I’ve wanted to eat at Upstairs at The Ten Bells for bloody ages but to be honest; I’d begun to think I’d missed the boat on it. ‘Young Turk’, Issac Mchale has since gone on to open much lauded sister restaurant, The Clove Club just down the road in Shoreditch and much of the current food mob focus appears to be fixed firmly there. But recently, whilst perusing a friend’s rather excellent blog, he had written a post about how he’d just revisited The Ten Bells for lunch and how stonking it still was. I didn't need any further encouragement.
In a former life, before my move to Bristol, I worked in London for the best part of twenty years and I’ve always been fascinated by the history of the city. The Ten Bells pub itself is a bit of a fave due to the Jack the Ripper connection (At least two of his unfortunate victims are supposed to have been regulars at the pub, the immediate area at that time being notorious for prostitution). The downstairs bar area is relatively untouched from this period with original Victorian tiling and a mural decorating the walls (Yes. I can be that boring). Nowadays, despite being a popular pub with both the after work suited crowd and the hipsters; it’s still surprisingly atmospheric.
I’ve drunk in there a fair bit over the years, and often wondered what’s up the gloomy, looking wooden stairs at the back corner of the bar. Now I know.
Taking the last step with my regular panache and turning smartly on my heel, through the doorway into the restaurant I was immediately struck by just how beautiful the dining room is. The space, flooded with afternoon sunlight playing over the worn, gnarled and knackered floorboards, stripped back walls and woodwork, has real character. Here and there, just to bring everything bang up to date, all this cool shabbyness is punctuated with glaringly modern neon, a piece on the opposite wall to me spelling out ‘Keep me safe’. Definitely a sentiment I can appreciate.
I was meeting a mate and finding her already seated, we started as we meant to go on and cracked straight into a couple of G&Ts, to get the old digestion process kick-started. Purely medicinal, you understand. Sipping commenced; I considered the menu, which at lunchtime is of the short, set variety.
The ‘Snacks’ section stands apart from the set menu with regards to moolah and contains some very interesting items, the buttermilk chicken & pine salt being a bit of a signature dish. We’re both unashamedly greedy bastards, so we immediately agreed to order one of everything.
Razor clam and grapefruit sauce vierge, chopped, mixed and arranged in the shell was a perfect way to get started. Delicious, fresh and sharp. As these were only three quid, we had one each.
Digging into the shared bowl of grilled leeks, Westcombe fonduta & flax seeds, I mused silently to myself on the pretentiousness of the term fonduta. I’ve never heard of this apparently slick, Flash-Harry relative of plain old fondue, but here it was, dripping sexily off the end of my charred baby leek and I was eating it all and not only that, I was mopping up the remnants with bits of bread. Ridiculous. By the way, I ate the rooty sprouty bits of the leeks as well, not entirely sure if you should or not, but I’ll stick anything in my gob given half a chance.
Finally, the famous buttermilk chicken and pine salt. A dish I’ve ooohed and aaaahed over a hundred times on Instagram. Yeah. It is as good as I hoped. Beautifully moist and subtly pine tinged. Well worth £6.50 of anyone’s cash. I’m an older, wiser diner nowadays, so I resisted the urge to try and tuck into the bed of pine branches the chicken was artfully arranged on. You may laugh, but about five years ago, I spent some time in a restaurant gamely chewing tough seed like items from a glass bowl of before realising it was the inedible base decoration underneath the actual dish. I’m ashamed to say I’d eaten a handful of them. So, if I’m in your restaurant, never give me a plate with decorative props on it, there’s a 50/50 chance I’ll eat ‘em.
A starter of wild mushroom veloute, Jerusalem artichoke and quail’s egg was a bit less impressive. Don’t get me wrong, it was nice and a decent enough transition to the main event but it lacked the ‘sit up and take notice’ quality that the snacks had. The quails egg was perhaps just a bit overcooked so rather than starbursting it’s yolk into the surrounding soup as I viciously hacked into it, it just kind of sunk without trace, taking it’s egg yolk cargo to the bottom in two halves.
Cornish Hake, Broccoli, Bagna Cauda and Barley Porridge however, was superb. Take a look at that photo. What a beautiful plate of food. The fish was spot on, and the subtle flavours on the plate all pulled together. Lovely.
My lunch partner meanwhile was demolishing roast venison haunch, parsley root puree and red kale and wasted no time in telling me how incredible it was and subsequently how much better it was than my choice. I tried a bit, and she may just have had a point. Yeah, thanks for that, Audrey
A plate of figs, honey & thyme ice cream, crème fraiche and pastry flakes was also delicious. The only minor niggle being that the ice cream was already melting as the plates hit the table, but still, I was well happy anyway and scraped the plate.
I liked Upstairs at The Ten Bells a hell of a lot. I’m really glad I finally made it. It’s a beautiful room and the cooking itself is spot on but also really interesting, and I mean that in the nicest way. If you eat out often, you see the same dishes again and again, but they are really pushing it in this kitchen and doing something different (Hello fonduta! Just kidding).
I should add the service was particularly excellent, the waiters being really knowledgeable, both about the menu and its preparation and also the wine list.
The set lunch menu is a steal at £21 for three courses, but my bill, which included half of all the snacks, a gin & tonic, two glasses of wine and a tip came to a rather weightier £50.
Worth every penny.
Upstairs at The Ten Bells
84 Commercial Street
Telephone: 020 7366 1721