Fifty-five years ago, Sir Terence Conran opened The Soup Kitchen, with its black-and-white floors, tiled tables, and young staff doling out tomato, pea, lentil or minestrone soups, baguettes, chunks of cheddar and slices of apple tart. Conran himself frothed up the milk for the coffee on the second Gaggia espresso machine in London. After that, the man who has done more than anyone to influence how the emerging middle-class ate, drank, slept, sat and entertained went on to launch a barrage of better, bigger, bolder restaurants that defined modern British dining for six decades.
Now, two years after handing over the running of his restaurant empire to D&D London, the indefatigable 77-year-old has opened his 50th restaurant.
Co-owned by Conran, his wife Vicki and former Conran operations director Peter Prescott, Boundary is part of an ambitious new complex housed in a converted Victorian warehouse in Shoreditch. Eventually it will comprise three restaurants, 17 individually designed rooms, a bakery and a food store. So far, so Conran.
The basement restaurant is lush, lavish, and heavy on the detail – a kind of Conran homage to Conran, from the mini-Savoy bar to the plush banquettes, mannered French/ British menu, statement fruits de mer selection, and parallel-universe visible kitchen.
Respect, then, for a restaurateur who, if he can't find the cutlery he wants, designs it himself and has it made. It's just that it has all been done before, in times perhaps more suited to this particular style of conspicuous consumption.
If the food, under former Almeida head chef Ian Wood, was uniformly brilliant, maybe they could get away with the déjà vu and the awkwardness of the space, but it isn't. At this early stage, it is all perfectly competent but ultimately predictable. Except for the bookends: first, a charcuterie platter (£8.50) that holds a voluptuous chicken-liver terrine, loose and creamily textured pork rillettes, and the wobbliest, most uplifting jambon persillé (jellied ham) I have had; and last, a platter of dense, moist fruit cake with spoonfuls of Stichelton, a better-than-Stilton artisanal raw-milk blue cheese.
As for what lies between, a braised pig's trotter stuffed with sweetbreads and morels (£13.50) is a lacklustre cover of the Pierre Koffman and Marco Pierre White classic; a half roast chicken (£17.50) is tightly packed, served with a thin slop of bread sauce; and six langoustines "a la plancha" (£15) served in a copper sauté dish in which they were obviously neither grilled nor sautéed, lack any sense of sizzle.
Prices are fair, the wine list thoughtful and balanced, and staff keen as mustard, but it feels a bit claustrophobic and been there, eaten that. Rather, the Zeitgeist lies two levels up in Conran's casual, Quaker/ Shaker ground-floor Albion, a minimalist all-day café and produce store. Here, there is soup of the day for £4, and a list of food that will never go out of style: a fry-up, devilled kidneys, a golden, flaky sausage roll as big as your fist, fish and chips, with nothing over a tenner. You can even get a bowl of warm pork crackling and jug of apple sauce for £1, though it is amazing how resistible crackling is when under-salted.
Albion's food is straightforward, fresh and functional, with a no-nonsense vibe that feels as if you are hanging out in a mate's country kitchen. I'm loving the woolly knitted tea cosies, the sweet staff, the biscuits, sandwiches, and again, the damn fine fruitcake. Oops, I think I just reviewed the wrong restaurant.
If Boundary is the past and Albion is the here and now, what of the future? It's bleedingly obvious. The Soup Kitchen, please, Sir Terence.
SCORES: 1-9 STAY HOME AND COOK, 10-11 NEEDS HELP, 12 OK, 13 PLEASANT ENOUGH, 14 GOOD, 15 VERY GOOD, 16 CAPABLE OF GREATNESS, 17 SPECIAL, CAN’T WAIT TO GO BACK, 18 HIGHLY HONOURABLE, 19 UNIQUE AND MEMORABLE, 20 AS GOOD AS IT GETS
Boundary Restaurant and Bar, 2-4 Boundary Street, London E2, tel: 020 7729 1051. Lunch, Tues-Fri/Sun; dinner, Mon-Sat. Around £130 for two, including wine and service
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