I hadn’t seen Hari since I had both hands, but we became re-acquainted via Facebook, where he posts prolifically about Eighties pop – Kate, Siouxsie, Madge – and his indestructible dog, Delius, a beautiful blue whippet. Since Hari is a purely north London phenomenon and I am strictly Sarf, I suggested that we meet on middle ground, round the back of King’s Cross, in the redeveloped bit I’d not been to yet, where Bruno Loubet has Grain Store, a vast restaurant in an old warehouse (that stored grain). I had been looking for an excuse to visit since it opened a couple of years ago.
Hari is a busy man, but gave me a couple of open windows in his hectic schedule, which I cross-referenced with Grain Store’s online booking system to secure a table for two at 13.30 on 24.11.15. They sent e-mail confirmation, a reminder on the day before, and phoned to check the reservation, too. Phew! I guess that’s the way they do things, these days, and it did turn out to be a rainy day, but I was surprised to see any vacant tables in what is a cavernous – but not necessarily carnivorous – space equipped with a long bar and a bustling open kitchen.
I go way back with Bruno Loubet, to the first feature I wrote in one of the early issues of seminal Eighties men’s mag, Arena: ‘Three Fresh Chefs’! One of the three was Marco Pierre White, then strutting his stuff at Harvey’s in Wandsworth; Bruno was another, then cooking at Raymond Blanc’s greenhouse restaurant in Oxford (was it called, The Greenhouse?) The third fresh chef was AngelaDwyer!
The same age as me, Bruno is a thoroughbred Haute Cuisinier. From the Médoc, with the claret birthmark of those born ‘under the kitchen table,’ his talent was spotted as a teenager and he attended a special High School for the gastronomically gifted. They do that in France. Loubet did his National Service in the Navy, where he was given an honorary officer’s rank so he could dodge all that tiresome drill and concentrate upon cooking for the Admiral’s table, commandeering a vehicle and driver to transport him to the markets in the early mornings while his fellow recruits were on parade. It may be no more than superstition to say that Monsieur Loubet is a natural born cook but, more than that, Bruno is a French Chef. Cuisine may be the claret the runs in his veins, but it is also an organising principle of the culture in which he was raised.
From Le Manoir, Bruno came to London as Head Chef at the Four Seasons, Inn on the Park, running a big hotel brigade and winning the crucial Michelin star within a year. Then he did his own thing at Bistrot Bruno, Soho, in 1993, going on to open L’Odeon in 1995, located on the first floor of a terrace in Regent Street, where Veeraswamy is now. Having become such a grande fromage on the London restaurant scene during the Nineties, some were surprised when Mr Loubet abruptly quit for Australia in 2001, as he turned forty, taking his young family to live in the sunshine down under for a decade. He returned to reunite with a former mentor, Pierre Koffmann, who came out of retirement to run a near legendary pop-up restaurant in a marquee on Selfridges roof for one heady month during the summer of 2009. Actually, Bruno also returned recently to cook at Le Manoir, closing Blanc’s series of Diners Des Protégés, with chefs who came through his kitchen en route to their own careers. Bruno Loubet’s job these days, though, is Executive Chef to the The Vetter Group.
Grain Store is in the Granary Square development of old warehouses behind King’s Cross. “Bagleys is going to be the part of the next phase, next door to St. Martins,” Hari informed me, referring to the scene of many a warehouse rave in our youth. I gave myself plenty of time to get there, but the place was easily found from the Tube, so I had half an hour to kill, wandering around the site which includes a campus for CSM, Central St. Martins and the new UAL, University of the Arts, London. As it was lunch time, art students clustered around the door to their studios, smoking in the manner that only those who have no concept of their mortality may. I noticed how much they look and dress like students, these students, these days. Cleaner than we were, but still smoking. Some of the smokiest parties I can recall from when I was their age happened in Battlebridge Road, a stone’s throw from where they’re stood, in the badlands behind King’s Cross, which is re-developing at a rate that rivals the E&C, where plans also include UAL. Sigh. London, eh? Be nice when its finished.
There’s several places to eat in Granary Square that I’d definitely check out if I lived locally and could afford them, you know. Dishoom is styled after the classic Bombay cafés run by Zoroastrian immigrants from Iran and apparently has four locations across London; Caravan is a coffee roastery and café with an eclectic, tapas-like menu that includes plenty for veggies. Grain Store, is ‘a unique restaurant inspired by chef Bruno Loubet’s extensive travels and years dedicated to his beloved vegetable patch.’ Which is not to say it’s a vegetarian restaurant, but one where ‘the humble vegetable is elevated to the starring role (although many dishes also feature fish and meat).’
