Monday, 20 May 2013

Restaurant review: Caravan King’s Cross

I first stumbled across Caravan a few weeks ago when out for a drink with an old friend. Looming dramatically in the beautifully renovated Granary Building as you walk across the open rear of King’s Cross I was filled with excited anticipation. Hype and rave reviews sprawled across the internet suggested that this was the place to visit, and I couldn’t wait to sneak a peak. I was not disappointed; the space inside was wonderful. A big room transformed into an intimate, electric atmosphere with an open kitchen and working coffee roaster. It was Tuesday and packed, noise loud from chatter and an hour wait for tables. We decided not to wait on this occasion but I was taken, and instantly booked a table for Katie and I for a week later. 

I spent that week raving about this new place behind King’s Cross to anyone who would listen for long enough, and counted down the days until finally Saturday night came. Kate and I have had the fortune of eating at some great restaurants recently, and I couldn’t wait to show her this new place that I had discovered. 

But when I opened the door this time something was different. Things seemed brighter, quieter and far less of a bustle, and instead of competing with talk circulating the room we were conscious of sharing our conversation with the table an elbow away. This was a minor thing really, and we were soon salivating over the menu. And it was an impressive list, the sort where you wanted to eat everything. I instantly knew that I would be jealous of whatever Katie chose, so we decided to share. The menu was split into a number of options, from picky bits, small plates, mains and pizzas, and reasonably priced too. We went for a couple of starters followed by the lamb gnocchi for Katie and a pizza for me. 

Those first two plates were a joy. One held a large dollop of creamy burrata, vibrant with pesto and crumbed olive, and the other slabs of jalapeno cornbread with a chilli butter. Two things unlikely to be found together on a menu anywhere else, but the flavours were terrific and portions just right. Our snug table neighbours saw this and ordered the same. First course in and very impressed. 

I really wish that we had have just ordered more of the small plates and left it at that, as our mains were a different story. I don’t really have much to report about the serrano ham, jalapeno and Taleggio pizza. Admittedly a meat and chilli pizza is a far from inspired order, but a good pizza is a thing of beauty, and I could have stopped off at half a dozen understated Italian restaurants between Stoke Newington and Kings Cross and got something so much better. There was nothing offensive with this pizza, it was just underwhelming. Fair enough it was £7.00, but I would much rather have paid double and had something a bit better executed. It came with a garnish plate with chillies, herbs and oils which was quite cool, but that pizza needed so much more than that to revive it.

Katie’s choice was a glorious looking bowl of gnocchi bound with sauce thickened with meltingly fall apart lamb and olives. As we were sharing I could not wait to wolf down half of my flaccid pizza and get stuck into that, but Katie had other ideas. It appeared that when reheating the sauce, it had been carelessly boiled to a temperature slightly lower than the surface of the sun. The only thing melting that she could taste was the skin on the top of her mouth. Thankfully it had cooled by the time my turn came around, and actually it was really lovely. It was that soft, rich, comforting taste that brings memories of old home cooked family meals and holidays abroad. The texture of the gnocchi itself though was unspectacular, and to be honest I expected more; light little pillows instead of heavy and stodgy. A little critical, but when you go to places with such hype you expect something above average. 

We skipped dessert and went straight for the coffee, and thankfully this failed to disappoint. We were both in agreement that the flat whites were superb, and it was great to sit in the same room where the beans had been roasted. 

We left with the distinct feeling that we had ordered the wrong things, and that we should have just stuck to a wider selection of the small plates that had provided such a good start.  But the experience as a whole is what makes eating out it’s best. I was left slightly fed up of how trendiness was becoming bigger than the thing itself. Some of the food was good yes, but the service throughout the evening had that tinge of glazed smugness to it, like we were just another number walking through the door. We asked for a minute when deciding what to order, and the impatience was clearly visible. The minimal storage layout also slightly irked me; it can be very beautiful having everything on open shelves, but in all honestly I don’t want to know where you store your blue roll. The sign of a really good meal is that you never want it to end, for that last mouthful to keep on going. In this case I wasn’t particularly bothered, and wanted to see what the rest of the evening had in store (half-cut Boris bikes to ice cream cones in Camden proved far more entertaining). 

I think that Caravan would be great for an afterwork drink and snack, or for a quick lunch. But as a full dinner experience it didn’t really cut it for me. Caravan could be brilliant, but it needs to look again at creating a harmonious experience for the customer.

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