Pollen Street Social, Little Social

whipped salt cod brandade was like the well-greased flanks of a sailor. Suitably creamy with plenty of rough-hewn saltiness. And as wonderfully moreish as you might imagine

Can it really have been that long ago? I started writing this in, what, February? March? I can’t even remember now. I do recall however that the seismic #blaggergate/#bloggergate scandal had just burst forth on Twitter like the Gilgamesh floodwaters. I know, right? All seven or eight of you were up in arms at the time. Not quite #bingate, but still.

#blaggergate came about when an online-blogger-restaurant reviewer known as Hungry Londoner contacted renowned Soho eatery Gauthier and requested a free meal in exchange for a ‘positive review’. According to Gauthier’s PR man James Lewis this was indicative of “an ugly development in recent times that I call the food blagger…someone who uses the food blog as a platform to gain free stuff under the disguise of a review…It’s a bribe, basically.”

Hot on the tails of #blaggergate came #bloggergate, arising sylph-like from the former and specifically involving the not-exactly-reticent broadcaster and Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner referring to another online reviewer as an “effin’ blogger” after a rather catty twitter spat (twat?). The issue: whether or not a critic can give an honest and impartial opinion if the meal in question has been comped by the restaurant. Rayner robustly maintains that this can never, ever be the case (he reviewed a place in his Observer column and rubbished it while a blogger was invited to eat there free of charge and subsequently praised it).

So apparently it turns out there is such thing as a Free Lunch after all. All the more so should you happen to be a food writer.

I think we can all give these kind of blogs short shrift, no? It is more obvious than the kimchi in your hotdog when some fanboy or the chef’s brother in law pens a glowing appraisal. But more than just holding up a less than flattering mirror to the integrity, honesty, impartiality – or indeed lack thereof – of reviewing restaurants, these on-line exchanges are in actual fact the marking of territory. All of a sudden the enduring pissing contest between old media and new, professional critic and amateur blogger, just got a little uglier. Generally speaking, the Proper Critics in the broadsheets hate restaurant bloggers.

The reputation of the professional critic does demand more than merely being an enthusiast with a typewriter and an eye for a freebie. They wield influence, their assertions hold weight and they know their stuff. They also get things wrong. But they also know how to remain dispassionate and even-handed when it comes to faddish flights of fancy that periodically flutter by the more outré parts of town.

Adrian Gill of The Sunday Times characteristically treads the line between true iconoclasm and self-parody finer than most would dare. Far more so than any other critic, he hams up the haughty provocation and studied eloquence with Samperish self-regard. You could clearly visualise him composing the line “As a youth I used to weep in butcher’s shops” with a completely straight pen. But when on form there is no better journalistic writer in the country.

The raison d’être of the critic is selling newspapers. Let us not pretend their work is some nobler calling, as gratifying as the prose may sometimes be. Amateur blogs, well this one at any rate, have come about partly out of admiration for writers such as Gill, partly out of a liking for getting bladdered in restaurants. They are anyone with a Twitter account and an opinion. It is simply because that is what is expected of all of us nowadays: posting our ultracrepidarian bon mots for no other reason than it being our god-given right to do so. “There’s a staggering volume of mediocre art being talked up by fools” art writer Jonathon Jones obligingly points out. “The appetite for discussing art is almost as insatiable as the need to look at it.”

the only things you feel might be missing are wreaths of electric blue Gauloise smoke and a Josephine Baker soundtrack

So here we have two restaurants: both new-ish Jason Atherton establishments. First, the eponymous Pollen Street Social is so-called for it being tucked well away down the poky, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it back alley that is Pollen Street, moments away from the decidedly un-poky Regent Street.

Pollen Street Social was Atherton’s coming-out party proper. The long awaited outcome, no doubt, of some Joycean epiphany experienced one day while at work in his old job at Maze (he was head chef there for five years): “If I don’t jump ship now, I’ll never know.” Then from nowhere came Little Social, his second restaurant across the street – as in, literally, directly opposite.

And then barely months later the looser, more laid-back, Soho-ier third sibling Social Eating House opens. Then all of a sudden the opulent Berners Tavern is open. And then East London’s Typing Room. Then breathlessly back on message with the city-boyish City Social. Rumours of upcoming wine bars and tapas joints abound. Frankly any one of these could be Atherton’s Künstlerroman; each one a portrait of the chef as no longer a young man but now one of the country’s most prolific restauranteurs. Oh, and let’s not forget the eight (and counting) places throughout Singapore, Shanghai and Honk Kong. Remind you of anyone?

Nevertheless Atherton has been dubbed the anti-Ramsay. He’s a Mark Two version comprising a whole raft of updated features and one that it is ok to like. That he cites Ferran Adrià as his greatest influence as a chef is perhaps even more eyebrow raising. All chefs are natural show-offs, sure; however it is still possible (and preferable) to be flamboyant, even wildly so, in an unassuming and understated fashion. The food at Pollen Street Social perhaps best underlines this.

Available menu choices for diners are typique: fixed price, à la carte and tasting. A novel Atherton trademark is the option for guests to create their own extended tasting menu by scaling down several offerings from the à la carte.

An appetiser of pork crackling and seaweed salt served with dabs of apple and mustard compote consisted of chunky, impossibly aerated curls of pig skin not altogether a million miles away from very chewy and deeply bacon-y honeycomb. Wonderful stuff. A whipped salt cod brandade was like the well-greased flanks of a sailor. Suitably creamy with plenty of rough-hewn saltiness. And as wonderfully moreish as you might imagine.

Crab salad with crab velouté, pickled turnip and samphire was all effortful arrangement, vivid colour and melodious counterpoint. One main course dish was herb-crusted pork jowl, polenta and apple, wild garlic, wild cabbage and apple caramel. Aside from pleasing timbres of lavender and cumin there was just too much going on. The meat was unquestionably the star though: caramel-soft with a sultry, deeply fatty flavour. But the puréed polenta with chunks of apple in it was like barf. My initial response was to chuck a bag of sawdust over it.

Other dishes such as the ‘Full English Breakfast’ of truffled slow-cooked egg, bacon and confit tomato and the ox ‘tongue and cheek’ are well-known, and delicious, Atherton trademarks.

And then puds. Cream cheese foam, pear, rum crumbs and walnuts was a brilliantly inspired take on a deconstructed cheesecake. Jagged, ice-like shards of bergamot infused meringue, lemon verbena sorbet, lemon jam and olive oil gel was pure eye candy; a fussy, modernist, melt-in-the-mouth version of the classic lemon meringue. The oil-cum-gel (oh, stop it) was, curiously, rather grainy in texture.

So straight out the door and in to Little Social. Here we have a French-style bistro given an ultra polished, super smart buff-up; a sort of glossied-up Belle Époque. La Vie Boheme, and all that: Art Nouveau – all La Tournée du Chat Noir and Alphonse Mucha. Affected frenchisms aside, few places – heck, few things – in life are as evocative as a Parisian café. Indeed the room is really just a snug bar and some booths with seats.

Whereas ‘Pollen Street’ is all bright and cream, sleek and just so, here it is dark wood and ox-blood, tobacco and leather. The only things you feel might be missing are wreaths of electric blue Gauloise smoke and a Josephine Baker soundtrack.

Here, food is frenchish bistro but with the expected flourishes. There is a salad Niçoise, a steak tartare and confit quail with foie gras. Each of them rendered exactly as you would wish. Generally speaking Little Social serves more robust fare though this notion was dispelled the moment a cauliflower and crayfish risotto arrived. A thing of such delicacy you almost needed tweezers with which to eat it. Cauliflower florets shaved down to ethereal tracing paper wisps came alongside barely-there nubs of crayfish in a gloriously rich risotto.

Halibut BLT (the ‘BLT’ component comprising a smoked bacon chop, grilled lettuce and a racy and sharp bois boudran) was very good indeed. This was a serious tranche of fish cooked to pearly white creaminess. Roasted hake, morteau sausage, peas and girolles was equally as fine. There is of course the customary steak frites: bavette or sirloin of Black Angus with either béarnaise or peppercorn sauce and you can even swap your fries for poutine – that slobbering, street-foody heap of fries, cheese curds and gravy. Only here it is a dainty thing in a little ramekin, all prim and spruce and with added chorizo and jalapeño. Nice idea.

For pud, a chocolate moelleux with salted walnut ice cream was textbook but the indubitable pièce de theatre here was a classic Tarte Tatin for sharing.

Surprisingly the wine list was somewhat light on French wines though there were some elegantly louche sounding cocktails to be had with names that evoke boisterous Cancan lines, seamy Pigalle cabaret houses and the sleeper down to Nice. I recommend the French Negroni, if only because it is essentially just vodka, absinthe and ice. But If you are up for a drink, I personally would recommend heading back over the road and making extravagant use of the 40-seater cocktail bar.

So really, two sides of the same coin. The same but different. Statement of intent vs relaxing into the role; Atherton-as-promised vs Atherton-with-a-twist; restaurant vs bistro. Both totally polished, both very convivial. And both expensive. At Pollen Street Social mains from the a la carte nudge towards £40 and at Little Social there is an (optional, thank god) ‘black truffle supplement’ at £20 per dish dish, should you desire it.

And if you were in any doubt whatsoever, every item was paid for. Now if only I had a team of sub-editors who, you know, could do all the work for me…

Opinions:
Pollen Street Social 7/10
Little Social 8/10

Details:
Pollen Street Social
8-10 Pollen Street
London
W1S 1NQ
Tel: 020 7290 7600
Web: http://www.pollenstreetsocial.com
Twitter: @PollenStSocial

Little Social
5 Pollen Street
London W1S 1NE
Tel: 020 7870 3730
Web: http://www.littlesocial.co.uk
Twitter: @_LittleSocial

La Genova

then it hit: the garlic. An assault of still-raw garlic that was harsh, bitter and as brutal as the Battle of Monte Cassino. On and on it went, well into the next day and beyond

For some, the 1970’s is revered as something of a golden age for food, a halcyon interlude of eating and dining out. Certain quarters would have you believe we have recently witnessed a revival of all things seventies-related.