In menu terms, this means that garnishes are listed before before the fleshy components of dishes, so that vegetarians reading them have their appetites whetted, then expectation is dashed as they discover that the starter salad of dehydrated crisp vegetable, fruit & mushroom salad in prune vinegar dressing is strewn with extraneous wood pigeon. I mean, I get it. Bruno has banned beef and put an emphasis on game and fish, but that still means that I get excited by the thought of beetroot gnocchi with broccolini & shallots, but let down to find it comes with a piece of griddled silver mullet. Hot seaweed sushi, glazed pak choi, black garlic purée, all sound fantastic, but they are the garnish to a piece of hake, which is also cooked ‘à la plancha’. Still, in too many London restaurants, ‘vegetarian’ is taken to mean, ‘may eat fish’ and, indeed, while being basically vegetarian, I will eat fish under certain circs.
Grace Dent – or The Delectable Grace Dent as she is also known – put her finger on it when she reviewed Grain Store’s impetuous sibling, Grain Store Unleashed last Spring, when The Zetter Hotel dining room hosted a pop-up spin-off: ‘…the concept, even to a five-a-day obsessive, might still seem a bit woolly. Here is a ‘vegetable restaurant’ that isn’t really for vegetarians. The menu contains wood pigeon, wild sea trout and meat-based stocks (which can be removed). Was there a market for weirdos like me who eat steak, but get het up over kohlrabi and broad bean ravioli? Yes. Turns out there are tons of us.’ See, Ms Dent was once veggie, but now eats meat, whereas I am coming from the opposite direction. A note on the menu does say that many of Grain Store’s dishes can be rendered in veggie versions, so we’re not short of choices.
|Pic by Maddie Mooves|
That said, the two main course options denoted as ‘vegan’ are Loubet’s versions of classics that you will find at any provincial veggie bistro: ‘chilli con veggie‘; and a ‘risotto‘ made with a different grain, in this case Farro wheat, with jerusalem artichokes, leeks & chestnut mushrooms (which does sound divine!) The token vegetarian dish on swanky menus is often raviolis containing pumpkin, or sweet potato or, as here, butternut squash. Several menu items have a wine glass symbol next to them, indicating an optional but recommended beverage accompaniment. For only an extra £4.50, I washed my squash raviolis (left) down with a glass of pumpkin juice. They were plump and sweet, with mustard apricots and a commendable absence of sage, arranged on an oblong plate strewn with wilted rocket & pumpkin seeds. I could have eaten me a few more of them.
I had plenty of time to decide what I wanted to eat because Hari was late. Then, upon eventual arrival, the first thing he ordered was something I had been ogling at an adjacent table: deep-fried balls served on fir twigs. Wild mushroom & Montgomery cheddar croquettes, truffle salt turned out to be balls of cheesey shroomy joy with bosky truffle on the finish. I asked Helen, our Server, if I might try the vegetarian Scotch egg that I’d heard so much about, from the other, All Day Menu and Hari immediately wanted that, too. Cleverly, Mr Loubet concocted a blend of dehydrated vegetables with secret herbs and spices that does indeed taste a lot how I remember chorizo and he’s used it instead of a sausage mixture to coat his egg, which is probably from a free range hen with which he is personally acquainted. However, it’s still an egg, so it’s not vegetarian, in my definition. Which brings us back to Grace Dent’s point about the woolliness of the ‘demi veggie’ concept.
David Sexton of The Standard – whom The Delectable Grace Dent must call, ‘colleague’ – decided in January 2015 that Grain Store was too ‘self-consciously innovative and stressfully entertaining’ for his tastes, but I do declare, I loved it. I’d been looking forward to Dried fava beans & kishk (a soft cheese) soup, pomegranate molasses and it was as good as I’d hoped: hearty and slightly tart, with sweet molasses zig zagged across the surface of the soup. Similarly, ‘Baked beetroot ‘carpaccio’, fermented beetroot dressing, spiced labneh‘ (strained yoghurt – like the Greek) did not disappoint a beetnik such as I. Although, I must admit, I did begin to imagine how this beet salad might compliment certain stinky cheeses, supplied here by Androuet. Yes, I am back on the cheese and not always strictly in a gourmet way.
|Pic by Angela Sam|
Hari let me scoff a few of his cheesey shroomy truffle balls and gave me half his Scotch eggg, yet I felt I’d not eaten enough, so I got the Butternut squash ravioli, mustard apricots, rocket & pumpkin seeds while Hari had dessert. His eyesight’s going, poor old bloke, but he’s not yet reached the stage where he carries reading glasses, like me, so when he ordered Coconut & Kaffir lime green tapioca, sweet potato, banana crisp (right), the chances are he glanced over the word, ‘tapioca.’ But he wolfed it down any old way, chased by a cup of Earl Grey.
We drank water, freshly filtered and chilled, which is served by the carafe as an alternative to bottled water and spent thirty quid each, including a respectable cash gratuity, which I thought was not bad. I must return, one fine day, to sample the chilli con veggie and/or a poncey risotto.