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29/07/2009

Eastside Inn, Clerkenwell, London [Review]

Eastside Inn


★★★★☆



The chef at Eastside Inn is called Bjorn van der Horst. What a brilliantly Teutonic name. It positively glints with steel-eyed Prussian ruthlessness, with Wagnerian grandeur and Danubes of authority. Byawwn - a name that speaks of sun bursting over hilltops, or of the slightly gayer one in Abba. And van der - I’ve never understood quite what that punchy little insertion does to someone's name, but it sounds emphatically blue-blooded. And then, of all possibilities, he follows it with Horst – a gruff snort of a surname, an army, a horsed, haughty host. Bjorn van der Horst. Couldn't be better. Even if it does also sound like a Dutch milliner.


Nothing in restaurant reviewing is more dull than lengthy chefs' biographies. No phrase is simultaneously as irritating and patronising as ‘He comes with quite a pedigree.’ So I won’t say it: van der Horst isn’t an Alsatian, after all. (He's actually Dutch-Spanish.) But he first came to prominence at a very reputable restaurant called The Greenhouse, which is still going strong, and then at La Noisette, which had cracks. Funny story, actually: in a mercifully short-lived stint as a restaurant reviewer in The Times, Gordon Ramsay ate van der Horst’s food at The Greenhouse. Big Sweary's broadly favourable piece ended with the chilling line: ‘What [van der Horst] needs now is to find someone to show him restraint’. Within a year, van der Horst was one of Gordon Ramsay’s holdings.


But now he’s set up on his own, in the lush gastronomic savannah of Clerkenwell. St. John and Vinoteca are a couple of doors down, and Portal, a restaurant I still haven’t been to but which I’ll plug here because a mate’s dad owns it, is a little way towards Angel.


Eastside Inn is almost visibly shooting for gongs, stars and plaudits, laden with expectation and steeped in sweat, frippery, fiddling and fuss. The atmosphere sags with the perfume a tart might use to attract Michelin inspectors; caked-on frogginess; linen and Riedel; the oleaginous, elitist ooze that the tired tyre company so reveres. Horrible artwork gawps invasively from the walls. Eastside Inn is a schizophrenic split between bistro and restaurant: an approach that makes perfect sense, actually, though only a chef with van der Horst's talent could pull it off.


And talent he has in spades. Let me say now: the food here is bloody good. So good, in fact, I did something I’ve never done before: I went for lunch, and returned the same day for dinner. Lunch was a set menu – three courses for £35, and an extra tenner for two matched glasses of wine. That prices the food towards the middle of the capital’s gastrotemples, although it must be said that seven quid extra at Le Gavroche works a bit harder. Pleasingly, however, most of the dishes on the set lunch are straight off the tasting menu, which is £70 for seven courses (plus a trio of superb amuses and petits fours and all the rest of it) and is very fairly priced. One of the best-value degustations I’ve ever had.


A basil sorbet, just a smidgen too sweet, rippled the herb onto my tongue - soft as thick yoghurt, perfumed like the ground floor of a department store, and completely transfixing. And the tiniest morsel of veal belly, its meat tender as a hospice nurse, came with a coriander pesto, which sounds silly, but wasn’t. Skate - at dinner, turbot - with a confit of snails was brilliantly original, a delight. Sublime, too, was an almond gazpacho with prawn, paprika and a little tomato sorbet: one of the best dishes I've had all year.


But for all van der Horst's brilliance, he strikes me as a curious sort. He names a salad of tapenade, feta and watermelon (a clever idea, done well) after Matthew Norman, the critic of The Guardian. A homage to the writer who loved it? No - Norman hated the dish. Or try this: the instant they saw I had a camera, the pantheons of staff (in a restaurant with maybe 35 covers) hovered and swooped and serried round the table, like ants on jam. I booked under my own name, and they actually emailed me at the address on this blog to ask if I was going to review them.


