8 December 2010

North Road, London - Restaurant Review [Now Closed]

North Road opened in November 2010 and is the second London venture of Danish chef Christoffer Hruskova. His first restaurant, Fig (now Fig Bistro), opened in 2006 to broadly positive reviews. Hruskova has had an eclectic culinary training, working in restaurants from San Francisco to Sydney, and before coming to London he worked at Copenhagen's Michelin-starred Kong Hans restaurant. Not surprisingly, like Fig, North Road is heavily influenced by Scandinavia, both in terms of its design and food.

Let's get the elephant in the room out of the way first: Noma. The comparisons with the now-legendary Danish restaurant are inevitable. Fay Maschler, influential restaurant critic for the Evening Standard, mentioned the "N" word three times in her review of North Road and threw in a couple of "Redzepi's" (Noma's chef-patron) for good measure. Indeed, the similarities are quite strong, from the menu's use of foraged herbs and house-smoked food, to the identical J.L. Møllers chairs.

Now, I'm going to go out on a controversial limb here and say that much of Scandinavia is a culinary desert, borne out of the harsh climate. Yes, there are a few oases of excellent cooking to be found, but these tend to be the exception and not the rule. You will struggle to find the breadth and depth of culinary traditions and flavours that are found elsewhere in Europe, Asia and the Americas. Truly good Scandinavian food is one of those rare joys that when found makes you stop dead in your tracks, stunned at the beauty (and often simplicity) of it. Noma succeeds (see my review here) in spite of its self-imposed Nordic remit, not because of it, and this is primarily testament to the unique genius of René Redzepi and his team of chefs. So why a restaurant in London, one of the food meccas of the world, would willingly go down the route of serving Scandinavian-influenced food seems a little, well, odd, maybe even a touch masochistic, like choosing to run a marathon using only one leg – it's difficult enough as it is, and it will take an extraordinary amount of talent to make it work.

So enough talk; what about the actual food then? The menu at North Road consists of an à la carte with starters around the £9 mark, mains at around £19, and desserts at £7. Although we were really tempted by some of the dishes on the à la carte menu, Mrs. Nibbler and I opted for the five-course tasting menu at £55, in the firm belief that a tasting menu should showcase the very best a chef has to offer.
To start with we were brought some amuse bouches of fish skin, chicken skin, pork rinds, and a brace of pickled quails' eggs that were served in a ceramic egg in an identical fashion to those at Noma – surely a statement of intent if ever I saw one. The pork rinds were delicious – light and crisp with a pleasing porky saltiness to them. The chicken skin was a fairly sad affair though – crisp, but with no discernible flavour. The fish skin was just plain weird, while the quails' eggs were too vinegary and slightly overcooked, so that there was no unctuous oozing yolk in the middle. Not a great start then.
Bread was offered next, and these appeared to be generic bread rolls, which were dry and under-seasoned. The brown butter they were served with was sensational though – creamy and rich with lovely nutty notes to it.
Things improved dramatically with the first course proper – lightly smoked Scottish diver-caught scallop, served with thin sticks of fresh apple, horseradish cream, a semi-sweet disc of apple jelly, hazelnuts and bitter cress (the latter turned out to be dill, but we weren't told of any changes to the menu we were presented with – not a biggie, but still). This was a fantastic dish, all the flavours worked beautifully together. The natural sweetness of the perfectly cooked scallop was offset by the fresh acidity of the apple and the mildly punchy horseradish. I've seen this dish also served with the addition of powdered horseradish, so either they've tweaked the dish slightly, or forgot to add it. Either way it was simply delicious!
The next course was cured lobster and buttermilk with horseradish, coastal herbs and vinaigrette. I didn't particularly like this dish and didn't finish it – the lobster, while giving the appearance of being cooked, had the rather unpleasant texture of raw crustacea. It was also way too salty. I liked the addition of the cooling horseradish snow though, which melted the instant it hit your tongue.
Next was a dish of Kent vegetables and wild herbs. This consisted of potato purée with whole pink fir potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes. It was topped by pickled elderberries, mustard leaves, and a scattering of sliced black truffles. Crunchy malt provided a good contrast of textures. Although fine, this dish was quite bland and could have done with a few more truffle slices to liven it up.
For the main meat course we were served Norfolk deer loin cooked in burnt hay with beetroot and smoked bone marrow. Medium rare venison loin was served with thin slices of raw beetroot, thick cylinders of cooked beetroot, and smoked bone marrow, and was garnished with sorrel leaves. This could have been a really interesting dish but was totally ruined by the fact that the venison had an overwhelming taste of sooty ash. A heavy smokiness permeated every single element of the dish and drowned out all other flavours. This was a real shame as the venison looked to be beautifully cooked.
Finally, for dessert, a deconstructed bread and butter pudding. Cubes of custard soaked bread were served with spiced sultanas, shards of caramel, dollops of cream and a buttermilk ice cream. Now call me a curmudgeon, but bread & butter pudding is one of those desserts you just don't mess with. Like spotted dick, or jam roly-poly, it holds such a dear place in Britain's collective memory that you should only tinker with it if the end result is going to be truly exceptional. Sadly, the version served here wasn't. Like a proverbial Scandinavian fashion model it looked beautiful, but lacked the comforting warmth and sweetness of the English original.
Throughout dinner, service was fine, if a little hesitant. But that's to be expected with a new restaurant and I'm sure the kinks will eventually get ironed out. There was one amusing incident at the end of our meal. After paying the bill we got up to leave and stood by the bar waiting for our coats. The maître d' was obviously not aware we had already paid and were ready to leave, so when we asked for our coats she seemed a tad surprised, and for a second I'm sure she thought we were about to do a runner like this guy!

