Monday, 23 July 2018

Bright, Hackney

As much as I am very happy to travel quite significant distances in search of a good meal, as the geographic spread of restaurants on this blog will hopefully indicate, I do sometimes wish there was a bit more going on in my own neck of the woods. Battersea, and the Lavender Hill / Northcote Road area in particular, is a weird wasteland of family-friendly coffee shops and tired throwbacks, with only the Vietnamese restaurant Mien Tay, and Donna Margherita (if you stick to the pizzas), worth visiting out of a good thirty or forty licensed establishments. Considering the number of people who live in the area, a good chunk of whom would surely pay good money for a decent feed, the absence of anywhere offering a decent product is baffling. And yes, I know about Wright Bros and Tonkotsu in Battersea Power Station but that's so far from Clapham Junction it may as well be Vauxhall.

So it was with a certain amount of trepidation I began my journey from SW11 to E8 on Saturday. Surely to goodness Hackney already has more than enough amazing restaurants? The single stretch of bus route from Old Street took me past the Clove Club, Sagar & Wilde, Morito, The Marksman and The Laughing Heart before dropping me outside Mare St Market, a huge and heavenly air-conditioned collective of bars and restaurants and record shops and much else besides which has just opened as if Hackneyites didn't already have enough to shout about. It would simply not be fair if Bright was good too. I didn't need yet another reason to make that bloody trek across town.

Of course, inevitably, Bright is not just good but brilliant, a shining new jewel in the crown of East End dining and more than enough reason to make a hideous hour-plus-long journey in the baking heat. A journey, by the way, which is instantly forgotten as soon as you plonk yourself down at the beautiful wooden bar and are presented with a cold glass of crisp Provence rosé. There's no (obvious) air conditioning at Bright, but huge floor to ceiling window doors at either end of the room provide a lovely natural breeze, and as long as you're not at the picnic tables out front in the sun (or indeed in the rain, hard as that is to imagine at the moment), you should find the setting every bit as charming as we did.

What separates a good from a great restaurant is not always obvious, or even quantifiable, but as good an early indicator as any is probably a menu that contains rare or unusual ingredients or dishes. Whether through lack of imagination or in an attempt to find as broad a customer base as possible, restaurant menus often tend to follow a certain formula - starters of steak tartare, burrata, mains of onglet and fries, sea bass, desserts of pannacotta, sorbet. And often there's nothing wrong with that; not everywhere has to reinvent the wheel. But when did you last see 'Scarlet prawns' on a menu? Perhaps only at top-tier Spanish restaurant Barrafina where they're slightly bigger and called Carabineros, so full marks to Bright for seeking them out, cooking them utterly perfectly so that the tail meat is bouncy and moist and the heads full of that extraordinary salty bisque so complex and rewarding it's hard to believe it could just be found inside the animal as-is.

Katsu, that is breaded and deep-fried pork (usually, or sometimes chicken) sandwiches have started cropping up all over London in recent weeks. I made a trip to Brixton to try Nanban's version, and very good it was too, available takeaway only served from a separate hatch around the side of the building in case you want to go and sample it yourself. The Bright sando is easily as enjoyable, with fluffy soft white bread cradling tender pork, a sharp tamarind dressing and that all important crunch of fried breadcrumbs.

It was Tomos Parry's restaurant Brat, above Smoking Goat on Shoreditch High Street, that introduced London to the Elkano-inspired charcoal-roasted turbot on the bone, and indeed you should definitely go to Brat if you get a chance - that's another restaurant which goes out of its way to find unusual seafood like spider crabs and john dory. But here's the thing, and I hope I'm still welcome in Shoreditch after this comment, but I actually prefer the turbot at Bright. With a glorious crisped-up skin that held an obscene amount of liquid fat, and boasting a blinding white flesh, this was an absolutely magical bit of fish, the result of top-end ingredients treated in exactly the right way. Incredible.

Quail wasn't quite as transformative an experience to eat, but then that's hardly much of a criticism. It was still a lovely bit of bird, robustly seasoned and glazed with garum - a fermented fish sauce favoured by the Romans - and gently pink inside. It's tempting to summarise Bright's cooking style as that Modern British restaurant cliché "good ingredients, simply prepared" and it's true that there aren't a bewildering array of techniques on display here. But there's nothing straightforward about cooking turbot as well as that, or managing to get those prawns to the absolute best state they could be. Simple does not mean easy.

Desserts had the same stripped-back confidence of the savoury courses. "Chocolate, coriander seed & sea salt" was three large pieces of good dark chocolate, seemingly shaped on a crinkled up baking sheet, with an interesting added floral note from somewhere.

And "amazake" (a drink made from fermented rice, like sake but lower alcohol) ice cream with sour cherries was the perfect summer dessert, good soft ice cream boasting clean, precise flavours.

So congratulations - again - Hackney, you lucky, lucky bastards. You didn't need yet another thrilling, dynamic modern restaurant on your doorstep but you've got one anyway, and if it means lazy Battersea-based food bloggers have to suffer the indignities of superheated Routemasters and ten stops on the Northern Line to reach it well, quite frankly that's their problem. And you know what, I will be making that journey again, even if it's 32C and the heating on the top deck is stuck to "on", because if this is the way restaurants in London are heading, with elegant wine lists and dishes of stark, simple beauty, then we have an awful lot to look forward to. The future's Bright.



Alicia Foodycat said...

Zelman used to do raw scarlet prawns, but I haven't been there for ages so I don't know if they still do. I totally sympathise about those utter bastards in E8.

Unknown said...

Kaosarn is great if you order the isaan dishes. But perhaps you can't take the heat after all :)

Sean Mahan said...

Everything just looks so delicious here. And a 9 out of 10 is sure worth the time!