Saturday, 31 May 2014

The Dressing Room salad pop up, Hackney

A salad pop up? A SIX COURSE salad pop up? In the event space above a CORNER SHOP on Lower Clapton Road? It wasn't easy for my colleagues to keep a straight face as I told them what I was doing for dinner that night. Persuading the other half that he would be full - even after six courses - from salad was also a challenge, but the guys at The Dressing Room are on a mission to show that vegetable-led food can be stunning, exciting and fully satisfying.

The Dressing Room is a monthly pop up in Clapton run by a group of upstarts from various acclaimed London restaurants, including a chef from one of my favourite restaurants: Moro, in Exmouth Market. They build on Moro's strong Moorish and Middle Eastern influences to encompass classic British flavours, exciting Latin American zestiness, and some Asian twists, all using seasonal (and often local) veg, interesting grains and well sourced meats and dairies.

Guests are sat at communal tables in Palm 2's event space (surely the only corner shop in London to employ an events manager and have a tumblr fansite?) and share some courses as fours or twos, and others as individual plates. We happened to be sitting with Sam and Sam Clarke, the founders and owners of Moro and Morito, and authors of four of my favourite cookbooks. With Courtney Love playing a gig in a shop the weekend before, and Macaulay Culkin playing a gig in a pizza takeaway last week, you never quite know who you'll bump into on Lower Clapton Road these days!

Our first dish was a snack of radishes with whipped butter, served a gin and elderflower cocktail, packing a punch under some beautiful, clear, familiar spring flavours.

Each dish was served with the dressing separate, and part of the schtick was dressing the salad in a fitting and surprising way. Our scallop ceviche was served in a scallop shell, with crispy duck skin, toasted hazelnuts and the zingy amalfi lemon and iced earl grey dressing was poured out of a chintzy teapot.

Fresh, seasonal ingredients were a big deal too. Bang in the middle of the asparagus season, the beautiful green stuff made an appearance alongside outlandish parmesan crisps, creamy goats curd, wild garlic flowers, and a pungent wild garlic and mint dressing.

Mackerel came with Growing Communities bitter salad leaves, and strong aromatic flavours from fennel, olives and capers to match the strength of the mackerel. A nice touch dressing this one: a bolshy blood orange and sherry vinegar dressing came in a little spray bottle, so you could spray on the dressing like ocean spray...geddit?!

Perhaps the most beautifully presented was a salad of grains, with hundreds of pomegranate seeds, chopped pistachio, shelled broad beans and purple edible flowers, and lots of finely chopped herbs – an amazing sea of colour, and more so when served with robust green and red leaves, designed for scooping. The flavours reminded me of those in Georgian cooking, where vegetables are given a huge lift by pomegranate and fresh herbs.

The final savoury course was PX Duck (Sam and Sam Clarke translated Pedro Ximinex – that grapey, thick, sweet sherry) with more Growing Communities leaves, red and gold beetroot and a garlicky rich walnut paste (another Georgian influence) and a kickass horseradish cream. Topped with beautiful edible flowers, of course.

We were blown away with each course individually – the literal wow factor at the presentation as it landed on the table, the ceremony of the dressing – but it worked well as a conventional story too – a snack, an amuse bouche, a salad, a fish course, a meat course, a dessert. It was perfectly paced, filling us up just a little bit more, allowing for slowly munching through each course and letting the flavours and impressions settle down before the next came out.

A slightly longer wait followed the duck, and we all knew that its predecessors would be hard acts to follow. But a dessert, served in an oversized antique teacup – which in any other context would have been a nausea-inducing Cath Kidston glimmer of twee hell – of sweetened buttermilk, almond crumble, strawberries and rhubarbs, topped with a granita and served with an elderflower, ginger punch – was pretty much the freshest, most moreish dessert I've had.

The dessert, like the whole thing, shouldn't have worked. Tell it to your friends and it sounds like the most pretentious parody of an East London night out you've heard. But the quality of the cooking, the vibrancy of the flavours, the visceral excitement that the announcement of each course brings, is so fun, sensual and full of love – and not pretentious in the slightest.

I left with a real sense that Tom Sarafian, the head chef of The Dressing Room, and his co-plotters are all future masters of London's restaurant scene – and that I'd just been part of an exciting step in their rise to running their own critically acclaimed more permanent ventures.

The next instalment of The Dressing Room takes place on 5 June at theRusset, just on the other side of Hackney Downs, and promises 7 courses and a cocktail for £40. You might baulk at the price, but you won't find more plentiful portions of expertly cooked, innovative, beautifully presented, seasonal quality food in London. 

