If you've been reading this blog for a while now, James Lowe and Isaac McHale of the Young Turks chefs collective in London are probably familiar names to you by now. For newer readers, welcome! The Young Turks consist of James (St Johns Bread and Wine; Fat Duck), Isaac (The Ledbury) and Ben Greeno (NOMA, Sat Bains) who is now cheffing at the Momofuku's Sydney-side venture Seiobo in Australia. I've been following the collective's adventures in fresh, local, fun and accessible cuisine in London for the past year -- see posts on a dinner by Ben; a dinner by James; their take on Burger Monday; a stint at The Loft Project; Canary Wharf and Frank's carpark / cafe in Peckham.
And so I was very happy to hear that the chaps secured a 3 month arrangement to serve dinners on the 1st floor dining room of The Ten Bells pub, a couple of doors down from James's old digs at Bread and Wine, and better known in decades past for being a watering hole for 2 of Jack the Ripper's victims.
The Young Turk £39 set menu dinners at The Ten Bells run from Tuesdays to Saturdays (a private room that sits up to 14 is also bookable), and James and Isaac have issued themselves the challenge to create a new 7-dish menu every week. Apparently one group (not me, I wish) that includes the manager of a red-hot London restaurant has already booked themselves a regular Friday table to ensure that they get to taste every damn one of these dishes.
Once you elbow your way to the back of the busy pub, past the door that says "No entry, toilets downstairs" and mince your way up the narrow staircase, the dining room is dark is decidedly distressed vintage chic-y meets London East End cheeky (the medium for at least 3 installations are in neon lights of lurid colours).
The chaps cook in the kitchen one floor up, but alongside their regular front-of-house collaborators The Clove Club, periodically bring dishes down themselves to make sure they have a good handle on the vibe in the dining room.
Hendricks gin is sponsoring the welcoming cocktail (a yummy combination of apple, damson and lots of spicy ginger), as well as an amusing "Etiquette for Gentlemen" booklet for boys to take with them at the end of the evening. These days I'm past the point of demanding why isn't there something for the ladies as well; I reckon this specific gift is being given where it's more needed!
And now to the food. First, an opening salvo of "snacks".
Snack 1: Pear and Middle White Ham. A lovely delicate twist on the more traditional prosciutto wrapped around melon. Utterly delicious. I'll have to attempt this at home soon! An interesting observation was made after dinner -- while ham and melon is a great flavour match, it's actually sometimes a texture mismatch, because the ham and melon break / tear off unevenly on the bite. Not so with this particular combination. Your thoughts?
Snack 2: Devilled Sprats. Babs really enjoyed this one, especially the dot of hot sauce on the head. Actually I didn't even realise there was hot sauce until I worked through my photos. I liked the texture of the fish, but I thought it could stand to be saltier and and spicier.
Snack 3: Pumpkin and Ogleshield Bun. Ogleshield is a kind of cheese, the very same kind used in the much loved Hawksmoor burger and Kappacasein raclette at Borough Market and Maltby St. These buns were cute, but personally I didn't feel the hit of cheese sufficiently.
Now onto the bigger dishes: Grilled Leek, Dried Scallop (I think this was Isaac's homemade XO sauce, which I first tasted at Frank's) and Seaweed. The purple seaweed was my favourite part of this dish. It was so fresh and had such a wonderful smell of the sea, we held our plates up to our noses for a few good inhalations before settling in.
Parsnip, Oats and Pheasant. A very comfort-food dish perfect for the weather outside, with a sophisticated dodge from the usual chicken or beef and potato. Parsnips make such pretty crisps!
Old Spot Belly, Molasses and Red Radish. I have to admit, when faffing with my camera over this dish, I muttered "I feel sorry for all these English people who keep attempting pork belly. They'll never do it as well as the Chinese." My dining companions (2 Chinese, 1 Indian) looked up, and countered, "Taste this one first."
The skin was so crispy, and the meat was so tender, but still I was a doubting Thomas. "D'you think they cook the skin and the meat separately?" Not likely -- I was shown where and how they were attached. Ok! Ok! I believe! Bravo, chaps. And by the way, my buddy Jas reckons the Young Turks could set up a stall selling nothing but strips of the crackling, and she would buy them all.
Dessert: Apples, Sour Cream and Apple Brandy. An absolutely delightful carb-free apple crumble of sorts. We also got treated to a bonus scoop of malty ice-cream later, but I figure you don't really need to see a mud-coloured scoop of ice-cream, do you? I can tell you that I managed to drop a dollop of it on my shirt, and I had a really hard time trying to decide whether I should wipe or lick it off given how yummy it was.
To close, slightly nipply tea cakes (with whiskey infused marshmallow, if I remember right), served with your choice of mint tea or Square Mile coffee.
Speaking of nipply... at this point one of my dining companions tips his chin, gesturing at something behind me, and asks "Is that them, then?"
I turn around, see this painting for the first time, and nearly fall off my chair laughing.
When the chefs came around to chat, it's down to me to ask. We're clearly on the verge of embarrasingly pubescent hysterics, and I'm asked if I've been drinking! (The worst thing is that I haven't, so I'm having to ask the question stone cold sober). A bit of resigned eye-rolling ensues. Apparently we're not the first to ask. Luckily the chaps have enough of a sense of humour, though let's see if I ever manage to get a table again in the time left on their stint...
All in all, I'm absolutely delighted that the Young Turks now have a slightly more permanent space of their own to hone and display their craft. This week's menu felt to me relatively safe, and for future visits I look forward the riding both the crests and troughs of their experiments. Read: anyone looking to have dinner with me in the next couple of months, don't be too surprised if I try to drag you off here. You can thank me later.
Young Turks at The Ten Bells
84 Commercial Street
London E1 6LY
£39 for fixed menu and welcome cocktail; wines separate. Until 29 Jan 2012. Email [email protected]