GRAIN STORE KINGS CROSS
It’s rare to find a restaurant that isn’t just blazing a trail but striking the match that will set the new path itself on fire. The kind of place that led one world-famous chef two nights ago to declare, ‘Why the fuck didn’t I think of this first!’ In the fast moving world of feeding folk, new is often valued more than innovation but in Grain Store the combination of food, ambience, service and style combine to tickle more than just the palate. If this isn’t the best restaurant that will open in 2013, then call me a cab because I need to go home and lie down.
The art of the restaurateur is as mysterious as it is transparent. If that sounds tautological it’s because so much of running a restaurant is: service should feel relaxed though stress is mounting, food should be enjoyed for a moment, but remembered forever, and a chef needs to control the uncontrollable; the alchemy that is created the moment a carrot is pulled from the ground or yeast is added to water requires more than just an understanding of chemistry or Michelin-honed knife skills. It’s most definitely an art and although the talent to succeed can be developed it is innate in many ways. When you walk through the door of Grain Store, you just know this was an idea that came out of the Loubets’ very bones.
If I sound somewhat in awe, it’s because I am. Grain Store, the latest addition to the ever more buffed and exfoliated fizzog that was the giant carbuncle of King’s Cross, is a truly exciting restaurant. I confess to being a good friend of Catherine Loubet. Her husband and chef Bruno is to be found daily behind the oddly low proscenium that separates diners from kitchen. I also saw the space before it was finished and like most restaurants 10 days from opening, could barely believe it would be ready in time. What was never in doubt was that it would be a very good restaurant. Bruno only does good and usually excellent and I was one of many delighted when they returned to London in 2009 after 8 years in Australia . But despite my confidence in the Loubet magic, I must admit to being totally blown away by Grain Store in every way.
Decor-wise it’s the sort of style which would bring forth a comment from my mother along the lines of, ‘Will they be plastering the walls at some time in the future?”, but it’s light, airy, modern without being hard and respectful of the tireless Victorian trade that once trammelled through its doors. It feels totally ‘London’ but sitting there on a summer’s afternoon I could have been in San Francisco, New York City or Sydney.
What’s most striking however, is the menu. It’s a menu that I didn’t know I needed until I read it. The ennui of repetitive London dining is not deserving of any pity. Far from it. We are all so spoiled it’s almost sick-making. Yet, menus in the West do love to give protein the starring role and relegate even the most talented of vegetables and grains to the chorus. It was only when I read the menu at Grain Store that I realised that I was tired of scanning through, flitting past the red meat, dallying with the fish, ignoring the chicken and pondering the dull old vegetarian before settling on something I hoped would be light even though the star attraction wasn’t really what I fancied.
Grainstore flips that idea on its head. Front and centre is the vegetable, grain, fruit or pulse. The meat if there at all is almost the garnish. I had decided on having two light vegetarian courses before I arrived on a weekday lunchtime.
Everything on the menu was exceptionally appetising but my vegetarian inclinations were soon scuppered by the idea of the Bloody Mary tomato consomme with lobster and from the daily specials, artfully scribed on a wall-mounted roll of brown paper, gratin dauphinoise with salsa verde and rabbit leg.
Before that arrived Bruno sent over an exquisite dish of salted pressed watermelon, peach, basil and cured salmon, served with the thinnest yeast paper bread I’ve ever eaten. With temperatures hitting the mid 30’s C outside, this was the most inviting summer dish I’ve ever seen. Salty, sweet, juicy and fresh with a fragrance that carted me to somewhere a long way away.
The consommé was poured from a shaker over perfectly ripe tomatoes and knuckle sized bites of creamy lobster. The consommé holds fond memories for me as it was the very first dish I filmed Raymond Blanc making in his first series of Kitchen Secrets. Bruno is a great friend of Raymond and if this dish is borrowed, then it’s been fostered by a loving chef. I know how much goes into its creation; that flavour has a clean-ness and holds the essence of tomato like angels hold a soul.
The dauphinoise arrived in its own metal pan topped with a mound of salsa verde made with herbs and the fresh addition of cucumber. Nuggets of rabbit leg had been cooked in the Josper grill and were lean and flavoursome as you’d expect. It was the summery and convivial meeting of unlikely ingredients. The crisp crunch of the cucumber and the astringency of the sauce worked briliantly with the smoky rabbit and waxy creaminess of the potatoes. My only tiny criticism was that the dauphinoise could have enjoyed another 5 minutes in the oven to remove a little of the ‘al dente’ quality that for some reason isn’t so enjoyable in a potato as in other root vegetables. But if I’d had the guts to ask for a straw for the creamy sauce, maybe I wouldn’t be dreaming about eating the whole thing again right now.
I washed everything down with a tangy elderflower fizz and some great chat with the bar woman. Having assumed it would be heavingly busy after the resounding chorus of approval from both the bloggerati and traditional press, I had begged for a seat at the bar, only to find myself seated there solo in a restaurant that was maybe 60% full. (Clearly evenings are premium bookings so if you can, head there at lunchtime.)But it’s a terrific bar and I was made to feel incredibly welcome even before Bruno waved and said hello. I wouldn’t hesitate to go again on my own, but am now in full-on evangelical mode so plan on taking as many willing converts as possible over the next weeks and months. But I need not rush: This is a restaurant that’s going to be here for a very long time…and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it in many other cities before too long either.