Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Hackney's best new restaurants 2014

I started off 2014 predicting that the Mare Street and Lower Clapton Road axis in Hackney would flourish with exciting new restaurants, becoming more of a destination for eating and drinking out. And lo it came to pass: the area saw an unprecedented amount of new openings, not just on the main axes, but in the surrounding areas of Homerton, Hackney Downs, and around Dalston Lane.

Lower Clapton Road has changed the most - and going through the list of new (food) openings in the last year, let alone all the other shops that have opened, makes me feel exhausted. New restaurants have been distinctly classy and grown up, with Verden, Little Ivy's, the Bonneville, Yard Sale and Pie Franco opening within a few months of each other and attracting praise, custom and occasionally controversy from across London, and even in national press. Meanwhile supper clubs upstairs at Palm 2 seem to do a roaring trade, and Candela has come and gone. Over on Chatsworth Road, the big news was the opening of the luxury Spar supermarket, with a fancy (and actually very good) burger bar and a luxury restaurant upstairs.

Down Mare Street way, Raw Duck's opening at a bigger premises on Richmond Road was met with widespread acclaim, while Broadway Market has seen new openings from sourdough pizza kings Franco Manca, snazzy butchers Hill and Szrok, the revamped Cat and Mutton, and fancy Thai  residency Som Saa.

Further south, Paradise Row in Bethnal Green is newly home to a handful of new restaurants and bars located under its arches, most notably Mission E2 - a wine bar and restaurant, with a giant palm tree inside and impressive selection of well-priced Californian wines.

Towards Hackney Downs, Lardo have opened up a petite pizza restaurant off Amhurst Road, Hash E8 on Dalston Lane has become my favourite spot for a porky brunch, and Hand of Glory is a gorgeous pub with great beers on tap and high quality kitchen residencies. You'd never know it was 5 mins from Kingsland High Street.

Homerton's new openings have been mostly pubs - the Adam and Eve and the Jackdaw and Star joining The Plough on Homerton High Street, while the Gun on Well Street is a lovely little saloon bar.

Dalston continues to see lots of new openings, including mid-market chains like The Diner, Premier Inn and Costa Coffee. The more interesting restaurants open off the main drag of Kingsland High Street. Steve Parle's Rotorino has brought fancy Italian cooking further down Kingsland Road near the intriguing-sounding Fan TongLucky Chip have got a permanent space in a disused car park just off Dalston Lane, and the Pond has brought the tortuous concept of modern Hawaiian cuisine to a fully decked out warehouse off Gillet Square.

But with all the hype and excitement comes a new band of generic, half-arsed restaurants ready to ape an aesthetic to blend in to New Hipster Hackney. Chatsworth Road in Clapton now has three such restaurants and cafes, Lower Clapton Road a couple too - with exposed brick, industrial fittings, ramshackle furniture and slightly too loud music all there to distract you from the average quality, average price food you're getting. It's old hat for Stoke Newington and Dalston, which have housed generic 'trendy' restaurants for some time, as investors piggy back on the coattails of more interesting new businesses.

It's been the year of the backlash too. In 2013 and 2014 house prices in Hackney grew by almost 50%, rents by a similar amount. The number of restaurants and cafes opened could well represent a doubling or tripling of what was there in 2012 in some parts of the borough, as Hackney firmly becomes, and feels like, a more expensive kind of place. In one of the poorest areas in the country, basic living costs are increasing as benefits are cut and low wages stagnant - and the streets and faces are changing dramatically. Combined with suburban disdain for l'hipster, restaurants and cafes in East London quickly feel the heat of the spotlight when they respond insensitively.

I don't believe that this pace of change can continue. I see the last two years as a mega adjustment, and I expect to see a lower number of new restaurants opening in 2015, but with a few trends...

The Mare Street axis will continue to gentrify apace. The kind of snazzy restaurants opening in Dalston, Haggerston and Shoreditch will make their way to the arch spaces around London Fields station, such as the fancy-sounding Il Cudega, which will specialise in the cuisine of the Lombardia region. Further up, the fancy ramen joint Tonkotsu is set to open on Narrow Way in January. It will be the first of its kind to open on this stretch, and could pave the way for other restaurateurs drawn to the road's scruffy, slightly down-at-heal charm. New openings in the Mare Street area will be fuelled by the impending arrival of the Hackney Fashion Hub, which will seem a lot more tangible as 2015 trucks on.

Asian and fusion flavours will have a greater influence. You can't move for modern British, pizza, burgers and dude food, and there's plenty of French and Turkish cuisine to be had. Despite a long tradition of Vietnamese restaurants opening on Kingsland Road and Mare Street, we're only starting to see the influence of Asian flavours in a small number of newer openings, such as Rita's and Raw Duck. Dalston newbie Fan Tong appears to be fusing eclectic Asian flavours with British ingredients, and I'd expect to see a bit more of this in some of 2015's more interesting new openings. Bring on the kimchi!

More interesting openings outside of Hackney. Areas like Walthamstow and Leytonstone have both old and new interesting restaurants, but places like Tottenham, Leyton and Forest Gate have seen less of the new. As more people are priced out of Hackney AND Walthamstow AND Leytonstone, I'd expect a sourdough pizza restaurant or two to open in these parts of town.

More chains and more generics. As business rents increase, it will be harder for small businesses to afford to offer quality, interesting food at a price people are willing to pay. This means more low quality generic restaurants will open, skimping on ingredient quality to meet demand. Not necessarily overlappingly, mid-market chains will find their model at an advantage in the area. Nando's, Costa and The Diner are already in the area, and I wouldn't be surprised if a Pizza Express or similar opens on Stoke Newington Church Street or on the ground floor of a Dalston new build development.

