Tuesday, 19 June 2012
Nightjar and Fifteen, Old Street
It was an evening that started out with such promise. Finding myself with an hour to kill before a 7pm reservation at Fifteen, I took the opportunity to check out Nightjar, a cocktail bar (or I think we're supposed to call them "speakeasies" these days for some bloody reason, like we’re going through our own pretend prohibition) hidden away between two shabby cafés just a little further down City Road. Down a stairway so dark I had to feel for each step, into an even darker room lit by little more than a couple of candles and the soft glow of customer iPhone screens, is a glittering bar stocked with a bewildering variety of alcohol, and two or three (probably - it was hard to tell through the murk) rooms of low tables and soft furnishings. It's certainly, once your eyes adjust, a lovely space to sit in, but all this would of course count for nothing if the drinks didn't match the drapes.
If I'm going to be brutally honest, although perfectly good, the actual liquid element of the drinks wasn't really any better than you can get in most of the new wave of London cocktail bars (Hawksmoor, Callooh Callay, Purl, etc.) - definitely enjoyable, just nothing out of the ordinary. What sets Nightjar apart is the giddily inventive presentations - a concoction involving cheddar-flavoured bourbon (my compulsion to order the oddest thing on any given menu kicking in as ever) was presented not only with a lump of cheddar on a stick but with the base of the glass coated in gently smouldering lavender. Yes, as in actually on fire. Similarly, a drink called "cold beef", with beef consommé, gin and marrow-washed Noilly Prat tasted, well, OK I guess but came topped with a teeny tray of beef jerky and with the stem of the glass threaded through with a boiled quail's egg.
These are gimmicks, of course they are, but they're the best kind of gimmick - fun and exciting and enough to make you want to order every single drink on the menu just to see what crazy bits and pieces will turn up. I've heard they do a drink called a Boxcar that actually comes in a box, and another presented with a neat half-shell of Cadbury's Mini Eggs. I had a blast at Nightjar and can't wait to go back and see what else they come up with. I left on a high. And then I went to Fifteen.
Is it mean to bash a restaurant that is also a charity? Unethical perhaps? The good intentions that launched Fifteen all those years ago are still present in some form or other - the website still boasts of the "apprentice scheme" that takes, er, 18 (not 15 for some reason any more) disadvantaged 18-24 year-olds from the Greater London area and attempts to teach them to cook. Of course, it's by no means the only charity restaurant in London - there's the Waterhouse in Shoreditch for example, or Abbevilles in Clapham, run by the First Step Trust, but it's still a laudable motive, and one that should be mentioned because if nothing else, someone somewhere at Fifteen is trying to do right.
But here's the thing - charity considerations aside, Fifteen is a rip-off. A watery saddle of lamb, the flesh having a good tender texture but surrounded by a thick, rubbery strip of inedible skin (and not at all 'crispy' as our waiter insisted), sat on top of a bed of crumbly overcooked beans and was completely dull. It cost an incredible £24. A Sicilian Fisherman's Stew had a single big langoustine on top which presumably was the reason they felt they could charge an astonishing £28 for an otherwise very mediocre bowl of tomatoes and cheap fish (mackerel, pollock, mussels etc). And a burrata and peach salad contained way too many sickly sweet chunks of peach and not nearly enough nice toasted hazelnuts, the burrata itself having all the flavour of a wet blanket. Starters were paired with a glass of room temperature white wine which no self-respecting wine waiter should have allowed to happen, although a pinot noir I had with the lamb was better.
There were a couple of things I liked. The house bread was dry and flavourless but it was presented with a great peppery olive oil, so perhaps it was only supposed to be a vehicle for that. And a cheese course was very good indeed - Montgomery Cheddar, Colton Basset stilton and an only-very-slightly-too-sweaty-but-still-wonderful unpasteurised St James which always goes down well. I even really liked the house limoncello, and a "margarita" they made with it involving tequila and (very clever this) a slice of fresh sharp chilli. If straws had been on the menu, I'd have been clutching at them.
To answer my own question though, no, I don't think I need to go any easier on a restaurant which happens to also run a youth apprentice scheme than I would to anywhere else charging me for dinner. And I'll tell you what's unethical - not a food blogger whinging about his meal, but a restaurant hiding behind a celebrity name and do-gooding credentials as a cover for serving hugely overpriced mediocrity to credulous tourists. Also, on that point, yes I know my track record with the Oliver empire isn't exactly stellar, and you may wonder what I was doing attempting to complete the set (Barbecoa, Jamie's Italian, Union Jacks and now this) when chances are I knew what was coming, but it wasn't my choice and anyway I was curious. I still didn't expect it to be quite as cynical as it turned out to be.
Ah well, onwards and upwards. I'm done with the Oliver brand now, and it's somewhat of a relief. Lovely man and golden-hearted philanthropist I've no doubt he is, but every time I've eaten in anywhere he's put his name to I've hated it, so it's probably about time I stopped giving them the benefit of the doubt. It's not like there aren't alternatives, and it's not as if anything I say will make the blindest bit of difference anyway to the kinds of people who will flock to eat at anywhere with that nice man off the telly's name over the front door. If it's all the same to you, I'll just eat somewhere else in the future, and make a donation to a homeless charity. A similarly ethical result, and without having to spend a small fortune on crappy Italian food.
Sorry about the lack of illustration, the theme of the evening was mainly "too dark for my iPhone", though let's be honest, you never came here for stunning food photography.