To call a new restaurant "Caravan" is to risk ambiguity. The word can suggest a camel journey, a romantic quest for Shangri-La, a drifting meander through exotic lands and undulating sand dunes, meeting strange women in transparent shawls and kohl-drenched eyes, their every movement dreamily soundtracked by the sexy wail of oud and zither. Sadly, it can equally suggest a dismal wet weekend in a rusting mobile home on Selsey Bill.
The Antipodean businessmen behind Caravan have been cautious. They've acquired the venerable but slightly dingy Al's Café Bar on the corner of trendy Exmouth Market, and transformed it, not into a shrine of haute-cuisine or a gastro-souk, but into a something-for-everyone eaterie, conceived on easy-going, Australian lines. Along with a restaurant, they're also a coffee-shop, selling artisan-roasted beans in the basement, and also a greasy-spoon café serving substantial breakfasts and brunches. And a bar where you can sip mojitos while gazing through the long, wall-length window at the elements cascading down outside.
WS Gilbert once said of metaphor, "When everything is something else, then nothing is anything." How true – and how applicable to a restaurant that tries to be several things at once. If you want to be a bar as well as a restaurant, keep the two functions well apart, as they do in the Baltic in Blackfriars. It you want to be a brunch-y, ketchup-on-the-table kinda place as well as a restaurant, put them on different floors, like at Luxe in Spitalfields. Here, everything happens in the one, carefully neutral room. The décor is unfussy: bare floor, tables on metals stalks, Bermondsey-market wood chairs, cotton banquettes, industrial stanchions holding up the roof. The only style statement is a quartet of upside-down stools containing bulbous water-dispensers. Were they from a genuine caravanserai in the Gobi desert?
The menu strives for simplicity too: it's an "all-day" affair, divided into Snacks, Small Plates and Big Plates, Sides and Puddings, the object being to mix'n'match, to graze, to chillax. Our charming New Zealand maitre d' explained that we shouldn't sweat about courses, just order what takes your fancy, yeah? His attitude seemed a touch libertarian (I wondered what the chef, Miles Kirby, formerly of The Providores in Marylebone, would make of punters ordering main courses after 10pm) but four of us set out with a will.
The fusion journey started in Japan, with an amuse-bouche of miso soup poured over smoked trout with ginger and lemon-grass. Delicious – my first-ever liquid amuse. Blue cheese and peanut Chinese wontons were overcooked but crunchy, and the strong cheese flavour made the plum sauce redundant. (Don't the Chinese find cheese disgusting?) Falafel was nicely moist, and tangily matched with apple and pepper relish, tahini and coriander. A soft-shelled crab in a light batter, on a bed of crispy celeriac, was brilliantly clean-tasting – "as if it has just walked out of the water," said the girls. My salt and Sichuan pepper squid was delicious, hot and zingy, though its accompanying rose-marie sauce was disappointing. Oddest dish of the evening was "Arabica oxtail" which promised a slug of Arabian coffee in an oxtail marinade. I couldn't detect much caffeine in the fibrous meat, but a distinct whiff of aniseed instead. The oxtail was fine, but I wasn't wild about the gloopy bath of polenta in which it stood.
Miso, wonton, falafel, tahini, polenta: the caravan had zig-zagged from the Silk Road to the Adriatic by the time we'd finished the Small Plates. Though suspicious of fusion cuisine, I was impressed by the subtlety with which each dish boldly yoked heterogeneous flavours together.
The Big Plates were less adventurous, but nicely constructed. A warm smoked duck, pear and walnut salad was a masterclass in complementary textures. Veal schnitzel came finely breadcrumbed and tender, yummily accessorised with gypsy potatoes, which are white and sweet potatoes with bacon, shallots and garlic, all flashed under a grill. Crispy trout with salted black bean leeks was well cooked but "not very astonishing. We'd have been better off with a selection of starters."
As we polished off the chocolate and espresso pudding – a well-achieved fondant, with a welcome crème fraîche sorbet – and a rather runny rose-water blancmange, my guests agreed: it's a good restaurant, the décor cool and minimalist, the waiters attentive (five stars for Tom, the architecture student, over whom the ladies sighed like forsaken concubines) and the food mostly delicious. But there's an air of confusion about the menu and some of the dishes: small plates that are bigger than tapas, big plates that aren't real main courses, way too much sweet potato... The journey we took from Samarkand to Vienna was fascinating – but sometimes it felt as if the caravan was losing its way.
Caravan, 11-13 Exmouth Market, London EC1 (020-7833 8115)
About £100 for two, with wine
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff. All tips go to the staff"
Side Orders: World party
Porthleven, Cornwall (01326 562407)
One of the UK's finest pan-Asians: mains include Asian duck breast and Hoisin duck spring roll with umeboshi plum sauce.
48 St John's Sq, London EC1 (020-7553 9210)
Sesame-crusted salmon, kombu and liquorice broth, tofu horseradish cream is typical of the Pacific-Rim cuisine at Anna Hansen's eatery.
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This Californian-inspired restaurant has recently won a Scottish Restaurant Award; try the Thai coconut soup.
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