Reviews: Jay Rayner delights in solid ingredients given Portuguese flair at Casa Madeira in London

24 May 2021
Reviews: Jay Rayner delights in solid ingredients given Portuguese flair at Casa Madeira in London

Jay Rayner of The Observer delights in solid ingredients given Portuguese flair at Casa Madeira in London

Here I am at last, on the outside terrace at Casa Madeira. The food, when it arrives, is everything. I feel foolish for not having been here before. Rugged bread arrives with little foil-lidded pots of a salty sardine or mackerel pâté. We all dig in. I remind the other elders at the table that it's a snap for the fish paste of our youth. We conclude that's why we like it.

We place an order of dishes to share. Thick lengths of taut-skinned chorizo arrive perched in custom-designed terracotta dishes with a well of booze at the bottom to be ignited. Broad blue flames gutter and spin for a good few minutes at the end of the table. It lends hunks of the chorizo a welcome char and splits the skin so the juices run. We have a deep bowl of thumbnail-sized white clams, in a garlicky broth which demands to be finished off by the bread, and grilled prawns which have been split open and generously smothered with piri piri sauce.

There is very little in the way of flummery coming out of that kitchen. It is solid ingredients, treated with due care and attention. There are mixed grills, with chicken and pork escalopes, a little more chorizo and the stars of the show, expertly trimmed lamb chops. We have grilled sardines, their silvery skins blistered and curled, so that the flesh comes away from the bone, and a stew of pork with more clams, which provides further opportunities for bread moppage. Chips are hot and crisp. Salads are fresh and vinegary.

We finish, of course, with a pastel de nata each and they are still warm, so everything is perfect. The pastry flakes down our coats. The sweet, set custard coats our mouths. Prices are reasonable and in places extraordinary. The specials blackboard offers a whole turbot for three or four people for £55. I'm told it needs to be sold today and that normally it would be around £75. I tell him about the £135 at Brat at Climpson's Arch. He laughs. "We couldn't charge that here," he says. I'm sure they couldn't. That's not a complaint.

Price: starters, £4-£9.50; mains, £7.50-£20.50; pastel de nata, £1.50. Wines, from £14.99

The Times' Giles Coren struggles to describe the Michelin-style Mexican cuisine at Kol in Marylebone, but loves it nonetheless

In a little brown hand-turned bowl of shimmering Mexicanity there was a shot of seaweed and chilli broth that was nourishing and darkly complex, and then its polar gustatory opposite: a palm-sized chalupa (a kind of flat, baked, unfolded taco, concave as a saucer) topped with the freshest, brightest Cornish crab with a pistachio mole, a blob of fermented gooseberry, a couple of microherbs and scatter of yellow flowers and, for a two-bite cocktail snack, it was all quite heavenly.

[Chef-patron] Santiago Lastra is all about the finest British seasonal ingredients presented in traditional Mexican arrangements with supermodern Michelin three-star technique. Only his chocolate, chilli and corn are imported from Mexico (and I guess those pistachios aren't foraged on the banks of the A40 either) where he focuses on small-scale growers of heritage varieties rather than your big exploiters of supercharged GM grain strands who rape the planet and impoverish the people in the name of the bogroll-tasting cheapo corn wraps you lob in the basket at Lidl for a Mexican Nite that, thank God, never ends up happening.

Next up was a sort of ceviche of kohlrabi (you'll notice a lot of sort ofs and kindas in this review because it's all fairly hard to describe – I don't know all that much about Mexican cooking and, if I did, it would all be getting turned upside down by Santiago's modernisations anyway) that was a little cold and bloodless for my liking.

But then, oh my word, heat and blood in abundance with a soft taco full of the fat body meat of a Scottish langoustine with smoked chilli and sea buckthorn (a favourite ingredient of Noma's René Redzepi). With it, he proffered a small clay pot containing the front end of the langoustine, claws reaching skywards for a rescue that isn't going to come, whose brains we were invited to squeeze from its head over the steaming taco before folding and scoffing, and did, and were delighted. You could not ask a shellfish to give more than this one had.

Score: cooking, 8/10; sourcing, 9/10; ideas, 9/10; total: 8.67/10. Price: six-course menu, £70

The Guardian's Grace Dent samples some "unforgettable" food by a chef who is not prepared to compromise at the Light Bar in London

The Light Bar's menu is part Mad Hatter's Tea Party, part Japanese yōshoku spot. Fried braised beef comes in a bun and smothered in a chocolate-laced barbecue sauce – not too chocolatey, but certainly there. And if that sounds a bit too Letitia Cropley on The Vicar of Dibley, then perhaps the Light Bar isn't for you. Chunky robata monkfish skewers are marinaded in black sesame, while a Swaledale chicken skewer is paired with preserved Tropea onion.

Here is a chef who refuses to be bland, and who bombards his diners with flavour; sometimes delicious, sometimes offputting, but never forgettable. They're not here to serve cosy burgers, eggs on muffins and bottomless Prosecco brunches. In fact, this is exactly the Shoreditch edge that winds up the rest of the country. Still alive, still kicking, and now served with chocolate barbecue sauce.

