According to the new edition of Charles Campion's estimable London Restaurant Guide, King's Cross is the capital's latest food hotspot. In the last year, six new restaurants worthy of a place in the guide have opened in the area, on the crest of a wave of redevelopment and inward investment. A zero-tolerance approach to drug use and prostitution has seen the worst of the crack action move on. Some of it up the road to Camden, near me. So thanks for that.
Redeveloped it may be, but King's Cross is still a pretty challenging environment for a restaurant. There isn't much in the way of walk-in trade, and when it does come, it could well be actual trade. Shining out like a good deed in this naughty world is Acorn House, the most high-profile of the King's Cross newcomers. When it opened nearly a year ago, Acorn House was hailed as positively the most virtuous restaurant in Britain. A joint venture between a local regeneration agency and the Terrence Higgins Trust, it's an eco-friendly training restaurant that uses sustainably produced ingredients from independent suppliers and ploughs its profits back into a charitable trust.
With a minimal carbon footprint – all imported supplies arrive by train and boat, daily deliveries are by bio-diesel van and all food waste is composted for use in the kitchen garden – Acorn House is a model that the rest of the industry can learn from. But for a restaurant of this sort to survive, it needs more than just well-meaning support from the eco-committed; it has to attract a wider clientele by virtue of its food, not just its virtue.
When I paid a recent and long-overdue visit, I discovered that Acorn House has apparently put down sturdy roots. On a Friday night, the place was buzzing, with every table filled by young, happy-looking people. This is a restaurant that wears its worthiness lightly; if consumers of organic produce sometimes have to compromise on appearance, diners at Acorn House needn't make any such sacrifice.
The long, slim room is clean-lined and canteen-like, but softened by low lighting and an attractive wall of spotlit produce that looks like the display in an upmarket deli, but actually serves as an overspill larder for the tiny kitchen. On various counters and shelves, trugs of seasonal fruit and veg – purple and cream stippled borlotti bean pods, nubbly apples and exotically shaped aubergines – stand by, waiting to play their part.
Acorn House's menu, created by its head chef and co-founder Arthur Potts Dawson, changes on a monthly basis. He describes his style of cooking as "modern London", but there's a distinct Italian accent reminiscent of Potts Dawson's former workplace, The River Café.
Several of the dishes we tried were worthy of comparison: for instance a silky ribollita, a Tuscan vegetable soup, made with chard instead of cavalo nero, and thickened with borlotti beans and good ciabatta. A main course of roast pork belly was fantastic, the fat rendered out and the skin brilliantly crisp, topped with a complex spiced apple chutney. Also much enjoyed was a well-judged partnership of perfectly roasted duck breast and sticky, figgy balsamic reduction.
A couple of dishes misfired – the tagliatelle with Scottish girolles had its recipient searching through a mountain of pasta to locate the odd mushroom. But frankly, we couldn't hold the odd slip-up against them, because the whole operation rocks along with such charm, enthusiasm and gusto that it seemed churlish to carp about the slightly undersweet fig that came with the prosciutto di San Daniele.
Nor could we get too worked-up about the fact that there were a few glitches in our order, resulting in one of my guests being brought the wrong main course. Luckily we were seated close enough to the open kitchen to signal that we were happy to take what we got. In fact we were close enough to see every bead of sweat on the foreheads of the bandanna-ed chefs. It certainly was hot in that kitchen; this may be the first time I've ever left a restaurant lightly seared down one side.
To make up for the service cock-ups, we got to try all the desserts in a compensatory tasting platter offered by the kitchen (and no, I don't think they knew I was reviewing...). It was an impressive line-up; particularly a lemon tart with miraculously short pastry, and a spiced, flourless chocolate cake with ginger ice cream. It's amazing how a free plate of gorgeous desserts can win you round, and equally amazing how few restaurants ever do something similar when things go wrong.
With a bottle of Austrian pinot noir, and a Chilean chardonnay (both organic), plus bottled water from Belu, a not-for-profit company that reinvests profits in clean water projects, our bill came to around £50 a head. But it would be possible to eat there much more cheaply.
In fact one of Acorn House's innovations is the facility to request a small portion, to cut down on potential waste. It's a great idea, though it wasn't mentioned to us when we ordered, and we would have been much too gluttonous to take it up. But it's good to know it was an option. As it was, we emerged from Acorn House with a distinct sense of well-being, bolstered by the knowledge that we were doing the right thing. The old advertising slogan came to mind: it looks good, it tastes good, and by golly it does you good.
The same team are shortly going to open a new restaurant in Hoxton, run on even more rigorous environmental principles. Between them, they will help to seed the industry with young people passionate about the eco-friendly restaurant trade. And equally importantly, they're serving up some bloody good food. Now, I don't suppose you're planning to open another one in Camden, guys?
Acorn House, 69 Swinton Street, London, WC1 (020-7812 1842)
Around £50 a head for dinner
New King's Cross
By Madeleine Lim
Konstam at the Prince Albert
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