Monday, 22 December 2014

The Adam and Eve pub, Homerton High Street

It's easy to overstate how yuppified Clapton and Homerton have become. All you have to do is take a trip down to Angel or Clerkenwell, or even hang around Dalston Junction, and you can see how easy they are for people with little intrigue or wanderlust to discover. It makes me feel at ease about the pace of change in my own neighbourhood, because I know that those most boring professional types who get freaked out looking for Tonkotsu in Haggerston are going to get freaked out on Lower Clapton Road or Homerton High Street, delaying the Borings for a few more years.

Homerton High Street is legitimately hard to love: the thick traffic and crumby crossings make it seem impenetrable; a place nobody wants to spend too long giving it a transient feel. But it's home to a couple of great pubs - the Plough (which does superb Americana-tinged bar food and excellent Sunday roasts, great cocktails and enviable selection of craft beers and ciders on tap), and the Adam and Eve, which is today's subject.

The Adam and Eve is an Edwardian pub, grand with double height ceilings, multiple seating areas, stained glass. It got redid this summer after being taken over by the Field Day crew who own the Shacklewell Arms over in Dalston. There was some nervousness as details emerged - one of the last ungentrified pubs in the area was going to be selling lobsters! A 50% off fortnight saw the place rammed, and I steered clear, as people griped on twitter about £10 lobsters not being available. Best to wait until a new opening settles into its form.

I've been a number of times since, and the Adam and Eve has become one of my favourite pubs in the area.It feels less poncey than some of those up Lower Clapton Road. It attracts a genuinely broad clientèle - on a recent Saturday night there were fashion kids, older couples having a quiet drink, multi-generation Hackney families of wearing their finest garms, old men nursing pints while watching the darts, birthdays, after work doctors and nurses from the Homerton Hospital.

You get the picture. They've made it work for everyone who like going to pubs. And they've also managed to do high quality gastropub food and make it unpretentious and accessible. The food at the The A&E is provided by The Cornwall Project, which is a partnership between producers and fishermen in Cornwall and chefs up in London. This involves bringing beef, mutton, fish and gorgeous heirloom organic veg up from Cornwall, and cooking much of it over a lovely smoky grill.

Sometimes mid week you'll find a shorter menu: burgers, fish and chips, and their regular sides and puddings. Simple is good, when the ingredients are good and well put together. The burger is hefty, proper chuck mince, and full of flavour. Frozen pub burger this ain't; nor is it of the dirty variety. It comes with Cornish yarg cheese, a mulling spice flavoured chutney, cured jowl in the place of bacon - a gamier spin on bacon, little bits of cured beetroot. Sounds fancy, and I'm sure it changes seasonally, but there's no pretension or purple prose, just neat combinations of well sourced ingredients.

On nights with a fuller menu, you'll often find fresh fish, aged mutton, perhaps rib eye or shepherd's pie to share. There's no standard menu, all chalkboard specials on the night, which are sometimes posted on social media. One night I had mutton chop on pearl barley and cracked wheat - the mutton was full of flavour, smoky from the grill and nicely pink inside. Served with a smear of broccoli purée, and some heritage carrots, the dish was an uncomplicated set of flavours that spoke for themselves.

We enjoyed a chicken liver parfait from the daily special's board - served with eggy, sweet brioche, a great big knob of salty butter and a complex, rich persimmon jam, this is *exactly* what I imagine Henry VIII was eating as his gout set in.

But when the more interesting dishes don't seem to be on, their regular sides and snacks will keep you satisfied, You would be foolish not to try their award-winning scotch egg - an oaty crumb on the outside, a soft lightly herby deeply piggy meat layer and a perfectly softly yolked egg inside. Served in a little pool of brown sauce, it's worthy of its prize, and worthy of it's £4.50 price tag.

I also loved their coleslaw - the crisp vegetables have a gorgeous smoky taste from grilling, the dressing is light and dotted with crispy little capers. Just beautiful; I sometimes dream of it, and it's got my googling home-smoking equipment for the garden. Their chips are good - chunky and perfectly fluffy on the inside.

The Adam and Eve is not perfect: while the front rooms with the grand ceilings and stained glass carry a convivial atmosphere, the back room feels a bit unloved and dank. On one visit, bits of food and dirty napkins littered the carpet around a number of tables that had been vacant for some time. You might be disappointed to find only the clipped pub menu available, meaning less choice, even if everything you order is tasty. And on one Saturday we tried ordering their signature scotch egg at 7.30 to find that they'd all been sold.

But when you get a good table and get the full menu, you're in for the best pub food for some miles, and - despite an edible garden, a 'home brew depot' pop-up and charcuterie-making operation on site ticking all the hipster boxes - it doesn't reek of exclusive pretension when you're in there. Which is just what you want in a pub.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Dotori, Finsbury Park, Stroud Green Road

You could say Finsbury Park is the gateway to North East London proper: buses, trains, tubes to Harringay, to Tottenham, Stoke Newington, Clapton and Hackney Central. And get into the West End in 15 minutes. Like many gateways, it's grim and transient. The traffic roars past, through a number of one way systems, and the main roads are lined with litter, commercial waste, 99p stores, a Lidl, and "hotels" which only serve local councils providing emergency accommodation for homeless families.

Stumble off the main drag and you'll find pockets of lovely: Stroud Green Road is experiencing a food-fuelled boom and has some excellent pubs. But eating well on the busy main roads is a challenge.

That is with the exception of Dotori, right in the middle of a traffic island, but possibly the best spot for Korean and Japanese food in this part of the world. And it's no secret: stumble in at any time, whether weekday evening or Saturday afternoon, and the place is heaving. You're well advised to reserve for any sitting - phone or in person, no online.  

There are two separate menus: Japanese and Korean, although you can order from both at the same time. The menus therefore add up to be quite long: but don't be alarmed, there's a relatively small number of ingredients used to make a huge number of different dishes. We ate mainly from the Korean menu, with a couple of sushi items. I'll be back for a full sushi and sashimi experience another time - what we had was fresh and perfectly executed.

