Time Out Cops Out
I simply don't understand the adulation directed towards Barrafina, which has recently been crowned by Time Out as the best restaurant in London. I have hopped from Barrasfinas Frith to Adelaide and back again and – the newer incarnation's outrageous lamb's kidneys aside – have tasted nothing to convince me to change my mind. Isn't it all far too expensive for what it is? The tuna tartare, with its sesame and soy sauce and microcoriander, might have been a fun, disruptive dish when it first hit the market, but in a truly poke-full (and Poké-full) 2016, it's hardly resetting the agenda. The stuffed courgette flower is fine, in its cute, lacy, Instagrammable batter, but it's not like combining goat's cheese and honey was ever going to taste bad. The tortilla – lauded by some as the pinnacle of the form – was to me on the boakey side of baveuse: it's never good when your Michelin-starred egg dish comes with a side order of creeping dread that you might spend the next 48 hours on a drip.
Yo, you heard of Abraham Wald? Not a name on most people's lips, but he's the protagonist of one of my favourite true stories. You can read it here, but to cut a short story even shorter: you're sitting in a dusty office in New York during WW2, and halfway across the world, your pilots keep dying. You want to give them better armour, but you can’t give them too much, because then the planes won’t get off the ground. You need to get the quantities just right, which means only armouring the bits of the aircraft that are most vulnerable. So you get someone on the ground to do a survey; they report back that the planes at the base have more bullet holes per square foot on their fuselage and fuel system than anywhere else, overwhelmingly so.
If you’re halfway to bright, you’ll get there far faster than I did. The answer is not to plate the fuselage and fuel system. The planes at the base, with all those bullet holes? They made it home for dinner. Wald’s great insight was to visualise the vast, silent fleet of pilots and aircraft who hadn’t made it back – the ones who might have survived hits to the fuselage but certainly didn’t make it through hits to the engine or propeller. When I first read about it, the implications stopped me dead: how much of our decision-making in life is limited by what scarce information has made it to us (relatively) unscathed? How much do we unwittingly overlook because we don’t even realise we can look for it in the first place?
The parallel with Barrafina – to me at least – is clear. We see the bullet holes, the palpable hits where the reasonably well executed dishes make their way onto the pass. But we're overlooking a whole side of the story: what the restaurant might be. That tuna tartare is absolutely acceptable, as a dish: the fish is fresh, the soy sauce adds salt, the avocado is a nice textural contrast. But take a trip to Cal Pep in Barcelona – such an obvious point of inspiration that you feel you’re in an ethical grey zone alongside the likes of Rocket Internet – and you’ll taste the Waldian version of what this dish should taste like, bursting with richness and minerality. Similarly, the Hart boys’ tomato salad is very pretty but when you compare it to José Pizarro’s across the river you realise how much temperature and seasoning (and is that just a toque of sherry vinegar?) can mute or give fullest expression to even the most impeccable produce. One version of the dish is fine, not actively disappointing, good enough; one is outstanding, quietly life-changing.
The more I look at the Time Out list, the more it seems full of similar places, similar stories of better restaurants forever untold. CoBa, Polpo, Flesh & Buns, Dishoom, Barnyard, Palomar – all have served me staggeringly average food at some point or another, thin anaemic clones of flavours expressed with so much more clarity elsewhere. Let me bat away a couple of your weaker arguments: yes, most of these names are at the cheaper end of the spectrum, but then again so is Bao, which is unimpeachable. Yes, food is sometimes only a small part of the experience of eating away from home; I will grudgingly admit to having enjoyed myself at Polpo (though not when I tucked into their moscardini, which remain the single most disgusting thing I’ve ever eaten). But in broader terms, the argument holds: an attention to detail is contagious – if you don’t have it in the kitchen, you’ll rarely find it front of house.
Maybe it’s harsh to direct this towards a rag whose fortunes are not exactly on the up (do you remember when you actually used to have to pay for it?). I get that lists like this are a bit of a jolly and dubious influences may well be exerted – "may well" is nonsense; they are – but I honestly think there's harm to be done in doing things this way. London is a fantastic food city at the moment, and the litany of buzzy new openings stretches months out. But "buzzy" and "good" aren’t synonyms (insert terrible Samantha from Sex and the City joke here), and I worry all these new places are essentially in the same mould, presenting the same fun enough experience: you can get some OK cocktails, share some OK small plates meagrely topped with salty fatty food, and get drunk enough to believe that you’ve had an optimal experience.
The contrast with Eater’s recent list of the 38 essential London restaurants is instructive. There’s plenty of overlap, but it’s the Eater exclusives that interest me: names like Koya Bar, Smoking Goat, Noble Rot, Quality Chop House, Black Axe Mangal, A Wong – as good a shortlist of my favourite restaurants in the city as exists. It’s hard to identify what differentiates these places from their shouty Time Out equivalents, but if I had to choose one word it would be care. Even in BAM, which is as loud and fast-paced as anywhere, the food comes looking – and, inexplicably, tasting – like the person who made it genuinely did make it: with love, with respect for the raw ingredients, with attention to detail. It wasn’t assembled per a Private Equity-backed rollout-friendly playbook then slung out to some anonymous four-top, but crafted for you and you alone. Whatever the price point, whatever the setting, what you’re really tasting when you get food like that is love. It must be this and not the air-conditioning that explains why, whatever the time of year, I always leave Barrafina with a slight chill.