The original Young Turks wanted to reform the calcifying Ottoman Empire and raise its standards closer to those of its Western rivals. Their name has since entered our language as a general term for thrusting and precocious types, who often have a predilection for subversive art and radical politics. In its latest invocation, it now also refers to a wonderful food collective whose latest venture is an exhilarating coup at the Ten Bells pub on the edge of the City of London. That, too, is a part of the world that has been calcifying of late; and in terms of food at least, the Young Turks have raised its standards closer to the City's West.
The chefs are James Lowe and Isaac McHale. Lowe was previously head chef at St John Bread & Wine, which is barely yards away from his new redoubt. McHale has worked at a pop-up at the Pavilion Café in east London's Victoria Park and as development chef at The Ledbury. Their credentials are excellent. A third comrade, Ben Greeno, is currently working in Sydney. The front-of-house operation is run by the convivial pair of Daniel Willis and Johnny Smith, who hail from The Clove Club, a dining crew in Dalston. "We are young and ambitious, have worked in some of the best kitchens in the world, and now we want to do things our way," their website declares. And you can tell.
The Ten Bells is (in)famous for its attendance by the victims of Jack the Ripper (the pub was, from 1976 to 1988, renamed The Jack the Ripper). Its ground floor is always packed, though rarely with City types, who thankfully prefer the bars closer to Liverpool Street station. In the far corner, italic neon letters and an arrow point to a door which says, "No Entry – Toilets are Downstairs". But behind the door is a steep, battered wooden staircase leading up to a sign saying, "Live East, Die Young", and a single room overlooking Commercial Street.
Subtle lighting, well spread-out tables, unfussy shabby chic upholstery and mildly hypnotising wall prints give a lovely harmony of old and new. The menu is £39 for three snacks and four main courses, and not far off perfect. The snacks are a warm bun with pumpkin and Ogleshield (a Jersey cow's milk cheese), a thick slice of pear with Middle White ham, and salty, crisp devilled sprats with a very smooth mayonnaise.
The main courses are grilled leek with dried scallop and seaweed; parsnip, oats and pheasant; Old Spot belly, fennel, molasses and red radish; and apples with sour cream and apple brandy. This is a procession of meticulously crafted, intensely flavourful and subtly balanced plates. The leek is tender and juicy, and the scallop an intensely seasoned dust. The oats are a soft, beige, addictive sludge, which lubricates a beautiful, slightly smoky bit of bird. The red radish – very fine and luminescent after being put through a mandoline – is fragrant and lush, and the pork falls apart into thick strips of moist meatiness. The molasses, offered in dollops around the periphery, add to the gaiety and visual splendour.
In keeping with the spirit of bringing high quality to the masses without ripping them off, the wine list operates a policy which I have campaigned for on this page before. A standard mark-up of £10 on each bottle means that for £20 you get a fine bottle of plonk, and for less than £40, a sensational one.
The rickety, chipped staircase going upwards from the dining-room leads eventually to the flat of John Twomey, the owner. But before you get there, the kitchen in which the Young Turks toil has a level to itself. It is small and narrow, and scarcely credible as the birthplace of their culinary revolution. But, like the brothers-in-arms working in it, the place oozes charm and conviction.
This restaurant is founded not just on an ethical conviction about the importance of good food, the need for it to be affordable and the aesthetic pleasures of a special meal; it is also a shrine to optimism and ambition.
Given the gloom emanating from those temples of commerce barely a mile off, I find all this rather thrilling, and can think of very few openings in London this year that deserve higher recommendation. Like their Ottoman forebears, these Young Turks have triumphed. 1
Scores: 1-3 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10 as good as it gets
Young Turks at The Ten Bells 84 Commercial Street, London E1, tel: 07530 492 986 Dinner, Tues-Sat. £120 for two including wine and service
Barrasford, Hexham, Northumberland, tel: 01434 681 237 Tony Binks's plain pub in an isolated village is worth a bit of a trek – its robust gastropub cuisine is some of the best to be found in the north-east
Plough at Bolnhurst
Kimbolton Road, Bolnhurst, Bedfordshire, tel: 01234 376 274 A bit of an oasis in this part of the world, this inventive gastropub has made a name for fare that's tasty, seasonal and hearty
Trouble House Inn
London Road, Tetbury, Gloucestershire, tel: 01666 502 206 Honest, unpretentious and just very good, this welcoming pub is a handy stop-off when motoring through the Cotswolds, thanks to its consistently tasty scoff
Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2011' www.hardens.com