Upstairs at the Chapel Bar in Islington, the windows at Smoke & Salt overlook a terrace bedecked with pot plants and trellises. Beyond that, treetops and sky. It’s a luxury in London to find a place that feels so cocooned by nature.
Inside, the atmosphere is equally swaddling. The colour scheme is duck-egg blue, pale pink and gilt: part Gatsby, part Fortnums. There are burnished copper lights, art deco mirrors and heavy lined curtains. The only jarring note is the garden-style tables and chairs, which look a bit like the fold-up type you’d take on a picnic. A swanky picnic, perhaps for the Fourth of June, but a picnic nevertheless.
Their semi-permanence is presumably a nod to the temporary nature of Smoke & Salt, which will be in residency here for a year. The venture is the result of a collaboration between chefs Remi Williams and Aaron Webster, which started life as a pop-up. The two met working in the kitchen at The Shed at Notting Hill. They hope to offer modern dining using ancient techniques – smoking, salting, preserving. It’s all very chummy; one of their girlfriends is the maître d’.
On the day I visited, the pub downstairs was being used for choir practice. So instead of the usual clinks and guffaws of a bar, I was regaled up the stairs by the strains of a heavenly chorus. It felt somehow appropriate. For what will heaven be if not a charming room in North London, full of delicious food?
We started off with Guinness-glazed pretzels with whipped olive oil butter. They were warm and breast-firm – and dotted with salt. It was like a savoury Devonshire cream tea. Next up was a trio of salt-based snacks. The hot biltong, leathery and unapologetically meaty, was slightly redolent of BO – but in a good way. The chickpeas fritters were hot and crispy, but didn’t really taste of much, as is chickpeas’ wont. And some bar nuts, which were just bar nuts: always delicious and always unnecessary. This salty trinity puckered my tongue. As an exercise in selling more beer, it worked.
A small pasta dish with stock and spring vegetables was sweet and fresh with an umami tang lurking underneath. The vegetables were ripe and plump, and the stock, made with seaweed, had none of the clagginess which that might imply.
Spring lamb came with a pesto which slightly overpowered the delicacy of the meat. It arrived with Jerusalem artichokes, which complemented it perfectly although were slightly chewy after all that biltong. It was a beautiful plate: all pink and green, the prettiest colour combination.
Pudding was pink grapefruit with elderflower yogurt and pound cake. It was phenomenally acidic and sugary, like a grown-up version of one of those ‘Toxic Waste’ sweets. The cake had a hint of school pudding to it, before a trio of cookies brought texture to the end of the meal.
This is cooking with passion and a lot of promise. The five-course tasting menu is only £38 a head, which for food of this freshness and calibre is quite something. They could do with ducking away from the ‘ancient techniques’ gimmick though: they don’t need it. In a room this dreamy, and with food this fine, there’s nothing to hide from in the modern.