dishes are given clever, pungent twists: smoked bamboo shoots in crisp, airy potsticker dumplings; red-braised pork given woody depth by tea tree mushrooms. The standout for me is catfish with pancakes, a Shandong dish made with huge, fatty fish heads here translated for scaredy westerners into thick, slightly gummy fillets in a dark brown sauce of such savour I want to plunge into it face first. Dried chillies jostle with star anise and more fat cloves of garlic than should be legal, all bound with fermented bean paste. The chewy pancakes, flung into the sauce, become alluringly floppy. Gorgeous.
Saturday, June 15, 2013 - There's wild boar pasta "alla chitarra", cut on guitar-like wires so that the strands have squared edges, the ragù slow-cooked and honking with wine and herbs. Pallotte cac'e ove are squelchy little balls of fried cheese topped with rich tomato sauce and wafers of truffled caciotta cheese – a collection of several kinds of loveliness. Servings are huge, especially "sagne" pasta with chickpeas and pappardelle with spicy rabbit. The menu's rarely less than an adventure.
Saturday, June 15, 2013 - A red Berkel meat slicer and dangling charcuterie give hints to the provenance. In Parma is largely concerned with cheese and salumi. The meats arrive sliced as finely as raw filo, silky and ripe, lapping over the large boards they're served on. Cheeses – fontina, robbiola and, of course, parmigiano – are perfectly kept, and there are vinegary little borettane onions for wrapping in fatty coppa, fleshy bresaola or majestic culatello di Zibello.
Saturday, June 08, 2013 - We have a few slivers of beef on a large plate. The beef might be fabulous, but there's no way of knowing: its gingery-soy-garlicky dressing has sent all other flavour packing. Our mains are entirely forgettable: upscale ingredients served with fruity sidekicks...Oblix is designed to crowd-please a specific clientele: they can eat familiar-looking food surrounded by familiar-looking people – a Maccy D's approach for the internationally minted. I find it eminently unlovable.
Saturday, June 01, 2013 - It's not awful (well, not all of it), but neither do I want to eat any of it again. House-cured fish – one salmon in star anise, one halibut in beetroot – are pleasing enough, but come in slivers the size and thickness of Band-Aids and cost £7 a pop. Then there's the prawn cocktail which comes under one of those desperate smoke-filled domes...There's no doubting the majesty of the Savoy – the impressive swoop down to Kaspar's makes you fear that someone will spot you as a common interloper and throw you out on your ear – but I'm not sure this is the restaurant it deserves.
Saturday, May 25, 2013 - There's tartare of Angus beef, lightly smoked and hand-chopped, pungent with mustard leaves and horseradish, and soothed by egg yolk. Hood is no slouch when it comes to fish, either: plaice with chewy brown shrimp and the lightest mousseline freshened with cucumber. Or hake, lightly curried and baked, with roast cauliflower, nutty and cheesy: the cleverest of stuff...It's a punchbowl of different ingredients that manages to end up being quintessentially Soho.
Saturday, May 18, 2013 - It's the sort of place that people who adore prodding and sniffing their food, and who're happy only if meat comes in a brace of different cooking styles accessorised with dots of things and cubes and sploshes of other things, will love. They'll love it with a polite, slightly long-winded passion.
Saturday, May 04, 2013 - A candle made from beef dripping pools into the holder; dense, dark sourdough for dipping; and a relish of finely cubed veal tongue, celery and jellied chicken consommé in a sharp-sweet dressing. Bloody lovely: earthy, piquant, meaty flavours and wobbly, crunchy, fatty textures, all in one mouthful...Sellers may be cocky enough to call his warm-up London and New York pop-ups "Foreword" and "Preface", but he can walk the walk: his food is genuinely directional.
Saturday, April 27, 2013 - Presentation is delicious. A nest of shredded filo cradles slow-cooked tea-smoked eggs dusted with satay powder. If that's not sensory overload enough, a burning stick of cinnamon breathes scented smoke over it. There's a celebration of vegetables – gai lan, bok choy, choy sum, crisped lotus roots – with a burp of pleasingly evil fermented bean curd and nutty shrimp butter. Scotch beef (the quality of ingredients is notable) comes with Yunnan truffle and fat, wriggly ho fun noodles.
Saturday, April 13, 2013 - I'm sure the food – we have the tasting menu – is delivering exactly what it has set out to, but it's weirdly forgettable. You get a sense of robotic, rote perfection. The scene is set by the contrived aperitivos on their steel contraptions: a trademark scorpion fish lollipop thing, wrapped in Weetabix-like kataifi pastry; puffed rice wafers sandwiching a fish mousse about as thrilling as tuna mayo; and, weirdest of all, what's described as "cheese puzzle", the puzzle being why anyone would want to torture good cheese until it tasted like ossified Dairylea and looked like a Wall's Funny Feet ice lolly.
