The January before last, the restaurant critic AA Gill declared 2012 to be the year of the vegetable. In the event, this prediction did not materialise as it was instead the rise of Mark Hix’s Tramshed serving only two types of meat: steak and chicken, Meat Liquor, Meat Wagon, and as many other name permutations of meat that you could conjure up.
With the opening of Grain Store on Granary Square behind Kings Cross, things fresh and green have now taken a more promising turn. Bruno Loubet is a French chef of huge ability, but not tied rigidly to the traditional cooking of France, which is not known for its love of the vegetable as a principal part of a dish. It has taken Alain Passard at Arpège to break the mould in Paris. Even in multi-cultural London the expectation of a good meal out, particularly in the evening, is to have meat or fish at its heart.
So to reverse the emphasis is brave. As is the taking on one of the biggest restaurant spaces in London to achieve it. On the other hand, vegetables are infinitely more varied than their fleshy counterparts, and the possibility to do something completely delicious and original considerable.
Loubet’s partnership with Mark Sainsbury and Michael Benyan has been well tested over the last 3 years, at the Zetter Hotel in Clerkenwell. Bistro Bruno Loubet on the ground floor has been a huge success. Being under the umbrella of a hotel is some insulation for a chef who can simply concentrate on what he does best: running the kitchen.
Another collaboration by Sainsbury and Benyan has been with the cocktail maker extraordinaire, Tony Conigliaro, who is behind Zetter Townhouse, one of the best bars in London. His alchemy at Grain Store is immediately evident on the cocktail list with items such as homemade pumpkin purée with de-sugared caramelised maple syrup to make a Bellini, or the Granary Martini made with mustard vodka. Several have been made specially to pair with selected food items.
Such is the lure of Loubet’s cooking I had two lunches there last week, well beyond the call of a restaurant consultant’s duty. The second was an impromptu one with my daughter, also a keen vegetable eater. but mainly because I couldn’t wait to repeat the peach, salted watermelon and salmon confit. Salted watermelon is something special to experience. The salt draws out the water, just as in all the squash family, and you are left with a firmer texture with a subtle salty sweet taste. Genius.
The menu is comprehensive and exciting and follows the modern format of small plates (in this case oval). At a break halfway down the list, some of the items are offered in 2 sizes, and then the choice continues in a larger, more substantial mode.
A highlight of our first course was a classic crudités selection in a flower pot with cashew and yeast dip and olive soil (yes, you read right, not oil). The trick was to scoop up the dip finishing with the minutely dried chopped black olives, with perhaps a whole baby broad bean or a sprig of asparagus. Exquisite. On both occasions I also had the warm courgette broad bean and prawn falafel made in small flat disks, encrusted with sesame seeds, and raita to accompany.
The space is lovely. Warehouses are notoriously dark but here natural light is let in wherever possible. On Friday it was too hot to eat outside without umbrellas, but a table by the wide glass open doorway meant we could still watch the children playing in the fountains in the square outside.
You could also sit by the open kitchen and watch the maestro calmly working with his team, showing that a Josper grill can work its magic on vegetables as well as meat. The vegetable merguez was far removed from the usual vegetarian sausage in its delicate spices and smokiness.
I’m not a great consumer of alcohol, but Tony’s Greco Roman wines displayed in giant amphora-shaped glass bottles on top of the bar counter were intriguing. A Sauvignon Blanc infused with fennel pollen flavoured with mastic and verjus and sweetened with clover honey was my choice. From the welcome non alcoholic cocktail list Jody chose a Roman Redhead, made with black berries, beetroot and again, verjus.
Continuing with this adventurous theme to the end of the meal, we then had to try the spiced candied tomatoes with goats milk panna cotta (a firm reminder that tomatoes are fruit not vegetables), and oh what the heck, the tart of the day because it was apricot, my favourite cooked fruit. The former is firmly in my to-be-repeated folder, and the buttery crispy pâte brisée of the latter told me that here was a Frenchman who knew exactly what he was doing with pastry.
I am struggling to find anything at all negative with this place. But one tiny criticism, in my particular area of expertise: the tea menu. With all the effort into the drinks details, I wondered why the tea had been left to the coffee supplier, and why the choice was so limited. But in the context of this wonderfully ambitious restaurant that gets so much right, it is a drop in the ocean.
Adrian Anthony, your prediction may have been a tad too prescient, but it was worth the wait.