Craft London, which opened last month in North Greenwich, is a restaurant, café and bar with a mission – to source, if possible, every single ingredient and material used onsite from producers in the UK.
A plan that daunting tends to mean there’s a very driven head chef somewhere in the building. In this case it’s Stevie Parle, late of River Café and Moro and founder of Ladbroke Grove’s Dock Kitchen.
Parle is refreshingly open about his motivations. ‘I think the jury’s still out on localism as a movement, but I like knowing that I can phone up the guy who does our pigs and ask him to feed them some damsons, so we see that sweetness coming through in the meat.’
At a dinner held last week for Craft’s producers, Parle’s extraordinary attention to detail was evident throughout. We started the evening in the harmonious upstairs bar, where a 360-degree view of the area offers plenty of views that don’t include the hunched and unlovely O2.
Designer Tom Dixon, who previously collaborated with Parle on Dock Kitchen, has done a lovely job here, balancing sober tweed stools with the occasional flashy sofa and a pleasantly DIY-looking bar, all welded joints and tousled waiters.
The drinks menu isn’t exclusively British (who would dare?), but sommelier Ruth Spivey, previously the brains behind Wine Car Boot, has ensured that domestic booze is well-represented.
Wiston sparkling wine and Schiehallion lager are key players, while the Wiltshire Liqueur Company has provided several of its sensational flavoured spirits, including a damson vodka that proves the highlight of the ‘Gnarled Negroni’. It’s not a Negroni by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a beautiful drink.
After an appropriate period spent admiring both the view and the glowing copper barware, we headed downstairs into the first floor restaurant. Parle intends to do as much prep as possible onsite, with a smokehouse already built and a coffee roastery on the way. The raised planters around the front door are the start of his kitchen garden, and the Alys Fowler-designed gardens to the restaurant’s back already feature an orchard and plans for four beehives.
Parle is visibly thrilled by the opportunity to do all this from the bottom up rather than jerry-rig existing premises. ‘It’s all very well trying to dry-age your own meat in the kitchen, but if you leave it in the walk-in it goes wet, and if you try to ferment it in the corner of the kitchen it grows a lot of weird mould and you end up chucking it.’
And so to dinner. Craft’s full menu is now available following a two-week soft launch, but we went largely off-piste with a hearty tasting menu – fifteen dishes across five courses designed to show off not only the versatility of Craft’s kitchens but the variety of its suppliers. With the exceptions of citrus fruits, coffee and a handful of spices, Parle is eschewing any ingredient that can’t be produced in the UK – a decision which leads to some unexpected flavour pairings.
The meal began with Gosnell’s Peckham mead and Colchester oysters dressed with dehydrated cucumber, primrose petals or rhubarb powder. I ended up with the rhubarb, which was something like a very grown-up Sherbet Dip Dab, albeit a Sherbet Dip Dab with a raw mollusc in it (this analogy needs some work). Tart and refreshing, it readied the palate rather than punishing it as a slug of Tabasco is wont to do.
Predictably, the highlights of the meal were those items that had been prepared onsite. Turnip and cauliflower brined pickles, lacto-fermented in Craft’s cellar, were served with a sensational salted yoghurt and accompanied translucent fricandeaux (lthin cuts from the leg) of Meantime IPA-cured beef. Red Hereford sirloin was pleasantly marbled for a cut that tends towards leanness, and the accompanying marrowbone bread sauce tasted like a liquidised steak sandwich.
Clamped carrots, stored through the winter in sand and dressed up with a mead and anchovy sauce, were outstandingly soft and sweet – our enthusiasm must have showed, as we somehow acquired four platefuls.
A huge, blackened sea bass was brought to the table on a plank of sorts, looking furious at being south of the river on a Thursday night. We were encouraged to carve it ourselves; there can be no better way to forge a bond between a table of strangers than making them collectively dismantle a giant fish.
Our mead having been recalled to the 7th century, we stuck with an exceptionally quaffable South African red, the LAM Pinotage by Lammershoek, throughout the meal.
I caught up with Parle while my table dived snouts-first into a dish of nutmeg-scented spelt pudding, accompanied by apple blossom ice cream direct from the orchard. ‘I want us to understand better the connection between the food we eat and the people who produce it,’ he said, obligingly failing to notice my eyes darting away from him and towards an approaching canelé. ‘It’s so rare to have this sort of control.’
It’s certainly true that not many restaurateurs have the chance to work with such a blank canvas, but if restaurants like Craft are rare, they’re all the more worthwhile for it. Parle has created the antithesis to London’s tide of overwrought mid-price restaurants, many of them artlessly crammed into the shells of traditional pubs – a fresh, surprising space that unshowily demonstrates the very best food these islands can produce.