Reviews: Jay Rayner finds Wen's in Leeds a 'fabulous disgrace', while Tom Barker Bowles thinks Ariana II is Kabul come to Kilburn

29 September 2020
Reviews: Jay Rayner finds Wen's in Leeds a 'fabulous disgrace', while Tom Barker Bowles thinks Ariana II is Kabul come to Kilburn

The Observer's Jay Rayner visits Leeds and discovers ‘a fabulous disgrace' at Wen's

[There is] a salad of julienned potato, cooked so it still has bite, then dressed with enthusiastic glugs of chilli oil. I see it on menus rarely and have to order it when I do, because it is unlike any other potato dish I have ever come across, in any culinary tradition. It manages to be both a warm hug and a cheery slap around the chops at the same time.

A whole seabass arrives on a classic, gold-rimmed plate, of a sort that Alan Bennett would have recalled a relative in Leeds keeping on the cabinet in the front parlour for best. The substantial fish lies in a bold, deep sauce of minced pork and chilli, which is an unapologetic Trumpian orange. The white flesh falls away from the bone with a nudge so that it looks like a tan line against the mess of that chilli.

Then there's "crispy sliced lean pork in special made sweet and sour sauce". The specialness is not so much in the sauce, which is basically a lightly spiced syrup. It lies in the whole outrageous, roaring, blistered and curled confection. Thin slices of pork have been thickly battered and deep-fried until bubbled and glass-like, then drenched in the caramel. When it arrives, we can still hear it fizzing and crackling. Oh lordy. There's no point pretending. This dish is built on the infantilising qualities that fast-food corporations have made billions from: deep-frying, sugar, carb-rich batter, sugar, a surfeit of protein and sugar. It's an utter, shocking disgrace. It is also fabulous. I suspect you knew that.

Price: small plates, £4.40-£8.80; mains, £8.90-£15.80; desserts, £3.80-£4.20


Tom Barker Bowles of The Mail on Sunday thinks Ariana II is Kabul come to London's Kilburn

It's not often you find an offshoot of a Manhattan restaurant on Kilburn High Road. But Ariana II, not so much a sequel as transatlantic sibling, has been on this sootily urban Northwest London thoroughfare for over a decade. And you wouldn't want it anywhere else.

Because this is as much local hero as it is Afghani stalwart, the sort of place that feeds expats, locals and novices (including me) with equal delight. I'm here on the recommendation of Hamid, a charming Afghani taxi driver, who hollered its praises.

Inside, the lights are bright, the tables rammed, and the atmosphere thick enough to smear on fresh baked bread. Service is brisk but warm, and we leave ordering to our waitress. "Aushak," she smiles, putting down a huge plate of dumplings, stuffed with spiced leeks and lavished with a minced lamb sauce, heavy on the cumin, with chickpeas and lashings of yogurt. The pastry is delicate, the flavours subtle and elegant. My endless quest for new forms of dumpling has found a new star.

Hot, fluffy naan arrives with baudinjan buranee, a sort of soft aubergine mush with a hint of chilli and a pert acidity, while kadoo buranee, vivid orange, sees mashed pumpkin crisscrossed with more fresh yogurt. There's lightness and litheness to both dishes, a subtle, delicate spicing that quietly thrills.

Kabuli palaw is basmati at its best, each glistening, luscious grain rolling lasciviously across the tongue. Another night, another revelation. Kabul comes to Kilburn. And I learn a little bit more.

Price: around £18 per person

Ariana II
Ariana II

Jimi Famurewa of the London Evening Standard says Chuku's in London's Tottenham is "a rousing expression of cultural pride"

A log-pile of cassava fries came trickled with a nicely rowdy fried pepper sauce; adalu (stewed beans) balanced subtle nuttiness with a mellow bloom of spice; dodo brought soft-fried plantain, smartly flecked in coconut; and the caramel kuli kuli chicken wings – plump, hot and bound in a dense, dark candied glaze that brought to mind a kind of carnivorous toffee apple – were revelatory.

But it's the egusi bowl that I'm in complete awe of: a striking tricolore of spinach, tomato and egusi (melon seed) stews studded with creamy pounded yam dumplings and balancing aesthetic elegance with a fireworks display of deftly conjured flavour. If you order one per person I can guarantee it still won't be enough.

