Sunday, 18 October 2015

Jackdaw jazz cafe, Lower Clapton Road, Hackney

New openings are trickling through in Clapton, not quite as fast as in 2013 or 2014, but still steadily. The new openings are a mixed bag, with some really blowing me away (like the wonderful Brooksby's Walk) and others leaving me cold as they try too hard to impress with fussy menus, excruciating 'concepts' and food that fails to live up to its descriptions. I won't name them because I'm here, chiefly, to sing about what's great.

Jackdaw, a new jazz cafe opposite Clapton Pond is one worth singing about. Enough to get me out of my rut of not blogging (mostly driven by all my eating out cash going into a renovation project, but that's another story). Yup, a jazz cafe. A proper jazz cafe with live music every night. The jazz is downstairs in the basement bar, but the live sounds travel up to the restaurant and bar upstairs, where 22 year old head chef Joshua Dallaway and his equally fresh-faced team will serve you up an exciting, unusual but incredibly competent menu of sharing plates.

It sounds like it shouldn't work, like it's all ...'concept'. But it does, and that's chiefly down to the warmth and passion of the owners, Angela and Ash, who live in Walthamstow, love love love jazz music, and have decided to follow their dream at the end of their careers and open a jazz cafe. Rumour has it that Angela spotted Joshua Dallaway on a telly programme, liked what he was about and got in touch to see if he'd be interested in heading up the kitchen at Jackdaw. 

Josh and the team's creativity with food is impressive. Every dish is full of interesting flavours, textures, with fresh, seasonal ingredients that are cooked to perfection and beautifully presented. Read the descriptions and you think it won't work or that it's trying too hard, but the love for experimenting with ingredients and flavours is palpable. The menu changes every week, and you get the feeling they spend most of their downtime experimenting with different combinations for the next week's menu.

The menu is divided into snacks, small plates and desserts (except Saturdays when a £35 tasting menu is also on offer). The small plates range in price from £6 - £10, but they're really not that small at all. On our visit two £8 and two £10 dishes was just right for two hungry cyclists. 

Pumpkin gnocchi with wild mushrooms was "the best gnocchi I've had" - perfectly formed little pillows, with a nutty, fruity taste. The wild mushrooms were bountiful - king oysters, girolles, chanterelles, pickled little Asian mushrooms in sesame oil and a sharp vinegar. A few leaves of sea aster gave a lovely salty freshness to the dish.

Cauliflower came several ways (pickled, roasted, raw, pink, white, etc) with jasmine tea soaked raisins and a creamy barley and parsley root risotto-cum-porridge topped with cacao nibs. It was a strange mix of flavours, with the raisins and the nibs and the creamy sauce evoking a wintery breakfast porridge, while also being very savoury, nutty and earthy. 

Shorthorn onglet steak was absolutely perfectly cooked and seasoned, and served with a soft stilton cheese, roast baby turnip, roast salsify and blanched turnip tops. The presentation was stunning, the portion generous for the price, and every mouthful was layered with salty, earthy, fresh flavours with heaps of beefy juice to soak up.

Our final (not so) small plate was lamb belly with grilled hispi cabbage, mint sauce and hay baked shallot. The lamb belly had a lovely thin crisp layer of fat and the meat underneath was pink, juicy and meltingly tender. The shallots were luxuriously rich, the on-trend grilled hispi was perfectly sweet and smoky, and the mint sauce paid a nice homage to the kind you'd get in a Toby's Carvery with your all you-can-eat roast lamb. This was probably our favourite savoury dish.

Desserts are also a treat, and vary up every week. You get the feeling that Josh and the team have just as much - if not more - fun dreaming these up, testing and experimenting. We order both (we really don't need to). One was a chocolate mousse, with a wild mushroom ganache, whipped buttermilk and walnut marzipan - the funghi ganache was like a more pungent, earthy white chocolate. It really shouldn't work, but it does - contrasting nicely with the tangy buttermilk and the richer mousse. The other dessert was a fancy take on a carrot cake - with candied carrot, sour cream ice cream, a sweet, moist and sticky maple cake and candied pecans. This dish alone was definitely enough for two.

We end up in Jackdaw for three hours on this chilly Thursday night, enjoying the music, the just-right pacing of the service, with the fruity Sicilian nero d'avola wine keeping us going. A steady stream of customers came in for dinner, all local. I suspect Jackdaw will do well on return custom, as people see how great value it is for the quality of cooking - and the fact you get the live jazz coming up from downstairs too. They're open all through the day for coffee, breakfast, lunch and snacks. It doesn't reek of hipster, and the owners are very keen to encourage people from all backgrounds to come in for the jazz. Let's hope they manage it, because Jackdaw is a real treat to have in the neighbourhood.