The Korean menu has a large number of snacky fried items, fermented vegetables, as well as bi bim baps (rice with fried egg, meat and vegetables), barbecued meats, soups and hotpot stews. Between three of us we shared an excessive number of (not so) little fried dishes, which were some of the best renditions of them I've had in London. 

Tteokbokki - glutinous rice sticks - were just perfectly chewy, and the sauce was fully bolshy, overwhelming, sticky, sweet. You could tell they'd not held back on those pungent anchovies or the gochujang - unlike Korean Food For Hipsters On the Bab in Shoreditch, where the tteokbokki was meek and flavourless.

Dotori know how to use their deep fat fryer - vegetables were still crisp and the batter not too claggy, courgettes, onions, green beans and asparagus making it in to the serving. Squid came crisply fried, though by the uniform patterning I suspect it was from a freezer, but that's what you expect at this price in an Asian restaurant. It was doused in salt and white pepper, and the sweet and sticky sauce was laced with gochujang. 

We enjoyed their signature seafood pancake - the batter was light, filled generously with seafood bits and lots and lots of spring onions. Despite being stuffed full, they held their form well when picked up with chopsticks and smothered in dipping sauce.

Their kimchi cucumbers, sesame dressed spinach, and lightly pickled bean sprouts are a refreshing antidote to the fried food. Sesame spinach, in particular, I could eat endlessly - it's basically just sesame oil, blanched spinach and a few toasted sesame seeds, but it just tastes like the most velvety luxurious thing in the world..

With a bi bim bap to share too, and 4 pieces of very nicely presented and impeccably fresh sushi, our ordering had us more than full. And at £17 a head (including soft drinks and tips), it's a very reasonable way of trying a number of different, authentic Korean dishes without leaving North East London.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

KERB comes to Hackney Wick

I haven't made enough noise about street food recently. In some ways, street food is becoming a ubiquitous cliché, like pulled pork or craft beer. A blanket term to tick boxes and bring in the punters. Street food could be any old crap served hot from a stall. Pulled pork could be anything from expertly brined, seasoned and smoked rare breed pork, to abattoir floor scrapings doused in sugary BBQ sauce. Craft beer just needs to say craft beer on the pump and people will buy it.

As with anything in London, research and recommendations are needed to cut-through the multifarious options. It's not about being a snob - your same £6.50 could get you a very average burrito or a very good one. Why wouldn't you want the best, if you could? When it comes to street food in London, KERB does the filtering for you with their - dare I say - *curating* of street food traders operating at their markets.

KERB have the pick of the crop on their roster, running regular street food markets in London - they have markets catering to lunching workers at Granary Square (Kings Cross, Tues - Fri), Wednesdays at Spitalfields, Thursdays at the Gherkin, and once a month at UCL.

It's a model which is beginning to emulate Off the Grid in San Francisco, which operates at a much larger scale in a much smaller city (but where street food carts are much more culturally engrained), where literally dozens of sites are run by OTG, with anything between 2 and 10 street food carts there for lunch or dinner, all listed and mapped on their site.

One of the highlights of OTG are their big evening markets where you can spend an evening trying out street food and getting good beer at decent prices - the market at Fort Mason has 32 trucks every Friday night through the warm months. Like London, the scene quietens down through the colder months.

The exciting news for us East London dwellers is that KERB have secured a permanent home in Hackney Wick. Opening in December, KERB will be running street food markets from a big warehouse INDOORS, and hopefully all year round - what with it opening in December and being indoors and all.

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Hackney Wick is the perfect location - it's off the beaten track enough that it'll hopefully shake off some of the annoying types you get at the pricey Street Feast in more accessible Dalston. This probably does mark the next stage in the Wick's development and commercialisation, though, which I'm sure many Wickster hipster creatives will mourn.

But I'm pumped, especially living 5 minutes cycle away in Clapton. To whet you're appetite for what you might be able to expect, I'll run through some of my favourites that I guzzle at my once-weekly KERB KX lunch trip.

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Kimchinary is my first street food love, and I've written in depth about Hanna Soderland's expert fusion of Mexican and Korean flavours with her kickass burritos and tacos. The flavours and colours will blow your mind, especially that bulgogi ox cheek burrito with the kimchi fired rice and Asian slaw. Wow.

Spit and Roast

Spit and Roast do fried chicken that makes me weep with joy. Buttermilk brined (natch), its coating has a lovely balance of spice and the perfect crisp. And it's served with a sticky, sweet korean sauce and slaw in a brioche bun. I know this reads like a list of cliches, but each one is Grade A refinement. They sometimes do rotisserie in their van, and their chips are very good.


Pulled pork klaxon!!111!!! But this is what I'm talking about with the difference in quality at the same price. These guys know how to do 'technique'. They deploy sous-vide to cook meat to perfection over days and days, with the most melt-in-your-mouth results. But it doesn't stop at the delicately smoked meat - different pickle and topping combinations all the time. The 'lab' in the name gives the game away - they're always experimenting and the results are pretty consistently delicious. Blow torching cheese on top of pickled apple on top of the 53 hour pulled pork just about blew my mind.

Mother Flipper

I first tried these guys down at Brockley Market, and they're one of a number of excellent burger purveyors on the KERB roster (I love Bleecker Burger - soon to open a restaurant in Spitalfields, and Tongue and Cheek's are offaly good), but for me the simplicity of the MF candied bacon and cheese hits the spot every time. Their house sauce and pickles are classic, and the demi-brioche buns just perfect.

