With masses of information available to us at a click, very few things remain a surprise nowadays. If you want to see a film, for example, chances are you’ve read a review, seen the trailer or discussed it with someone who’s seen it. You’ve unconsciously formed an opinion, which accompanies you into the cinema and hangs over you for part, or all, of the experience.
The same can be said of restaurants, where you sometimes hand over your objectivity with your coat on entry. Like most food writers, I keep a list of places that have piqued my interest. By the time I take my first bite, my eyes and ears will have been exposed to many juicy details.
But there’s always an exception to the rule, which, for me, was James Cochran EC3. His food has charmed critics, many of whose reviews were published after my visit. So when my fellow food lovers Shona and Georgie suggested it for dinner, I was clueless about his culinary prowess, but willing to take my taste buds into uncharted territory.
If you don’t know James Cochran from John Smith, let me enlighten you. His first solo venture follows a three-year stint at The Ledbury then two at gourmet gastropub The Harwood Arms. There’s also his pop-up as part of B.Y.O.C (Bring Your Own Cocktail). Food-wise, James Cochran EC3 brings his fine dining past and Jamaican/Scottish heritage into his adventurous present.
Running early allows me to observe my environment at leisure with a glass of Berry Bros’ Good Ordinary Claret in hand. The bar, which overlooks the restaurant, is a work in progress ahead of its official launch the following day. Although fully kitted out, the plain white walls and oak flooring have all the personality of a nondescript hotel bar.
Character comes in the form of bar manager Ade, whose company keeps me entertained until the girls arrive. The stark look continues in the restaurant, where white leather banquettes and armchair-style black seats on wooden legs are wrapped around enormous round tables. Then you clock eyes on the artwork, all dark tones and fluid lines: open-mouthed lions hovering over a naked woman’s breasts; long-haired sirens in sensual poses; and a panting animal.
The menus arrive. This being the day after Valentine’s Day, only two tasting menus are on offer: 5 courses for £35 or 7 for £55. As the kitchen has accommodated our request for James’ signature Jamaican jerk buttermilk chicken, we rein ourselves in and pick the former, together with a bottle of Claret.
For many years, I actively avoided oysters because I didn’t appreciate their flavour and texture. My palate has slowly overcome this, and the Whitstable rock oyster with horseradish and apple doesn’t reverse the trend. The three oysters, perched on a pebble-laden, midnight blue plate, taste “clean”, with only the slightest salty note at the end. Sadly, the other ingredients are too delicate and get lost along the way.
Two fleshy slices of treacle-cured salmon follow. Dotted around the perimeter are whiskey and apple jelly, whipped cod roe, a small carrot, halved and garnished with slivers of radish. The fish is seductively smooth, as is the sweet jelly, which dissolves like a schoolgirl meeting her boyband crush in your mouth. The crunchy vegetables makes sense in theory, but aren’t essential in reality.
Few staple ingredients can elevate a plate of food like an egg yolk; its rich, golden liquid coats everything in its path, bestowing on it a touch of luxury. Here, it sits proudly in confit form on a roasted breast of quail, wild mushrooms and buckwheat. What a triumphant creation: deep, hearty flavours which hug you from the inside and trigger memories of lazy winter evenings by the fire. No matter if I can’t see or taste the advertised hay.
Fried chicken frenzy seems to have gripped the capital, bypassing me completely. Until now, because now I get it. The exterior is crispy and remains surprisingly so through to the last bite. Crisp gives way to soft meat then heat from the sweet chutney, which slowly ignites before bursting into flames. And yet it’s a comfortable level of chilli, the fieriness of the Scotch bonnet calmed by fresh coriander.
This is a tough act to follow, but the haunch and braise of venison hold their own. Pink-centred chunks of meat are piled on a sharing platter with their braised equivalent, beetroot slices, cubes of pressed potato and smoked crème fraîche.
Top marks for the meat, with a personal preference for the rare version, and the crème fraiche: an utter revelation. Its smoky tones and silky texture temporarily confuse you while you interpret it. The accompaniments work well with the ensemble, although our portion of potato is minuscule compared to our neighbours’: one cube per person instead of a bowl. On querying this, we’re told this is because we ordered last and the kitchen miscalculated the servings earlier in the evening. We’re promised chips: none arrive.
The finale is chocolate tart with cream cheese ice-cream: a curious combination which successfully completes the meal. As the chocolate becomes too intense, a tiny spoonful of the luscious ice-cream softens the flavour before you’re ready to build it up again.
While the food is glorious, the service leaves a lot to be desired: we repeatedly top up our own glasses and the empty bottle is removed without the offer of another; dishes are brought to the table and left unexplained; front of house is all new and unsure of the ingredients; and the only manager on duty oversees the bar, not the restaurant. In spite of this, the food is almost flawless and fantastic value for money. Consider me a fried chicken convert.
Budget: £57 (including service and wine; excluding one portion of venison for service issues).