The Telegraph’s new critic visits a vegan restaurant, Giles Coren finds two great new Oxford restaurants, and another critic jumps the queue at Din Tai Fung
Jay Rayner for The Observer found himself at the former The Met Bar location for his first review of 2019; it’s “has worked hard at the illusion” that it is a standalone venue, and not just a room inside a hotel.
Things looked promising: the pedigrees of the chefs, suppliers and wine list curator are all impeccable, and the menu, released online, read like “a whole new verse of My Favourite Things” (a side dish of “mashed potato with Tunworth cheese, braised trotter and crackling” if you’re in the trade and need to attract an Observer critic). But sadly for them, him and us, “it’s a case of so nearly but not quite”.
It’s “impossible to disguise the hotel side-room location”, there’s seriously “punchy” pricing (no wines under £29) and his scallop starter was “odd and underwhelming”. One saving grace is that the drooled-over mash “really is all kinds of everything… one edible Peter Greenaway movie: rich, deep and intense”.
The “uneven theme” continues with dessert, the highlight being an “English honey mincemeat tart” that is “majestic”.
It’s all about that queue (whether or not you sneak in like Giles Coren, or patiently wait for hours with the normal people). When Grace Dent for The Guardian visited London’s latest social media sensation – sorry, restaurant – she too ‘did a Giles’. Was it worth it?
“Hype will put more bums on seats and napkins in laps than a new opening’s deft seasoning or fancy produce suppliers” – in DTF’s case, much of the hype is substantiated, by being a wildly popular global provider of unvaryingly perfect “Taiwanese dumplings and Huaiyang cuisine”.
The “dumpling technicians, all wearing surgical masks and white laboratory coats” who prepare and serve the precious xiao long bao made it feel rather like “feeding time at a medical trials centre”. The dumplings themselves were “pleasantly inoffensive, neither obscenely soupy nor intensely flavoured”.
Disappointment reigned, especially as half the menu was unavailable – including almost everything fried and all of the desserts. (“This, I mused, might be a handy thing for one of the managers, of which there are about 17, to go and tell the people queueing for five hours outside.”) That’s the problem with hype: it’s almost impossible to live up to. (15/30)
Taking over the reins as restaurant critic for The Telegraph, William Sitwell (who memorably resigned from Waitrose’s Food magazine last year after emails were released by freelancer Selene Nelson in which he suggested “killing vegans” and force-feeding them meat) took a rather obvious route for his first review, with a visit to Wulf & Lamb, Chelsea’s new vegan restaurant.
Armed with a list of plant-focused restaurants from his “vegan mentor” – Selene herself – he chose Chelsea as a place in which to “enter these new waters gently” – where people “still shave and wear polished shoes”. Well, it is The Telegraph, readers will love his jokes about east London…
The meal did not go well; he was instructed to order before sitting down, most of the food was reheated rather than freshly cooked, and he just didn’t see the point in the “meat alternatives”. Mac and ‘cheese’ was “just old and tired, not deep and warming”.
He devotes a whole, detailed paragraph to listing what you can’t eat as a vegan. Enough said. (*)
Tom Parker Bowles for The Daily Mail starts the year with a five-star review, but not for anywhere remotely new or cutting edge; he visited Bentley’s, the centenarian Soho oyster bar, with the excuse that in these “strange, uncertain times” we need to seek out “crave comfort, succour and good cheer” in those places “that are as steadfastly reliable as the rising and setting of the sun”. That, or he just fancied some oysters.
Bentley’s is an “oyster hall of fame”; no-one else “treats these beasts with such respect”. They take “the best ingredients, lavish them with a love verging on devotion, and let them shine”, whether it’s the beloved bivalves, Dorset clams, Dover sole or Cromer crab. There’s even “a linguine vongole that could hold its head high in Naples”. (*****)
Fay Maschler for The Evening Standard visited “posh Indian” Kutir, .from an ex-Jamavar team in “premises [that] previously housed Vineet Bhatia”. The exclusive Chelsea rooms are “prettily furnished, softly upholstered with a glazed conservatory roof at the back”.
Some, but not all, of the dishes impressed Fay, but she offered enough critical advice and culinary tweaks for the chefs to signify her overall dissatisfaction. Her dining companion “ventures the provocative suggestion that the uneven quality is attributable to the lack of a philosophy”. (***)
Pompette & The Porterhouse, Oxford
Giles Coren for The Times Magazine popped to Oxford to host a school quiz and had lunch with the restaurant critic of Oxford University’s student newspaper. Run by a husband-and-wife team previously at Terroirs and Six Portland Road, Pompette is “a big bistro of the old school” with “a strong charcuterie game”. An “awesome” chopped fillet of beef and a dish of lightly cooked snails won the starter round (“after all the sleek, bosky flavours there was a glutinous follow-through that was startling and quite seductive”).
Mains included a “nailed-on stonker” of half a poulet au Riesling, accompanied by excellent choices from the “lovely sommelier” and followed by a giant choux bun soaked in kirsch that was “at least, ooh, three times better” than it sounds.
In all, Pompette is “a thing of wonder, a perfect bistro, a brilliant restaurant, a haven of great cooking, sweet service and wondrously original wine”.
Giles later visited The Porterhouse, “a simple, unpretentious steakhouse in a former boozer in a residential street near the railway station” where “steaks were very good indeed, the chips were historic, the greens were perfect, the slaw was beautifully sharp and the four homemade sauces were all outstandingly done”. He begs locals to visit (it was almost empty); “Oxford needs places like this. Don’t make it your fault that it has so few of them”.