John Salt styles itself as a neighbourhood bar with good beer, a little disingenuous I feel as it’s rather more than that. This is Ben Spalding’s residency at what was Keston Lodge on Upper Street, Islington. And whilst it is one of the latest of the chef residencies that are happening all over London, this is not just the use of an upstairs room for a restaurant. Here the entire pub has been revamped and now serves Ben’s inspired, on trend food in both the open plan upstairs dining room and downstairs in the bar where sous chef Nathan Holmes cooks.
First to address two issues that have been the talk of Twitter since John Salt opened: yes the music is loud but we asked if it could be turned down and it was, so no worries there. Second the chicken brick which I’ll mention later, but is essentially I think it a silly idea though I’m prepared to forgive and forget as I found our dinner to be one of the most exciting and innovative I’ve eaten recently.
We chose, wisely I think, the four course menu. There is a ratio of time spent eating small plates of food that is directly proportional to the numbness of your bum whilst waiting for the next course and it’s one which I feel has a bearing on the enjoyment of any meal. And whilst the service was snappy, well informed and totally charming, our four courses still took about 2 1/2 hours to serve and eat. It’s never just four course you see, there are always more. In the case of John Salt there were pre-dinner nibbles of potato crisps with orange marmalade, shin beignets with aioli and miso soup with sea vegetables, that’s three other bits at the start.
That said I love the spirit of generosity that such additions engenders and the fact that one is treated to a wider range of tastes. I also love set menus, suffering constantly as I do from that most appalling of ailments “I want what they’ve ordered” syndrome. One menu, one table = big smiles from me.
And there were many big smiles The butter from the Butter Viking, Patrick Joahansson was delicious, it is served on a block of Himalayan pink salt so the longer the butter sits the saltier it becomes. One butter is served both plain and whipped illustrating a point close to my heart about treatment of identical ingredients tasting different but the star butter was the one made with buttermilk, light creamy and delicate. All this butter is served with 3 great breads one a dense fruit loaf. Now we’ve not reached the starter yet so imagine at this stage even the most robust spirit might quail at another 8-12 mandatory courses……..
The infamous chicken on a brick came next it’s a smear (not a word we nurses like to see on a menu) of chicken liver parfait atop a caramelised brick which in turn is topped with ligon berries, celery leaves, sweet corn kernels and crispy chicken skin. Yes a simple little dish such as one might make for a light meal. Or in this case a heavy meal as the preferred option when it comes to eating this, is to pick up the brick and lick off the parfait. I’ve always been game, so this is what I did. No problems, but the dish is lost in the act. I defy most people to lick a brick in public, whilst trying not to either drip the food down their frock or look really quite inelegant AND to taste the food. Licking I achieved, even a degree of elegance, but the flavour?
The rainbow trout with rotten mango juice, almond and kaffir lime was stunning, the heel of beef, the mandatory slow cooked dish served with kimchi, so right on trend, was meaty enough to satisfy even my red meat loving husband. Somewhere we had a syphon of hot spiced apple and pomegranate juice then a dessert of sweet cucumber juice with peanut butter and jelly that I thought delicious but others at my table didn’t and finally a tiny pot of “chocolate cloud” milk sorbet, overripe pineapple and hazelnut.
It was all very good, more so as I really am quite bored with small plates and chefs fancies now. There were four of us at the table and everyone found the meal well thought out,skilfully cooked and beautifully presented. The wine water, who now has a fan club of his own, was very helpful and the wine list interesting and well priced. This is creative cooking done very well indeed and I applaud Ben’s dedication, his palate and his team all who make the place much more than the sum of it’s parts.
I’m looking forward to trying lunch at the bar both during the week and for the Sunday roast and will be back for dinner in the New Year. That’s if I can get a table!
Phone: 0207 704 8955
131 Upper Street
London N1 1QP