Modern dining, ancient techniques is how they’ve pitched the new venture Smoke & Salt, from chefs Remi Williams and Aaron Webster. Ancient. I love it. So solemn and grand. Like the front for an Illuminati operation. Like something said in the voice of the film trailer guy.
It’s even more secret society-like for being hidden away upstairs at Islington’s Chapel Bar, where Webster and Williams have taken over a floor and balcony for their one-year residency. But Smoke & Salt turns out not to be remotely solemn. The 30 cover room feels warm, friendly, like your cool friends’ wedding where you might not know all the guests yet, but it’s just a matter of wine.
And speaking of wine. Drinks are provided by the Chapel Bar, so they run to a handful of well-chosen bottles, not fiercely expensive (£23 for the Borgo Sanleo house red), beers from the local Hammerton Brewery by the bottle and cocktails that we didn’t explore thoroughly enough. If the Pink Rabbit – with its gin and ginger hit – is anything to go by, then they’re lovelier and less saccharine than they sound on paper.
Despite the ancientness of the techniques – which we learn are mostly smoking, curing, pickling, along with an emphasis on no wastage – this is still, you know, urban millennial at heart. Meaning it’s a fixed-term residency so, like all of London’s under-40s, has no certain way of knowing where it’ll be in a year’s time. If you’re going to build a lifelong love from this it’ll have to be with the chefs or the concept or maybe the bread – puffy, Guinness-glazed knots, served with whipped olive oil butter – rather than the place.
Film trailer voice guy is still sounding in my head, but that’s less to do with ancient solemnity now and more the epic nature of what Williams and Webster are doing with those ancient techniques. Before the actual, designated starters arrive we’ve already worked our way through a series of increasingly lovely snacks. Best among them the thyme panelle (crispy, light discs of chickpea batter), and radishes served with schmaltz, much more delicate here than you’d imagine salty, rendered chicken fat in the Ashkenazi tradition could ever be.
Tough to find a way to make the real starters feel like a step up from there, but they manage it with a but-not-as-you-know-it BLT (a dish Webster confides they’ve spent two years dreaming of and honing before it reached a menu) – ricotta cavatelli, in bacon dashi, with raw, warmed tomatoes and crisp nuggets of bacon. The cavatelli are a perfect amount of chewy. The bacon dashi’s proof that there should be more bacon dashi, everywhere. This might be my favourite of the many courses (main courses, surprise courses, desserts and petits-fours) that come next. Nearly tipping the balance is the spring lamb main course – for the tenderness of the lamb, for the neon forcefulness of the green garlic sauce, and for the pickled okra. For my guest it’s the grapefruit curd dessert, bits of pound cake crumbled into it.
It’s not as busy at Smoke & Salt as it should be, although a mix of candlelight, good music and the easy charm of everybody working there means it never feels subdued. It’s probably not an Illuminati front, although it’s hard to know for certain: I do feel a strange kinship with everybody who already knows the importance of their pickled okra, or the BLT pasta. And a strong urge to induct everybody who hasn’t been yet into the brotherhood as well.
We have been led to believe that the ancient techniques are to be performed by trained chefs only, not punters. So neither Williams or Webster get subjected to that most traditional of techniques, of being knocked on the head and dragged back to my kitchen, to make me Guinness pretzels for all eternity. Instead we leave them to their kitchen, safe in the knowledge we know where to track them down, at least for the next eleven months.
In extreme film trailer guy voice: The Clock’s Ticking.
Smoke & Salt is open for dinner from Mondays to Thursdays, 6pm to 10pm and for brunch and on Sundays for brunch and lunch from 11am to 4pm
Smoke & Salt: Upstairs at the Chapel Bar, 29, Penton Street, N1 9PX. 07421 327556. Website.