I’m ambivalent about pop-ups. I want to like them, to buy into the democratisation of the food business, to support the little guy who isn’t propped up by hedge-funds or millionaire parents.
But my god, they can be terrible places to eat. I’m haunted by memories of burgers that seemed destined to never arrive at MeatLiquor, back when it lived in a draughty, condemned building in New Cross, or huddling for warmth around a limp taco at Box Park, or gagging on cartilage whilst admiring a drag queen’s scrotum at Pale Blue Door.
When they’re done properly, though – that one time in 100, or 1,000, or 1,000,000 – it can be a wonderful thing, a celebration of the simple, animalistic joy of putting something in your mouth, chewing and swallowing it, without the distraction of expensive crockery or decent furniture or a roof.
We hit peak pop-up a couple of years ago, back in the days when you didn’t dare leave your flat for fear someone would covertly install a clay oven and start trying to flog you authentic sourdough pizza from your airing cupboard.
Now the one in 100, or 1,000, or 1,000,000 young chefs who made their pop-ups work, the guys who dreamed up things like Smokestak and Som Saa, are moving into real buildings with street addresses and central heating and everything. Thank god.
The latest is Kricket, an Indian-ish venture that began life as one of the shipping containers at Pop Brixton, where it became instantly, wildly successful, to the point where Bloomberg called it London’s best new restaurant, even though it was in a stupid metal box. Chef-founder Will Bowlby spent a couple of years cooking in Mumbai, although his menu is more a homage to Indian cuisine – a “modern memoir” of his time there, he says – than a direct translation. And while it’s a bit weird sitting at the open-kitchen watching 10 white guys bashing out haleem and kheer, it’s all so well put together that you soon forget.
We arrived late thanks to El Pye having a broken leg and it being Chinese New Year and our cab having to plough straight over dozens of tourists standing around eating dim sum in the middle of the road. The front of house guy was unimpressed, banishing us to the downstairs bar before immediately leading us back up again, causing El Pye to clatter her crutches around ostentatiously.
He turned out to be co-founder Rik Campbell, and went on to ruin my anecdote by being a nice guy, seemingly as surprised as anyone that Kricket has been such a hit, but smart enough to know he’s onto something pretty special.
Those who have been to the shipping container will spot a handful of new dishes but most of the menu – sharing plates, natch – will be familiar. There’s the outstanding goat raan – literally “leg” – the closest to a traditional curry on the menu, smoky and intense, sweetened with almond and cinnamon but still carrying the unmistakeable, beguiling whiff of the farmyard. And there’s the Kerelan fried chicken, which appears to owe more to the Deep South than it does the subcontinent, with only the curry mayo and pickled daikon separating it from the best chicken bucket you ever ate.
I never turn down pakora after having lived in Glasgow, where they’re sold in virtually every chip shop, alongside the battered sausages; fist-sized balls of batter, dyed a toxic shade of red or orange, sweating puddles of oil behind the glass. Kricket’s samphire pakoras are a distant relative, twice removed, not even on the Christmas card list – they come in a messy tangle, lightly spiced, naturally salty, bloody lovely.
Kichri – an unusual spelling of khichdi, which we bastardise to the more easily pronounceable kedgeree – comes with a quivering, raw egg yolk ready to skewer; it’s perfectly serviceable but left me kicking myself for not ordering the pumpkin with paneer or the duck leg roll or the lamb haleem. This is a menu guaranteed to leave you besides yourself with FOMO, desperate to return for whatever you couldn’t squeeze in the first time.
What an amazing position to be in for two restaurateurs who haven’t even turned 30. What a pair of utter bastards.
So many new openings sing from the same hymn sheet: blah blah blah sustainability blah blah British ingredients blah blah blah sharing concept blah blah blah blah blah really expensive cocktails blah blah. Kricket ticks all these boxes and still manages to feel new and distinct and exciting, and if we’re not talking about it as one of the restaurants of the year come December, I’ll be gob-smacked.
First published in City A.M.