Monday, 25 October 2021

Flor, Borough Market

Lunch on Saturday was that rarest and most brilliant of things - a completely unplanned, spur-of-the-moment decision that turned out to be one of the best meals of the year. This hardly ever happens. Mainly this is because I like to plan my weeks (and weekends) with some level of guarantee to avoid disappointment and I don't really do spur-of-the-moment unless something has gone rather askew. In this case, what I thought was a booking somewhere in SE1 turned out, well, not to be, and so faced with the bewildering number of options in Borough Market we literally just walked into the nearest place that looked like it had space. And lucky for us, it did.

An old warehouse converted into a dramatic triple-level dining room, with iron spiral staircases linking the floors, you need a bit of a head for heights to move comfortably between your table and the (surprisingly large and well-appointed) bathroom they've somehow built into the rafters at Flor. It's all beautiful though - the brick walls and antique pulleys and gears feel like a proper part of old Borough, and although the tables are fairly close together it still feels spacious and comfortable thanks to the high ceilings.

Just as tasteful as the interior is the menu, a short, sweet list of seasonal goodies at pretty reasonable price points. You can see the familial connection to Lyle's, but whilst the Shoreditch place is more solidly (if not tradionally) British, Flor has the odd touch of Korean & Japanese, and is (whisper it) a little more affordable. The attention to detail and flair for presentation is still very much in evidence though - take this beautiful bowl of oysters "dongchimi", fresh shellfish in a clear broth dotted with oil and spiked with little strips of pickle. The flavours were clear and clean, no one element fighting with another and none allowed to dominate, and combined with a mastery of technique (the broth was a particularly impressive bit of work) made up for a supremely impressive dish. It was a theme that was to continue.

Beetroot and feta tart was, if I'm going to be brutal, about the only thing on the Flor menu that had a touch of the safe about it. It was very good, don't get me wrong, with a delicate pastry base and nice fermented plum chutney, it was just the kind of thing you might be able to get hold of at any decent gastropub, and stood in contrast to the invention and bravery shown elsewhere on the menu.

Mackerel was much more like it. The fish, first of all, was perfect - a crisp, dry skin that held together a fillet of beautifully soft and sweet flesh oozing with fatty flavours. But it came with a delicate pear and fennel chutney that complimented the mackerel in an interesting more subtle way than the more usual contrast of citrus. Like the oysters, it was technically impressive but also willing to experiment with flavour profiles in a way that you didn't quite expect. Clever stuff.

Salt & pepper squid - greaseless and irresistably crunchy and soft in all the right places - came with a lovely light aioli and pickled (I think) jalapenos, and if you can't enjoy the combination of deep-fried seafood, mayonnaise and pickled chilli there's something wrong with you. Plenty of black pepper too, which punched almost as much mouth-burning heat as the chilli.

It's a compulsion of mine, and not one that I'm entirely proud of, to order the most bizarre or challenging item on any given menu just so I can say I've done it. So of course, the moment I saw Flor were serving brains, they went right to the top of the list. The brains themselves, lightly and skilfully tempura'd, were the best example of their kind I've ever had, although that being said they were still brains, and will by themselves only appeal to the most ardent offal fan, or anyone else who finds idea of eating disconcertingly meaty cottage cheese appealing. The broth they came in though was superb, as were the collection of wild mushrooms and seaweed that dressed the bowl, and special mention too to neat little quarter-slices of migawaya mandarins, a really clever little touch. There was a lot going on in this dish, but like everything before it no one element overwhelmed or muddied the flavours. Everything was clean, precise and incredibly enjoyable.

A highlight in a lunch full of highlights, smoked eel rice was soft, salty, umami-rich and so dangerously addictive I think we could have polished off three or four of these even on stomachs full of mackerel and brains. Whereas some previous dishes had played around with subtle flavours and impressed with delicate textures to great effect, here they'd just gone full-throttle on flavour, focussing on the eel as the main ingredient with bergamot cutting through the grease. And my god it worked.

We were hardly likely to cut short a lunch this good, so ordered not only the cheese course, but both desserts. The cheese, I'm sorry to say, was a little bit of a disappointment, tasting very young and bland and with none of the little calcium lactate crystals you should get in aged Comté. Had Flor been sold a dud? Even if so, you'd hope someone in the kitchen, who had been in such command of flavour elsewhere, would have sampled the batch and realised it wasn't really good enough to serve. Very odd.

Fortunately the desserts were super. Plum & hazelnut merveilleux was a lovely light moussey type thing coated in toasted nuts, containing a core of marvellous (pun intended) plum jam....

...and this is a profiterole containing sweetcorn ice cream, coffee-flavoured toffee and - a stroke of genius - a single shiso leaf which added character and crunch to an otherwise classically recognisable dessert.

We left, £100 each lighter thanks to far more booze than is probably necessary of a Saturday lunchtime, but still having felt we'd had something approaching a bargain given the technical ability on offer and (cheese excepted) level of ingredients. As an impromptu lunch, unplanned and unbooked, it saved our day and we would have been more than happy with anywhere that gave us a table and shelter from the pouring rain. For that alone, we were very much grateful.

But there's something more on offer here than simply a good feed. Flor is, undoubtedly, one of the best restaurants in the capital but whilst some dishes were simply straightforwardly great, such as the salt & pepper squid or the smoked eel rice, occasionally they treat you to a genuinely new way of thinking about or serving an ingredient, a remarkably exciting thing for this jaded food blogger in 2021. Not everything was perfect, but where they flexed their culinary imagination the results were often dazzling, and I'd struggle to think of another kitchen at any price point that could pull together the texures and flavours in the oyster dish, or the brain agedashi. Flor is - comfortably, happily - unique, and uniquely rewarding, a neat distillation of everything that's good about London restaurants, and I loved it.


EDIT: I've been informed that sadly this is the last week of Flor in its current, small plates form! But I'm going to keep a close eye on chef Pam Yung to see where she goes next...

1 comment:

moi said...

They're about to swap the restaurant for a bakery/wine bar! You had some of their last small plates, sob!