Paradise Garage, Bethnal Green
12th October 2016
Approx £25 a head for not-very-hungry people
I first sidled up to Bethnal Green for a Tech Meetup. The makers of Monument Valley were speaking about UX at the Barclays Incubator HQ, which is conveniently above a cronut-hawking restaurant-brewery with an extensive breakfast menu. I was fascinated by this culinary jack-of-all-trades, an establishment just a hemp protein shake short of meeting the entire nutritional needs of every silicone roundabouter.
You see, it's 2016 and you can be as many things as you want to be, all at the same time. Bethnal Green is damp, ugly and a little bit down-trodden. This area has had a bit of bad luck over the years. Virtually levelled during World War Two, the borough spent two decades quietly improving itself before the Kray twins made it their gangster's paradise in the sixties. In the eighties local politics shifted civil jobs out of the area, facilitating further decline. A decade later, Guy Richie filmed Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels in Bethnal Green. Yet I am still advocating that you go there for dinner. Bear with me - this is not all that the neighbourhood is anymore.
Culinary virtuosos have nested in the little cubbyholes carved out by government-led gentrification projects. Singaporean hotelier Peng Loh spent £20 million converting the town hall into a triumph of a design-led boutique hotel. You can see the Walkie Talkie building jutting out cartoonishly from certain vantage points, and dapper first-home-owners stepping of the buses coming from the square mile. It's surprisingly close to the cooler parts of East London, and there's a Korean restaurant down the road with a hair salon in it that I will be visiting during my next foray east due to the kitsch factor. Bethnal Green no longer fits neatly into the "avoid" box, and most inconveniently it is foisting its dirty little arms and legs into the realm of "visit, urgently" and "underground cool".
We had tickets to the Autumn Secret Theatre Project in the Town Hall Hotel, and Paradise Garage came highly recommended as a pre-show dinner venue. I would highly recommend it as a destination in and of itself.
A sourdough loaf in a homely basket came with a sidecar of home-churned whiskey butter. I would have cried if they had tried to take it away from me when the starters came. What a crust - salted and hardened yet effortless to pierce. You will yield your butter knife like it's the sword of Excelsior. Perhaps you'll want to sneak what's left of it into your manbag. Whiskey butter is a melodious, mellow accent on the acidity of the bread. Prescient chef Robin Gill has a knack for anticipating what millennials and thirtysomethings want to eat.
The menu is game-heavy yet populist. Salt cod brandade is priced at an unbelievable £3. I thought back to the disappointing, flavourless, overly textured brandade at Dabbous. This is what modern cooking is supposed to be. Requisite levels of tastiness have been exceeded. Requisite levels of inventiveness have also been exceeded - olives, shellfish crisp and sexy squid ink are a cultured salute to this dish's Mediterranean roots.
Excitement grew when our venison tartare arrived with a creamy-looking foam of Jerusalem artichoke and cereal confetti. This dish danced and sang thanks to a sweet and tangy artichoke pickle.
We had a slight diversion with the mackerel, ripe in flavour and accentuated further by cultured cream. I once was served an Easter dinner speciality in the cafeteria of the insurance company in St Petersburg. The room overlooked a train yard. There was sleet and greyness. This is what I focussed on, with desperation, while eating my Russian mackerel dinner. Here was its British cousin. It went unfinished while I thoroughly appreciated my glass of Chenin Blanc from Stellenbosch.
My dinner guests reached the lamb first and joy abounded, contagiously. The kitchen puts quality of ingredients first, and we need to show appreciation where it's due. Cooked to perfection, and fully flavoured, this is a clear winner. It was served with snails and sweetbread, which hid shyly under a crisp.
Finally a chocolate mousse was laid in front of us, with meringue perfumed, not flavoured, with red wine, grape kombucha sorbet, and a praline base. They've managed to unite the Planet Organic crowd with the public schoolboys in one dish. We devoured it and the velvety, opulent red grapes that came along for the ride.
A small drawer of orange-tinged Madelines came with the bill, as if found and rescued. Glorious. What a meal. I'll be back to try the whole rabbit picnic with friends.