Monday, 12 August 2013
Toast, East Dulwich
Consider the monumental achievement of opening a great new restaurant in London. Think of the time it would take to find skilled young chefs willing to work all the hours of the day for very little money, the expense of hiring an exciting interior designer, the time recruiting competent, energetic serving staff, finding suppliers, dealing with wine merchants, and the management ability required to hold all the above in some kind of tenuous harmony through those shaky first few weeks. Think of the sheer, backbreaking stress of it all.
Then imagine doing it again. And again, and again. Each new opening requires another herculean burst of recruitment, management and toil, and yet something about what you're doing works and you find yourself running four restaurants that are not just successful, but popular and incredibly well-regarded critically, with a string of glowing reviews, awards and accolades that are the envy of your peers.
We should be eternally grateful for Ed Wilson and Oli Barker, the management team behind what is surely the most accomplished handful of neighbourhood restaurants in town - Terroirs, Brawn, Soif, Green Man and French Horn, each unassuming and smart and friendly, serving great food at a very reasonable prices, and yet each with its own distinct character and focus (Terroirs vaguely Parisian, Soif influenced by the Loire Valley, and so on). In an impressive reversal of the usual turn of events when a restaurant empire starts expanding, each new Wilson/Barker outpost seems to be better than the previous, and to that end my favourite, until recently, was the Green Man and French Horn (or as it has become known by a worrying number of people, the Horny Green Frenchman) in Covent Garden, a better place to while away the hours sipping cloudy natural whites and knocking back oysters I'm sure doesn't exist anywhere in the world. Certainly nowhere else in Covent Garden.
But, continuing the improbable trend, the latest opening is even better. Toast (a stupid name, crowdsourced on the East Dulwich Forum so that'll teach them) is on the site of the old (and much missed) Green and Blue wine bar, and has retained much of the same layout as well as the "wine shop" idea of allowing people to take away a bottle at retail price. What has changed, and changed beyond all recognition, is the food, and it's this that really deserves your attention. I won't exhaustively describe everything we ate, but the following should be enough to make up your mind whether you need to visit or not (hint: you do).
Charcuterie, an important part of the other Wilson/Barker restaurant offerings, is again imployed here, albeit just the two items - a nice firm saucisse seche and a lovely peppery Tuscan salame. House bread, again never an afterthought in the other places, is also good, especially with a great big load of soft salty butter on top.
And before we get started on the menu proper, the chef brought out a little Japanese-inspired dish he'd been working on, monkfish livers and marrow with a sort of soy dip. I hope it gets through the trial stage and becomes a permanent fixture, because it was very nice indeed - the liver was firm and gently fishy without being unpleasant, and the little blobs of marrow jelly brought to mind the very traditional London staple of jellied eels.
"Fresh cheese, onions, dill", "Crab, broccoli, sorrel", "Raw mackerel, ginger, white soy". Uncomplicated, fresh, colourful, seasonal dishes each, with a confidence in the (top quality) ingredients and none over a tenner. The mackerel was particularly well-received, like something the Clove Club might do.
I can't see this 60-day-aged beef tartare, oyster sauce and kale dish on the menu, so it could have been another preview, but I hope that's not the last we see of it, was silky and richly flavoured, studded with little chunks of fat for extra muscle. "Leek, potatoes, cheddar" was less interesting, and not just beacuse it was vegetarian - there was something a bit school dinners about the flavour combinations, despite the fancy presentation. "Broad bean, grains, onion" was a vegetarian dish that did impress, though - as densely flavoured as any protein.
"Girolles, figs, parsley" was the only dish that was something approaching a disappointment. The delicate, sweet flavour of figs and the earthy notes of the girolles were beaten into submission by a shocking green parsley sauce, leaving nothing but the texture of the fruit & mushrooms, and as you might imagine, texture is neither a fig or a girolle mushroom's strongest card. But two seafood dishes, a monkfish with ground pork and a haddock with fennel and anchovy, each showcased a great technique with the fish, the skin crisped up nicely and the bright-white flesh perfectly moist and flaky.
It was when a superb plate of pink lamb paired with an heirloom tomato and aubergine sauce turned up that what was just so different about this restaurant occurred to me - it seems that finally, at Toast, the shackles of the French Bistro theme have been unlocked, and the latest of the Wilson/Barker is not even pretending, even vaguely, to be French anymore. Toast is resolutely, recognisably Modern British in the Clove Club/Dairy mold, and draws its influence from that new wave of thrusting new London brasseries rather than anywhere on the continent. We surely have a lot to thank our European neighbours for over the years, but really, time doesn't stand still, and French cuisine is no longer the influence it once was, for very good reason (I can't remember the last time I had a meal in France worth shouting about).
So Wilson and Barker, restaurateurs extraordinaire and foodie trailblazers, are, with Toast, simply taking the next logical step. If it made sense in 2008 to base their first restaurant, Terroirs, on the local bistros of Paris, in 2013 it is the ingredients-led, light and seasonal touch of our best local talent that is the greatest inspiration in much the same way. What an exciting time to be a Londoner.
PANICKY EDIT: I'm reliably informed (and who is more reliable than Fay Maschler) that Toast is not literally a Barker/Wilson joint but instead is the brainchild of Eric Narioo of Caves de Pyrene, who are connected but not really the same. Rather than rewrite the entire bloody premise of this post, I thought I'd just quietly point that out here and see if I get away with it. The food's still good, so that's the most important thing in the end, right? *slinks off shamefacedly*
ANOTHER PANICKY EDIT: Now the PR company has got in touch and want me to clarify that the restaurant is in fact a joint venture between (supremely talented) Chef Michael Hazlewood and Manager Alex Thorp. I'd love to completely rewrite the review on this basis, but as I say hopefully all the nice things I've said about the food still stand. And next time I'll not get my news about restaurant openings from Twitter.