Mayfields is a restaurant that’s going places. But for now its intelligent cooking is still a strictly local affair
52 Wilton Way, London E8 (020 7254 8311). Meal for two, including drinks and service: £90
Is there a more knowingly masculine dish description than “ox heart and pickle”? You can practically smell the Ralgex rising from the words. It bellows: “This is man food.” There is the offal element, of course, but not just any offal. It’s OX offal, which sounds so much harder than just beef. It’s the Vinnie Jones of cuts. It demands teeth. Plus, there’s pickle. Men eat pickle. They purse their lips as the vinegar hits the back of their throats and chase it down with warm beer. If you put a pair of sentient testicles in chef’s whites and gave them free run of a kitchen, this surely is the dish they would cook.
Except at Mayfields – when the plate of ox heart and pickle turns up it isn’t anything like that at all. It’s delicate and precise and, well, feminine. There are the thin, soft slices of heart, cooked with searing heat as if it were the very best fillet so that inside it is still life-blood pink. Nothing there to challenge old teeth like mine. It is seasoned liberally outside with cracked black pepper so that it tastes like the very best steak au poivre. And the pickle? It’s a couple of thin, circular crunchy slices of crimson “watermelon” radish. Suddenly the dish has a Japanese aspect. There is the earthiness of animal and the brightness of radish and the occasional prod of crushed black pepper.
That one dish sums up the joy of Mayfields, located oddly on a residential street a little way north of London Fields in Hackney. I went, uneasily, on a recommendation. The short, changing menus I could see online were the usual ingredient lucky dip. They were that restless thing called modern British, which generally means: “I can do what I like.” I expected this to be a reprise of my review from Peckham a month or two back, in which I celebrated the arrival of nice unshowy things to eat in unlikely places. And it does look like one of those restaurants: a brightly lit, utilitarian box, the only design feature being bits of pine nailed to the back wall on the vertical, as if there had been an explosion in an Ikea warehouse. The tables are tiny, as in designed for Warwick Davis rather than a waxed Wookiee like me.
We were given a speech about theirs being a menu of small plates, and how the kitchen would send them out in the order they were completed, as if we were there for its benefit rather than the other way round. We muttered about the indignities of London restaurants. And then the food began to arrive.
First, a transparent chicken broth of a power that would make any Jewish mother quietly dab at a moist eye (if it weren’t for the slice of serrano-like ham, the fat melting into the liquor). There was a crystal clarity to the soup, followed by a stickiness on the lips that spoke of a long-simmered carcass. It had a whiff of the antibiotic and nurturing. In the depths was a slow-cooked egg, its yolk a jelly that held together when you got to work with your spoon. There were pieces of chicken and, cut in exactly the same way, slices of the mushroom “hen of the woods”. And if you want to know why it’s called that, eat it in a bowl of chicken soup, alongside chicken. They are textural twins.
There was that ox heart. There was a pearly tranche of turbot served skin upwards so it was still crisp, with a dollop of sweet musky carrot purée, chargrilled slices of courgette and deep-fried sage leaves. There was both the breast and leg of a grouse, of a colour that suggested it had only been vaguely introduced to fire, alongside the sweet-sour punch of hibiscus and grape. Best of all was a potato soup, the colour and texture of well-mixed wallpaper paste. Across the top had been grated black dried mushroom. You dipped through the Tarmac surface to find, beneath, pieces of smoked eel, some of which had clearly melted away into the soup. It was salt and fish and smoke and a savouriness powering through the deeply elemental comfort of blitzed potato. It was that one flavour and all of them at the same time. It was a dish to sit over, head tipped on one side, and stare quietly as you spooned it away, leaving only a sense of loss at its consumption.
Of the savoury dishes, only smoked tuna with a red cabbage granita didn’t work. There are reasons we don’t smoke tuna in the way we do salmon; the flavour is just too delicate and well mannered. It becomes less itself rather than more so. The granita lacked acidity. But even this misfire only served to point up the poise and good taste of what had gone before.
We finished with a tidy pile of ricotta dressed with honey, hazelnuts and fresh figs, which was the small virtue of good things hanging out with each other. Much showier was a deep, fruity Valrhona chocolate mousse, served warm from a nitrous gun, with a texture somewhere between a dreaded foam and whipped cream, the surface sprinkled with salt. Like the potato-eel combo, the last stains needed to be chased from the bowl, and when the spoon had done its work one fat finger had to be pressed into service. To do anything other would have been wrong.
And the price for this brilliant display of intelligent cooking? Chalk it up under damn reasonable. A fiver for the ox cheek dish, double that for the potato and smoked eel soup, £11 for what amounts to half a grouse and £12.50 for the turbot. Which is what you can do when there are just two cooks in the kitchen, working their arses off. (Incidentally, the head chef, Matthew Young, previously of Wapping Food, was off the night we were there; he can rest assured that his kitchen was in good hands.)
The short wine list opens in the high teens and never gets far beyond double that. The cliché would be to describe Mayfields as a neighbourhood restaurant. And yes, it is in a neighbourhood, but it’s so much more than that. I imagine that, in years to come, all the people involved here will go on to much bigger things. I doubt, though, that any of those things will ever be quite as exciting as Mayfields.
For more innovative cooking in an unexpected location try The Milestone. A gastro pub, it is located in a warehouse area of Sheffield where glass in the windows is optional. It’s also the place for pickled Yorkshire beetroot with goat’s cheese panna cotta and sea bass with aubergine and white anchovy. There is whimsy here, but also an understanding of the need to feed the appetite (the-milestone.co.uk; 0114 272 8327).
Coming soon: Andrew Pern, of the much-loved Starr Inn at Harome, is kicking the mud off his boots with the 22 October opening of the Star Inn The City in York’s Museum Gardens. Pern was one of the first chefs to put big-fisted, quality cooking into a gussied-up pub environment. He serves the likes of Whitby hake with brown shrimps and lamb suet pudding with sweetbreads. Expect more of the same plus all-day dining (starinnthecity.co.uk).
Things I want to be eating right now: six-hour bacon ribs at the Foxlow on London’s St John Street, the new venture from the glossy Hawksmoor steakhouse group. Pity it doesn’t open until 14 November (foxlow.co.uk).
Email Jay at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Jay on Twitter @jayrayner1
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