Yum Bun

I have a major weakness for steamed buns, but especially when they come filled with an aromatic pork belly and hoisin sauce. It's a rich treat, but given a real freshness by spring onions and cucumber. Yum Bun do these steamed buns with a range of fillings - I recently enjoyed their panko crumbed fish bun, lathered with gochujang spiked mayo. And at Kerb KX they do a good value lunch box, with two buns, two vegetable gyoza and a zingy Asian slaw for £7.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Mission E2, Paradise Row, Bethnal Green

Wine bars are back with a vengeance. The much derided symbol of 90s Conran-infused yuppiedom have risen again. Clapton has seen the Danish-inspired Verden and wine shop-bar Pie Franco open in the last 6 months, hot on the heels of Sager and Wilde on Hackney Road. Across town, wine focused bars are opening, some with a focus on cheese and charcuterie, others with more comprehensive menus.

Mission E2 is the latest, opening a fortnight ago in Bethnal Green by Charlotte and Michael Sager-Wilde. Its focus is on the wine and cuisine of California, its name a nod to the exciting Mission district in San Francisco, which is the new beating heart of creative Californian cooking. It was where I was staying exactly a year ago as I ate my way through the Golden State.

Situated in a railway arch on the blossoming Paradise Row, it's a great mix of London and California. A gigantic palm tree fills the arch, with a deep grey polished concrete floor and huge bi fold doors that open up the whole space to the terrace out front. On this balmy September evening you could have easily believed you were in trendy Los Angeles suburb Echo Park.

There is a reasonably sized wine list of sensibly priced, exclusively Californian wines by the glass and bottle, and a more extensive and expensive menu for the real connoisseur. The main list did us fine, enjoying a glass of Mission Fizz, which looked totally flat but must have been full of invisible bubbles. A Sonoma County Trousseau Gris was light and minerally, and the Nero d'Avola from Mendocino County was so deep and sultry that it tasted of death, in a good way. Prices started at £4.50 a glass for (presumably great) house wines, up to about £10.50 for more interesting choices. With a standard £20 mark up on all bottles, there's a big incentive to push the boat out a bit.

The food menu is impressive, with smaller bites, starters, mains, sharing dishes and desserts. We could have tried everything, but settled on nduja arancini and globe artichoke to start. The arancini were relatively subtle but there was enough nduja to give a bit of fiery warmth. 

The glove artichoke was just perfectly cooked and served with an anchovy buttery emulsion to tip the leaves in. It's such a nice dish for leisurely nibbling through with a good glass of white, and the heart at the end is the ultimate reward for the perseverance.

Choosing mains was particularly hard, with ox cheek lentils and salsa verde, rabbit with giroles and polenta, and a cuttlefish and mussel stew on the menu. In the end we settled on their platter of lamb chops, priced at £38 but could have easily fed three people with the six generous chops. They were incredible. Beating even Tayyabs on taste, if not price. Garlicky, herby, perfectly charred, brilliantly fatty and charred lemons just added to the stickiness.

We shared a dulce de leche cheesecake for dessert, which was nicely pungent and came with chunks of cinder 

At £50 a head, it's not cheap, but it felt totally justified for the quality of food and wine. You'd pay about the same in San Francisco, and boy, what a saving on the airfare. There's a brunch menu and plenty more to try on the evening menu. And if it's true to Californian form, the menus will evolve with the season, so plenty of reason to go back and make my way through the wine list. Low key but warm service ensures that you'll have a relaxed, enjoyable time. And I'm just delighted to have a slice of California so close to home.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Hash E8, Dalston Lane, Hackney

The brunch backlash has started. The weekend-only in-between meal been singled out as a defining feature of the much-derided urban creative class' self-indulgence, and of the international sameness of the gentrification aesthetic. Brunchers are pulled apart for queuing for tables, drinking bottomless mimosas and caring too much about where's hot and not.

It may not be a real backlash, though; rather, some clickbait from the good folk at the Grauniad to get those much-derided (but desirable for the advertisers!) urban creatives sharing the link all over social media. Because what's not to love about - let's be real - eggs for a late breakfast at the weekend. If you've worked your socks off all week, barely having time to wolf down a piece of toast before going to work each day, why not enjoy the most important meal of the day, slowly, with friends, when you get to the weekend?

Hackney, as I've document, is in the midst of a brunch revolution. There are now so many places to get your fill of eggs at the weekend, that it's very rare to have to wait for a table. There are now high end options, Antipodean twists, classic greasy spoons, Med-influences. But nowhere has really, really specialised in only doing that classic eggy, bacony thing well...until now. 

Hash E8 opened a couple of weeks ago halfway between Dalston and Clapton on Dalston Lane. It's an all day cafe - a 'short order' cafe they say, which is American English for a short menu of diner-style food that can be cooked up quickly, to order. 

So far the the short order menu focuses on all things piggy and breakfasty. These guys source all their pig from a farm in Yorkshire, and you'll find that pig making its way into bacon, sausage, sausage patties, sausages, bacon jam and their signaturee slice of confit pork belly, which appears in many of the dishes and is available on the side. It's a much richer and more punchy option than your standard bacon.

I've been a couple of times already - it's that good - and made my way through some signature dishes and specials.

The Piggy Muffin is their spin on the McDonald's breakfast classic. It's epic: between the two muffin halves you'll find a homemade hash brown (more on that in a minute), confit belly slice, crisp bacon, a slice of regulation processed cheese, a mini omelette (one egg, whipped and fried) and their own bacon jam. It comes with a side of their deeply flavoured chutney and is held together with a skewer, which my piggy friend abandoned as he squeezed the whole thing together to eat as a burger. Bravo, Alistair.

Another signature is their Belly Benedict, which is your classic poached eggs on top of their confit belly, spinach, topped with a silky hollandaise and then some flakes of their umami dust (bento and black sesame, I think). An American short order influence comes in the shape of their home fries, gorgeously crisp and flavoursome. 

