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chop house

In her last review for the Guardian, before she takes over as critic at the Sunday Times, Marina O’Loughlin has an almost pitch-perfect meal at the Quality Chop House on Farringdon Road in London.

For this, my last review for the Guardian, I’m taking the opportunity offered by an adjustment in ownership and kitchen rethink to retrace my steps of a few years ago to The Quality Chop House. Fortunately, the extraordinary, wood-pewed, tiled-floor interior from its days as a “Progressive Working Class Caterer” is listed and can’t change. If it were down to me, they should also slap a listing on Shaun Searley: that rarest of creatures, a supremely talented chef who appears to be ego-free. Any grandstanding he might feel like doing ends up on the plate, to the ultimate joy and benefit of the diner, not the glorification of the kitchen.

His treatment of grouse – they’re big on seasonal game – is ravishing enough to render me temporarily speechless. The bird, British autumnal cookery at its most intense, is hardly ever tampered with in even the most ambitious establishments, but Searley is clever enough to tweak just a few shades away from the traditional, just enough to turn the often challenging little beast into something spectacular. He roasts it to burnished bronze, the flesh still carmine inside, then removes the legs and minces them with its offal and fine black pudding into a rich, cauled faggot served with velvety celeriac puree and sticky, reduced meat glaze. This is sybaritism in a little copper saucepan.

And, afterwards, Salisbury honey tart, sweet and wobbly as an ingenue, and Capezzana ice-cream doused with what seems like too much of the eponymous olive oil until you taste it and sigh. It’s an almost pitch-perfect meal. Maybe I wouldn’t bother gilding the legendary confit potatoes by topping them with masses of salty Exmoor caviar, and I’d hesitate before adding a pruney puree (caramelised onion?) to grubby up the cleanliness of a slab of cod with crab, sweetcorn and chilli. But these are the most entitled of critic-y quibbles, and I scarfed them all with pleasure.


Tony Turnbull of the Telegraph heads to Clare Smyth’s Core in London’s Notting Hill but doesn’t feel the love.

“I’ve served all the caviar in the world,” she [Smyth] explained before last month’s launch. “We’re trying to strip away the things that make people feel uneasy about coming to a fine-dining restaurant.”

If by that she means carpets and tablecloths, then Core is a massive success. You walk in through the bar, past a gleaming kitchen separated by a sheet of plate glass, and into a bright, clean dining room: bare floorboards, wood-topped tables, a lively buzz of conversation, a bit like a plush art gallery café only with less art on the wall.

Except, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had a problem with soft furnishings.

What terrifies me about fine dining is the size of the bill, and on that front Smyth’s made not the slightest concession.

The cheapest lunchtime option is the £65 three-course à la carte, otherwise it’s five courses or a seven-course tasting menu for £80 or £95 respectively. Add to that a gouging 15 per cent service and it’s all but impossible to get out for less than £100 a head, and this on a menu that makes a virtue of not serving lobster or foie gras or any of the other trappings of high-end dining.

Personally, I think Core is taking the piss, but then, like Chelsea, Notting Hill operates in a different financial universe these days, and there may well be enough locals for whom such prices are just Monday night supper money for when you’ve forgotten to tell your housekeeper to tell your cook that you might be peckish come 8pm.

What’s not in doubt is the skill and ambition of Smyth’s cooking. Within moments of sitting down, out come a parade of amuse-bouches. A smoked tomato and macadamia nut gazpacho tart, garnished with olive seeds (what they? – Ed), is a remarkable balance of texture and flavour atop a pastry base so fragile and crisp as to defy physics. A perfectly spherical tomato gougère packs more punch than shore leave on a Saturday night, and a wafer of toasted nori seaweed with smoked eel and cubes of jelly comes accompanied by a spritz of malt vinegar essence. It’s a cockney classic that’s scrubbed up beautifully for its trip up west and is Cor(e) blimey good.

The potato dish is a play on Smyth’s Northern Irish roots: a Charlotte potato laden with trout and herring roe and four fermented crisps, set adrift in a lake of seaweed beurre blanc, like Mr Potato Head taking the kids on a family canoe trip. Salt, potato and butter – there’s no going wrong there – but it’s comforting more than outstanding, and the potato is slightly overcooked, so it crumbles when I try to skewer it with the fork.

So there’s clearly lots of great cooking on display, and yet, and yet … I just didn’t feel the love. Smyth clearly knows how to run a tight kitchen, but it’s that control that somehow sucks the joy out of the eating, as if it’s designed to flatter its investors rather than its customers.


Mexican chef Martha Ortiz casts a spell over Grace Dent at Ella Canta says Grace Dent of the Evening Standard.

