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.