Giles Coren likens Thai barbecue restaurant the Smoking Goat, London WC2, to Charles Lamb’s 1822 A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig, which he describes as the ultimate paean to barbecue and an experience he searches for every time he eats out.
“The menu was short so we ordered everything except the fish, and the first thing out of the kitchen did everything Charles Lamb was talking about,” he writes in the Times.
“It was called just ‘fish sauce wings’ and cost £6. For that we got three fat arms, bright gold and glistening with heat. You couldn’t get within a yard of them for a minute or two and then that burning on the fingers as you lose all inhibition and go for it, the searing of the lips by fire or spice, you’re not quite sure, the crunch as the carapace cracks, the erotic plunge into boiling flesh, the pain on the gums and tongue, the vinegary mist that strips you momentarily of breath, and then a yeasty, Marmitey richness, a depth, and then sweetness, a stickiness in the molars like you’ve been chomping on a Crunchie. I believe there is palm sugar in there to level out the pungency of the fish sauce and the effect is to make the chicken feel encased not so much in batter as in sugar. It’s as close as anything to old-fashioned Chinese toffee apples with chicken inside instead of fruit. Thrilling, just thrilling.”
Camilla Long steps into the AA Gill-shaped void in the Sunday Times this week with a review of London’s first paleo restaurant, Pure Taste in Notting Hill, “for people who actually hate food”.
“Nearly everything is made with almond wheat or coconut flour or avocado. Halfway through the starter, I suddenly place the smell: this is exactly what was smeared on my thighs during a holiday to Thailand, circa 2006. I am eating my own massage. There are two things that taste all right (the charcuterie and the guinea fowl, which is delicious), but everything else tastes awful. It is basically inedible, dry, strange — like eating a 3D-printed meal.
“And is it just me, or did cavemen really eat trout bisque with tiger prawns, or banoffee pie or tequila sorbet? And did they even have potatoes? Is this restaurant, goes a savage whisper, actually paleo enough? The dish of grilled trout with tiger prawns is particularly objectionable — dreary and fishy and somehow disapproving, like Poseidon crossed with Alan Bennett.”
Portland, in London’s W1, is Marina O’Loughlin’s kind of place.
“Portland is so much my kind of place: an independent serving great food, with smart, savvy service (both owners are working the floor on our visit); it takes reservations and doesn’t charge like a rhino. Millions haven’t been spaffed on designers – if anything, it’s under-designed, with only a few paintings to save it from austerity,” she says in the Guardian.
The menu nods at enough modern cooking keynotes to let you know they’re on the ball, but doesn’t forget that giving customers pleasure should be up there at the very top of every restaurant’s mission statement whiteboard. So you can have mushroom miso, charred brassicas and pig’s head croquettes with kimchi mayonnaise. But you can also have steak and chips – six-week-aged Angus, frîtes and béarnaise, admittedly, but the principle stands.
Le Canut et les Gones in Lyon, France, stands out in a city that takes food seriously, says the Observer’s Jay Rayner
Tucked away up the hill in the quiet Croix-Rousse district, once a focus for silk-making, it plays on the ideas of the city’s bouchons. These are the much-loved and now certificated working-class eateries which serve sturdy dishes, many of them from the cheaper, wobbly cuts that the wealthy would discard.
For my main course it is andouillette gratin, the porkiest (and stinkiest) of chitterling sausages, with the thrilling back note of gut, slow-cooked with cream and grain mustard unto an unctuous mess and then grilled under breadcrumbs to crisp. It is powerful and serious and also sticky: the kind of cookery that emerges out of an imperative not to waste anything. Hence it delivers everything. This is a dish designed to get you through a winter of unaffordable gas bills. If it’s not for you, neither is Lyon. Go somewhere else.
Just when the Independent’s Tracey Macleod thought we had reached peak pizza, Alan Yau launches Babaji, a Turkish pizzeria on London’s Shaftesbury Avenue.
“The clever chap has come up with a new way of making bread with toppings seem all exciting again,” she says. Though Macleod and companion “swoon for the Topkapi chicken”, the more traditional dishes “fall slightly short”. “And then there’s the pide. Served at the end of the meal, after the main dishes, they should be the highlight, but they’re oddly forgettable.”
Writing in the Telegraph, Zoe Williams experiences a depressing meal at Kouzu on London’s Grosvenor Gardens, where she finds “every table feels like the one in the corridor”.
Her companion’s deep-fried tofu came with a vegetable sauce that “was vile – it looked like one of those packet sauces people used to eat in the 1980s”, while her blackened cod with fennel and celery salad came was dominated by an orange sauce that didn’t meet with approval. “I mean, even if one could have tasted the fish underneath the outrageously sweet custard, would one have wanted to? This is the question the kitchen should have asked itself before it unleashed the thing on to the public.”
The Seafood Restaurant in St Andrews is on a par with the expectations of the Telegraph’s Joe Shute. “I’m advised by our waiter to order the hake with smoked haddock, potatoes, leeks and a curry sauce,” he says.
“Fish and cuzza sauce: the taste of a night out in Dundee. We should have spent our money on Buckfast instead. Actually, the hake is beautifully firm, but the gloopy sauce is over-salted, a distraction from the oh-so-fresh fish.”
The Independent’s Rachael Pells samples the 500 calorie ‘de-light’ menu at the Balcon in Sofitel London, and finds it surprisingly filling.
