The Barge House is adorable. To get to it, you have to walk down the Regent’s Canal tow-path between Hoxton and Haggerston, where old Victorian warehouses rise indomitably out of the water, all of them now home to design studios and craft breweries. It’s been open since November but nobody noticed because the only reason you’d venture down to the canal during the winter is if you had to dispose of a body.
At this time of year, though, it’s one of the loveliest places in this great city of ours, the London you describe to your friends who live in places where canals are just bilious strips of water used to store shopping trollies.
The Barge House has tables along the waterside and a bright, high dining room with an open-plan kitchen. Being in Hackney, it is of course a multi-purpose venue, with a club/workshop/commercial space out the back (apparently DJ and producer Andy Weatherall is a fan).
And for somewhere this close to the epicentre of East End hipsterville, it’s refreshingly relaxed, the kind of place where the chef marches through the dining room with armfuls of vegetables and the staff roll ciggies at empty tables.
The first time I visited was on a baking-hot Saturday afternoon when Regent’s Canal was so busy it looked like an aquatic Oxford Street. By the time we got a table we’d missed the lunch service and had to wait around for an hour, which was especially galling as we missed something called “Breakfast in Bread”, a dish consisting of a full English swimming inside a hollowed-out baked loaf.
In the end we shared a very nice dorset crab – ostensibly worth the wait, although I could have eaten a shoe by that stage and still enjoyed it. Anyway, it was enough to persuade me to book a table for dinner later in the week.
It looks very different on a wet Thursday evening, but pretty nonetheless; maybe even more so in a melancholy, Morrissey sort of way (or maybe that’s just the vibe they were channelling by playing the Smiths for most of the night).
I started with a bowl of hot borscht, which we don’t see enough of on menus in London. Very good it was too – rich and sweet, topped with a fine dollop of sour cream. El Pye had an oversized crostini with oyster mushrooms and enough cheese to drown a man; there’s no way to combine those elements that isn’t delicious.
Next I had cod with pea and mint puree, which consisted of three rather weedy fillets that lacked the satisfyingly gummy heft of a good slab of cod (I ordered from the specials menu, so there’s a good chance it was the last few bits that needed using up). Still, they were nicely cooked, with a hint of rosemary and cumin, and the pea puree was a reminder that it is in fact May, despite all the evidence to the contrary. El Pye had “cauliflower steak” (a cross-section of fried cauliflower) served on a soup of cauliflower puree and pesto; with this much cauliflower (and yes I realise I’ve now used the word cauliflower five times in the same sentence) they could really have done with being a little more adventurous with the seasoning.
We shared a tiramisu, which I think was pretty good, although we were two bottles of Malbec the merrier by this stage (blame the maitre d’/manager/owner – she’s very persuasive). The cheese was nice enough but overpriced at £9.50.
There’s something about The Barge House that makes it more than the sum of its parts; a rare, slightly chaotic charm, like eating at your mad auntie’s house. I’ll certainly be going back, if only to try that Breakfast in Bread.
First published in City A.M.