This year we learnt that Londoners are so hellbent on dining wherever the buzz is, there’s no telling how long they are willing to wait. Ollie Dabbous’ restaurant became booked-up so far into the future, they hired Mystic Meg as a receptionist. The latest chef to generate the kind of buzz that seems to warrant an unreasonably long wait to sit down and eat some food, is Ben Spalding.
Ever since Spalding parted ways with Roganic, food fans have been anticipating his next move. Having amassed a hardcore following during his summer streetfood hit ‘Stripped Back’ in Hackney, he’s now back to cooking with a roof over his head. On the upper level of a newly renovated Islington bar known as John Salt (formerly The Keston Lodge), Spalding weaves in and out of the kitchen like a man possessed. The look in his eyes, one of intensity and hunger; like a man two weeks removed from his last orgasm.
Buffalo mozzarella £7 (bar menu)
The ground level is all exposed concrete floors and brick walls in a way that now qualifies for normal. Near the entrance by the bar is a long wooden table reinforced with metal, where Spalding’s sous chef Nathan cooks food from a separate bar menu in full view of the punters. Of course this is no ordinary bar menu, fraught with things that serve as teasers for what you could have if you manage to land one of the increasingly hard to come by tables upstairs.
Greasy chicken skin sandwich £6 (bar menu)
There’s things like Buffalo mozzarella which comes in generous chunks that jiggle when the plate hits the table, with a texture that doesn’t know if its coarse or creamy, and a balancing sweetness from a warm maple dressing. A filling of warm bechamel-like Wagyu beef with the cooling effect of a minted sour cream and the salady crunch of blowtorched lettuce come in two fajita wraps substantial enough to knock your hunger on its head. There’s a sandwich that switches out bread for two brittle sheets of chicken skin – flattened between two baking trays – with a red onion jam and paprika mayonnaise lubricating a pressed cucumber, baby gem and watercress filling. There’s an oversized bowl of incredibly rich chocolate mousse made using Original Bean chocolate, which is sourced from a man on his donkey in the Congo or something. Hidden beneath it are little cubes of salt baked pineapple for a touch of acidity. Then there is a soft Jersey milk sorbet dolloped into the centre and a sprinkling of nuts for texture.
Spiced Wagyu beef wraps £9 (bar menu)
The food upstairs is more refined, to the point where it seems out of place above a bar where the music and commotion impose their will on the very air you breathe. 4 and 8 course menus (£28 and £56) are available Tuesday to Thursday evenings. Then a 12 course menu (£85) unlocks itself at the weekends.
Here is where you’ll find the conversation piece that is Spalding’s ‘chicken on a brick’, enacted by a London house brick lacquered in a caramel glaze for which you are encouraged to set aside your inherent Britishness and lick it like a house-cat. Between you and the caramel lies a super-smooth chicken liver mousse with sweet corn and lingonberries, topped with a crispy crumb of chicken skin.
Warm Original Bean chocolate £7 (bar menu)
It’s good but by no means the best of what you’ll eat. Before things even kick into gear there comes a plate of ‘nibbles’ which includes a little hit of oh-so-rich short-rib in a breadcrumb, and a heavenly miso soup in a cute little glass teapot that soothes and washes away your troubles. A salad boasting thirty separate ingredients is the kind of thing you want to swoosh around your palate and concentrate on, as flavours flick-on multiple switches across your tastebuds. A fabulous hen of the woods mushroom comes in an intense, almost chocolaty aromatic ketchup with Douglas Fir crumbs, lettuce and persimmon. There’s a fried Machiavelli egg with a mousse of Yukon gold, smoked watermelon and kale sauce that lasts but a couple of spoonfuls, but how glorious those spoonfuls are.
I could keep going, but you get the picture. The menu that Spalding has devised can hang with the best London has to offer. Each course introduces a new idea, yet everything ends up on the same sheet of music. The sheer number of ingredients you’ll get through is insane and every one has been treated with the care and respect it deserves. It’s one long infomercial for what Ben Spalding is all about. But he’s only here for 6 months. When service began last week, the upstairs at John Salt already had a full dance-card until next January. Ask in a few days and I’d wager it’ll be February. Act now.
food : 8.5/10
service : 8/10
ambience : 5/10
value : 7/10
131 Upper Street, London N1 1QP
0207 704 8955