Monday, 5 May 2014

Raw Duck, Richmond Road, Hackney

Raw Duck opened summer 2013 right next to Hackney Central station. It was the first of its kind in this part of Hackney - a properly grown up place, with small plates, well-chosen and frequently rotating wines, amidst a stylish interior of moulded concrete, neon signs, chalk boards and interestingly obtuse menu lingo: "smashed" egg, cheeses filed under "milk", charcuterie under "pig".

Slowly building a loyal following, the business literally crashed into an abyss when a crack in the foundations appeared in the next door Travelodge building site. The restaurant and flats above were vacated immediately, people lost their homes and successful business were put on ice, and still work goes on to preserve the facade of those buildings on Amhurst Road.

The good news is that Raw Duck lives. It has had its second coming, opening at the end of April on a site about three times the size on Richmond Road, between Hackney Central and London Fields. A lot of the original charming features remain - all that beautiful concrete, nice desert plants, humongous chalkboards and that cute little neon duck doodle. But bigger.

The menu is bigger too - the raw in duck was a nod to the fact they only had a panini grill for cooking with on the old site. Now it's a whopping great kitchen in view of the big communal tables.

I've been a couple of times since it opened, and I get the feeling the bigger, better Raw Duck will be a big part of my foodie life. The place to take visiting friends when I want to show them what good food is on offer in Hackney, a spot for mid-week drinks and snacks after work, and the spot for a treat meal.

Their brunch menu is extensive, refreshing regularly, with fancy renditions of pastries, granolas, brioche with salted dulce de leche, crumpets, egg dishes, and their delicious sandwiches - including the Reuben, and their longstanding 'dirty bird', with chilli roast chicken, jalapeno mayo and iceberg. There are some interesting juices too: I had a tasty and very healthy seeming spinach, apple, celery and parsley juice.

I had curried potatoes with salt beef hash and two fried eggs, which is sadly not on the current menu. The salt beef was very moist, and the spice on the potatoes was subtle, but brought to life with a generous scattering of curry leaves.

I went back this weekend with a gaggle of friends to make a dent on their dinner menu. The menu is big, and covers off house-fermented and pickled goodies, cheeses, charcuterie, fried and salted snacks and a range of sizes (and prices) of dishes designed for sharing.

We had a couple of fermented red cabbage and caraway seeds, pickled cavolo (nero) ribs and some whipped butter with bread to kick things off. The bread was exceptional, and the ferments were nice - but I regret not trying their sprout kimchi.

A lot of the more specialist produce is sourced from local suppliers. I was particularly pleased to see Chatsworth Road Smokehouse feature a few times on the menu - smoked salmon, bacon and hot smoked trout. The hot smoked trout was a particular highlight - the fish was utterly melt in your mouth, and softly smoked. It came with a salted coconut yoghurt, generous lashings of dill, and lovely, earthy freekeh.

Buttermilk and yoghurts featured throughout as dressings and accompaniments. We shared a wedge of lettuce smothered in creamy buttermilk, with lots of bottarga (roe of tuna or mullet) scattered on top. It was a bit like a fancy, de-constructed ceasar salad - fresh, rich and mildly fishy. Also in theme was a yoghurt dressed slaw of hipsi cabbage and watermelon radish, which was equally fresh, but light and crisp.

A roast quail came with a thick labneh yoghurt, broad beans and zatar, and with a spicy sauce tasted like a fancy version of the smoky charcoal grilled meats you get at the Turkish ocakbasi joints around Hackney.

The menu is great for vegetarians too, even those who don't turn eye to a bit of fish every now and then. Seasonal green veg led the way in many of the dishes. We enjoyed a fiddlehead fern (yes, fern) risotto with wild garlic and hazelnuts. Fern tasted just like you might imagine - green and fresh despite its shadiness, and the risotto was perfectly creamy.

Asparagus appeared twice: battered in tempura and served with a yoghurt (again!), cucumber and curry leaves - offsetting the fried tempura perfectly. And again, chargrilled and topped with shaved ricotta.

That's just some of what we ate - I could have mentioned the buttermilk chicken, or the king oyster mushrooms with spatzle and miso, the shaved fennel and salted ricotta salad, or the lemon marmalade pies with clotted cream - but we'd be here all day.

