Move over Peckham and Dalston, London’s surprising new restaurant quarter is in Highbury.
It’s close to my heart because my first real pop-up restaurant was at the Marquess Tavern, round the corner in Canonbury. Four years ago there was nowhere to eat in Islington and I said so on this very blog. At the time my comments caused a little muttering in the wings from people who told me to look more closely on Upper Street. But honestly I could find nothing but what BBC broadcaster Sheila Dillon later referred to as a ‘sea of mediocrity’, chains and nondescript generic ‘Mediterranean’ eateries all serving more or less the same thing with no real focus on ingredients or experience.
Then came Yottam Ottolenghi with his stunning dishes, mouthwatering window displays, South Ken prices and service. All well and good and I love his work. But for me, the experience while always slick, is a little sheer.
There is a simple truth about restaurants, which is that really good ones are made successful by good people who understand that business should be led from the front of house, not by the kitchen. Disappointing food can be salvaged by wonderful service but the most virtuosic food cannot save a bad experience.
Warmth, generosity, authenticity – all essential to a great restaurant – arrived in 2011 in the shape of Trullo, on one of the most unprepossessing roads in the area. Really good regional Italian dishes, using the best ingredients and served with an air of quiet expertise, entranced the great and good of N1 and beyond. It is run by the utterly charming Sam James, who manages the floor with effortless ease and elegance, which in turn makes the dishes cooked by the hugely modest but talented Tim Siadatan even more pleasing.
So that was that. For a while. Until, in a paean to Mildred Pearce Le Coq opened its doors last year a few doors down. A chicken restaurant, selling the best Anglais chickens cooked in continually different ways on the rotisserie with imaginatively conceived European farmhouse accompaniments. Once again, despite being simply chicken by a thousand cuts, the service makes the difference and these guys care with infectious enthusiasm.
Then blow me down, I’m walking down the same street and the old butcher shop has been transformed into a fishmonger. But a really good one. Selling sustainably caught produce on day-boats from Cornwall and seafood from Scotland. What’s more it’s a restaurant too. Called Prawn on the Lawn this is a little bit of Brussels’ Place St Catherine, the Mercado Boqueria and the Oban Seafood Hut served up on a dodgy junction in North London. Rick and Katie, with their lovely guys have created a little haven of fishiness, where you can either grab a plate and a glass upstairs or book a table downstairs for some of the freshest seafood around.
To cap it all – and I suppose I might feel a little chagrined here having started the original Islington garage-cum-restaurant – I was thrilled have supper at Primeur just up the road from Canonbury Station. Seasoned professionals Jeremie Cometto-Lingenheim and David Gingell have transformed an old automotive repair shop, offer a menu of great plates and wines with open kitchen and communal dining. So it’s early doors, being open just a week but they greet you like an old friend and it’s good. Dammit, it’s really good.
You heard it here first. But not for long I suppose.
Footnote: A few days after I had written this, I dropped into Trangallan in Newington Green. It’s a smart take on regional Spanish cookery and eating, and is amongst the best I have had outside that country. Though strictly not Highbury, who’s telling?