The barman, sporting a large, twirly moustache, has just mixed a cocktail. Richly-coloured, it looks delicious, with solid strength, a sharp edge, and a long tapering finish. The drink isn’t bad either, and R and I enthusiastically sip our preprandials – as if in homage to the facial hair, mine is called a Dalí – while taking a good look at the place.
What an interesting spot. Following two years’ absence from the restaurant scene, Sir Terence Conran has returned in triumph with this vast project in Shoreditch. (I resist applying the compulsory prefix ‘trendy’ to the area.) The site, which we visit on opening night, contains a restaurant, a café and deli, a dozen or so bedrooms and a rooftop bar. We found the restaurant via the food shop, Albion, selling bits and pieces like cantucci, pasta and some tinned stuff. The chap at the till pointed to a door marked Lavatories and Hotel - note the order - beyond which a frozen lift porter whooshed us down into the bowels of the building.
As befits a Conran pedigree, the space looks terrific. High-ceilinged, low-lit but ungloomy, with lights twinkling overhead in zodiac patterning and chairs handsomely upholstered in reds and black. ‘The best location for a date I’ve ever seen,’ says R from our secluded, padded alcove, and I can see exactly what he means. An entire wall is taken up by the open-plan kitchen, shielded by glass, giving the room an air of silent industry. The head waiter, a Croatian with the fabulous name of Zee Banobic, hands us jarringly cheap plasticky menus. These offer a decent if not exactly ground-breaking mixture of French and British classics – fruits de mer, some soups, some salads, and the pleasantly old-fashioned idea of alternating daily roasts of veal, beef, pork and so on. Today is a Tuesday, so it’s saddle of lamb. I want to check with zee waiter, sorry, with the waiter, whether there’s anything he’d particularly recommend.
‘No. Not really. It’s all good.’
I’m glad to hear it, though it might have been nice to know what the kitchen was proud of.
These are the best frogs’ legs I’ve had in some time: eight amphibious thighs swimming – perhaps the wrong verb – in a beurre noisette puddle, with shredded flat leaf parsley and a lovely nose of garlic. Sweet, succulent and toothsome. They’re so similar to chicken, really, that it’s a wonder biologists ever doubted the theory – memorably evinced in Jurassic Park – that birds and dinosaurs share an ancestor. R has half a dozen oysters, two each of English, rock and French. At £1.20, the rocks are cheaper than the ones you get in Borough Market. They come with a standard sauce mignonette, tiny shallot dice afloat in champagne vinegar - personally, I’ve always preferred oysters with just a squeeze of lemon, which is also on offer.
The sommelier is a young Australian called Luke – ‘suppliers always assume it’s Luc’ – Robertson. Ex-Chez Bruce and Petrus (to which he diplomatically refers by its post-Ramsay moniker), he’s one of the best sommeliers I’ve seen in a very, very long while, combining a charming and underbearing demeanour with an understanding of his subject that’s both broad and deep. R and I are having a glass of white each with the starters and sharing a bottle of red with the mains: he suggests a thick Manzanilla sherry with R’s oysters, and a powerful 14%, £11 glass of South African chenin blanc with my frogs. Fine pairings both.
‘What sort of budget would you prefer for the bottle?’ he asks. ‘We have everything from fifteen pounds to nine hundred.’
Oh, cripes. Fifty quid as an absolute maximum.
For forty, he produces a lovely pinot noir from the Jura – a rustic, gamey wine, earthy as a clod. After a bit of airing, it brings Beach Boys harmonies to a roast chop of venison in juniper sauce, and is a grand match with the saddle of lamb. The baby sheep is marginally more tender than the deer, and comes in a good gravy, with sweet mint sauce and redcurrant jelly on the side. Quince poached in spiced red wine accompany the venison – an excellent foil, though the meat is marginally overcooked and slightly chewy. Side orders of a green salad, pommes dauphinoise and steamed spinach are all let-downs: cold spinach; flabby, undercrisp potatoes and a salad dressing so peppery it was borderline sending-back stuff. Zee didn’t remark on the barely touched leaves when he cleared them away; arguably he shouldn’t, although he might have noticed that we’d guzzled everything else.
I finish with a parfait of prune and Armagnac which only approximates its French name. The Armagnac has a presence so faint it’s as if we’re eating it through nosepeg, blindfold and earmuffs, but the prunes are rich and syrupy, and the texture of the pudding is a bullseye realisation of solid and smooth. R has a rather lacklustre crème brûlée, overfirm and cooked too long in the bain-marie, with a top that sags rather than cracks. By this stage, in a less-than-half-full dining room, Zee is wandering around apparently with nothing to do, shuffling past us at intermittent, distracting intervals, one hand behind his back in the manner of Prince Philip inspecting the household cavalry. This aside, it’s very nice to be offered some simple, pretty and unexpected petits fours of slow-cooked orange zest dipped in bitter chocolate, which go well with an espresso and some chilled (strangely, to my mind) port.
A couple of minor bum notes aside, then, this was a very good dinner. The total bill, for three decent courses, several extras, two cocktails, two glasses of wine, a bottle of red, some port and a coffee, was only just north of eighty quid a head, which seems more than reasonable given the quality (and quantity) of goods on offer and the comparatively fancy setting. It seems almost obligatory nowadays for restaurant critics to remark on what they usually refer to as the ‘madness’ of opening a restaurant under the pervading economic conditions. But Boundary, with its deli, bar and the rest, can afford partially to subsidise the downstairs restaurant - bringing cheaper prices and thus more customers. I sincerely hope they come.
Boundary, 2-4 Boundary Street, Shoreditch, London E2
Tel +44 (0)20 7729 1051
See on the TFYS Map
Dinner for two, excluding drinks and service, costs £66.90; £167.79 all-in with all the extra gubbins and twelve-and-a-half.