Wednesday, 3 December 2014
You'll notice it's been a little while since my last blog post. At first I had no better excuse than plain old laziness; I hadn't been anywhere particularly interesting, and so rather than write up some 6/10 set lunch at a South London gastropub that would be immediately forgotten seconds after I posted it, I thought I'd wait until something better came along. Then, just before something better did come along, I got very sick - "man flu" seems to be the fashionable way such things are dismissed these days except this wasn't just a sniffle; I was bedridden for the best part of a week and had to cancel all my birthday plans including a meal or two that would most likely have made very interesting blog material.
Then finally, just as I was back on my feet and looking forward to getting back in the saddle (sorry, illness seems to have affected my ability to use metaphors), a restaurant I was sure would make good copy (Five Fields) - and had been on my wishlist for a while - suffered a catastrophic power failure five minutes before our meal was due to begin. All was not entirely lost as we were quickly rehoused at the wonderful Medlar (whose cheeseboard deserves a blog of its own) but I was still in need of somewhere to write about. And things were getting desperate.
So to the rescue today, and not a moment too soon, comes Lyle's, somewhere that in an ideal world I would have been to months ago (it opened back in May) but - well, no, I'm not going to make any excuses about why I haven't been yet because I'm not really sure myself; the point is, I've been now, and it's great, and here's why.
You can always tell a huge amount about a restaurant from the quality of their house bread. When Lyle's first opened they were getting someone else to make it whilst their own was in development, but these days it's their own product, and my lord, what a good product it is. A not-too-thick crust, a gorgeous tacky crumb, and paired with a deep yellow, salty house butter, there are barely any finer ways to start a meal.
Pheasant liver toast & crabapple jelly is a twist on a bistro staple; there's something slightly lighter and smoother about pheasant as opposed to chicken liver, or perhaps that's just a more experienced hand in the kitchen than on display in your average local pub starter. Either way, this was very enjoyable. Yeah alright, the presentation's a bit turdy. Who cares.
You probably can tell everything you need to know about how good the game broth was from the picture, but I just want to stress how the neat circles of oil floated in the liquid like glimmering jewels, and that the egg was utterly perfectly cooked, the deep orange yolk of the Burford Brown bursting out when prodded with a spoon. I can demolish even a fairly mediocre game broth, and this was very far from mediocre.
The modestly-titled "crab & salsify" had a fresh, rich mixture of white meat and neat discs of salsify in a sort of thick liquid half way between a bisque and a sauce. It was frothy and light, but somehow held its shape as I heaped it onto the house bread. Clever stuff.
Pear & bitter leaf salad is of course not a new combination of ingredients, and if I'm to be brutally honest this was probably the least interesting of the small plates at Lyle's. But that's probably entirely deliberate. We only ordered it because we ordered everything - if you're the kind of person going round London ordering bitter leaf salads for your lunch then you'd probably be very happy with it.
Ox heart, pickled walnuts & brussels tops was my favourite dish, not because I automatically prefer anything involving grilled offal (though admittedly this must have played a part) but because the meat was dense and minerally, charred from the grill, the pickled walnuts played the part of capers, adding acid and complimenting the meat, and the brussel tops were just brilliant, soaked in butter and with a satisfying crunchy texture. If Lyle's can occasionally be accused of playing it safe (as with the bitter leaf salad for example), here is a dish, despite its superficial simplicity, that would have been less good had anything been added. Or taken away, for that matter.
What looked at first like a pile of beetroot actually hid some huge chunks of moist smoked mackerel, and the flavour combinations (along with the shaved horseradish on top) worked surprisingly well. It usually takes a lot for me to appreciate beetroot in any form (don't get me started on its seemingly ubiquitous use in desserts in fine dining restaurants, and whoever made a beetroot beer I tried in a craft pub in Camden once needs their license revoked) but this was firm without being dry, sweet without being soily.
Mallard legs & celeriac seemed to me like a visual pun on an Italian duck ragu with tagliatelle, but duck and celeriac are a fantastic match, and the more gamey Mallard here brought another dimension into play.
Finally, the flavours in smoked haddock, potato and buttermilk will be familiar to anyone who's ever had a fish supper in their life, but there's not much not to enjoy about decent fish in a nice creamy sauce. Perhaps the texture of the haddock was a little too crumbly, but it was all seasoned nicely and I was particularly impressed with the forensic knife skills on those chives - just look at them, millions of perfect miniscule green hoops.
Industry experts will tell you that whilst spods like me wave their SLRs around and bang on about offal, most of what makes a normal person's restaurant experience memorable is rather more to do with service, atmosphere and value. And though the food is clearly top drawer in many respects, it is in these three ancilliary categories that Lyle's leaps ahead of the pack. Service was friendly, attentive and relaxed in that East London style - as formal as they need to be, but with a ready smile. The room, and so therefore the atmosphere, is nothing short of beautiful; bright and clean and whitewashed with a nod to St John (chef James Lowe, of Young Turks fame, used to head up St John Bread & Wine just down the road) but somehow less austere and intimidating.
And with regards to value, well just take a look at the bill. Nine generous (albeit starter-sized) dishes, 3 glasses of very nice wine, and a total including service of under £30 a head. It's easy to point at the occasional famililarity, or complain that a certain set of ingredients aren't setting the world on fire, but all said and done you're eating dishes you'd be happy to come back to again and again, and you're doing so in a lovely room served by lovely staff who can't do enough for you. At lunchtimes at least, Lyle's is a joy.
Photos taken with a Canon 700D with 50mm lens, kindly loaned from Canon.