Water House, Orsman Road, London N1
Saturday 23 February 2008
The path to hell is paved with good intentions, and Water House is awash with the things. The owners, James Grainger-Smith and Arthur Potts-Dawson, opened Acorn House in King's Cross in November 2006, to much acclaim: it was "London's first eco-restaurant". Though every eaterie in the UK now brags about the organic integrity of its artichokes, Acorn House eclipsed them all with its strict policies: 100 per cent waste-recycling, on-site water-purification, biodegradable packaging, natural lighting, vegetables from sustainable farms only, no air-freighted supplies, minimal use of vans, delivery in wooden crates – they even "encouraged" staff to cycle to work.
You may regard all this as environmentalism run wild, or as a laudable experiment in responsible catering; you may just wonder if it makes the food taste better. I welcomed the chance to sample eco-friendly cuisine when the double-barrelled pair opened their new gaff in north London. It's sandwiched between Hoxton and De Beauvoir Town, a godforsaken locale historically populated by tumbleweed and murderers, recently tarted up with Docklands-style lofts ("Blimey, things've changed a bit round 'ere," said our cab driver as we arrived).
The frontage of Water House is obscure to a perverse degree, inside an unprepossessing housing estate. But you find yourself in a welcoming room with distressed ceilings, industrial spotlights and basket-weaving on the walls. Through the window, there's a dispiriting view across the Regent's Canal to an industrial building whose lower walls are vivid with graffiti. Venice it ain't. But the atmosphere was fine, the eating area a symphony of glowing wood, white chairs and gleaming glassware.
The menu was, shall we say, different. Instead of starters, you're offered the "Delicatessen", a choice of three or five bits of cheese or charcuterie that included speck, salami, smoked mackerel, a runny mozzarella called Burrata di bufala, goat's cheese, Stilton, cod brandade and olives. It seemed eccentric to start one's lunch with cheese but my friend Madeleine and I ordered everything else between us. The mackerel was delicious. The salami and ham were tasty, though the Milano version had no pepper crust, as it's supposed to, and the Felino had no chilli. The brandade was served on toast (potato on bread – what was this, an upmarket chip butty?). It was all beautifully presented, but it wasn't exactly cooking.
The heart of the menu is the salads. You can choose three or four as a starter, and one or two with your main course. If you thought salads were raw items like lettuce thrown together with a dressing, it's time you woke up. At the Water House they're basically vegetables, some of them are cooked (braised carrots, roast beetroot) and the menu confusingly warns, "All our salads are served at room temperature". It's an odd kind of environmentalist, surely, who cannot distinguish vegetables from salads. The confusion of nomenclature extends to the "Pastas" selection – it includes a duck risotto, a dish in which you'd have trouble finding any pasta at all.
A larger problem extends to the riot of flavours promised by the main courses. How will you savour, say, the pork loin with aubergine, spinach and paprika if you have the curly kale "salad" with soy sauce and ginger? Won't the braised carrots cooked in honey, thyme and hazelnuts put up a fight if you match them with the salmon and black olive sauce? I chose the slow-roast lamb shoulder with mint and quince. It was indeed slow (and long-) roasted, with unadvertised but delicious roast potatoes. The meat was the kind my Irish aunties were doing 50 years ago, but the mint and quince sauce that accompanied it was a bad idea. Lamb has its own built-in sweetness and doesn't, in my humble view, need any more.
Madeleine's steamed cod with smoked brandade and beurre blanc was very white, very pure, wholesome and strangely characterless. The "salads", when they came, were little bonnes bouches of mini-carrots and shredded celeriac, too small to register on the palate's radar. This strangely pointless meal concluded with a gooey chocolate torte with (oh God) black pepper ice cream. Could someone have a word with the chef about leaving some flavours well alone?
As we had an alfresco fag on the canalside, watching a scary chap with a Rottweiler walk by the far wall, Mr Potts-Dawson showed us his pride and joy: a waste bin called Can O'Worms in which thrown-out food is composted down with the help of invertebrates. The resulting organic gunge becomes the soil in which the house's herbs are grown. He further explained how the canal water powers an electric generator, which fuels the restaurant without burning any carbon gases at all. These men really are are a credit to the catering trade – if not yet to the art of gastronomy.
Water House, 10 Orsman Road, London N1 (020-7033 0123)
Around £80 for two, with wine
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Canons Road, Bristol (0117-943 1200)
As well as having a good recycling record, this chic hotel also plans to switch to hydro-electric power. The produce is sourcedfrom the surrounding estate; try the Monachyle venison.
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