Most of my mates think I’m a snob. And, well. I am a bit.
But that’s because they think I only want to go to expensive restaurants, which isn’t right at all. A restaurant doesn’t have to cost a lot of money to be good. We’ve got the likes of Bao, Padella, Koya and Flat Iron doing a terrific job of proving just that, and, in fact, most of my favourite ever restaurants are the middly-priced ones that dazzle you with their cooking, service and value for money. (I’m always raving on about Picture, Gunpowder and Lupins, for instance, spectacular examples of all three.)
What I am snobby about is chains. It’s not about money, especially because these monuments to mediocrity don’t usually even have the decency to be cheap. It’s about supporting independent businesses, the ones that themselves support local, environmentally responsible suppliers, that fly the flag for originality and daring and pluckiness, and that let the staff keep their own tips. It’s about supporting proper restaurants with proper chefs doing proper cooking.
And so to Old Spitalfields Market, which despite a fabulously rich history and all sorts of accolades for its art and vintage clothing markets, has in recent years has become a spawning ground for lacklustre, flavour-phobic restaurants like Las Iguanas and Giraffe ‘World’ Kitchen (spare me). Don’t get me wrong, there are some diamonds buried amongst the dross, but very little worth braving the crowds for.
But last month, a new cluster of food outlets known collectively as The Kitchens improved Spitalfields’ culinary credentials tenfold almost overnight. I’ve already been twice and am making plans to go again, because it is effectively the street food experience we all deserve but rarely get. (I’m looking at you, Pergola On The Roof, you sack of shit.) The set-up comprises a square of ten kitchens, each occupied by a different vendor. Some are well-established outfits already (Berber & Q, Breddos Tacos, Rök), some I hadn’t heard of before. But from what I’ve tried, there isn’t a dud among ’em.
The best of all, in my opinion, is Flank, a sustainable nose-to-tail concept that satisfies the basest carnivorous cravings but also does a lot of interesting things with offal if you’re into that. Even if you’re not, dinner at Flank is an experience peppered with moments of genius that really set it apart as somewhere schlepping across town to, such as bone marrow gnocchi (a side dish!), pickled fennel and a proper, satisfyingly sloppy homemade chip shop curry sauce.
The chefs, Tom Griffiths and Drew Snaith, should really be selling their earth-shatteringly beautiful beef from a proper restaurant. Give them a year, I reckon, and they’ll be giving Smokestak a run for their money.
And there’s other reasons to visit too. Wonderful though Flank is, unless you can nab one of its half-dozen or so counter seats, the best strategy is to treat the whole thing as a self-guided food tour.
If you can get to Dumpling Shack before it inevitably runs out of everything, start with some pork, leek and water chestnut Shanghai soup dumplings. Move on to Berber & Q for a tranche of its legendary cauliflower shawarma, grilled over charcoal, perhaps a bowl of neighbouring Sood Family’s magnificent tortellini, and maybe Bar Barbarian’s fiery fried chicken. There are strong veggie options too, including vegan sushi from Thousand Knives.
Even if you’re not a pudding person, Aussie dessert bar Happy Endings (!) is worth saving room for. Their food is all about unconventional combinations, and the result is a menu that does cartwheels along the narrow beam between sweet and savoury. There’s a wickedly rich hot chocolate topped with an olive oil marshmallow. There are ice cream sandwiches. There is an ever-changing confection called the Fancy Pants, made of the silkiest homemade soft-serve ice cream and whatever they decide to put on top that week. Last time I went it was dulce de leche, rosemary and olive-oil crumb. It was heaven.
Sadly, the Kitchens have a few problems. For one, they’re only open until 8pm on weekdays, and even earlier on weekends, which means if you go in the evening you’re having an early dinner or none at all. (I’m exaggerating, Taberna do Mercado is right there if you do miss the boat.) Second, although there are plenty of communal-style benches lining the perimeter, there isn’t really anywhere properly nice to sit unless you luck out and nab one of Flank’s proper seats. And also, wherever you sit, it’s getting hella cold out. There are rumours of heat lamps appearing soon but in the meantime, take a cardy.
But, despite everything, I’m really rooting for The Kitchens and everyone who cooks there. Go. Show your support. Don’t let Las Iguanas win.
Author: Emily Gibson
Emily is an urban adventurer, blogger and
glutton foodie on an epic quest to uncover the best things to eat, drink and do in London. She lives in Islington and loves ceviche, cycling and magic shows. Lifelong nemeses include beetroot, beards and wine served in tumblers.