Thursday, 8 May 2014

Restaurant review: Mayfields, London Fields

Perhaps more than anywhere in London, Hackney seems to be full of evolving small spaces. A wasteland becomes a garage which becomes a studio, boutique shop or café. Small greens have become community growing spaces and bike shops are squeezed into every nook and cranny. Suddenly small strips of shops down quiet roads have been transformed into interesting hubs of passionate small-traders. Wilton Way is one of them. A few months ago I was supping a much needed coffee at the lovely Wilton Way Café when I noticed that one of the tiny units opposite now held a cluster of tables. It was all very understated, some pine here and grey there, a bit like a smart restaurant had put all of its tastefully-dressed tables into storage. But the sparkling glasses housed wine and the seats sat casual lunchers chattering and clattering crockery. I was intrigued, and the best bit was the chalk board outside, charmingly handwritten with what looked like a masterclass of seasonal produce. 

Research soon followed this discovery, which of course wasn’t a discovery at all. High praise came from all directions and it seemed like Mayfields was already the darling of both the food blogger and the newspaper critic. Photos of the food appeared to justify this, achieving that tricky thing of making choreographed food look like a natural assembly of beauty. I was overjoyed when on a random Friday, my mother-in-law suggested that the three of us try to sneak a late table. It was about time too, and by the time we visited it seemed like an itch that I had been waiting to scratch for weeks.

And it is why with such anticipation that I am sad to say that I just didn’t really get it. It had started so well. The staff had managed to squeeze us in on a busy evening, and the throbbing room drummed up that kinetic feeling of excitement. The menu backed this up with yet another selection of dishes that sounded slightly unusual, but had always been made for one another. Katie rolled her eyes as we ordered the duck hearts, but stuck out for the ‘brill’, which is so often just that. 

The asparagus with lardo and egg yolk looked smart and tasted better, creating an amazing amount of comfort for such small contents. Those pesky hearts followed, and Katie squealed as I marvelled the satisfying simplicity of plump, pink hearts cut with tangy herb. So far so good, and a slight betrayal of my earlier statement. But the scallops that came next just couldn’t fight through the citrus dressing and peppery radishes. It was all very subtle, too subtle for me and I lusted for that wonderful sweet caramelisation that occurs when the molluscs meet a hot pan. At this point it also started to become clear that each plate came as its own independent ‘course’. A strange discovery given that I had asked the staff about ordering before we started and this hadn’t been mentioned at all.

The presentation of all dishes remained consistently staggering throughout, and the next dish to hit our table was a piece of perfectly cooked lemon sole cleverly hiding under scales of fine daikon. The liquorice provided a different and challenging twist to the more normal aniseed pairings of fennel or perhaps pernod, but as interesting as it was I don’t think I’ll ever wake up in the night craving it. The initially comforting warmth crept and crept, and the mellowness was a bit much by the last forkful. It was all very clever and showy, something that continued into the brill that followed. As we had misguidedly ordered two, this was the first proper time to get stuck in, but what should be championed as royalty of the sea turned out tough, and swamped by a merge of other things flying around on the plate. Again simplicity sprung to mind and a beautiful moist tranche hanging out with some lemon and artichokes, far away from a tasteless powder and random onion.

Thankfully the desserts were much more successful, although after the seemingly structured ‘one plate at a time’ routine with the savoury courses, it was a little odd to have both puddings and cheese plonked down in front of us all at once. Where things before might have been taken a step or two too far in places, technique was set aside for joyful marriages in flavour. The almond cake with lemon curd and strawberries hit those comforting nostalgic baking memories, whilst the chocolate mousse and lime leaf ice cream gave the deep satisfaction that the evening had long been craving.
I could have eaten all of those final dishes to myself. And I think that this was fundamentally what was lacking in the evening. There is a wonderful satisfaction in eating a delicious plate of food, savouring every last mouthful at your own pace while your friends and family do the same. Here each plate was isolated, instantly attracting analysis as three forks dove in for the same piece of lardo. That relaxing dynamic was removed. As such I only felt like I experienced a fragment of much of the food that I ate at Mayfields, that I was missing the key part that bound some of the dishes together. Clearly the food is skilfully made, for almost unrivalled value for money in a brilliantly inventive location. But sitting in that small space it seemed like a parade of showy techniques and daring ingredients pairings, without fully getting to grips with what the diner really wanted.  

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