Lunch, a Saturday. I do not pay, though the bill is not a charade: someone – it tickles me to imagine it's George Osborne himself – will end up eating the cost. I am there with someone far more important and interesting than me, who you probably know from that open letter that Tom Sellers wrote.
We have a lovely time although – as the ensuing review will indicate – not everything is on point, food-wise. Short rib juiced with bone marrow is phenomenal, but the accompanying pancakes are poorly made and tear easily – no small matter when it’s high summer and the slightest structural flaw can propel chilli-crimson tallow onto a white shirt. An impeccable slab of ibérico pork, cooked impeccably, is undermined by some thoroughly noncommittal leeks alongside. A tiny bing at the foundation of the Gold Coin – topped with foie gras and Shaoxing wine jelly – is dense, suggesting dough that has been both overworked and overcooked; the jelly is a fun riff on the more usual Sauternes or Madeira, packing a bit more oxidative heft, but is too thin, making a run for the plate at the slightest provocation. Those chicken feet really are quite unpleasant, a lot of sticky-fingered effort for not much reward, which is a phrase I swear I typed totally innocently, but which will now perforce haunt us both.
I could go on, but you get the picture, plus there’s an Evening Standard star rating laying all this out for you: three stars; above average, but not perfect.
But then: dinner, a Thursday. I do not pay, though a bill comes, in charade. I am there with someone far more important and interesting than me, who you probably know from that show where William Sitwell throws fake tantrums for money.
We have a lovely time, but because it’s comped I can’t in good faith take payment to write about it in detail (I think Ed Balls is covering it, wink emoji). Briefly, though: it’s like eating in a completely different restaurant. Smoked eel with tomato is the sort of soigné-lowcountry combination that Massimo Bottura could chuck in front of you at Osteria Francescana – every ingredient absolutely sings. Lotus crisps with chilli, peanut powder and wintermelon syrup are like a grown-up PB&J; Shou Pa chicken combines perfectly poached breast with crisp-skinned thigh in a ginger-spring onion sauce; bamboo chili beef fat rice comes on like a Danny Bowien / David Chang mash-up conjured from the ether after an all-night beer-and-baiju bender. Even some seasonal greens have depth and complexity to spare.
We’re still not in 5-star, 10-out-of-10, 100% territory – unsurprisingly, the pancakes haven’t been fixed in the ensuing five days; some pan-fried xian bing are a bit sloppy – but we are whole leagues closer to it.
All of which certainly goes to show the wisdom of visiting a place more than once if you’re reviewing it and want to offer a truthful account of what it’s like.
But doesn’t it also kind of suggest that “truth” in this context is purely subjective and almost farcically irrelevant?
If you want to get properly scientific about it – treat dinner out as an experiment – think how many variables you cannot control but which nevertheless have a huge bearing on the results you derive. On Saturday morning, I’d taken a run along Regents Canal – I went left, through Camden, under the park, out to Little Venice; one of my favourite routes – and arrived at the restaurant feeling a million dollars; on Thursday night, I was antsy after a day at work and a hugely naïve espresso granita from Gelupo (2am Election Twitter, I was there for you). The lighting was obviously different each time; at night there was far more of a contented buzz in the room, too. I ate the “same” food – food cooked by the same kitchen – but deliberately overlapped only a single dish: I have now tried 18 of the 29 things listed on the menu, which feels broadly representative, but as the two wildly different meals illustrate, how can I be sure? The chilli egg drop crab may be the single greatest thing I’ve never eaten. Add in a whole host of far more complex questions around propriety and ethics – is it at all fair or representative to review somewhere this early in its infancy? Is paying a bill but claiming it on expenses materially any different from getting the whole thing comped by a PR company? – and it’s difficult to conclude that there is anything remotely scientific about the process of going somewhere, eating some stuff, and writing about it.
But the binary conclusion that criticism is therefore pure artform, just entertainment, is also dissatisfying. It is not autotelic, an end in itself: it is necessarily about something. The purpose of restaurant criticism can’t just be the theatre of it: otherwise, we’d all just review fictional restaurants, like Le Cinq. There must be a kernel of something that at least looks like fact at the heart of a piece, however many awkward epistemological questions that contention raises in turn.
And look – I’ve got no idea. It ultimately comes down to the individual writer, and what their conscience (as well as their stomach) can stomach; purely personally, I feel I owe it to chefs and restaurateurs to do as much due diligence as I can; purely personally, I feel that popping in for a single course at lunchtime and spaffing 850 words into my iPhone notes during the cab ride back home would be unfair to them, and borderline inhumane.
But the question of how much is one without a real answer. If I were reviewing XU properly, I’d probably go back one more time, just to reconcile the hugely divergent experiences I had; on the other hand, 10 minutes in the hell-bunker that is StreetXO told me everything I’d ever need to know. It’s a dissatisfying conclusion, maybe, but restaurants are like the food they serve – sometimes you just know when you’ve had enough.