Wednesday 2 January 2013

John Salt - London

First things first, Happy New Year and welcome to 2013, discerning readers!

When I originally started writing this blog, I treated it as something akin to a personal diary, among other things I wanted to keep a record of the restaurants I ate in, what I’d ordered, what I thought of them. That anyone was remotely interested in what I thought and actually read my ramblings has remained a source of constant surprise.

Just before Christmas, I ate lunch in the hip, new, thruster about town of a restaurant, John Salt. The chef, Ben Spalding of Roganic fame had been receiving a respectable measure of critical acclaim and some bemusement for the chicken mousse served on a house brick, which if nothing else, everyone was seemingly talking about. Just a couple of weeks after my visit and it was game over. Ben Spalding and John Salt had parted company (not entirely amicably judging by the press releases and reading between the lines) and my potential restaurant write-up was now less a ‘happening’ review and more a historical document. Bollocks.

Nevertheless, in the original personal diary spirit of this blog, I’ve decided to write it up anyway, just for shits and giggles.
A fortnight before Christmas, mid afternoon you’d have found me strutting my way down Upper Street in Islington towards John Salt. The timing hadn’t worked out for the more desirable house brick licking dinner upstairs, but I’d wanted to eat there anyway so lunch it had to be. I was looking forward to it. I’d eaten Ben’s cooking a while back at Roganic and it had been bloody impressive.
I stepped into a large and surprisingly empty room, except for a young chef to my right, head down, cooking at a table with four diners seated around. I walked up to the bar and announced that I had a reservation (obviously unneeded) and was here for a spot of lunch. The barman treated this information with something approaching a startled look, and then quickly recovering directed me to take a seat at the table I’d spied the chef cooking at as I walked in.

I pulled up a seat opposite the chef, cooking an arms length away on an induction hob and waited…

Waited some more….
Still waiting…

In an impressive case of customer service bullock dropping, I was being completely ignored. No one said anything to me, the young guy cooking so close I could have reached across and given him a polite slap around the chops with a chicken smeared house brick had his head down and seemed intent on not meeting my enquiring looks and polite coughs. The barman had also wandered off down the other end of the room. I sat there relentlessly ageing, wondering what the hell was going wrong here and hoping that someone would break the stalemate soon.

But wait, what’s this…

A sudden, hissed, barely overheard angry conversation between the chef and the barman concerning my seemingly awkward appearance. Yes I’d asked for lunch at the bar. No I didn’t have any cutlery. The barman stomped away again. My stomach grumbled.

At this point, deciding that potentially I’d like to eat today, I became captain of my own dining destiny and put it directly to the chef

‘What happens here then mate, do I order through you or what?’

Looking up, eyes returning my gaze for the first time he acknowledged that I could indeed place my order with him and just like that, the very fucked up ‘Ignore Dan’ spell was abruptly broken. Cutlery appeared, and then the barman with a drinks menu and the show very definitely trundled its raggedy ass onto the road.

Determined to recover from the shaky start and extract every last ounce of pleasure out of proceedings, I ordered the six course tasting menu and decided to let the chef pick what dishes to cook for me.
Things kicked off with Buffalo Mozzarella, warm maple dressing, Brazil nuts and turnip tops. A simple dish with clear, balanced flavours. Very clean tasting and delicious.
The next dish, Greasy Chicken Skin Sandwich was probably the weakest that I ate. Don’t get me wrong, it was pleasant enough, but unlike everything else that followed, it just didn’t really surprise or leave me thinking about the unusual flavour combinations
It’s hard to credit, soup often being considered something of a filler course, but the Violino Pumpkin and Douglas Fir soup was quite possibly the best dish I ate, finished with a side smear of smoked cream cheese it was absolutely delicious with such perfectly defined richness and seasoning, I was sure it had to contain chicken stock. Of course, one of the benefits of eating on the same table the chef is cooking at, is that you can ask. I did and was surprised to hear it contained vegetable nage.
The accompanying marmalade ciabatta with butter (Produced by ‘Butter Viking’ Patrik Johansson as served at Noma – I’d never heard of him before then) was unbelievably good. Rich and chewy with a perfect crisp crust and an underlying marmalade tang.
Pink Fir Potatoes, Lemon Grass Yoghurt, Bacon, Crispy Onions and Chocolate. As unlikely a combination as you’ll see anywhere, but it worked. This is the sort of food I silently marvel at, the seemingly disparate flavour pairings that combine together so well.
A Spiced Venison Wrap with minted sour cream and ‘blowtorched lettuce’ is assembled in front of me. In comparison to everything else that has come before it, the uninspiring white cylinder is somewhat Spartan. It’s a wrap, and that’s what they look like of course, but it doesn’t make for the most inspiring photograph. The chef obliges me by cutting it in half, on the oblique, naturellement. It’s bloody good, incredibly rich, but very conventional.

On the other hand, Ice-cold Basil Milk to accompany my dessert of Chantecler Apple and Lemongrass Crumble is anything but. Once again, simple clean flavours that work very well together, as a conclusion to lunch, no complaints here.
And that, my friends, was that. I paid £34 for the privilege, and buggered off into the rarefied air of Islington.

What to make of the whole experience though?

The food was good, no doubt about it, Ben Spalding (and his team) can cook. Inventive, unusual and definitely not boring. I enjoyed everything I stuffed in my gob. The lacklustre service, not so much. There was a pretty evident breakdown in communication between the chef and the bar staff and an almost palpable tension between them. It didn’t make for pleasant lunchtime viewing and left me with my thumb up my ass for 10 minutes. I don’t blame the chef, he was chatty and pleasant enough when he finally got warmed up, but he was young and I suspect probably wasn’t that comfortable meeting and dealing with customers (I certainly wasn’t at his age) In which case he shouldn’t have been left out there to deal with lunchtime front of house.

In any case, it doesn’t much matter now. Ben Spalding at John Salt is history, although I look forward to seeing what the chef does next.

But…. the King is dead. Long live the King.

In a final unexpected and very pleasant twist to proceedings, I’ve since learned that a mate of mine, Neil Rankin, former Head Chef at the rather splendid Pitt Cue Co is taking over at John Salt and will be doing entirely his own thing. I can’t wait to see what that is. Bookings are being taken from the 16th January.

John Salt
131 Upper Street
N1 1QP


Hollow Legs said...

They certainly sound like weird flavour combinations but £34 seems good value. Never nice feeling unwelcome though. Oh well, all in the past now...!

Dan said...

Lizzie - Exactly can't complain for £34. The flavour combinations were superb. I wouldn't say I was made unwelcome, more ignored.

Steve @ Martin & co Chelmsford said...

Hi Dan
That does seem very reasonable for what you are getting,
I have a thing for service, I think i would have left - If i am paying for something i don't want to wait, that is just me

Dan said...

Steve - It was pretty reasonable. I think I was just totally thrown by how it was proceeding and stayed out of morbid fascination more than anything else. I'm glad I did, as it all worked out OK in the end.