Monday, 6 June 2016
Native, Covent Garden
Native is the kind of restaurant that, if it had opened a few years ago, before the Dairy and Picture and all those other new-wave Modern British "foraged and seasonal" places popped up, would have probably made a bigger splash. That's not to say Native is lazy or derivative; food such as this, however much it's inspired by anywhere else, is never easy to get right, and the dishes they're turning out here are - by and large - impressive by anyone's standards. And if the whole "foraged and seasonal" shtick is wearing a little thin, that's hardly their fault is it? It's only jaded restaurant spods like me that ever end up bothered by it.
So I'll try and leave any creeping sense of "been there, done that" to one side and tell you all the reasons why Native is a great little restaurant and why you should take the time to visit. Firstly, and first impressions matter after all, all the staff are lovely and do as well in this tiny, slightly shabby space as you could hope for. True, it's not terrifically difficult to be attentive when you're kept within arm's reach of the people you're serving, but even so it was noted.
And the food is well worth sticking around for as well, but firstly a couple of things that didn't quite hit the mark. I get the impression that Native haven't yet decided where their strengths lie and are still drawing influences from far and wide to see what works and what doesn't. From my own perspective, I'm afraid a wood pigeon kebab didn't - work, that is. There are too many different elements specific to training and equipment and setting and ingredients in Middle Eastern food that make it incredibly difficult to get right in anywhere that doesn't specialise in just that style of cuisine. So I'm afraid the herb crust on the pigeon itself was clumsy and bitter, the sauce too jammy, and the bread thick and cloying, more a kind of thin scone than a proper flatbread. Perhaps, in their defense, Native weren't aiming for a completely authentic pigeon kebab (is there one?) and I'm sure one day they'd love access to a proper wood-fired bread oven, but until then, why compromise?
Across two recent visits, a weeny bowl of "confit garlic" was the only other thing I didn't think much of. There are probably ways of using cow's curd and garlic that don't mean you end up with a pile of unseasoned, flavourless gloop with a distressing honk of old garlic but I'm afraid that's essentially all we have here, about a tablespoon's worth for £4. Not recommended.
Fortunately, everything else I tried at Native was well worth the effort. On one visit there were these rabbit dumplings floating in a powerful smoked bacon dashi soup, packing a super umami punch and with bags of lovely meaty flavour. It didn't need the chunks of cold, vinegary pickled walnuts that were floating around in it but these were easily avoided, and hardly spoiled the enjoyment of the rest of the dish.
House bread was warmed to order and though not particularly interesting of flavour, still had a nice crust. I still can't quite believe I'm still having to complain about butter in restaurants in 2016, but I don't know, maybe some people like having their bread shredded apart into small pieces while trying to apply fridge-hard strips of butter to its surface. All I know is, I don't.
Hog skin chicharron, hogseet salt and 'Hayonnaise' had a great mix of textures, the delicate crunch of the puffed pork dotted with soft dollops of fresh mayonnaise. But my favourite thing about this little snack was the spiced salt, which had fenugreek and cardamom and all sorts of interesting things going on.
Wild boar and caraway saucisson was from Cannon and Cannon and therefore was a prime example, moist and well seasoned and packed with good, colourful lean meat. Accompanying pickles were fine, though the sliced gherkin worked better than the slimy pickled mushrooms.
Asparagus with lardo used very good asparagus, and very good lardo, and so could hardly fail. Having the kitchens so close to where the food is consumed has many benefits, but particularly in the serving of asparagus where if they're very fresh off the grill they're still nice and plump - after a few seconds they cool down and go a bit wrinkly.
Venison, a big slab of it, cooked medium rare and served with Isle of Wight tomatoes. I feel like I'm not as big a fan of Isle of Wight tomatoes as everyone else seems to be - they're nicer than your local supermarket SmartPrice tomatoes perhaps, but not worth swooning over. However the deer was hugely enjoyable, confidently seasoned and bleeding sweet, meaty juices.
More Isle of Wight tomatoes came with the scallops, and were even more of a distraction. I think the rich seafood flavours of scallops need citrus rather than tomato to balance it, but I liked the use of sobrasada in the mixture underneath, and I also liked how they'd kept the roes on for extra rustic points. Surf and turf.
The bill at Native comes on an iPad. I'm sure you can ask for a printout for your records, but I didn't (save the planet) so you'll have to take my word that the bill on each occasion came to about £20-25. Which is a pretty reasonable amount of money to pay for lunch anywhere, never mind an ingredients-led Modern British bistro in the centre of Covent Garden. I've also just noticed with some horror that the menu says 'Service Not Included' and I don't know if I left an additional charge on my bill; if not, sorry Native, service was faultless - I'll make it up next time.
And I'm sure there will be a next time. No, Native the restaurant isn't perfect, but the occasional failures are noble and the attitude from everyone involved is so honest and attractive it's hard not to just go with it all and enjoy yourself. I also noted with some relief that none of the desserts involved any root vegetables or peas; a worrying recent development in restaurants of this kind. So thanks for doing your thing, Native - you may not be London's first foraged and seasonal Modern British restaurant, and you surely won't be the last. But you are doing it confidently and you are doing it well, and there's no shame in that.
In Covent Garden and Native is full? See your other options in the area with my app.