Boundary, 2-4 Boundary Street, London E2
Saturday 24 January 2009
Anyone looking for a neat illustration of the Two Britains would find the polarity starkly showcased in the Shoreditch area of east London. Just off Shoreditch High Street, where Brick Lane market peters out into a grungy warren of warehouses and strip pubs, are hidden some of the capital's most opulent palaces of entertainment.
The opening of the eccentric, expensive Les Trois Garçons in this down-at-heel quarter, followed by Shoreditch House, the largest and most fabulous London offshoot of the private members' club Soho House, triggered a general dusting off of A to Zs by fashionable pleasure-seekers.
And now, with a certain inevitability, these pioneers have been joined by Sir Terence Conran, who has known an up-and-coming area since he opened the Soup Kitchen on the King's Road in 1953. His latest offering, Boundary, comprising a restaurant, café, hotel and foodstore, is very much a labour of love for Sir T, who has largely financed it himself (presumably using some of the profits from the sale of the Conran Restaurant Group). He has also overseen most of the design, drawing on an all-star cast of artists and designers.
The result looks wonderful – a Victorian warehouse, remodelled into a thoroughly modern East End pleasuredome. Two new storeys have been added, including a rooftop grill, and an air-conditioning system installed, using bore holes drilled down to the water-table, enabling the building to be as eco-friendly as possible. This work massively delayed the building's completion, but, as the Conran family motto has it, per ardua ad gastrodome.
First to open was the ground-floor café, Albion, plus adjacent food store, one of those modern delis that nod to the corner shop by stocking Oxo cubes alongside the artisan cheeses and designer breads. On a Sunday lunchtime, the café was already doing good business. The light, canteen-like space, its industrial lines softened with great lighting, has a buzzy open kitchen and seems to have been designed to tick as many "trends to watch" boxes as possible. Every element, from barstool to gravy boat, deserves its own plinth in the Design Museum, but the humble and homespun are also embraced, with teapots swaddled in mad hand-knitted cosies, and cutlery standing in Golden Syrup tins on the table.
Most importantly, the food is great: well-made versions of traditional British caff grub – steak and kidney pudding; beer-battered haddock and chips fried in beef dripping; full-flavoured rib-eye steak with a roasted marrow bone; rhubarb crumble. Prices are astoundingly reasonable, and the staff couldn't be friendlier. The arrival of Conran in the 'Ditch may be seen by some as the occupying forces of corporate gentrification, but there's a quirkiness and personality at work here that's really pleasing.
I returned to the Boundary building a few days later for dinner in the restaurant, a handsome, subterranean space whose combination of bare brick walls and high-style furnishings evokes a Prohibition-era nightclub hiding in the basement of a Chicago warehouse. One entire wall is taken up with an open kitchen, so open in fact that it feels like you're watching Hell's Kitchen, and someone from Steps is about to start crying.
Head chef Ian Wood, ex of the Almeida, has put together a menu of classic French dishes, including a wide selection of fruits de mer and grilled and roasted meats, plus the odd British stalwart such as beef Wellington.
A half dozen langoustines, split and grilled a la plancha to retain their fleshy sweetness, and a precisely seasoned steak tartare topped with a raw quail egg, were both well-made dishes. But a main course of braised pig's trotter, stuffed with sweetbreads, was too chewy in texture to come together as unctuous comfort food. Nor was a venison chop, served with a juniper reduction, quite as tender as it could have been.
These slightly sub-par dishes didn't dent our confidence in the Boundary experience, so seductive is the room, and so winning the service. Like the front-of-house team, the wine list is both classy and approachable, with plenty of choice at the lower end to balance the vintages designed to withstand the kind of serious City Boy pounding that may now never happen.
As a restaurateur, Conran has had his critics over the years, as the originality of successes such as Bibendum was eclipsed by the business-class blandness of later offerings. Now, at 77, he has unveiled an amazing, ambitious project, every detail of which bespeaks his lifelong obsession with restaurant culture and brilliant design. The empire he built may have passed to others, but the emperor's new outfit has to be seen to be believed.
2-4 Boundary Street, London E2 (020-7729 1051)
Around £40 a head for dinner before wine and service
Dishes from £1.25 to £9.75
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
Side Orders: Gastro domes
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