Friday, 28 August 2015

Restaurant review: Sabel Feasts, Clapton

Custard tart. Two words which so perfectly sum up the new wave of ingredient-led yet wholesome food that has emerged out of new openings of late. Home cooking, but done better. Plates of food minus smears and quenelles, in relaxed environments minus stiff waiting staff, quaveringly-poised behind your chair whenever they predict that you might require the toilet. Places like Lyles in Shoreditch and Primeur in Highbury have nailed it, somewhere you could take the parents for a celebration meal, or just as easily pop in for a glass of wine and snack. And championed in the middle of all this is the humble custard tart, that familiar staple, elevated with a bit of careful, clever cooking into something dominating column inches and Instagram likes. 

And this is what my eyes quickly focussed on upon first glance of the Sabel pop-up menu. A dreamy list of rissoles (a word that I can only associate with childhood dinners when it was clear that what my mum meant was ‘meatballs’), slow cooked meat, and the current dairy darling, ticklemore cheese. All so refreshing; there were no games in this menu. On second thoughts this wave might not be so modern, and perhaps this is just the norm of what the St John revolutionised all those years ago. But whatever the case, I just wanted to eat it all. And there was a custard tart.
And what a space for it. The Lower Clapton Road is now on the fringes of the relative wild west it used to be, and in that damned name of ‘gentrification’, there are now some rather interesting ventures cropping up. And I would certainly not have imagined for one second that that beautifully restored first floor of the Palm 2 building would exist, all wooden floors, fans of flowers and glorious evening light pouring though large industrial windows. At the end was a shiny fitted professional kitchen, chefs basking in that false pre-service window of ease. Although technically a pop-up, this was certainly no flapping amateur pulling questionable casseroles out of the oven and charging £35 for the pleasure. Sabel meant business. 

But the good nature of the conventional pop-up were carefully maintained. The host and the chef were lovers soon to be wed. The waiters were roped in friends and family, all gunning for the cause and effortlessly friendly. There was a charm similar to childhood stories read from Happy Families books. And the 60-odd covers, about twice that of many permanent openings, were kept compact on trestle tables and everyone encouraged to interweave.
Then there was the food, and this is what mostly set it apart from anything else sharing the pop-up label. Casual, homely food is one thing. Homemade food covers for sloppiness and execution, “here’s something I just rustled up”. Or at the other end of the scale, a load of sterile, disjointed restaurant dishes that feel lonely in such surroundings. But all of the food at Sabel was made and presented with a clever cunning, banquet style food that still wowed and wowed course after course. Early highlights included whipped brown butter on good sourdough and a clever take on a tomato salad; crunchy with seeds with tangy hits of that crumbled ticklemore. And to round off the starters was a platter of beautifully plump and sweet queenie scallops, perfectly accompanied with vibrant pureed avocado and gazpacho dressing. 

The starters were a strong indication of what was to come, and the main certainly didn’t disappoint. China dishes piled high with smoked wheat (a total revelation), peas and lettuce were topped with meltingly flavourful chunks of lamb neck. A few bits of slow cooked meat on a risotto-style base, something simple in theory that could feasibly appear on any home-cooked menu. But this was seriously accomplished cooking, with each ingredient maximised and balanced in total harmony with the next.
As well as the quality, the amounts of food on offer were nailed. As one of the younger children of a large family, there is always a slight panic when sharing food is laid out on a big table that you’re going to receive your fair share. But there was just enough of everything, even allowing for that extra spoon or two of that bit that you particularly liked. Which was all of it. 

And then there was the custard tart. By this point we had been truly bowled over, and were drunk in praise of everything. Had an unboxed supermarket tart been plonked onto the middle of the table, we would have probably fought with excuses as to why this was the right thing. But of course this wasn’t the case, and perhaps this was the course that stole the show. Firm-set but smooth and light as you like, the accompanying berries almost weren’t needed. We had two slices each.
All good meals have you infectiously analysing each bit as soon as it’s over. And as we spilled out onto the Lower Clapton Road, we couldn’t help reliving that smoked wheat, that tomato salad or indeed that custard tart. I can’t tell you how much I recommend Sabel Feasts. For pure enjoyment, quality food and value they would run most restaurants for their money. Which for a pop-up is simply mindblowing.

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