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.

Monday, 9 June 2014

The Bonneville, Lower Clapton Road, Hackney

Nationally, pubs are closing at a rate of 28 a week. In Hackney it can sometimes feel like that many are opening a week - or at least it does in the run up to summer 2014. Within less than a mile of my flat, four pubs have 'transformed' in the past fortnight. Two were long shut (Clapton's Fitzgeralds and the Cricketers, this week becoming the Bonneville and Verden), and two were closed for a quick refurbishment before re-opening under the same name but targeting a different market (Adam and Eve and The Gun, both in Homerton).

Given the growing number of pubs largely targeting the same market, just selling craft beer and putting a few shabby sofas and upcycled furniture isn't going to make you stand out from the crowd. So fancy food, fancy fit outs, and interesting speciality drinks (beyond craft beer) are the focus of many of the new places.

The Bonneville, on Lower Clapton Road, does all of the above, and stands out as the most decadent refurb of a Clapton pub so far. The owner, who was previously involved in a few other gentrified pubs in Hackney, worked slavishly for months, sourcing amazing architectural salvage and stripping the pub back to its core.

The end result is stunning - an arched, stained glass ceiling is atop the main dining room, artfully distressed walls bring out turquoises, browns and golds, luscious leather banquettes, a high darkwood bar, and a bit of expressionist creepiness. It's clearly inspired by the early 20th century decadence of Paris, Brussels, Prague, and Berlin, and the menu of interesting (and well priced - with most around £7) cocktails reflects that decadence.

(photo borrowed from the Bonneville's instagram)

Refreshingly, the beers focuses on Belgian imports, including a specially commissioned house beer. The owner, Ruari, is half Belgian, so knows a thing or two. With the bar, literally, being so high, it was hard to see into their fridges to see what Belgian bottles they had in. A beer menu would be a nice addition if they intend to specialise in beer alongside the cocktails.

The food menu is short, and will change regularly. It's a French kitchen, and the focus is on simple, seasonal, fresh dishes. Starters (we skipped) included asparagus with hollandaise, a soup of the day, and a terrine, while mains were onglet steak, lemon sole, savoury crepes, and a shoulder of lamb to share.

I ordered the onglet steak, which was perfectly cooked (the assumption was that it came rare), chopped already, served with delicious, rich, thick, browned pomme frites - you ain't had nothing like it. The real deal. It also came with wilted spinach and an anchovy flavoured emulsion, which added a nice pungency to everything.

My vegetarian friend enjoyed the crepes, which came in a hot tin dish, ready-rolled, stuffed with chard and goat curd and topped with fresh tomatoes. We were all kept happy with a board of delicious, chewy sourdough and some whipped butter (our waitress informing us that it had been sourced specially from France).

We had all the desserts on the menu. All classics, done very well. Laura's creme caramel was made with thick, proper-tastes-like-real-dairy cream and a deep, deep flavour to the caramel. Belinda's tart tatin was topped with what seemed like whole mini apples, perfectly caramelised and served with a milk ice cream. My moulleux au chocolat (melting middle chocolate pudding, microwave fans!) was perfectly cooked, superbly rich and oozing, and offset nicely with milk ice cream (like a posh mini milk) and raspberries.

Service was chummy, attentive and efficient. We also had proper thick teatowel napkins! So un-Hackney. But it's obviously quite Hackney, because its opening hadn't even been announced or PR-ed and the place was rammed - lots of happy diners getting through the menu, and folk perched on bar stools supping a cocktail or two before moving on.

I suspect the Bonneville is going to do quite well. It's Clapton's first French restaurant, and there's nowhere with a specific and extensive focus on cocktails. It's also bloody stunning inside, and I haven't even told you about my trip down to the most atmospheric pub toilets in London. I won't spoil the surprise. You will have to swing by and see for yourself.

[Disclaimer 16/06/2014: I wrote this blog before a storm erupted over the Bonneville's tweets in response to a stabbing on Lower Clapton Road. I stand by my review of the Bonneville, for which I received no freebies or special treatment, and fully enjoyed. That does not mean I condone the tone and content of the tweets or their subsequent response]

[update 25/06/2014: I've posted my reflections on the issue here.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Aizle, Salt Cafe Morningside, Ting Thai Caravan: three exciting new Edinburgh restaurants

A fleeting visit to my hometown of Edinburgh for my best friend's wedding was just enough time to squeeze in visits to three of Edinburgh's notable new restaurant openings. As I said when I blogged my visit to the Gardener's Cottage last year, things are notching up a bit in Edinburgh's restaurant scene - which has always done a good Scottish-French bistro and some amazingly long-standing neighbourhood favourites, but I've sometimes found the buzzy, young, factor missing. 

