The Evening Standard's Fay Maschler reviews Jason Atherton's the Betterment at the Biltmore Mayfair hotel
The main course of roast chicken, trompettes, Albufera sauce at £45 for two to share is irresistible despite hindering more thorough menu coverage. Dark mushrooms stuffed under the skin of the breast make the whole bird resemble guinea fowl, which only adds to the disappointment of dense texture and a lack of innate flavour. Practically a bush of fresh rosemary stuffed into the cavity at the time of sending out serves no purpose. But Albufera sauce, a creamy velouté, tinted ivory with demi-glace, pretty much saves the day — and, to some extent, the chicken.
Horseradish velouté promised with ox-cheek tortellini presents as detumescent white foam on green pasta shells that are way too resilient, as if they know they'll be hammered by the thin salty jus below. Best of everything tried including hazelnut praline choux, coffee ganache and lemon sorbet is a side dish of onion flower with chive emulsion. The onion, opened out through soaking like a blooming dahlia, is roasted to the edge of caramelisation to deliver crunchy edginess as well as a plump sweet core.
"Impeccable cooking, delightful grandeur and everything spoilt by a total collapse of service," writes Giles Coren in The Times, reviewing Wild Honey St James, London
There were ricotta dumplings ("gnudi"), all soft and tasting of babies with crushed squash and grapes; a ribollita that managed to feel deep and nourishing and nonna-ish while allowing each constituent bean, herb and vegetable to retain its singularity; and best of all there were handcut macaroni "cacio e pepe" – long and lean as white-filtered Gauloises – with crisp boneless chicken wings, richly sauced, an obvious solution to the old "Macaroni cheese or roast chicken?" problem, and a sweet memory of that sot-l'y-laisse dish at Arbutus, back when the world was young.
But then it all fell apart. Not because of the cooking but because of the service… They never brought the wine. They brought the fish soup in a big bowl and plonked it down with a dish of random fish chunks (presumably the two went together?) with some smaller bowls but no explanation (or offer to serve), and then disappeared. Whenever we wanted anything, I had to get up and cross the room to ask for it. Nothing I could do could persuade them to bring me water. They were tortoise-slow to clear plates. In fact, the floor was deserted for minutes at a time. It took them an age to bring the bill and when they did, they had charged us for all the stupid dishes we didn't order and hadn't eaten, adding around £70 to our bill of £368.44.
Rating: Cooking: 9; space: 8; service: 2; score: 6.33. Price: £368.44
"Confident, classic, seasonal cooking, with dishes to please every whim." The Mail on Sunday's Tom Parker Bowles checks out Charlie's at Brown's Hotel London
I slurp gazpacho that mixes a startling late summer sweetness with just the right acidic kick. Tiny squares of diced cucumber and croutons add two kinds of crunch… Then a pie, a happy and glorious pie, stuffed with fat shards of ham, and chunks of succulent chicken, in the smoothest, richest velouté embrace, topped with a puffy golden crust. It's a pie of gentle magnificence, the everyday made exceptional, comfort food clad in a full-length mink coat.
There's soft braised squid with skinned tomatoes, then a fish soup that starts out refined before descending into wanton, rowdy lustiness. It both whispers and growls, with saffron-soaked potatoes and fistfuls of mussels and clams. Byatt sends out a couple of deep-fried courgette flowers (they don't appear on the bill), lavished with truffle honey and indecently good. ‘A sort of savoury toffee apple,' says John as he crunches through the greaseless batter. This kitchen's art extends to the deep fat fryer too.
Rating: 4/5. Price: About £45 per head
"The cooking at Moor Hall [in Aughton, Lancashire] deserves to be taken very seriously indeed," writes Jay Rayner in The Observer, "but it would be a much better restaurant if it stopped taking itself so damn seriously."
Eventually the meal begins and much of it really is exceptional. Warm, springy sourdough comes with cultured butter, the deep green of garden peas blitzed with herbs. The sweetest of carrots are interleaved with leaves of a crisp carrot caramel. There are dollops of silky purée and gratings of salty Doddington cheese. Pieces of warm, intense crab-claw meat come in a limpid smoked turnip broth, with a pillow of smooth brown meat; there are roasted beetroots under a snowfall of grated frozen horseradish. A deep-fried potato basket is filled with the oily hit of smoked eel, tempered by the acidity of fermented garlic.
There is a tartare of 80-day aged beef, with the sultry funk of barbecued celeriac and a dollop of mustard. Before the main courses, they bring the flakiest of onion pastries, which drops golden crumbs everywhere. These must be chased around the bare wooden table with fat fingertips before the fiercely suited man with the table broom comes. Alongside a solid chicken main is a pot of chicken "ragù" which is dark and sticky like the very best bits at the bottom of the roasting pan. The pre-dessert is a perfect scoop of gingerbread ice-cream, atop a little ginger in thick syrup, and laid with the finest sticks of crisp gingerbread tuile, as though a game of Kerplunk has collapsed. Wild blackberries come with a foamy woodruff mousse and crunchy sugarwork.
Price: Four-course tasting menu £70, eight courses £140, wines from £35
The food in the Flying Stag bar at the Fife Arms in Braemar, Aberdeenshire, needs a little of the love and stardust that's been devoted to the interior design, writes William Sitwell in The Telegraph
I ordered the Highland-beef and bone-marrow burger. ‘Can I have it medium-rare?' I asked. Apparently not. As the waiter explained, that would be ‘against the law'… he explained further that because the burgers were made off-site, they had to be cooked well-done.
