Pop-ups: they’ve become a thing, haven’t they? If it’s not located in the loft of an abandoned Victorian insane asylum, it isn’t worth a second thought.
The Seagrass, on Chapel Market in Islington, “pops up” three nights a week inside a building that, during the day, happens to be a pie and mash café called M Manze. Of course, some people might quibble that a part time restaurant, located in a full-time cafe, isn’t so much a “pop-up” as, you know, a “restaurant”.
The venue is quietly stunning, packed with original Victorian fittings and fading, glazed tiles. Add some dim candle-light and you’re probably not far from how the place looked 100 years ago.
You can tell it’s informal dining when the waiter offers to shake your hand before he introduces the starters. The casual atmosphere goes some way to mitigating for the failings of Manze as an evening venue. The toilet, for instance, is unhelpfully situated on the far side of the kitchen. Restaurant kitchens aren’t the most pleasant of places at the best of times, and having to make eye-contact with the chef who is about to cook your dinner as you make your way to the crapper is far from ideal.
The church-style pews that serve as seats aren’t really suited to a leisurely meal, either, and I found myself squirming into increasingly uncomfortable positions in a bid to prevent the circulation in my buttocks from being cut off.
The food had to be pretty good to justify the extra inconvenience. And it was. I started with mussels, which, while hard to get wrong, didn’t disappoint. For the main, in a momentary lapse of reason, I opted for the crab, served with a hearty portion of chips and salad. It may be a fine crustacean but it’s hard to look graceful as you attempt to smash your way through its shell. My guest kindly looked the other way as I sprayed a glob of boiling hot crab meat onto my hand. When I finally got it into my mouth, though, it was divine. The tender cut of venison on her plate was even better.
The Seagrass does the important things right. The service is good, the food is decent and, when you account for the bring-your-own-bottle policy, it ends up being pretty reasonable, too. Over and above that, you feel like you’ve worked for your dinner; like the trips through the kitchen and the familiarity of the waiting staff somehow make you more than just another punter. You wouldn’t want to go every night, which is just as well, because you can’t: it’s a pop-up. Whatever that means.
First published in City A.M.