Something was stranger even than these. Downstairs, by the loos, there's a door that leads to the staff changing rooms. It's made partly of glass so that the below-stairs scurriers don't thwack it in customers' faces. I passed it on the way out, and noticed, through the glass, a poster with a lot of faces on it, with names written underneath. A staff photo. How sweet, I thought.


But then I looked closer. It was a shrine, or perhaps a rogues' gallery, of almost every major restaurant critic in the country. Rayner, Gill, Winner, Coren, Maschler, Dimond, Sitwell, Macleod, Norman, Spicer, Young, Durack and Moir - the men and women whose writing I devour every day, Blu-Tacked in a panoply of paranoia.


Now, I realise a lot of restaurants do this, particularly ones that take themselves as seriously as Eastside Inn. But to position such a picture in full view of every customer who nips down for a pee is either staggeringly careless or - I can't but wonder - a superb, Mephistophelean flourish of flattery, like naming a salad for the critic who loathed it.


Not everything triumphed. A plate of savoury scrambled eggs was toddler’s diarrhoea, and a giant Kinder Egg was apparently flambéed in White Lightning. The cheese board, too, was appalling. We went on a hot midsummer night, and a blue cheese - I forget what it was - had gone grainy and was practically rotten. And I’m not convinced by that sniggering slice of La Vache Qui Rit, either.


But these are niggles. This is brilliant, overwrought, inventive, impassioned and at times stratospherically good food, presented by a kitchen with justifiably serious intentions and offered by a hospitable and genial front of house. Particular mention should go to Felix Joseph, who looked after Cargy and me as personably and politely as anyone ever has in a restaurant. I will definitely return. And if they want to stick my photo up downstairs, they're welcome to.


The Eastside Inn, 40 St. John Street, London EC1

Tel. +44 (0)20 7490 9230


See on the Map


Set lunch for two costs £70, excluding drinks and service. Seven-course tasting menu for two costs £140 excluding drinks and service.


www.esilondon.com

Eastside Inn on Urbanspoon

19 comments:

  1. Interesting...I had a nice meal in the bistro, but it didn't reach the dizzying heights that your experience suggests.

    They are very tuned into bloggers, twitter, etc. Bjorn's brother is a social media guy. Check out my post for some of the background and his Twitter handle.

    http://www.londonelicious.com/dining/2009/07/eastside-inn-bistro.html

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  2. Lunch and dinner at the same place in the same day seems delightfully decadent. Your review has inspired me to visit but I'm afraid to bring my camera now. Perhaps we should organise a camera-free blogger's dinner to help us recapture the pleasure of eating without documenting...

    Congrats on the Metro mention!

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  3. Portal is pretty good actually! Went a few weeks back. St. John Street really is a bit of a restaurant Mecca isn't it.

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  4. How insane is that? To email you asking if you're reviewing it! I suppose it's easy to google you! The food sounds interesting though...

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  5. ah yes the almond gazpacho - that was a triumph, loved the bloody mary-esque sorbet!

    cracking review Oliver, agree that there are hits and misses at Eastside Inn but accomplished cooking overall...

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  6. Hilarious review once again Ollie. I am so glad you decided to include the bit about chef's biographies. I know I'm supposed to be interested but seriously, nothing bores me more. Particularly when I know a review is going to be long and serious anyway. A funny story is of course, always welcome.

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  7. Krista - Thanks, and I enjoyed your post. The bistro does look very good: from what I've read, BVDH pays just as much care and attention on the dishes there as the on the ones in the restaurant.

    Kate - I know, it was a bit silly! A bloggers' dinner is a top plan. And thanks :)

    Chris - I'm glad to hear it! I think my mate and I are going soon, although naturally I won't be able to review it...

    Su-Lin - I know, it really was extraordinary. But the food here really is terrific. Some of the best in the city.

    Helen - Thanks! A bit of backstory is always interesting, but I'm not convinced it's necessary to know a chef's life story in order to determine whether he / she's any good...

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  8. Signe - So sorry I missed you!

