Every now and again, something new comes to town sets off waves of gushing remarks and generates so much intrigue among the eaterati that one cannot help but to buy into the word of mouth. We’re human afterall, and have a vested interest in witnessing a supposed second coming, or at least the next meteoric restaurant opening. After reading many a tall tale of Chef Bjorn van der Horst’s double whammy the Eastside Inn Bistro and Restaurant, I waited for the euphoria (three months?) to settle before finally making my own way to bear witness at the latest stuff of legends to grace the city.
The man in the hot seat is Bjorn van der Horst, son to a flying Dutchman, and a name cut for gastro royalty. He had previously run the kitchens at La Noisette (a Gordon & Gordon production) and before that, responsible for churning out the magic at the Greenhouse. It would appear that his resume is already a recipe for success with the opening of Eastside Inn being his finest moment and the man is still under 40. As we approach the New Year, I couldn’t help but wonder if it also meant a knock on the door from the Michelin man. Bjorn has chosen to take up residence in St John Street – a mere stone’s throw away from Fergus Henderson’s shrine – and what must be fast becoming the golden gastromile in the centre of London. The polished wood and glass exterior sticks out like a sore thumb among the white-walls in Farringdon, you almost cannot miss it. Once through the off centered double glass doors and one is immediately greeted with a stream of aromas flooding the senses; It’s no wonder as the open plan kitchen sits right behind the reception. Ohh, my stomach is churning…
One has two choices – the blue pill leads to the more affordable, and trendier ‘bistro’ part of the restaurant. Take the red pill, and Bjorn shows you how deep the rabbit hole really goes. I chose the red pill, albeit a pricy one at £70 (for lunch mind you) and which translated to the ‘Menu Classic’ comprised of three canapes comically named after three cities (to awake the senses) followed by either your choice or a surprise of three courses. And so, we go through to the dining room….. which was one of the most soberingly drab spaces I had even sat in; Perhaps dull enough to rival the incomparable dreariness of Claude Bosi’s Hibiscus. The room had few tables, very quiet, a fire place, brown everywhere, and with no poncy ornaments to spruce up the plain table cloths, it felt abit like dining in your CEO’s office; It’s only saving grace were the haunting paintings that hung on walls by Artist Chris Gollon. That big black vase of flowers was definitely staring at me, perhaps it was just me, or perhaps the zen state in high cooking could only be conceived in drabness.
It’s Monday. Frumpy grumpy aside, let’s now give Eastside Inn’s degustation a whirl, and the legend begins in Toulouse with marinated foie gras, sea salt and toast.
So this was the first of trio of amuse bouches, yes, a little pretentious, but we were off to a good start as the foie gras carried a butter-like texture which melted to grease the wheels. Perky now, I ask for a glass of tipples – a young (06’) Pinot Noir from an Austrain winemaker – Anton Bauer. The wine is very fresh, and clinically jammy with an acidic finish, ahh… if beer was red wine then it would taste like this (that’s just the alcohol talking).
Let’s keep moving, and now on to Paris, Game terrine, Celeraic and tarragon.
We’re starting to crank up the levers now as this bite sized sensation got the tummy growling. The grainy game terrine tasted very much like a hoisin duck liver, and that creamy celeraic cream added extra ommph and made it fly.
So far so good, to complete the trio, we land in New York and are treated to king prawn, sesame seeds, paprika and a citrus vinaigrette.
This was my favourite of the mouth amusers, as it provided for a gentle lemon syrup blast which wiped the palate clean. The prawn was so sweet and juicy, and appeared to only be just a shy undercooked. It gave way to a sort of crunchy icy fleshiness that was like a smoking cool thawing between the teeth.
Phew, the canapes were nice, very nice, but perhaps Bjorn could tweak the size of the portions as our economy expands again. Delish, but I am left wanting…
…About time for the first course then. Sweetbreads, lobster, cepes.
As the waiter unraveled the dish, the wonderfully intense shellfish aromas sent me to the stratosphere, and one could still hear the crackling of the foam. Beautifully presented, almost regal, this seemingly simple dish was constructed with a large chunk of the sweetbread sitting in the centre, guarded by an armor of cepes and finally by a lobster claw. The soup was utterly magnificient, the best lobster based veloute/foam/liquid/sauce I had tasted all year round in London, and I was left recounting the words ‘Umami, Umami, Umami’ as I felt the chef had brokered a fragile alliance between the three major ingredients of this dish. For the uninitiated in sweetbreads, I felt this could be the perfect introduction, albeit an expensive one.