Were it to be true, it would be hard to regard this as anything other than a mawkish exercise in harking back to a time when people were growing up; a nostalgia for a collective, half-remembered and idealised past. The food, really, has nothing to do with it. Nostalgia is in the mind, not on the dinner plate. Take music: it is tempting to think that absolutely everybody was immersing themselves in Dark Side of the Moon on a home stereo system costing more than your house and with quadraphonic sound so luminous it was as if Roger Waters himself was having a breakdown right there in your living room. But then you actually go and watch an old episode of TOTP only to discover that this categorically was not the case.

Pundits as diverse as Alex James and Gregg Wallace are on record as declaring the 1970’s to be a particularly glorious period in our epicurean history. But if we associate just one person with the era then it is obviously Delia Smith. From the minute she appeared as presenter of Family Fare in 1973 Delia, as it is popularly claimed, Taught The Nation How To Cook. Her mannered approach was instructional, her programmes educational as opposed to entertaining. Of eating out in particular, Smith, perhaps somewhat typically, believes that the overall experience was simply “better back then” as chefs served “real food” and were “more in touch with what the public wanted.”

Yet all this fanfare for the common man doesn’t really ring true. “Bring back the buffet table!” is about as appealing a rallying cry as “bring back hanging!” Yet we should not be too quick to discredit Delia Smith. Her influence and authority on all things epicurean is, and continues to be real and genuine: sensible, aspirational, generous. And lest we forget, it was Delia who baked the cake for the album cover of Let It Bleed.

Gregg Wallace on the other hand is the English Defence League of British cooking. He misses the point entirely when bellowing about “the great 1970’s food revival”. Really? Where? A “57% increase in the sale of Chicken Kievs” the Ingredients Expert thunders with no small amount of reactionary pride. He obviously thinks the country has gone to the dogs because nobody is eating spam anymore. And that’s as maybe. Although he neglects to consider that we are floundering in the death throes of a recession deeper than Zaltman’s Metaphor. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies families have spent more on processed convenience food during these straitened times. Mums don’t go to Iceland because they suddenly come over all misty eyed for Showaddywaddy. They do so out of necessity because rocketing prices and falling incomes equate to consumption of the cheapest calories available.

But what were people eating in the 1970’s, and where were they eating it? Well for a start anything that is nowadays cooked in a Balti pan, served Chow Mein or eaten with chips. Add to that pub food: from the unreconstructed, un-tucked shirt and high street aggro of Wetherspoons to the A-road lay-by, beery suicide note that is the Toby Carvery. From Prawn Cocktail and Steak and Chips to Black Forest Gateaux, this is what we eat now. None of it has actually ever gone away. So much for nostalgia and revivalism.

But the biggest innovation of all to come from the 1970’s was the Italian restaurant, or at least its anglicised counterpart. People began holidaying abroad more than ever before initiating a desire for and interest in food from sunnier climes.

Our love of Italian food and the trattoria was born and fast became a staple of many a high street with its check-table clothes, pasta suppers and affordable reds. The Shirley Valentine charm of the trattoria signified something that was at once aspirational and exotic. Really, it is not hard to see why. Practically anything Italian at all, from organised crime to Fascism is capable of sounding alluring; glamorous, even. It is all just clinking glasses on the piazza and endless sunshine. Admittedly this was never going to translate to a high street in Stoke, say, but maybe the food – pizza and pasta, olives and olive oil, and coffee as smooth and as rich as a chauvinist astride a Vespa – could. As writer and blogger Tony Naylor says, “an Italian restaurant was, and is still considered to be the height of sophistication and for many, it feels like a big, glamorous night out.” While more practically, Anglo-Italian is “cheap to make, hard to balls up.”

La Genova on North Audley Street is Mayfair’s oldest Italian restaurant. A local stalwart since 1970 it remains largely unaltered, bright green neon sign out front and all. Owned by Rinaldo Pierini for nigh on 45 years, it was named after his city of birth, the capital of the region of Liguria, that small, bow-shaped province in the north of the country running from the French border down to La Spezia. Aside from a few house specialities that include Minestrone Soup and the regional dish of pasta with pesto, green beans and potatoes, Genovese fare is rather disappointingly not foremost on the menu. Although there is something touchingly naïve and old-fashioned about the way in which their oft-featured pesto is proudly described as ‘home made by the owner himself’.

To start, a steaming bowl of Trofie al Pesto was initially as comforting as only a good pasta dish can be. Like all well-made fresh pasta it was bouncy and velvety with plenty of fresh basil and a good glug of Extra Virgin. Then it hit: the garlic. An assault of still-raw garlic that was harsh, bitter and as brutal as the Battle of Monte Cassino. On and on it went, well into the next day and beyond.

Elsewhere on the menu there was Prawn Cocktail, obviously, and plenty of spaghetti dishes. Various things in breadcrumbs such as scampi, chicken and veal and lots of things cooked in brandy and cream. Salmon Ravioli in a cream sauce was perfectly decent in a non-U, napkins-folded-up-in-wine-glasses sort of way. Of the more Italian-sounding main courses there was Veal Fillet in Marsala. It didn’t taste bad simply because it tasted of very little. But then there was also a nicely comforting veal Osso Bucco which was far better. More of the same, sweet, cloying sauce that seems to accompany all dishes here but the softly caramelised meat fell obligingly from the bone. Every dish also came with the obligatory side plate of mixed veg.

A generous dollop of Tiramisu from the dessert trolley proved to be the high point of the meal. It was a splodge of pure retro dinner party heaven that would have done Delia proud. Superlatively creamy and rich, I clearly envisaged a satiated Michael Winner, all squinty, and gurgling “Marvellous!” “Historic!” And it truly was. Other choices were fresh fruits or ice cream.

I have painted a rather so-so and unexciting picture here but everything about La Genova from the decor to the menu is a genuine, un-ironic, concept-free throwback to a bygone era of dining. It has remained open and well-loved for the best part of half a century and there is no reason to suspect it will not remain so for as long again. There are those who might describe it as Mayfair’s ‘best kept secret’ yet Italian is our de facto restaurant of choice. Figuratively speaking, everyone eats here. The 1970’s may have well shaped, honed and melded our taste buds more than anyone would have imagined, but in this instance at least, nostalgia ain’t quite what it used to be.

Opinion: 5/10

La Genova
32 North Audley Street
London
W1K 6ZG

Tel: 020 7629 5916
Website: http://www.lagenovarestaurant.com

Lima

a very Peruvian, very Japanese way of serving and eating raw fish where it was sliced thinly but then inundated by a mouth-puckering, punch-to-the-balls marinade

Consider, if you will, the potato: solanum tuberosum. You might think that there really is not a great deal to deliberate upon. The humble tuber, the lowly spud, that most unassuming and downright ordinary of all our habitual dinner table staples. What, really, is there to say?

The very term ‘meat and potatoes’ tells you all you need to know, surely. Even the expression itself is ponderous and clumsy, lolloping heavily off the tongue like Eric Pickles falling down some stairs. It is the answer, always, to the muttered enquiry of “what’s for dinner?” Because let’s face it, unless you are vegan or breatharian, that probably what is for dinner.

The phrase is any scenario or situation that is dull and tedious, but which is in some way necessary or undertaken under grim sufferance. Like putting the bins out, or going for a colonoscopy. The potato perfectly portrays the slow-witted and the ugly in expressions such as Couch Potato or Potato Faced. Socially and politically, the proverbial Hot Potato is something to be avoided at all costs.

The spud could just as easily be thought of as solid, stolid, reliable. Noble and understated, it is the plucky runner-up and never makes a fuss. It is a reassuring presence on any plate: our culinary comfort blanket. We know where we are with the potato. It is there to provide substance and turn that plate of food into dinner. Quite often turning dinner into something exultant. A furrow of indulgently creamy, crunchy-on-the-top mash on a Shepherd’s Pie, perhaps. Or the perfectly hot and fluffy, goose fat-crisped, roast accompaniment to the Sunday joint. Take that however you wish.

Never mind that meaningless, culturally insincere prefix ’The Great British…’, the true origin of the potato is of course South America: Peru to be exact. It is as Peruvian as ponchos and pisco. Studies link the discovery of the potato, or papa, to the area around Ayacucho and the Valley of Chulca in Peru’s High Andes some 10,000 years ago. The word papa is originally Quechua and simply means tuber. That is somehow apt as it certainly is El Papa: The Daddy of Peruvian cooking.

It has always been an important staple foodstuff for Peru. But far more than that, it is an edible almanac of a country’s way of life. ‘Potato Day’ is a national holiday. The ritual of colourfully and flamboyantly celebrating the potato harvest is piously observed among Andean farming communities. It is said that there are 5,000 (known) varieties grown in the country while according to the Smithsonian Institute “the range of potatoes in a single Andean field exceeds the diversity of nine-tenths of the potato crop of the entire United States.”

Which kinds of puts us to shame, really. In the UK you would only ever unearth that level of devotion to root vegetables among close-knit groups of professional hobbyists: bearded, Hobbit-like men in jumpers hidden away in sheds and village pubs, and who feature on regional news programmes with alarming regularity whenever a member of the Rusty Trombone Irregulars from the village of Little Felching wins some or other competition with some King Edwards whose protrusions look hilariously like scrota.

