Jay Rayner, The Guardian, June 15, 2015
1 Leicester Street, London WC2 (020 3696 6460). Meal for two, including drinks and service: £120
How can an entire street corner lose its way? How can it simply stop being a place anyone wants to visit and become instead the subject only of deep sighs and shrugs? For decades the corner of Leicester and Lisle Streets on the southern edge of London’s Chinatown was definitely a place people frequented – until they didn’t. It was occupied by a legendary fish restaurant called Manzi’s, with gingham tablecloths and swollen plaits of bread made of plastic hanging over the bar. You went there for oysters and Dover sole, and for Italian waiters straight out of central casting. They did stewed eels with mash, and something worrying called curried halibut and a strawberry tart everyone swore by. Manzi’s was a great London restaurant when the city didn’t have enough of them.
In 2007 it went dark. London no longer thought it needed Manzi’s. Perhaps it didn’t. The building was sold to Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver of Clerkenwell’s St John, who took a long time converting it into a boutique hotel. It had their customary white abattoir chic, and a restaurant that grilled the inner valves and ducts of animals and did fabulous bronzed pies that scared diners from Surrey. But not enough people wanted to sleep in a room that looked like somewhere you could butcher a pig, or eat great pies and valves and ducts, however brilliantly bronzed and grilled, and the cost of delayed renovation meant they were always playing financial catch-up.
It was sold to the Singapore-based hotel group behind the Town Hall Hotel in Bethnal Green. They softened the whiteness of the dining room by adding gunmetal grey panelling, and kept the St John-style menu under the same chef, Tom Harris, but still no one really wanted to come, despite the food being very good. I like a grilled duck, me. So now it has been sold on again to become Leicester House with yet another restaurant, this time serving “French Vietnamese” food. And I’m afraid I’m still not convinced anyone will have much of a need to come to this London street corner. Or, if they do, it will be because they don’t know any better.
‘The latest annoying piece of menu cobblers’: bone broth. Photograph: Sophia Evans for The Observer
Think of this review as a companion to last week’s, where I scratched my head over Alan Yau’s glossy take on the eclectic Chinatown Chinese restaurant and then concluded it provided an interesting one-stop shop. This one sits on the other edge of Chinatown, offering something nobody needs: a limp, vapid, emasculated take on the Vietnamese repertoire. Somewhere in this hotel, perhaps locked away in a safe, must lie the testicles of an entire culinary tradition. It is Vietnamese food for people who wouldn’t like real Vietnamese food, and who want to drink cloudy “natural” prosecco while not eating it. There are warning signs: the place settings of heavy-handled knives and forks, rather than chopsticks which are never offered; the lack of chilli sauces on the tables, or any sauces at all for that matter.
Perhaps the very notion should have been enough to sound the alarms. Vietnamese food has been strongly influenced by French colonialism, hence the famed bánh mì, a baguette sandwich, only using a lighter bread than found in the occupying homeland. The idea of French Vietnamese food feels tautological. Then you see the menu. They’ve put duck liver parfait in with the dry pork belly in their bánh mì, made with a heavy loaf, to produce something dense and cloying. They’ve also added a very short cheese and charcuterie list. Including Italian ham. I’m sorry, but now you’ve lost me.
‘Big tiger prawns under a deep leaf fall of fresh green herbs and crushed peanuts.’ Photograph: Sophia Evans for The Observer
The problem here is not clumsiness. They do a fair job of grilling some big tiger prawns and then offer them up under a deep leaf fall of fresh green herbs and crushed peanuts. A salad of blackened squid definitely contains squid that has been blackened. Taken alone, these dishes, and others like them, are fine without being enlivening or astonishing. But taken together it becomes a dull parade. It is all one note, a whack of sugar and salt and absolutely no fire and spice. Smoked ribs are long braised, not very smoky and again taste of sugar and salt. Some of the pricing is odd. A sizable portion of the ribs is £7.50. One limp, boned-out quail is £16.50. The latter is advertised as coming with salt, lime and ginger, which sounds fresh and thrilling. If only. Green papaya, daikon and cashew slaw is crunchy enough if underpowered. Steamed ong choi with fried garlic is very salty. Where is the intensity, the brazenness?
Naturally, being a hip new London restaurant, they serve a “bone broth”, which is the latest annoying piece of menu cobblers. It’s a roasted bone-based stock, simmered for 12 hours. Or stock, as it’s known, but you try flogging a bowl of that for big money. (Lots of chefs, who have no medical training and who gained their nutritional knowledge from scrolling through Reddit, love making health claims for bone broth. Unsurprisingly they don’t stand up to examination. For example, ingesting collagen that’s been cooked for 12 hours will not prove beneficial for bone growth, however much you close your eyes and whisper, “I wish, I wish, I wish.”) The bone broth here, with strands of long-braised pork collar and tightly bound crab wonton, is actually the best hit of the salt and sweet on the menu, but £12.50 is an awful lot to pay for a bowl of stock with stuff in it.
‘What depresses me most is some people might think this represents Vietnamese food’: salt-baked pineapple. Photograph: Sophia Evans for The Observer
What depresses me most is some people might think this represents Vietnamese food; that, in being served in this square, wood-panelled room with the comfy leather chairs and the fancy wine list, it is some higher expression of the tradition. It really isn’t. Desserts of a chocolate pot, topped with nitro-gunned cream, a few passable vanilla doughnuts and some salt-baked pineapple don’t help the cause any either.
When we arrived at Leicester House I was greeted by a young very friendly chap who had served me here when it was both the St John Hotel and its successor. I can see why he has been kept on. He is charming and efficient without being intrusive, and makes the steely dining room a pleasant enough place in which to pass the time. As we leave, I joke that I’ll see him when the restaurant launches its next incarnation. He sighs deeply, as if to say he probably will. This once-famous, now-forgotten Chinatown corner is, I fear, still not ready for a glorious return to the limelight.
Jay’s news bites
■ A few days later, for real Vietnamese food I went to Cay Tre on Soho’s Dean Street. There was a papaya salad with fire and flash, and summer rolls full of fresh prawn and crunchy rice noodle. There was catfish in caramelised anchovy sauce, pork belly stewed in coconut milk and seared mustard greens with chilli. It’s half the price and twice the flavour (vietnamesekitchen.co.uk)
■ Congratulations to Chris Honor of Chris Kitch, the little deli-café in London’s Muswell Hill, on the publication of his cookbook Big Flavours From a Small Kitchen written with Laura Washburn Hutton. Think big-fisted salads, robust soups and terrific sweet and savoury bakes (chriskitch.com)
■ Meanwhile, Phaidon has some thrilling books coming up for autumn. There’s Toast at a mere £14.95. Apparently, ‘Toast features 50 seasonal recipes for artisanal toast that will appeal to home cooks of all levels.’ Better still there’s Breakfast and a Dog in which food stylist Natsuko Kuwahara captures ‘the moment she serves breakfast under the watchful eye of her dog’. How have we managed without these? (phaidon.com)
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by Jay Rayner from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.