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.
Tel. +44 (0)20 7490 9230
Set lunch for two costs £70, excluding drinks and service. Seven-course tasting menu for two costs £140 excluding drinks and service.