The John Salt
131 Upper Street, Islington, London N1 1QP
UPDATED: 22-Nov-2012 10h45
Apologies to everyone. The version initially published was an old draft. Hence the grammar and syntax. This has been updated.
Ben Spalding, Ramsay trained and former head chef of Roganic, has taken residency at the newly opened John Salt in Islington. (Formally, The Keston Lodge). His 6 month spell started on the opening day of this new venue. I came along to try his interpretation of ‘pub food’.
In addition to his fans from Roganic, Ben Spalding gained many followers in the summer from his street food project Stripped Back. Described as Stripped Back Cooking is was quite distinctive in style and a lot is expected from this pop-up.
“John Salt will feature serious cooking using rare ingredients… Expect salt marsh lamb wraps, crispy chicken skin sandwiches and a range of vegetarian options, all cooked and delivered live in front of the guests downstairs, where John Salt will have a warehouse feel, stripped, simple, open, yet warm.”
This is a significantly large venue for a bar. I only visited this place once as Keston Lodge, on that occasion it gave me flashbacks of being back in a Watford nightclub (not pleasant). Fortunately they have redecorated the space. The venue has a very tall ceiling with the open dining area presented via a prominent staircase. The space is very open and sparsely decorated. Downstairs a large bar runs along the wall. A cocktail menu is provided with eight options and a beer menu is on hand with a selection of local and global beers.
The menu has 8 plate options ranging from £6 to £9. Unfortunately the much anticipated “Chicken on a Brick” isn’t amongst them. It is only available ‘upstairs’.
SPICED WAGYU BEEF WRAPS
(“Minted sour cream & blowtorched lettuce”)
This was my favourite dish (and that of my dining companion that night). I don’t know how the beef was cooked but it was incredibly rich and flavoursome. The beef fibres literally fall apart in your mouth and are bursting with flavour. It tastes slow cooked with the juices reduced back into the meat. Moist and juicy without dripping everywhere! At £9 for two they are definitely my dish of choice. This is particularly perfect “bar food” as it was the only order you could pick up with the hands and ‘munch’ on. If you’re going to try just one dish, this is the one.
FRIED MACCHAIVELLI EGG
(“Smoked Watermelon, mash, aromatic ketchup & golden crumbs”)
This reminded me of a course at Ben’s Stripped Back streetfood venture this summer. Putting it simply, it’s an amazingly presented plate showcasing a single fried Macchaivelli egg. The flavour combos of the watermelon and modified ketchup are fantastic while the contrasting texture on the crumbs and mash are perfect. It’s as if everything was put together just to show off the quality of these much praised eggs.
GREASY CHICKEN SKIN SANDWICH
(“Papricka mayonnaise, cucumber, baby gem, red onion”)
This was unusually presented like a vegetable sandwich between thin slices of what initially looked like elegant thin crackers. If you were a ‘militant’ meat-eater I reckon you could serve this to some vegans before they realised they were eating chicken skin! Beautifully presented and very creative but personally I preferred the other dishes.
WILD SALMON POACHED IN MAPLE SYRUP
(“toasted almonds, kaffir lime & rotten mango juice”)
An interestingly named dish… I don’t recall seeing the word “rotten” used in a food menu before. However, that didn’t bother me. Knowing what Stripped Back offered in the summer, with fruit allowed to seriously overripen, it shouldn’t bother you either. The salmon was served as a thick cut topped with the almonds, flanked by the leaves and with the mango juice dotted around the plate. The serving could come straight from a top notch menu. It wouldn’t look out of place in an album of dishes from Roganic. Once you bite into the salmon flesh you can taste the maple syrup instantly, it is sweet, but even for me, who prefers savoury dishes, it wasn’t too overpowering. The salmon taste still dominated. Hopefully the word ‘rotten’ won’t dissuade anyone!
The bar-food was excellent, as expected from Ben. For food the service was great. However, I think that the bar was far from ‘launch ready’. My dining companion for the evening is currently a cocktail bar trainer… after she sent her ‘John Salt’ Cocktail back and then having to explain to the bartender how to make his own signature drink her comment was “It looks like some of these guys have never seen a bar before”. Especially surprising as it is essentially a Martini with a twist plus olives on the side. (“Gin, house vermouth, lemon twist, stuffed olives. served in a small 4Oz martini with a side plate”).
Unfortunately I would have to agree with her. It was clear that it was their first opening day. It looks like they did not have a soft opening period nor many dry runs as they even struggled to even set up a bar tab. If this was the first day of a soft-launch with 50% off (which seems to be the norm), it would be more a little more easily forgiven. A full opening to the public at this level of service is quite poor. (NOTE: Since my visit on Fri 09th Nov I’ve heard similar two similar stories about the bar.).
The team people behind this venture are 580 Ltd, also behind The Owl & Pussycat (Shoreditch). I’ve never had a drink in the main Owl & Pussycat bar, but I have attended the Flatiron Steak pop-ups where the cocktails were good. I’m rather surprised… maybe a cocktail consultancy was used for Flatiron Steak project and one wasn’t used here?
Most definitely, like many others, I’m a huge fan of Ben Spalding’s cuisine. His dishes are all immaculately presented and are fantastic to taste. Setting the cocktail issue aside, the beer range at the venue looked very interesting. Maybe they should keep it simple and stick to beers and wines? The conclusion? Food is stunningly excellent, but the bar seriously needs to catch up.