‘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

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - THE CUT / TABLE TALK - Michael Dea­con Mag­pie 10 Hed­don Street Lon­don W1B 4BX 020-7287 8592 mag­pie-lon­don.com

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

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