Not everything else sparkled (the signature jollof quinoa struck me as a strangely dry, needless reboot of the unimprovable rice-based original; plantain waffles were limp and highly skippable) but it truly didn't matter. The twin hit of well-made, fruit-forward cocktails and vigorously applied Scotch bonnet had given us all a dopamine buzz. (Side note: I can confirm that the chilli sweats is not a great look at a time when people are wary of the feverish.)

Price: £121 for four


Fiona Duncan of The Daily Telegraph finds Birch in Hertfordshire is well on its way to achieving festival vibes

Well, I think I can safely say that my visit to just-opened Birch has provided me with not one, but a panoply of firsts. The first hotel I've ever reviewed where I made a bird box before going to my room. The first country house hotel where I've really, truly felt my age (about 100). The first hotel where the only way you can tell the staff from the guests is that the staff are even scruffier.

If it doesn't feel quite like a festival yet, it's certainly getting there, with a wide programme of classes, pop-up mobile food vans, bookable barbecue pits, people strumming guitars, kids, dogs, yoga sessions on the lawn and twenty- and thirtysomething guests of every colour, creed and orientation.

Indeed. Despite being a centenarian, I had a good time and made friends too. I did a "rave" spin class (too noisy for the old girl), "wild" yoga, glass blowing with Phoebe Stubbs (brilliant) and gong bath meditation (soothing). No time for pottery, bread making or Bauhaus plate painting, but I did learn about the dark side of farming from in-house farmer Tom Morphew.

And I ate very well, thanks to chef Robin Gill, whose food I have always enjoyed and who oversees Birch's buzzing, elegant restaurant, the Zebra Riding Club, with its earthy, sensible set menu of small dishes.

Price: double rooms from £150 per night, excluding breakfast; three-night weekend, £300


The Sunday Times'Marina O'Loughlin enjoys Stevie Parle's Flora at Joy in London's Notting Hill, despite the rain

There's a chilled, cherry-studded soup that delivers a reinvention of Spanish ajo blanco, creamy with almonds and the tiniest suggestion of allium, cool and haunting and seductive, the screen goddess who doesn't have to try too hard. Clams and guanciale are dizzyingly, face-planted-in-bowl good.

Not everything is an unalloyed joy – the crudités that come with a pleasingly aggressive smoked roe dip look less prepared and more like a quick supermarket sweep around the food store; whole tomatillos and peppers lose their appeal pretty rapidly. I think they're doing that thing of letting fine produce tell its own story, which works beautifully with a bowl of velvety borlotti beans scented by sage, served just in their own starchy juices; but the sexily billed "new potatoes and smoked butter" are a bit disappointing.

Parle says they intend to keep trading until the end of the year, "with heated outdoor structures that Tom [Dixon] has welded – and maybe even a little dining room floating on the canal". He plans to extend the shop element – "maybe even half-prepped Christmas dinners".

Flora at Joy isn't just a maybe-pop-up, maybe-more-permanent restaurant, its banks of produce a luxurious reflection of the goods outside the all-night grocer around the corner. It's a statement of bullishness, a bravura creative move, a testament to the indefatigable nature of the hospitality industry.

Price: £142 for two

Flora at Joy
Flora at Joy

The Daily Telegraph's Hilary Armstrong finds a restaurant that ‘shimmers with the promise of hedonism' at Louie in London's Covent Garden

Louie, lovely Louie, was not intended for such trying times. It was meant to launch in March, a pleasure palace for the social set – a little bit New Orleans, a little bit New York – with live music, Creole food, a bar on every floor, a roof terrace and a 2am late licence (a fat lot of good that is).

We went one week prior to the curfew announcement, when a 7pm reservation saw us shuffling home around 10pm, just as the lights went down and the volume up. The party, even abiding by the rule of six, would continue into the early hours.

[Food is] contemporary American cuisine by Mississippi-born Slade Rushing, executive chef for five years at New Orleans institution Brennan's. Our waiter guides us towards the classics-with-a-twist at the upper end of the menu – steak tartare with wasabi; foie gras terrine with satsuma marmalade – but we resist.

We're here for a taste of the Big Easy. It comes in the dainty, deconstructed form of oysters ‘Rockefeller', delicately poached and bathed in foaming butter; and a signature gumbo with a deep, dark reduced sauce and a silver thimble of delicious crab rice on the side.

Beetroot, buttermilk and Roquefort salad is excellent; we'll return for the hearts of palm with citrus vinaigrette, and the Caesar with smoked oyster. Rushing's sauces are something else too. How we'd have loved some bread, if only to mop up what was left of our sweet potato truffle gratin, a not-to-be-missed dish.

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