Wednesday 7 April 2010
Eastside Inn has enjoyed rave reviews in the blogosphere since it opened last year, and so it was with much anticipation that we looked forward to our reservation for four hungry food enthusiasts on the verge of celebrating the Easter break last week.
Bjorn and Justine van der Horst have put the open kitchen in the heart of the restaurant - a feature which I adore, as much as anything because it reminds me of sitting up at the bench top "chewing the fat" about the day's events at school, while diving in for the spoils as Mum toiled away at dinner. That's not quite how it works at Eastside Inn, but the chefs all seem so friendly you can imagine it would be a nice place to sit (and beg for a scrap or two).
However, our party was seated in a small enclave off the main bistro-style dining room. It was, unfortunately, completely lacking in atmosphere, and held all the charm of a bland hotel foyer - we were facing the main entrance as though waiting for something to happen. We could have been virtually alone in the restaurant for all we knew. It was only later in the evening that I took a stroll through the main dining room with its French bistro decor and mirrored walls, and was stunned to witness the chatter, buzz and charm that was completely devoid from our corner of the world. My first tip is to request the main bistro room when you book. Our enclave appears to have been a hangover from the days when the kitchen divided the bistro from a more formal restaurant - the latter has now been converted into rather unwelcoming looking lounge bar (again, with some stilted, hotel foyer type qualities). The bistro was not full, so perhaps they just don't realise how off-putting this room is for anyone who likes a bit of atmosphere (don't we all)?
Bjorn and Justine were not in the house on the night of our visit (a rarity, I believe, owing to the Easter break), and perhaps that is why, as much as I liked the food (and, generally, it was undeniably good), it did not soar to the dizzying heights that others have experienced. From his previous roles at the Greenhouse and La Noisette, to his current work at Eastside Inn, Bjorn has developed a reputation for his innovative, skilfully prepared gastronomic delights. The new bistro menu balances elegance and rustic charm well. On this occasion, the food was lovely, but it was outshone by the excellent service we received from all. And, to some extent, the lack of buzz must have shaded my impressions of the experience as a whole.
We started with some hors d'ouevres - French radishes (a current favourite - £3.50), Nicoise olive tapenade on toast with pickled anchovies (absolutely delicious - £2.95) and little clams (also lovely - £4.95).
My starter let me down. Why, oh why, did I order the classic prawn cocktail "Las Vegas" (£8.95) when I was bound to love "Justine's favourite onion soup" with Beaufort cheese (£6.95)? The medium sized prawns were crumbed and fried, then perched on the side of a dish of lettuce leaves, with a tangy-sweet dipping sauce. All was executed well enough, but no taste sensations here.
TPG's starter was a winner - a fricassee of morels on toast with a perfect, gooey egg yolk (£9.95). Good eggs are just so nourishing, and this was a beautiful combination of rich and moreish flavours.
Our friends Fiona and Robert enjoyed the soup of the day (white onion with chestnut - it looked scrumptious (£4.50)) and chargrilled baby squid with spring onions, lime and paprika vinaigrette (£9.95).
Feeling seasonal, I opted for some Easter Bunny - a main portion of braised leg of Lincolnshire rabbit served atop some silky tagliatelle and a light mustard sauce (£14.95). The generous serve of rabbit was moist and tender, falling into the delicately creamy sauce. It was good, although it seemed to be missing some kind of X factor.
The pasta in TPG's rigatoni with veal ragout, capers, lemon and pecorino (£13.95) was surprisingly undercooked (well short of al dente), and overall this dish lacked flavour despite reading like a terrific combination. Disappointing.
Our companions seemed to choose more wisely - Fiona adored her prawns "Al Cremat" (delivered in a cast iron pan with white wine, chilli, herbs and garlic - £17.95) and Robert's chicken breast with asparagus and morel sauce (£17.95) looked the goods - it was devoured wholeheartedly.
We requested a side serve of the asparagus, which was not on the menu but was gracefully provided. Bursting with flavour, the perfectly cooked spears were among the biggest hits of the evening.
Our cheese selection was lovely (£11), although the cheese trolley is nothing to rival my favourite at Chez Bruce. However, the Laughing Cow clearly on display was surely worth a smile. I enjoyed TPG's classic dessert of the day (a chocolate and coffee number with ice-cream) even more than he did - rich, creamy and chocolatey (£7.95).
A clever and stylish amuse bouche arrived in the form of a large, rectangular ice block, with a hollowed out semi-circle for a dollop of sweet, rich mango sorbet. Another surprise amuse bouche - a coriander sorbet - also arrived later, which was lovely and refreshing.
The wine list is extensive, but expensive - try finding something decent for less than £30.
Despite being shunted into a dreary enclave, we had a super fun evening fuelled by much food, wine and merriment. Eastside Inn has a great menu, and mostly executes things very well. However, it didn't leave me desperate to claim it my new favourite haunt, despite my long-held suspicious that it might. Perhaps I'll give it another chance for lunch in the bistro with the big kids one day.
Eastside Inn will be open on Sundays as of 11 April 2010.
[Postscript, 9 April 2010: Justine van der Horst contacted me in response to this post to confirm that the lounge area is currently in a transition phase and will be revamped shortly - so hold tight. Great news! It's also terrific to see enthusiastic restauranteurs who care enough about this sort of feedback to respond to it positively and quickly. I'll be giving them another go soon.]
Eastside Inn, 38-42 St John Street, Farringdon, London, EC1M 4AY (Ph: 020 7490 9230)
Apologies for the lack of photos - I didn't want to detract from the ambience any further by snapping at everyone's dishes. (Normally, I hold no such qualms!)