The highlight of lunch turned out to be a fat, sugary, fresh doughnut: a plump, sugared one filled with rhubarb and miso ice-cream, then made pretty with sesame-flavoured dust; it was like a walk along Blackpool front in the 1980s, but with bells on.

The "Family" cocktail is a chic, neat margarita made with tequila, peach, lime, chilli and ginger ale. I raised one, or more like three, to a new era of post-pandemic Shoreditch. Still alive, still keeping it foolish.

Price: three-course meal, from £30, plus drinks and service

William Sitwell of The Telegraph warms up with mussels from the Josper at the Farmers Arms in Somerset

It was 7.45pm somewhere in Somerset. The Farmers Arms is on the edge of the little village of Combe Florey, famous as the home of the writer Evelyn Waugh.

I didn't enter the Farmers Arms but it's a large white building covered in dark thatch. The thatch caught fire a few years back and the place was fairly devastated.

But the outdoors has a sort of beach and jungle feel with its little huts and mobile bar. We sipped a delicious Italian Gavi and shared a competent home-made Scotch egg as a snack. The sausage meat was tender, the egg just the right measure of slight runniness and, in fact, it made a nice change from all those other Scotch eggs gastropubs serve, that are laced with black pudding, or haggis and other louche seasonings. My wife Emily then had a fabulous dish of thin asparagus, charred and with a crumbed duck egg on top.

Hearing of the chef's Josper charcoal oven, I went for the mussels from the specials menu, which were cooked in it. This being a chilly, wet night I leapt on the creamy sauce, loving every rich and gorgeous spoonful, mopping it up with some delicious, thick and crunchy bread.

Next up was a fine piece of pork belly, charred and melting with rich mash and a rather original, crunchy, fresh fennel and radish salad. Emily's linguine with crayfish was also good, if rather too slanted towards crayfish on the crayfish/pasta ratio scale.

Price: three courses for two excluding drinks and service, £60

Jimi Famurewa of the London Evening Standard is impressed by the combination of simplicity and big flavours at Ombra in Hackney

Though head chef Mitshel Ibrahim is Milanese by birth and Ombra's early conceptual DNA was Venetian (the name "ombra" itself being Veneto slang for those dinky, Polpo-grade glasses of wine), these days its menu ranges freely across Italy's regions. And so, from a fryer-heavy cicchetti section you get a glistening, heat-crinkled pile of friggitelli peppers. There is a whole-fried Roman-style artichoke – bronzed and burnished like something snapped off an antique armoire – that's all brittle, lacquered exterior leaves and enthralling gooey centre. And then, most pressingly, there is the Emilian gnocco fritto: a pillow-shaped, fried puff of lard-enriched pastry, piled with ragged slices of peppery housemade speck. It's a riveting, filthy push-pull of flaking, slightly sweet dough and piercingly savoury pork.

Does the saltiness of some of these dishes maybe graze the outer edge of what is bearable? Possibly. But the intensity of the flavouring at Ombra feels very much a feature rather than a bug. Ibrahim's genius is to create ostensibly simple dishes that conceal exacting chef's technique and dumbfounding, almost confrontationally vivid flavours.

Still, if there is a downside to the lucid elegance of the earlier cicchetti and antipasti then it is that the pasta and secondi did not, to my mind, quite reach the same heights.

Price: meal for two, around £130

Gaby Soutar of The Scotsman swoons over perfect pasta and a rum baba that is the cherry on the top of the cake that is Osteria dei Sapori in Edinburgh

This place is owned by Gabriele D'agostino and chef Cristiano Guarnacci, who "want to invite you to come together and enjoy traditional cucina Italiana" in their neutrally decorated and family-friendly space.

Their pasta course outshone everything. We'd gone for the panciotti di pare (£14.50) – five perfect bolsters of yolky coloured pasta, each stuffed with mashed king prawn and scallop, and served with another single king prawn – head and tail still on, but arms and trousers off. There were also sweet datterino tomatoes, a little chilli and pencil-shaving-sized shards of crispy Parma ham, all in a bisque-y sauce that tasted like a wild swimming session.

We'd gone for a second fishy main – the merluzzo dell' Osteria (£17.50). It featured a good chunk of pan-fried cod, as well a rather autumnal "butternut squash velvet", and some bronzed crispy leeks.

As we were reviewing under tier three, I thought a pudding of rum baba (£6.50) might be a good way to Trojan horse a little drinkie-poo. However, this spongy and juicy guy was just gently boozy and mainly saturated with syrup. It came with two beautiful and glossy Amarena cherries pressed into its middle, like rubies in a crown. They could have given me a whole jar of those and I'd be happy.

Price: lunch for two, excluding drinks, £60.80. Score: food, 7.5/10; ambience, 7.5/10; total: 15/20

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