Tuesday, 11 December 2012
John Salt, Islington
Back in April, I went to a brand-new restaurant in Fitzrovia called Dabbous. I had a lovely lunch with three friends, paid a very reasonable amount of money for it, and left very happy indeed. For some months since I raved about it any chance I could get and it wasn't long before I returned with a different group of people eager to fall in love with the place all over again.
That didn't happen. Instead, this happened. The wonderful cold allium dish from April had been replaced by a slice of ordinary tomato in a sweet consommé of some kind. The coddled egg had gone from being a beguiling, rich mixture of smoke and herbs to a nothing much more than thin scrambled egg. And the Iberico pork tasted of nothing, the acorn dressing that worked so well the first time now reminding me of cheap satay sauce. Bits and pieces of it were still enjoyable (the house bread was still excellent) but how to explain such a different meal? I couldn't honestly put my hand on my heart and say that any of the dishes I'd enjoyed the first time and now didn't were objectively any different this time at all. Either they'd changed, or I had. And I have absolutely no way of knowing which.
And it's this mysterious, intangible variation in the restaurant experience from one day to the next that makes writing about these places so difficult. Every fibre of my being tells me that upstairs at John Salt is the most exciting, innovative and enjoyable place to have dinner in London right now, and yet I'm worried if I go out of my way to say so, I'll be on the receiving end of a dozen disgruntled comments at the end of the month when for whatever bloody reason various other people are disappointed by it. But for the sake of argument I'm going to ignore that possibility for now, and hope that just for once I may have got this one right.
Given a notable recent trend for hacking tube maps (and I plead guilty myself in that regard), the minimalist menu upstairs at John Salt is very "now", with the option of a £56 4-course 'Central Line' (actually 7 if you include the extra bits and pieces) or the full 12-course 'Piccadilly Line' if you have £85 burning a hole in your pocket and feel like travelling all the way to a culinary Cockfosters.
The terse descriptions on the menu/map, though, seriously undersell the amount of detail in the dishes themselves. 'Nibbles', for example, was a tray containing five different elements including a sort of slow-cooked beef croquette speared on an egg whisk, a lemon curd-like substance sprinkled with nuts (slightly unusual amongst savoury items I suppose but there it was anyway) and a incredibly lovely dashi soup poured from a miniature teapot. I know enough about Ben Spalding that anything described as 'nibbles' would never have been a bowl of Twiglets but these were beyond the call of duty.
House bread normally isn't worthy of a course to itself on a menu, but house bread is rarely as good as this. The in-house baker Fanny came out to explain what we were being given, my favourite being a little muffin-shaped red wine bread with a fantastic crust. More impressive still was the gluten-free option served to my dining companion that evening who said it was the best gluten-free bread he'd ever had - not exactly a crowded field, admittedly, but still nice to hear. And even the butter was special - from Norway I believe, served as it arrived as well as soured and whipped with sugar.
I didn't "get" the inspiration for Chicken on a Brick until a couple of days after my meal at John Salt when someone explained that Conran Shops used to sell something called 'Chicken in a brick', a sort of big ceramic roasting chamber. Anyway you didn't need to be in on the joke to enjoy this fresh chicken liver paté spread on top of solid, sticky caramel. We were told to "lick the brick". I didn't need telling twice.
Maple-smoked wild salmon was very good, the salmon itself not being overwhelmed by the maple flavour and having a great healthy, solid texture of wild animal.
I completely forgot to take a photo of the dish called "salad" but as you can see from the quality of the other photos, you're not missing much. Imagine a painfully pretty arc of a bewildering number - over 50 in all - of vegetables, some foraged, some pickled, some preserved, some cooked. They left us with the full list (colour-coded according to preparation method) and I think I noticed about 1/10 of them while eating, but it was great fun. Can Roca in Girona used to do a dessert called 'Anarchy' which contained 50 different elements; this may have been a savoury tribute to that or their own invention entirely.
"Beef heel" was a stonking dish, a lump of gooey slow-cooked cow dressed with button mushrooms, matchstick root vegetables of some kind and little mounds of buttery kale. The sauce was an un-filtered dollop of the cooking sauce from the beef, and the little bits of crispy fat and crunchy herbs from the beef seasoning were a great addition to the mix. Perhaps the most traditional dish in terms of flavour combinations but little tricks with texture and form turned it into something special.
"Cucumber and peanut butter" did, fair play to them, taste of exactly that, and it's a combination that while genuinely innovative I'm not sure I'd rush to try again. My companion loved it though so there's every chance you will too.
As the final dessert I was served this absolutely incredible yoghurty thing which I completely forgot to take any notes for and can't elaborate on at all other to say it was a) yoghurty and b) incredible. AA Gill eat your heart out.
And other than a final little chocolate petit four, that was it. I've wittered on long enough and by now you will have realised that John Salt is already one of my highlights of 2012, but two final things remain to be said:
Firstly, the staff at were all, with no exceptions, some of the best front of house (even when they were in fact, back of house… job roles are somewhat blurred in this place) I've encountered anywhere. You can dismiss it as a gimmick if you like but having the pleasant, passionate person who put together the 50-element salad come out and explain the reasoning behind it before you tuck in is a privilege and a joy.
Secondly, it's hard in a few short paragraphs to emphasise just how much fun it all is - we've heard promises before about 'haute cuisine but without the attitude', 'fine dining in trainers', and so on but it seemed to me that Ben Spalding has hit upon a genuinely new way of doing things here - with so much going on and with so much blurring of the lines between waiter and chef, you feel like you're part of some community, a culinary interactive theatre where each actor plays an equally important part and wants nothing more than for you to enjoy yourself. Viajante may claim they were the first in London to have the chefs come out and present their dishes but I always felt they did so under duress; at John Salt they bound out with a huge smile on their face, eloquently and clearly explain the deal then leave you to enjoy it. It's all quite wonderful.
To return to the opening theme, John Salt is already suffering from the Dabbous Effect in one regard - it's increasingly difficult to get a table. But I'm confident this time that the Emperor has all his clothes, hype played no significant part in anything I rated about the meal, and if you manage to get yourself a booking at you will enjoy it all just as much as I did. And if I'm wrong and you hate it, well, then I know nothing about such things after all. But at least it was fun while it lasted.