The odd grouse about natural wine (and its acolytes) aside, the critical response to London Fields darling Bright has been, well, fairly bright. No surprise then, that two of the London Fields darling’s most vocal advocates, Grace Dent and Tim Hayward, both head down to sort-of-sequel wine bar and restaurant Peg to kick off this week.
Both leave plenty contented. Hayward thrills to the “skill and finesse” on show at the grill in particular — hearts, six to a skewer, arrive “grilled crisp on the outside but rare at the centre”; livers are “trimmed scrupulously” and “taste like the smoothest and richest chocolate mousse.” This, for Hayward, is cooking that “can change the way you think about chicken,” courtesy of “an extraordinarily creative team using top-level ingredients.” Those who like their chicken well done “might be better off not making the pilgrimage,” but for everyone else there is something “honestly awe-inspiring” to be found here.
Dent, too, acknowledges that the bar-style seating and “sort-of-Japanese” food may “not be to everyone’s taste,” but there are still “life-changingly delicious” things here for those willing to take a punt. Tofu is “exquisite”: “thick cubes topped with an irresistible nori mush, crisp on the surface, smooth and yielding below.” Thighs come “enlivened” with a housemade version of yuzukoshō; “delicate servings of offal” are similarly “titivated” with on-point accents of shichimi togarashi or horseradish. Dent feels it’s hardly Japanese “in any way to which the British may be accustomed,” but the Guardian critic also diagnoses Peg as appreciably “bold” at a time when “the restaurant world is being very cagey.” The default critical murmur for any new opening in east London, that there is the sense that it’s an in-joke “only for deeply cool people,” rears its predictable head — but Dent also finds “reasonably low” prices and “delightful” staff: “that glorious type of food nerd with whom you would happily eat dinner.” It may be named after a fake limb, but Peg is “the real deal.”
Island Social Club
More real, delicious deals over in Haggerston, as Jimi Famurewa sings the praises of Island Social Club. Early statements impress: cassava fries are “plentiful and well-seasoned with a robust, golden crunch”; twice-cooked plantain comes in “soft, fat slices” that offer “more textural subtlety than the usual deep-fried rounds.” Among the mains, colombo de poulet is “pretty fantastic”, but best of all is the curry mutton: “a greige, almost comically unphotogenic brew” of “quartered potatoes and luscious, slow-cooked meat” in a “sauce of fathomless depth and complexity.” Accompanied by “griddle-kissed” roti, it’s “nothing less than a tactile, sloppy delight.”
A word to the aesthetes: as vibey new openings go, this one is maybe a little “straightforward and rough-edged”, poised as it is at the intersection “between restaurant and supper club”. But for everyone else, it’s vital, broadening “understanding of wider Caribbean culinary culture through the medium of patiently coaxed, undeniable deliciousness.” Sure, this is “determinedly authentic island food contemporised on its own terms” — but with its short menu of “lightly reconsidered jerk shop staples, abominably flavoursome curries and buttery, expert rotis,” Island Social Club is not just delicious: it’s also actively “soul-lifting.”
Another soul is lifted over at Two Lights in Shoreditch, where William Sitwell finds riffs on modern American cooking that sing with “warm-hearted, spirited, locally sourced guts and glory.”
Sitwell namechecks Alice Waters and the California renaissance of the 1980s as a reference, but figs on a plate this is not: this food “oozes with the scent of animal fat, of skin, of bones, of offal.” Pigs head sandwich packs “a magnificent crunch of porky bliss”; twinned with “punchy” gribiche it “makes for a very intriguing mouthful” indeed. Crab and elderflower on beef fat chip is “a lesson in straight-talking menu description” but eats even better, all “crispy skin” and “sweet dollops of creamy crab” — just “beautiful.” Less successful, perhaps, is some broccoli “obliterated” by its pungent anchovy dressing and chicken skin garnish; at £36, half a chicken feels “quite expensive,” too. At its best, Two Lights just manages to toe the “fine line between unpretentious flair and mess”; even if it oversteps from time to time, though, there is still clearly a “fabulous imagination” at work here.
No. Fifty Cheyne
It perhaps takes a little less fabulous imagination to reinvent a successful brasserie in Chelsea: just tart it up a bit inside and give it a new name. But for David Sexton, No. Fifty Cheyne — née The Cheyne Walk Brasserie — is firing on all cylinders.
The refurb has resulted in “a space that feels like an epitome of high Chelsea-style”; the menu has been tweaked to match, offering “the luxurious classic dishes well-heeled diners want to see.” Crab with shellfish roasting juices is “a delectable little dish, as fresh as could be”; scallop and langoustine in champagne sauce is “impossible not to enjoy”; Veal Château comprises “wonderfully tender, flavourful meat,” its cuisson “excellently judged.”
Service is as unctuous as any champagne sauce: “attentive” and “charming,” “preposterously but all too winningly” so. It’s “a world away from the aspirations of Peckham or Shoreditch, or even Soho,” but that doesn’t make its “easy intimacy” any less appealing. It doesn’t come cheap, but for Sexton, there’s still something wonderful about being so thoroughly “cosseted.”
One of the happiest weeks in recent memory comes to a close with another contented critic, as Jay Rayner gets his hands dirty at the curiousLy capitalisEd EartH Kitchen. This latest outpost in the growing St John diaspora has a sturdy spine of Hendersonian DNA on show, thanks to head chef Chris Gilliard, who used to oversee the group’s kitchens. Crispy pig cheek with watercress is “an adult bowl of food designed to make those with encouraging appetites sigh and perhaps weep a little with happiness” — “lumps of bronzed and golden debris” find “pepperiness,” “softness,” and “acidity” in their garnish. Other starter small plates are perhaps less reliant on noses and tails than Gillard’s pedigree would indicate: “meat is used less as focus for the plate, and more as a flavouring,” as in a dish of jerk ox heart sliced thin and served with aubergine, salad and mint. Mains bring the carnivorous beat back in with interest: pigeon boasts “the high funk of game that has been properly cared for”; grilled kipper and mash is “the kind of dish Fergus Henderson would refer to as ‘sustaining’.” There isn’t much that’s revolutionary about EartH Kitchen. But, combine some familiar “robust flavours” with a spoonful of “nerdy intent,” and the results are invariably “hugely cheering.”