Many moons ago I read these pages and wondered what it would take for a restaurant to score 10 out of 10. Now I write for them and I still haven't a clue. The problem arises, I think, because some people define 10 out of 10 as "as good as it gets", yet I had long conceived of 10 out of 10 much as I conceived of five out of five or 100 per cent – in other words, perfection. Something that is incapable of being improved. But no meal is perfect. Every meal can be improved. Thus a dilemma: go through life as a restaurant critic never awarding 10 out of 10, or accept that there are some meals that, though not perfect, deserve that highest rank? My inclination is towards the latter.
Besides, perfection is over-rated. What is it, anyway? I think perfection is: the first day of a Test at Lord's; a piña colada in the Caribbean; the Wailers' first album; Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption; my father's arithmetic. You will note that all these things, while undeniably worthy of 10 out of 10, are capable of being improved. For instance, at Lord's there are always posh, fat drunkards you'd rather didn't disrupt the view; but you'd still get the bus home thinking, "Dear me, those Australians are rubbish, but that was a 10 out of 10 day."
Sunday in Islington, open for six weeks now, is my kind of perfect. On the two basic metrics which this page takes an interest in – taste and value – it is not far off incapable of being improved. Like many a good establishment, it is really two restaurants in one. Though closed on Monday, on other mornings it is a brunch palace. Delicious French toast with banana and maple syrup; fresh fruit and cereals with rich, smooth yoghurt; all manner of eggs and sizzling bacon and salmon with hollandaise; pastries from paradise; excellent coffee and teas – all your favourites, done superbly. I can easily imagine long, lazy Saturdays armed with a rumbling belly, hot thirst and a wad of magazines spent here, and the odd Sunday, too. But on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Sunday also does dinner. And this is no ordinary dinner.
Six starters, five mains, four desserts, three sides, two kinds of booze and not a single dud between them. There are no spirits, so the alcohol is either wine – white, red, rosé – or an Aperol spritz (bit dear at £7.50, but lovely for a summer evening). Among the starters, there are pork rillettes with bread-and-butter pickles and toasted sourdough (£7); juicy buffalo mozzarella with tomato salad, pesto and Parmesan croutons (£7); cured duck breast with cantaloupe melon, pickled ginger and soy (£7.50); grilled sardines with beetroot, watercress and gremolata dressing (chopped garlic, parsley, and lemon zest – £7.50); and watermelon-and-feta salad with pistachio-and-mint dressing (£7.50). Every one of these was blow-the-mind brilliant.
But they are as nothing to the – dare I say it – perfect salt-and-pepper crispy squid with papaya salad (£7.50), a wondrous union of contrasting textures and flavours. I've never thought to put a tropical twang on top of squid, but the freshness of this papaya, combined with the peppery batter on the squid, is just sublime.
A cod fillet (£14.50) comes apart in gorgeous little flakes, and sits very happily among chorizo, cannellini beans and saffron potatoes. The ricotta-stuffed courgette flowers with caponata are a steal at £12; the rib-eye with chips and Café de Paris butter, at £18.50, is cheaper than you'll find in most of London; and there is linguine vongole (£13.50) and a lamb fillet (£15), too.
The desserts – £5.50 each – are a fabulous bargain. White-chocolate mousse with raspberry sorbet and shortcake; baked Alaska with lemon curd and berries; custard tart with raspberries; and, best of all, the Sunday Sundae: hot brownie, cold ice-cream, succulent cherries, and enough to convince me there may be a heaven.
I'm thinking hard about faults, really I am. The staff are all smiley and attentive, so none there. The interior is neither good nor bad, so none there. The food is almost incapable of being improved. Basically perfect.
Oh yes – the Aperol spritz is a quid too dear. That's about it. So in the circumstances, I couldn't possibly award my first 10 out of 10.
Sunday, 169 Hemingford Road, London N1, tel: 020 7607 3868. £70 for Two, including wine
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The Primrose Cafe
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