7 December 2011

Young Turks at The Ten Bells, London – Restaurant Review

Let me begin this post with a little disclaimer. Way back when I was young and carefree and 5kg 10kg lighter, me and John and a couple of other friends bought a ramshackle East End boozer that was on its last legs. It was a complete and utter dive; the place was filthy with the windows coated in a seemingly impregnable patina of grime, and the rooms on the floors above the main bar were so dishevelled the place looked more like a crack house than a public house. The typical customer was some old dodgy looking bloke and evening entertainment consisted of "exotic dancers."

The pub we had bought was called the Ten Bells. This is the state we found it in:
So out went the strippers and in came the cleaning brushes. With a bit of love and affection (and a not insignificant amount of good hard work) we turned it into something we were pretty proud of. Due to other work commitments three of the four of us sold our stakes in the pub a few years ago, but John continued to run the pub and, with a lot more hard graft, turned it into something very special indeed, way beyond what we had ever envisioned all those years ago.

A sympathetic makeover of the bar was undertaken, making sure to keep its extraordinary character (and those gorgeous Victorian tiles on the walls) intact, the facade was renovated, while the upper floors were turned into some of the most eclectic private function spaces in town. In a city of many anodyne chain pubs this place is the real deal and stands out as being a fantastically quirky place to enjoy a pint or two.
View of Christ Church from the roof of the Ten Bells
In late 2011 landlord John finally added a kitchen to the second floor and turned the first floor area into a dining room. All that remained was the not insignificant task of finding someone to cook there. In a stroke of genius John teamed up with The Young Turks, the nom de guerre of Isaac McHale and James Lowe, two young and exceptionally talented British chefs who have experience from The Ledbury and St. John Bread & Wine respectively (a third 'Young Turk,' Ben Greeno, has now moved to Sydney to start a new restaurant project with Momofuku's David Chang).

For the last year the Young Turks have been running limited one-off pop-up events. Word of the remarkable über-modern British cuisine these chefs were cooking spread rapidly among the fooderati, and very quickly their dinners became one of the most hyped food events in London. But now these culinary nomads finally have a more stable home. From November 2011 to January 2012, the Ten Bells plays host to the remarkable roving dining venture that is the Young Turks. So naturally I jumped at the chance to go back to the pub with landlord John and a few of our dear friends to enjoy dinner at what has quickly become one of the hottest restaurant ventures in the capital.
Making our way through the packed bar, we follow the sign at the back of the pub that leads us to a narrow staircase. Ascending the rickety old steps we enter the intimate and delightfully eccentric dining room. We're shown to our seats and given a welcoming Hendrick's gin & lemon cocktail. Straight away you know this is not going to be any ordinary dining experience – it's a perfectly fitting atmosphere for these Young Turks to launch their culinary revolution to a wider audience.

There's only one menu on offer and that's a weekly changing 4-course menu for £39 (including the gin cocktail). Given how popular this place has become and how difficult it is to book a table, the chefs could easily have gotten away with an unchanging menu for their 3-month stint. But a weekly changing menu allows them to source the very best produce on an ad hoc basis, which is ideally suited to their style of cooking British produce simply, but with immense flavours. I should also mention that the wine list offers fantastic value, with just a flat £10 mark-up on all bottles.

We begin with some snacks, the first of which was a macabre sounding rabbit liver and blood cracker. I needn't have worried though. The rabbit liver had been coaxed into a soft bright pink parfait, which was topped with a sweet minerally wafer-thin blood cracker. It was fantastic.
Next were some wedges of par-boiled fennel served with a voluptuous anchovy dipping sauce. This was sensational and packed with flavour. The fennel being just the right side of raw, so as to still have bite but not be too chewy, was the perfect shape for scooping up dollops of the umami-rich sauce. Utterly addictive!
The final snack was cubes of turnip and mallard cake that had been slicked with some sort of sweet sauce. It was also delicious and not a million miles away from what you might be served in a dim sum restaurant.
The first course proper was one of my favourites of the night. A seared fillet of impeccably fresh mackerel was served with slices of lightly cured radishes and a swirl of tarragon sauce. This was one of my favourite dishes of the evening. Beautifully cooked mackerel paired really well with the crisp, clear flavours of the radish and tarragon. Just wonderful!
The next course was Stinking Bishop cheese served with potatoes, onions and lovage sauce. Stinking Bishop is not for the faint-hearted – it smells something rank – but it's delicious, and here it had been relatively tamed in a soft fluffy sauce that covered rounds of potatoes and lightly pickled onions which still retained a hint of raw about them. The vibrant lovage sauce balanced things out with its crisp celery-like taste. This was a good dish, but even a hardened cheese-lover like myself found the overall flavour a bit too strong and felt the volume could have been turned down a notch or two with this one.

Much better was a dish of fallow deer cooked two ways: the loin had been beautifully roasted, while a little noisette appeared to have been slow cooked (I'm guessing en sous vide) to melting perfection. I love that wild, mild gamey taste of venison and here it didn't disappoint at all. Alongside the deer were strips of carrots and some toasted barley that had a nice bite to it and tasted like it had a hint of chocolate in it (venison and chocolate is a classic combination).
Finally, dessert was served and it's fair to say the best was saved for last. A dish of yoghurt, beetroot, apple and sorrel was quite simply one of the best-conceived and tasting desserts I've had. The humble red tuber was transformed into something very special indeed. Here beetroot granita and beetroot meringues were paired with poached apples, fresh yoghurt and a sorrel sauce, the combination of which was revelatory. It was a perfect balance of sweetness, freshness, acidity, and earthiness. Simply stunning and one of the best things I've eaten this year!
We finished our meal with cups of fresh mint tea (Square Mile coffee is also available) and dinky little beremeal tea cakes, a denser and ultimately more satisfying version of the popular Tunnock's variety I remember from my childhood.

Dinner at the Ten Bells was one of the most memorable I've had in London for a really long time. The Young Turks are at the leading edge of a new vanguard of chefs creating a new style of modern British dishes. The focus is on impeccably sourced produce and clean, focused flavours. Food of this quality in the capital usually comes with starched white tablecloths, a confusing amount of cutlery and a three-digit bill. But here I enjoyed remarkably clever and skilled cooking in a really fun environment that was as pleasing to the taste buds as it was to the wallet.

Grab a table at the Ten Bells while you can as this pop-up venture runs until the end of January 2012. However, it strikes me that the pairing of such cutting-edge British cuisine served in such an extraordinary environment seems as perfect a match as any, and I've a sneaking suspicion that we'll be seeing more of the Young Turks at the Ten Bells. I think they may well have struck culinary gold with this one.

Food:            9 / 10
Service:        8 / 10
Ambiance:  10 / 10

(Disclaimer: I was a guest of my friend and Ten Bells owner John, and as such I did not pay for my meal. Although I used to be a co-owner of the Ten Bells pub, I no longer have any financial interest in it).

Ten Bells Pub on Urbanspoon
Young Turks at the Ten Bells (Pop-Up Restaurant thru January) on Urbanspoon
Square Meal


  1. This must be really exciting for you, seeing "your" pub doing well (especially in credit crunch Britain)! I can see I have to try and make it down from Cambridge before it's all over in January... That pudding looks particularly stunning!

  2. Wow - now that is a claim to fame and awesome that you did it. The 10 Bells has been for many many years one of my favourite pubs in that area. Though I loved the cat at the Pride.

    So now I know you are a 'he' and you started one of my favourite pubs :/

    Oh and Young Turks, I ate at Isaac's pop up in Viccy park and it was astounding.