I once wrote a book on specialist food shops. Doing the research was the best part, while checking the boring but necessary details, like opening hours, was the worst. The butchers were fine - they would pick up the phone on the first ring and start cracking jokes. Fishmongers were no problem, although they do like to have a bit of a whinge about the weather. Eastern-European deli-owners were tough, because they know in their hearts that telephones are not to be trusted. But the ones that drove me crazy were the organic food stores, health shops and co-ops. "Ring-ring, ring-ring." Eons later, a little hippy, trippy girl would pick up, without a clue about the opening hours, or the address for that matter. It has worried me ever since, that people who live on chamomile tea, macrobiotic carrots and hempseeds not only have no energy, but little ability to retain information.
So I'm not exactly filled with anticipation as I make my way through the globally warmed nether regions of Kings Cross towards Acorn House. Set up by chef Arthur Potts Dawson and manager James Grainger-Smith (both formerly of Fifteen) and run by the Shoreditch and Terrence Higgins Trusts, this is a genuinely eco-friendly restaurant. The produce is mostly sourced from local suppliers, packaging is biodegradable, the water is purified tap, most of the building materials are recycled or sustainable, waste is recycled, and even the electricity is green.
All of which is timely and worthy and good, but it is also a hell of an agenda for one poor little restaurant to carry. Most places have enough trouble just feeding people. So if all this worthiness means no coffee, no alcohol, long delays and wrong orders, then I don't care how green they are, I'm out of there.
Instead, I stay. Because the first thing I see is a gleaming, turbo-charged Faema espresso machine, and the second thing I see is a long wall of dark wooden shelves laden with bottles of wine, extra-virgin olive oils, preserves and biscotti. Even the waiters are whizzing around as if wired on espresso, offering locally produced Greenwich Meantime Pilsener or English pear bellinis.
It's a good-looking joint, long and lean, with tiny - but neighbourly - closely packed tables and modern chairs leading the way to a buzzy, open kitchen at the end. The menu is also quite attractive, full of good-natured, hearty, seasonally driven dishes such as celeriac and horseradish soup; buffalo mozzarella with amalfi olives, chilli and fennel; spaghetti with clams, basil and tomato; herb-marinated sirloin steak; and pork chop with honey and thyme.
To start, the prized San Daniele prosciutto (traditionally Italy's finest, although now surpassed by others) is teamed with cold half-moons of wonderfully flavoured roast pumpkin (£8.50), a straightforward assembly with not much in the way of the promised pumpkin seeds or sprouts. A platter of Dorset crab with grilled leeks, salsify and chives (£9.50) is more intriguing, with a generous snowdrift of white crab meat thrown over lengths of sweet, warm leek and nutty salsify.
The wine list, bless it, has lots of good things drawn from both New World and Old, with plenty under £30, including a lightly floral dry 2006 JL Wolf Riesling from the Pfalz region (£18), and a 2005 Domaine du Moulin Favre Brouilly (£27), a soft, supple, food-loving Beaujolais.
Main courses are trencherman territory, with some dishes being larger than the skinny little things trying to eat them. Roasted shoulder of mutton, rosemary and quince (£12) is a mountain of shreddy, long-cooked mutton topped with a dollop of quince purée, on a base of cavolo nero and crunchy, roasted King Edward potato. Tagliatelle of wild venison (£11) is an equally mountainous serving of upmarket spag bol, the gutsy, gamey ragu slathered over good house-made pasta.
Then along comes a darling of an apple pie (£6), all puffy, round, golden and sugar-dusted, pregnant with molten, cinnamon-scented apple, and with a dollop of clotted cream to smooth the edges.
Generous, unpretentious and somewhat messy, the food here is for eating, not photographing. For a newish place, Acorn House has settled nicely into its time and place. By day, the front end turns into a caff for local workers, pushing out pastries, breakfasts and simple lunches. In the pipeline is a lunchbox scheme for local schoolchildren, and a pledge to take on 10 trainees from the area each year.
By the way, there were no long delays and no muffed orders, just keen, proficient service all round. Eco-friendly doesn't mean hippy-trippy any more, it is just common sense; modern, and right. Nor is it being radical or in any way "alternative" to hope that restaurants could be less wasteful than they are. If Acorn House is the Toyota Prius of the restaurant industry, then there are still a lot of gas-guzzling SUVs out there, living in the past.
At least, we are getting to the point where we can go to restaurants like this because they are good, and not just because they are "good".
Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 OK 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Acorn House, 69 Swinton Street, London WC1, tel: 020 7812 1842. Breakfast, lunch and dinner served Monday to Saturday. Around £85 for dinner for two including wine and service
Second helpings: More eating in a good cause
Hoxton Apprentice 16 Hoxton Square, London N1, tel: 020 7739 6022
It might not get the media coverage of Jamie's Fifteen, but the HA does a good job of training up the disadvantaged, and serving up a something-for-everyone menu at affordable prices.
The Millrace 2-4 Commercial Road, Leeds, tel: 0113 275 7555
Not only does the Millrace use organically certified ingredients, but it also concentrates on sourcing local Yorkshire produce, thus cutting down considerably on food miles.
Riverford Field Kitchen, Wash Barn, Buckfastleigh, Devon, tel: 01803 762 074
Not just a restaurant, but a working, organic farm, where meals are combined with a farm tour or a cooking demonstration. Booking is essential.
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