Review: Native

September 3, 2018

Last month I wrote about how Covent Garden is changing from a bunch of fancy shops to an all-singing, all-dancing billionaire’s paradise, complete with luxury flats and restaurants like Petersham Nurseries, where you can drop £200 before you’ve even glanced at a wine list.

In a fortuitous segue, this month I’m writing about Native, a restaurant where the prices are almost unreasonably reasonable, and which was unceremoniously evicted from Neal’s Yard earlier this year.

I ate there when it first opened back in 2016. It was a rickety white box with a postage stamp-sized kitchen upstairs and a dinky dining room downstairs and funny little dots li•ke th•is in its name. I loved it. It was the evolution of a successful supper-club, with a focus on foraged ingredients and zero waste, and the result was so sincere, so earnest, so puppy-eyed that it would have approached self-parody had it not been so damned good.

So when I saw it had opened in Southwark, I thought, ‘Good on you, chaps, you deserve a second restaurant’. Only it isn’t a second restaurant – they got kicked out of Neal’s Yard because the poor residents thought there were too many restaurants in the vicinity. The vicinity, to be clear, being right in the middle of central London.

Appropriately for a place that always felt slightly cobbled together, Native’s planning permission was temporary, and their attempt to make it permanent was blocked. This astonishes me because I would murder a relative to have a place like Native near my flat, so I dug out the public records to find out what was up.

“Neal’s Yard is like a coral reef,” wrote one resident. “It’s a very delicate ecosystem and to preserve it, it needs to be kept in balance. If the reef dies then it can’t be recreated – it’s gone forever.” Nothing, as we know from David Attenborough documentaries, kills a coral reef like fallow deer, caramelised cauliflower and carrots.

Another resident vowed not to “sit back and do nothing while restaurants take over like an invading army of ants.” Please join me in crying a collective river for these poor people with their flats in Neal’s Yard being invaded by nice little restaurants, although I suppose if they don’t like it they could always sell-up and buy, say, a small African nation with the proceeds. You know, if they wanted to.

All of which brings me to Native’s new venue in Southwark, which I’m pleased to report is just as ramshackle, just as held together by hopes and dreams and sellotape, as the last one, albeit about five times the size. The tables are homemade. The waiting staff were drafted in to do the paint job. A weird corridor leading to the toilets is made out of MDF.

And the food? It’s still great. Three courses plus snacks will set you back a measly £42, or it’s £65 for the tasting menu. It starts with a selection of “wasting snacks” made from off-cuts of other dishes, because of course it does. There’s confit pigeon leg on crispy slivers of potato skin; a kind of mushroom ragu with cured egg yolk; a salt cod brandade on a little cracker. All very nice.

There’s a ridiculously tasty bowl of fermented tomatoes, salsa verde, soft cheese and “yesterday’s bread”, which is a strong argument for just sticking excellent ingredients in a bowl and not messing about with them. There’s a little rectangle of cod in a puddle of brown butter that’s exactly as delicious as that sounds, served with a quenelle of parsnip puree so soft and velvety I want to make it into a pillow.

Mackerel, an obligatory inclusion on every menu right now, comes with fish-bone caramel – fish-bone caramel for god’s sake – and whey foam and feels like a polite reminder from the kitchen that they can do proper haute cuisine, although the skin could have done with being a little more crisped.

Grouse – a staple here – comes in three mini portions: a buttermilk-fried leg complete with withered, blackened claw, more morsel than dish; diced, smoked heart in a dashi broth, which was an unexpected highlight; and a precise sliver of breast with a strange, chewy and not entirely successful spin on black pudding.

This is followed by some completely off the wall desserts, one mashing together white chocolate and bone marrow, another sticking some wood ants in a pineapple weed granita. I’m not sure the ants add a great deal, but I’d certainly return for the meadowsweet and sunflower seed cake, which is about a million times better than it sounds.

Native is a cracking little restaurant, a labour of love that’s mad enough to be interesting but sane enough to be good. And now, thanks to the residents of Neal’s Yard, it’s only a 10 minute walk from my office.