All I want for Christmas is another dinner at John Salt. I’ve got enough unread books to last me a lifetime and the idea of ‘smellies’ makes me shudder. This year, it’s all about experiences. And what an experience John Salt is.
The place itself is a bar and restaurant in London's Islington, an area that has plenty of affluent residents and a main strip that heaves with vintage furniture stores and artisan bakeries, but which hasn't had a restaurant with 'buzz' since, well, does Blair and Brown's meal at Granita count?
Chef Ben Spalding, late of Roganic and his own Stripped Back venture at Broadway Market, has arrived on a six-month residency to put some zing into Islington. Some have mixed feelings about a restaurant on a glorified pub mezzanine - with the attendant chatter and booming music - serving high-concept tasting menus, but I think it’s fun. There’s no murmured acclaim and starched waiting staff here – but then, it’s difficult to stick your little finger out when you’re chewing a brick.
Yes, you may have heard that Spalding’s most noted/notorious dish is a house brick coated in a caramel glaze with a chicken liver parfait on top. Diners are invited to lick the brick; chef tweets pictures of the masonry that comes back into the kitchen with toothmarks and knife gouges. It’s all good fun. But for my money (and the full experience here will cost you plenty), the brick is a distraction. There is some extraordinary cooking elsewhere on the 12 courses (£85 a head).
All the dishes are listed at the bottom of this review but the menu includes nibbles, bread and butter, salad, hen of the woods, scallop, chicken, wild salmon, vacherin risotto, heel of beef, cleanser, cucumber, fennel, after nibbles, coffee/tea. The salad alone has 45 components.
What drink to order with such a line-up is admirably assisted by Tristan, a solemn young sommelier with a dazzling knowledge of obscure wines – he seems to have found some corkers (ouch), each listed with the soil its grapes have grown in, and every one of them has a yarn attached, which he delivers with aplomb. A carafe of water comes with a sprig of douglas fir. Tastebuds, brace!
Having eaten at Roganic (Simon Rogan’s offshoot in London), and had a superlative Sunday roast at Mr Young & Foodish’s pop-up – both when Spalding was chef - I expect wit and bravery, and to be challenged. I decide not to turn over my menu to reveal the longer explanations of each dish. It only slightly diminishes the experience that the very young, very keen waiting and kitchen staff (everyone takes a turn in bringing out dishes) talk us through each one.
The first big shout out is to Fanny, who made the extraordinarily good bread – a red wine-infused roll, a chestnut flour crisp, a rosemary focaccia of sublime softness, all served in a bowl made of fired bread. It is rightly a course in itself.
Then that salad – mercifully presented with a colourful shopping list of ingredients. Each mouthful explodes with a different flavour combination, as the pretty little ensemble features miniature slices, squeezes and segments of everything from red kale to raspberry to purslane. Sweet, sour, crisp, soft – it is delightful.
Rattling on: the hen of the woods is a rich mushroom dish with a ‘ketchup’ that speaks of many hours’ prep. The scallop is presented like a burger (god knows, restaurants aren’t complete without one these days). The two halves of the large, caramelised scallop act as the bun around a wedge of kiwi fruit and a sliver of culatello (Spalding dashes from the kitchen to administer truffle shavings over the top and sings the praises of this, the best ham in the world in his opinion.)
All is hoots of pleasure and ‘wows’ until the wild salmon with rotten mango juice. The pungent fruit tone is clever, but I can’t love it. Similarly a first pudding of salted cucumber juice with peanut butter, yoghurt and muscat grape jam is glamorous, but troubling in (horrid term) mouthfeel.
I would however, walk a long way to eat a bigger bowl of that risotto – rich with vacherin cheese, cut through with a vinaigrette made from the juices of a cucumber roasted for four hours, and the heel of beef with kimchi, a carrot puree and a heady gravy is rightly the dish most diners beg for more of. It’s like a roast on ecstasy; every taste is heightened.
Spalding, who is still only 25, recently admitted he gets by on about three and half hours’ sleep – he has a young family, lives out of London and is writing a cookbook. It’s extraordinary to imagine what he’ll do when he has his own place, with a kitchen bigger than a utility room and someone else to answer the phone (it was he who called to confirm my booking, under an assumed name. Me, not him!).
So, Santa, how about it? If you can’t run to the full 12-courses, I’d settle for four, or a long, leisurely Sunday lunch (a steal at £19, it seems to me).
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
John Salt 131 Upper Street, London N1, tel: 020 7704 8955 Lunch and dinner daily. From £19 for Sunday lunch; £28 for four courses; £220 for two, for 12 "portions" including wine
BEN SPALDING'S 12-COURSE TASTING MENU
Bread and butter
Bread and butter from Patrick Johansson in Sweden
[Bread: red wine roll, chestnut flour crisp, rosemary focaccia, malt loaf
Butter: plain, whipped and a smudge of milk whey]
45 ingredient salad; fruit, vegetables, herbs and sour cream left 25c for 3 days to go sourer
Fig leaf powder
Hen of the Woods
Poached & roasted hen of the woods [mushroom], aromatic ketchup, douglas fir crumbs, lettuce and persimmon juice
Scallop, kiwi and culatello sandwich with winter truffle and cider butter
"Chicken on a brick" with lingonberries, crispy chicken skin, bitter caramel, sweetcorn & liver cream
Salmon salted and poached in maple syrup, toasted almonds, kaffir lime crème fraiche & rotten mango juice
Carnaroli risotto, vacherin cream, duck skin, grilled cucumber vinaigrette & chive oil
Heel of beef
Heel of beef cooked in wine, kimchi, roasted carrot puree, bok choi & unstrained cooking juices
Warm spiced apple and pomegranate fizz
Cucumber and peanut butter
Salted cucumber juice, peanut butter, natural yoghurt & muscat grape jam
Italian fennel marinated in absinthe, with chewy rapeseed cake, blackberries, iced lemon thyme & tonka bean cream
Scandinavian style filter coffee, with Kenyan beans
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