On my second visit the special was a Hash Benedict, which was the aforementioned egg combo but on top of a whopping round hash cake. It tasted German style, like reibekuchen, with slithers of potato and a decent amount of sweet onion to give it full flavour. I added confit belly to mine, because it's too good not to have, and it came with a lightly pickled beetroot and cucumber salad, continuing the Mitteleuropaeisch theme.

We went all out gluttony, and chased our sizeable savoury brunch with their sweet special: a French toast sandwich of peanut butter, Nutella and banana. My arteries may not have thanked me for it, but it was worth the extra clogging. Hash E8 brings out the piggy side of me, and I thought I may as well go the whole hog.

They keep it diner style on the drinks. No pretending that a kale and flaxseed smoothie will save your soul here: just orange juice (from concentrate), filter coffee (by the Clapton based Roasting Shed) and cups of tea. For breakfast booze fans, there is a small selection of craft beer and a Bloody Mary. 

There are plans to open in the evenings too, but the owners say they are mastering the daytime service first. Based on my two early visits, I'd say they've mastered it already: friendly, efficient service, fair prices for the size and quality, and already doing a very steady trade. I know that Hash E8 is going to be a regular haunt, and I'm already dreaming of my next slice of confit pork belly.

Friday, 29 August 2014

The Lockhart, Seymour Place, Marylebone

Living East-of-Centre you forget just how much the centre of London's gravity has shifted, especially when it comes to entertainment. It's now rare to go to a gig in Camden, to hear about an exciting restaurant in Kensington, or a street food market in Shepherd's Bush. We're not just talking East-East, but North-East and South-East too are the places where things happen.

When it came to choosing a restaurant to celebrate my birthday with my other half, my suggestion of the Lockhart, situated a block back from Marble Arch, was greeted with a frown... “but there are so many good restaurants in Hackney”. But I'd read good things about the Lockhart from some of my favourite food bloggers and critics, and their menu of southern states soul food done fancy, with a good American wine list, was too enticing to pass up.

Greeted into the light, open canteen-like room by denim-clad waiting staff, we got straight into the American vibes with a glass of sweet sparkling wine from upstate New York, served in a cute crystal glass. House bread was rich and dense, and served with whipped butter.

It's only looking back at the photos that I realised just how much we ate. A small portion of chicken oysters were so sweet, juicy inside, and nicely crisped on the outside, then on top of a 'secret sauce', which was like your classic burger sauce but done fancy – loads of depth to the flavour, a brilliant tang that led to every last smear mopped up.

A starter size portion of catfish gumbo could have satisfied many as a main course, with another deep set of flavours, bits of asparagus, and smoky ol' andouille sausage chopped up in it. I've had a fair few gumbo and this was one of the most impressive yet, especially with a liberal shaking of tabasco in it.

We were upsold a tomatillo ("just one?!") – I thought we were getting a special pitch, but then I heard the exact same pitch being given to a nearby diner. It was nice though – often they can be claggy and cloying, but not here: the pork inside was moist and flavoursome, the corn not too heavy.

The starters came quickly, and we ate them slowly to savour each taste. But the food kept on coming. The signature cornbread was one of the highlights, and filled any time that might have existed between starter and main. Oh it was good. Soft but firm, warm from the oven, served in the heavy cast iron dish it was cooked in, and oozing with honey and butter. One for the last supper.

The speed of service was now becoming comical - we still had some starters on the table, the corn bread had only just arrived and the mains started coming out. Wine was still in our glasses and we were being asked what our next glass was to be.

But when the shrimp and grits came out you could start to forgive them: this dish can be so disappointing, with bland, lukewarm grits and sad prawns. Not here. The grits were bursting with flavour – cheddar, parmesan, smoky bacon in abundance, spring onion adding freshness, mushrooms earthiness, and a nice broth keeping it from being too dry. The prawns were meaty and juicy and full of flavour.

The fried chicken was nicely done, crisp and not too oily, but not badass like the honey smothered chicken I had in a soulfood joint in Harlem, or packed with as many interesting flavours as Dante Fried Chicken in Los Angeles. But the collard greens it came with were in a lovely mustardy broth, and the tomatoes in the salad were just so sweet and fresh.

After we'd finished eating we had to ask to move tables. Something I've never done before, but the loud noise of two bankers at the table next to us talking about money quickly went from voyeuristic curio to crushingly awful. How much they'd spent on wine in Mayfair, how much their houses cost, who's getting promoted, and the reality check moment when one of them said - as though talking about barbarians - that the average wage in UK is £35,000 (I was tempted to pipe up and say it's HOUSEHOLD INCOME and it's £26,000!).

Look around and it didn't seem like the crowd you'd expect with such interesting food and drink menus. A group of wealthy late teens were popping out for smokes before and after each course, I overheard people moaning that they didn't fancy anything on the menu, getting sniffy about the lack of French wines on an amazing menu of American wines. It felt like a neighbourhood restaurant that could have been serving a neighbourhood that appreciated it a little more.

This, coupled with the hasty and upselly service, took the sheen off an otherwise delicious and enjoyable evening. I'd still say it's some of the best Southern food I've had in London, the service was still warm and pally, it's a nice spot and actually it's pretty good value when you account for the taste, quality, generous portions and location. Go! But maybe indicate early on that you'd like it paced gently and don't be afraid to be firm on the upselling.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Pivaz, Chatsworth Road, Clapton E5

When I moved from Newington Green to Clapton, I was most worried about not having delicious Turkish food on my doorstep - not of the standard I could get at Mangal, anyway. 

I've found some decent E5 alternatives - my favourite among them is Neden Urfa, a take-away on Southwold Road in Upper Clapton. Sure they do bog standard doner meat and pita, but order their expertly done skewers of cubed lamb, chicken, and minced kebabs. At a fiver a pop for two adana skewers, generous amounts of fresh salad, all wrapped together in freshly rolled and cooked flatbread, Neden Urfa is excellent on all fronts. Sure it's all fluorescent striplights inside, but it can't be beaten on value and taste.