Spuds notwithstanding, Peru’s cuisine is diverse; certainly not just the llama dung and peasant spittle of popular reckoning. There is a symbiosis at play here. Like all of the world’s most enjoyable cuisines, Peru’s has been suffused, melded and without question enhanced by half a millennia of immigration and inbound trade from Europe, Africa and, remarkably, Japan (as evidenced by the countless raw fish and sashimi-type dishes to be found there).

It has been said that good things are currently going on in Lima (the city). Described these days as a progressive and cosmopolitan hub with an ever-flourishing restaurant scene, it has gained much recent international prestige to the extent that Ferran Adrià has described goings-on there as a “gastronomic revolution”. Others report that the city is a Latin American San Sebastian where a plus ultra band of pioneering chefs, a Charge of The Mamelukes, are turning Peruvian cooking on its head.

And now, all this appears to have transmogrified over to London. And to Lima (the restaurant).

Lima, then, is a Peruvian Restauran situated in Fitzrovia a stone’s throw from Tottenham Court Road and is the inspiration of Peruvian chef Virgilio Martinez. The dining room is smaller than you might think. The March & White interior of vividly coloured paintings, cleverly angled mirrors and sleek yet workman like slates and browns prevent it from feeling either too poky or too exclusive. Those appreciative of a bit of extra elbow room may find their fellow diners are sat a little too close, however.

At first glance the menu is peppered liberally with the weird and the wonderful: virtually every dish seemingly accompanied by something foraged from the Dark Heart of the Amazon – Sacha Inchi Oil, White Kiwicha, Algarrobo Tree Syrup. And what the hell is a Crazy Pea? Sadly, I never found out. There’s not really anything on the menu that will ambush the unwary and unadventurous. Lima is not that sort of place. Choices are really quite orthodox. That’s not to say it’s all just smoke and mirrors, all mouth and pantalones, it means business. Food here is as vivid as a Rivera mural and equally as meticulous. Meticulous in its detail plus bagfuls of bright colour and flavour.

Starters include distinctive tiraditos, ceviches and causas. A Scallop Tiradito, Aji Pepper and Cassava was a very Peruvian, very Japanese way of serving and eating raw fish. It was sliced thinly then inundated with a mouth-puckering, punch-to-the-balls marinade, eschewing any subtlety whatsoever. The point further emphasised by it being flamboyantly yellow in colour. Rather superb, actually.

A Sea Bream Ceviche was first-rate. Served with toasted giant cancha corn it was like being slapped around the face with a fish by a man in a pith helmet as the Nell Gwyn Suite plays in the background. The bream, a perfect fish for ceviche, was sweet and spankingly fresh. In any decent ceviche the fish isn’t actually fully raw. The acid in the lime juice denatures the proteins in the flesh, mimicking the act of cooking with heat. The flesh dries, become taut and opaque while retaining its rawness in both taste and brightness of flavour.

A lobster main course was a luminous patchwork of colour, if somewhat busy-looking, with plenty of the white meat and no shortage of zest. An accompanying bowl of leche de tigre ramped up the zest factor even more. Suckling Pig ‘Andean Style’ was the tenderest and juiciest pork sampled in many a while. It was meltingly, piggishly robust and helped on its way by golden wedges of crackling. Accompanying piquillo and rocoto peppers worked wonders in lending a smoky backdrop.

And puddings, Chocolate Mousse with Cinnamon Cream was made from the coveted Peruvian Cacao Porcelana bean. Characteristically mellow and buttery, it was demolished in short order. Even with an unnerving adornment of Blue Potato Crystals – somewhere between plantain and Walkers crisps – this was a luscious treat. Dulce de Leche Ice Cream, Beetroot Emulsion and Maca Root was not as successful. Beetroot was entirely the wrong flavour here. It would have enjoyed a much more natural flirtationship with chocolate as opposed to the caramel it came with.

As for drinks, well obviously you’ll be on the cocktails. Sharp, foamy pisco sours are unquestionably the house speciality and damn fine they were too. Look out for  the Cuenta del Diablo containing resh red chillies.

Inevitably you have to weigh all this up against the sustainability and ethical dilemmas posed by flying expensive ingredients several thousands of miles from a third world country to dinner tables in a fancy-pants London restaurant. But purely as a gastronomic end point – and showcase for modern Latin American cookery – Lima is brilliant. Refined, imaginative and most importantly fun. Although barely a potato in sight.

Opinion: 8/10

Lima
31 Rathbone Place
London
W1T 1JH

Phone: +44 203 002 2640
Website: http://www.limalondon.com
Email: enquiry@limalondon.com
Twitter: @Lima_London

Spuntino

Spuntino is no soigné continental café. It is a place for quenching the libidinal urge of hunger, most probably accompanied by a skinful of booze

There will always be an upwelling of ‘scenes’ that are fleetingly ‘now’; pockets of ephemeral trendiness that rise without trace and then dissipate just as quickly. Case in point: Camden in the mid 90’s. If you were anybody who was anybody, this was where you were back in 1995. But then Menswear turned up, Tony Blair got out his Fender Strat and then everybody went home. Similarly, Shoreditch and Hoxton were where it’s at until about 2006. Now apparently it’s Bermondsey where it – whatever ‘it’ is – is happening.

Fashionable postcodes don’t start life that way. Cheap areas of town would by and large have attracted poor artists, students and writers who would lodge, eat and socialise in these areas, purely out of necessity more than anything else. Eating houses, cafés, pubs, bars, music halls, galleries, debating societies and bookshops would inevitably flourish. Fledgling vibrancy eventually becomes a Scene. But at some point a Scene becomes a Fashion and will eventually end its life as a tourist trap. From Montmartre to the Mardi Gras this trajectory has pretty much always been consistent. Yet what the scenesters and rubberneckers at the latter stages of this trajectory never quite grasp is that these areas, quite often poor, are where real people, real families and real communities also live. The grubby local boozer is no longer a Grubby Local Boozer but becomes “like, edgy and, like, real.”

Take areas like Shoreditch, Spitalfields and Hackney. You really need to go back to the 1980’s when there was any kind of scene: an art scene in actual fact. Whitechapel Art Gallery became a hub for artists and their exhibitions. Though not before recession became the crystallising factor in affording local artists the opportunities for creating temporary exhibition spaces and galleries in empty office blocks and derelict warehouses. From here, the Young British Artists movement was able to gain a foothold.

Fast forward quarter of a century and there is no longer any aesthetic or cultural reference points. There is no rebellion, no sense of subversion. It is all rather glib and flippant. Your archetypal Shoreditch Scenester “lies somewhere between MGMT, The Inbetweeners and Derek Zoolander” as waspishly articulated by journalist Alex Rayner. When all the cool kids un-ironically hunch around a table in Starbucks and say, actually say, things like “amazeballs” and “totes lolz” you know it’s time to pack up and leave. As Danny The Drug Dealer’s well-worn line goes, “they’re selling Hippy wigs in Woolworths, man”, although in this case, one would probably expect to find those really shit Shutter Shades. An ‘edgy’ East London postcode does not a counter-culture make.

There’s something rather prophetic about all this: the denouement of the actual Broyardian Hipster who Got What He Wanted. And with that in mind it is to Soho where we now return. For it was here, indisputably, that the Hipster subculture of the 1940’s and later the Beat Generation of the 1950’s took root in the UK. From as early as the 1930’s intellectuals, writers and artists were drawn to Soho’s back streets: a marginal and clandestine underworld all of its own. Out of sight of the squares, Soho developed as the capital’s jazz and blues epicentre when Club Eleven, London’s first and arguably most iconic jazz club opened its doors. It was all about the bebop; being hip to the bomb; wigging out in “a present that existed only on the existential wings of sound.”

From Hipsters to Ravers, the skiffle clubs materialised starting with a first floor room above a pub on Wardour Street in 1952. The Beat Poets gathered wherever they were able to. Before long Soho went electric with the opening of music clubs such as Whisky a Go Go, the 100 Club and the Marquee Club, and record shops (nowadays clustered around Berwick Street). What is clear is that over a forty year period there wasn’t a defined series of movements as such, more a seamless, amorphous evolution of a way of thinking. That and the right hang-outs, clubs and cafés.

Soho – its residents and itinerants – would have needed feeding. They may well have done so at Spuntino had they the opportunity. Spuntino is no soigné continental café. It is a place for quenching the libidinal urge of hunger, most probably accompanied by a skinful of booze. Located among the unmarked doorways, sex-shops and dive bars of the grubby end of Soho, Spuntino is itself an unmarked doorway and is as minimalist as it gets. It doesn’t even have a phone number.

It is a New York bar-cum-diner located stylistically and spiritually somewhere between Lower East Side and Greenwich Village. It clearly pays homage to West Village’s iconic Café Ino, though whether by accident or by design it is hard to say. The food melds New York bar food (Sliders) with Southern comfort eating (Steak’n’Eggs, Grits) and intermittent Italian influences (Mussels and Saffron Agretti). It is also mostly carbs-based (Mac’n’Cheese – undoubtedly useful for soaking up the drink), although some will no doubt be reassured to know there is lighter, more herbivorous fare on the menu in stoic defiance of all that swaggering starch (Jerusalem Artichoke and Treviso Salad). There is room for only 26 by way of stools around a central zinc-topped bar. The suitably down-town interior is dimly lit, but don’t let this fool you: a lot of effort has clearly gone into the seemingly effortless cool of glazed tile walls, retro prints and exposed low-wattage bulbs. Patrons are accompanied by a soundtrack of gutsy rhythm’n’blues with the occasional diversion through jazz and the more avant-garde.

