‘Between the two of us, we ate no fewer than 10 small plates – plus three full-size mains and two desserts’
With no menu, adventurous taste buds and an acute sense of smell are required
THERE ARE MANY differences between critics and sensible human beings, but the main one is this. Critics are fixated, above all else, with novelty.
It’s the same in every field of creativity: books, music, film, theatre, painting. In the eyes of critics, the highest accolade they can bestow is to call a work original – or groundbreaking, bold, radical, seminal, revolutionary. To them, it’s more important for a book to be original than readable. More important for music to be original than tuneful. More important for a play to be original than enjoyable. Novelty trumps all. Pleasure is a lesser concern.
There are two reasons for this. First, insecurity. A critic is anxious about dismissing a work that is experimental for fear of how he’ll look to his fellow critics. He’ll look stuffy, provincial, dim. He’ll look as if he doesn’t get it. He has to show them that he’s intelligent enough to understand and appreciate what the artist, this subversive innovator, this trailblazing auteur, is doing.
The second reason is just as crucial. Boredom. Think of a teacher marking a stack of essays from an exam in English literature. In essay after essay, the same topics recur. An exhausting majority of students have written about the set tex ts. Read in isolation, their essays might be perfectly well-written – but read one after the other, they start to seem drainingly uninspired. So a student who writes about an unusual topic – about novels, plays or poems that weren’t even taught on the course –
Most of the food was terrific. Essentially, it was dim sum, but with all kinds of influences
may get a higher mark than those who wrote about the set texts, even if his essay is inferior. The marker is simply relieved by the change of scene.
That’s what critics are like. Sooner or later, they run out of things to say about the conventional. Hey ho, another ro manti c c o me d y. Yawn, a noth e r detective thriller. So when something unusual turns up, they embrace it with desperate gratitude. What the paying customer is likely to make of it is irrelevant. What matters is, it ’s given the critic something new to write about. The artist has done the critic a favour – and, more often than not, can expect to be rewarded.
But of course, the above doesn’t apply only to critics of books, music and the rest. It applies to restaurant critics too. And so when I go to review a restaurant that’s in some way out of the ordinary, and decide that I like it, I have to ask myself: do I, though? Am I genuinely enjoying myself ? Honestly? Or am I just grateful to the chef because he’s made my job easier?
This week’s restaurant, Magpie, in London, is out of the ordinary. Not groundbreaking, seminal or revolutionary, but at any rate a change of pace for the jaded reviewer. For one thing, it has no menu. All you do is enter, sit, and wait. Moments later, a waiter will appear with a couple of small readymade dishes. Fancy one? Then start eating. Don’t fancy one? No problem. Here comes a waiter with some different dishes. And now here comes another.
Unusual. But also cunning. Because it’s so hard to say no. When each dish is dangled under your nose, piping hot and smelling gorgeous, you can’t help wanting to try it. And so you end up eating – and paying for – more than you would have if you’d ordered from a menu. I went to Magpie with a friend. Between us, we ate no fewer than 10 small plates – plus three full-size mains and two desserts.
You couldn’t blame us, though. Most of the food was terrific. Essentially, it was dim sum, but with all kinds of ingredients and influences, not just Chinese. We had a glisteningly fresh caesar salad with gobbets of smoked eel, crisp as croutons. We had gorgeous prawn toast: hot, fat and decadent. We had pici: thick wriggling worms of pasta, slathered with cheese sauce, roughened up with kale and dusted with, of all things, ground coffee. We had pickled vegetables, tofu and fried noodles, stuffed in rice paper – a big translucent bag of it, like a spider’s egg sac from a horror film. (I promise it tasted much nicer than it sounds.)
All had one thing in common: intensity. Super-rich, super-strong. And within each dish, so many competing tastes and tex tures. The two dishes I enjoyed least were the least unusual: the lamb neck, and the cod. Next to all the critic-pleasing novelty, they seemed a little bland.
Pudding, however, reminded me that novelty isn’t always good. One pudding was listed as ‘chocolate, sorrel gelato, chartreuse cheesecake, vine leaves’. It looked like a mound of soil dug up by a cat. Tasted like one, too. We als o had the strawberr y panzanella. Normally, panzanella is a type of tomato salad. This was a sweet version, flavoured with candied olives. It tasted, frankly, weird: novelty for novelty ’s sake. And sometimes, even the most adventurous diner longs for a simple, familiar, old-fashioned dessert. In the immortal words of Bill Bryson: ‘The British will let you dazzle them with piddly duxelles of this and fussy little noisettes of that, but don’t f— with their puddings.’
Never mind. Magpie is worth visiting for its small plates alone. And I’d have said that even if I weren’t a critic.
Above Picked vegetable, tofu and fried noodles in rice paper. Below Pici, kimchi buerre blanc, smoked kale crisps and coffee