Chef Neil Rankin (former Pitt Cue Co.) has finally started his residence at John Salt in Islington, after a short stint in the kitchen by Ben Spalding. I came, I saw, I was conquered by the food – “like porn for carnivores- meat with everything” to quote a friend- I liked everything except an unfortunate plate of soggy fries and the clubby atmosphere. Here’s the laydown of a much-anticipated evening of (good) food and (bad) music…
Note: this post has been edited after the chef pointed out I got some facts wrong- my fault for not double-checking. Neil Rankin is at John Salt “for the long term” (see here) not as a temporary residence as previously stated. “There are further plans with the Owl (& Pussycat, which is under the same owner 508 pub group ) later in the year”- Rankin said in a recent interview; on twitter, he wrote that he may be “putting a menu into the Owl but this won’t affect John Salt“. My apologies for the imprecision.
Note 2 (June 2013): looks like it was right after all, Neil Rankin has left John Salt for a new smokehouse project. Oh well.
Hanger steak with kimchi hollandaise – Neil Rankin really has a way with meat
I booked at John Salt in late November, after coming back from my Asia trip – big mistake, as it was already booked solid through January. Chef Ben Spalding, who had taken over the kitchen in a “temporary residence” of six months, has a fanatical following – including me, as you can see from my rave reviews – and foodies flocked to his first regular venue after the “Stripped Back” popup. Plus, I was curious too see how the old Keston Lodge – which I remembered as a nondescript, loud bar on Upper Street where I had a quite memorable leaving do (memorable for others- I can’t remember anything except bad chili martinis) – had been transformed in a cool restaurant. Or that’s what I imagined, at least.
Pork and chicken skin hash- and the steak again
Fast forward two months. 2013 has set it, Ben’s “chicken on a brick” seems old news already, popcorn is a food trend, together with more burgers, more “filth” and a constant amount of squirrel taxidermy. My booking at John Salt is for Jan 25th, but Ben Spalding is not in the kitchen anymore. In mid-December, he left (or was he made to leave?) and a war-by-press-release was declared between him and the restaurant management- you can choose between the boring PR version here and the juicier one by the excellent chef-and-blogger Luke Mackay. As I have no special desire to add a PR fight to my fairly crap start of 2013 – cancer in the family? Check. Running injury? Check. Near breakup? Check. – I will stick to the official version. John Salt and Ben Spalding parted ways amicably, and in a matter of days it was announced that Neil Rankin of Pitt Cue Co. fame was to take the helm of the restaurant.
Having liked the famous Pitt Cue ribs quite a lot since their street food debut, and having HATED eating them out of a polystyrene tray on windy Southbank, I decided to keep my reservation when an apologetic- sounding lady called me from John Salt to “inform me” about the new chef. She also told me there would be a 50% discount on the food bill- nice touch, but I was sold already. I am a big Spalding fan girl as somebody said on Twitter, but not to the point where I wouldn’t give a chance to another chef! In fact, I had high expectations- if only I could have eaten the same good meat as in Pitt Cue in a nice conventional restaurant taking reservations, well that would have been more than enough.
Then, a pre-opening dinner was held at John Salt for a restricted circle of food bloggers, a couple of whom I know and trust – and gushing adjectives and food porn- style pics started flowing on the Interwebs. Kimchi hollandaise? Frites? Like, proper Belgian style frites triple-cooked in suet? Crispy pig skin AND crab? Sounded like heaven on earth. As the bad news of my crappy January kept piling up, I looked at the approaching dinner at John Salt like to a beaming beacon.
The much-anticipated night came and I braved an icy sleet walking to Islington to work up an appetite (not hard when you’re on the 5:2 diet anyway). The big security guy at the door gave me a negative vibe- doors open, and the old Keston Lodge is still there, dark and choke-full of half-naked girls, guys in flannel shirts and all the regular features of a moderately trendy twenty-something London bar including loud, pulsating music.
We climb the stairs and hope the noise will get less booming, but it’s still pretty loud even at our corner table, and too dark for my taste. But I am really determined to LIKE this so I pretend I am not bothered – not even by the menu typed in the compulsory fake-typing-machine font and listing the tunes of the very music I am loathing every minute more. I try to concentrate on the food and not be fussy.
The popcorn pork thing is not on the menu today- bugger, I would have felt SO trendy – so the choice is easy after religiously reading all the twitter reviews. My companion asks if the prices on the menu include the discount, as they seem so cheat- starters are 6pound max, mains 15. They don’t, it really is cheap.
Cocktails are good- my Negroni has a hint of Barolo chinato (yes, wine!) which gives it real kick. The John Salt is a fancy Martini.
When starters arrive I am desperate for something to take my mind off the music, and something to play with in the dark. Three dishes give us quite a lot to eat and talk about.Oysters with beef fat mayo are…fried. I am not crazy about oysters and these are good enough, but the cooking kills the very essence of the oyster, and we can’t taste the beef mayo at all.
