Tuesday, 8 December 2015
A few weeks ago I was invited to a wild mushroom dinner at Heirloom restaurant in Crouch End. I'd never been to Crouch End, and I'd only heard in passing of Heirloom, but a quick glance at the online menu convinced me it looked like it could be worth the journey and after briefly panicking about the amount of time it might take to get there (sorry Crouchers, but you are far), then reassuring a friend about the same, we set off.
But if it seems like running a neighbourhood restaurant like Heirloom is easy, or some kind of inevitable result of an area going up in the world (Whole Foods > Organic coffee bar > Neighbourhood restaurant), then you'd be mistaken. Running any restaurant takes effort, and pulling together the myriad things that need to go right (building works, fixing suppliers, finding staff) as well as avoiding all the potential disasters (power failures, extraction systems giving up, flooding), along with - yes - finding a location with a population of locals willing to spend £35-40 a-head-with-a-glass-of-wine, none of these things are easy. There's no such thing as "just" a good neighbourhood restaurant. Heirloom is no accident.
The point of this extended preamble is just that when you're sat down for dinner, enjoying yourself, eating amazing food and drink and wanting for nothing, it's the result of a lot of hard work, of course it is. And I'm taking nothing away from the efforts of James (Ramsden, an old friend of mine but don't let that put you off) and Sam (Herlihy, friend & podcast partner), or any of their staff, who are obviously all very good at what they do and in Pidgin have found a way of making a relatively tricky site work (this is where the late, lamented Mayfields was) and have themselves a very successful new neighbourhood restaurant.
But when things go quite as well as they do at Pidgin, when the food is this good, well, you need that little bit of extra pixie dust. In this case, at the risk of embarrassing her, that touch of magic is Elizabeth Allen, who in what I'm assuming is a ludicrously short space of time (she looks about 18) has trained at kitchens up and down the country and landed herself the head chef role. There's every chance Pidgin would have been a very good restaurant without Allen in the kitchen. But with her... well, let's see.
First on the no-choice, £35-a-head menu (at least, after some excellent sourdough bread) is "Celery granita" with Valdeon (a blue cheese), sorrel, and pumpernickel crumb. A very Dairy-style amuse - I'm sure they won't mind me making the comparison - containing big chunks of salty cheese, cubes of apple, crunchy toasted bread and, on top, a layer of frozen celery. It's not easy to get this kind of texture-heavy vegetarian dish right - it so easily works or doesn't based on the proportions of each element - but this was perfect, refreshing and rewarding, not to mention great looking.
Next, one of the best, most perfectly-cooked bits of fish I've ever had in my life, married with croutons, slivers of interesting herbs, shoots of salty samphire and finally dressed with a green vegetable "soup" of some kind, the flavours sharp and distinct as the finest consommé. Having had so many poorly-cooked fillets of fish in recent months (chewy skin, overcooked flesh, you name it) I've sadly started to get quite excited when some nice white fish is merely "not messed up too badly" as opposed to actually impressive. But this was, as I say, impossible to fault, a masterclass in seafood cooking and putting countless other more expensive and well-known restaurants to utter shame.
The thing about a no-choice menu with a predictable number of covers per night is that it lets a kitchen produce dishes like this Beef Wellington, which usually require a group of people willing to participate, as part of normal dinner service. I like Beef Wellington at the best of times, even when (as often happens) some of the end slices are a bit overdone and despite the often exorbitant cost. To have it as part of a £35 tasting menu is a rare treat, and the way Allen does it - with sprouts fried in Iberico pig fat, wild mushrooms and salsify, and draped in one of those sticky marmite-y sauces that make you want to lick your plate clean - is 2nd only to the the Ritz in recent memory. And that was a slightly different price point, if you remember.
Dessert was a cute mini financier (warm out of the oven), chunks of caramelised plum, "pepita tahini" (your guess is as good as mine, but it tasted quite nutty) ice cream and swirls of sazerac caramel. Inventive and technically accomplished, correct to the seasons and presented well, this was another top-flight dish.
So yes, I was impressed. And not just from the excitement of discovering a brand-new white-hot talent in London's restaurant kitchens - although clearly this is the case - but because the whole package worked, from the warmth (literally and figuratively on this cold winter night) of the welcome, to the tasteful drinks list and intimate atmosphere. True, it's impossible to be ignored in this tiny dining room but that doesn't mean such experiences are always as comfortable as they are here at Pidgin. Atmosphere and bonhomie have to be earned. It all takes effort.
Anyway it's time I stop and give you a chance to run to the phone and book a meal for yourself. By now a completely new weekly menu will be in full swing, with four more dishes of sparkle and finesse to swoon and babble over, so even if you may not have a chance to eat that incredible Beef Wellington or the perfect gurnard, there's every chance they'll have been replaced by something equally astonishing, or possibly more so. It feels that in this restaurant, right now, with a team at the top of their chosen profession and with that sprinkling of pixie dust, anything's possible. Well done. Well done indeed.