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.