Saturday, April 06, 2013 - There's an obscene-looking hotdog – brioche bun, smoky, dense sausage with just the right amount of snap, onion jam. Chopped liver is a Jewish deli classic, rich with chicken fat and arriving with a tub of butter in case your arteries aren't packing up fast enough. Everything comes with brioche...If you fancy killing yourself with what might be styled "grande bouffe, yo", this is as good a place to do it as any.
Saturday, March 30, 2013 - The 30-day beef is impressive, but it's the older, riper cut that leaves a lasting impression – as rich as anything I've eaten here or the States, almost gamey, cutting like butter even though we've asked for it rare...Our other choices are mostly a bit on the sad side: limp roasted vegetables, "roast potatoes" that look like frozen oven wedges, anodyne caponata with none of the sweet-sour bravura of the real Sicilian thing. Gnocchi with pesto should be aced – Genoa is pesto's homeland – but although the little dumplings are handmade, the sauce lacks seasoning and vibrancy.
Saturday, March 16, 2013 - Nothing we eat is worth its hefty price tag. A "salad" features slimy, over-balsamiced grilled radicchio, decent prosciutto and "house-smoked bocconcini", which translates as rubbery little dollops of bog-standard mozzarella that are strangers to the smoker. A steak – USDA prime sirloin, apparently – tastes only of char...It's a theme restaurant. And the theme is Sex And The City circa 1999.
Saturday, March 09, 2013 - I'm bedazzled and occasionally bewildered. Every dish that's arriving – tiny, but perfectly formed, each on a distinct and beautiful piece of Japanese crockery – offers something to make you shake your head in wonder and curiosity...Sure, it's expensive, but good kaiseki is eyewateringly spendy in the homeland, too. Plus there's all that washing-up. At the risk of coming over all M&S, this isn't just dinner, it's a merry-go-round for the senses, a series of revelatory little pleasures. It's an education.
Saturday, March 02, 2013 - The menu changes three times a day. Imagine. Inevitably, sometimes you'll hit a day of joy – Cornish fish in tempura-light batter with aïoli made with smoked garlic; razor clams with a rubble of migas-like breadcrumbs spiked with morcilla...The new custodians of the Chop House are gleefully aware of the treasure on their hands. It gladdens the heart.
Saturday, February 23, 2013 - Partridge for two, exquisitely juicy and with a whiff of mulchy earth and hedgerow from its ageing, is majestic: served on a silver charger with fruity, relish-like red cabbage and that pithivier, a dome of crisp pastry stuffed with the bird's innards and garlicky French sausage, it's a complex, memorable little number that shoots straight to the top of my list of deathbed dishes.
Saturday, February 16, 2013 - There's a board of charcuterie: rosette de Lyon sausage; silky rillettes with the subtlest caress of spice; a dense, meaty pork terrine; velvet-textured folds of Bayonne ham; pickled cornichons and baby onions. Frites are chips, really, not their slender French cousins, but they're triple-fried and excellent, especially dunked into the pungent, demi-glace pepper sauce on a slab of entrecote...It's like a big, French family happy to welcome new rosbif members.
Saturday, February 02, 2013 - I genuinely believe Yau is some kind of genius. From that easily Google-able name to the faux-sleazy LED light display, Naamyaa is like nothing else in town. I'd be happy to eat beans on toast here, cosseted by beaming cult members and blessed by glittering Bodhisattvas, but you can get Hakkasan-style jasmine tea-smoked baby back ribs and Mekhong whisky and grüner veltliner. Yau, the consummate restaurateur, has done it again.
Saturday, January 26, 2013 - Much of it is mesmerising. One flawless oyster on a sliver of seaweed jelly, bathed in sherry-like Shaoxing wine with lime, ginger and onion, is an exhilarating earth-and-sea slurp. "Tomato" brings three treatments of the fruit: one almost confit in sweet Chinese vinegar, one wrapped in an armadillo-like shell of lightest pastry, one a snowy "marshmallow" that combines fairy-wing lightness with astonishing intensity. Wagyu beef comes in a bouillon of limpid purity and staggering savour.
Saturday, January 19, 2013 - There are decorative assemblies: shallots roasted into luxurious, sweet petals and partnered with golden and purple beetroot, anya potatoes and soothing clouds of goat's curd with a spritz of balsamic for acidity. Warming ribstickers: ox cheeks, slow-stewed with roots collapsing into the clutches of the gravy. And playful novelties: "crispy beef brisket salad", pleasingly chewy, crumbed meat with mustard-dressed and vinegar-soused veg – like a reinvention of crispy shredded beef, but with decent produce...This is food, and hospitality, with its heart in the right place.
Friday, January 11, 2013 - "My brasseries," it says on the menu, "are places where you can relax and enjoy honest French cooking." I don't know about you, M Blanc, but I find it hard to relax in an environment of deafening noise levels, stressed and overstretched staff, and legions of people processed like so many frozen frites...According to Caterer mag, there are plans to grow the chain to 40 sites in the next five years. I'm sure this expansion strategy will continue to keep standards lofty, and people who genuinely care about food will continue to pile in. Oh yes.