In Hoxton and Shoreditch in east London, eating and drinking choices have multiplied furiously over the past few years. Three recent newcomers – wine bar Sager + Wilde and restaurants Lyle’s and 8 Hoxton Square – were all drawn here by the area’s lower rents.
The affordability of this district relative to central London is helpful – not because it translates into profit but because it gives new businesses space and time to correct mistakes. The same phenomenon has been evident in New York, where restaurateurs have led the renaissance of Brooklyn, particularly in the neighbourhoods of Williamsburg, Park Slope and Greenpoint. And what adds further interest for anyone visiting these locales is the sense of history they exude.
There was no mistaking this as we arrived early one evening at Hoxton overground station, whose exit faces on to the pretty gardens of the Geffrye Museum. Wine bar Sager + Wilde is a five-minute walk away, in what was once The British Lion, a rundown pub. Today, the only clue to this chapter in the building’s history is a case behind the bar containing old packets of Player’s and Capstan Navy Cut cigarettes. Everything else is modern and cool, from the bar made of pavement lights to the array of grills and slicers in the tiny kitchen behind.
Named for its founders, husband and wife Michael and Charlotte Sager-Wilde, the bar lists its by-the-glass wines and small menu on paper placemats. Although there is nothing extraordinarily exciting about the food – small plates, charcuterie, cheese and sandwiches – the wines by the glass are well chosen and keenly priced, as is the much fuller wine list, clearly compiled by wine fanatics. This is a great place to call into – and spend far longer in than initially intended.
The 10-minute walk to Lyle’s, home to the chef-restaurateur partnership of James Lowe and John Ogier, only heightened my sense of expectation. I have much enjoyed Lowe’s cooking in a series of pop-ups and had been impressed by Ogier’s style when he opened Gymkhana restaurant in Mayfair (whose owners are also invested in this new venture). Although I left intrigued by their ambition, I was also a little disappointed by the execution.
Lowe writes two different menus. The first, during the day, is an à la carte menu of interesting combinations of British ingredients; the second, the exclusive option at dinner, is an eight-course tasting menu for £39. There is logic to this approach: lunchtimes are shorter; many of us relish not having to make choices about what to eat after a day of decisions; and, as Ogier explained, it presents two attractive opportunities for restaurateurs. First, they can offer a substantial menu at a reasonable price and, second, they can introduce customers to ingredients they may not normally order. Ogier reported how pleased several customers had been with that night’s unusual main course of Somerset suckling kid, the belly and shoulder of which had been well but simply prepared on a charcoal grill.
The flip side is that there is a much smaller margin for error, and errors there were. The asparagus that came with a walnut mayonnaise had not been cleaned properly and was still gritty. And there was a green ingredient on six of the eight dishes: asparagus, peas, leeks, sea kale and garlic followed by salad leaves with a bowl of baked Riseley cheese that I was not convinced by. Balance and presentation do matter.
As does the setting, and here too there is work to be done. Lowe and Ogier have created a utilitarian space with exposed ductwork and kitchens. But if customers are expected to sit for a couple of hours, at least for the tasting menu, without the entertainment of watching plates of different food going to other tables, then an extra element of titillation has to be built in. Service and wine list are good but this approach is just too demanding of a kitchen still finding its feet.
Cameron Emirali and Luke Wilson at 8 Hoxton Square have the obvious advantage of having opened their first restaurant together at 10 Greek Street in Soho, and they have managed to transport the flavours of their first restaurant here. A spring broth, grilled asparagus with imam bayildi, ox tongue with duck egg and pickled herrings with grapes and wild fennel made for a fine lunch – with the lure of outside tables providing a further inducement to return one sunny day.
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Sager + Wilde
193 Hackney Road, London E2 8JL; sagerandwilde.com
Tea Building, 56 Shoreditch High Street, London E1 6JJ, 020 3011 5911; lyleslondon.com
8 Hoxton Square
London N1 6NU, 020 7729 4232; 8hoxtonsq.com