Pop-ups are everywhere but The Seagrass shines

Steve Dinneen
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74 Chapel Market, Islington, N1 9ER Tel: 020 7837 5270

FOOD ****

Cost per person without wine: £30

POP-UPS. They’ve become a thing, haven’t they? If it’s not located in the loft of an abandoned Victorian insane asylum, it isn’t worth a dime. You can’t move for the bloody things, whether it’s the glut of temporary members’ clubs that cropped up to take advantage of the elusive tidal wave of Olympic tourists, or the likes of eBay and Microsoft opening seasonal stores to entice Christmas shoppers.

The Seagrass, on Chapel Market in Islington, “pops up” three nights a week inside a building that, during the day, happens to be a pie and mash café called M Manze. Of course, some people might quibble that a food venue, located in a cafe, isn’t so much a “pop-up” as, you know, a “restaurant”.

The venue is quietly stunning, all original Victorian fittings and fading, glazed tiles. Add some dim candle-light to the equation and you’re probably not far from how the place looked 100 years ago.

You can tell it’s informal dining when the waiter offers to shake your hand before he introduces the starters. The casual atmosphere goes some way to mitigating for the failings of Manze as an evening venue. The toilet, for instance, is unhelpfully situated on the far side of the kitchen. Now, restaurant kitchens aren’t the most pleasant of places at the best of times, and having to make eye-contact with the chef who is about to cook your dinner as you make your way to the loo is hardly ideal, although it does act as a apt demonstration of the cyclical nature of the dining experience.

The church-style pews that serve as seats aren’t really suited to a leisurely meal, either, and I found myself squirming into increasingly uncomfortable positions in a bid to prevent the circulation in my buttocks from being cut off.

The food had to be pretty good to justify the extra inconvenience. And it was. I started with mussels, which, while hard to get wrong, certainly didn’t disappoint.

For the main, in a momentary lapse of reason, I opted for the crab, served with a hearty portion of chips and salad. It may be a fine crustacean but it’s hard to look graceful as you attempt to smash your way through its shell. My guest kindly looked the other way as a glob of boiling hot crab meat sprayed onto my hand. When I finally got it into my mouth, though, it was divine. The tender cut of venison on the plate opposite was even better.

The Seagrass does the important things right. The service is good, the food is very good and, when you account for the bring-your-own-bottle policy, it ends up being quite reasonable, too. Over and above that, you feel like you’ve worked for your dinner; like the trips through the kitchen and the familiarity of the waiting staff somehow make you more than just another punter. You wouldn’t want to go there every night, which is just as well, because you can’t: it’s a pop-up. Whatever that means.