The only Blixen I know of is Karen Blixen the Danish aristocrat who, under the name Isak Dinesen, wrote Out of Africa, and gave Meryl Streep the chance to display her most impressive array of aaark-sents. The book, as you'll remember, recounts her adventures with her husband Bror as they fled from Danish high society to manage a coffee plantation in Kenya. So obviously this new restaurant called Blixen must be a specialist coffee shop featuring 17 varieties of Kenya beans and perhaps some moist coffee gâteau, topped with cream from the Masai M...
Actually no. It's nothing to do with Baroness B. I asked Keiron, the New Zealander assistant general manager, where the name came from. "Let me think," he deadpanned. "Wasn't he one of Santa's reindeers?" I believe, I said, that was Blitzen. "Actually, it was just pulled out of the blue in a brainstorming session," he said. "It doesn't mean anything."
If that's true, it's the only thing that hasn't been considered at length in this handsome new restaurant, part of old Spitalfields Market. I've seen lots of restaurants come and go around here (such as John Torode's Luxe) but this one has a solid feel. It stands on the site of an old bank, two walls house huge windows with metal fanlights to let in acres of natural light. The interior décor is all rough brickwork, whitewashed and surmounted with walnut wood. The ceiling's a beautiful construction of pale floorboards. The bar's a white shrine, cunningly lit, with bottles of spirits in glass-fronted cupboards, and globe lamps on stalks. Beside the kitchen is a cute pergola hung with vines, past which you can (when the weather's less brass-monkeys) find an outdoor terrace for drinks. Downstairs there's a teensy cocktail bar that takes "up to 45 vertical drinkers" (as opposed to the horizontal kind) and a private dining room for 18 in the old vaults – just right for a celebratory dinner of tax-avoiders.
The owners are Clive Watson, who's spent a decade doing up London pubs (notably The Garrison and The Riding House Café) and Justin Gilbert, a designer of immense style and swishiness. Their first restaurant is perfectly proportioned, cosy, bustling, easy on the eye and instantly appealing to walk into.
From the cocktail menu, James and I ordered a Mariachi Manhattan (tequila, vermouth and absinthe, short but wicked) and Ferula Mule (Stoli vodka, ginger, lemon and fennel bitters – long and refreshing). The starters menu shows a pan-European melange of hefty ingredients: frog's legs with garlic and thyme, beef carpaccio with anchovy and parmesan, mackerel with caperberry vinaigrette.
My choice of squid, chorizo and chickpea stew was a masterpiece of sexy intertwinings. At home, my signature dish is squid, chorizo and chicken paella, but I cook the squid and chorizo separately in large chunks; here, the shellfish is finely sliced and cooked with teeny dice of the spicy sausage, and they harmonised perfectly. The little stew, with its al dente bump of chickpeas and squirt of saffron aioli, was a dream. Crumbed ox tongue was so delicate it seemed like bone marrow inside its breadcrumbed carapace; but the combination reeked of venison-Scotch-egg gutsiness, calmed down by a nicely judged celeriac remoulade.
Expectations were high for the main courses and didn't disappoint. My crispy pork belly was a roasted square of umami richness, as uncompromising on the plate as a French Legion fort. But when you removed the roof – the salty crackling, both chewy and crunchy at the same time – the pork was as soft and yielding as a piglet's heart, served on a bed of kale. Star of the show, however, was the spaetzle, a Swiss concoction involving small bits of pasta, passed through a colander and cooked with pork-reduced jus, quince and brown butter – amazingly tasty.
James's monkfish tail looked and tasted sublime, surrounded by lardons, mussels, slightly boring cauliflower, delicious salsify (that curious root vegetable somewhere between yam and parsnip) and broth.
Could they keep up this high standard? Yes, they could. The puddings were sensational. Warm banana and caramel pudding teamed up with coconut sorbet sang together like Hope, Crosby and Lamour on The Road to Zanzibar – but then they're the ingredients of a piña colada, plus sugar. I've had several million crème caramels in my time but never one as smooth as the Blixen version, served with a trio of utterly sloshed brandied prunes, a combination to die for.
By the end I felt like wringing the chef, Matt Greenwood (another Kiwi) by the hand for taking pretty simply and popular ingredients and producing from them, again and again, dishes of originality, flair and perfect logic. Both he and Mssrs Watson and Gilbert have created a restaurant to be relished in a dozen ways. Do try it before le tout Londres discovers it. And of course the Out of Africa fans...
65a Brushfield Street, Spitalfields, London E1 (020-7101 0093). About £29 for three courses, before wine and serviceReuse content