That's why I liked the Gardener's Cottage so much - young, energised, sparky things, committed and passionate about local food and ingredients, doing great things. And the three restaurants I checked out all offered some buzzy promise to hungry Edinburgers: Aizle on St Leonard Street, Ting Thai Caravan on Teviot Row, and Salt Cafe on Morningside Road.

Aizle is a goodie. Tucked away on anonymous drag between South Clerk Street and Arthur's Seat, it is anything but inside - a simple, but warm interior of greys and whites, with big windows, views of the hills and crags just down the road. The joint is run by a Scottish-American couple who've toured the world cooking fancy food for fancy people, and now want to apply their bistronomical skills to local, seasonal fare in relaxed, homely environs.

The menu is not a conventional list of courses, but a list of ingredients they're working with that day - foraged, from their suppliers, from the market. Ours had unusual ingredients such as bee pollen, summer truffle, Inverurie hogget, sea astor, as well as more traditional ingredients: 'apples', 'blood orange', 'jersey royals'. The dishes are announced as they are brought to the table - and sometimes it's just a glimmer of one of those unusual ingredients you get - but each combination hit gold.

A trio of amuse bouche came first, which included an oyster, a mini stack of beetroot, steak tartare and saffron aioli, and a rice crisp with apple. This was followed by salt baked celariac, with celariac puree, a piece of fried chicken skin, then topped with apple. The combination of flavours was perfect - the salty, fatty skin, balanced by the earthy, deep flavours of the celariac, and the crisp freshness of the apple.

A fish course followed: mackerel, cooked simply, with thin slices of jersey royal potatoes, spring garlic, and various purees, drizzles and scatters that have left my memory. The final course was hogget (which I now know is an age of lamb -between lamb and mutton, with the tenderness of lamb and the flavour of mutton - no brainer really!), with a risotto like bulgur, pink radish, pink wildflowers and more unidentifiable gems of flavour.

I always worry that desserts in these kind of restaurants are going to be a bit austere, but not here. A rich chocolate terrine, with lemon curd and sweet cicely at the side, bee pollen and delicious sweet crispy shortbread-like wafers left us with the luxurious, sweet finale we wanted from such a special meal.

The good reviews have been pouring in, and the place was fully booked with a good mix of Edinburgers on the rainy Friday evening we were there. A sure sign that there's a healthy local appetite for exciting cooking. At £35 a head, it is also remarkably good value for a very special, inventive meal.


A mile away in Morningside, my old manor, and one famed for its pernickety older ladies, manners, tea shops and a bonanza of well stocked charity shops, Salt Cafe has just opened looking like an East London transplant - all gastropub grey exterior, bare bulbs, brunch and small plates. The area was clearly excited about it - tables were hard to come by at peak brunch hour on Sunday. 

The menu included some nice flourishes: Smoked bacon and poached egg on sourdough with a bit of truffle in the hollandaise, welsh rarebit with smoky tomato chutney, french toast with summer fruits, and some bigger dishes like moules frites and burger.

With most dishes priced at £3.50 we enquired whether one would be enough. They assured us it would, but the dishes (all served in oversized, steep edged bowls) were definitely £3.50's worth of brunch, and therefore not really big enough for hungry brunchers. We ended up ordering seconds - no bad thing, because each item was delicious, and it's nice to have a selection - maybe brunch tapas could be a selling point, rather than something to iron out? Unlike serving toast based food in a bowl - not big or clever, just impractical.

Despite these issues, Salt Yard's proprietors have created a buzzy, young spot in an area crying out for fun, relaxed neighbourhood eating. There's clearly a market for more, and will be interesting to see if any pubs or bars tap into this market too.


Finally, we tried Ting Thai Caravan - a bustling Thai street food cafe just opposite the university. Also painted in gastropub grey and with bare bulbs, it's a fast paced, communal tables, loud music and brusk affair, with a big menu that includes meat/rice dishes, soups, noodles, curries and an interesting selection of snack/side dishes.

Another rainy lunchtime and the place was hoaching. We got the last table, and queues formed quickly and were seated quickly too. We ordered a big selection of mains, sides and a carafe of wine - and the bill came to less than £60 between six.

Dishes went well beyond the anglicised 'classics' - pungent, spicy marinades adorned pork, pickles and salsa-like condiments brought extra flavours to the plates, and dishes were heavy on vegetables too. Each dish is designed as a meal in itself, and students, lecturers and other local workers pop in to take away paper boxes full of this goodness. 

The sides were inspired - and (all less than £2) meant you could quickly and cheaply sample lots of different flavours. We had an aromatic sausage chopped up with chilli and salad, tempura fried sweet potato chips (excellent texture), almost honeycomb like fried tofu with a sweet chilli dressing, and tempura fried juicy prawn skewers.

It was a fun experience, maybe a bit noisy for some, but an excellent antidote to central Edinburgh's mostly tourist-focused fare.