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.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Only 3/10 30% of the large plates on the sample menu are vegetarian at the moment, although the majority of small plates are.

Still, be pushed to associate with a vegetable restaurant.