Wednesday 27 July 2022

Acme Fire Cult, Dalston

Like lots of places, Acme Fire Cult was closed during the two most extreme days of the heatwave early last week. Being a restaurant largely based outdoors, and with the smaller inside bit not air conditioned, they quite rightly decided they could neither comfortably serve their customers or put their staff through a full shift of cooking over hot coals when even the un-chargrilled air temperature was pushing 40C.

It is perhaps for this reason, then, that due to a reshuffling of bookings, tables at this exciting young restaurant (it's barely a few months old in the current location) are even harder to come by than usual. And believe me, even on a usual day they're pretty hard to come by. Without perhaps deliberately setting out to be one of the most talked about spots in East London, the guys at Acme Fire Cult (that's chef-owners Andrew Clarke and Daniel Watkins) have nevertheless hit upon an attitude and approach that anyone interested in good food in the capital will swoon over, whether they know it yet or not.

Firstly, and almost uniquely for a live-fire restaurant (although Berber & Co had a good bash) the menu is largely vegetable-focussed. Seven out of the nine starters, and two out of the five "large" plates have a vegetarian main ingredient, and while it's true they do serve pork chops and sirloin to those determined to get their fix, myself and a friend found ourselves, unrepentant meat eaters on any normal day, ordering no steaks or chops and just two seafood dishes. The scallops were first to arrive - skewers with plump, rich roe delightfully included (why is this still such a rarity?) and topped with a slick layer of fragrant green curry.

Bread comes from the wonderful Dusty Knuckle bakery right next door (literally, they share a party wall) and appears on the menu in various exciting forms. The house bread, for example, is an excellent sourdough soaked - and I do mean soaked - in "Marmite" butter, the "Marmite" in quotes no doubt down to the fact it's some kind of experimental yeast extract the AFC fermenting and pickling boffins had come up with themselves rather than anything out of a jar from Unilever. Also full marks for having a healthy shaving of truffle as an option for only £3 extra, in stark contrast to a certain mac & cheese dish in Berkshire.

Smacked cucumbers and watermelon, gently and intelligently smacked (pickled), came dressed with ancho chilli oil, and let me tell you now there's few things better than the cooling texture of cold watermelon and the fire of chilli oil battling their way around your tastebuds at once. And for extra waste-free sustainability points, this dish included delightfully bouncy, jellified pieces of pickled watermelon rind as well.

Mutton merguez, lean and gamey and interesting, came with hibiscus-pickled onions and guindilla chillies. On a hot day I am often to be found eating fridge-cold guindilla straight out of the jar, so I was hardly going to object to their inclusion in a Spanish sausage dish. Labneh was fresh and light and cooling.

One of a couple of unordered extras (it helps to be lunching with the editor of a live fire magazine) this is a giant Cuore del Vesuvio tomato which I first thought was a bit underseasoned until I realised that the slick of "green goddess" underneath was a heady, anchovy-spiked dressing that combined beautifully with the tomato and impressive pile of wet herbs on top.

A giant slab of toasted sourdough arrived with a generous amount of white crab meat and salted cabbage and a kind of jalapeno pesto, all of which worked beautifully of course. But binding it all together was the most amazing brown meat and bone marrow sauce, which soaked into the bread and seasoned the crab and cabbage, resulting in an almost decadently rich explosion of seafood flavour. Worth travelling to Dalston for alone.

Also stunning was a coal-roast aubergine in "sourdough mole", Mexican mole made using some kind of waste product of the Dusty Knuckle sourdough baking process. The aubergine was nicely done, soft and smoke-licked and easy to eat, but the mole was genuinely impressive, gently bitter and complex and chocolatey, and impossible to leave alone.

Finally one other veggie bonus, trombetta courgettes, deftly charred on the grill, served on a nice chunky hummus and "vadouvan" (an Indian spice mix) butter. Fried curry leaves provided a bit of occasional crunch, as did some gorgeous fried chickpeas which were studded around the place. It all added up to a very successful thing indeed.

And much the same can be said of the restaurant as a whole. Live-fire cooking has a long and proud tradition in London and is not in of itself any kind of revolution. Similarly attempting to tilt your menu towards a focus on high-quality home-grown vegetables alongside a well-chosen and sustainable selection of ethical meats is something that various places have done and are doing, many of which I've reviewed on the blog over the years.

But it seems to me that Acme Fire Cult have taken what could have been a rather worthy and self-consciously hipster East London operation, and made it, well, fun. All the dishes are intelligently realised and skilfully cooked, service (albeit with the caveat that they did know we were coming) was spot-on, and the attention to detail leads not to a stubborn inertia of suppliers as so often happens but to a judicious and open-minded use of nearby top-tier producers (Dusty Knuckle bakery, and 40ft Brewery beers also in the same little courtyard) when it was clear they were the best option. But none of this would matter at all if you didn't pay your bill at the end of the meal with gratitude and joy and a smile on your face, and that is exactly what we did. Behind the rows of house pickles, the small plates and the pints of Dalston IPA, beats an operation with real heart.


