The Evening Standard’s Jimi Famurewa says Charlie's at Brown's hotel in London “aims for timeless grandeur and instead lands at a sort of perfunctory, moneyed stiffness”
Menu-wise, Charlie’s (which gets its name from the five-star hotel’s former owner, Lord Charles Forte) generally leans into a comforting, reassuringly spendy Britishness. After a strangely gritty, arid snack of tempura wild mushrooms, this streak emerged most potently in the rich chime of a chicken oyster consommé; a brackish mussel, cockle and clam-strewn pasta; and a lavishly filled chicken and ham pie, crowned by a puffed, golden plinth of fantastic pastry.
Seared slivers of tuna were effective, too; prettily adorned with radish, nasturtium leaves and green mandarins that came both as tart segments and worked into a terrifically complex mottled grey emulsion. There were also some creditable sides (buttered green beans strewn with toasted hazelnuts, and fat, fluffy chips). And, oh yes, a chocolate pudding with malt ice cream that, whisper it, brought to mind the very wet, aggressively sweet, chocolate fondant you might tiredly put away in a provincial branch of Strada.
Rating: ambience: 3/5; food: 3/5. Price: £146
The Telegraph’s William Sitwell reviews Church Road in London’s Barnes, where he had a “gorgeous” starter but was left wanting a “proper main course”
My starter was a gorgeous and warming pile of thick pasta among sausage meat, with loads of Parmesan and a tiny hint of chilli. A mouthful took me to some rural Italian idyll: a steaming plate of food plonked joyfully on a thick wooden farmhouse table, amid lashings of wine, loud voices, laughter and singing.
Next up was Joe’s grouse, a beautiful plate of a whole bird drenched in gravy, berries and lardons with a sliced pear and fancy Hasselback potatoes. My main course had been the promise of ‘charcoal-roasted prawns, masala sauce, aubergine, cucumber, yogurt and relish’.
I had imagined big crustaceans, charred from the grill, with a large aubergine and pools of cooling yogurt. Instead came five un-charred, wretched little numbers, a tiny aubergine covered with chopped cucumber and radish, a dollop of yogurt and a charred slice of lemon. For £25, this was a (wealthy) 12-year-old girl’s portion. As Joe tore apart his bird like Sid James playing Henry VIII, I felt rather left out.
Rating: 3.5/5. Price: Lunch for two: £99 excluding drinks and service
Tom Parker Bowles says Norma in London’s Fitzrovia is “Sicilian to its core”, in the Mail on Sunday
Norma is a good-looking, lavishly fitted-out place, with a soft sultana glow, with marble, Moorish curves and foliage weaved among the hanging lamps. The walls are already suffused with succour and good cheer. And service is equally warm, although our waiter’s kind offer to explain how the menu works is sent, like Luca Brasi, to go sleep with those fish.
Caponata, that Moorish mélange of the agro and the dolce, is not quite aggro enough for me. I like the vinegar to strip the skin from the roof of my mouth. Here, it’s more sweet than sour. Well made, but subdued. More agro dolce with a chicory, pumpkin and fig salad, at once bitter and slyly sweet. A fig vinegar gathers it all together in a discreetly acidic embrace.
Pizzette fritte, bite-sized deep-fried disks, have a smudge of burrata and a wisp of spianata, and are expertly done. There’s a fine take on the classic pasta con le sarde, with sardines, raisins, breadcrumbs, fennel and pine nuts. A dish that captures the spirit, if not the grunt, of great Sicilian cooking. Because some-times, those rough edges are too smoothed. A touch ‘finickity and expensive,’ in the words of Grace. But despite the West End polish, I adored Norma, a languorous, lingering lunch, in the most lovely of rooms, where rights are wronged, enemies cursed and friendships lauded loudly. Sicilian, then, to its core.
