When the star chef (Ben Spalding) leaves just a few months into the opening of your new restaurant (booked-up weeks in advance, I might add) you’d be forgiven if things went down the pan. But, magically, things haven’t gone that way at John Salt. Whilst it might not be possible to have Spalding’s ‘Chicken on a Brick‘ any longer, you can, however, sample a range of delights from new head chef, Neil Rankin. There’s no pomp and chefery here. What you get is a new take on unfussy, home-style cooking – but it’s not the place to take your grandmother…
Let’s get rid of the unpleasantries. What lets John Salt down is its layout: a dining mezzanine and a ground floor bar with communal tables. Upstairs it’s hot, loud and slightly claustrophobic. Even more so for geriatrics. Also, I’m slightly tired of the faux-grunge, distressed look that is being churned-out for the young, hip end of the market at the moment. My other gripe is with the service, who all seem to have got up on the wrong side of bed. Five minutes ago. I felt like demanding 12.5% myself.
But the menu appealed: Tempura oysters with beef fat mayo (£7) or Onglet steak with kimchi hollandaise (£12.50) sound delightful don’t they? However, wanting to test barbecue-specialist Rankin, we launched into Asian-influenced Raw beef, pear, & sesame – a beautiful tartare mixed with crunchy Nashi pear, spring onion, and a good handful of hot green chilli. Whilst it didn’t look much, an oh-so-trendy jam jar of Smoked aubergine & tomato was, in fact, made of more substance than style, delivering the perfect smokey vegetable toast topping. Green chilli poussin (£14) saw a succulent bird sitting in a sticky, sweet Tabasco marinade, with yet more of that chilli. That’ll put a stop to your hayfever. The less said about the overcooked and under seasoned Cod, Romesco, cuttlefish (£16) the better. However, the Keveral salad (£5) highlights Rankin’s fantastic use of sourcing: meat from Warren & Sons, Cornwall; fish from Newlyn Fish Market; and vegetables from Keveral Farm. This was a lightly dressed, super-fresh, crunchy salad. The perfect accompaniment to dishes of which Dr Atkins would be proud.
The fact that the restaurant survived potential ruin is clear testament to Neil Rankin and his remarkable food. Ignore the lousy staff and the room and John Salt achieves what it sets out to do: providing pimped-up, in your face, drunk food to the up-and-coming hipster. And from what I’ve read, Rankin does a mean take on a Sunday roast. Perhaps Granny could learn a thing or two…
John Salt, Upper Street, Islington
9th May 2013, £80 for two (with service)
Food; 8 Service; 3 Ambience; 4