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A Lunch with: Marina O’Loughlin

We pull up a chair with the elusive food writer and critic at Noble Rot in Mayfair, hearing her hot take on how to host with all the pizzazz of the professionals, while the restaurant shares a recipe for stuffed squid with chorizo sauce

Genevieve Verdigel
Elliot Sheppard
Harry Cave
A Lunch with: Marina O’Loughlin

Getting Marina O’Loughlin, one of Britain’s most revered if entirely incognito restaurant critics, to sit down for lunch is no mean feat. But while dates for the diary prove hard to pin down, one thing has always been certain: we would dine at Noble Rot.

In the 10 years since Noble Rot was first established as a magazine, it has gained a cult following among bottle-loving aficionados looking for an alternative to the uptight world of fine wine. Marina was among its early devotees (she’s also an investor and, now, contributing editor to the magazine – an “official rotter”). Her enthusiasm is unsurprising when you learn that the bricks-and-mortar establishment was to be on the same street as her former flat, Lamb’s Conduit Street. Set in a townhouse dating to 1701, the restaurant was conceived as an ode to London’s historic drinking dens with a fine eatery attached. Two further iterations have followed.

And so we find ourselves in the raffish corner of Mayfair known as Shepherd’s Market, where the newest Noble Rot can be found (the other is in Soho). In line with her self-confessed obsession with Inigo’s listings, Marina also has “a thing for old restaurants. I love that Noble Rot’s places look like they’ve been around for decades.” This one, in a Georgian building and wrapped in sash windows, is no exception.

We settle ourselves in the upstairs bar, because “the lighting here is just glorious, plus the setting is all louche glamour.” Marina should know: “I have to limit my visits or I’d just live here,” she laughs. In fact, this is one of the few places in which Marina, the only British restaurant critic who has retained her anonymity for the duration of her career, is known to the staff. When quizzed as to why Marina chose to remain unidentified (first at Metro, then The Guardian and The Sunday Times) she says: “it’s very hard to be genuinely critical about somewhere that has tried to lavish you with love because of who you are.” Now she’s put away her critic’s notebook, Marina plans to make reservations in her own name (“in the hope that maybe now I won’t always get the worst table”).

Over a truly indulgent feast  accompanied by a rather indulgent array of wines for a Wednesday afternoon, our conversation meanders through food, the hospitality world and heritage (with a healthy sprinkling of gossip). Her first confession? “I hate cooking. That’s why God invented restaurants.”

You might imagine Marina would be jaded after a lifetime of eating out, but she still appears to be an obsessive restaurant-goer. Indeed, the one word that comes up again and again is “joy”. “Eating is about the pleasure of sharing a meal with someone,” she says. But there must be downside? What were her pet hates over the years and what can hosts – professional and less so – learn from them?

It’s not always just about the food 

“To be honest, sometimes I’m not that bothered about perfection on the plate. Since stopping reviewing, I rarely go for super-cool or fine-dining establishments. I’m not interested in the performance that can come with them – especially with the latter: the lectures you get with every course, every bottle of wine, the endless interruptions. It can become more trial than joy.

“I think it stems from my childhood: my mum was Italian and a fantastic cook. When we were kids, she would make a simple but wonderful pasta sauce that we all loved. It tasted like home. There was no set recipe, just a method. Now all of us make our pasta sauce in the same way – as do our children. Aren’t dishes like that what we all want? Good ingredients, simple food, done well. That’s what makes me very happy. And it’ll likely make everyone else happy too.”

The key to hosting is hospitality

“With restaurants, the one thing that really matters is the staff. People will put up with indifferent food if the service is brilliant and will complain bitterly if things are the other way round.

“Don’t fight with me about how I like my martinis: I know what I like. Make people feel welcome when they arrive, and well-fed and happy when they leave. Do things for guests, not for kudos (whether that’s Michelin or Instagram). Then they’ll come back.”

Take inspiration from places that get it right

“When I eat out, I want a place that feels like home, one that makes me feel like I’m visiting family. I wrote a piece for Noble Rot about what I call ‘dadcore restaurants’ – nothing to do with sex or age or being a parent, but the kind of places that are dedicated to simple, sybaritic pleasures. Those are my kind of thing.

“That’s what’s great about Noble Rot. There is a sense that, while you’re there, all is temporarily right in a very stressful world. The same is true of The Quality Chop House – and its punkier sidekick, Quality Wines; they both share that sense of welcome. I’m all for anything opened by Russell Norman – he has the magic touch, now being unleashed at Brutto – and the wonder that is A. Wong. And I love, of course, the eccentric Ciao Bella – every visit is an event, a celebration. If you can create something that shares the spirit of these places, you’ll be on to something.”

Noble Rot Mayfair’s head chef, Adam Wood’s, recipe for stuffed squid and chorizo sauce (serves four)

4 large squid, cleaned
2 shallots, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
100g pitted green olives, finely chopped
20g picked marjoram, finely chopped
1 lemon, zested and juiced

For the sauce
200g pork mince
1 shallot, finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
4 red peppers, roasted, peeled and puréed
1tsp espelette (or Aleppo pepper)
3tbsp smoked sweet paprika
500ml double cream
Lemon juice

Rinse the squid under running water and then trim the tubes to the correct size – about 12cm – retaining the tentacles. Finely chop or mince any excess squid, then set aside.

Sweat the shallot and garlic in oil over a medium heat until soft, then add the minced squid and cook until all the water has evaporated. Remove from the heat and place in the fridge to cool. Once the mixture has cooled, stir in the green olives, marjoram, lemon zest and juice. Season with salt.

Stuff the mixture into the reserved squid tubes until they’re three-quarters full. Use a toothpick to secure the ends. Set aside until ready to cook.

To make the sauce, place a pan on a medium heat and fry the pork mince until it starts to brown. Remove the meat and cook the shallot and garlic in the fat left behind (you may need to lose some of it, depending on your pork). Put the pork back in the pan and combine it with the shallots and garlic, adding the roasted-pepper purée, espelette and paprika. Stir to combine and cook for a few minutes.

When it seems ready, deglaze with the cream and simmer for an hour on low heat, stirring every so often. Once you reach the desired consistency, pass it through a fine sieve and season with lemon juice and salt.

Preheat your oven to 180 degrees C. Place a non-stick frying pan on a high heat. Once hot, place the stuffed squid tubes into the pan. Cook on one side until nicely coloured, turn over, and add the tentacles. Transfer to a hot oven for 4 minutes, remove and leave to rest for a further 2 minutes.

Meanwhile, warm the chorizo sauce and place 3 tablespoons into a warm bowl. Season the squid tubes with salt and lemon juice, then spoon over the chorizo sauce. Serve and eat immediately.

Further reading

Marina on Instagram

Noble Rot

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