Meat eaters don’t normally do salad, but Jay’s world is turned upside down by a plate of the green stuffNungwi Village
7a Tetherdown, London N10 (020 8411 0051). Meal for two £40 (if you try hard)
I went to Muswell Hill in north London for salad. This was not easy. There was a tube strike, which made my home as remote from other places in the capital as from the coastal extremities. There was a thick, cold rain, blowing sideways, which laughed at our umbrellas. There was a long walk, down one of those suburban arteries where greasy water pools in the gutters and pavements are so narrow they feel like an afterthought.
I did all this for salad. But oh, what salad. I know in theory that salad can be a marvellous thing just as I know that, in theory, it can be sunny in Wales and sometimes Mrs Brown’s Boys is funny. But understanding a theory is very different to experiencing it. Sure, I have a couple of salads I like to make. There is a combination of new potatoes with lots of salted anchovy, spring onions and a Dijon vinaigrette. There is a pepper salad which demands vast amounts of furious slicing until your arm aches and you start to fantasise about roasting lumps of pig.Nungwi Village
But I have never thought of these as recipes, with underlying principles that demand knowledge and wit. I have always slipped them into the column headed “assemblage” or, even more dismissively, “augmented shopping”. For me, making a salad has always been the thing you do after you’ve done the cooking. Then I dragged my sorry arse to Muswell Hill, met the salads made by Chris Kitch and understood that I was wrong.
Then again, Australian-born Kitch knows his way around a kitchen. After working for Gordon Ramsay on Royal Hospital Road he moved into grand hotels both here and abroad. At the Dorchester he had 200 cooks beneath him; at the Mayfair he ran the whole operation. Not that you would necessarily guess from his deli. It looks like a late addition; an extension to a house on a decidedly residential street. Milk crates pile up outside. Inside there are baby buggies. There are bare-brick walls and white walls.
But at the front there is the undulating curve of reconditioned butcher’s blocks, one of which is used for the display at the front of the shop. That’s the first clue. As an exercise in retail, in food as glitter-strewn cleavage, they really don’t come much better. There is height and volume and colour and blush. You stand before it and sigh, for you know this food, this shameless, sensory largesse, will make you feel very good about yourself.
At lunchtime – it currently closes at 6pm and is unlicensed – there are a couple of main dishes. Today there is a whole salmon, roasted over Chinese tea. It is smoky and soft and properly seasoned, and does that miraculous thing of holding together until nudged with a fork. There is also a picture-pretty beef lasagne made with the salty hit of feta and the earthier funk of proper cheddar and cherry tomatoes. A portion of these with two salads is £12.50. Two salads alone are £6.50, three salads £8.50. Lunch here will not make you poor. Somehow we contrive to order everything. I tell my companion I am doing this for work purposes. We both know this is an excuse.
What defines these salads is the attention to detail. There is a mixture of three beans with roasted and shredded onions and peppers and something else which at first I identify as cumin. It isn’t. It’s cinnamon. Would you put cinnamon into a salad dressing? No, you wouldn’t. And that’s the point. Kitch does things to salads that you would never think of doing at home.
A potato salad, with sliced gherkins and caramelised onions, appears to have been made with grain mustard, but has uncommon depth of flavour. Kitch, who arrives in the deli with his two-year-old daughter slumped asleep on his shoulder, explains eagerly: there are three mustards. First he roasts the mustard seeds, and then he mixes that with Dijon and then… but by now I am lost in the pleasures of lunch.
Slices of ripe avocado are served skin-on, so they cannot turn to mush, with the crunch of fresh almonds. There is a brisk pick-me-up salad of apple, fennel and cranberries with quinoa which feels less like a middle-class affectation and more like a textural masterstroke. Even something as straightforward as beetroot has a vivid citrus zest. Kitch macerates and marinades. His descriptions make salads sound more like stews than raw things piled on stoneware. Is everything equally good? No. How could it be? There is a mess of whole green beans, and another of courgettes with more grain, both of which are a little too rigid to be quite as enjoyable as the others. But it’s all relative.
A portion of their breads brings one made with the malt and bitterness of Guinness and the stink of blue cheese. There is another with fennel seeds, lemon and jasmine which tastes promisingly of spring.
And then on to the cakes which pout at you from the butcher’s block. For the sake of balance, both an apple cake and a pear cake are a little dry. I have to find something to niggle at. The same cannot be said for coffee and caramel with a little buttercream icing and a dribble of syrup. There is a chocolate gâteau with a ganache worthy of being licked straight off the plate. And then there is a flourless chocolate cake, which is all crisp shell and dark, dark squidge. We have eaten a lot. We find a way to finish it.
Finally, an understated touch of genius: we are brought a glass tumbler of hot water. Alongside is a wooden dish containing sliced oranges and lemons, thick wedges of fresh ginger and crushed stalks of lemongrass. There is a bowl of fennel seeds and a whole star anise and a saucer of honey. Oh, and a tea bag. You can refill the glass as many times as you like, all for £2.50. I pile in ginger and lemon and honey and a few other things and sit feeling warm and cared for.
It would be easy to mistake Chriskitch for a little neighbourhood deli. And, of course, it is that. But there is so much more going on here. Kitch hopes to get a licence and open a few evenings a week. There will be tasting menus. For now, come for the glorious salads. And if you’re surprised to see me write that, it’s nothing compared to how I’m feeling.
Jay’s news bites
■ Over Christmas sales of turkey fell (by 0.2%) as did those of beef (2.1%) and lamb (5.1%). But sales of pork rose by 1.9%. The reason? The price of all meats has been rising, whereas pork prices have been relatively stable and some of them have even dropped. That, and the realisation that pork is simply the finest of meats, of course.
■ Lucky Bath: Michelin-starred chef Martin Blunos is returning with a restaurant at the County Hotel. He’s promising a simpler menu of fish and seafood including lobster and chips (thecountyhotelbath.co.uk).
■ Much like Chris Kitch, Bob Parkinson is a top-flight chef – he worked at Terence Conran’s gastro palace Bibendum in London’s Fulham – with simpler ambitions. The result is Made by Bob, a deli-cum-restaurant in Cirencester with an eclectic menu of pan-Mediterranean comfort food. It’s the place for the best Spanish hand-cut hams, a classic fish soup, or the more complex pleasures of smoked haddock brandade with a poached egg and mustard dressing. And killer cakes, too (foodmadebybob.com).