John Walsh, writing for the Times, finds a piece of cooking-as-theatre that delivers real drama at Kiln in London Soho.
“No gas or electricity is used. Seven young chefs in black T-shirts and long black aprons manipulate woks over ancient iron buckets filled with cylindrical red embers of oak and applewood. A wall-mounted shelf above a flaming abyss forms a rudimentary eye-level grill. You watch the chefs transform cuts of meat and fish, seizing handfuls of noodles, applying shreds of onion, chilli, lemon grass, pak choi and mushroom to the hot dishes. It’s Soho’s version of the Yaowarat Road, Bangkok’s Chinatown.
“Skewers of hogget, or yearling lamb, with a dusting of cumin were richly meaty, their taste enhanced by cubes of fat. I could have had several helpings of the slow-grilled chicken thigh slicked with soy. Langoustine, served cold, had been marinated in kaffir lime and came with sweet mint, but was overwhelmed by an excess of chilli.
“From the fish dishes, the “jungle curry of cod” stood out. Kiln sources its fish in Cornwall, delivered every morning fresh off the boats. The cod, more correctly called ling, floated in a heavenly green wave of pea aubergines and the wonderful parsley charmingly known by the Thais as ‘stinking’.”
The Chef’s Dozen in Chipping Campden, run by Richard and Solanche Craven, is probably the best restaurant in the world, and the Times‘s Giles Coren isn’t even talking about the food.
“They brought bread: a big round, warm, loaf, made from whole flour but kind of brioche-y. With butter, whipped lard and salt. It smelt of cake and ate like summer air.
“I had ordered the starter of raw fallow buck, which came as a delicate, ruby circle of chopped, raw flesh, jewelled with preserved ramsons and the daintiest leaf-on baby radish. It was deft and sweet and ferrous. Just a bit of fat there. A prince among tartares.
“Esther had a “crisp pheasant egg”, runny and bright, in a crust of fried angel’s hair with a sliver of Wye Valley asparagus, almond, rose and lardo. Then a small rhombus of gurnard, plump and lively, with a single giant mussel, a tiny parsnip, two emerald leaves of kale and a hint of curry, while I carved into a brilliant “pig’s head and black pudding lasagna”, which was perfectly round and involved three custard- yellow slices of fresh pasta, with two discs of pressed head and a middle-layer puck of sweet, purple black pudding. On top were half a dozen glazed whole hazelnuts and a verdant hogweed shoot.
“I didn’t discover this place or anything. The Chef’s Dozen has been admired by such far-flung publications as the Birmingham Mail and The Manchester Guardian. But I’m different. I’m local. I’m telling you this is probably the best restaurant in the world. And I’m not even bothered about the food.”
The Observer’s Jay Rayner gives a rave review of Francesco Mazzei’s Radici in London Islington.
“There is one dish on the menu at Radici, a new Italian in London’s Islington, which sums up the restaurant. It is listed under “Primi” as “taglierini, fagioli and pancetta”. That’s ribbons of a thin tagliatelle-style pasta, white beans and bacon, in a dense, starchy broth of such intensity and such conviction, you could be forgiven for thinking your very soul is lost somewhere in its depths, undergoing respite care. It is the domestic eaten outside the home; a bowlful of muchness, built on very little. It costs £8.
“Of the pricier mains, try the calf’s liver, rolled up on itself, wrapped in pancetta and then wood-oven roasted. It is served with a still smoking rosemary twig as a tail, to remind you that real flames have been involved. There is, of course, a pillow of unfussy mashed potato. If you do not order Mazzei’s zucchini fritti, exploding from their pot like some desert grass that’s bolted, you are an idiot. They are the thinnest and the crispiest in London. If you attempt to eat these with cutlery, you are either strange or so uptight, you probably carry with you an anti-bacterial hand gel for when you touch your own children.”
Marina O’Loughlin of the Guardian finds that the Swan at Shakespeare’s Globe in London offers more than the standard tourist fare under new executive chef Allan Pickett.
“Tourist restaurants don’t need to pander to locals or regulars. After the “oohs” have been issued and the cameras clicked, it’s pretty much job done if they can send folk out without actively poisoning them. So it’s rare to stumble across a place such as Bankside’s Swan, with its history-plus-view double whammy, a side-order of charitable intent (a portion of its takings go towards supporting Shakespeare’s Globe next door) and a credible chef running the show. After a refurb, it’s lured critically acclaimed Allan Pickett, late of Fitzrovia’s Piquet, to head up the kitchens. Score.
“There’s a bustling pub gently scented with salt’n’vinegar on the ground floor, but we’re in the more formal restaurant upstairs.
