Lyle's, restaurant review: 'After the cornucopia of the lunch menu, dinner sounds grudging'
Lyles, 56 Shoreditch High Street, London E1 (020-3011 5911)
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 26 July 2014
There's something odd about the menu at Lyle's. Under 'Lunch' you're offered a choice of 11 starters, two mains and three puddings. Under 'Dinner', you're offered a choice of Take It or Leave It. Dinner is a £39 set meal of five courses, brusquely described ('Peas and Ticklemore', 'Monkfish Cheeks and Liver').
After the cornucopia of the lunch menu, it sounds grudging, as if to suggest that people who dine are second-rate punters, to whom the management will give a few dishes left over from the lunch service, and the diners will damn well eat what they're given and be grateful.
Perhaps I'm being over-sensitive, but it's a curious place. It's the brainchild of James Lowe and John Ogier, head chef and business partner at St John Bread and Wine, and is backed by the Sethi family, who own the wonderful Anglo-Indian restaurants Trishna in Baker Street and Gymkhana off Piccadilly. Mr Lowe was one of The Young Turks who've presided over several London pop-up establishments, one of which, Upstairs at the Ten Bells in Spitalfields, has become a permanent fixture. This is the chance for Messrs Lowe and Ogier to show what they can do in their own territory.
Lyle's is in the Tea Building, that unlovely warehouse on the corner of Shoreditch High Street and Bethnal Green Road, where you can find members-only Shoreditch House and its groovy offspring, Pizza East. Like the rest of the Building, Lyle's has a street frontage of metal window frames, and looks like a combination of light-industrial plant and prison. The décor is spartan: school-lavatory white tiles, concrete floor, junior tables and chairs. And the service is a little spartan, too.
They don't welcome you at Lyle's, they take you to your table as though assigning you a cell. Our waiter seemed to assume we knew the menu already, and were keen to experiment. If we didn't fancy the pork, he could recommend the "turbot head – it may sound strange but, trust me, it's delicious". Fish head, eh? Does it come attached to spine, bones and a tail, like in The Beano?
There followed one of the oddest meals I've ever eaten. An amuse-bouche 'snack' consisted of a bowl of sliced cherry tomatoes with matching purée, broad bean flowers and lovage. That's right, a mini-tomato salad. Was that it? Another snack offered two boiled crayfish with their meat collected in the head cavities, to be eaten with fennel-salt mayonnaise. It was very fiddly; as an afterthought, the waiter brought a fingerbowl to share (didn't their budget run to two lemon slices?). A third snack was sea trout, unsmoked and bland, adorned by 'homemade soured cream'.
So far, so unadventurous. James Lowe himself served the Peas and Ticklemore with a flourish: shards of pasteurised goat's cheese overlaid with raw peas and "pea flowers from Canning Town" – a new experience of locally-sourced produce. The arrangement of pink and lilac flowers was so pretty, I thought of taking it home to my seamstress daughter to convert into an Ascot hat. It all tasted OK: the main flavour wasn't pea or cheese, but mint.
Monkfish (from Devon, apparently – "It's caught on the day-boat," our waiter assured us, as though there might be a night-boat to be avoided) was simply prepared: the cheek, pan-fried with black butter, was crispy outside and tasted of chicken until I was halfway through; the fish liver (a new experience for me) was creamy as cod roe, but gloopy and more than slightly disgusting.
Shoulder of pork from Ross-on-Wye was cooked pink and tasted juicy, but looked unattractively anaemic, accompanied by onions burnt at the tips. There were no green or tuberous accompaniments. These were oil- and protein-heavy courses, surprising in so hip a milieu.
Another cheese snack followed, 'St James, Honey and Hazelnuts' – the terse formulation concealed what was basically cheese on toast with Nutella spread, and very welcome it was, too.
The final course promised 'Loganberries and Vanilla Ice Cream'. What we got was strawberries with strawberry granita and fennel-blossom ice-cream. I have to report that a touch of liquorice does nothing to improve the taste of strawberries on a summer evening. Who thought it did? Dinner at Lyle's prompts a lot of such questions. Why offer four cold starters in a row? Why serve fried fish and roast pork with no attendant or transformative flavours? Why no vegetables? Why was the service so wary and defensive (with the exception of Courtney, our sommelier, who was enthusiastic and knowledgeable)?
If you want to try edgy London cooking, if you want a no-choice dinner in Shoreditch, if you're a fan of fish heads, fish liver, cheese, fennel and a strong whiff of pretentiousness, then head for Lyle's. I'm not sure I'll be doing so again.
Lyles, 56 Shoreditch High Street, London E1 (020-3011 5911). Set dinner £39 for three courses, bread, 'snacks' and petit fours, without wine
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