Apple risotto. It’s a bold, swaggering, confident chef that has the temerity to think of putting it on his menu. Dishes like this are almost an unspoken challenge, a gauntlet thrown down, a “come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough” slapped in front of the diner. So the gloves came off.
Josh Katz is impressing his own distinctive culinary style in a venue famed for its own creative snap and crackle, Camden’s Roundhouse, a charity venue that helps to realise the potential of young people in the Arts – live music, theatre, new media, even a bit of circus thrown in too. His CV parades Ottolenghi as a big influence.
The space feels like the best and funkiest school cafe you never had – urban, gritty, pared back, splash of colour, calling to mind a Brooklyn hipster hang out in Williamsburg, or one of the modern joints that pops up in The Mission, San Francisco. Designer Michael Sodeau grew up around the corner, as did Katz, and together they’ve created a room and a menu that fizzes with energy and a sense of enthusiasm.
To install a chef who has the palette and the bright brush strokes to keep pace with such an energetic venue makes total sense, and if they pull it off, blissful synergy will have been achieved. The risks are of the “crash and burn” variety.
The menu sprawls breathlessly around the world, taking in the punchy Thai dressing Nam Jim in a dish of pork belly, Israeli cous cous flirting with a lemongrass relish beside pan-fried Hake, miso purée playing games with a piece of crisp fried chicken. I refuse to mention the “F” word, but for sure the menu brings to mind happy memories of the thrilling flavour combinations of Anna Hansen at The Modern Pantry, and fellow Kiwi Peter Gordon, who is now grooving to his own tune at Kopapa in Covent Garden.
Sweet Potato & Potato Gnocchi - Well made, silken sweet potato and ricotta gnocchi of the cutesy size, sit on top of roasted aubergine that has a suitably sordid consistency, echoes of babaganoush. None of the promised crunch of Pangrattato, and those pucks of potato are a touch too buttery after their final flourish in the pan, but it’s a lovely, soothing dish.
Brown Crab and Cassava Croquettes - Another cocky dish, the potential for a nightmare flavour collision immense, but these are skilfuly prepared, decent whack of crab flavour, just a hint of sweet cassava, crisply fried. Proper smoked chilli sambal, good hit of shrimp paste, clearly freshly made, a sweetcorn aïoli completing the dance. This has brunch menu written all over it, ready to chase lingering hangovers back whence they came.
Sticky Pork Belly - Haunted by a back note of star anise, sitting on top of a perky salad of green papaya, mango and cashew, enlivened by a dressing of Nam Jim, freshness of lime juice cutting through fatty belly.
Apple Risotto - Here’s that risotto. Apple, goat cheese, walnut, chives. Fears diminish as perfectly cooked risotto is delivered, with shape, texture, just enough bite, and seasoned impeccably. Freshness of apple, pungent goat cheese with skin left on, crunch of walnut. The rice pudding catastrophe potential is averted. Many lesser Italian restaurants will plate up risotto way below the standard here.
Wine list from neighbours Bibendum does its thing without making the heart flutter, but there are a comendable ten wines by the glass and a decent English sparkler, Chapel Down from Kent. Coffee is exceptional, and upon asking I’m told Caravan coffee – another Kiwi collective roasting their own excellent beans. Smart beer list filled with craft producers, Camden Town Brewery on draught. Lots of the right noises are coming from all parts of this well thought out restaurant.
No room for dessert, but apple risotto is practically pudding right? No, it was far, far better than that.
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