Cacio, Pepe

Cacio, Pepe

Mediocrity descends fast at The Frog. One minute you're happily slathering superlative chicken-enriched butter on good sourdough, nodding admiringly at a procession of delicate, clever little snacks – the next, the wheels come off, and fast.

Things start to go awry with the cheese donuts. These are one of Chef Adam Handling’s signature dishes, available as a £3 supplement on the tasting menu or at £5 for 2 à la carte. They are eye-rollingly indulgent, but artlessly so – the same straightforward, route one dopamine hit you’d get from a box of Krispy Kreme microwaved under a snowdrift of Cathedral City. Compared to earlier offerings – a nicely balanced squash / parmesan / sage cracker; a very Roganic pork and lovage combo – they’re sloppy, and imprecise; the sort of thing you’d make at home when very drunk.

Macaroni cheese – another Handling signature – is similar, and worse. The pasta is presented standing upright, Le Cinq-style, though there the similarity surely ends: the béchamel is claggy, the cheese acrid, the pasta bland. When the dish arrives, it promises plenitude and comfort; by the end it is a nasty, bilious slog. The other of our selections from The Garden is a tiny burrata served too cold with an underpowered black olive caramel, fridge-cold cucumber shapes, and a green slick of dill oil. It is bad.

Get in The Sea: fish is next. A small plaice fillet, nicely breaded, comes with a tangy garnish riffing on tartar sauce and a mini-volcano of mealy mashed potato complete with crab-bisque lava. The bisque in particular, its colour variegated with a splotch of herb oil, is very Tom Sellers circa 2013, or very Masterchef circa 2015, or not very circa 2017. Squid with a sort of smooshed crispy baked potato skin is fine but undeniably weird; the lack of intuition required to put these ingredients together in this fashion is profoundly discomfiting when you’re implicitly expected to put your trust in a kitchen making you dinner.

It’s at this point – after this accumulation of evidence – that the scales tip. Your trust is misplaced; the snacks were an aberration, not the norm. You move away from benefit-of-the-doubt territory, away from a willingness to forgive everything that rankles about The Frog on the grounds of its surprisingly good food. Because when you were admiring a cylinder of potato containing whipped cod’s roe, topped with crème fraiche and caviar, you were maybe a little more willing to overlook one salient fact: this place is insufferable.

From the excruciating tableside concept-spiel – English tapas with an Asian influence, 2014 called and wants its cause of death back – to the pulsing pitiless soundtrack of Trainspotting heroin montage music, to the gurning gormless asides on the menu, it’s a symphony of cheesy self-satisfied smuggery and shit vibes. That menu recommends 3-4 plates per person “for a good feed”; it shamelessly cross-hawks ancillary wares, offering you the opportunity to buy “Olivia by Adam Handling Olive Oil” (£5), a copy of “Chef Adam Handling’s cookbook” (£20), and even a “Black and White Cold Press Juice by Adam Handling” (also £5). Puddings are subtitled “let out the inner kid”, and include a glass of homemade kombucha and other child-friendly fare like olive oil, dill, and chocolate tofu. You can even “buy the chefs a beer” for £5, though good luck finding one at that price when a can of Beavertown Gamma Ray is eight quid.

We decline to let out our inner kids, though we do get through some Land stuff: first, “piggy, cauliflower, kimchi” (the kimchi a powder, because of course making the pleasurably slippery texture of fermented cabbage subservient to some crap kitchen wankery is the way this place rolls). And then some OK lamb crowned with an underdone egg that leaves in its wake snail trails of spunkish albumen.

Oh, the bill? Yeah mate, it’s ninety quid a head. This is admittedly with a couple of cocktails each and a few bottles of wine in the mix – but guys, it’s still ninety quid per person. For prissy, fucked-with, Mastercheffy discomfort food in a joyless appendage to a concrete bunker. And both the appendage and the bunker are full! People seem to want this – to be relieved of stupid money for a stupid dinner larded with stupid in-jokes and stupid opportunities – 75 quid Superior Negroni, anyone? – to spend even more money even more stupidly.

It's enough to make you wonder whether it's a joke on the South – a Scot gleefully taking the pish out of gullible, feckless, tasteless Londoners. With another Frog spawning in Covent Garden, Handling is certainly getting a lot of mileage out of the bit.  And fair play to him – unlike his other nudges and digs and gurns, his expanding empire and the full dining room here must mean that if it is a joke, it's a pretty clever one.

Could be funnier, mind.

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