For so long, Islington has been something of a dining black hole. There are plenty of places to eat along Upper St yes, but so many of them are average – hardly destination restaurants. The fact that one of the more popular and anticipated restaurants has chosen to open in little ol’ Islington makes me feel excited for Islington – almost like we’re pulling our culinary weight in London.
John Salt is helmed by Ben Spalding, a young chef who has worked in several notable kitchens (The Fat Duck, Per Se, Roganic), and now has the opportunity to cook his food and show his vision. Downstairs is a large bar with bar food and Sunday Roasts served on Sunday, unsurprisingly. Food at John Salt was a modern mix with noticeable touches of Asian cuisine thrown in, while the interior had Scandinavian minimalist touches.
Opting for 4 courses, the menu ended up consisting of closer to 7 with the extras thrown in. Within minutes of ordering a wooden plank of snacks arrived including the most wonderful, warming take on miso soup and vegetable crisps.
Bread arrived in a basket, made of actual bread. The best of very good bunch was the dark brown muffin looking bread at the front that had a slight crusty outer. 3 types of butter arrived perched on a block of pink Himalayan salt. Did I mention we received a bread basket each? And a block of butter each?
The first of the ‘proper’ courses was the much talked about Chicken on a brick. Smooth, slightly warmed chicken parfait spread over an actual normal regular house brick that has been covered with hard caramel. We were encouraged to lick the brick once the chicken parfait had been scooped up. I have no problems getting hand-on with my food and jumped right in. I think the fact that the caramel was hard and not soft and pliable was disconcerting to most people as I could always tell when tables around us got to the chicken on a brick course by the delicate ‘plink’ sound of people attempting to scrape up the caramel with a fork and knife.
The rainbow trout had a soft almost confit texture that reminded me greatly of Tetsuya‘s own Ocean Trout dish. Lime leaves added bursts of freshness and drops of rotten mango juice weren’t as pungent as the name suggested but still added sweetness.
Heel of beef was soft and sticky, leftover bread was perfect for mopping up the juices.
I’ve outdone myself with the poor quality of photos yet again, but here is the pre-dessert we were served a spiced apple palate cleanser. To me it tasted like everything I associate with Christmas. Needless to say I swooned ove the mini-milk bottles.
We were served the dessert with the explanation that as a child Ben Spalding’s favourite dessert was a peanut butter and cucumber sandwich. As I started to eat this, I was quite unsure of it, not being what I expected as a traditional dessert, but I guess that’s not what Ben Spalding is going for at John Salt, and what’s the point of doing the exact same thing hundreds of people have done before him? About half-way through the bowl, my tastebuds started to adjust to subtle sweetness and I started to pick up the hints of creaminess from the yoghurt and the peanut butter and berries provided the sweetness I was after while the cucumber was refreshing.
As a last final bite, spoonfuls of a chocolate pudding with slivers of orange.
All those courses for 28 pounds is an unbeatable bargain. Not so much the volume of food, but more for the amount of care and thought that went into that is something I definitely recommend experiencing for yourself. I love how much thought went into that and would love to go back to try the 12 course meal – the amount of fun, enjoyment and surprise would be worth it. And as I sit here typing this, Duncan looked over, saw what I was typing and asked if we could go back – that only really happens when he really likes a place.
For myself personally, the most exciting part of John Salt is what the opening means to the area. Yes, Upper St is an area lucky to have many restaurants, but it is also an area that has 3 Starbucks locations within a 1km stretch (this is not an exaggeration; this is actually sadly accurate). The area is rife with mediocrity. Slowly, however there are new places opening up that are changing this; places that care about what is put on the menu; that care about where the food came from and strive for more than middle of the road. People who want to offer more than what’s already familiar to Islington and to make people think about what it is that they are eating, drinking and consuming. This change is slowly coming through with places like Coffeeworks Project in Camden Passage, Ottolenghi, The Pig and Butcher on Therbeton Rd, the new House of Wolf on Upper St, Italian restaurant Trullo and now John Salt, and I’m sure there are a few others I have left out. This already seems like a pretty great list for us locals, but I’m greedy, and I want MORE! I’m sick of walking through Islington and seeing the same dull chains like Pizza Express and Wagamama. I want those 3 Starbucks gone and replaced with locally owned stores or cafes or restaurants – if for nothing else; than to give people choice. You only have to poke your head into Coffeeworks Project on a Saturday afternoon to see it packed to the rafters, and know that people want something new in Islington. Ben Spalding at John Salt is meant to be a temporary 6 month residency, but I strongly hope that its’ almost immediate success (already booked out for the next few months) means it’s a stayer. They’re locals now. One of us.
Ben Spalding is not someone who is resting on his laurrels. It would be easy to expect and even easy to understand that having opened your first restaurant you would want to spend the first few months – or even the first year would be about seeing where the restaurant takes you. Not so at John Salt. Since opening, Ben has introduced a salad with 50 ingredients, yes – 50!, has mentioned that there is a possible future plan for a 25 course meal, and I’ve even seen mention on twitter of a vegan tasting menu. He has also introduced a 2-person table for guests to sit in the actual kitchen for their meal (I’m not allowed to book this, as according to Duncan I would simply sit there the entire time ogling all the chefs cooking, with my face looking like this: O_O This blog isn’t called The Culinary Creep for nothing). Ben has also offered to cook the world’s most expensive Xmas dinner, priced at 125,000 pounds, should one be bought by a wealthy patron (proceeds go to charity). I suppose what I’m getting at, is for someone who only one month ago opened one of the more talked about new openings; positive reviews don’t seem to be enough for him – he is pushing forward to challenge himself and diners into what he can do. Did I also mention he has a family on top of all this? Meanwhile, I have one full time job, one husband, no kids and I still struggle to put up regular blog posts. I am suitably shamed.
I guess the things I’ve taken away from John Salt are: 1) Definitely go for at least the 8 course option. 4 courses at £28 is a massive bargain for the amount of effort and care put in, but at the end of the meal it felt a bit Cinderella-like when at midnight she had to leave the ball and go back to reality – I definitely wasn’t ready for surprises to end. I will definitely go back, but for the 8 or even the 12 courses. 2) The dishes might not be conventional or take the form that you would think (peanut butter in a cold cucumber soup as dessert?) but I don’t think that’s what they’re aiming for. I can’t really speak for what Ben Spalding aims are with John Salt, but to me, it’s a place that makes you think about flavor and texture and how the 2 things sit with each other. Have you ever seen a movie where the interpretation to the ending was unclear? Were you annoyed because it wasn’t what you wanted or expected? Then John Salt probably isn’t for you, to be honest. If on the other hand, you have an open mind and are willing to accept that things might be just that little bit unfamiliar, then go, and love what is happening at John Salt.