“In his new role, Pickett has shifted from a traditional French culinary background to, we’re told, “classic British dishes”. Really? I’m not sure what’s classic Brit about pea and shallot tortellini, unless it’s their yeoman-like stoutness. I rather like stout pasta, but this is no light, spring-like dish, despite its broad bean puree and “pearls” of lightly grilled onion. It’s a hefty, satisfying bruiser.
“There’s no holding back that French technique, either: a butch terrine of pork striated with chicken and, randomly, a green flash of broccoli, its rhubarb compote speaking fluent Franglais. Or roast hake, perfectly pearlescent and squeaky-fresh on a bed of tiny, creamy coco de Paimpol beans laced with cockles and the salty bite of samphire, with a buttery, boozy nage that is purest Larousse Gastronomique.
“Overall, is it as good as Pickett’s previous gig? Possibly down to the scale of catering involved – it has to handle everything from breakfasts and those afternoon teas to weddings – I’m not so sure. But I’m also not sure whether Pickett, billed as “executive chef”, is always in the kitchen…That said, the food still holds its own against the flashy charms of that view. With Pickett in charge (if not there all the time), Swan is a graceful phoenix, way too good for just tourists.”
The Telegraph’s Michael Deacon reviews the Game Bird, at the Stafford London in St James’s in London and tries not to think about his calorie intake.
“The menu at The Game Bird is British, with lots of seafood and, funnily enough, game. My friend started with the Devon crab: creamy, tangy, deliciously smooth. I went for the smoked salmon, which was lovely, and came served with horseradish sauce, red onion and fat, juicy capers.
“For my main, I had more fish: the Dover-sole meunière. So soft and sleek and supple, it dissolved in my mouth almost on entry. My friend, meanwhile, had the title dish, ‘The Game Bird’, featuring roast pigeon, braised leg, parsnips and cabbage, doused by the waitress with a hip flask of sloe gin.
“It wasn’t much to look at: on first glance, a jumble of vegetables, with little morsels of meat peeping out from underneath, like mice in a log pile. The pigeon tasted great, though: plump, tender, slightly earthy. I could have done with more of it, but then, that’s pigeon for you.
“For pudding, my friend had the Lyle’s-golden-syrup sponge with custard. Solidly satisfying, in a school-dinner sort of way. But I preferred my pistachio soufflé – served with a scoop of white-chocolate ice cream, which sank gently into the warm soufflé like a little setting sun. It was a gorgeous, shivering collision between hot and cold.
“It’s good, The Game Bird. Not radical, not revolutionary, and pretty expensive, but good. Possibly not so good for my figure, though. Honestly. If I get any wider, Richard Branson will try to circumnavigate me in a balloon.”
You should go for Malaysian cooking of this calibre, says the Evening Standard’s Fay Maschler of Zheng, Chelsea.
“Roast duck is luscious. A quarter at £12.90 among an array of dishes satisfies four, even if it does leave us wanting more. I like the fact that asam pedas — fish fillets in a spicy herby gravy — doesn’t seem like a typical restaurant offering. It makes no great effort with presentation and cajoles subtly. In its modest way chai pu tofu also delights. Freshly made golden fried beancurd, like a Tempur mattress, supports a topping of dried radish, chilli and spring onions. It offers a textural change of impact too.
“A dish I always order in Malaysian restaurants is char kuey teow, a Penang hawker assembly for which the word umami might have been invented. Here it is simply garnished with eggs, prawns (lots of them) and the green of spring onions and served with sambal (hot sauce) on the side.
“Just to be thorough, we also try nasi lemak where the coconut rice, egg, cucumber, fried anchovies and peanuts are accompanied by punchy rendang chicken, a gathering apparently loved by Malaysians for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I’m with them there.”
Tamarind Kitchen in Soho, London, was in luck as there’s no genre of Indian food I’ll refuse, says Grace Dent of the Evening Standard.
“The problem with Tamarind Kitchen is that in striving for modern, fancy and minimal, almost everything it serves lacks oomph. An appetiser of moong wada (spiced lentil cake, coconut chutney) transpired to be two small blini-sized discs with a piping of sweetness. The soft-shell crab arrived, tasting mainly of oil, with a dessert spoon of pale, unmemorable potato salad. I drank a fresh mango lassi, which, on hindsight, was possibly the highlight of the visit. The starkly titled ‘trio of fish’ was three perfectly pleasant pieces of tandoori sea bass, sarson ki pollock and zaffrani salmon in a row. The guchi kofta was three mysterious balls in a pale sauce that tasted only of cardamom.