The crab and fennel on pig skin is an interesting combination- perfectly puffed cracklings of skin you’d better eat with your hands to avoid splattering the delicate crab goodness everywhere. Perfect execution (haven’t had pork so good since Hong Kong) but lacking a something to bring together the porky and he fishy side.
Pig skin with crab and fennel
Luckily, we leave the raw beef for last- it’s very hot, strongly flavoured of spring onions and sesame oil, and absolutely delicious. This dish is spot on and I wish we didn’t have to share; I would go back just for this.
The beef keeps me happy in the seemingly endless minutes we spent in company of the thumping music and the characteristic smell of booze and an overexcited crowd around 10PM on a Friday night.
Pork and chicken skin hash- and the steak again
The mains arrive- I have gone for hanger steak, a favourite of mine but not an easy one. I had it just last Sunday at the Corner Room and it was good but very chewy. My steak doesn’t look like much, solitary on the plate with its kimchi hollandaise accompaniment and a touch of ashes on top, but it’s incredible. Charred but not burnt, nicely marinated but not overseasoned, a touch chewy – it’s hanger steak after all –but tasty and with a great texture. It’s so good I am almost shy using too much sauce on the steak, so I shamelessly lick kimchi hollandaise off the knife- it’s a great combination, which I am sure, will start to pop up in other restaurants very soon.
The other main is pork hash- “a roast dinner but better” was the waitress’ description- a hearty plateful of pork chunks, pulled strands of pork, properly roasted potatoes and what seems like apple and peas, with a nice runny egg on top. It’s very tasty and the potatoes are a potato lover’s dream – crunchy brown skin and fluffy inside, they end up in the hollandaise as well.
Disapponting chips- too bad as frites with kimchi and cheese sound lovely
I am almost forgetting the annoying surroundings when we finally attack the frites – but hey- I hear you say (or possibly don’t hear you as the music is too loud) don’t they look a bit limp? Yes, they are helplessy limp and soggy and we can’t manage to eat more than a couple. The kimchi is equally wet, and we can’t find a trace of cheese. At the cost of sounding like a massive spoilt whimp – I know, people don’t have money to eat out, and happily buy Tesco value horse burgers- but it’s a major disappointment. I lived in Belgium for a while in my happy days as a careless student, and good chips always bring me back there- and God knows if I need to be transported back to a time where I could tolerate club music instead of being so grumpy because of it. These are not just ordinary chips, they are positively bad, having probably sat around too long- and also smell of animal fat and not in a good way. When we’re asked if everything’s OK, we say the chips are mushy and are offered a change but we’re too full of meaty stuff so we decline.
For desserts, I can’t bring myself to have the bacon pannacotta (it’s January detox, right) and the intriguing blood orange and buttermilk has sold out, so we go for banana dog – I AM eating trendy food anyway- and “old fashioned trifle”.
Puddings turn out to be lovely- rich without being outrageous.
Banana Dog, and Old Fashioned Trifle
Not being British, I ignore the fact that everything labeled old fashioned must contain rhubarb, so I scoff the top bit of my trifle (yummy cream, caramelized marshmallows and sponge) and leave the rhubarb to my fellow diner. The banana dog won’t win any prize in the presentation department, unless it’s a naughty joke which it probably is, but it’s very tasty and the icecream scoop is top quality.
The bill is as small as we imagined, with the 50% off on food, and we are absolutely stuffed – but I can’t wait to leave. Was the food good? Yes, absolutely- with the exception of the frites, which may have been a logistics glitch, I can see meat and dairy being handled very well here and from my modest knowledge I think Neil Rankin is doing something interesting, nobilitating “pub grub” ingredients without being gimmicky. But for me the location is a major put off- noisy, smelly and taking away from the food experience. It reminds me of Upstairs at Ten Bells but unfortunately in this case the pub-cum-restaurant formula doesn’t work.
Don’t get me wrong, I an not saying I’d like a rarefied atmosphere in a small restaurant- I think Neil Rankin’s food deserves to be enjoyed by a large crowd. I really hope for a venue which is not a food truck nor a club – I hate rhubarb, but I am a bit old fashioned so I like to eat on a table, see what I’m eating, and with music just as a background. I am tempted to be back (the disappointing frites and the raw beef being an equal pull) but will try lunch instead and fingers crossed I don’t end up there when there’s an afterparty.
P.S. I recommended John Salt to my lovely flatmate who’s a girl-about-town and doesn’t mind the clubbing atmosphere- her verdict was: “Omg – its totally delicious and full of hotties. Like porn for carnivores – meat with everything – and the bacon panna cotta?! Total triumph. The best, most reasonably priced place out there I’d go as far as saying.”
So you see, it’s a case of “it’s not you, it’s me“.
John Salt, Islington, London
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