The wines were excellent too - Raw Duck used to sell itself pretty much on its winelist alone - and bottles start at about £24 upwards. Almost entirely from France and Italy, the list is relatively trim but with excellent selections and some more unusual variations on familiar types. We particularly enjoyed some orange muscat.

So what's the catch? Surely the service must be really snooty? Nope, not at all - very relaxed, efficient - all the people serving our table had the full picture of what we'd ordered, what they'd run out of etc - ad we held our table for a good three hours. Is it expensive? A couple of bottles of (nice) wine and all that food came to £36 per person between five - so it's not cheap, but it's good value for the quality and inventiveness of the food. If there is a catch I've yet to spot it.

The Mare Street axis in Hackney was already the most exciting part of the borough for eating out, and with Raw Duck it's just got even better. Get in there before it starts getting the big reviews and it's hassle getting a table.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Eat17 burger bar in a Spar, Chatsworth Road, Clapton

We're used to being at the vanguard of 'stuff' in Hackney, but when I heard that a luxury mini-supermarket would be opening on Chatsworth Road, with a burger bar, modern British restaurant and fancy pop up flower shop imported from Broadway Market...well, I could hardly believe it.

But it's opened. Clapton has gone meta. Our fancypants supermarket with a burger bar is in a former cinema which later became a snooker hall. It is just down the road from the public toilets converted into a multi-generational social enterprise cafe-bar with roof terrace, a lifestyle flower boutique, four vintage furniture shops, two Italian restuarants, a creperie, a deli, a French bakery, a Swedish cafe, a cycle cafe, a fancy jam shop, and that's not even mentioning Lower Clapton Road.

In an interesting example of gentrification creeping inward, back to the places from which it originated. There is a net outward flow of middle incomes families from Clapton, moving to Walthamstow and Leyton as they struggle to afford the jump in price to a family size home from their starter flat. Walthamstow Village, a couple of miles down the road is home to Eat17 - the brand that brought you (and folk all around the world) bacon jam, but also a fancy Spar supermarket and upscale bistro. It's been such a success that they've rolled it out to Clapton.

As you might expect, it's a funny setting. There's no separation between burger bar and supermarket. From your table at the burger bar you can see people going about their evening's shopping, mulling over cheese, olives and beer, and getting their fags and lottery tickets. It's also cold. REAL cold. Because, of course, supermarkets are full of open fridges, and a lot of open fridges makes for cold air. I bumped into my neighbour on the way in: said exactly the same.

But that aside, it's a fun experience. You get a neat snapshot of who lives in this (estate agent language) vibrant, ever-changing neighbourhood, and what they're having for dinner. They also get a snapshot of who eats burgers in a supermarket *waves*. There's a decent playlist, which included Belle and Sebastian, Blur, The Police. And the food is really quite good.

The menu includes a beef burger, a buttermilk fried chicken burger, a pork and chorizo jam burger, panko crusted haloumi wrap, some suitably fried sides, Gelupo ice cream and a small selection of drinks, including Crate beers, Borough wines and a negroni. All very London mini-brand.

My beef burger (with added bacon) was sublime: quality beef, cooked perfectly medium rare, lathered with 'special sauce' (e.g. their own version of the Big Mac sauce), stuffed with salad and served in a glossy brioche bun. Just the right size for picking up in its Eat17 branded wrapper and fitting into your mouth...just.

The buttermilk chicken burger was tender and nicely coated, but it was all about the smoky chutney and almost rataouille-like sauce, which was full of punch.

Portions of chips were big, and the chips were chunky. We overestimated our hunger and ordered them plain and with truffle and goats cheese. I was expecting slithers of truffle and molten goats cheese, like an upscale chilli cheese fries. Alas, both came in a dusty form, applied to the chips before frying. I suppose that's what you expect for £3.90. They were nice, subtly flavoured, but I'd say charge a bit more and make them more of a blowout.

We also had tempura fried tender stem broccoli, which came doused in soy-tinged pomegranate molasses. These were good - nicely charred, still green and fresh tasting, and the molasses worked well.

The food was great and I'll be back. Notably, more people (men, mostly) were getting takeaways on their way home from work, and I suspect that may be more popular than eating in the bar itself unless they find a way of warming it up a bit. But if you're in the area, it's worth a punt for a slightly surreal and completely delicious, well-priced experience.

Eat17 will soon be opening a gastro British restaurant upstairs, under the arched roof of the former cinema. With 50+ covers, it could well be a bit of a game-changer for eating and evening entertainment on the road. I will report back once it's open.