Jay Rayner, novelist, journalist, broadcaster and restaurant reviewer – a man who’s had more hot dinners than I’ve had, well, hot dinners – likes to think of himself as the trade’s good cop.
Everyone knows who the bad cop amongst the UK’s coterie of food critics is – it’s Giles Coren of course, who has to be prised away from London, and Shoreditch in particular, with a chisel.
But Rayner, the avuncular 52-year-old former “Beard of the Year”, often does spread himself beyond the capital when reviewing restaurants for his current organ, The Observer.
He prides himself on his code of conduct too, does our Jay. He doesn’t seek to write negative stuff; sometimes it just happens. He’s well aware of his responsibilities. And he’s never, he assures us, gone too far.
Interviewed in the Guardian after being dubbed “the world’s most feared restaurant critic” after an excoriating review of Le Cinq in Paris, he said: “I’ve been a journalist for 30 years and in that time I have written about almost everything apart from sport.
“I’ve covered murders and politics, science and health and the arts and so much more. All the way through I’ve been aware of the responsibility of a journalist to the people they are writing about.
“The same applies to the restaurant critic. I am never casual about what I do. I think very carefully about it. Regularly, if it’s a small, independent restaurant that is failing, I don’t write about it and pay the bill myself. I save my anger for the grossly overfunded corporate behemoths charging big bucks but not delivering.”
On another occasion, the man who has been nicknamed “Acid Rayner” wrote: “As I’ve found to my peril, other cities don’t respond in the same way [as London]” to a bad review.
“Write a negative review of a restaurant in Liverpool, Manchester or Birmingham and the proud locals will give you a kicking as a matter of principle, regardless of what they actually think of the place that’s been criticised.”
The former pupil of Haberdashers’ Aske Boy’s School, added: “You’ll be dubbed as a metropolitan snob before lunchtime on the day the review was published. Sometimes, frankly, writing a negative view of a place like that is not worth the hassle.”
All very noble. But did any of these principles cross his mind when he stepped across the threshold of Canto, El Gato Negro founder Simon Shaw’s new Portuguese restaurant in Ancoats headed up by chef Carlos Gomes?
Jay Rayner eats a lot of stuff. Maybe it’s time he ate his words?
For the critic who boasts that he “never sets out to stick a knife into a restaurant” plunged the blade deep into the heart of Canto – then twisted it – in his review of the restaurant published in the Observer on Sunday.
It’s plain he doesn’t much like Ancoats, “which is what estate agents describe as up and coming”, or the “big red lump of a building” that houses Canto.
He is scathing about the front of the house service and described the meal that emerged from the open kitchen as “a bizarre mess; by turns ill-managed, ill-thought-out and overpriced.”
The prawn turnover was “a Findus crispy pancake tribute act” and “worse is the chargrilled chicken, with Savora mustard sauce. For £8.50 you get half a poussin, wrenched from the nursery. It’s such a shameless punt at poor value that I’m really not minded to tell you whether it’s any good or not.”
Rayner, however, did like the dessert, though it didn’t quite make his day – because “outside, a thick Manchester rain begins to fall”.
Local reviewers have been more generous to the Ancoats newcomer, which the Manchester Evening News described as “cornering the neighbourhood market nicely” in its recent four star review. And we were fans of the Findus crispy pancake style prawn turnovers and sunny Portuguese custard tarts when we tried them.
Perhaps Jay – or the restaurant – was just having a bad day?