Have you heard of the cave scene? No, it’s not not an obscure sexual kink, nor a spelunking society. It is, in fact, the new big thing in eating and drinking.
It’s essentially a bunch of hip young restaurateurs and oenophiles reclaiming the term “wine bar”, which had been tarnished by memories of 1980s couples in power suits sitting under neon lights sipping glasses of Blue Nun.
It combines the food and aesthetics of Every Restaurant Since 2010 – modern European, sharing concept, exposed brickwork, Edison bulbs, sustainability, hyper local, etcetera, etcetera – with a passion for lesser-known wine labels, especially those of an organic or biodynamic persuasion. It’s come to be defined by Clapton’s P Franco, which has been around since 2014 but has become a hugely influential force in the last 18 months. A veritable who’s who of cooks have passed through its bijou kitchen, and it’s known as a real chefs’ favourite.
Its spiritual siblings include Sager + Wilde, 40 Maltby Street, and now Forest Bar + Kitchen, the latter of which I’m about to grudgingly recommend.
You see, on the one hand, it’s a brilliant little place that deserves all the praise I can heap upon it. But on the other, I don’t want you to know about it. You see, it’s round the corner from my flat near Blackhorse Road, an area that was until recently – and to a large extent still is – a sprawling, low-rise commercial wasteland. But in the last year it’s got a hipster coffee shop (you should hear what the libs are whispering about in there!) and now this snazzy little wine bar with an improbably well thought-out and well executed menu.
So while I want it to do well, I also want to be able to walk in on a Friday night, be greeted by the waitress who reminds me of a character from a Belle and Sebastian song, and get a seat at the table. That’s table, singular. There is only one table here so there is no room for you. Admittedly it’s a pretty big table. And there are some window seats. Probably space for 25 people, tops, although if they all ordered food at the same time the bloke in the kitchen, which is about the size of an overturned washing machine, would keel over. And that would be a shame, because he’s very good.
It started life as Forest Wines – which is still there – a little shop with a wine selection far too good for what is, I reiterate, still a fairly grotty area, that was selling organic and biodynamic wine long before it was cool. Owners Jana and Ali Postulkova flirted with opening a restaurant in Lisbon before, in a wonderful piece of sideways gentrification, the estate agent next door came up for rent. An estate agent departed and a nice restaurant took its place; two birds with one beautiful stone. The husband and wife teamed up with young chef Nico Salzano, who ran supper clubs at Clapton’s Palm 2, and Forest Bar + Kitchen was born.
More than anywhere I’ve been this year, it feels like a labour of love (and no doubt it genuinely is: nobody opens a restaurant in Blackhorse Road in the hopes of getting filthy rich). The menu changes weekly – nothing on today was there the week before – with the nimble, nine-dish list consisting of some very good sharing fodder. I had an excellent radicchio salad with hazelnuts and honey mustard, a really nicely cooked braised cider rabbit leg – a difficult thing to get right, with a tendency to dry out if you don’t watch it like a hawk – and a bowl of roasted chestnut squash that made me feel, for the first time this year, like Christmas is coming and that perhaps everything is going to be alright.
That night the wine board listed three beaujolais for sale by the glass, all of which I enjoyed while El Pye sipped on something organic and sparkling that looked like the product of a urine infection.
I went back for Sunday brunch, when the menu was filled with such wonders as scallops and bacon on brioche, scrambled eggs with smoked eel, and wild mushrooms on focaccia, and quite frankly I think I’m ever so slightly in love with this place. At the moment it’s only open Wednesday-Sunday, which I’m frankly livid about.
Aside from being a great place in its own right, Forest Bar + Kitchen represents something genuinely exciting in the London restaurant scene. Ten or 15 years ago, somewhere this good would have opened in Shoreditch or Notting Hill. Today, rents are so high they’re being pushed into more… unloved areas. Blackhorse Road welcomes them all with open arms.