    Thanks for your kind comment. You're absolutely right: the overall product is great here, and sometimes brilliant. Dud notes are few and far between. And yes: the almond gazpacho is definitely a 'vaut le voyage'.

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  9. Oliver I had a fabulous meal here in the bistro but my only gripe was the cheese platter - it actually had Laughing Cow on it which is not what you expect when you are paying cheese platter prices - I couldn't work out whether it was meant to be ironic perhaps?

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  10. Gourmet Chick - I think it's meant to be ironic, yes. It's not a bad cheese, but it's not a good cheese either, and if it's meant to be a joke I don't find it funny. Especially for a £15 supplement.

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  11. lovely review Ollie, this place has been on my hit list for a while. Nice reference to toddler poo! And call me cynical but that really doesn't surprise me about the rogues gallery....Excellent stuff.

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  12. A great and lovely writing as usual, you always know how to choose the right words to describe a place, make us laugh and discover news places where to enjoy a nice lunch... and dinner! As kate is saying, it was quite decadent to enjoy both the same day but I guess that's part of the experience and the pleasure!

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  13. Nice. I haven't been yet but I am sure I will soon, as reviews have been very positive on the whole. Even A A Gill, while slamming the place overall, had some love for the cooking.

    On the topic of La Vache Qui Rit, I once ate in a smart restaurant in Marrakech that served lamb chops with the stuff, which is wrong on so many levels.

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  14. Any review with the word teutonic in the second sentence is a triumph.

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  15. Ollie,

    I've taken my time to read this review (a whole week on and off) and your vibrant prose continues to be such a pleasure to read, I find myself wanting to aspire to your work and you are a one of the few bright spots bringing true credibility to the blogging world.... but you already know that :)

    Do keep up with nurturing and growing your gift, pretty soon you will dislodge Gill from my reading list for truly epic writing.

    My favourite from this essay:

    " No phrase is simultaneously as irritating as 'He comes with quite a pedigree.’ So I won’t say it: van der Horst isn’t an Alsatian, after all. (He's actually Dutch-Spanish.)"

    Genius. I must give the stratospherically good food with serious intentions a serious look in the coming weeks, its been a while since I last donned my michelin cap.

    This and Le Gav.

    Bring back lots of memories at elbulli!

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  16. Gastrogeek - Thanks Rej. Always important to bring in a scatological note when talking about food, I find. And I agree, the rogues' gallery thing wasn't that surprising: what was surprising was that every customer could see it! I think they've taken that picture down after this review and Marina's in the Metro: http://tinyurl.com/leyoyw.

    Mathilde - Thanks very much. It was a bit decadent, I know - but I definitely recommend it. An unfulfilled ambition of mine is to let lunch flow seamlessly into dinner in the same restaurant: one day...

    Mr Teaspoon - You're right. I haven't read a single review that described the food here as anything but superb. That said, most critics have had issues with other aspects of the place. But I do think this is some of the most interesting, accomplished cooking to be found anywhere in the city. Your experience in Marrakesh sounds beyond horrific.

    The GG - Is it? Thanks!

    Kang - I don't know what to say. What an incredibly kind comment: thank you so much. I'm still trembling with excitement about elBulli... If you need a companion for Le Gavroche, let me know.

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  17. I'm always interested in chef's biographies, what makes them tick, their background, their experience. I want to know about the person that created the food personally.
    It sounds to me like this chef has a great sense of humour...la vache qui rit, the 'rogues gallery' of critics pix on public display and this playfulness translates into the food.
    I love a bit of processed cheese myself but wouldn't appreciate paying a supplement for it. I remember going to a dinner party just outside Paris and being served cubes of la vache qui rit as an apero, which I thought was quite funny!

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  18. great review... pretty much echoes how I felt about Bjorns little baby. Also a reminder as to why I always try to remain anonymous, even if a few restaurants that I frequent know who i am.

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  19. I thought Kang's comment about your write up of Eastside Inn was gushing but that was before I read it myself... Ollie I wish I could write like you too. Going here for Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday. Very much looking forward to it.

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