A taste of the north in Clerkenwell

North Road

69-73 St John St, EC1M 4AN
Tel: 020 3217 0033,
www.northroadrestaurant.co.uk

FOOD 4/5
SERVICE 4/5
ATMOSPHERE 4/5

Cost per person without wine: £30

IF I tell you that the nibbles supplied at the start of this meal consisted of “skin” – of chicken, fish and pig – and then tell you the meal was really rather good, you might not believe me. There was also a lot of hay involved, some beige butter, and lobster that was, well, pretty much raw.

What on paper sounds akin to a bush tucker trial is in fact London’s latest and most prominent example of the culinary trend du jour – new Nordic cuisine, as made famous by Copenhagen’s “best restaurant in the world”, Noma. That means cooking things minimally, using foraged ingredients like wild herbs, nettles, flowers and berries and no sign of anything so unctuous and artery-clogging as a creamy sauce.

It is, as it happens, the perfect cuisine for those who don’t want their New Year detox to preclude eating out, and North Road’s minimal, almost ascetic atmosphere – whitewashed walls, plain wood floors, stark black chairs, some elegant, industrial-chic light fittings and food served on artfully rustic clay dishes – rather complements the effect. This is as much about what North Road’s not, what it’s different to – all the saucy, hearty indulgence we naturally associate with fine eating – as what it is in itself.

Not that that’s especially austere. The food at North Road – by Danish chef Christoffer Hruskova, who has worked around the world and also runs Islington favourite Fig Bistro – is precise, colourful, imaginative and light. And it’s frankly refreshing to eat several courses and not feel as though you’d sink a boat were you to step on board.

Back to that skin, which is a bit of a surprise, and one of the few concessions to fat. Shards of salty fish and chicken skin are crackly, pork is actually crackling, and it all makes for a good introductory munch. The skin pieces come sitting next to a big ceramic egg, inside which a couple of poached quails eggs are nesting in a bed of hay. This is apparently an idea borrowed somewhat from Noma, but let’s call it a tribute and acknowledge the fact that for most of us this ceramic ovum is the nearest we’ll get to eating at the Copenhagen hotspot anyway, so why not. The yokes ooze out enjoyably over the hay – it’s fun, and charming.

SCANDINAVIAN ETHOS
On to proper courses. The menu changes regularly according to what’s available, seasonal and (I suppose) forageable, and while the cuisine is inspired by Scandinavia, the ethos dictates that the ingredients all come from the British Isles.

Examples from the starters include Dorset shrimps and carrot with wild herbs and flowers or glazed veal sweetbread and onions with milk skin and pickled elderberries; from the mains, you might choose veal breast and tail with celery, celeriac and wild thyme, or mutton loin and onions with wild cabbage and broth. There’s a five course tasting menu which will set you back £55, for which different wines have been selected for each course.

I started out with a couple of Scottish scallops that had been gently smoked, and were served surrounded by finely-chopped shreds of apple, dabs of horseradish cream and topped off by a see-through disc of jellified apple. The scallops were rather small, but this is a combinationof great elegance and freshness. I loved it.

Things got more intriguing with a delicate lobster dish, in which the pieces of crustacean had been cured for a day in salt and sugar. Lightly reddened in places, the meat was mostly a raw, translucent grey – hardly appetizing until you tasted its rich sweetness, nicely offset by a little pile of horseradish dust and a gentle vinaigrette.

A main of venison loin (the menu calls it “Norfolk deer”) had meat that was practically as pink as the slithers of beetroot which accompanied it, though its outsides were entirely black thanks to its having been cooked in burnt hay. This made it too smoky by half for me, but if the amount of charcoaling can be adjusted, this could be a smasher of a course.

Dessert was a cleansing combination of pears with an earthy, smoky ice cream. And the beige butter? That nutty, sweet and caramel-infused concoction came with an early round of bread, and was one of the most wonderful things I tasted in 2010.