Duly, I’d set out to Ella Canta in fear of going without dinner and being held hostage to plates of fresh air and fairytale whimsy. This was not the case. A vampiro sea bass ceviche in a mango-sangrita sorbet was wonderful, zingy and welcomely non-stingy. ‘Okay, I love this place,’ I said, giddily, as a plate of pickled salmon tostada with chilli chipotle arrived from the ‘Overture’ section of the menu. The clientele is who you’d expect to see at a Park Lane address where they serve duck with plantain purée at £28; ergo, moneyed tourists, business diners and groups of well-heeled, very-definitely grown-ups. Still, for a hotel restaurant — and by Christ the designers have done their damnedest to mask this fact — the atmosphere was decidedly bouncy. Especially whenever a dashing, bearded man in braces appeared carrying a tray of various tequlias, mezcals and salted orange segments. I’m a huge fan of anything that transforms getting tipsy into some sort of noble act.

Mains, for us, were a sumptous slab of bacalao negro on a vivid puddle of ajillo guajillo, and an enticing take on Michoacán pork carnitas with a side of tortillas, which appeared in an odd, surely expensive, black kidney-shaped bowl. A nopal cactus salad, shouting with citrus, was highly decent. I was on my second margarita by this point and had my heart set on the corn and huitlacoche cake with a chamomile mystic sauce, plus a side of Ortiz’s take on churros with caramel and chocolate for requisite dipping.


lamprey

Michael Deacon of the Telegraph reviews the Lampery, London: ‘Not the jostling, mead-sodden 17th-century tavern I’d expected’.

Samuel Pepys was a man of gargantuan appetites. First, for sex. He made love to countless women, and in countless places: pubs, the theatre, even church. Even more colossal, however, was his appetite for food. With belching relish his diary details the monstrous feasts he would devour in pubs and lay on at home.

What a man. I was excited, therefore, to hear that a restaurant had opened in London as a tribute to Pepys.

I glanced about at the scattered tables of businessmen (jackets removed, but ties still neatly knotted). This didn’t quite look like the night of wench-mad Restoration carousing I’d hoped for. The menu didn’t feel entirely authentic, either. Since we’d been promised that the ‘whole offering’ was ‘inspired’ by Pepys, I was intrigued to note the inclusion of the currently fashionable Latin American dish ceviche, and, indeed, mac and cheese (the first recipe for which was published 66 years after Pepys died) and baked Alaska (invented in the 1860s). Bear in mind that Pepys lived so long ago, his idea of a radical gourmet trend was tea: he first tasted it at the age of 27, recording it in his diary as ‘a Cupp of Tee (a China drink)’.

It’s a pity. I honestly think you could make a go of a proper, authentic, Pepys-y restaurant, in a Pepys-y venue, with a Pepys-y atmosphere and a Pepys-y menu. Tourists would love it. Even if the food was foul, and gave you a bout of authentic 17th-century dysentery, it would still feel like an experience worth having. An education. Fun. Not a whole lot of that here.


Fay Maschler of the Evening Standard reviews Serge et le Phoque which she says is quintessential London.

Arriving for the first dinner I am greeted like a new friend by a smiling bearded man laden with two huge John Lewis carrier bags. “You’ve been shopping,” I cunningly observe and he laughs and says the bedrooms aren’t all ready yet.

The design of the dining room is low-key, with melamine table tops and chairs that have a disturbingly gynaecological look — I get a feeling I’ve seen them in The Handmaid’s Tale — but are notably comfortable. The sound system is well adjusted, unmistakeably present but not importunate.

One of several things that impresses on the restfully short menu is the relatively modest price of dishes. This could be an opening gambit but at my second dinner — separated by about three weeks — they haven’t slyly crept up. This contributes considerably to the sense of fun. And at lunch — £22/£27 for two/three courses — hoopla can be practically uncontained.

No national style of cuisine dominates, which you might say is quintessential London. Asian incursions are minor — a bit of tobiko here, a splosh of XO sauce there. Mediterranean is actually the neatest catch-all category but well-defined: nothing extraneous added, no ingredient not pulling its weight. “Restrained precision,” pronounces one of my thoughtful chums.


where the light gets in

Lisa Markwell reviews Where the Light Gets In, Stockport for the Sunday Times.

There’s so much to irritate about Where the Light Gets In. No-menu places are usually enough to make my teeth itch, never mind an almost-impossible-to-find, unmarked location, an open kitchen and a particular kind of “Hi guys!” atmosphere.

At Where the Light Gets In, there is no menu. It’s made clear on booking and on arrival that you won’t know what you’re in for, although your credit card will. It’s a flat £75, plus a further £45 if you want matching wines; again, no choice, it’s yes or no.

Bone broth, with a slice of coppa cured in-house, is rich and autumnal, given extra bonfiery top notes by setting fire to hay and infusing the liquid before serving. What kind of bone broth, I ask Buckley. “I don’t want to tell you yet,” he replies. “It’ll give the game away about the next dish.” It is, it turns out, pigeon bones. Breast and leg are carved off, then the carcass used for the next day’s broth. And that hay? It had been stuffed into the pigeon before roasting. Waste-not, want-not deluxe around here.

My God, the wines. The sommelier, Caroline Dubois from Montreal, is ridiculously clever in her choices and the way she delivers them.

After a rich plum cake with plum kernel cream, and an exemplary cheese course, I suggest rooms so that blissed-out diners can roll into bed. Where the Light Goes Out — it has a certain ring to it.