“It is unnerving if not a little fascinating to see the calorie breakdown under each course, and the 45 calories contained in my salad build me up to expect something so pathetic that I’d need a magnifying glass to help me eat it. But the beetroot is generous, quail eggs perfectly soft in the middle and a combination of the tricky lettuce leaves and sleepy ambiance of the room force us to eat slowly, savouring the unexpectedly pleasant flavours.”
As the Year of the Sheep approaches, the Evening Standard’s Fay Maschler visits Chai Wu, a new Chinese (ish) restaurant in Harrods with ludicrous pricing.
“The half bird is clumsily cut up by a woman wearing bright blue latex gloves, making us feel like Ebola suspects. It is not a thing of beauty like the half duck at Min Jiang in Kensington, which costs £10 less. Nicola has stipulated Option 1 for the second serving — minced duck with lettuce wrap. We agree that the mixture cradled in leaves of Little Gem looks and tastes Magimixed.
“Coconut prawns — another Small Dish, this one at £23 — are punchy with spices and likeable. Sweet and sour chicken filling a hollowed-out dragon fruit breathes the pungent phrase “Chinese takeaway”. Harrods Special is snow crab and avocado inside-out maki roll, skilfully made and daintily presented but not, how shall we say, terribly Chinese.”
Meanwhile, fellow Evening Standard critic Grace Dent visits Clos Maggiore, “London’s most romantic restaurant”. But it doesn’t live up to her expectations.
“The food is good. Far from outstanding, but decent. I ate a cold, delicate plate of Scottish crab with smoked anchovy mayonnaise and teensy-weensy pieces of chargrilled cauliflower. My date started with roasted duck foie gras and crisp confit duck leg, which he reported to be excellent. Frankly, the thrill of foie gras eludes me. I believe if we’re going to go to the trouble of torturing a duck, it should be for a more appetising end result, but maybe that’s just me. I ate a rather good chicken leg rolled into neat hay-bale shapes, stuffed with Morteau sausage, sitting in a ‘pot au feu’ — an almost clear broth in which three tiny tastes of carrot, potato and cabbage trod water. My guest adored his Ibérico pork. We ransacked the cheese trolley and left before our time slot was up. Clos Maggiore: I wasn’t smitten.”
Time Out’s Guy Dimond reviews Tommy Tucker, a new ‘posh gastropub’ from Claude Compton, of Claude’s Kitchen, in the rich seam of City money that runs deep into Fulham.
“It’s a brave chef who serves a huge mackerel, head and all, that extends over the sides of a large dinner plate; but despite the charred appearance, the flesh was moist and tender. The pickled beetroot served with it, however, was rock-hard; we queried this with our waiter, who relayed the chef’s insistence that it was meant to be that way. It remained uneaten. In contrast, beef short-ribs were fork-tender and well-matched with a moat of arrocina baked beans.”
Fiona Duncan of the Sunday Telegraph finds the transformed Rosewood hotel in Holborn, London, to be “elegant, sophisticated and laid back” – a vast improvement on its previous life as the Renaissaince Chancery Court
“Bedrooms, designed by Tony Chi, are suave and sophisticated with a subtly homely feel, lovely marble bathrooms and superb, easy to use lighting. And it’s amusing to think that one is sleeping in the former Edwardian headquarters of an insurance company, albeit a very grandiose one.
“Light meals and a creative buffet breakfast are served to hotel guests in the elegant Mirror Room, laid out in front of the fire, decorated with quirky things (including budgies in a gilded cage) striking artworks and books. The Holborn Dining Room is open to all, a grand brasserie style restaurant serving excellent, if not particularly imaginative, English dishes.”
Tom Chesshyre of the Times says the Harbourmaster hotel in Aberaeron, Ceredigion, in an inspiring setting, good fun and not ridiculously pricey.
“The Harbourmaster is a cosy, unpretentious boutique hotel that was refurbished and re-opened in 2002 by locals Glyn and Menna Heulyn Roberts (who had previously worked in financial services and marketing respectively). They have since converted a next-door property, adding four plush suites to bring the total number of rooms to 13.
“Each of the rooms is named after a ship built in Aberaeron’s harbour during the 19th century. The vibrant colours of the small town (population 1,500) are matched in the style of the rooms with lots of reds, purples, aquamarines and pinks featuring in the colour schemes. While this might sound garish, the colours do not clash and make an uplifting change from the neutral style of so many design hotels.”
Chris Moss of the Guardian likes the fact that the Artist Residence in Pimlico, London SW1 breaks a few rules.
“This is an intelligent, coolly designed alternative to what’s currently on offer in the area (and in London generally) and offers far better value, and much more fun, than any of its neighbours. The name of the chain reflects the aesthetic of the hotel’s owners, Justin Salisbury, 27, and Charlotte Newey, 28. Their hotels are galleries for a diverse range of urban, graphic and street artists including Pure Evil, Dan Hillier, Connor Brothers, Tammy Mackay and Dan Baldwin.
“My room, at the top of the building, is called the Loft. Its ceilings are higher than I expected, and it’s a triumph of rescued and repurposed furniture. There’s a hand-crafted “gate” bed by US lifestyle brand Anthropologie, tea chests for bedside tables, old-school anglepoise lights, an antler chandelier by Ines Cole, and a fabulous vintage metal locker serving as a wardrobe. I like the look but wouldn’t want to characterise it as generic shabby chic; there’s real craft and creativity on display, and the whole arrangement just works.”