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August 16, 2013 7:44 pm
It seems compulsory to centre the review of any new restaurant around the chef – and Grain Store certainly has a cracker in Bruno Loubet. But first, let’s talk for a moment about his partners in the venture, Michael Benyan and Mark Sainsbury. Benyan had already revitalised the Quality Chop House in the 1990s before hooking up with Sainsbury to open Moro in Exmouth Market and the Zetter Townhouse in Clerkenwell, where they recruited Loubet. Even leaving aside an obvious preference for hitherto grotty areas of town that turned out to be preternaturally smart bets, the team has been behind some of the most innovative restaurants of their times. So it’s perhaps not surprising that Grain Store is unlike any dining place you’ve seen.
It’s a converted industrial building on Granary Square, the new development behind King’s Cross that also houses Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, and Caravan, a café hipper than a titanium ball and socket. The room is vast with open a/c ducting, floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides, and designed with the maximum flexibility – high-tabled bar areas, communal benches, smaller booths and intimate deuces. Everything moves. Parts of the kitchen are mounted on wheels so they can be quickly reconfigured. The pastry section is currently on the opposite side from the kitchen, but could quite possibly be in the bar or near the loo by the time you get there.
No attempt is made to conceal the workings, and at the centre of the open kitchen stands the imposing figure of Loubet: tall, saturnine and with the sort of face that would have got Rodin reaching for the Plasticine. He couldn’t look more French if he had a beret on, but here he’s out of traditional chef’s gear, wearing a plain T-shirt and apron.
This is the big change for Loubet. Brilliant at the French cook’s traditional skills, he moved to Australia in 2002 and ran a restaurant in the swish surfer enclave of Noosa. He’s returned with some frankly un-French ideas. Many people believe we eat too much meat and that vegetables are healthier; Loubet has turned the notion into an entire menu. Meat and fish dishes are listed on the menu “veg first” and arrive with a piece of protein smaller than your palm. It’s odd but makes all kinds of sense once you start eating.
Baked beetroot, pickled onions, goat labneh and dill oil dressing is the sort of dish that makes meat eaters a bit nervous. Yet you can eat your way through it in waves of delight and have to be reminded at the end that there was no meat in it.
Potato and rye bread with seaweed butter, oyster and borage leaves was the weak point. Chefs are excited about the fleshy, salty oyster leaf, which is meant to taste like the real thing and so be a gift to vegetarians. In fact, as a leaf, it lacks a real oyster’s interesting texture and just leaves a brackish aftertaste.
The endive, pear and Roquefort salad with smoked pepper jelly and toasted hazelnuts combines a French classic with genuinely surprising new elements. The jelly has some similarities to sweet chilli sauce but is infinitely more delicate, and in combination with the well-kept Roquefort (Loubet remains irredeemably Gallic in some respects) gladdens the heart.
Chilled clear lobster Bloody Mary is a cold extraction of heirloom tomato juice with vodka essence. A little berg of cold lobster and tomato slices stands in the centre. On this hot night I could have gone three rounds with this one. Butternut squash ravioli with sage is a deservingly well-loved union, but adding mustard apricots lifts it into the realm of the extraordinary.
So far, Loubet’s balance of meat and veg was carrying me with him, but the final main, corn and quinoa tamale, was going to be the toughest call. Quinoa, I would have asserted, has no place on any menu outside a Californian ashram. Here, a properly made tamale is wrapped in the dried corn husk which is then scorched over an open flame, imparting smoke to the corn inside. Anointed with a smoky salsa it was easily the most gorgeous dish of all, with a delicately calculated little counterweight of sticky pork belly.
Grain Store does a couple of brave and clever things: it messes with our ideas of how a dining room should be designed; and it forcibly questions the balance between meat and veg. Either might discourage conservative diners, but that would be their loss. This is a new approach to relaxed dining that leaves you refreshed, well treated and happy – a rare combination.
Tim Hayward is an FT Weekend contributing writer
Nicholas Lander is away
1-3 Stable Street, London N1C 4AB
020 7324 4466 (for on-the-day reservations only)
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