Tuesday, 14 February 2017
The Laughing Heart, Hackney
First of all, apologies for the drop in usual photographic standards on this post. This meal at Laughing Heart was completely impromptu, the result of there being nothing on TV on a Sunday night during a trip to see a friend in Shoreditch, and I didn't have my Big Camera. So if the food looks a bit less appealing than it would do normally I can only apologise (to them and you), but on the other hand my mate didn't have to put up with my taking ten or fifteen shots of every dish with my noisy compact, so you know, he was happy.
It is quite extraordinary to see the way this part of town has developed over the last few years. What was once a bleak and rather grotty thoroughfare to somewhere else now plays host to a number of seriously good food and drink options, with wine bar Sagar & Wilde stood next to Morito, just down the road from super gastropub the Marksman. The Laughing Heart, then, slots comfortably in to a mature and dynamic restaurant scene, with a local audience quite used to all this small plates and seasonal palava, thankyouverymuch. On Sunday evening, the place was buzzing - if not at capacity - with lucky Hackneyites making the most of the latest lovely thing to land on their doorstep.
Oysters X.O. were the first to arrive. You'll notice that a lot of the items on the Laughing Heart menu are Chinese-inspired; I'm not sure whether this is a permanent direction or just something they'd put on for Chinese New Year. Either way someone in the kitchens has a real affinity for this kind of thing as the balance of dressing, herbs and seafood was spot on, ginger and spring onions and presumably soy and vinegar sitting very nicely with the plump winter bivalves.
I like to think I can divide the population into two categories - those who are unable to read "Brown crab butter" and not order it immediately, and those who will live a sad and empty life devoid of fun or meaning. I am in the former. It was wonderful; fluffy and smooth and rich with seafood like a fine, buttery taramasalata, and has by all accounts already become somewhat of a signature offering. The sourdough it came with was also fantastic, as you might expect given there's quite the choice of top bakeries in these parts.
Next, dumplings, and very good dumplings too, with great delicate casings and lovely vibrant fillings. My favourite was pork and fennel, which had a particularly impressive aromatic kick. As I said, someone at Laughing Heart really knows their Chinese food discipline, and isn't afraid to show it off on a menu that's otherwise solidly Modern European. Ordinarily I'd probably say something about geographic vagueness, but I mean, what the hell, life's too short.
With beef in herb butter and fried potatoes were were firmly back on British soil, and by using 9-year-old ex-dairy cattle they were pushing all the on-trend butchery buttons too. The beef was tender and had a decent flavour, though was by no means knockout; I like a bit more of a chargrilled crust on my steaks, though that may just be a personal thing. The accompanying potatoes were less easy to love, a strange mangled shape and not tasting of a great deal.
So if it seems extraordinary how much Hackney has changed in recent years, surely more extraordinary is that the pace of innovation and invention in the restaurant industry seems only to accelerate. Laughing Heart is an energetic little place with a singularly eccentric vision of what it means to eat out, and yet by the standards of what we've come to expect in London, it feels neither forced nor particularly unusual. A Chinese-European gastropub. Why the hell not.