Food is mostly ‘taster’-sized portions with a few larger ‘plates’.To start, Eggplant Chips and Fennel Yoghurt: the former in the now rather Hackney-ed military-style tin dish, the latter in a shot glass. This was brilliant, the chips were as precise a facsimile of actual chips as it’s possible to be without being potato. Their coating contained actual fennel seeds and had an extremely gratifying crunch. Evidence, I’m sure, of the triple-cook treatment.

Buttermilk Fried Chicken was served in a similar fashion. Fried chicken was once the time honoured staple of the 2am drunk. All gristle and slimy sinew it was often a good deal less pleasant than uvulating the corpse of a burns victim. Nowadays thanks to the popularity of American homestyle, Japanese and Korean street food vendors you now find that many a venue is trying to make their dude food the best it can be. A basting of buttermilk before cooking tenderises and enriches the meat and ensures the coating is fried to a perfect, golden crisp. Here at Spuntino I was on the fence. Their pieces were a bit small. They do it better across town in Jin Juu.

A focus of the menu is its (mini burger) sliders. Here, a Ground Beef and Bone Marrow Slider was coarse with a welcome seam of minerality from the bone marrow. A further tidal wave of salty savouriness came courtesy of a slathering of melted cheese. Small size but big taste. A ‘Brick Lane’ Salt Beef and Pickles Slider was a great recreation of its east end cousin and as tender as a baby. Others included, interestingly, spiced mackerel.

If Spuntino is renowned for one dish and one dish only then it can only be its unofficial house special of Truffled Egg Toast – a doorstep of white bread, egg yolk dropped into the centre, enveloped in Fontina cheese and truffle oil and then grilled. It is of course a cheese toasty, albeit one as rich as Croesus and twice as immoral. It has already sent countless online devotees sliding blissfully into a coma, and let’s be honest, probably a diabetic one. It remains a menu must-have although a Kohlrabi, Hazelnut and Black Sesame salad, light and snappy, proved the perfect antidote.

Brown Sugar Cheesecake with Drunken Prunes to finish. This is the end to a meal you would be disappointed not to find here. Creamily smooth, just stodgy enough and with a burnt, sour molasses tang. Who knew that bourbon soaked prunes would taste this good?

Drinks? Bourbon neat. And more bourbon. There is a comprehensive choice of the stuff and when perched at the bar like an amphetamine-frazzled beatnik you will want to indulge too. Cocktails tend towards the short and hard and for the more continentally minded Spuntino has a small, Italian-leaning wine list.

Soho, then, has always been ‘in’. It is not the sort of place that drifts in and out of fashion. Its streets have always been the capital’s iconoclastic and bohemian heart. It has certainly got all of West London’s coolest restaurant but then that is no surprise. Spuntino may be new to the neighbourhood – a mere upstart – but it has already become one of those coolest.

Opinion: 7/10

Spuntino
61 Rupert Street
London
W1D 7PW

Website: http://www.spuntino.co.uk
Twitter: @Spuntino

Clos Maggiore

just as Prometheus was said to have smuggled fire to humans inside the hollow wand of a fennel stalk, it was as if a small corner of the Mediterranean was smuggled in to Clos Maggiore with this dish

So what exactly is it that people look for when they go out to eat? What do we want from a restaurant?

What we want is somewhere that, looking in from the outside, comes across as the kind of place you would quite fancy being in. That means peering in through the window and happening upon a well lit room, preferably full – or close to being so, with the patrons appearing as though they’re having a thoroughly pleasant time of it.

If you’re unlucky ‘that place’ might be something like this:

“I’m so dreadfully sorry, we’re full” would come the fawningly disingenuous response from the Maître D: a Humble Heep; an Honest Iago; an altogether loathsome specimen whose ill-concealed smirk and unwavering glare actually convey, “I’m so dreadfully sorry, we shall only be fleecing fraudulently socialist Latin American dictators and Arab princes tonight. This isn’t really your sort of place”. Oh well, never fancied a bottle of that Romanée-Conti 1978 at 15 grand a pop anyway.

So now you are in, you are seated. All is well. Except it isn’t because your table is hidden away down a corridor, past a cleaning cupboard and slap bang outside the lavs in and out of which a parade of boorish Jeremy Clarksons stumble all evening long, shaking themselves dry as they pass your table and return to their seats. The waitress avoids all eye contact; the sommelier’s body odour is more toxic than ricin; you’ve got a wobbly table; there’s a light flickering above you; the menu is either mired in a time when citrus fruits were considered acceptable as an hors d’oeuvre (orange juice or grapefruit halves, anyone?), or else it’s all about needlessly tossy, irritating ‘concepts’ (a fishdog is not an on-trend menu must-have, it’s a goddam fish finger goddam sandwich); the starter is straight out of a tin; the main is straight out of a microwave and you’re supposed to be on a date but thus far the evening has gone so badly that even Pepé le Pew would be reconsidering his chances of being definitely on for some action later.

Hopefully your evening will go a little better. The two questions posed at the outset might more usefully be paraphrased as What Makes A Good Restaurant? In many ways, What Makes A Good Restaurant is Clos Maggiore. What makes it especially ‘good’ is so cunningly, cleverly simple: it is the ‘restaurant’ bit. No gimmicks, fads or trends, it is a place where you go to eat and have a nice time. That is all.

In one sense Clos Maggiore might be considered resolutely unfashionable. It is the kind of place that ‘Nobody’ goes to, ‘Nobody’ tweets about. Yet the place is always full. Full of people who enjoy going out to restaurants, who quite simply derive pleasure from the social niceties, and niceness, of all that entails. Mostly, it is couples enjoying a quiet meal in a place that ticks all the boxes.

Edward VIII favoured the private upstairs rooms at Rules for a quick knee trembler with Wallis Simpson while Nobu was the setting for Boris Becker’s broom-cupboard caperings. Clos Maggiore on the other hand has imperceptibly managed to win over the public as Harden’s “London’s Most Romantic Restaurant” of 2013. Toptable’s voters have gone a considerable step further by bestowing it with “Most Romantic in the UK”. There must be something in the Beaujolais as Wine Spectator recognises it as having one of London’s best wine lists and according to Hugh Johnson, “the wine is worth a week of anybody’s time”. Not bad without there being a single blogger in sight.

“But it is a romantic place” is the widely held aphorism. Yes it is, albeit in a very conventional sense: ideal for that dinner à deux intime under subdued lighting in a well turned-out room. The brief was to recreate the inns and bistros of provençale France. The rear conservatory, with its striking overhanging cherry blossoms is both visually sumptuous and the place to request a seat. While there may not quite be a sultry evening sky perfumed with rosemary and lavender and resonating with chirruping cicadas, it is still one of the better dining rooms in the West End. The “climate hot and dry, the colours vivid, the terrain varied from plains to mountains…brilliance and light and vivid of landscapes, yellow – old gold” of Van Gogh’s Provence is something truly romantic and evocative. Has Clos Maggiore perhaps missed a trick in not trying to recreate this instead?

From the outside it looks a bit like That Posh Bistro On The High Street, and in a sense it is. At its worst it you might glance at its frontage and consider it a bit Market Town Tory with its blue-blooded scarlet frontage and chocolate-box potted shrubberies. At its best it is rather smart: that Friday Evening place you might dress up a bit for. Rather than being pastorally provençal it’s perhaps the sort of place you might come across on Paris’s Rue Saint-Louis en L’Ile.

When it comes to the food, the more quixotic elements of the South are eschewed in favour of a tried-and-tested route through French cooking. Nonetheless head chef Marcellin Marc, formerly of double Michelin Starred Clos de la Violette in Aix-en-Provence, and his team have fashioned a tight, well-balanced and altogether very approachable menu.

A garden herb salad starter was reasonable; the requisite sweetness of the greenery was there despite being given the treatment by a truffle vinaigrette. I’m not really a fan of this. Truffle oil is this decade’s balsamic vinegar – a faux-condiment that now seems to labour as contagiously as a TB epidemic in kitchens up and down the country in an attempt to ‘posh-up’ things that have no need of being poshed-up. I would have preferred the real thing. You can keep your dressings. Nothing lifts a plate of chaste, infant leaves and spring veg like a dissolute mountain of actual, freshly grated black truffle. But then that’s just me.

Plump scallops with seaweed butter was a top notch dish with a delicate, polite intimation of the marine. A confit duck leg with foie gras, pain d’épice and poached rhubarb is a tried-and-tested combination but it is so for a reason. Each part of the dish managed to elevate every other part.

Sea bass came with an aromatic fennel salad – another combination typique where the herb’s lustrous flamboyance worked as a foil to the mildness of the bass. Just as Prometheus was said to have smuggled fire to humans inside the hollow wand of a fennel stalk, it was as if a small corner of the Mediterranean was smuggled into Clos Maggiore with this dish. Breast of guinea fowl with garden vegetables was fine, lovely. Just a fairly nice bit of bird with a few veg.

Dessert was ‘Paris Brest’ with Praline Ice Cream. It is choux pastry with a praline cream filling: kind of like a cross between a Victoria Sponge and a profiterole.

So what about that wine list? With around 2,000 wines in total it was almost like settling down with a good book for the evening. But you’ve got to go du pays really haven’t you? So a Southern Rhône red that sat stylistically between a Châteauneuf and a Gigondas and a fraction of the price. Spicy, rustic, job done.

You will have a great time at Clos Maggiore and you will enjoy good, polite, formal French bistro cooking. You want to go out for a great dinner, right? On a date? Off to the theatre? Fancy a nice, proper restaurant with proper table linen and a proper wine list? Clos Maggiore is the proverbial hidden gem of the West End.

