For the past four years I've cycled to work. The beginning of my journey has two main attractions. First, the offices of The Guardian. Never underestimate what nourishment to the soul a daily sighting of the enemy can provide. Second, what was a once a vast forest of cranes and concrete has, by some mysterious urban pupation, recently turned into one of London's most lovely piazzas. It takes the name of Granary Square, and on one side of it, next to a branch of Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, is Caravan.
I cycled to the square a couple of times during the Olympics, part reconnaissance ahead of this report, and part an attempt to soak up the atmosphere of our sporting summer. What I saw was quite the picture- postcard: parallel fountains spurting water; children gambolling through their foamy residue; adults everywhere smiling and reading. Freed at last of the grey clouds that have hovered over us since March, this scene was the highlight of my year – apart from getting engaged and scoring 40 at Lord's for the Authors CC.
The Grade II-listed Granary Building, which dates back to 1851 and dominates this square like a playground bully, was given a special award by Mayor Boris Johnson in January in recognition of the clever planning behind architect Paul Williams' restoration. Its refurbishment was timed almost perfectly to start with my new cycling route, for which I am grateful, though the main beneficiary is the campus full of fashionistas, with their workshops, studios and salons.
Next door to them, however, the foodies should consider themselves pretty lucky, too. The interior of Caravan feels like an industrial-scale riposte to the summer bliss outside. It's warehouse-chic with a touch of class, all high wooden beams and low-hanging lights. The kitchen runs along one side, and behind the bar is a giant Probat coffee-roasting machine. The vibe, as at the sister restaurant on Exmouth Market a mile-and-a-half away, is humming and friendly. And the service is a triumph of professionalism and joy.
There are oysters, deep-fried or natural; seven choices under "bread, cheese, meats"; 14 small plates; five pizzas; five large plates; and gem salad, green beans or fries for sides, all at £3.
Let's do the positives first.
A few of the plates are wonderful. The jalapeño cornbread with chipotle butter (£3.50), baked cauliflower with smoked San Simon cheese, breadcrumbs and sage (£5.50), and chorizo-and-butternut-squash croquettes with saffron aioli (£6) are in this category. The ox tongue with mustard, honey and beetroot (£7) isn't far off, either.
You'll have noticed that, like everywhere else you seem to read about in London, Caravan has gone down the tapas route. If you're a plate-half-full kind of person, and I generally am, you might say this is a good thing, as it means you get to try many different flavours and textures in one sitting.
But the flip side – and this is where the negatives begin – is that if you're paying up to £8 for a small plate of, say, grilled quail with chickpea purée, sumac and charred lemon, it really needs to last longer than a mere two chews.
This is a recurring theme. Most of the other plates are not bad at all, and much better than OK, but they're so small that you have to spend a lot of money to fill an empty belly.
The new potato with samphire, duck egg, peas, mint and mustard (£5.50); octopus with shallot, parsley, sherry vinegar and paprika (£7.50); and the scallop ceviche with green tomato, lime, chilli and olive oil (£7.50) are all far too small for the prices being charged. The pancetta, Serrano ham, green olive and Taleggio pizza is lovely; but again, too small for £9.50. And the same, I'm afraid, has to be the verdict on the cocktails, which are fine, but over in about three sips.
Most of the ingredients for a lovely restaurant, albeit one stuffed full of fashion types and Guardian hacks, are in place: a solid menu, excellent architecture, etc. But to be worthy of the glorious piazza it occupies, either the prices need to be smaller or the plates need to be bigger. If both happened at once, you'd struggle to get a table.
SCORES: 1-3 STAY AT HOME AND COOK, 4 NEEDS HELP, 5 DOES THE JOB, 6 FLASHES OF PROMISE, 7 GOOD, 8 CAN ’T WAIT TO GO BACK, 9-10 AS GOOD AS IT GETS
Caravan Granary Building, 1 Granary Square, London N1, tel: 020 7101 7661. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, Mon-Sat; breakfast and lunch, Sun. About £160 for four, including two bottles of wine
30 Victoria Street, Edinburgh, tel: 0131 225 7635
Creaky wooden floors and candlelight help set the tone of this former New Town warehouse; with its quirky vibe and authentically Scottish cuisine, it offers a good all-round package
23-27 Wadeson Street, London E2, tel: 020 8983 7900
Quite a mainstream crowd now frequents this once-edgy East End warehouse-conversion; it still feels like a bit of a secret, though, and makes a great venue for brunch
Baltic Centre, Gateshead Quays, South Shore Road, Newcastle, tel: 0191 440 4948
Tremendous views reward visitors to the slick space atop the impressive Gateshead art complex