Rating: 4/5. Price: about £40 per head
The Guardian’s Grace Dent says Peter Sanchez-Iglesias’ Decimo at the Standard in London’s King’s Cross was “more than worth the wait”
Decimo, for all my chunterings about food with a view, turned out to be more than worth the wait, and it, too, is somewhere I would now point people to. It feels like the beginning of a whole new era in London restaurants, and it is entirely Los Angeles in mood…
But what is the food like, I hear you scream? Well, it is slightly ridiculous, sometimes delicious, sometimes “meh”, but at least it aims to challenge. Does anyone actually want cabbage and blue cheese? And I’m not entirely sure tortilla (fancy runny omelette) even complements caviar (fancy runny fish goo) yet, like zombies, diners order it (at £40 for the small one). Food comes on wooden boards, on top of brown parchment paper, or on pale, marble slabs. Dinner resembles an autopsy by a highly precise pathologist. The quail, in its peculiar, not entirely lovable mole glaze, looks like a mafia warning. Four pieces of strategically sculpted carrot steeped in orange cost £6. Carbs do not play a huge part on Decimo’s menu, or in the lifestyle choice of anyone who works there.
One of the greatest things I ate there, or indeed have eaten all this year, was a fairly innocuous-sounding concoction called “marinated red peppers”, which turned out to be an odd, circular serving of rich, smoky-sweet, remarkable-tasting pepper served on marble with nothing. “Would you like bread?” asked one of the celestial visions. What else would we do with it? Scrape the marble with a knife directly into our mouths?
Price: food: 7/10; atmosphere: 9/10; service: 8/10. About £75 a head, plus drinks and service
Peg restaurant in London’s Hackney offers simple, unfussy and satisfying food, writes Ed Cumming in The Independent
Some cabbage arrives. It sounds strange to say this was the most enjoyable dish of the lot, but it was up there. Pale green leaves, nearly white, came cut and torn in an upright pot, as fresh and crunchy as if our waitress had popped out back and dug them up herself.
The leaves were coated in a sesame dressing with enough nuttiness and bite to add to the cabbage without overpowering it.
Mushrooms were a bit slippery; a meatball was large and rich and mysterious in the way all good meatballs ought to be.
There is some pumpkin with miso, a quiet hit of seasonality and simple embellishment, more proof that despite Peg’s claims on being a meat grill, they are deft hands with the veg. It’s reassuring they’re not an afterthought. Look after the pumpkin and the cabbage, and the chicken will look after itself. So it proves.
Our final savoury dish, three enormous joints of fried chicken, arrive standing proudly on their plate, their deep, crisp and even coatings flecked with togarashi spices. If there is a more satisfying piece of fried chicken in Hackney, I’ve not eaten it, or at least not before 2am.
Price: About £45 per person
The Sunday Times’ Marina O’Loughlin checks out Vardo in London’s Chelsea
“No boundaries” announces Vardo’s all-day menu, gallivanting around a list of ingredients that might give an older art crowd from the neighbouring Saatchi Gallery a fit of the vapours: baharat, gunpowder, furikake. And it’s mostly executed with delicious dash: the gleeful mess of grilled corncobs slathered with salted pandan coconut milk, sesame and chilli; spiced chickpeas and puffy flatbread humming with garam masala-spiked labneh and fenugreek chilli butter. (Told you.) I’ve ordered one of the dishes under the Grains and Bowls heading out of sheer badness, irritated by the collision of wellness and infantilisation that results in people slurping buzzword ingredients from soup bowls. But it’s a great thing, slabs of succulent hot-smoked salmon with brown rice and a rainbow of Japanese seasoning. Although we transgress by tipping it onto, you know, plates.
Caravan regulars will spot familiar dishes: the unmissable cornbread soaked in chipotle butter, coriander and lime. And the pizzas, always superb: ours lubriciously rich with bone marrow and scamorza jolted by parmesan and a kind of gremolata. Perhaps spiced pulled lamb with pine nuts, pomegranate and mint pesto could have tasted less as though the lamb had been prised off its funeral pyre — tense and scorched; perhaps a “medina highball” might have tasted as if it had, well, booze in it. In such a setting, in such a building, you expect to be wowed.