Opinion: 8/10

Clos Maggiore
33 King Street
Covent Garden
WC2E 8JD

Telephone: 020 7379 9696
Website: http://www.closmaggiore.com
Email: enquiries@closmaagiore.com
Twitter: @ClosMaggioreWC2

Shoryu Ramen

the stock in trade of Shoryu Ramen is vigorous, noodle-slurping, informal comfort food

Shoryu Ramen!! Said aloud, or even just written down on paper, the name of this Hakata-influenced ramen bar is more like a battle cry from a revolutionary early 90’s combat arcade game that people of a certain age (i.e. mine) will no doubt recognize. Which is why, when I first heard of this place, my first reaction was “a-ha! I know what shoryu means!” (It means ‘rising dragon’ by the way).

First things first though: I know absolutely nothing about Japanese cuisine. To me it is a twilight world shrouded in intrigue and secrecy, a whole other alien universe. A demi-monde everlastingly shut-off from the prying and greedy round eyes of the Gaijin. The concept (for it is undoubtedly a concept) of Japanese ‘high eating’ is built around etiquette and ritual and takes its roots from the country’s ancient tea ceremonies. The manner in which one eats, the aesthetic appreciation of a shared meal, is as much part of the experience as the eating itself, maybe more so. And this is something that does not really square with our own occidental world view of food and what it means to eat.

Only when a peep behind the noren into the ryokan is permitted do we see the sheer breadth of Japanese cuisine. And it is staggering. Sushi and sashimi for instance, both utterly different (though often thought of as one and the same by us westerners), yet each their own distinct universe. How many ways of serving tuna or mackerel can you think of? Well you could probably walk down an – apparently – unmarked alley just off the Shibuya in Tokyo into a bamboo shed with space for only five only to find it is a triple Michelin Starred alter at the temple of sashimi. Here, a single fish might be cut, sliced, prepared and served in about five hundred different ways before your eyes. A haiku in epicurean form where meaning and connotation vary from city to city, region to region.

Society changes. And so do our palettes. And as these both change so again does the world around us, driven as it is by our bellies. Foreign, or gaijin food probably now comprises the majority of what Japan puts into its mouth, and interestingly, this what it now exports back to the rest of the world. Since Imperial Japan kicked off in 1868 with the Meiji Restoration, rapid economic growth and industrialisation coincided with contact and trade with the previously shunned outside world. This of course brought gaijin food to Japan. Fast forward to now and Kobe (Wagyu) beef is Japan’s ubiquitous foodie export to the world. It may be sought after as an exorbitantly overpriced bovine delicacy on high-end menus the world over but steak is western food sold back to westerners. They are even doing it with whisky – what is Japanese whisky, as bloody brilliant as it is, if it isn’t basically just Scotch?

A great deal of Japanese food today is in fact Chinese in origin. It is Chinese noodles and broth that form the beating heart of modern day eating in Japan. See that steaming bowl of ramen and those tempting gyoza? As Chinese as child labour. And that is exactly what is served at Shoryu Ramen on Lower Regent Street, just off Piccadilly.

Dispel at once any notions of delicacy, obscurity or refinement; the averted-gaze-and-shy-giggle-behind-the-hand; the imperial-military-severity of tsukemono or hamachi restaurants. The stock in trade of Shoryu Ramen is vigorous, noodle-slurping, informal comfort food.

As you may or may not have guessed ramen is ‘noodles in broth’. Any Japanese-ness attributed to ramen is of course the fact that there are an utterly bewildering number of iterations of the dish, be they regional or ingredient based. Shoryu Ramen specialises in only one type and that is the tonkotsu (not to be confused with tonkatsu, something totally different). Not only that, the tonkotsu ramen served here are of the Hakata variety – specific to the Hakata district of the city of Fukuoka.

Tonkotsu means ‘pork bone’. The resultant broth is made from boiling down pork bones, fat and meat over many hours. Miso this is not. This variety is currently popular back home plus there are already two others in London: Bone Daddies and the eponymously named Tonkotsu, with many more due to open soon. If the craze for ramen restaurants takes off big time in the capital, well, you read it here first.

Immediately upon entry I was assailed by a strangulated shout of “Irasshaimase!” Not knowing what was going on around me my instinctive reaction was to block the anticipated ball of energy about to slam into my midriff. (You can’t duck underneath, remember, and leaping over would leave you open to attack from a well-seasoned World Warrior – eh, kids?). But no, Irasshaimase thankfully turns out to be a greeting yelled to all and sundry who step over the threshold.

Shoryu Ramen is a compact space. Lunch time diners fit elbow to elbow along a single row of tables although there is also an area of communal tables and benches at the front by the window – probably the best place to sit. Walls are of the ubiquitously à la mode bare brick variety save for some decidedly retro swirling motifs. Browns and oranges are the dominant colours. It certainly didn’t put me in mind of something I’d expect to see in downtown Hakata. More like a cafeteria in a Scandinavian airport in the 1970’s. The overall effect was not as suicide-inducing as it sounds. It worked and looked stylish. My visit was also accompanied by a background soundtrack of post-bop jazz that put me in mind of writer Haruki Murakami for some reason. 

I found my first few appetisers to be a waste of time sadly. Pickled cabbage was really just flaccid curls of raw white cabbage soaked in Sarsons. It was as every bit as hair shirted as it sounds. Yamitsuki Asian cucumber was equally as unforgiving. Though dressed in sesame and sea salt it looked (and tasted) like it had been buried in North Korean sand.

Luckily, things kicked up a gear with the arrival of a plate of Gyoza dumplings and Shoryu Ramen immediately got back to what it does best: pork. If badly done, I find that the pork mince in gyoza can have a distinctly nasty, bummy quality. If done well they are one of my favourite things in the whole world. A fine line if ever there was one. These, thankfully, were the real deal: each one maddeningly addictive and superbly succulent. A hirata pork bun, a supple, pillow-soft steamed bun filled with yet more pork – slow cooked belly this time – further drove the point home: I would not be leave here hungry.

There are variations of the Tonkotsu ramen on the menu ranging from the typical (with added chilli, wasabi or char siu barbecue pork), to the more off the wall: piri piri, yuzu and the intriguing ‘dracula’ that adds caramelised black garlic and balsamic vinegar. A recent addition to the menu is the Hokkaido curry ramen which includes crispy fried kara-age chicken and mini fishcakes.

I opted for the basic, or ‘signature’ ramen. It was quite the distillation of everything porcine. The broth was concentrated and cloudy, almost milky in colour. All flesh, bones, collagen and more flesh and bone. But naturally enough it was lighter and cleaner on the palate than expected while still being satisfyingly rich. Toppings were yet more sliced pork (too dry) and kikurage mushrooms. A generous shovelling of noodles, plus bean sprouts, spring onion and nori seaweed provided the body of the dish, while sesame and ginger provided the seasoning. The soul was undoubtedly the pork broth. As for the manners? Well they were distinctly Chinese: slurping is most definitely the order of the day. No self-consciousness here, head down, get on with it. Filling, myriad flavours, wonderfully satisfying. Ramen are hardly a novelty but this did feel like something entirely new.

All this was accompanied by a wonderfully invigorating genmai, or brown rice tea. The drinks menu also offers no less than thirty varieties of sake if you feel like going at it but alas, time, for now, marches on… So I finish up. Funny to witness the chap who was to take my seat flinch in terror at the incoming “Irasshaimase!”.

Shoryu Ramen, while maybe a bit Too Cool For School for some of you squares – they’ve even flown in the chef from Hakata – is welcoming, different enough while still being familiar enough, and is a great introduction to Japanese lunch time culture. Dozo omeshiagari! And indeed, Shoryu ken!

Opinion: 7/10

Shoryu Ramen
9 Regent Street
London
SW1Y 4LR
Website: http://www.shoryuramen.com
Twitter: @shoryuramen

Corrigan’s

the sense that green, muddy, hearty Ireland had been supplanted by warm, fragrant, luminous Southern Europe

Hey, I’ve got a joke:
“Waiter, waiter your thumb is in my soup!”
“Don’t worry sir it’s not very hot.”
Or how about this:
“Waiter, waiter I want to complain to the chef!”
“I’m afraid his dinner break has just started. He’ll be at the restaurant next door as usual”.

These pearls of comic genius may not trigger Tanganyika-esque levels of hysteria but they do at least shed light on the accepted truism about chefs being an inherently humourless bunch. And always skinny.

You’ll doubtless be aware of the aphorism Le chef mange ici along with the old adage entreating you to ‘never trust a skinny chef’. Well if you happened to be thinking of Richard Corrigan then you might conclude that he does indeed mange ici and that his trustworthiness would be beyond reproach. Somebody like the tiny-in-real-life Michel Roux Jnr on the other hand probably has all the integrity of Fagin. (In this context, I hasten to add. I’m sure he is a perfectly lovely man in reality).

To me, the expression le chef mange ici brings to the fore images of fat chefs – men big in both body and spirit – all sweating brows and bulging whites waddling around kitchens and bustling over stoves of bubbling sauces. Probably French, these men belong to an evocative culinary heritage of yesteryear. Ironically, much like Michel Roux Jnr’s father Albert. And they enjoy their grub. The food they cook and enjoy, though stylish and sophisticated, always manages to be big-hearted: rich, heavy reductions, lots of butter, mostly meat. They most certainly have their dinner break at their own restaurant. And they most certainly have gout as well.

I am interested in the alternative and modern restaurant scene and its evolution. But even so, there’s something inherently reassuring about a chef whose frame might not look out of place on a Botero canvass. You’d think, “yeah, I want this person to cook for me; they look as if they’d actually enjoy it.” Who wouldn’t prefer early-years Nigella (before the ascent to mainstream popularity and the descent to self parody) lasciviously whipping up some gooey, creamy dessert like a sort of high-born Hampstead reader’s wife, as opposed to Gillian McKeith’s desiccated Gestapo officer force feeding you some linseed washed down with a mug of warm vinegar before having a poke around in your poo? I do know some people who would opt for the latter but they’re not particularly fun to be around.

