Wednesday, 17 August 2022

Honey & Co, Bloomsbury

On one of the hottest days of the year - and God knows we'd had enough of those - it feels appropriate to eat food from a part of the world a little more used to coping with the heat. The husband and wife team behind Honey & Co are both Israeli by birth, but have honed their skills in various high-end London restaurant kitchens, including (and most influentially) Ottolenghi's NOPI, who's done more than most to introduce the city to the delights of pomegranate molasses and zat'ar than anyone else I can think of.

The thing is, delightful though Ottolenghi's recipes are in the context of a lavish double-spread in the Observer, I wasn't a huge fan of NOPI - the rustic charm that works so well in tender close-up scattered with pomegranate seeds and flat-leaved parsley, served in a restaurant looks a bit, well, lazy - especially considering the rather terrifying prices they charge (£13 for roasted carrot).

The original Honey & Co was an instant London hit because it combined the colourful, veg-forward eastern Mediterranean ingredient base with a more refined, yet still reasonably-priced, restaurant aesthetic. It was food that made you feel good about eating it, full of life and personality and with certain dishes, specifically the taramosalata, becoming must-order classics.

Now shifted to Bloomsbury, in excellent foodie company just over the road from Noble Rot in a nicely refurbished, air-conditioned (thank God) space, it's a delight (not to mention somewhat of a relief) that the tarama has made the journey across town largely intact. It's a really wonderful thing, salty and satisfying, topped with chopped egg and pickles and with a few trout roe to provide a bit of texture. It's still a must-order item and worth the journey alone.

Other dishes were less successful, but we'll come to those later. House pickles were certainly generously proportioned, with a giant pile of funky yellow turnip next to pickled chillies and kalamata olives. Best of all on this plate though was cabbage which had been soaked in some kind of sichuan-style smoked chilli oil, a surprising turn for a Middle Eastern restaurant but one that worked very well.

House bread was, well, fine - the grassy olive oil it came with was certainly more interesting than the bread itself, which was a bit like the kind of thing restaurants used to boast about making themselves before people started making genuinely good sourdough on site. The milk bun was probably the best of them, then the warm pita, and then the slightly disappointing sesame.

I'm still not sure what to make of the prawns and watermelon dish. Somewhere perhaps, in a parallel universe, I can conceive of a watermelon and prawn dish that does work, maybe involving lots of chilli and slicked with oil or butter to counteract the sugary crispness of the melon. But plain (I didn't detect a trace of the advertised lemon or oregano) poached prawns on plain watermelon dressed with plain dry mint leaves and chunks of plain feta was all too...well, plain. A spritz of raw lemon helped spruce it up a bit, but this was still an awkwardly bland dish, not much fun to eat at all.

On the other hand, despite being almost buried under a cupboard's worth of ingredients (cherry tomatoes, pine nuts, breadcrumbs and various herbs) the grilled sardines were absolutely lovely. I could probably have done with a bit more of a charred skin, but the flesh inside was perfectly timed, and pulled away from the bones in a pleasing whole fillet. We should all of us eat more sardines, they're very sustainable as well as being great to eat.

Dessert, when it eventually arrived (staff were struggling towards the end of the evening, although it's probably not a good idea to make too much of this given everything that's going on), was perfectly nice, a dense flourless (I think) chocolate cake packed with various different nuts, and served with a "marzipan sorbet" - actually quite an interesting idea. I'm not sure whose idea it was to put a dry sherry on the dessert menu though; I should have known better than to think an amontillado would go with a chocolate cake but I took a chance and ordered it anyway, and it really didn't.

The bill came to £113 for three people, which I suppose is just about in the ballpark of acceptable. Rampant inflation and soaring energy costs have forced restaurants to make some near impossible decisions re: the price points on their menus, and it would be extremely unreasonable of me to expect dinner in Bloomsbury in 2022 to be the same price as Warren St in 2013. Honey & Co is still at the lower end of the budget for a central London restaurant, a fact reflected in their popularity - every table taken on a Thursday evening.

The fact it didn't quite live up to my expectations, then, is possibly more my fault than theirs. I loved the original Honey & Co, I loved what they were doing and I loved that they loved what they were doing - everything had such heart and personality it was impossible not to be completely smitten. It was always likely that a change of location (and to a much larger location at that) may test the limits of an operation, so maybe we should be thankful that, despite a couple of things not quite going to plan, so much of what they do is still so good. And I've every confidence that given a few more months, they'll be back to their old selves.


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