Norn / Core
The first clue you get as to how little Clare Smyth is fucking around at Core is a tart. It comes as part of an opening salvo of snacks, along with a bit of smoked duck on a twig (not quite crisp enough of skin), a gougere (stonking), something invoving smoked eel (lovely), and a strange brioche-crusted sausage thing (genuinely weird). These other bits and pieces are all pretty solid, verging on really very good, but the tart – comprising smoked tomato tartare, and macadamia nuts, and black olives – is genuinely astonishing. The pastry is a marvel: shatteringly crisp and thin, but somehow robust enough to hold its shape after a first exploratory bite. Like the flavours it packs, it is precision engineered, a salutary reminder of Smyth’s 3-star pedigree and exacting attention to detail.
It’s perfect. But it isn’t fun.
However effortfully you strain, you can’t ever imagine having fun at Core. Everyone involved in the enterprise – not least Smyth herself – has talked a good game about how it will represent a less snobby sort of fine dining, as though something costing a hundred quid a head minimum and with the word “fine” embedded in its very identity is just a few cosmetic tweaks away from being the sort of demotic, democratic activity that you’d choose over going down the pub with your mates. As though an incredibly expensive-feeling room in an incredibly posh street in Notting Hill is – now that the mission statement is “relaxed” – a stadium every bit as conducive to a banterous spectator sport atmosphere as the Emirates or Stamford Bridge. As though stiff-backed dudes – so many dudes – in suits ferrying multicourse tasting menus and thuddingly expensive wines by the bottle and glass are – in their few studied, plodding attempts at humour and bonhomie – the sort of people you’d like to spend more time with, invite over for some Deliveroo and a binge of Stranger Things Season 2.
Oh, Core tries. There is evidence of attempts at it: an artificial insemination of personal history and what passes for humour in this weird humourless world into the experience. That smoked eel is allegedly a riff on the jellied beasts of the East End (reminder: we are in West London; I suppose the flavour of a trust-fund brat smoking a spliff and chinning a Red Stripe to piss off her well-to-do parents is too hard to capture). A dish involving potato is supposedly a riff on Smyth’s youth in Ireland, where – we are told – she enjoyed eating potatoes, and seaweed, and salt and vinegar crisps (we are not told if her tastes were Irish catholic enough to embrace the tin’s worth of caviar with which this particular tuber is anointed). The staff are not active dicks, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that they would still knife you in the gut with a Laguiole if you said Michelin was dumb. Like dress-down Friday in a professional services firm (no ties allowed, guys!), it’s fooling no one: this is still about extracting large sums of money from people willing to pay them for the highly competent execution of a set of highly specialised skills.
It’s hard to pin it to something specific. Maybe it’s Smyth herself; maybe it’s the room. Maybe it’s the food, which ranges across the whole gamut of Gordon Ramsay so-1998 luxury – Isle of Mull scallop, crab, Roscoff onion, skate, multiple beurre blancs, caviar – whilst beating you over the head with just how good these flawless, perfect, apex predator ingredients can taste. Maybe it’s the neighbourhood, the suffocating miasma of otherworldly privilege and incurious reactionary red chinoism and Rosie Londoner pastel-hued intellectual passivity that makes this the part of the world where interesting restaurants go to die. Maybe it’s the necessary compromises made to appeal to the sort of people who are going to bankroll this place once the curious foodies have come and gone and realised this is the most ball-bearing-perfect, careful food it is possible to eat, only in a setting that ensures you will never want to eat it again.
Somewhere I do want to go back to – will go back to before I return to Core, despite it being 375 miles from my home, to Core’s 5.3 – is Norn, in Edinburgh. This despite a room (admittedly soon to be refurbished) that is a mid-2000s Ascot hotel dining room nightmare; this despite no single dish even coming close to anything Clare Smyth could put out.
But this is food with identity, with a spark. It has wit – not the laboured Great British Menu waggery / wankery of serving Coronation Chicken with a cutesy tuile crown, but the odd conspiratorial nudge to the ribs that makes you smirk in pleasure and amusement at the nerve of it, like pairing mussels with a consommé rich in beef dripping, or the confidence of serving you a single just-warmed raspberry as the full-stop to dinner, so you walk out into the late-summer gloaming with a mouth that is fresh with acidity, not clogged with paté de fruit and chocolate stodge.
Sure, maybe it’s a little too in debt to Rene Redzepi in places – the hedgerow’s worth of foraged herbs that appears across dinner is in Jurassic Park so-preoccupied-with-whether-or-not-they-could- they-didn’t-stop-to-think-if-they-should territory – but really what shines through is the personal investment and love of chef-proprietor Scott Smith, who flits between front and back of house, delivering several courses by hand and with little introductions that wed the restaurant and its project to the surrounding terrain. Redcurrants are from his mum’s garden; peas (and a great many more ingredients) are fermented in-house. Ham is fashionably house-cured too, but comes with a self-deprecating twist: the only way they could secure the pigs they wanted was to buy a job lot, so now they’re desperately trying to find other ways to use it. Duck breast – the fat properly rendered, the meat left with an enjoyably bloody tang – is fantastic, but Smith isn’t happy with it; he’s about to move to a new supplier (“twenty times better!”). The next day, yomping around the disastrous Edinburgh Food Festival (£14 to get in – don’t get stung next year), we get a call from an unknown number. It’s Smith, properly mortified. He’s been going through the receipts and seen we’ve been charged for a glass of wine that actually went to another table. A 125ml glass of decent white Burgundy at Core is £68.
To eat in both of these restaurants is to realise something you knew, in your heart of hearts, already. That personality is something innate – it cannot be grafted onto a body because the host will reject it; it is something born, not made. The making at Core is exceptional – like the movement in a Swiss clock or the symphony of moving parts in a Rolls Royce engine, it is marvellous; awesome in its own way. But Core couldn’t be a less appropriate name. Right in the centre, at the middle of it all, where Norn has heart and substance and charm, is where Core is found wanting.