Jay Rayner Dishes on London Restaurants
One of Britain’s most feared food critics—with a hidden talent for piano—talks likes, gripes, and all that jazz.
He’s known as “Acid Rayner” for a reason. Less known: between his tart Observer restaurant reviews and his stints judging MasterChef and the new Channel 4 show Tried and Tasted, Jay Rayner also plays a mean jazz piano. Fresh off the release of the Jay Rayner Quartet’s first album, A Night of Food and Agony, he tells us about his hidden talent, his pet peeves, and a few of his favorite places to eat and drink around London.
What’s the most exciting thing about eating in London right now?
Because we’re not burdened by a culinary tradition that we cleave tightly to, we are open to everything. I think you can eat better in this city than Paris or Barcelona, because you could eat far more diversely. What we’re getting now is a doughnut effect where the inner-city rents are forcing chefs of ambition outside, and that’s creating these really small, interesting kitchens where strange things happen.
Any especially annoying restaurant fads?
It’s in the detail. I’m kind of okay with sharing plates, but please give me a table that’s big enough to fit them all. And I am totally over people taking my order without a notebook; it really troubles me. But the one thing that I can’t bear is when the dishes will come out of the kitchen in the order that they’re ready. A meal has a rhythm.
Speaking of rhythm, what’s the meaning behind your album’s culinary-themed name?
Jazz was born in restaurants and drinking dens in New Orleans and Chicago. There are lots of tunes like “One For My Baby” and “Black Coffee” that take their lead from food and drink, which also then enables me to tell stories about my work. But there is another element: My mother was a very well known “agony aunt,” sort of the British equivalent of Dr. Ruth. I spent a long time not talking about her because I feared people would think, you know, nepotism. Having a mother who’s an expert on premature ejaculation is not gonna get you a job on MasterChef—that gag is in the show—but anyway, a lot of blues songs sound like a letter to an agony aunt.
Your wife, Pat Gordon-Smith, is the singer in the quartet. How is it performing together?
The act works on two levels: because we’re husband and wife and we have the intimacy on stage that you can’t fake, and then because actually, she’s extremely good. I say that as a professional; she’s been a singer for a very long time. We’re happiest in small, cabaret-style venues—that’s the perfect environment in which to have a conversation on stage and with your audience. We recorded the album live in the Crazy Coqs, which is a fantastic little venue at Brasserie Zédel.
Where do you two like to dine out together?
Bentley’s is a very venerable restaurant taken over about a decade ago by a chef called Richard Corrigan. It is the best place for seafood in the city, and an extraordinary pleasure just to sit at the bar and watch them shuck oysters. The cooking is always bang on.
What’s your favorite new opening?
At the Garden Museum’s Garden Café, at the bottom of Lambeth Bridge, they’ve built a new pavilion that is glass and copper and beautiful: polished concrete floors, glass walls, view of the Thames. And the food—it’s that kind of London-rustic, three ingredients, no more, with a bit of the influence of St John. It’s all about flavor over prettiness, and they do it very, very well.
Do you have a secret watering hole?
A place I should never give away is Pall Mall Fine Wine, at the bottom of Haymarket in one of those covered arcades. It usually smells of stinky cheeses; they only do cheese and charcuterie to go with their really idiosyncratic collection of wines. It’s one of those little places that people haven’t found unless they’ve found it, if you know what I mean, right in the centre of town—the kind of place you go to sneak off with someone you shouldn’t be with.
Last year you published a book called The Ten Food Commandments. Would you add an eleventh, specific to eating out in London?
Thou shalt not ignore the suburbs. Brixton Village and Market Row has got a lot of interesting things going on. I’m slightly addicted to a place called Mamalan, which does really good chunky grilled Beijing dumplings and chili chicken wings. And Nanban, a Japanese soul food restaurant run by a guy called Tim Anderson, who won MasterChef UK. He does brilliant ramen. His karaage chicken is spectacular, and he also does these Brixton-Jamaican-Japanese mash-ups, which shouldn’t work, but do.
The Jay Rayner Quartet, which includes Rayner’s wife Pat on vocals, will officially launch its debut album A Night of Food and Agony with a performance at London’s Cadogan Hall on November 17. Tickets are available here.
Bentley’s: 11-15 Swallow St.; +44-20-7734 4756
Garden Café: 5 Lambeth Palace Rd.; +44-20-7401-8865
Pall Mall Fine Wine: 6/7/8 Royal Opera Arcade, St. James’s; +44-20-7321-2529
Mamalan: Unit 18; +44-20-7733-7279
Nanban: 426 Coldharbour Ln.; +44-20-7346-0098