John Salt, 131 Upper Street, London N1
Saturday 02 February 2013
It's easy, when reporting on restaurants rather than, say, politics, to get a false perspective on what makes a big story. Apart from the adventures of a few telly chefs, our 'news' seems fairly parochial stuff to the wider world. A restaurateur poaching a prized site from under a rival's nose won't generally push global events off the front page, though it might just make it if a chef were to cut off a rival's nose and poach it.
But take it from me, the goings-on at John Salt at the end of last year were EPIC. In restaurant terms, it was Berlusconi getting caught nude wrestling with Putin while ordering air strikes on Susan Boyle.
To summarise: pub company opens casual bar-restaurant in Islington and puts it on the map by hiring brilliant young chef for six-month residency. BYC creates instant sensation, with crazy tasting menus involving 45-ingredient salads and caramel-coated house bricks. National critics line up to lavish praise and five-star reviews. Waiting list of customers desperate to lick lingonberries from caramel-coated bricks grows officially longer than the Islington electoral register.
Then, barely two months after opening, the chef walks out, possibly driven mad by the insistent ringing of the booking line. And the restaurant is left in a tricky position, with a full reservations book, and no head chef.
I won't speculate here as to what happened between the owners of John Salt and its vanishing chef, Ben Spalding, but all credit to John Salt for their crisis management. They swiftly installed another hot young chef, Neil Rankin, whose background is very different from the freewheeling experimentation of his peripatetic predecessor. Rankin is less smoke and mirrors, more smoke and meat, judging from his most recent gigs, at Jamie Oliver's Barbecoa, and more recently at barbecue specialists Pitt Cue Co. The mouthwatering menu he's devised for John Salt builds on Pitt Cue's obsession with meaty dude food and smoking (one of 2013's key food trends); if something can be cooked on, in or over an open fire, it will be – preferably with a bit of pig thrown in somewhere.
But there are also restrained, ingredient-led dishes with an Oriental twist; Korean-style steak tartare with pear and sesame; skirt steak with kimchi hollandaise. This is a menu to thrill the foodie as well as the greedy. Swaggeringly confident, it's as directional in its own way as Spalding's approach, and feels unmistakeably like the new wave of Modern British cooking.
I didn't make it to John Salt during the Spalding tenure, and wasn't prepared for the un-restaurant-ness of the setting. It's a bar, a big, dark, noisy bar, on Islington's main drag, with, on a Saturday night, DJs playing tooth-rattlingly loud music, and a bouncer at the door – possibly to keep the chef in.
The small, mezzanine dining room is casual, the tables bare plywood, the staff young and laidback. It's more comfortable than a pop-up, but only just. Definitely not a venue for fine dining, but that isn't what Rankin is offering. His confident balancing act between dirty and dainty food was winningly showcased in a starter that piled silky, subtle crab and fennel remoulade on a puffy pillow of deep-fried pig skin, so light it evaporated in the mouth like an ethereal pork scratching. Monkfish cheeks, smoky and firm, came with tempura-ed clementine. A ceviche-ish tartare of mullet and apple was less to my taste, the fish's flavour masked by a misty veil of bergamot.
Our main courses spanned both dispositions of the menu. From the ascetic side, a beautifully simple poussin, lightly smoked over applewood, then deep-fried in beef fat, leaving the flesh juicy and the skin crisp, under a scattering of green chilli slices. On the messy side, an indulgent pork hash, in which melting hunks of cured pork belly and pulled pork shoulder jostled with crisply-fried potatoes, peas and sweetcorn, all topped with a single, perfect poached egg yolk. Sides included the ultimate guilty pleasure: a poutine-inspired mess of frites, pulled pork, kimchi and melted cheese – sorry, just had to pause to swab down the keyboard – and a sprightly little salad of biodynamically-grown leaves which showed you don't need to use 45 ingredients to make a statement.
Rankin's love of all things piggy carries through to the pudding menu, which offers a curiosity: bacon panna cotta. If Angel Delight came in smoky bacon flavour, it would taste like this; odd, but mildly addictive.
There's a very short wine list, ungreedily marked up, and prices are surprisingly low; I'll be back for the £10 skirt steak. Not on a Saturday night though – we ended up yelling at each other over the music. The owners should look at that, and having scored themselves another prize in Neil Rankin, do whatever they can to hang on to him. He may not make the news pages, but I suspect we'll be reading about him for a long while to come.
John Salt, 131 Upper Street, London N1 (020-7704 8955). Around £30 a head before wine and service.
Tipping policy: 'Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary. All tips and service charge are split between the staff'
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