Pro vs punter

Does a reg­u­lar diner reach the same con­clu­sion about a restau­rant as a food pro, who may get spe­cial treat­ment if recog­nised?* Hi­lary Arm­strong and O reader Ser­ena Karp com­pare notes on this open­ing with a quirky ap­proach to ser­vice

Olive - - Contents -

Hi­lary Arm­strong and Ser­ena Karp swap notes on Mag­pie in May­fair, Lon­don

The pro

Hi­lary Arm­strong is a free­lance writer and restau­rant re­viewer based in east Lon­don. She is a reg­u­lar contributor to O. Find her on Twit­ter and In­sta­gram at @hi­larmable.

The punter

Ser­ena Karp lives in Lon­don and her top eat­ing out ex­pe­ri­ence was at The Man Be­hind the Cur­tain in Leeds – par­tic­u­larly the dessert of vi­o­let ice cream, choco­late mousse and crispy rice.

Mag­pie

Af­ter gain­ing a Miche­lin star at their Hack­ney restau­rant, Pid­gin, restau­ra­teurs James Rams­den and Sam Her­lihy have moved into the cen­tre of town with mod­ern Bri­tish cui­sine served from a trol­ley, dim sum style.

The trol­ley weaves its way around the de rigueur room with its in­dus­trial fea­tures and mod­ern fur­nish­ings. Sit on a vel­vet tri­an­gu­lar stool at the con­crete bar, or by the huge land­scape that scales the en­tire back wall next to the small open kitchen.

Choose a cock­tail from the ‘trol­ley’, or pe­ruse the list of James’s care­fully sourced wines, many of which come on tap. Small plates in­clude mack­erel crudo, Viet­namese ter­rine and cele­riac with wa­ter­melon bar­be­cue sauce. For dessert, try choco­late, sor­rel gelato and char­treuse cheese­cake or yo­gurt panna cotta with blow-torched peach and cel­ery sor­bet. mag­pie-lon­don.com

Our pro says…

“We’re re­cal­i­brat­ing the sys­tem,” ex­plains the reser­va­tion­ist, clear as mud, when we rock up for a ‘walk-in’ (they don’t take din­ner reser­va­tions for two), only to find Mag­pie fully booked. A table is se­cured for an hour later, af­ter which ser­vice from the crew of big-hearted hip­sters pro­gresses pretty smoothly. Wine ser­vice gets for­got­ten, how­ever, which is a pity as Mag­pie’s wine edit, like its sib­ling Pid­gin’s, is excellent. * I wasn’t recog­nised.

“Don’t panic,” soothes our server as she in­tro­duces the menu-free con­cept in­volv­ing trol­leys and trays from which we’ll choose our dishes. What those dishes are likely to be, we’re not told. A ne­groni “from the trol­ley” does lit­tle to soothe my nerves, though I ap­pre­ci­ate its note of ap­petite-awak­en­ing szechuan pep­per.

The first plates im­press. Beef tartare with mus­tard, egg yolk emul­sion, ta­leg­gio, truf­fle crisps and cor­ni­chons is a poshed-up Big Mac. Sea trout ‘crudo’ with blue­ber­ries, vi­o­let mus­tard and smoked quinoa is gor­geous. An on-trend as­sort­ment of pick­led veg­eta­bles, puffed rice noo­dles, kale, truf­fle and white onion emul­sion con­cealed be­neath a translu­cent rice pa­per sheet is a riot of tex­tures, not all of them pleasant.

A hot dish ar­rives as we’re start­ing the cold, so we pass. I now won­der if it was the fried coq au vin about which I’ve since heard such raves? I get a rag­ing case of FOMO just think­ing about it. Some dishes ar­rive with a spiel I can’t hear over the mu­sic; oth­ers pass by on trays, but the room’s so dim I can’t see them well enough to want them. I yearn for a menu.

Hap­pily, there is one for a few larger plates. Cod, lo­vage, nori and cu­cum­ber is our safe choice. We’re on riskier ter­rain with pici pasta, kim­chi beurre blanc, smoked kale and cof­fee. It sounds like a hip­ster’s fridge raid and tastes ev­ery bit as so­phis­ti­cated. We fin­ish with a take on ‘pan­zanella’. The sweet juicy strawberries and salty can­died Kala­mata olives play off each other ap­peal­ingly but are let down by bland olive oil ice cream and strange des­ic­cated morsels of brioche.

THE BOT­TOM LINE

Credit to Her­lihy and Rams­den for dar­ing to be dif­fer­ent in the heart of touristville. There’s no rea­son why the trol­ley gim­mick can’t suc­ceed, but the kitchen needs to catch up with the con­cept. To­tal for two, ex­clud­ing ser­vice: £100.50

Our punter says…

Ar­riv­ing early for din­ner dur­ing the open­ing week at Mag­pie al­lowed us to get a table eas­ily and we were warmly wel­comed by the staff, who brought us drinks be­fore show­ing us to our table. The con­cept is sim­i­lar to that of dim sum, in that they bring round a se­lec­tion of dishes that you can either choose or de­cline, staff then mark your choices on a card. The trol­ley con­cept en­cour­aged debate and con­ver­sa­tion be­tween ta­bles, con­tribut­ing to the fun at­mos­phere. Ser­vice was knowl­edge­able and en­thu­si­as­tic, al­though the con­cept could have been more clearly ex­plained

Staff were friendly and ea­ger to ex­plain un­usual in­gre­di­ents (with a menu fea­tur­ing yuzu kosho, ume­boshi dress­ing and pepi­tas, this was nec­es­sary). They also spoke flu­ently about the wine list and rec­om­mended a del­i­cate French rosé that was dry and crisp.

The food was in­no­va­tive and un­usual with nu­mer­ous dif­fer­ent in­gre­di­ents on each plate.

I was con­cerned that it may be slightly too com­pli­cated, but ev­ery dish we had tasted fan­tas­tic. It was great to watch the bri­gade of chefs pre­par­ing dishes in the open kitchen, ad­ding to the buzz of the place and al­low­ing us to watch un­usual flavour com­bi­na­tions coming to­gether in the small plates.

Beef tartare with truf­fle chips and ta­leg­gio emul­sion had a real earth­i­ness and was a high­light, along with the con­trast­ing soft and crunchy tex­tures of rice-pa­per-cov­ered ver­mi­celli with sharp pick­led daikon and truf­fle. We were im­pressed by the veg­gie op­tions, es­pe­cially smoky charred melon with whipped-cream-like bal­samic tofu. Our straw­berry pan­zanella dessert with olive oil ice cream and basil oil was also a stand­out, with crunchy pieces of but­tery brioche.

THE BOT­TOM LINE

Mag­pie feels very much like an east Lon­don hip­ster restau­rant trans­ported to the West End, from the open kitchen to the ex­posed brick and hang­ing light bulb fix­tures. It’s fun and lively and the food is sub­lime. I’d def­i­nitely go back; how­ever, the con­cept of the trol­leys seems un­nec­es­sary – with food this good, the restau­rant can afford to let it speak for it­self with­out hid­ing be­hind gim­micks.

To­tal for two, ex­clud­ing ser­vice: £89

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