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