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.