We can afford to be discerning about things, us Londoners, what with all the lovely London stuff we have, Londoning the place up. “Isn’t everything here great compared to the things in places that aren’t London?” we say to each other, smiling and knowing it to be true.
Take restaurants: we have heaps of them, some containing the world’s best chefs, all cooking their little chef hearts out for us every night of the week. What a time to be alive! The flip-side is, for a new restaurant to get noticed, it doesn’t only have to be good: it has to be brilliant. A place could be an all-star, blockbuster restaurant in Peterborough but go completely unnoticed in Camberwell.
I suspect Galley, a new seafood restaurant on Islington’s Upper Street, would be a massive hit in Peterborough. People would queue for weeks just to peer through its windows. They’d pay to deliver its post, just so they could touch the letterbox. But in London? I’m not so sure.
Galley is owned by Polish brother/sister duo Marcel Grzyb and Oriona Robb, the former a chef most notable for his 10-year stint at Soho’s Randall & Aubin, and the latter best known as a fashion stylist. Robb is responsible for the visuals, and Galley is a nice looking venue. A mish-mash of fashion prints and paintings and framed feathers fill the walls. Seating consists of tables, green velvet banquettes and stools up against the open-kitchen.
The menu pings disconcertingly around the globe – Asian, Spanish, Italian, British – yet still manages to be rather predictable: tuna tartare with avocado and mango; salmon in a sticky Asian-style ginger dressing; octopus with chorizo. The dishes from closest to home tend to be best. Haddock and chips with pickled shallots was great: meaty fish in a light, delicate batter. John Dory with cauliflower puree and a striking yellow saffron and mussel sauce was perfectly nice. So was roasted hake with chorizo and chickpeas. And so was the lobster pappardelle (fellow diner Dario, an Italian, was particularly impressed with the pasta).
In fact, everything was nice. Here’s a review in list form.
• Crab crostini: nice.
• Tuna tartare: nice.
• Beef carpaccio: nice, although I’d like to have seen a little more beef.
• Salmon: nice, if ever-so-slightly overcooked, served with a nice tempura oyster.
• White chocolate panna cotta: nice. Actually, better than nice; beautifully presented with blackberries and fragments of honeycomb and petals and a little mound of passion fruit. It even got a thumbs-up from Dario, who says most places outside of Italy make a mess of panna cotta without even realising.
• Chocolate fondant: very nice, laced with amaretto and served with cherry compote and some nice vanilla ice cream.
There you have it: Galley is nice. It’s sometimes very nice. The cooking is nice and the service is nice and the décor is nice. It’s a nice place filled with nice people and I had a perfectly bloody nice time.
And yet it never quite managed to surpass nice; its dishes are too predictable to really capture the imagination, the cooking a fraction off the pace of a really top-class restaurant. In a city where we’re spoiled for great places to eat, sometimes nice isn’t quite enough (especially when the superlative Oldroyd is a short stroll down the road).
“Nice” also makes it difficult to fill 1,000 words. I can’t just type “nice, nice, nice”, file my copy and cash my pay cheque. People expect more. They deserve more.
So at 2pm yesterday afternoon I hauled myself to the closest new opening to our Fenchurch Street office, which happened to be the Galvin brothers’ new gastro-pub Hop. Nestled in the City A.M. heartland of Spital Square, in the shadow of the RBS building, it’s on the site of what used to be the Galvins’ wine bar Café à Vin (next door to their brasserie La Chapelle). It’s a sign of the times that a gastro-pub serving quality lager now seems more sophisticated than a wine bar.
A decade ago, at this time on a week-day, a pub here would have been filled with rowdy men with beer bellies and business suits debating whether or not to supplement their fourth pint with a pie or to man-up and forego food altogether. Yesterday, I was the only person enjoying the pilsner, which the barman told me is imported from the Czech Republic every week. Everyone else was drinking fizzy water. Someone had a toddler with them. That, right there, is progress.
A colleague had recommended the Gala Pie (a pork-pie with an egg in the middle to you and I) and God bless them for that. It was a glistening slab of minced pork, kidney and liver, cemented into water pastry with marmite and pork jelly, in the centre of which lies a slow-cooked egg the colour of success. If you order the “butcher board de luxe” you’ll also get a sausage roll, some sweet pickled onions, a scotch egg and some crisps. It’s like getting a top chef to cook for a children’s party.
The beef burger is unusual in this post-Meatliquor world, where patties are expected to be the size and shape of fists, as pink as internal organs and dripping with blood. Galvin’s is decidedly old-school: flat, cooked medium-rare, its over-riding taste being charcoal and relish. It’s like the platonic ideal that Burger King aspires towards; what the patties in its adverts would taste like if they weren’t made from plastic.
It’s all delicious: food that promises little and then over-delivers at every turn. From a menu that just looks plain old nice, Hop manages to create something pretty special. They should open a branch in Peterborough, it would blow their minds.
First published in City A.M.