But what of the personality profile of the modern day chef? They tend to belong to one of two distinct camps. They tend to be barely literate, violent, narcissistic, criminal psychotics who routinely work eighteen hour shifts without sleep and perform Bishop’s Fiver Finger Fillet on themselves and colleagues for fun. Alternatively they are autistic obsessives, meticulously fixated with detail, order and routine to the exclusion of, you know, normal things. Either way, they are barely-functioning human beings. You certainly wouldn’t want one as a friend.

And if once again you just happened to be thinking of Richard Corrigan you might by now be scratching your head. Not only slightly cuddly, he is also most definitely the sort of man’s man you might want as a mate. Much in the same vein as television’s James Nesbitt (is it an Irish thing?), he is the sort of bloke that other blokes would go for a pint with and talk about manly things, like car engines or sawing wood, or whatever. And since he is big in the culinary world, so to speak, you know you would also have genuinely interesting conversations about the optimum time beef should be aged, or how to make the perfect beurre noisette. He would laugh uproariously at your jokes about waiters but also crack his own. So: not skinny; likes a laugh. Probably not much cop as a chef then…

Michelin Stars earned at Stephen Bull and Lindsay House, a successful buy out of iconic London landmark Bentleys and being awarded ‘AA Restaurant of the Year’ for his newest venture, the Mayfair dining room Corrigan’s (opened in 2008), would suggest otherwise. Oh, and he has also won BBC’s The Great British Menu no less than three times.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that eating at Corrigan’s is representative of not just the man but of the background. Born and raised in rural County Meath, he has always stressed both the importance and value of land, sea (the snotgreen sea), good husbandry and honest farming. Just as Joyce’s Leopold Bloom gourmandised “the inner organs of beasts and fowls…thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs and fried hencods’ roes” then so too does the menu at Corrigan’s place an emphasis on heartier, wilder fare. A gratifying sense of terroir unites dishes such as wild rabbit through Cornish crab to artisan Irish cheeses. In-season game features prominently as do wild fish and oysters – West Mersea and Carlingford. But there are also plenty of surprising flourishes which exhibit a lighter, defter touch: a shellfish ravioli with sea vegetables; veal sweetbreads paired with morel cream; nutmeg ice cream with spiced fruit.

Designed by Martin Brudnizki, the interior manages to capture pastoral and hunting themes, albeit in a rather pleasing tongue in cheek fashion (bird foot lamps). The overall impression is actually that of a rather elegant 1930’s transatlantic liner with blue banquet seating, immaculately gleaming table linen and dark wood counterbalanced by the cosy, orangey glow of lamplight. Half of the space is devoted to a stylish marble-topped cocktail bar and the rest is the open plan dining room.

A recent dinner conjoined the robust with the subtle in a similar fashion.

A plump miniature sausage roll made with expertly buttery, crumbly pastry was the mischievous highlight of an introductory plate of amuse bouches. A starter proper of grouse and winter vegetable soup proved unusually delicate. Finely diced assorted root vegetables, pleasingly undercooked, coalesced with the slenderest slithers of grouse in a light broth. When one thinks of game birds paired with wintry roots it’s hard not to think of big ballsy flavours. This was way more refined than might otherwise be expected.

Rump of Elwy lamb with Heirloom tomatoes was similarly atypical in the sense that green, muddy, hearty Ireland had been supplanted by warm, fragrant, luminous Southern Europe . In this context the use of lamb makes utter sense; it is a ‘warm meat’ made alive by spice and sunnier climes. Here it was cooked medium rare, perhaps a tad under, and perhaps a bit, just a bit, tough. The tomatoes were as sweet in taste as in colour – vivid red to florid yellow – and the dish was rendered complete by the nut-like Ratte potato.
Dessert was a stand out by a mile orange and Grand Marnier soufflé elevated by its sharp clout of boozy citrus. A great soufflé is always a deeply indulgent moment d’intimité, kind of like receiving an out of the blue love letter, so a doff of the hat to the kitchen for that.

Wines: An O Rosal and a red Sancerre, both very decent and noteworthy alternatives for fans of Albariño and young-ish Burgundies.

At Corrigan’s you get a touch, just enough, of Mayfair grandeur but most importantly you get an unpretentious menu created for people who enjoy eating enjoyable food. It is telling that Richard Corrigan and his food seem to be universally liked by the critics. There exists genuine goodwill. Corrigan puts this down to the fact that he is doing the right sort of things for the right sort of reasons, purely and simply. I am very much inclined to agree.

Opinion: 8/10

Corrigan’s
28 Upper Grosvenor Street
London
W1K 7EH
Tel: (0)20 7499 9943
Website: http://www.corrigansmayfair.co.uk
Twitter: @CorrigansFood (Richard Corrigan)

Tommi’s Burger Joint, MEATliquor

there is room for 25 only. It is always full. There is a classically retro stool counter and bare-ish brick walls save for some Johnny Cash and Sopranos posters. Dylan was playing

The humble hamburger. Never has such apparently humdrum grub been the subject of so much discussion. The main reason is that 2012 was the year the hamburger arrived here in the UK. But it is a truly divisive thing. Everybody’s favourite equine-tainted meal perpetually teeters between authenticity and mockery. It is the great culinary uncertainty principle. Schrodinger’s Cow, you might say. On its own terms a burger can be seen as something authentic, real, honest. But is it really just artificial and ersatz?

The very earliest burgers were simply rough slabs of ground, salted beef flavoured with whatever spices were at hand, occasionally eaten raw, and probably about as appetising as their cheaply-made progenies stacked high in freezer cabinets the world over today.

The US Library of Congress ‘officially declares’, with great, Orwellian Ministry of Misinformation chutzpah that Louis Lassen of Louis’ Lunch, a small lunch shop in New Haven, Connecticut sold the first hamburger in 1900 by taking left-over meat, bashing it into shape and serving it between slices of toasted bread. It is a dish that is still served to this day (and one that would go down a storm in Shoreditch, no doubt).

In numerous moribund backwater towns the length and breadth of the USA there is the obligatory local ‘historian’ proclaiming said town as Birthplace of the Burger, along with some annual festival, probably with lots of dungarees and competitive eating. A particular example: so certain are residents of Seymour, Wisconsin of it being invented there in 1895 they have dubbed the place ‘Home of the Hamburger’. There is also an annual festival which includes a burger-eating contest. So not far wrong, then.

My personal favourite: the first burger was, according to an article entitled Welcome to Hamburger Heaven in Oklahoma Today magazine, “placed between Grandma Fanny’s yeasty buns” – you think I’m making this up? – and served on Grandpa Oscar’s (Oscar Bilby) farm in 1891, Tulsa Oklahoma. True to form, a parade of local writers and historians affirm with no shortage of Old Testament certainty that Tulsa is the “cradle of the hamburger”.

Horses for courses or a load of old pony? Nobody seems to have the foggiest whether any of the above is actually true or not. But it is heart-warming to think that maybe dear old Grandma Fanny’s yeasty buns played their own small part in bringing Ronald McDonald into the world. 

So just how does one go about critiquing a hamburger? Well there are so many tweeters and bloggers on the subject these days, so you tell me. Nuance and ostentation are obviously out. No cheffy bullshit either – it isn’t about the ego. Either it is good – it is proper – or it isn’t. Simply put, is it authentic? The words of Josh Ozersky the highly-regarded Time food writer, restaurant critic and founder of New York based food blog Grub spring to mind. “Burger purists have a historical mind…thinking about old-time, classic hamburgers. There’s a kind of poetic idealism to them”. To him, a potentially, perfectly authentic burger “deserves a kind of Shinto-like approach…purity of simple objects. It is a gastronomic end point.” 

That is stateside. Except us Brits have never really ‘done’ The Hamburger: Casey Jones (remember them?), Little Chef, motorway services – all unspeakably vile. It also suffers from an image problem. It is a vulgar thing. It is the default food of any larg gathering of hoi polloi where the cloying reek of The Burger Van is the only option available, and where more often than not it will be assembled from grey, faecal dollops of offal and pressure-hosed remnants of eyeball and bollock. And from a cow if you are lucky.

So it comes out of leftfield to those not privy to the London foodie blogosphere that the thing in London in 2012 was not in fact The Olympics but The Hamburger. And continues to be so to this day. Venues often started life as pop-ups and residencies but soon became permanent. 

The raw materials: high quality, aged, organic beef sourced directly from boutique farmers and suppliers. The process: no sharp practices or dubious ingredients, butcher to burger in an instant. As ethical as it gets for those who don’t bridle at the prospect of eating them. The experience: a desire to embrace the aesthetic of a kind of culinary cassette culture, reproducing as faithfully as possible that perfect burger. The venue: the burger restaurant – something the capital has never previously had. 

Icelandic in origin, Tommi’s Burger Joint (owned by restaurant and hotel entrepreneur Tomas Tómasson) arrived in London last summer with the opening of its first UK site in a Marylebone pop-up.

The brief was to be the ultimate lo-fi American-style burger joint. The indie-stylised minimalist ethic is immediately evident from the exterior of plain black paint – no additional adornments save for some brown paper bags stuck to the door with the opening times on them. Likewise the interior of recycled, vintage seating and a few more hand-scribbled signs, including the menu. I say menu, it is more a Hobson’s Choice (burgers and fries only). Everything is served in yet more brown paper bags from an open kitchen, you can pick up extra condiments (including pickles, which are free – a nice touch) if you wish, and if you want a drink (not free) you just grab it from the fridge. There is room for 25 only. It is always full. There is a classically retro stool counter and bare-ish brick walls save for some Johnny Cash and Sopranos posters. Dylan was playing.

