I'm calling January 2016 as the moment the restaurant template that's dominated London for the last five years finally jumped the shark. Far too many new openings appear to have been cobbled together, Inception-style, from my memories of other restaurants, from the interior design to the locally sourced, modern European menus. There's a cynicism to the uniformity. It's a formula that fulfils a purpose but hints at a lack of passion, that glorious, intangible quality that makes eating out such a joy.
Darkhorse is a case in point: it's like a bingo card filled with modern dining tropes. If you’ve been to a restaurant in the last half a decade then you already know what it looks like: exposed concrete, lots of wood, bare tables, low-watt light bulbs. It has a sharing concept. When you walk in, you’ll think there’s been a glitch in the matrix.
The venture, from Lee Glen (The Fat Delicatessen Bar and Restaurant, Soho House) and Ian Goodman (OXO Bar), is located in what used to be known as Athletes’ Village and is now called East Village, a ginormous housing development that’s home to several thousand people and, as of now, one restaurant. It’s pitching for the same market as the likes of Craft London (North Greenwich) and Granger & Co (King’s Cross), trying to create a local vibe amid the concrete and glass, but it falls short of both.
The view from the window is of a bleak, grey expanse that might charitably be called a plaza. I wanted the authentic experience, so I stopped off at Argos Westfield on the way, rocking up with a plastic sack filled with kitchenware. Westfield may be a truly miserable place, but it does have a wide selection of juicers.
The menu, which is Italian-ish and Spanish-ish and British-ish, is filled with things that are difficult to object to but impossible to get excited about, like tiger prawns in chilli, or spinach and ricotta ravioli. One of the more interesting entries is charred lamb neck with aubergine caviar and bagna càuda, which, on the face of it, looked promising: two nice, thick cuts of meat, charred as promised on the outside, pink and tender in the middle (a minor achievement in itself with what can be a tough cut of meat if you don’t cook it properly), and a pool of bagna càuda, a sauce made from olive oil, anchovies and enough butter to give a bison a heart attack, which was stone cold. I called the waitress.
“Excuse me, is this bagna càuda supposed to be cold?”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“Would you mind awfully finding out?”
Off she went. Now, I happen to know that bagna càuda literally translates as “warm bath”, so I was interested to hear the answer to this. You can serve it cold – Heston has a nice recipe for it – but that’s to accompany cold meats rather than to leach the heat from your piping hot lamb.
“The chef says ‘yes’, it’s supposed to be cold.”
She turned to walk away.
“Wait, wait... Can you ask him why he’s served it cold.”
She returned to the kitchen.
“He says it’s like mayonnaise and it has to be that temperature or it will split.”
So, my best guess is that it was cold by mistake. If I were being properly diligent I’d go back and order the same thing in order to compare the temperature but, honestly, I don’t like Darkhorse enough to bother. Everything was mildly disappointing. The otherwise acceptable chicken – with a nice sheet of crisped skin and some wonderful roast pumpkin – came with gravy that was almost inedibly salty. The arancini with ham and taleggio cheese tasted of the deep fat frier. Chestnut mushrooms with pancetta and gorgonzola was uninspired: soggy mushrooms mixed through with tough, singed meat.
Salmon gravadlax was better, but there’s virtually no skill required in its preparation. I only ordered it because it came with charred leeks, which I’m fond of making myself but consistently overcook.
“Oh look,” said El Pye. “There’s your favourite: charred sludge.”
Darkhorse’s version was, admittedly, better than mine.
Dessert of chocolate bread pudding tasted more charred than chocolatey – they sure do love their wood-burning oven here – and the polenta cake was... Nice. Fine. Adequate.
Darkhorse takes a bunch of well-sourced ingredients and doesn’t do very much with them, creating a handful of crowd-pleasers that your mum would like because it’s better than the garbage they serve at Carluccio’s. At best, it suffices.
As I waited for the maitre’d to fetch my Argos bag from the cloakroom, three chefs were lined up along the semi-open plan kitchen. One of them – presumably the guy responsible for the bagna càuda – was giving me a look usually reserved for people who have brutally murdered a member of your close family. It’s the same look my brother, also a chef, is prone to giving people who criticise his food, a look that goes beyond simple hatred into a world of malice that only chefs seem capable of generating. I would fear for my safety but I have no intention of returning.