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May 15, 2010 12:34 am
Three restaurants that opened this year are already making their mark in north London. Towpath, which opened in February serving cakes, coffee and simple Tuscan-style food, is on the Hackney section of the Regent’s Canal. Another February opening, Caravan, is a restaurant, bar and roastery close to Sadler’s Wells Theatre in Islington. Pepito, a sherry bar opened in March, is a short walk from King’s Cross station. All three offer outdoor seating – a huge plus during the summer.
American food writer Lori De Mori is the driving force behind Towpath, which was inspired by a sojourn in Italy. The site is formed from three formerly shuttered metal and concrete bunkers that face the canal towpath. The buildings were renovated two years ago and De Mori and her husband Jason Lowe, a food photographer, were able to buy them in November 2009.
One was leased to their daughter’s partner for his cycle repair business. The middle one houses the main communal table (the rest are outside, covered with awnings) and a blackboard headed “Finance Department”. The third is home to the tiny kitchen where two cooks move in a synchronised fashion to avoid any mishaps. It only works, De Mori says, if everything is shipshape.
There is also a display case full of delicious cakes and pastries, made in De Mori’s home kitchen over the bridge by her talented chef, Laura Jackson. From Towpath’s tiny kitchen emerges an array of home-made food, including bruschetta, stews, rice cakes, the most satisfying millionaire’s shortbread, and their own ginger beer.
As a result of Towpath’s waterside location, De Mori has become an expert on the British weather. “There’s no barrier between us and the elements,” she says. “When it rains all day I do wonder what we’re doing here. When the sun shines and everyone stops, smiles and says hello, I couldn’t be happier.”
Neither the rain nor the fact that the kitchen is even smaller than Towpath’s will stop the fun at Pepito, London’s first dedicated sherry bar, which accommodates only 20 comfortably and 40 at a squeeze. Owner Richard Bigg has converted this site next to his much larger Spanish bar and restaurant Camino. It’s been cleverly done with Iberico hams hanging from the ceiling, exposed brick walls with small blackboards offering flights of sherries, a tiled floor from southern Spain, and candles adding romance. The sections of wall not used for sherry bottles or cases of Spanish wine display pictures of vineyards along with an atmospheric black and white photo of Pablo Picasso with a glass of sherry.
Pepito is a joint venture between Bigg and the Gonzalez Byass sherry house, though the range of mouthwatering offerings includes sherries from many other producers. Foodwise, there are plates of ham and cheese, Devon crab with paprika, smoked salt cod and venison carpaccio.
I can’t recall when such a formerly unprepossessing space – Pepito’s address in Varnishers Yard gives a clue to its light industrial past – has been converted into such an enjoyable, intimate setting.
If Pepito stands out for its setting, Caravan’s impact is due to its aroma. It is the capital’s sweetest-smelling restaurant, not down to chef Miles Kirby’s cooking so much as the 12-kilo coffee roaster installed in the basement by Kirby and Chris Ammermann, his front-of-house partner, in an attempt to conjure the atmosphere of relaxed cafés in their native New Zealand.
It is also a clever commercial idea. From a simple wooden bar, barista Neil Le Bihan produces excellent coffees that keep his section of the restaurant and the outdoor tables busy. Also playing their part are Kirby’s exciting cooking, a relaxed but precise service, and an excellent wine list.
There is a copious breakfast menu, snacks, brunch at weekends, and small and large plates. Memorable dishes include goats’ curd with tomato and lentils; avocado and chilli flakes on toast; salt and Sichuan pepper squid. For dinner I had an excellent almond couscous with sumac yoghurt; a warm salad of duck, pear and walnuts, and a memorable orange water blancmange with guava sorbet and pistachio.
The restaurant’s name expresses the culinary journeys the partners have taken, and it has an easy-going atmosphere that is most enjoyable. I, for one, am pleased that this Caravan has settled in north London.
More columns at www.ft.com/lander
Towpath, 42 De Beauvoir Crescent, London N1 5SB, closed Monday; 8am-5pm Tuesday and Weds; 8am-dusk Thursday-Sunday. Tel: +44 (0)207254 7606
Pepito, 3 Varnishers Yard, the Regent Quarter, King’s Cross, London N1 9NL, open Wednesday to Saturday from 5pm to midnight, tel: +44 (0)207841 7331; www.camino.uk.com/pepito
Caravan, 1113 Exmouth Market, London EC1R 4QD, closed Sunday evening, tel: +44 (0)207833 8115; www.caravanonexmouth.co.uk
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