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There’s never been a shortage of places to eat around Highbury Corner and along Upper Street. Earning the moniker “Supper Street” because of its bewilderingly high density of pubs and restaurants, the chain-heavy stretch that runs down to Angel has tended to value quality over quantity. But recently the area has made room for ventures from chefs and restaurateurs with some real clout in the culinary world – from the team behind The Wolseley to former chef director of the Polpo Group. Here, we digest the driving factors behind Upper Street’s gastronomical resurgence and the re-imagination of the “neighbourhood restaurant” as we kiss goodbye to the dodgy local curry house..
It all began with Trullo. Ever since opening back in June 2010, this Italian-inspired restaurant has made people sit up and take Islington’s culinary scene seriously. Jordan Freida and chef Tim Siadatan have created a “small menu showcasing what’s good right now and what’s been made today” based primarily around a charcoal grill and fresh pasta. The pappardelle with Italian sausage ragu is a must – warming and deeply satisfying, full of aromatic herbs, red wine and an intense pork flavour. Resembling a traditional trattoria, with its net curtains and white paper tablecloths, Trullo does inevitably draw comparisons with Freida’s alma mater, The River Café, in Hammersmith. However, the backdrop of St Paul’s Road brings with it a certain offhand sort of elegance that the River Thames simply does not. Describing the area as “a very ‘real’ neighbourhood” with a “really unique energy, accessibility and relevance in modern London,” Freida affirms that “we’re really proud that you can come here and have a good meal and a bottle of wine for £30 per head, and that will never change, so we get young and old, lavish and modest – exactly what a good neighbourhood restaurant should do!”
It was “the words of support and enthusiasm from friends Tim and Jordan at Trullo” that led Kate Mulligan Tiernan and her husband Lee Tiernan to transpose Black Axe Mangal from the beer garden of the Bakken nightclub in Copenhagen to just over the road from their pals. This unique eating place centres around a domed wood oven and charcoal grill – the Turkish ‘mangal’ – which serves up anything but the regrettable post-pub shish kebab. Former head chef at St John Bread and Wine in Spitalfields, Tiernan has come up with a confident menu of five flatbreads and eight sharing plates. It’s the kind of niche, singular take on cuisine that has come to define Soho in recent months (think Bao and Hoppers) – indeed, its no reservations policy, heavy metal soundtrack, kitsch floral-print oilcloths and graffiti tributes to Kiss suggest it could be a Soho-style gimmick. On the contrary, it’s a carefully considered antithesis to all that is bland, which unapologetically encapsulates someone’s passions and interests. The constant queue of people outside the non-descript exterior feels similarly sincere – people genuinely want to try the food. Black Axe Mangal offers a mind-blowing sensory experience, from the BAM G&T (gin, persimmon and anise tonic served with a tiki straw, naturally) to the sweet potato and black-chilli flatbread and the mission quail – a Szechaun spice mix of fiery, lip-numbing proportions championed by Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese in San Francisco and New York. As Tiernan’s wife and business partner, Kate, says of their decision to locate here, “this area is vibrant and diverse, it’s not trendy or contrived – it’s London at its best.”
In contrast, the pull towards Islington was initially a reluctant one for former chef director of the Polpo Group, Tom Oldroyd, when he was thinking about opening his first solo venture. “I love Soho. My career as a chef started in Soho and I barely left it for eight years, setting up some of the most talked about restaurants at the time. If I could have afforded the rent prices in Soho then maybe I would have thought about it a bit longer – but ultimately I would have come to the same conclusion. Oldroyd is far better suited to a neighbourhood largely populated with residents so that we can grow a real relationship with our diners.” This connection to the local customer is reflected in the arrangement of his eponymous restaurant: the dining room upstairs offers “bookable seating for the people who want to guarantee themselves a seat”, while the kitchen counter on the ground floor enables “local regulars to feel that they could pop in on the off chance for a table.” An unprepossessing space slotted between a kebab shop and convenience store, and sparsely decorated with navy walls and wooden tables, this small-scale space distinguishes itself at this end of Upper Street. Confident but not ostentatious, Oldroyd serves some delicious food in a straightforward, easy environment. The menu celebrates the simplicity and sincerity of Italian food, with references to Oldroyd’s other culinary loves, France and Spain. The fritto misto di mare undercut with a punchy sweet-sour blood orange; fist-sized lamb and almond meatballs on a rich, nutty salsa romanesco; and earthy mushroom croquettes with truffle aioli are must-have dishes.
Marcel Grzyb is another one who spent his formative years in Soho, as head chef of seafood restaurant Randall & Aubin. Fish and shellfish are unsurprisingly the guiding culinary principle of Galley, Gryzb’s 70-seater space just across from Oldroyd. Each dish is executed with a far-reaching range of influences – the starter of crisp Cornish squid with a fiery Japanese pepper sauce was masterfully balanced. The spiced lamb rack is one of few concessions to carnivores on the main menu – served with artichoke puree, sprouting broccoli, black-eyed beans and ragu of shoulder, it was deep, rich, soothing and hearty. Each dish is as impressively assembled as the restaurant itself, designed by Gryzb’s sister Oriona Robb. A former fashion stylist and makeup artist, Robb has created a positively swanky, affair – teal leather banquettes, orange-backed bar stools and a monochrome-striped ceiling. This is where Galley makes the most business sense, poised to embrace the onrush of young professionals set to take up residence in the numerous apartment blocks popping up in Highbury and Islington.
One for the area’s existing population of city slickers is Bellanger, the latest addition to the Corbin and King empire. Like its siblings The Wolseley, The Delaunay and Fischer’s, Bellanger is terrifically elegant and respectable. It occupies the site of the old Browns on Islington Green and is perhaps most emblematic of the way in which this area’s restaurant landscape is evolving, slowly supplanting lacklustre chains for something altogether more refined. The gorgeous 200-seater space celebrates the food and atmosphere of the grand brasseries you’d find in Alsace at the turn of the century. Wafer-thin Alsatian pizzas and tartes flambées topped with goat’s cheese and drizzled with honey are a great way to get in the spirit of things. Immerse yourself fully with gratin de ravioles au Royans, an indulgent dish of baked pasta layered with spinach and Emmental, or coq au Riesling – a lighter, tangier alternative to coq au vin. Bellanger is the kind of place that offers an accessible way of eating with formality and a sense of occasion. Despite its unique Alsatian angle, none of the food is especially revelatory, but you’ll be sure to have a damn fine time eating it.
The solo venture of chef Neil Rankin (formerly of Pitt Cue Co.), Smokehouse specialises in charring meat, but the design is far more sophisticated than you might expect, being lit with candles, decorated with antlers and boasting a garden festooned with fairy lights. This sense of refinement is emphasised by the Canonbury Road location, running parallel to Upper Street and bordering some of the area’s grandest squares. As you’d expect, the slow-cooked array of meat just falls away and melts in your mouth, but the real triumph is when the vegetarian stuff grabs a spot on the barbecue – starters of burnt leeks, hen’s egg and Portobello mushrooms, as well as gnocchi with smoked apple and burnt butter hollandaise are particular highlights. Smokehouse is a neighbourhood place striving to be just that little bit more, poised somewhere between a traditional boozer and a fine dining establishment. It’s where you’d meet a friend for a relaxed pint or two before progressing onto some good, interesting grub, while it’s understand charm make it a great one to have up your sleeve to impress a date.
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