London's Cultural Guide

Review: Smoke & Salt, N1

Somewhere between the shores of King's Cross and Islington lies this ambitious six-month residency

Gorgeous: the lamb
Gorgeous: the grilled lamb. Photo: S&S

It’s a difficult location. And open at odd times (Sunday brunch, and Mondays to Thursdays evenings only). Furthermore, the Chapel Bar is a pub that isn’t actually accessible to the public; instead it bills itself “London’s best private hire venue”. Okaaay.

And yet talented chef-duo Aaron Webster (Dinner By Heston) and Remi Williams, who met at The Shed in Notting Hill, and have been honing their skills at Platform 1 in East Dulwich for the past two years, might just make these seemingly disparate factors come together.

They’ve turned the narrow upstairs bar space into diminutive dining room Smoke & Salt. To reach it you ascend the iron steps of the fire escape, edge past boxes of tomatoes outside the kitchen, and along a dainty balcony lined with pot plants and flowers. Beyond is a terrace for rare warm evenings.

Inside are just six tables, with a couple of spots laid up at the counter too. The décor – not their own, of course – feels a tad dated, in a 1990s way: baby blue panelling, oddly small pendants dangling from the ceiling, patterned drapes, silver mirrors and garden-style picnic tables and chairs. An almost suburban feel is underlined by a soundtrack of plodding dance music. The fact that it’s a private hire venue means, on our Tuesday invite, that there’s no-one else, save us diners, in the building.


Remi and Aaron
Remi and Aaron pose on the balcony. Photo: S&S

All of which is to say that the environment somehow feels at odds with the quality of the six-course tasting menu, of which just three are real plates, and three amuse bouches, both savoury and sweet. The dishes are whisked out with enviable rhythm – and yet the meal’s pace feels correct, especially if you believe the oft-quoted rule that customers are full after 45 mins.

A snack of Guinness-glazed pretzels is light-as-air, served with whipped olive oil butter. Spying the letters BLT as starter elicits a groan, but any dismay proves unnecessary as the witty pasta dish that follows is anything but clichéd. Cavatelli – small ridged shells that look like miniature hot dog buns – are interspersed with bacon dashi, lardons, strands of little gem and sweet heritage tomatoes. Ingenious – and as satisfyingly meaty as its best-selling lunchtime namesake.

The biggest surprise is that there’s no fish on the menu, although we hear that a hake course has since been added. Instead, our grilled spring lamb main (top pic) arrives blood-rare, with tastily blackened fat to sink our teeth into. Smears of vivid green wild garlic sauce adorn the plate, as well as rather wintry Jerusalem artichokes, both sliced raw and roasted, and unlikely fingers of pickled okra. A meaty faggot or two adds extra depth. Overall? An intelligent, memorable combination.

Dessert continues the level of experimentation, with grapefruit served several ways: grilled (so it oddly takes on the appearance of shrimp), pureed, jellied, and sculpted into a pale sorbet. The plate is elegant and, although the flavours and textures don’t explode in the mouth quite as much as we hope, it’s a sterling effort (see below).

Sculpted: the grapefruit dessert. Photo: S&S

What else? The wine list proves fine, with an inevitable list of cocktails in tow, provided by the bar rather than Smoke & Salt. The only dud – that’s too strong a word, but it’s definitely a miss-step – is what they call Table Treats, served after the bread course and before the real starter. It’s tasty stuff – a bowl of topside beef biltong, another of spiced nuts, chickpea fritters with roast red pepper sauce – but too much of an appetite killer. Or perhaps it’s us: we’re hungry, and peak a bit too soon.

Before we slip off into yet another overcast evening – and the juxtaposition of a noisy gig in Dalston – we scoff some delicious warm petit fours.

Our conclusion? These two are serious chefs: they’ll find their spot, and finesse their offer, very soon. In the meantime, check the pair’s cooking out, and decide for yourself.

Smoke & Salt at The Chapel Bar, 29 Penton Street, London N1 2PX, until December. Sun brunch and Mon to Thurs, dinner only, £38 per head. More info here