They say the flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long. When the recently opened John Salt in Islington bid farewell to 2012, they also waved goodbye to their star chef, who went his own way less than 2 months into his agreed 6 month tenure. Whatever the facts, in the short time Ben Spalding was in charge of the kitchen, he brought a lot of eyes to a place which otherwise would’ve never factored on anyone’s radar. Losing him so prematurely would expectedly deal a critical hit to a business, still in nappies, that seemingly traded off his name. But mama-fate dealt them another Ace.
Stepping into his shoes is Neil Rankin, the former head chef of Pitt Cue Co. in Soho. That’s a piece of information deserving of your attention. Pitt Cue Co. has been the place to go for barbeque in London since it opened over a year ago, and rightfully so. Rankin was already tipped to take over the kitchen at The Owl & Pussycat in Shoreditch – also part of 580 Ltd. – when suddenly a reshuffle was in order.
Scallops with ponzu, shrimp and peanut £3 each
He doesn’t simply try to pick-up where Spalding left off. In my previous review of John Salt, I said that Spalding’s super–refined cooking was “out of place in a bar where the music and commotion impose their will on the very air you breathe”. While it would be an injustice to class Rankin’s food as standard gastropub grub, his style of cooking ultimately proves a better fit for the place. It’s simpler; more relaxed; less challenging. But don’t get me wrong, it’s also inventive and clever. A lovely, warm scallop, elegantly presented on its shell, in a puddle of acidic, watery ponzu and crushed peanuts, topped in dried shrimp crumble, is the sort of thing you could splice into any high-end tasting menu.
Raw beef, pear, sesame £5
‘Nduja mussels £6
Though, on the whole, the menu seems more intent on feeding than on artistry. His take on steak tartare is a generously sized, coarsely chopped beef mattress, perforated with little cubes of pear and scattered with sesame and spring onions, bringing a deep, sweet richness and mild spice that is borderline Asian in character. Plump, slippery mussels come in an orange reduction of white-wine sauce and ‘nduja, which positively implores you to mop it up with the bread provided.
Skirt steak with kimchi hollandaise £10
As the former head chef of a barbeque joint, you’d expect Rankin to know a thing or two about meat. He does. A skirt steak is so masterfully executed with the pinkest, juiciest centre, yet coated in the blackest char. The meat, tough and chewy – as is the way with ‘skirt’ – the flavour, bold and beefy. But its thunder is stolen by an accompanying kimchi hollandaise which is all cool and thick and tangy, and may be the best damn condiment ever partnered with a seared muscle of cow. All steakhouses should serve this by default.
Frites with pulled pork, kimchi and cheese £5
Old fashioned trifle £5
The meal wasn’t without its hiccups. Disappointment made himself known as a side of frites with pulled pork, kimchee and cheese, which on paper sounds like food-erotica. In the flesh, this turned out the way you’d imagine if a student with too much time on his hands was experimenting with some leftovers and a bag of McCain oven chips. And dessert was merely so-so, an “old fashioned trifle” which was pleasant, with a sufficiently boozy undercarriage, but the layers too indistinct; too homogenous. But I could easily shrug-off the less successful dishes for the sheer calibre of the good ones. The stuff I liked, I really liked. And my word, Rankin knows how to put a slaughtered cow to good use. I would go to bed that night thinking of thick, creamy, orange, kimchi hollandaise. Any chef who can do that to me, I tip my quiff to.
food : 7.5/10
service : 8/10
ambience : 5/10
value : 8/10
131 Upper Street, London N1 1QP
0207 704 8955