It's funny how just walking into the Dock Kitchen makes you feel trendy. Perhaps it's the neighbours. Stevie Parle's dockside restaurant is part (easily the largest part) of an industrial complex. Lurking beneath it, like a chic troll, is the designer Tom Dixon's studio, while next door is the HQ of Innocent, the smoothies firm.
Mr Parle is a bit of a young smoothie himself. He's been cooking professionally since he was in rompers, he's put in time at the River Café, Moro and Petersham Nurseries (can there be a cooler pedigree?) and The Observer named him Young Chef of the Year in 2010 when he was 15. Oh all right, 24. He has the looks of the young Mike Oldfield. And his ideas for food come from all over. He will not cease from exploring exotic locations – India, Beirut, Morocco, Vietnam – to bring back dishes you've never heard of, with ingredients you can't spell. It's hard not to grind one's teeth about such ostentatious groovy-osity. The night we went, I asked the waiter if Parle was cooking in the kitchen. "Actually no," he said, "Stevie's away filming a TV series called Spice Trip. In Mexico. And Zanzibar."
I've been to the Dock Kitchen three times and enjoyed each trip, with reservations. At lunchtime, it looks terrific. Whether you approach it from Ladbroke Grove, or by the metal gangway at Portobello Dock, it's a miracle of airiness and light. Sunlight (if you're lucky) pours in through the glass wall and bounces off the Tom Dixon globe lights, polished like Anish Kapoor mirror-spheres, that hang from an industrial-chic ceiling. Black metal struts and exposed brickwork are on-trend too. So is the open-plan kitchen. So are the menus, in being printed on recycled grey paper (very Polpo).
Late in the evening, the look is less successful: the lighting makes the diners look like they're being kept under warmers. Negotiating the menu is like leafing through an Esperanto cookbook. You're confronted by several words that you have to ask the waiter to explain. "Labneh?" (It's yogurt cheese from Lebanon, duh.) "Freekeh?" "Trombetta squash?" "Pied bleu?" "Salanova?" It's kind of Mr Parle to educate us in this foodie arcana, but I couldn't help feeling there was a touch of well-travelled conceit about it.
The lavash bread is like a first-draft pizza base covered in balsamic vinegar. It looks amazingly dirty, but tastes OK. The labneh, served with pickled celery, cucumber and sweet herbs, was shockingly salty. My friend Lucy pronounced the signature starter of chicken livers, cooked in 'seven spice' and pomegranate molasses, delicious, the livers enormous, bloody and syrupy. "Leopold Bloom would have found it at the exotic end of the inner organs he liked so much," she said smartly. I've never liked liver much, and I found this borderline emetic. My cured Cornish cod with fresh dill was fine, but served on huge lumps of 'bull's heart' tomatoes. Laid across the plate was a dark plank of rye and malt crispbread ("A weird mixture of All Bran and brandy snap," said Dan) that tasted of nothing, and a pile of butter mixed with buttermilk. It was, I learnt, a dish invented by the Nordic chef Trina Hanhamann, a re-imagining of the classic gravadlax-on-rye; but the convergence of fish-with-tomato and fish-with-butter still seemed perverse.
Angie's main-course Cornish hake with Trombetta squash, 'cooked in a Keralan coconut and curry leaf moilee', tasted better than it looked. The fish was perfectly cooked, fresh, white and succulent, but the sauce was as thin as Indian curry broth. Lucy admired the properly charcoal-scarred blackness of the skin on her salmon and the dainty pinkness of the interior. A side order of greens, spinach and celery, was "as fresh as the lark ascending". Dan's chargrilled rabbit, marinated in mustard and fennel, was moist and substantial, though the pommes persillades could have come from Marks & Spencer's TV-dinner shelf. Star of the show was my Gloucester Old Spot pork chop, the biggest chop I've ever eaten (or seen), a plate- and gut-filling monster, simply cooked over charcoal to a glorious ochre tan, served with slow-cooked red peppers and salsa verde. It was too enormous to finish, but I enjoyed the half-hour I spent trying.
Puddings were OK but no more – salted caramel ice-cream failed to inspire, rosewater sorbet was like eating perfumed brain-freeze (though the poached cherries were great) and, wait for it, 'Congolese cru virunga chocolate, prune, almond and brandy cake' seemed devoid of both prunes and brandy, and wasn't improved by crème fraîche. A decidedly odd meal, half of which I seemed to spend arguing with the food, criticising its appearance, its peculiar saucing and seasoning, its hanging out in the wrong company. Perhaps Mr Parle's youth had got to me. At times (the liver, the cured cod) I felt like telling him to go to his room and think about what he'd done…
Dock Kitchen, Portobello Dock, 342-344 Ladbroke Grove, London W10 (020-8962 1610)
Around £120 for two, with wine
Tipping policy: 'Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary. All tips go to the staff'
Side orders: Bright young things
Creating modern European fare here is Thomas Sellers. Only 25, he's already proved his skills at Noma and The French Laundry.
4 The Polygon, London SW4 (020-7622 1199
Luke's Dining Room
Luke Thomas is just 18. His restaurant may sound Fisher-Price, but the food is anything but; mains include lamb rump, with boulangère potatoes, fennel and tapenade sauce.
Sanctum on the Green, Cookham Dean, Berkshire (01628 4827638)
Formerly of Roganic, 25-year-old Ben Spalding runs a weekly pop-up in a London Fields' playground, with ace dishes like wild salmon with sweetcorn and nectarine.
Westgate Street, London E8
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