Tomasson claims to have eaten one of his burgers every day for the past eight years, a claim the staff here at London’s outpost – impossibly thin, elfin, gorgeous and skinny-jeaned: kind of like a Scandinavian master race – could not possibly make. In fact, I bet they are all vegetarian.

nobody wants vegetarians in whiffing the place up, do they?

The meat is organic, outdoor-reared and sourced wholly from London’s HG Walter, and ground from bespoke cuts of fat-on ribeye, rump and fillet steak. Cooked at a default medium-rare and squidged between a glazed brioche bun, Tommi’s was fatty, salty and unusually highly flavoured. It should not, cannot, be any other way. A good amount of fat is vital for texture and flavour and for ensuring the meat remains moist and ‘juicy’. And salt, lots of it, is required and nothing else. High quality meat did the rest. As basic as the surroundings but delicious.

The fries were unremarkable, no more than average. Does this matter though? I am of two minds. They are after all a means to an end. And here at Tommi’s, a decidedly no-frills one – in the fryer, out again, there you go. Drink? Well Coca-Cola, obviously.

MEATliquor is an altogether different beast. Also in Marylebone, it is hidden away down a back street with no immediately visible signage, or any indication whatsoever that within the neo-brutalist concrete exterior there is an institution that offers sustenance.

MEATliquor is the brainchild of Yiannis Papoutsis – purveyor of London town’s finest burgers, according to 2012’s Twitter devotees. Now regarded as something of a kingpin and maven in the Dirty Food scene, business started in 2009 with the launch of the Meatwagon. Yes, a burger van. But next came #MEATEASY, a pop-up above a pub in New Cross.

And now MEATliquor. It boils down to one question only. How much time do you want to devote to eating a Hamburger? What is it really worth? Eating here will usually involve standing in the type of queue usually only seen for the loos when Keith steps up to the mic at a ‘Stones gig – no fun in January, or indeed any other time. No bookings, no phone calls, no mercy. In truth I suspect the enforced queuing is nothing more than a gimmick. MEATliquor’s way of creating a bit of buzz.

Arriving at 11.55 am for midday opening there was a tailback already. So how to describe the interior? Variously: a gloomy New Orleans brothel; a Gonzoid swamp blues speakeasy; a Deep South meth den; a Bogota police station hosting a student party; a seedy, industrial 80’s Berlin nightspot; the cenobite’s lair from Hellraiser doused in shock graffiti. Everything in fact, except a west end burger and cocktail restaurant.

As at Tommi’s, no cutlery, no plates – they’re for squares, right? – just some supermarket kitchen roll. The menu is Dirty South meets New York City and is divided into ‘birds’, ‘bulls’ and ‘rabbit food’ but don’t worry though, anything that remotely looks as if it was grown in the ground is slathered in a batter exoskeleton. The menu favourite is the the chilli bacon cheeseburger. There is even a Phili Cheesteak – the doner kebab of Brotherly Love.

I had a house speciality of two burgers, ‘secret-recipe’ sauce, cheese, lettuce, pickle and minced onion known ominously as the Dead Hippy (Nobody wants vegetarians in whiffing the place up, do they?). Remind you of anything? Yep, the ‘Hippie is a pimped-up Big Mac – the ultimate, though somewhat dubious, hamburger homage. The meat was cuts of 35 day aged steak, ground, slightly bloody. The result was a sloppy mess but beejebers it was wonderful. Basically what a Big Mac ought to taste like. The meat didn’t have the depth of flavour it did at Tommi’s but the overall experience was superior. 

This was ordered with onion rings. These were monstrous things indeed – worryingly large, ‘American’ large. And as batter goes, everything you could wish for with tangy darts of both salt and sweet, no rancid oil taste, and as downright dirty as you would dare go without needing a doctor’s note. An additional side of deep fried pickles (yet more batter) and dip was a great Deep South twist.

Drink had to be the New Cross Negroni made with craft-distilled gin. Yes, yes, very über-trendy. Bit small though.

Both Tommi’s and MEATLiquor certainly pack the punters in at lunch and throughout the evening. The point of it all must solely be the quality of the food. Both Tommi’s and MEATLiquor deliver insofar as the brief is met – a hamburger comme il faut, a decent stab at gourmet junk food and an equally decent stab at authentic expression. They do the job and are as good as they need to be. Perhaps a little too knowingly arch for some tastes. Plus on the bright side you are not likely to overdose on phenylbutazone or ketamine either.

Opinions:

Tommi’s Burger Joint 7/10

MEATLiquor 7/10

Tommi’s Burger Joint

57 Marylebone Lane

London

W1U 2NX

Website: http://www.burgerjoint.co.uk

Twitter: @BurgerJointUk

MEATLiquor

74 Welbeck Street

W1G 0BA

Website: www.meatliquor.com

Twitter: @MEATliquor

Maze

serious question, why would anybody pair chicken with orange? Or liver with orange? Why?

Mars Bars, New Years Eve, popular mainstream TV sit-coms, politics, political leaders, Ricky Gervais, genuine fast bowling, smoking, Margate, journalism, The Times, McDonalds milkshakes, the economy, banks, the Top 40, Glastonbury, A-Level exams, cartoons, funding of the arts, drummers, hip hop, snooker, wars, polio, Quality Street.

Clearly, the above is a list of Things That Aren’t As Good As They Once Were. It is by no means a scientific snapshot – it is purposefully flippant and light in tone – but it is pretty hard, I think, to refute the position of any of the above items on the list. At one time or other, the quality of any one of them could justifiably be described as ranging from Very Good to Excellent. And now – well none of them are quite the same, are they? There are degrees of course: some have gone completely down the pan; others, more just a nagging, gnawing awareness of the fact that a certain élan has faded, some characteristic otherness has been lost.

Take smoking as a particularly facetious example. Throughout the decades, cigarettes have variously epitomised ethereal silver screen allure. Light up, and one transforms into Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman. James Bond, even. Smoking came to characterise completely Left Bank café culture: try and picture Hemmingway, Joyce, Camus or Sartre not wreathed in Gitane smoke at Les Deux Magots.

Smoking was proletariat solidarity. It was intellectualism and the avant garde. It was being a member of the band. The de facto description of the coolest jazz club in town was always ‘smoke-filled’. Non-smokers were always prissy, fussy, uptight and un-sexy. Yet fast forward to now and anyone who still smokes is a social misfit and a pariah of the underclass who carries with them everywhere a carcinogenic miasma of poverty, hopelessness, boredom, dole queues, stupidity and UKIP. Were a bar to be described as ‘smoke-filled’ these days it would sound about as alluring a prospect as an abscess. You don’t suppose it will be long before the last remaining smokers are bricked up in their bedsits for good and left to die the death they deserve.

So there you go: fags – once great, now rubbish.

And variously, political leaders: our game show host-alike deputy admits to wearing a onesie. Snooker: well it’s hardly the Davis-Taylor Final these days, is it? Ricky Gervais: sorry mate, what happened? Quality Street: why are over half of them either the strawberry one or the orange one?

Another thing that might now find itself on such a list is Maze. It really Isn’t As Good As It Once Was…

Maze is in the Grosvenor Square Marriott Hotel and forms part of the stateside television celebrity/occasional chef Gordon Ramsay stable. It was also the home of the very highly-acclaimed Jason Atherton, who, until 2010 was the executive head chef. There are probably few restaurants in London that boast such a grand location here at Mayfair’s periphery. Just minutes away from Oxford Street, the dining room overlooks the mock-Georgian Square’s gardens, that elegant, surprisingly austere and scrupulously maintained 49th parallel across which the American and Canadian Embassies face off.

My first outing to Maze was for dinner some while ago. I went with Charlie for my 30th  and everything, all of it, was a sublime sequence of elegantly assembled Belles-Lettres. The best thing? Just the sheer irreverence and humour on display in such dishes as deconstructed ‘BLT’ and ‘Peanut Butter and Jam Sandwich’, both now Athertonian trademarks.

Soon after Ramsay’s newest venture opened its doors in 2005 Atherton found himself le nom célèbre du jour; his carte at Maze the hottest ticket in town. He has an internship at Spain’s holy of holies El Bulli to his name, where, as you know, instead of a menu they had a surrealist manifesto. In place of courses, a series of hypnagogic non sequiturs. The toilsome drudge of mere eating was elevated to a Dali-esque realm where mechanics, states, flavours and forms were stretched beyond reason. El Bulli marked a kind of gastronomic endpoint. Where does one go from there?

Maze quickly became the most popular of Ramsay’s venues as Atherton’s training appeared distinctly unRamsay-like in every conceivable way. Ok so he wouldn’t be blindsiding diners with edible punctuation and nor would their menu choices be performed on Moog synthesizer to them. What he did bring with him was technical nous and creativity.

The food is ostensibly modern European with pan-Asian influences. “Uh-oh, it’s a passé fusion joint”. Luckily though, it is (was?) nothing of the sort. You choose several courses, between five and eight, that come in roughly tapas-sized dimensions. The idea being that you create your own tasting menu. While there may not be the traditional demarcation between starter-main-dessert, and all dishes are the same size, the menu is fashioned so that you start with lighter plates, progress through more robust fare and finally have as few or as many puddings as you can fit in.

…But the main conceit of this review remains: Maze is Not As Good As It Once Was. There is the palpable sense that something has gone awry. A recent lunch only served to confirm this.