Down Lower Clapton Road, some fairly good new Turkish options have appeared. Dom's Place is a facelift on Dunya, and has had the "full hipster" - lots of washed out timber, exposed industrial pendant lights, Brooklyn lager and sweet potato fries. Hats off to them for embracing the new Clapton crowd, and some of the food is good, but on some of my visits I've found the 'de-constructed' wrap a bit clumsy, and some sides a bit limp.

Further down, Yoruk has opened with a more traditional look and traditional menu - with keenly priced grills and a homely vibe. I've been sad to see it quiet of an evening - undeservedly: it's good, with generous and warm service.

Not so quiet is the new Turkish restaurant that's opened up on Chatsworth Road: Pivaz. Literally at the end of my road, Pivaz's glass front opens up onto the road, where tables spill out onto the wide pavement, and the smell of charring lamb fills the air. It looks so open and welcoming and has been consistently busy from morning to evening since it opened a few weeks ago.

The décor and vibe has embraced l'hipster: again, lots of washed out timber, exposed brick, displays of artfully arranged rusted cogs, and a soundtrack of 2000s indie hits with the volume cranked up. But thankfully that hasn't extended to the menu, which is traditional: cold mezze, hot mezze, grilled meats, fish and veg. Cocktails are on offer, though, distinguishing it from its more old school Dalston counterparts.

The mixed mezze was a very reasonable £7.95, including a yoghurt and broad bean dish with fronds of dill, a delicious cold aubergine and tomato dish, decent little borek, creamy humus and a haloumi salad. Every dish was nice, generously portioned, and with a few flairs.

The grills landed pretty much as soon as our mezze was taken away, and came with a tomato and cucumber salad and some buttery rice. The salad was a little meek compared to the earthy pickles, fiery onions and tangy sumac you'd get in the salads at my favourite Dalston joints.

I ordered adana kebabs – my benchmark for a good Turkish grill. There were two skewers, the seasoning was authentic, but it would have been good to have a beyti (spicy) option there too. My only complaint was that they could have had a bit more of smoky taste from the charcoal, and a bit more charring on the outside. My mum's cop sis (cubes of lamb on the grill) were perfectly seasoned – just salty enough and nicely charred.

It was an enjoyable meal, good service, and clearly very popular already – I bumped into quite a few familiar faces, and was pleased to see a wide range of locals there: not just the monied twenty-thirty-something set. It may not be the gutsiest Turkish food, nor the most innovative, but at just over £20 for huge portion of decent food, a cocktail, and a tip, it's excellent value.

I'll be back, especially with the smells of the charcoals wafting down my road and with their Turkish breakfast menu to try (have you ever had menemen, Turkish scrambled egg with feta and sausage, tomato and pepper? It's the best.), but if I wanted to show off Hackney Turkish restaurants to visiting friends, I'd still take them to Dalston.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Hackney brunch map

When I moved back from Berlin eight years ago, brunching wasn't such a big deal in London. There were pockets of it - a bit of independent cafe culture in Swains Lane in Highgate, Stoke Newington Church Street  - here and there. Maybe they did poached eggs, maybe it was just a fry up.

Fast forward to 2014, and I'm now slap-bang in the middle of the brunching capital of London. A colleague recently asked for brunch tips for Hackney - as I jotted them down into an email I realised we have something of a brunching revolution happening on our doorstep. I decided to start mapping out my favourite brunch spots in the hope that people searching for good brunch options will see what there is out there.

View Top Hackney brunches in a larger map

Since I started this map, the brunch offering has expanded more. Clapton, where I live, and nearby Hackney Central, seem to have seen some of the better options opening. Rita's, Raw Duck, Well Street Kitchen and Verden E5 all do a particularly classy brunch.

If there's anything you think I'm missing, do just leave a comment and I'll check it out and add it.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Well Street Kitchen, Well Street E9, Hackney

It's amazing how areas so close to each other can have such different feels. Lower Clapton, a purposefully planned and laid out neighbourhood, has two big long shopping streets, and neat grids of well-kept Victorian terraces running off them. The area feels orderly and balanced.

A few hundred metres south and you get to Homerton, bounded and intersected by busy roads, largely re-built with estates from different decades following heavy shelling in the second world war, on top of a street plan that started as a series of ancient lanes. Homerton hasn't seen quite the breakneck 'yummification' that Clapton (North), Hackney Wick (East), Victoria Park Village (South) and London Fields (West) have had in recent years - perhaps helped/hindered (depending on your viewpoint) by its less immediate beauty.

Right in the middle of E9 is Well Street, an ancient market street, that's got pretty much everything you could want: an excellent (cheap) fruit and veg shop, kebabs, curries, jerk chicken, laundrette, a brilliant old school (not gentrified) butcher where I buy much of my meat, a big Mediterranean supermarket, old school charity shops and a Tesco Metro (this is where the founder of Tesco opened their first store). By virtue of the surrounding gyratory of rat-running one way streets, Well Street feels like an island oasis where folk can just get on with their business.

More recently a few new businesses have opened on the street. The Gun pub recently re-opened with a minimal facelift and a major overhaul on the drinks list. It's pretty much the perfect pub - the size of a generous London living room, a saloon vibe, with good seats at the bar, and all simple and original fixtures and features but for a Roald Dahl referencing neon sign reading "secret plans and clever tricks".

The other new business of note is Well Street Kitchen, which I visited last week. It's in the ground floor of a cute terraced cottage, and has a nice mini deli at the front, and running through to the back are tightly backed tables like in an old caff, where you can get breakfast, brunch and lunch through the week and over the weekend.

