Grace Dent of The Guardian feels like everything is temporarily right with the world while dining at the Compasses Inn in Crundale, Kent
For starters, Charles and I shared some deep-fried Winnies Wheel – like a Camembert, but from Canterbury. These gooey-centred, crisp bullets came laced with petals of pickled Grelot onion, parsley root and walnut ketchup. Another starter of Stour Valley quail featured the breasts and wings on a bed of plump, slightly softened Kentish cherries with pieces of rich black pudding. This is faffy, risk-taking cooking that would still appeal to a fussy eater so long as they didn't read the menu descriptions too closely. Soused mackerel, for example, comes with pretty pink fir potatoes, shaved fennel and a chilled tomato liqueur. It's fish, spuds and tomato sauce, but pulled off with aplomb.
It would be a hard heart that didn't love the Compasses' roast roll of chicken with rosemary dumplings, which are more accurately wobbly, delicious, herby gnocchi, each one browned golden, then arranged on the plate with soft baby leek, truffle shavings and more truffle in the sauce. Charles' treacle-cured beef and glazed ox cheek came with a braised Baby Gem leaf and English mustard clotted cream, a fabulously clever and decadent take on horseradish. I tried to steer us away from sides, but we also had dripping chips with truffle mayo and a heritage tomato salad with elderflower dressing. For vegetarians, a goats' cheese roulade came with a smoked aubergine cream sauce and purple sprouting broccoli.
This is one of those menus that makes you feel temporarily that everything is right with the world, and in that shady corner of the pub, at least, some sanity was restored to 2021. And that was before I even got stuck into the Tia Maria. I also noted with delight that Kahlúa, Amaretto and Frangelico were also on offer, because I adore any fancy menu that lists drinks more commonly found in the bottom of a school bag being transported skulduggerously from a parent's drinks cabinet to a school disco, often with dire results. Wherever this team goes, I will follow. And if they keep making that Marmite cream cheese and serving Roquefort with fresh brown butter financiers, I'll be there with bells on.
Giles Coren of The Times hopes to never speak of Ave Mario in London's Covent Garden ever again
[We were] led all the way to the back, out of the glorious Instagram room, down some scuffed stairs to a table in a low-ceilinged half-basement, pinched between the loos and the till. I can't blame the place for being full. It was 12.15pm on a Wednesday. I should have come earlier. But being chucked in the shit seat really spoils things for me, and I struggle to recover. Even when the table is laid with giant crockery shaped like fruit and vegetables.
The pizza (admittedly touted as a "non-pizza") was a big puffy piece of bread covered in some sort of acidic tomato crush and striped with a queer white substance. The vitello tonnato was a sort of Caesar dressing soup with some mean little flakes of dry meat floating in it. Kitty's tagliata was made from skirt, not sirloin, so was chewy and bland. The ravioli carbonara was unspeakably grim – I only managed one of the warty skin grafts that passed for a pasta parcel, despite the alluring vomitty smell of the thin yellow plasma it swam in – and the cuttlefish were breaded not battered, chewy as old foreskins and smelt of bins.
"Oh look," said my wife. "There's a QR code on the table that lets you pay and leave without even having to call a waiter."
I did that and we were out in seconds, and we went across the road to Five Guys, where we ate sloppy cheeseburgers and agreed never to speak of this again.
Score: cooking: 0; my table: 0; me: 0; total: 0. Price: I don't know, I just pinged the QR code and ran
Jay Rayner of The Observer delights in the meat-free dishes at Tofu Vegan in London's Islington
The very best dishes here are those that are just themselves. No animal product can improve a slippery and crunchy salad of black cloud ear mushroom with a ballast of salted and sliced fresh red chillies, fronds of coriander and a salty and sour dressing, with a big nutty hit from sesame oil. It is the edible equivalent of cold-water swimming. It makes you feel more alive, which is a serious achievement for a bowl of mushrooms.
Dry-fried green beans with more red chilli and lots of ground and fried garlic has crunch and kick. Cubes of tofu have been deep-fried and come liberally seasoned with salt and Sichuan pepper, alongside a sweet chilli dipping sauce. Here, tofu really is just a blank canvas for the flavours it carries. But then a lot of these sorts of dishes work that way. I remain sceptical about the idea of vegan faux meats. It has always felt apologetic and unnecessary. Surely plant-based food should be good because of the fact, rather than in spite of it. Still, once you've fired a fusillade of salt, peppercorns and chillies at deep-fried chicken it might as well be tofu.
Which is exactly what happens with a plate of Chongqing "chicken" with red chillies. There are lots of inverted commas on the menu like this, used for "meats" that aren't what they say they are. I have eaten the chicken version of the chilli dish many times. The fact that it's bean curd here, makes very little difference to the absorbing pleasure of it.
Price: starters and dim sum, £5.50-£8.50; large plates, £7.90-£14.80; desserts, £4.80; wines, from £18.50
David Ellis thinks Café Cecilia in London's Hackney might just be the next "it" place
The oft-changing menu is affably easy to follow ("Rabbit Pasta"), and given to a kind of nursery-rhyme poetry ("Beetroots, Their Tops and Ricotta").
For the allotment illiterate, the tops of beetroots are stems. Here, [they] are coiled up under chunks of beetroot oiled and salted, with cratered spoonfuls of ricotta adding creaminess. It is one of those simple dishes that pleases completely.
Wrong-footed by the suggestion that a special of fried eggs on toast, lovingly smothered with mushrooms, was a starter, the rabbit pasta proved too much, which wasn't such a bad thing as the pappardelle had slunk from the water a minute or two early. The fact the rabbit was beautifully done made this irritation seem cruel, a deft mimicry of the way it should have been.
We had better luck with a generous wedge of hake, which had left the pan right on time; the tomatoes it came alongside, reds and greens in lots of yellow oil, were a treat, with a distinctly floral note I loved until I headed to the loo and thought I recognised it in the scent of the handwash. Ah, but it must have been my imagination – that or they really are manically committed to consistency. Still, I thought about that piece of hake all day.
Sometimes friends wonder where the "it" place presently is. I'm not a very "it" person, to tell you the truth of it, but I think Café Cecilia might quietly just be the one.
Price: £125 for a meal for two plus drinks and service
Gaby Soutar finds a mixture of traditional and modern at the Palmerston in Edinburgh
The menu is classic, but with the occasional twist. They set the bar high from the start, when you're presented with thick slabs of their magnificent sourdough, with its nutty crust, and a generous blob of daffodil-yellow, room-temperature butter that glides onto the bread like a silky kimono.
My starter was a matchbox of breadcrumbed pig's head (£7). It was salty and feral, with little gelatinous bits in the meaty mash. This came with a crisp and raw baby turnip, and a blob of herby gribiche sauce, which lifted the protein with a little bit of tang. It was as satisfying as a good scritchetty scratch behind the ear.
We also had the airy and light pickled mackerel (£8). These parallelograms of gently acidic fish came with a crunchy rémoulade, a handful of capers and carrot strips. The roast monkfish (£23) was topped with a bouncy textural crust of toasted spices. It worked beautifully, as did the accompaniments of seaweed butter, baby leeks and smooth skinned and pale Casablanca potatoes.
There's something about the Palmerston that's like a collision between old-fashioned and new-fangled. Their sommelier has a corkscrew tattoo, yet there are eighties-style Gerald Scarfe-ish caricatures on the stairwell. Their name is in classic gilt on the windows and there are bistro- style curved back chairs, yet there's a lucky cat behind the bar. They're big into sauce and butter, cream and pastry, but they don't overlook the veggies.
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