Some rather fundamental questions arose relating to a pressed chicken terrine and parfait with orange and hazelnuts. Why would anybody pair chicken with orange? Or liver with orange? Why? Fridge-cold liver parfait was sandwiched between slices of pressed terrine – which to be fair was good and probably should have arrived on its own – then accompanied by a tangerine segment cut into a single wafer thin slice. No really, why? Experimentation is one thing, but I fear putting liver with orange is a clear violation of the Nuremberg Code.

A pork dumpling, daikon and wild mushroom broth was a far more harmonious affair, a love affair to be precise. Pork slow-cooked in just enough anise, five spice and ginger and reduced to inky stickiness got seriously good once the dumpling slowly melted into the delicate yet muscular broth.

Blade of beef, pomme purée and shimeji mushroom which, though perfectly fine, simply served to emphasize again the mis-match between what was on the plate. The braised beef, neatly and impressively fashioned into a perfect square was meltingly soft and the pomme purée quite wonderful. Shimeji are teeny-tiny Japanese micro-mushrooms, and oh-so delicate – the pixies of the fungus world. And so they found themselves not just drowning but utterly engulfed under a burly, brawny beef and potato tidal wave. The faintest barely-there dusting of piquant Japanese togarashi spice proved equally as futile.

Similar thing with pudding of apple terrine with rhubarb and custard ice cream. The terrine was like baby food; all saccharine, gummy, stewed apples. The ice cream was utterly fabbo in a zingy, summery afternoon sort of way.

But I did enjoy a very respectable indeed New Zealand chardonnay. An area where Maze has always scored well is its excellent selection of New World and by-the-glass wines. Here, you know that should you opt for a Californian Pinot Noir (I have, it was one of the best wines I’ve ever drunk – 30th birthday, see above) or a Chilean Riesling you be well catered for.

So the killer question. And pretty much in the same way you would ponder to yourself after stumbling upon an old lover you haven’t seen for years and who has aged really, really badly: “What on earth has happened?”

The point we are labouring over is that Maze is not as good since Atherton’s departure. It is less interesting, lacking that spark of true inventiveness. The kitchen is simply not as good or as experienced. And less fun. Therein is the nub. Maze needs to be a fun place to eat, it needs to rediscover that something that makes you exclaim “oh wow, look what they have done here!” when your food arrives, and not “oh my god, what the hell have they done here?”

The tasting menu idea still feels unique, so kudos for that. Here’s hoping that Maze doesn’t end up as a directionless, noughties Ramsay nostalgia act – ‘that passé fusion joint’ – at a time when the capital’s restaurant scene is as exciting, original and fast-moving as it has ever been.

Opinion: 6/10

Maze

10-13 Grosvenor Square

London

W1K 6JP

Tel: 0207 107 0000

Website: maze@gordonramsay.com

Dinner

the very essence of cucumber distilled and multiplied thousandfold. Cucumber in excelsis

To say that people’s expectations of Dinner were in the stratosphere is something of an understatement.

Heston Blumenthal is one of the finest and most adroit British chefs to have donned whites in the past twenty plus years. His other establishment of international renown, the Fat Duck in the Berkshire village of Bray, is one of only four restaurants in the country to hold three Michelin Stars. As a chef, Blumenthal is spoken of in the same hushed tones as Arzak, Ferra and Gagnaire. And here he now is: in London, at the Mandarin Oriental, Knightsbridge, with a brand spanking new restaurant, the robustly British-sounding Dinner. Waiting time for a table is already beyond the hope and aspirations of most mere mortals and there is the not altogether trifling matter of it already being ranked 9th best in the world by Restaurant Magazine. So not too much hype then?

We are all, of course, accustomed to hype nowadays. It is simply consumption’s companion. And we are all, of course, taken in by it so there is no shame in it really. Ok maybe that is not strictly true. Feel free to embrace a warm frisson of smugness by pointing and laughing at anybody you know who has ever been panicked by bird flu, camped out overnight for a new smartphone, purchased anything in HD DVD or decided that Tony Blair was the answer to their prayers once upon a time. Oh, so that’s everybody then.

Perhaps that is all rather cynical. Expectation is harmless enough. It is fun. It creates a sense of buzz. And there is no better feeling than a fevered sense of anticipation. It actually felt like a genuinely momentous occasion when Dinner opened; really and truly, it felt big. And right on cue, hype exploded into hyperbole the very moment the doors opened to the expectant media circus hammering away outside.

“Is Dinner already the best restaurant in the world?” wondered one critic, days – days!– after opening. Dish after dish was bestowed with the most ludicrous of histrionics: “Astonishing!” “The greatest show on Earth!” “I had an orgasm that lasted for half an hour!” Ok, ok, I admit, I made that first one up.

So just what has been going on at Dinner to have caused such frothing at the mouth and elsewhere? Has Blumenthal been spiking the Perrier with LSD before serving his already rather trippy absinth and dildo jelly? (That is an actual thing by the way – Google it). Tell you what, he would have had much more luck serving that to bemused Little Chef diners rather than thyroid gland hotpot.

Memory and reminisce is the whole rasion d’être of Dinner. If not to create a favourite meal but to remind you of one. Now though, the emphasis is on the collective rather than the personal.

Blumenthal has worked alongside food historian Ivan Day developing the restaurant’s menu which was inspired by actual, documented British recipes from various points in history. The idea is a riff on the meaning of, and the ingredients that would combine to make ‘dinner’ in times bygone. On the menu each dish is dated along with a brief description of its background. The most primordial delicacy can be traced back, it is claimed, to the year 1390 and the country’s first ever written compilation of recipes, The Forme of Cury. No, the surprise under the cloche isn’t Black Death but a dish entitled Rice And Flesh. Another, Meat Fruit, dates back to Henry VII and is really just a playful send-up of Late Middle Age feasting: a perfectly formed mandarin complete with aromatic, dimpled skin masquerades as a chicken liver parfait (or is it the other way round?). More instantly recognisable would be the prime rib of Hereford Beef (c 1830), tantalisingly cooked over 72 hours.

Now obviously there is poetic licence. The food is modern restaurant recreation of historic British cooking – albeit immaculately choreographed. Anybody expecting a history lesson is missing the point. And there are no molecular shenanigans either. The menu is straightforward and simply offers three courses.

As is currently the trend, the kitchen is open-plan to the dining room so all diners have the best seat in the house when it comes to viewing head chef Ashley Palmer-Watts and his team put their meal together. It’s not the best or most atmospheric room, hotel dining rooms never are. To be honest you could be walking into the breakfast buffet of any smart-ish hotel.

So what of the food? Poached Lobster & Cucumber Soup (c 1730) was a thing of beauty. The lobster was sweetness itself along with an uncommonly good herb salad: zingy, light, bright and fresher than a lemon enema. The true revelation though was the cucumber soup poured around it; the very essence of cucumber distilled and multiplied thousandfold. Cucumber in excelsis. And the colour: a wonderfully lurid green.

The much hyped Rice & Flesh was a saffron risotto studded with strands of calf tail and red wine. It was another visually striking dish – vivid yellow this time. A very al dente risotto of pure saffron sounds so wonderfully decadent a dish and so it proved with haunting eddies of the smoky, iodine spice insistent thoughout. The Meat Fruit was, as was hoped for, an exemplary liver parfait.

That the main courses could not quite match the starters was frustrating. Shame, I was just starting to buy into the hype(rbole).

Pigeon with Ale and Artichokes (c 1780), and the Chicken and Lettuces with Spiced Celeriac Sauce (c 1670) were ordered. The pigeon, cooked rare, was ferrous and livery and came with a sauce every bit its equal. Again, that clearness, that intensity of flavour just sings. Everything up to now being economical and precise but with the volume and contrast turned right, right up. So Heston.

The chicken? Not so much. Well, it was a chicken breast. The lettuce? Well you all know what lettuce is I presume. Sometimes it is never quite possible to glean from a menu just what exactly might arrive from the kitchen. Chicken and lettuce might be some innovatively deconstructed variation on a theme… or, it might be a chicken dressed with a wisp or two of lettuce. Apologies for labouring the point but it all seemed rather inadequate compared to what had come before.

Tipsy Cake was a sumptuous treat bordering on the erotic. A shamefully creamy brioche cake infused with headily fragrant Sauternes, baked with love and bad intentions and partnered by a wedge of tart spit-roast pineapple. Incredible. ‘Quaking Pudding’ (c 1660) would not, could not, be anywhere near as good. It wasn’t, but was still great fun. It was a marvellously old-fashioned blancmange pudding tasting of poached pears, caramel and spices that evoke Christmas.

There was of course the famous liquid nitrogen ice cream trolley, kind of like a cross between a Dalek and a Mr Whippy machine, though we didn’t sample its wares.

There were quibbles: service was enthusiastic but seriously clunky at times: you are always looking around trying to attract attention if you wanted anything while staff seemed to have been trained at the Stand In Groups Until Told To Do Something School of Waitering. And why isn’t there a tasting menu?! If ever a restaurant is screaming out for one, it is this one.

The history and dates schtick is really just window dressing for dishes that are mostly expertly put together,  even if they are a bit gimmicky for some. I didn’t think so. It is fun. It is a send up. And Blumenthal knows what he is doing. Does it live up the hype? Of course not. But neither does hyperbole ever descend into bathos.

So often too these days flavours can be muddied and imprecise. Things are lost in transmission when too much is happening on the plate. No such qualms here. Plus you really, genuinely  do want to try everything on the menu. Dinner is an eminently approachable restaurant where food cooked to exemplary standards manages to be innovative and historical, new and familiar all at once. It will endure, certainly… with just a bit of fine-tuning.

Opinion: 8/10

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal

Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park
66 Knightsbridge
London SW1X 7LA
Tel: 020 7201 3833
Website: www.dinnerbyheston.com