Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Salt of the Earth

John Salt @John__Salt
131 Upper Street Islington, N1 1QP

The newly open John Salt in Islington is home to a 6 month residency of Ben Spalding, formly head chef at Roganic. Despite only just opening, it's already booked out until January, so get in quick before the queue gets longer. No doubt this is due to the hype surrounding Ben after the success of Strippedback, and a few other events he's done since leaving Roganic. I've been to Strippedback a few times, and really enjoyed it. I was excited at the prospect of what could be done with a proper kitchen and team behind him, had I set the expectation bar too high? In a word, no.
What instantly hits about the John Salt is that not only are they concentrating on creating great dishes, but for good value. Wider accessibility to good food is important and £28 is value for the 4 courses (more like 7 with all the extras), but if that is too much for some their bar food all dishes are under a tenner. Now pass the salt...

The taster menu is served upstairs above the bar area. It's a nice area, with enough space with enough room to relax and enjoy your meal without being penned in by other customers. The staff were all well versed in the menu, and were attentive without being pushy. We went for the 4 course meal consisting of 'chicken on a brick', rainbow trout'. 'beef heel' and 'cucumber'. At £56 the 8 course a bit too far out of my budget. It was an intriguing menu, however I was a bit tentative that portions would be a bit measly and would have to get something for the walk back home, after all how else would someone finish a 8 course! I was pleasantly surprised. 
Our first little appetizer was orange and mozarella, really fresh and punchy start. Now for the bread, this is a course on it's own, 4 pieces of bread, fermented flat bread, malt loaf, red wine bread served with butter from the butter viking. If you haven't heard of butter viking check out this piece from the guardian. I don't think I've ever had to say to someone 'wow, have you tried the butter, it's amazing', normally it seems to be a bit of an afterthought, but this was special. I can see why even Noma use it. The red wine bread was brilliant, I could eat a whole loaf of that stuff. It tasted more of red wine, than most dishes I've had cooked in it.!


Pre nibbles - Orange & mozarella

Bread and butter

Now to actually get on to the first dish on the menu, with chicken on a brick. This has been passed around the internet quite a lot so unfortunately has lost it's 'wow' factor, I want to see the face of those who have been in the dark about it until it's put in front of them. I like that it throws in the face everything that fine dining usually stands for, first off served off on probably the furthest thing from an elegant plate, and then licking the bitter caramel clean. It brings together what I like about eating out, great quality produce and something that provokes discussion and excitement amongst the table. Ben's creative talent that can only be compared to Heston's meat fruit, again a chicken parfait. The brick aside, it's a great dish the crispy skin almost like small croutons adding that crunch to the velvety smooth parfait
Chicken on a brick - Lingon berries, sweet corn kernels, crispy skin, chicken liver cream

Not chic - Chick brick lickin'
The rainbow trout dish was an awesome combination of flavours and textures. The rainbow trout always brings back good memories for me fishing for it back in the day as a youngster in Wales. The rainbow trout was salted and poached in maple syrup but wasn't as sweet as I was expecting. The kaffir lime creme fraiche adds a surprising subtle flavour beneath the trout that I would normally only associate with thai.

Rainbow trout - salted and poached in maple syrup, salted almonds, kaffir lime creme fraiche & rotten mango juice
My favourite dish of the night (if I had to choose) was the beef heel. I've never had this before, beef heel is an odd cut that you come across very often, can imagine contains copious amount of connective tissue and has to be cooked for quite a while. With lendings from various cuisines such as the bok choi, kimchi together with what I presume were wafer thin turnip slices this was a delight. However, the beef was the star of the dish with a strikingly powerful richness. The roasted carrot puree brought the feeling of a traditional english roast, a nice addition, which makes me think of the attention to detail in all these plates for everything to come together and make it greater than the sum of the individual ingredients.

Beef heel - cooked in wine, kimchi, roasted carrot puree, bok choi & unstrained cooking juices
After the 'main' dish was a welcome palate cleanser of warm apple and pomegrante fizz, with a distinct addition of clove and cinnamon to create a mulled cider-like taste. Now, the food at John Salt for it's name sake, salt is a vital component of most of the dishes. We could really tell after we had got through about 4 bottles of water between us.

For dessert was the 'cucumber' dish, described to us as 'Ben's take on cucumber and peanut butter sandwiches he had at school'. Seriously? No wonder a lot of his creations are quite left field with an upbringing including that! This was really fresh, although not a fan of cucumber this unusual combination of peanut butter with the cucumber went well. 
To finish was a rich salted chocolate moose, with added chocolate pepper, and blueberries served on a slate, there has got to be a building site nearby with all it's materials gone!

Cucumber - salted cucumber juice, natural yogurt, peanut butter and mint oil
After dinner nibble - Salted chocolate moose
Overall, a great night and experience, and considering this was opening night, everything was seamless  except the credit card machine being down (there always has to be something). I expect things will only go on to get better. Portion sizes were spot on as well, feeling reasonably comfortable with my meager '4' courses, the thought of 8 or 12, you'll have to be there all day! It's a good feeling to have something of this substancial quality, it's just a shame I can only rarely stretch to it. I can imagine I'll be back sooner or later to try out the bar food.

UPDATE: The latest review with new chef, Neil Rankin, can be found here 
- Owen

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