I watched an interview with René Redzepi, head chef of Noma, the other week. In it he mentioned an extraordinary fact. He said that if Noma fulfilled all the reservation requests they received in a single day, they could fill the restaurant for the next 15 years. In other words, unless you are very lucky, getting a table at Noma will probably be next to impossible. So what to do if you fancy a hit of that pure and sublime 'New Nordic' cuisine? Could North Road be the answer? Well, based on my experience there, no. It certainly comes from the same mould as Noma, and I suppose at a superficial level some of the flavours and the style of cooking are similar. However, it just didn't do it for me I'm afraid. At £55 for six courses I would expect the kitchen to deliver more hits than misses, especially as you could have five courses at the utterly sublime restaurant, The Ledbury, for just £15 more.

There is also one glaring contradiction; Noma takes pride in its ethos of "time and place", and the fact that it is located in Scandinavia matters. When I went to Noma, I sat there eating food that had been foraged or sourced in the Nordics as I looked out across the glistening waters of Copenhagen's Christianshavn. The sense of "time and place" was palpable, and this is the whole point of a restaurant like Noma. This is why they run their marathon on one leg. Yes, North Road sources and forages food from the British Isles, but I'm just not convinced the same formula works in the heart of London's gritty Clerkenwell. I'm sure North Road will provide a welcome distraction to the ADHD-like food scene in London, and it will probably get rave reviews just because it is so different to anything else in the city but, for me, the standard of cooking here just wasn't good enough to justify the cost.

Food:         5 / 10
Service:      7 / 10
Ambiance:  5 / 10

(03.09.12 Update: Head chef Christoffer Hruskova announced that he left North Road in June citing a  disagreement with co-owner, Viviane Lorans. Hruskova has plans to open a new London restaurant and possibly a bakery too. Sous-chef Rafael Cagali will now head up the North Road kitchen).

(04.12.12 Update: Just three months after head chef Christoffer Hruskova left North Road, the restaurant announced that it has entered voluntary liquidation and will close).

69-73 St John Street
London EC1M 4AN
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 0203 217 0033
North Road on Urbanspoon
Square Meal


  1. I think you make a really good point out time and place and the contradiction in north Road. It would be interesting if the place wasn't shipped Denmarkian flavours and it became Noma/ London

  2. Hi Tom. Yes, agree. At times I felt the food was almost a parody of that at Noma - almost as though Hruskova was forcing himself to cook in a certain style. If so, it would be interesting to see what he's capable of without that constraint, as he clearly has talent.

  3. I think it's very hard for copycats to deliver as successfully as their inspirations, especially when they are out of place and have no input from the original creative talent...

    Would rather see this team do their own thing...

  4. Interesting review!

    At the moment Noma is (probably) the most influential restaurant in the world, but I do think there is a fine line between being inspired by someone and copying them. The pickled quail eggs in the ceramic egg at the beginnig of the meal is definitely crossing that line.

    I agree, it would be interesting to see Hruskova's own culinary identity shine through.

  5. Hi Kavey, Hi Log on Food. Agree with your points. Will be interesting to see how the restaurant progresses. It's brand new, so who knows, maybe over time the menu will evolve to show more individuality. One thing's for sure, while North Road's approach seems to have split opinion, it has certainly got people talking; no bad thing for a brand new restaurant in the capital.

  6. I agree with Nordic Nibblers. I would also add that the chicken and fish skins were salty and greasy. Most of the main dishes were so smoky they put you off after a few mouthfuls. As pointed out by Fay Maschler, the veal was so tough, I had to chwe and chew and just gave in feeling let down and hungry. On the services side, my bookings were taken with the most disappointing sloppiness, and they managed to get my name completely wrong. They also showed no sign of expecting me and my party.

    I had supported Fig whole heartedly but I must admit I felt let down badly.

    An ex-supporter of Fig

  7. It's easy to forget the population of Scandinavia is a little under 15 million - or less than that of the Netherlands. I don't disagree with your assessment, but they may still punch above their culinary weight, per capita.