(image borrowed from Well Street Kitchen)

The menu is excellent - going a notch above the standard brunch fare: there's an antipodean flourish, with lots of avocado, chorizo, slow roast tomatoes, feta, as well as compose-your-own cooked breakfasts, artful granolas. There is also a changing menu of specials, demonstrating their commitment to making brunch awesome.

I had avocado and herbed feta on seeded toast with two poached eggs and slow roast tomatoes. It was epic. The seeded toast was better than sourdough with the flavours, with the seeds adding a nice earthiness, feta and avocado are natural bed fellows, and the tomatoes added something rich and sweet.

I also got to try a bit of one of their specials: a sticky, thick gammon steak, modernised with a pineapple salsa, and served with fried egg, topped with watercress, and with a generous portion of perfectly seasoned and textured thick cut fries.

The virgin mary packed a proper punch - very smoky, paprika flavours and a strong chilli hit. A small selection of local craft beers were also on sale, and of course I could have had a proper bloody mary with booze had I wanted.

Well Street Kitchen joins my Hackney brunch map, and on the esteemed but short list of places to get a proper fancy brunch with proper drinks and stuff. While the offer is pretty brunch, lunch and coffee/cake focused for now, they're starting to do the odd supper club or pop up in the evening - and the menus look interesting and the prices fair.

The place was rammed the Saturday morning we were there, and it will be interesting to see if any other new businesses join Well Street Kitchen and The Gun in opening on Well Street. Keep it slow guys, Well Street works nicely as it is.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Verden E5, Clarence Road, Clapton

I've been excited about Verden since I first caught wind of it opening, and I've been excited about writing this blog since I first visited it a few weeks ago. Spoiler alert: Verden blew me away and I hope I persuade you to check it out and be blown away too.

It's hard to believe that just two and a half years ago, none of the pubs in Clapton had gastrofied. Now there are only a couple left that haven't. Back when the Clapton Hart dolled up, this place was boarded up, having been shut down in its previous guise as the Cricketers after intervention by Hackney Council.

Verden is the most 'grown up' of Clapton's new bars. Inspired by the wine bars of Copenhagen, one of the key people behind it is a former Maitre'd at Scotts in Mayfair, and its offering is based around the trinity of exceptional wines, cheeses and charcuterie. This isn't about showing off drinking champagne. These are people who are deadly serious about wines, cheeses and sliced meat and have gone to the bother of finding the best to share with us punters.

The decor matches the grown-upness. No shabby chic nothing here. It's all crisp, clean lines; black, white, grey and some gorgeous wood. Big windows draw in all the light upstairs on a sunny day, and the basement's deep grey walls, low ceilings and pendant lights make for a futuristic, Scandi revision of the speakeasy.

I've been to Verden twice since it opened: for an evening and for brunch. Our evening at Verden was special - making our way through the meat and cheese and wine menus. We were there for almost four hours, drinking and grazing at our own pace, before sharing a couple of main courses and three desserts between the four of us.

One of their most understated achievements is balancing a meticulous and expert sourcing of wines, cheeses and meats without any kind of sniffy pretension or assumption that diners know their way around these worlds (and judgement if they don't). The menus have lots of well priced options on (glasses of wine start at £3.50, as do cheeses and meats), and short descriptions tell you everything you need to know, so you're not ordering in the dark. I've been to bars with a similar premise which are a lot more intimidating - and that's to seasoned diners like me.

There is a short menu of daily dishes available - for when the wine you've drunk hasn't quite been soaked up by the cheese and meat you've nibbled on. Actually, that's unfair - the food is excellent, with delicious salads (we might have had the tomato one twice it was so good), and typically at least a meat, a fish and a vegetarian dish, as well as some desserts.

We had a crispy confit duck leg with perfect lentils and a charred lettuce. It was a classic done well, and the duck generously sized too. My friends shared a weighty green salad with delicious curded cheese.

The desserts were perhaps the most impressive. We loved the savarin brillat cheesecake with apricots - the cheese making the cake so much more pungent and punchy, offset beautifully with the sticky apricots. A brilliant night.bread and butter pudding with rich vanilla ice cream was warming and satisfying.

Back for brunch a fortnight later, the quality was that notch above the standard Hackney brunch (which is already quite high). The bloody mary was great, with a delicious cornichon and caperberry adorning it. Not too boozy that it'll bring last night back to you, but enough to help you ride it out.

The brunch menu builds on the well-sourced meat they stock for their boards, with exceptional morcilla sausages, iberico, bacon and smoked ham. I went for their rendition of the classic ham, egg and chips, which consisted of two massive slices of amazing ham, perfectly fried egg, and the dreamiest, richest roast potatoes you can imagine, glistening with crystals of salt and thick with the good oils they were cooked in.

The iberico hash with salsa was excellent too, as was the morcilla, bacon and egg.

It was nice to see the space in the full light of day, and Ed Wyand's hostelry makes it a very relaxing, welcoming spot to have a leisurely brunch with friends.

Verden is the gift that keeps giving - all the cheese, meat and wine is available to buy from their cold store downstairs, and you get 10% off on presentation of your receipt. I know I'll be back many times over the coming years to stock up on killer cheeses (the 28 month aged comte in particular), and to bring friends to show off what a perfect establishment we are lucky enough to have on our Clapton doorstep.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Reflections on Bonneville scandal, Clapton, Hackney

It's not every day that a pub on your local high street becomes part of a #twitterstorm. ICYMI: Bonneville, the subject of my last post, seriously misjudged their response to when a stabbing victim came into their pub, and then misjudged a subsequent apology too. But it went viral, in a flurry of right-on outrage, hipster-hate, capitalism-hate, and Hackney-hate.

