EartH Kitchen, 11-1 7 Stoke Newington Road, London N16 8BH (020 3873 2345). Starters £5-£6.50. Mains £12.50-£16. Desserts £5-£7.50. Wines from £24
Let’s dispense with the preamble and get to it. A bowl arrives filled with watercress, all deep green leaf and stem, hung with fragile rings of lightly pickled shallot. Almost buried by the foliage are lumps of bronzed and golden debris. They appear deeply fried, these misshapen pieces. It is vice and virtue clambering into bed and seeing what they can learn from each other. And so you dig in.
Some of those pieces are salted croutons of sourdough, the crust shattering beneath teeth, courtesy of a run through bubbling oil. They are a crunch to their heart. Some of them are pieces of the very best pork crackling, the glassy unblistered stuff with a just a little of the mouth-coating stickiness of gelatine. The menu will tell you this is crispy pig’s cheek, but you don’t really mind which part of the animal they come from. There is the pepperiness of the watercress and the softness of those leaves and the acidity of good dressing. It is an adult bowl of food designed to make those with encouraging appetites sigh and perhaps weep a little with happiness. Maybe that’s just me. It costs £6.
The crispy pig’s cheek with watercress was merely the highlight of a hugely cheering meal at EartH Kitchen, the restaurant of a major new arts venue in London’s Hackney. I don’t know what the capital H is about, and I don’t care. They can call themselves Hairy Baboon’s Arse for all I care, as long as they carry on serving their big muscular dishes, at these prices. The restaurant occupies a broad, hard-edged space, made more intimate come evening by low illumination and the gutter of tea lights. Those of a certain age should be prepared to power up their iPhone torch to read the menu. Live with it.
Anyone who eats around will recognise in certain key references – to ox heart or wild garlic, to Swaledale lamb or capers or hefty British cheeses – the butter-smeared palm prints of Fergus Henderson’s St John. Head chef Chris Gillard was previously in charge of the St John group’s kitchens. This kind of food, a distinct form of modern British cooking, full of robust flavours and nerdy intent, is clearly his religion. Other restaurants and chefs bang on about being ingredient led. The Benign Order of St John Chefs means it. Their food is never pretty. Once you’ve used the torch, put that camera phone away. Your friends would only squint at each photographed plateful and mutter “WTF?” or “Is it a crime scene?” You will not need photographic proof to tell them you ate very well indeed here. Your enthusiasm will do the job.
In the small plates list, all priced around £6, greenery dominates. We have a salad of sweet-salty brown shrimps with the crunch of mandolined kohlrabi and bitter leaves, again under a sprightly vinaigrette. That ox heart is sliced thin and jerk spiced before being seared. It is mixed in with more leaves and pieces of long-roasted aubergine and the high waft of fresh mint. What’s striking about these dishes is the way meat is used less as a focus for the plate, and more as a flavouring. Then there are spears of purple sprouting broccoli, lightly charred and liberally slathered with a Dijon mustard dressing. It’s a version of that old stager leeks vinaigrette after it’s engaged a personal trainer, taken off the gum guard and learned a few moves.
There are half a dozen main courses in the low to mid-teens, including a “Ridley Road” vegetarian curry, so named because the ingredients come from that street’s market nearby. The most expensive, at £16, is a whole roasted pigeon. It arrives on a fiery heap of roasted carrots, and spiced red peppers cooked down until they have collapsed into a gloriously happy, flame-coloured mess. Those vegetables are worth the price of admission by themselves. But with it comes the pigeon, cut in two, and laid across the support act. The meat has a high funk of game that has been properly cared for. This is what pigeon should taste like. Too often it doesn’t.
If that sounds scary, order the grilled kipper. It’s a bit of old-fashioned English, high tea cookery, delivered by guttering candlelight. It’s the kind of dish Fergus Henderson would refer to as “sustaining”. It fills the plate and is curled over itself. It’s laid on a billowing pillow of mash, which is there to take your hand and soften the whack of salty smoked fish. There is a dollop of grain mustard on top for acidity. There are leaves of hispi cabbage underneath.
Desserts have a classy school dinners vibe to them. If that doesn’t appeal cut straight to the cheese. They have Wigmore and Dorstone from Neal’s Yard. Otherwise, there is a “rhubarb torta della nonna”, which is a glamorous, “look at my Chanel shades” name for a pie of sweet, slightly heavy shortcrust pastry with a creamy filling. It could have done with a dollop of cream to move it along. There is also a steamed ginger pudding with a marmalade butterscotch sauce, and they’re not kidding about the marmalade. For here comes not just citrus, but a familiar bitter kick. It is one for the adults in the room. This does come with a scoop of vanilla ice cream which softens the blow.
Service is engaged and keen without being weird and stalkerish. My only whinge is over wine pricing. While there are some intriguing choices – I freely admit to not being previously familiar with the wines of Greek Macedonia – it kicks off at £24 and then quickly heads north of £30. It is certainly possible to find a good Gavi de Gavi that does not cost £50.
One word of warning. This is the restaurant of an events venue, the entrance to which is down a few stairs from the dining room. The tables are sparsely occupied when we arrive at 8pm. At 9.30pm, the 700-seater space next door kicks out, and suddenly it’s completely rammed. It looked like they got everybody fed and watered in a reasonable time, but if you don’t want to get caught in the rush make sure to check what’s on. That programme includes a number of Guardian Live Events, which connection in no way influenced this review. But having eaten there, I can safely say my employers have extremely good taste.