Off-site? Patties made off-site in a hotel where the owners probably spend more money on a single light fitting than you might on carpeting your ground floor? ‘Hmm,' I hmmed. But it was thoroughly decent to eat, albeit law-abidingly overcooked.
The brown chips seemed a bit ‘bought in' also. The best thing was a starter of house-cured salmon. Lovely thick strips scattered with gorgeous and crunchy deep-fried capers. Chicken-liver mousse was so whipped and light it was in danger of losing its rich and naughty flavour. My pal declared of his fish and chips: ‘Good fish but greasy batter.'
Properly bad, I'm afraid, was the brownie. All dusty bitter cocoa and no smooth chocolate joy, made worse by the thin and acrid elderflower ice cream.
Rating: 3/5. Price: Dinner for two: £62.50 excluding drinks and service
Bottega Caruso in Margate, Kent serves "possibly some of the best Italian food in modern Britain", according to The Guardian's Grace Dent
The aubergine parmigiana is a heroically wondrous, dank, chocolate-brownie-shaped square of grilled, pressed aubergine with tomato and basil and mozzarella. "This is where I've been going wrong with aubergine for 30 years," I mumble, wishing I'd ordered at least three slices. "I've been building my parmigiana upwards, but now I know it needs to be shallow and flat, so much more of the surface caramelises and goes crisp. But then, how does it not dry out?"
They serve small, fresh bowls of carefully prepared, perfect anchovies marinated in chilli and garlic. There are glasses of rhubarb-and-liquorice-scented Oscar 697 red vermouth served over ice, and the house pecorino is easily drinkable. They make a squid stew, its tentacles slow-braised with potatoes and peas into a soft, content-making mess. The dish that I can't quite forget was a plentiful bowl of fat gnocchi bullets, hand-formed that morning and served with fresh courgettes and a pungent, almond-and-cashew pesto.
Price: About £30-35 a head, plus drinks and service. Rating: Food: 9/10; atmosphere: 9/10; service: 9/10
The Sunday Times' Marina O'Loughlin veers from nice to eye-openingly gorgeous dishes at Bubala in London's Spitalfields
It's all on a continuum from mmm, nice — a riff on fattoush salad laced with fronds of shaved, acidulated fennel, feta and topped with crisp kadaif pastry threads —to bloody hell, that's eye-openingly gorgeous: ezme, a Turkish cross between salad and dip. This one is made from grapefruit, tomato and onion, sitting in a pool of tahini and then scooped up with some toasty, oily laffa flatbread from the Ararat bakery in Dalston. It's a long time since I've eaten something so apparently simple that's so much more than the sum of its parts. Truly electrifying. It's also, almost incidentally, vegan.
Veering quite far from Tel Aviv, "latkes" aren't actually latkes — those eastern European Jewish potato cakes that are a more oikish cousin of rösti — but versions of the capital's current favourite, confit layered potatoes, popularised by the Quality Chop House and replicated everywhere else: complex and fiendishly good. These are up there with the best — crisp, delicate, ungreasy, with Aleppo pepper-dusted toum, aka kebab-shop garlic sauce. This is haute-trashy cooking done absolutely right.
Price: For two, including 12.5% service charge £99
The Evening Standard's Jimi Famurewa experiences "some of the most scintillating, inventive and intensely flavourful cooking" at Mao Chow in London's Hackney
Smacked cucumbers looked a little dull in their brown, sesame seeded liquor, but the taste — a bright, sharp chime of black vinegar, sesame oil and crisp, fragrant fried garlic — was pure Technicolor. They were the perfect coolant for dry-fried green beans: a beautiful, heat-crinkled mass of warm, bitter veg, fermented black beans, peanuts, more frizzled garlic and the fearsome ruby glimmer of dried chillies.
Heat, we quickly learned, is a big part of the Mao Chow experience. Though, alongside the face-melters (a dreamy bowl of soy mince dan dan noodles with deep-roasted peanuts and an almost caramelised note of sweetness; the knuckle-dustered punch of a mapo tofu with so much numbing Sichuan pepper it could qualify as a type of dental anaesthesia) there was micro-engineered flavour-building, too. Yes, those dumplings came in a burst of tingling chilli oil, but their innards (mushroom and cabbage, I think) hummed with chive and dexterous, meaty fermentation. Fried oyster mushroom bao, meanwhile — bursting with assertive spicing, smeared with a fermented doubanjiang mayo and wedged in a hefty, sweet bun — was just a slow-building, perfectly calibrated knockout.
Rating: Ambience: 4/5; food: 4/5. Price: £60.50 for two
Gabriella Bennett of The Times enjoys the bucolic setting of Schloss Roxburghe near Kelso in the Scottish Borders, but is disappointed by the food offer
If William Morris were alive and designing hotel interiors, the chances are that they would look like that of Schloss Roxburghe. Arts and Crafts touches are everywhere, from the original hardwood fireplaces in the lobby to the detailed stag-print wallpaper. The deer motif found elsewhere in the building is not only decorative, but a reflection of the hotel's setting within a 300-acre estate. You can stalk, fish, shoot and play golf, or simply sink into an ochre wingback chair with a single malt in Bar 1745. The hotel's new owners have a sister property in Germany.
The larger à la carte menu changes monthly and a smaller menu rotates weekly. Wye Valley asparagus with a poached egg, ham royal and hollandaise (£13.25) had punchy flavours, but there were too many wet things on the plate. Slow-cooked game au vin (£27.50) won points for using estate venison, but the meat was dry and presentation erred too close to a Jackson Pollock canvas.
Rating: 8/10. Price: B&B doubles cost from £235 per night