Tuesday 12 July 2022

Zaika, Kensington

For a time after I first started this whole blogging thing, I was quite sniffy about 'posh' Indian food. This is largely due to the fallout from two desperately disappointing meals, one at Benares in Mayfair which we'd trooped to for a friend's birthday to be served a variety of bits no better than you could get at any high street curry house, and another at Amaya where I seem to remember they refused to serve us poppadums with chutneys. And this is completely their prerogative of course, but I want poppadums and chutneys.

Maybe I'm less fussy these days - though this seems unlikely if I'm going to be honest - or maybe the posh Indian restaurants have gradually realised they have to do something more special than serve the same high street curries in fancy bowls and with nicer toilets, and have gradually upped their game. Surely this is something to do with the arrival on the scene of JKS superstar places like Trishna and Gymkhana, which must have made the existing Mayfair/Kensington set really sit up and take notice. Since then I have had genuinely enjoyable meals at Tamarind, Amaya and the like, and of course at any number of Surrender Mohan (Jamavar) and Rohit Ghai (Kutir, Manathan) operations which have taken the cuisine to a new level still.

Zaika is, I'm sure they won't mind me saying, one of the old school, a stalwart of Kensington High Street since waaaay back in 2002 in a space that was once a fancy banking hall - in fact the old safe, too large and heavy to remove, is used as a pantry. The menu is comfortable and familiar and attractive, with the usual array of kebabs, tikka bites and tandoori dishes alongside curries and biryanis, with plenty of decent pescatarian and vegetarian options. The tasting menu, which we were treated to, comprised a selection of highlights from the A La Carte, starting with (no poppadums, so a point off for that) this summery avocado and mango chat salad thingy, studded with pomegranete seeds.

Next came two vast scallops (admittedly this was to share between two), gently coloured and surrounded by a moat of amazing tomato, chilli and pineapple sauce, and topped with a very interesting coconut and beetroot "chutney" the texture of soft cheese. The scallops were nice and sweet, and we both enjoyed the coconut but the real star here was the complex, fiery pineapple-chilli sauce, quite unlike anything I'd had before.

Always my favourite part of meals like this, the platter of tandoori dishes did not disappoint, from wonderfully charred and textured lamb chops to a firm yet tenderly spiced tandoori seabass, and some juicy chunks of chicken, also coloured with flecks of black char. And yes, if I'm going to be brutal the lamb chops at Gymkhana probably have the edge, the fish at Jamavar is more deliriously complex, but these were still very enjoyable, very competent examples of their kind.

As is the tradition in these kinds of meals, all the remaining savoury dishes arrived at once, tableside, on a giant serving platter groaning with bowls, plates and jugs. Notable amongst them were the butter chicken, which all the best Indian restaurants do so well, a lovely silky yellow daal and a stack of tandoor-fresh naans, all fluffy and crisp in the right places.

This being an invite, though, we were treated to a couple more a la carte dishes intended to show off all the skills of the kitchen. First, a stunning slow-cooked lamb shank sealed in pastry, with a chimney of bone poking out of the top. Into this bone was poured a thick, rich cumin sauce, basting the lamb meat even before the pastry was cracked. Clever stuff.

Second (and not pictured, sorry, must have been enjoying myself too much), a chicken biryani so powerful and fragrant it not only drew gasps when the pastry casing was broken, but when other tables in the room had the same dish at various moments the same evening, the same incredible aroma launched itself around the room.

Desserts were a decent if slightly crystallised ginger stem ice cream and a nice and moist if otherwise unspectacular gulub jamun. I don't think there's any restaurant in this category that's yet completely nailed the dessert course, and though I'm not completely distraught considering I could barely eat much of it anyway thanks to the mountain of food they'd given us previously, it does make you wonder why so many stunning courses of complex and skillful cooking are so often followed by ice cream and a bit of cake. Or maybe I'm just not a fan of Indian desserts, who knows.

Desserts aside, though, this is a restaurant well worth bothering with, and even if you ignore the lamb shank and biryani which were cheeky extras, a hugely generous amount of rewarding and exciting food for the £65 price tag. For Kensington indeed, that counts as something approaching a bargain, and with a couple of cocktails and glasses of wine you should expect to come away with a bill of about £100pp. True, it's slightly overshadowed by the flashier new wave of high-end Indian restaurants, but that's no reason to dismiss it - it does what it does very well, efficiently and with a smile on its face, and you can't ask fairer than that. Here's to another 20 years.


I was invited to Zaika, and didn't see a bill.