Friday, 10 February 2012
Karpo, Kings Cross
A couple of weeks after suffering at the hands of a huge, geographically vague menu at Cha Cha Moon, here we are in a brand new restaurant in Kings Cross that has exactly the same problem. Look at the size of it - Brunch, Lunch, Larder, Hot Starters, Wood-fired Oven, Not Wood-fired Oven (weirdly), Puddings, Ices, it goes on and on and on. And I can see why they wouldn't want to lump quite so many items under anything so prosaic as "Starters" and "Mains" but how the hell am I supposed to know which of "Speck & pickled quince" or "Vegetables a la grecque" - both filed under "Larder" - are big enough for a starter without guessing based on their price?
Karpo is also billed as an American-style diner, but despite the appearance of a burger, "Shrimp & grits" and a Macaroni cheese, the rest of the dishes seem to hail from more or less anywhere. There's risotto with buffalo mozzarella, sourdough toast with Gentleman's Relish, a fish taco (lunchtime only) and Omelette Arnold Bennett (for breakfast). It is usually a good idea to be wary of anywhere trying to master too many cuisines under one roof, so first impressions of Karpo, not helped by the strangely soulless décor (complete with walls of plastic ivy), are not great. In that case, why did I end up enjoying myself so much?
Perhaps because, unlike Cha Cha Moon, the food at Karpo is worth the effort. The menu may be confusing and way too big but everything we ate was at least good, and occasionally very good. A trio of things on sourdough toast - whipped lardo, white bean purée and aforementioned "Gentleman's relish" (not out of a little white tub but made in-house) were all lovely - bursting with flavour and freshness. Speck with pickled quince was only adequate - I always think restaurants have something to hide when they serve their supposedly premium ham with fancy distractions - but was at least a generous portion for your £7 and disappeared quickly.
"Southern-fried quail" was as good as you'd hope, remarkably moist inside for what can be a dry bird and cleverly butchered so as to remove all but the biggest bones and sinew. It came with an astonishingly good celeriac slaw which cut through the ever-so-slightly-too-greasy quail and the breadcrumb coating on the meat contained a very commendable go at the familiar Southern-Fried mix of herbs and spices. I'd like to see the range of deep-fried poultry at Karpo expanded, based on this example.
The one main-sized dish we tried, a hanger steak with bone marrow and shallots, was also very decent. Seared deftly to rare and enhanced rather than swamped by the addition of rich marrow and caramelised roast shallots, it wasn't perhaps the hugest portion for £15 but you couldn't fault anything else about it. Boston Baked Beans were more generously pitched at £3.5 for a fairly large bowl and were just as rich and satisfying as the ones I'd ordered from a BBQ place in Boston a couple of years back, so no complaints there either. And Hasselback potatoes were a more interesting alternative to roasties and had a great flavour.
I wish we'd had more room to try some of the more interesting baked goods (Karpo do Macaroons as well as Eccles cakes and fresh cookies) but we just about managed to squeeze in a small bowl of assorted ices; all very good but I was particularly taken by a shocking pink rhubarb sorbet which is my hot tip if you go to yourself and fancy a dessert.
There will be those who find it easier to find fault with Karpo than I do; it's hardly a budget option, I've mentioned my issues with the overlong menu and the unfriendly décor, and indeed my friend wasn't taken at all - "like eating in a shopping centre" she said. But if you choose wisely enough (and make the most of the lovely staff to help you on this front), enjoy the great wine list with its healthy number of rare biodynamic and organic options (we had some lovely examples by the glass but don't expect me to tell you which - one was an Alsace Riesling I think) and start with a cold martini, there's a very good chance you'll come away happy.
I was invited to review Karpo
EDIT: I'm reliably informed that Karpo actually contains real ivy, not fake. Happy to put the record straight on this!