Jones & Sons, restaurant review: You'll be more impressed by the charm than the cooking at this theatrical venue
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Saturday 22 February 2014
Pitched at the cusp of Kingsland Road and Stoke Newington High Street, bounded to the south by Dalston Junction and to the west by Hackney Downs, Jones & Sons is a new eating house in a groovy part of norf-east London.
It started life as a Victorian textile factory. Later, it became the Arcola Theatre, and when that moved in 2011, it was taken over by the Cell Project Space, who set up artists' studios in east London. One of the partners, Andy Jones, used to run the noisy and bustling Cat & Mutton pub, a Hackney institution (currently undergoing a makeover); so it was a natural progression for Mr Jones to turn the empty theatre space into a restaurant.
It's still a theatrical kind of place, if you like your theatre stark and Brechtian. A wall of plain glass lets passers-by see everything inside, as if inspecting a show. The ceiling's a mile high, the floor's concrete, the walls are whitewashed, the plain tables could be props from a Stratford East production of Les Miserables. The brightly-lit kitchen area is, basically, a little house with a pitched roof where three young chefs sweat under copper lamps, like something out of Beckett's Play. Even the clientele seems to be acting. Our neighbours were a northern dandy in braces, waistcoat, beard, long hair and the air of a scoundrel, romancing a lovely blonde avatar of Lady Galadriel from Lord of the Rings.
There's a pleasant vibe about the place, for all its strenuous minimalism. Their margaritas and dirty vodkatinis are excellent, the serving staff are young and friendly, and the menu offers you a hug of familiarity: scallops, steak pie, sticky ribs, pan-fried cod, half-lobster, you know the line-up. Some interesting vegetarian dishes are on offer, including upside-down chicory and Stilton tart, and a mushroom and truffle gratin with vegetable crisps. There's a quartet of grill possibilities, including a one-kilo rib-eye steak, to be shared by two or three – or by one, if you fancy ingesting 2.2lbs of meat at a sitting.
Angie ordered scallops with red wine salsify and white butter sauce: four miniature scallops were artfully arranged on the empurpled root, but tasted nothing more than bland. Salsify, that weedy white object somewhere between a carrot and a parsnip but without the flavour of either, needs a whack of sea salt to register on the taste buds; so does a scallop. The combination didn't amount to much.
I was surprised by my 'slow-cooked sticky pork ribs'. They were ribs, with pork on them. They'd been cooked for ages, to an unappetising grey consistency. But they weren't sticky. I'd expected to see those lovely, caramelised-to-black ribs familiar from Chinatown or American rib shacks, that you nibble in an ecstasy of heat, molasses and burnt meat. These ribs had been introduced to honey at some stage, but the point of their existence had leaked away. Like the scallops, they were underseasoned and insipid.
After this uninspiring start, things improved. A dead-butch haunch of venison was served with a savoury forest of bacon, chestnuts and Savoy cabbage. Louis, the charming Dublin-born manager, asked how I'd like the venison cooked. I pondered – medium rare? You don't want to take any chances with game, do you? "You'd be all right with rare venison," he said, "because it's the haunch, it's far enough away from any organs." With that, he turned and slapped the approximate area of his own haunch. It's not every day you get the maître d' demonstrating cuts of meat with his own body.
The actual dish was a challenge: huge, juicy chunks of pink and tender deer, served on a roundel of liver, along with the blanched cabbage and fried lardons. Foolishly, I ordered a side helping of the intriguingly named Jansson's Temptation, which turns out (I looked it up) to be a traditional Swedish casserole of potatoes, onions, breadcrumbs, pickled sprats and cream. English chefs tend to substitute anchovies for the sprats, giving an interesting wallop of salty fishiness to what's basically dauphinoise potatoes. Angie's celeriac and sweet potato pie was served up as a little gift of comfort food, the vegetables soft and yielding under their light and flaky crust. "This," pronounced Angie, "is a hearty option for any passing vegetarian on a cold night."
A ramekin of Cambridge burnt cream (aka crème brûlée) was fine, though no more than competent. Like much of the dinner, it was perfectly oh-kay without being outstanding. I was intrigued to hear, however, that on certain evenings, the owner of Jones & Sons regales his guests at the end of dinner by opening his father's pre-war cocktail cabinet beside the bar and dishing out slugs of malt whisky. It seems typical of a place where, for the moment anyway, you'll be more impressed by the charm than the cooking.
Jones & Sons, 23-27 Arcola Street London E8 (020-7241 1211). Around £90 for two, including wine
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