Having lived for just a little over three years in London now, I have managed to eat my way through a fair number of restaurants on my imaginary bucket list, but in all that time, one restaurant has managed to elude me. Until now.
Shoreditch; so hipster-cool it hurts to wear a suit in these parts, but here is where you will find Lyle’s, a fabulous fine dining restaurant sat opposite Box Park. Part of the eponymous JKS Restaurant Group (think Bubbledogs, Gymkhana and Sabor to name a few), Lyle’s opened in 2014 under the leadership of head chef James Lowe. With The Clove Club and St John’s Bread and Wine under his belt, this is modern British dining in an old tea factory.
Now Lyle’s is not cheap. In fact it’s got three Pound signs under its Google listing so you know you’ll be spending a pretty penny here. In February of this year, however, Lyle’s decided to add a bar snack menu with 10-12 daily changing small plates. So when we heard this news, we took this as a sign that we had to visit and catch up with friends over many dishes and many drinks.
Having made the arrangements and booked well over a month in advance, it was only natural that two of our party were pretty late to dinner. Pretending that this was a real shame, us two early birds used it as an excuse to sit at the bar and start on the drinks. The drinks menu covers two sides of A4 paper, although I would guess that 95% of this is taken up by your wine options. There’s a couple of beers, ciders and even a perry to choose from, but only the one spirit-based drink, which of course is the classic G&T. Despite making every effort to be one of those new-age gin connoisseurs and make sure I know which gin I’m drinking, the gin was not listed, we weren’t told it, and I completely forgot to ask. Oh well.
We were given the bar menu to look over while we waited for our two tardy friends. On the menu were 10 savoury options and three dessert/cheese dishes. A quick scan down the menu told me all I needed to know: we would probably be ordering all of these, bar the eel.
Friends finally reunited, we took our table and set about gossiping like we hadn’t seen each other in six months…which we hadn’t. Just like I had thought, we all looked at the menu, looked at each other and said, “everything but the eel?” Job done. Now you may be wondering what all the fuss about the eel is. Basically, the reason for our friendship is that we have all worked together in sustainable food, and this means that we know that eel is a big no-no when it comes to sustainable fish. Eel is a critically endangered species and – although I will freely admit that I have eaten it in the past and that I really, really like it – we feel as a group that we have a responsibility to practice what we preach, as it were, and actively avoid these things when we eat out. Of course, this doesn’t always happen and so you would be entirely right to call us hypocrites when our principles go out the window. But that was not today.
The food arrived at a fantastic pace. First came the bread and butter with not just one, but two slices of warm brown sourdough bread each. I am growing slightly weary of constantly being given sourdough to munch on at restaurants, mainly because the crust tends to be so hard and sharp that you lacerate your gums and have hardly any surface left to lather butter on. These warm slices were nothing like this however; beautifully soft, a crust with minor resistance and soft butter that seeped lovingly into the pores of the bread.
Then came the oysters. Hidden under what could easily be mistaken for hunks of green moss, these big, salty mouthfuls of deliciousness were under a fantastically green apple granita. Keeping to the theme of sustainability, here’s a handy tip for all you oyster lovers out there: you know when it’s oyster season when there’s an ‘r’ in the month. (By the way Londoners, keep your eyes peeled next week for London’s first Oyster Festival!)
Just as we were slurping down our oysters, a plate with a generous slab of potted duck, pickles and fried sourdough appeared. Oh how wonderful potted meats are. Initially a way of preserving meats and fish, the seasoned, cured and confited duck meat is preserved under a layer of fat and so seductively melts onto the toast and in your mouth. The classic accompaniment of pickled red onion looked more like the layers had been dried rather than pickled but were crunchy and full of an acidic juiciness. I don’t know how the chefs managed to do that, but I would love to find out how.
Bitter leaves and Berkswell – a hard cheese made from ewe’s milk – graced our table next. It seems like radicchio is the flavour of the moment and the presentation of this dish was about as good as it gets when you have a bunch of leaves on a plate. A light citrus dressing coated the leaves and just about set that bitterness off.
A bowl of big, juicy mussels arrived next. Grilled to perfection, the beauty of this dish lay in the almost smokey juices at the base of the bowl. Not quite enough to have two each, thankfully some of these mussels were big enough to halve and share.
Probably the prettiest dish of the night was the flatbread topped with purple sprouting broccoli, Devon blue cheese and one strip of cured pork fat. This was definitely one of those dishes where you wish you weren’t sharing it with anyone else, let alone three other people. After quartering and ensuring that each of us got a little bit of everything, that one bite was a lovely mouthful of carbohydrate, fatty pork, salty blue cheese and a bit of green for health and that all important colour contrast.
The roasted chicory with walnuts and anchovies was probably my favourite dish off of the bar snacks menu. Although it is also a bitter vegetable, chicory has another layer of depth to its flavour, meaning that it doesn’t leave you with that intense bitter aftertaste that radicchio often does. A tried and tested combination of ingredients with the added flair of some tomato crisps.
The most interesting and innovative dish of the night had to be the crispy red mullet head with cured roe, reminiscent of Dan Barber’s headline-making fish head from his WastED pop-up last year. Once again demonstrating how closely we had read the menu, the fish head was sat in front of us to exclamations of intrigue and only slight horror from one of our party. Now some dishes are hard to share, but until you’ve tried to divide a mullet head into four even portions making sure that everyone has a bit of all the “weird” bits, like the eye sockets, then you don’t know what hard work is. The thing about eating a fish head is that although there isn’t much in the way of fiddly bones, there isn’t much in the way of meat either. It’s definitely one of those dishes where you have to not be squeamish and get properly stuck in, using your hands for most of it. Lots of good flavours though, once again highlighting how we are so quick to throw away many perfectly edible bits of food.
Our final dish from the bar menu was roasted beetroot with sorrel, topped with what I can only describe as dollops of pheasant egg. Again, dividing this dish up between the four of us meant that ingredients such as the pheasant egg were minimal by the end. This (and the cocktails and the two bottles of wine) is what led to a heated debate among us as to whether a pheasant egg is bigger than a quails egg. Why this happened, I have no idea, however, I claim victory in settling this argument by recounting one of the more horrific events of my childhood where I was chased into a garage by a huge pheasant. I mean, who’s ever heard of someone being chased by a quail? Honestly. Anyway, back to the matter in hand. The roasted beetroot was its usual glorious sweet and earthy flavour, however, I couldn’t tell you what the pheasant egg tasted like which is a shame, as this was definitely the first time I’d had the opportunity to try it and get revenge on that terrifying pheasant from my childhood.
We finished the night with a plate of Neil’s Yard Cheese; a slice of Montgomery’s Cheddar and a chunk of Tunworth – a British brie-style cheese. The cheese plate came with some great little cardamon and fenugreek crisp breads. These were really tasty and wonderfully moreish but absolutely no good for trying to load up with cheese and chutney.
We had a great time at Lyle’s, mainly it must be said, as a result of heavy drinking on a Tuesday night. While all the dishes themselves were well-balanced without too many flavours on a plate, I couldn’t help but feel throughout the night that I’d already eaten most of these dishes before. Looking back at the many, many, many photos of food on my phone, I realised that I was experiencing an almost déjà vu like feeling of our trip to Ellory. This certainly isn’t a criticism as our meal at Ellory was one of my highlights of 2018 so far, but it does tend to suggest a little bit of a lack of imagination among our modern British restaurants. That, or I eat out too much in very similar places. All in all, I’m glad I’ve tried the bar menu at Lyle’s, but I’m not sure it has made me want to go back for the dinner menu. It is running a Guest Series of dinners though, and these are certainly worth a sniff at.