Price: For two, including 12.5% service charge £108
The Evening Standard’s Fay Maschler encounters memorable salads and irresistible desserts at Emile in London’s Hackney
Sourdough is from Dalston’s Dusty Knuckle Bakery. Croquettes, which seem all the go at the moment, are made here with Lincolnshire Poacher lending its uncompromising maturity. They sit well — literally — on a puree of pickled walnuts and under a shower of the grated cheese. Light, crisp crumb coating is impeccable, as it proves at another meal, Sunday lunch, when one of the snacks on offer is fried gurnard with caper mayonnaise.
Roast beef at Sunday lunch served with gratin dauphinois and natural gravy — plus extra in a small jug — is picture-perfect, soft, rosy, accommodating, the sort of vision you might have if pining for British food. Just as we are thinking a bit of horseradish wouldn’t come amiss, a choice of that or two mustards is brought.
Wild duck with cabbage and prunes, and Paddock Farm pork chop with cavolo nero, capers and sage, are similarly expert yet unaffected. There are memorable salads — one doesn’t often say that — great pasta in the shape of pappardelle with chanterelles, and a chocolate, coffee and hazelnut dessert that is sternly irresistible.
The Observer’s Jay Rayner checks out Live Seafood in Manchester
First to arrive are a couple of cracked velvet crabs, served salt and pepper-style, the edges lightly battered, with handfuls of fresh chilli, garlic and spring onion. I know immediately this will be a “jug of water by the bed” meal, but I also know it’s going to be worth it. We have crackers, but these crabs have thin, friable shells that we can get through with our teeth. It’s followed by a heaped platter of clams, with black bean sauce.
We have a large platter of prawns that have been deep-fried in their shells. You may peel them if you wish. I like the texture of those salty shells, crisped up in the hot oil. There is a little sweet chilli sauce to send them on their way and, for no obvious reason, save that fairy lights make everything better, a single bulb tied to the plate by a strand of clingfilm. It flashes blue and pink.
The star of the show is a whole head-and-tail-on sea bass, taken off the rest of the bones. Courtesy of mind-boggling kitchen knife gymnastics, it has been transformed into a fish-porcupine hybrid. The flesh has become thick battered fingers which have risen up in the fryer to point accusingly. It’s then drenched in a sweet garlic sauce. God, it’s good. My cheeks become sticky and I feel the limits of appetite as a failure of character.
Seafood prices vary depending upon choices and weight, but roughly £10-£25
The Times’ Giles Coren says At the Chapel in Bruton, Somerset is “bloody wonderful”
Roast squash risotto with sage was light on the fork but densely packed with flavour, autumnal and leafy rather than thick and cheesy, some roasted seeds in there for crunch and four or five chunks of squash, nicely caramelised at the edges. The smaller £7 portion was plenty for a lunchtime main in my opinion, though Esther had it with a side of ras el hanout-spiced giant couscous with wood-roasted onions and courgettes and peppers (£4).
I had a whole south coast plaice (£18), perfectly roasted, slathered with shrimp butter and its million shrimps and a splat of chewy, warming, cooked-down cavolo nero. Oh, and a bright, pretty, ham hock terrine with a homemade piccalilli that could have been a mite sharper for my taste, but was bristling with crunchy vegetables, pretty recently plucked from the ground.
Rating: cooking: 8; space: 8; service: 8; score: 8
Ben Clatworthy of The Times says Yotel in Edinburgh is “a cool city base” in a great location and with friendly staff
Yotel, a hotel chain better known for its compact pads at airport terminals, has opened its first European city centre base in Edinburgh, after its arrival in New York, Boston, San Francisco and Singapore. Converted from offices, the new hotel has a prime spot in the Edinburgh New Town on Queen Street, a stone’s throw from many of the city’s big hitters, including the Scottish National Gallery, the Portrait Gallery and the castle.
The rooms are inspired by the space-saving designs used in first-class airline cabins and, for that reason, are known not as rooms but cabins. They feature the chain’s signature “Adjustable Smartbeds”, which can be tilted up like a business-class seat in the day and extended to become flat at bedtime. Bathrooms are smart and integrated into the room, albeit with frosted glass on the shower and loo to protect your modesty. In some of the smaller rooms you effectively walk through the bathroom to get to the bed.
Rating: 8/10. Price: B&B doubles from £60 a night