Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Lagom, Hackney Wick

Restaurants are funny things. Sometimes a meal can be technically flawless, served efficiently and in wonderful surroundings and yet somehow still leave you cold, whereas other times any number of imperfections and bum notes can, through sheer force of personality, make a very satisfying whole. Whether or not a particular meal "works" is subject to so many different factors, and so many very personal issues and influences come into play, that recommending anywhere can become a genuinely fraught process. It makes you wonder whether I bother writing a blog at all, quite frankly.

The best you can do, really, is find a reviewer whose preferences at least vaguely align with your own, and hope they're right most of the time. I won't give you my own personal list of favourites, but suffice it to say that there are certain food journalists I read because I know that if they like a place, chances are I will too, and there are others I read for sheer entertainment value and take their restaurant recommendations with a pinch of salt. You probably do the same. It would be no good if we were all the same, as my gran used to say.

So the thing about Lagom is, it is cooking the food that exactly matches the kind of thing - mature, intelligent smoked vegetables and meats - I want to eat most of the time I eat out, and came recommended from the kind of people who have, through their various respective outlets, very rarely let me down in the past. Brushing aside the disappointment that the smallest (and therefore cheapest) 100-day aged ribeye available was £120 (others had sold out, even by 1:30pm), we consoled ourselves by ordering most of the rest of the menu, including their signature smoked chicken with burnt lemon.

And would you look at that. Bronzed and fleshy like a Venice Beach bodybuilder, this huge, healthy-looking bird had clearly been smoked long and slow by someone conscious of the fact that sometimes too smoky is not a good thing - it had enough mesquite about it to be interesting and evocative, but not too much that it tasted like an ashtray. Every inch of it was moist and pleasant - even the breast, which is quite an achievement - and although personally I could have done with a teeny bit more seasoning, it was still great fun to eat.

Smoked pork belly was similarly sensitively done, not too smoky and meltingly tender. We also appreciated their (presumably) house BBQ sauce, which was tangy and fresh tasting without being sweet. It was also a very generous portion for £14, which unfortunately the same could not be said for...

...a rather measly bowl of vinegar coleslaw, fine I suppose but nothing earth-shattering. Admittedly it was only £1.50, but it was also just cabbage and vinegar; I doubt their margins would have been damaged too much by the doubling of the portion size.

Far more joy was to be found in the other sides. Crispy potatoes were exactly that - skin on, artfully disintegrated and fried to a nice loud crunch, they came with a very nice aioli (so good in fact that we could have done with a bit more of it) and made the perfect accompaniment to the chicken.

"Cheesy leeks" had plenty of cheese on top, which was good, but were a bit timid on the seasoning on the mixture inside and were only just about worth ordering again. Also, the portion control problem reared its ugly head again here - £9 is an awful lot to pay for a small bowl of cheese and leek.

Smoked mushrooms, though, were absolutely fantastic. We think they'd been smoked first and then either very quickly fried in butter or perhaps just coated in butter before serving - they kept a lovely delicate note of woodsmoke on top of a strong, earthy mushroom flavour and were pretty much the best way I've been served mushrooms in a long time. And loads of them, too, for £5.

Despite the occasional moan I've had over portion size and pricing, it's worth pointing out that the food bill came to £20 a head, which is still well within the bounds of reason for food like this, which after all requires no small amount of technical expertise, a lot of time and fairly specialised equipment to create. Think how many proper smokehouses and high-end BBQ joints there are in town worth the money - Smokestak is about the only other one I'd recommend - which tells you how difficult it is to get this kind of thing right. And yes, a bit of extra seasoning there or an extra dollop of 'slaw there wouldn't have gone amiss, but we still had a great time and polished everything we ordered off completely.

So what I'm saying in the end is, I'm not always looking for perfection in restaurants. I don't mind having to add a bit of salt if required (although I do mind having to ask for it - please just have it on the table), I don't mind the odd wobble in service if they're sensible about it, I don't even mind the odd misjudged portion size or price point. All of this can be forgiven given enough style and flavour, and sheer warmth of spirit, and Lagom is a charming little operation which has these things in spades, alongside a good amount of technical smoking knowhow. It deserves to be spoken of alongside the best smoked food in town. At least, I think so.


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