The twitter outrage grew quickly, and also dissipated quickly. By about 6pm the volume of tweets had notably died down, and a couple of days later a crowd of less than a dozen staged a peaceful protest outside. There was more sincerity in Bonneville's apology by then, and like most twitterstorms it's unlikely to leave much of a long tail - its been getting busier in the evenings as I've cycled past.

What it has surfaced, though, is the extent of quiet, ongoing frustration that many in Hackney feel about the pace and face of change and the extent that it benefits a range of Hackney residents, new and old. That quiet frustration is increased every time a new business opens and people realise it's not for them: whether £475 pairs of dungarees, £35 bottles of wine, or pieces of cake priced just shy of £4.

The trajectory is unlikely to change. The word is out that Clapton is 'trendy', so shop landlords will jack up the rents at every opportunity. Long-standing businesses whose leases come up for renewal could well see their rent tripling from what they were paying already. The only businesses that can thrive on a high rent will have to have a hefty margin on products or have lots of lower margin products and shift them quickly.

Put bluntly: Hackney's many working class residents do not have much disposable cash. If high margin products seem unjustifiable on a low income (unless you're talking payday loans, then you're talking desperation), then you need to sell lots of lower margin products to attract a wide cross-section of people, and pretty much the only businesses that can do that are supermarkets and high turnover fast food restaurants.

You could well find that the people who get angry about gentrification and Hackney's new fancy, exclusive establishments overlap with the people who get angry about chains and fast food joints opening. Those don't have to be intellectually incoherent positions - but it shows the tension in supporting small, independent businesses to keep money local and support innovation, which at the same time drive up house prices, residential and retail rents, and narrow the pool of businesses that can serve a broad reflection of the local area.

As with many thorny issues, the answer is more complex and probably doesn't involve finger-pointing and there probably are no silver bullets.

But we need to start by acknowledging that prices (houses, residential rents, commercial rents, of beer and meals outs) are driven by supply and demand. Unless the price of everything is regulated (capitalism is having a shaky moment, but we're not quite there yet), you'd want there to be as many pubs, shops, houses, private rents as possible - taking the heat off commercial and residential rents, and making it more feasible for businesses to serve wider demographics. That would mean protecting retail space from being converted to residential, creating more retail space, and also building more affordable and intermediately priced homes.

It also means we all need to get behind businesses that started pre-gentrification, serve a wide range of people, but could be flattened by a post-gentrification rent rise. Give them your custom, and you could help make them more viable into the future.

Yard Sale Pizza, Lower Clapton Road, Hackney

In the aftermath of the Bonneville scandal, gentrification and the exclusivity of new Clapton businesses are the talk of the town. There have been few new businesses which really serve a wide range of Clapton residents - often because the kind of businesses that can function on high rents are those selling few high margin products, or lots of middle-low margin products .

So I've been asking myself: what kind of products*could* appeal to old and new, lower and higher income, and stack up financially? Well, erm, pizza.

Pizza is one of just a few high margin, quick shifting products that has a mass appeal (I'd also include good Turkish kebabs). Who doesn't love pizza? And who can be bothered to make pizza at home? I imagine the likes of Domino's or Pizza Express have some of the broadest customer bases in the country.

There's been an explosion of pizza joints in Clapton. In the last couple of years Sodo, VenerdiLatto Pizza, the Princess of Wales pub and now Yard Sale have joined old timers like Il Guscio, Pizza Man, Vesuvio and the Pembury Tavern in serving up pizza. And they're pretty much all busy.

Yard Sale, in a savvy move, offered 50 free pizzas a day for 6 days over their launch week, getting the word out around the neighbourhood. Queues were snaking down Lower Clapton Road before doors opened on the Friday of launch week, as Claptonites of all walks of life queued for free pizza. It was nice move that hopefully broke down the invisible barriers that many new businesses unwittingly put up - with on-trend fit-outs translating subconsciously (and through experience) to some as "not one for people like me". I hope the front-loaded generosity got the word out beyond twitter.

Their offer is simple: two sizes, five regular pizzas, a few well chosen sides, extras and drinks, delivered or for pick up. The toppings are all good quality, and combinations well-balanced.

The meat feast is their take on the classic pepperoni and has pepperoni, a spicy salami, and - sausage of the moment - nduja.  The full house is epic and nodding to those all out American style pizzas crumpling under the weight of their toppings - all mushrooms, ground beef, onions, olives and pepperoni. We had both, and were impressed by the discernible quality of the toppings, the chewiness of the base - which is thicker and keeps its texture better than a thin crust if you're transporting it.

We also had the TSB, yes, tender stem broccoli, which was our favourite of the three. Generously portioned with TSB (bloody hell) and then pine nuts, garlic, olive oil and then shavings of manchego, it was another perfect, fresh combination.

Alongside the five regular combinations there are sometime specials - a pulled pork, apple sauce and crackling pizza was on the menu, as was an intricate, not-for-delivery option of tuna, anchovy and caper paste. Both sound amazing.

So, Yard Sale has clearly upped the pizza stakes in Clapton. Sodo, the only real competitor, is more classic and understated than some of the more American flares here. And Sodo is more restaurant, whereas Yard Sale is more geared up for take away and delivery.

Will Yard Sale be one of the few new Clapton businesses that can appeal to a wider demographic whilst also affording the hefty rents? The prices (£7.50 - £11 for a 12" pizza) are in line with those of Pizza Express, cheaper than Domino's, but a good bit more expensive than my old favourite Pizza Man down the road (where you do see all walks of Clapton life, and especially those who like a good ol' greasy pizza).

With their early efforts to engage a wider slice of Clapton they may be in better stead than most new E5 businesses. The shop is welcoming and unpretentious, and the informal set up may make it more appealing than many others.

Only time will tell, but after the storm around the Bonneville, it's even more important for all new Clapton businesses to make a genuine effort to welcome everyone.