“The clientele early this Thursday evening was mainly regional business types having group dinners, who would return to their hotel rooms to cry real tears over main courses such as kadai paneer, which for £10 contained a whisper of paneer, a tomato-heavy sauce and little else. Or the tadka dal, which failed to even contain lentils, or the dry, unappealing roti. The best roti in town is the turmeric at Farang in Highbury, which I’d have walked barefoot from Wardour Street to buy at this point. I skipped dessert as I’d lost heart. Besides, I already knew via Instagram that the star of Tamarind Kitchen’s pudding was a chocolate bomb, which magically melts to reveal its innards. I was over that by 2010. This is the folly of trying to be hip in London: we’ve usually seen it all before, and we liked it better the first time.”
The Telegraph’s Jane Mulkerrins says says Firmdale Hotel’s recent opening – the Whitby in New York – provides “a sensorial stay, with eclectic, colourful design and a focus on art, alongside serious luxury and unstuffy service”
“Interior designer Kit Kemp and her husband Tim, founders of the Firmdale Hotel group – which also include New York’s Crosby Street Hotel, and The SoHo and Covent Garden Hotels in London – believe hotels should be “living things, not stuffy institutions,” and “a celebration of art and design”. Here they’ve taken the Crosby Street and improved upon it: The Whitby is such a riot of rich, tactile fabrics, elaborately-printed wallpapers, crockery hung like portraits, giant murals and sculptures as to be deemed a gallery in its own right. There’s a brochure behind reception with details about each artwork and its creator, should guests be curious to find out more.
“The 87 bedrooms across 16 floors are all individually designed, using more than 150 different fabrics, meaning each feels unique. Even the standard rooms are spacious by New York standards, with seductively comfortable BeautyRest beds, floor-to-ceiling leaded windows, elegant armchairs and ottomans, the signature mannequin on a stand, and minibars stashed discreetly in well-lit closets. All bathrooms feature two large square post-war-style sinks and RikRak products, and every room from Junior Suites upwards has a stand-alone silver tub, as well as a walk-in marble shower.”
Tom Chesshyre of the Times enjoys the pizazz created by the recent refurbishment of the Peacock in Rowsley, Derbyshire, owned by Lord and Lady Manners
“Rooms are elegant, with massive beds, antique furniture from Belvoir Castle (also in the Manners family), marble bathrooms (stocked with good-quality Miller Harris toiletries) and plenty of old portraits and landscape paintings. Sheepskin rugs have been introduced in the revamp, as have reupholstered velvet armchairs.
“There’s a bar menu with sandwiches, but the main restaurant is the big draw. Expect dishes such as pork collar with smoked eel black pudding, and monkfish with seaweed and red-wine braised oxtail. My mackerel, dill, apple and oyster-emulsion starter looked a picture, and my main course of fillet of beef with turnips, grilled onions and mash was just so. The chocolate tart with passion fruit completed a fine meal. Three courses cost from about £60.”
Fiona Duncan of the Sunday Telegraph is delighted to find authenticity and passion at the Royal Oak, in Wiltshire, run by former BBC journalist Tim Finney and Helen Browning, a pioneer of the organic movement and chief executive of the Soil Association.
“I’m getting awfully tired of posh pubs with their carefully created country chic looks and carefully modulated manners. No such pretensions, thank heaven, at the Royal Oak, which like its owners doesn’t quite conform to the norm, with wooden floors and quirky features such as bright red radiators and unframed images of Eastbrook Farm on the walls.
“On two floors around a courtyard, with a handy pantry/sitting room that includes a record player and a pile of Tim’s old LPs, the rooms are, like everything else at the Royal Oak, natural and quirky, reflecting their surroundings. Each is named after a field on the farm, brought to life by a photograph across one wall. Ours was Kate’s Folly, the first field Helen put into organic conversion, where she experimented with the release of phosphate from calcareous soils and named for her college friend who helped her in those early days.”
The Guardian’s Tony Naylor checks into the Higher Buck in Waddington, Lancashire, a gastropub-with-rooms that features an interior-by-numbers, but fabulous staff and sophisticated pub grub overseen by chef-landlord Michael Heathcote
“The Higher Buck is a Thwaites pub (beer a bit dreary, serviceable wine list), which has undergone one of those modish pub makeovers that, while not unpleasant – tartan fabrics, weathered wooden panels, filament lightbulbs, artfully arranged old books and quirky ephemera (baking trays pinned to the walls!) – feels a bit new and artificial. It is a country pub that could only have evolved in an interior designer’s MacBook Pro. Fortunately, the warmth of the staff feels more genuine.
“Underpinned by the high-quality local produce that this area has in abundance, Heathcote’s menu is a crowd-pleasing litany of pub classics (steak pudding, chicken Kiev etc), lifted by his deft touch. Ham hock and black pudding croquettes are as gutsy as they are refined, perfect porcine parcels partnered by an expertly balanced mustard mayo. Dense and light as marshmallow, Lancashire cheese souffle is true but clean in its flavours, and neatly offset by a spiced apple chutney and delicate shaved salad.”