For one, the intensity of the soup tamed most of the liveryness of the sweetbreads, leaving the diner (me in this case) to appreciate the buttery paste-like texture of the sweetbreads, which was nearly indistinguishable from the equally buttery but more chewy lobster meat. This is high cuisine, in the skill of balancing three dominating elements, which fought each other, but also created one consistent taste at the same time. The concentrated shellfish soup had left my throat on the verge of drying out, and it easily matched the soft red which I had opted to wash down with. A masterclass, well tensioned in the palate, classical flavours, but surprisingly light in terms of mouthfeel. Very exciting stuff, and probably worth a star or maybe even two. As I said, this was definitely the best lobster based soup I had had all year round, and that includes The Square, La Trompette and even Pierre Koffman.
Talk about wiping lyrical – let’s keep moving: Steamed Dover Sole, Chilli Clam Ravioli and Brussel Sprouts.
One immediately felt the heat emanating from the piping hot dish, it was as if Chef Bjorn (or Nick Ward on my visit) was trying to show that the fish was still steaming as it arrived. I noted the minuscule size of the dish – perhaps a little too much steaming had taken place. Like the sweetbreads before it, this dish dominated on the nose. Like a scene from a teenage vampire cringefest, I imagined a harmonious garden fresh, kitchen in the cottage yummy mummy preparing dinner. Ahh… what aromatic brussel sprouts. I started with the fried clam ravioli – heavily seasoned and with a chilli bite, it tasted strangely of … chinese spring rolls.
Time for the fish; The steam had stripped it of its odour but it was more soggy than it needed to be. A tad overcooked, some of the water was still sitting at the bottom of the dish, leading to a dilution of flavours altogether. Bland, just a little too bland. The second course was a distinct contrast to the first course, a ‘new moon’ to a ‘facepunch’. Thankfully, the texture of the fish was capable – a densely sticky chew, abit like a compressed marshmallow. I started out perplexed with the mellowness of this dish, but slowly, the subtle nature of this dish grew on me, it was so pure and calming. However, I still think it could do better with execution, less cooking, less water on dish.
Usually at this stage of a write-up, I just about wrap-up as puds don’t usually sing louder than the mains, however, Eastside Inn bucks the trend. But first, a basil sorbet….
…which is like an iced pesto with a squidge of lemon, emptied the memory banks of my tastebuds.
And so, the silver jubilee of a finish is a Mont Blanc flambee, meringue and chestnut with vanilla-whiskey ice cream (and pop rocks)
The meringue is shaped into a snowball, obviously hiding all its treasures within. The carnival starts when the waiter lights up the whiskey hidden in the le crouset, my camera on the ready, he paused and said: “This is going to be a hell of a picture” before spooning the fiery spirit onto the meringue. Wowza, if you’re going to be pretentious, may as well execute in style. Once the alcohol had completely exhausted, the meringue simply gave out a puff as the exterior cracked. Now that’s my kind of pudding.
Just when I thought the mere theatrics was a distraction from substance, I was wholly amazed at how good the pudding tasted. The meringue was now infused with a smokiness that enhanced the natural wood of the whiskey. The Chantilly cream inside provided a richness which complemented this smokiness beautifully and it actually outshone the vanilla ice cream within, which seemed almost too plain. Oh, I almost forgot to mention the excellent chestnut paste which the meringue sat on, and my mouth was continually crackling with the pop rocks mixed into this dish that literally led to a big bang of a finish.
A stunning finish, and an exciting meal altogether. The cooking was spellbinding, and it imbued the spirit and wonder of gastronomy, and also why one is willing to pay good money for a dazzling meal. Some of the best dishes I’ve had in London this year and there is strong evidence that Bjorn is probably due a Michelin star (or two) when the Red Guide gets its revision in January. Gushing remarks aside, it’s not in the red guide yet. £70 for the a la carte, plus £12 for the glass of wine, my final bill came to £94. It felt a little bit like daylight robbery, rivalling the cost at starrier, more established places, and this meal stands as the second priciest lunch I’ve ever had (The Square was number one at £97), but it is the only cause (albeit a pricy reason) for frowning eyebrows. No stars, overpriced and an ugly dining room. If you are willing to overlook this, then the Eastside Inn could be an enthralling experience for that very special meal, and I think the kitchen can only get better in the months to come. However if financial woes still plague your eating habits, there is the sensible option of exercising the blue pill at the bistro side of things.
More images of the meal here.
The Gist of It
Eastside Inn Offical site Expensive.
40 St John Street EC1M 4AY
Tel: 020 7490 9230