Reviews: Imad's Syrian Kitchen represents 'all the best things', says Jay Rayner, and Giles Coren gets hot under the collar at Humble Chicken

22 June 2021
Reviews: Imad's Syrian Kitchen represents 'all the best things', says Jay Rayner, and Giles Coren gets hot under the collar at Humble Chicken

Imad's Syrian Kitchen in London's Carnaby Street represents "all the best things", writes Jay Rayner in The Observer.

The short wine list, weirdly, is less welcoming price-wise; surely they can find a reasonable red wine to sell for less than £26 or a white for less than £31, currently the opening prices. I hope so. Then again £1 from every bill will be donated to Choose Love. Few dish descriptions will startle anybody reasonably versed in the Middle Eastern repertoire, though they have their own idiosyncrasies. The hummus here is a cheerily rugged and punchy affair, topped with whole chickpeas, micro greens, dribbles of olive oil and the purple promise of sumac. There are warm, pillow-soft rounds of flatbread puffing hot air at you as you tear into them.

His sesame seed-studded falafel, which brought him so much love shortly after he arrived in London, are shaped not as familiar balls, but as thick discs with a hole in the middle. An online search suggests this is specifically Syrian, but please do educate me. The result, of course, is more surface area crunch to spiced interior. More crunch is always a good thing, as are the ribbons of pickled onions with which they are topped and the puddle of tahini beneath. The star dish is the baba ghanoj, the smoky aubergine purée presented in the crisped skin and topped with pomegranate seeds and dribbles of more tahini.

The only duff note is a rocket salad with "noodles" of squeaky halloumi. Turning halloumi into noodles does not stop it being the underachiever of the cheese world. There are cubes of watermelon and a dusting of za'atar, too, but it needs more of a dressing to get it moving.

From the other side of the menu we have chargrilled and crisp-skinned chicken thighs, on a tomatoey mess of bulgur wheat alongside a chilli sauce that creeps in quietly then slaps you cheerily round the face. Because this kitchen roasts aubergine so well we have more of them filled with spiced minced lamb, on a bed of torn, crisped flatbread designed to soak up the juices. At the end there are squares of their own dense baklava with toffeed filo pastry, plus rounds of dense pistachio ice-cream, wearing a bonnet of candy floss. Alarnab delivers this himself. He tells me it is a Damascene speciality. It is, as the best desserts are, a childish delight.

Price: small plates, £5.50-£8; large plates, £9-£15; desserts, £5-£6; wine, from £26 a bottle

The Times' Giles Coren gets hot under the collar at Humble Chicken, Angelo Sato's yakitori grill in London's Soho.

Humble Chicken
Humble Chicken

All the seating is round the bar – this was once the original Barrafina – and our server was a handsome (but not life-changing) young Japanese guy in a full-face visor like a fencer's mask that perched annoyingly (for him) on his nose, and made his voice somewhat nasal, except when he lifted it a little to allow himself to breathe.

We ordered a couple of the "ocean" dishes to start, postmodern raw mackerel and tuna arrangements that looked very pretty, came on a little chilly and were only really a precursor to the chicken gang bang ahead, and then the first half of 20-odd yakitori options, through which we would plough without missing a beat.

We started off with two skewers each of the skin (£3/skewer), the rib (£2.70), the meatball (£4.50), the neck (£3), the tail (£3), the achilles (£4) and the mixed offal (£2.50), which was heart and liver, I think, plus a section of what might have been windpipe that Angelo described with some lucid stroking of his own beautiful throat that caused Esther some difficulty. And everything was lustrous and glossy, bold and full-flavoured and prettily plated with a splash of colour from a leaf or a powder, a fruit or a sauce.

It makes little odds to tell you that what came next were skewers of the knee and cartilage (£2.70), wing (£3), oyster (£3.50), liver (£3), fillet (£3.20) and shoulder (£3). All I can say is that, as you'd expect in a sweep through an entire chicken, there were sweet, fatty moments and crisp, crackly moments, salty moments and blander moments, chewy moments and round, crunchy, cartilaginous moments. Each skewer had a pickle or citrus element to sharpen its focus. Or a stripe of mustard or wasabi. An egg yolk to dip, prosaic chive or minty shiso. It's beer food. Izakaya snacks. Pub grub. And bloody good. Proper chickens too: slow-grown, free-range birds from Sutton Hoo – which is always important but doubly so when you're eating into the very depths of each beast.

Score: 8 (Yakitori 7, Cheesecake 8, Beefcake 9)

The Telegraph's William Sitwell says that with a bit of fine tuning, Cinder in London's Belsize Park will be "a very nice restaurant"

Spotting the ‘nibbles' section at the top, we asked for some flatbreads along with our wine order so we'd be ahead of the game. But they didn't turn up with the wine, or the first, second or third plate, and only then came after a nudge.

It wasn't catastrophic, but eating wilted baby gem leaves with pickled red onions and a creamy dressing and no sign of the promised croutons did make me feel a little naked. Maybe it's the Viking in me or the medieval peasant, but my gnashers need bread with soggy lettuce.

