Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Rivington Grill

My first visit to Rivington Grill, about five years ago, was memorable for all the wrong reasons. It was not long after the place had opened - to rave reviews - and a fashion-savvy, early-adopter girlfriend had booked a large table for Saturday lunch to celebrate her birthday.

It should have been an exciting opportunity to try out the coolest new place in town - Shoreditch was still very underground in those days - but alas I had tried out rather too many of the uncool places in town the night before, drunk myself rotten, made it to the restaurant only by the grace of God and four Nurofen, and was feeling absolutely fetid.

A 'medicinal' Bloody Mary did me no good at all and it is with shame and regret that I remember to this day my starter of braised calf's cheeks and beetroot shoots coming back up looking pretty much unchanged from when it had gone down. Given that at the time the head honcho in the kitchen was none other than cooking deity Mark Hix, this less-than-favourable emetic reaction to the food was akin to blaspheming in church. Rivington and I did not get off to the best of starts.

Fast forward to summer 2009 and Rivington and I have reacquainted ourselves; I now work in no-longer-as-cool-as-it-was Shoreditch and my bestie Kate lives in so-hip-it-hurts Dalston, so it's handy for both of us and we've paid two visits recently, the second because the first was so damn good. Mark Hix may have moved on (to set up on his own just round the corner, so there's no danger of him taking revenge for the calf's cheeks debacle) but his signature style of simple cooking of seasonal, local ingredients is indelibly stamped on the Rivington's menu.

On visit one, I was delighted to see gull's eggs with celery salt and mayonnaise on the starters as I'm a complete egg addict and had been dying to try this variety, new to me but very much a late-Spring delicacy. I wasn't disappointed; the large-ish egg had a distinctive, rich flavour and unctuous creamy consistency that amply demonstrated what the fuss (and price - £5.50 per egg) was all about.

On our next visit I opted for the delicious-sounding chilled beetroot soup with horseradish cream; velvety-smooth and slightly-sweet - my guess would be that chicken stock is used - it was a light, refreshing earthy delight. Kate liked her first course of Evesham Beetroot and St. Tola goat's cheese salad so much the first time that she had it again on the second, on both occasions pronouncing herself very pleased with it, particularly the tangy freshness of the cheese.

Main courses offer a wide variety of meat and fish dishes (nothing for vegetarians I note, but that's not for here) and of the four we tried over our two dinners, three were excellent. I loved the breaded rose veal with mushrooms and wilted nettles, the huge, finger-thick escalope eating wonderfully with the tiny ceps and herby leaves; Kate was similarly enthusiastic about her dived Lyme Bay scallops with wild garlic and bacon, both dishes politely allowing the main ingredient to shine with the imaginative accompaniments simply adding polish.

Grilled lemon sole with sea purslane and brown shrimp butter was equally good, the excellent - and substantial - fish swimming along most agreeably with the salty, fleshy herbs. The only slight disappointment was the Barnsley lamb chop with kidneys and bubble and squeak; the generously proportioned and undoubtedly well-sourced chop was sadly not well-sauced, crying out as it was for say some redcurrant or mint jelly, neither of which the kitchen was able to provide. This isn't to say that the dish was at all bad; it just wasn't quite as good as the other three triumphs.

Despite the sheer size of the main courses (and my having successfully kept everything down), we nonetheless managed to sample the cheeses and desserts. Whereas some restaurants which generally do well on locality and seasonality can rather give up when it comes to puds, Rivington does not, and everything we tried made the very best use of the season's best fruits: gooseberry pie with Jersey cream, Eton Mess, and raspberry burnt cream (I love the fact that Rivington's Britishness extends even to eschewing the use of 'creme brule'). For me though, as a fromageophile (yep - totally made that one up) the real highlight was the cheese plate which as well as a lovely Gorwydd Caerphilly featured one of my personal favourites Harbourne Blue - a rare, pasteurised goat's milk blue which has all the punch but less of the saltiness of many cow's milk blues.

There's an excellent wine list starting at a very reasonable £15.00 and not going too dizzyingly high after that; it's French-biased but also offers a variety of New World choices to suit every palate and wallet. On our first visit we opted for a terrfic 2007 Picpoul de Pinet, a lovely off-dry fruity white and an undeservedly under-rated grape which I've been enjoying of late, and on our second we embraced the summer and picked the Berry's House Rose Vin de Pays de L'Aude, a complete bargain at fifteen quid and as good as you'd expect from anything Berry Bros would put their name to.

This very fair approach to pricing extends to the food too; prices are all absolutely reasonable to the extent that neither of our bills, both for three courses, wine and service, exceeded £100, unusual these days at this level of quality. Combine this with excellent service - just the right side of informal, unfussy and friendly - and truly stylish decor (there's a Tracey Emin neon on one wall for Chrissakes!) and you can see why this is still a hard-to-beat hit in a neighbourhood which, unlike when Rivington opened, now has a wealth of high-end fashionable restaurants for diners to choose from. I might once have been sick in Rivington Grill, but I'll certainly never be sick of it.

Rivington Grill & Bar, 28-30 Rivington Street, Shoreditch, London EC2A 3DZ Tel: 020 7729 7053

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