There was more wetness with a plate of sea bass ceviche, which swam in green sauce. I loved it: fresh, quenching and delightful with sprigs of coriander. Although the flatbreads wouldn't have matched it even if they had arrived, and I reckoned the dish would have made better sense coming before the lettuce.

Finally, the crinkled flatbreads arrived with a silky-smooth tahini sauce laced with garlic. I loved it, in a half-made hummus sort of way – a bit like getting your cake-eating pleasure from licking the bowl of the pre-cooked mixture. Then came the softest, most tender, most sublime charred chicken thighs, which should serve as a compulsory model for all British barbecuing offenders. Alongside was a chimichurri sauce so good that we gorged on it and asked for more. There was then a plate of triple-cooked new potatoes, whose generous size, however well cooked, seemed out of kilter with the other dishes.

Rating: 3/5

The Guardian's Grace Dent struggles to stay positive about Bar des Prés in London's Mayfair

Bar de Prés
Bar de Prés

The service is that attentive, smiley, full-eye-contact type; at times, there were as many as four front-of-house staff around me at once, like a barber's shop quartet, smiling and telling me how wonderful everything is at Bar des Prés, to the point where I began to wonder if I was being softened up to join [chef Cyril Lignac's] cult. Bar des Prés is actually a beautifully staffed, well-run joint with so much toilet paper I could have made a nest.

Its main problem is that it is also a lavishly funded, Franco-east Asian restaurant that began life in Paris and is headed up by a chef who has been called the French Jamie Oliver (but who is largely unrecognisable over here). The few French-ish items on the menu are many levels of curious. Take "spicy prawn, cos lettuce, sesame seeds": a bowl of generously dressed, one-note leaves in a sesame oily dressing and a blink-and-you'll-miss-them garnish of chopped, crisp-coated prawns.

Or the duo of excessively sweet slider-style lobster rolls, or those vanilla potatoes that tasted like when your mum bought you a Mr Whippy and you kept hold of it for a bit too long and it dripped warmly down your hand. For the first time since the pandemic, I am openly narked about a not-very-good restaurant.

Price: From about £60 a head, plus drinks and service

David Ellis of the Evening Standard is full of praise for Korean bar Hongdae Pocha in London's Soho

With no suggestion for how much or how little to choose we – fools, both – trusted our hunger and were allowed to over-order with abandon. After a yellow brick road of corn covered with mouth-scalding cheese, the curtain rose on the fun.

Soon a plate of dak-ttongjip brought chicken gizzards flashed in oil and rolled in with soft, browned onions, rough chunks of pepper and finely sliced potato, all of it shining from the stir-fry. The flavour, of the darkest of dark chicken meat, is a restorative one, all iron and goodness.

It appeared most of the sea snails intended for [a gol-bang-e muchim] dish had actually hung back in the Atlantic, but the sauce, gochujang we reckoned, was a flaming hit of chilli-heat, a brazen booster with an alluring sweet touch.

All this and the beers eventually disappeared, nonsense talk taking over. At the end, seated under the corrugated roof, a girl turned from her table to ours, poured out shots and told us about her time in Korea.

That's pub life. We left then, regretting our good sense, while Sarah and her friends were set to do the same as the rest of the bubbling, ebullient crowd: stay late, be silly, and sink the stress of the last year with soju. They couldn't have picked a better place.

Price: meal for two with drinks, about £50

The Sunday Times' Marina O'Loughlin can't head to France so she reviews Saint Jacques restaurant and Frank's bar in London for a passport-free Francophile experience

I've written about Maison François before, so we won't linger. Even though I want to – over the pâté en croûte, with its crisp pastry and layer of vinous jelly, the pearly halibut and its buttery sauce laced with fat, lewd mussels, its soupe à l'oignon balancing cod and pig's trotter. And – dear Lord – the dessert trolley, a thing of architecture and magic, its drawers sliding open to reveal layer upon layer of macarons, cannelés and shards of nut-studded chocolate florentines and truffles, like God's own selection box.

Early dinner allows for, well, supper. Aka another dinner. I'm ending my holiday with some utter decadence back in Duke Street, where the super-chic Frank's lives underneath Maison François.

The staff here have got hold of my identity and keep using my name like a diss – "Your favourite drink, Marina"; "How do you like the jambon de Bigorre, Marina?"; "We are giving you free bread, Marina" – something that's the antithesis of hospitality and makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. Such a pity, as I'd had it earmarked as a subterranean haven of grown-ups and air conditioning rather than somewhere to feel jangled and uncool. It doesn't stop the petals of plush cured ham from being perfection when laden onto the free bread and too much butter; or halt the oily punch of salt cod brandade; or get in the way (much) of fabulous, crisp little croquettes stuffed with choucroute and dots of smoky ham on puddles of aïoli.

Price: £118 for two including 12.5% service charge

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