Ellory. Doesn’t quite live up to the name.
We’d like a big white please, we said. What do you mean, a big white, he said, as if a sommelier wouldn’t know that. You know, we said, like a big Burgundy, or a Gewürtz; something aromatic, we said, in unison. There was a suggestion of something orange, but whilst we are sufficiently adventurous to travel to the heart of Hackney, we are not quite brave enough to venture into natural wine territory.
Out for dinner with the erstwhile book club, we had no book to discuss, but were meeting for old times’ sake. We used to enjoy the book club, but by the end it was simply a book-hook on which to hang an excuse to go out and drink slightly too much whilst trying a new restaurant and talking for three minutes about what we (invariably) had not read. I also think that sufficient time has passed for me to be forgiven for my Moby Dick choice, which everyone else slogged through and I gave up on, after three chapters.
I’d wanted go to Ellory ever since I heard that there was the chef from Mayfields in the kitchen. I was late to Mayfields, but I had loved it and was saddened by its demise. A perfect neighbourhood restaurant, it was warm, relaxed and welcoming and they had a great maître d’ who made you feel right at home. Not only that but the food was inventive and delicious.
For some reason they have decided to change that formula for Ellory. A coldly clinical space occupies a corner of Netil House, which is a sort of hub for creatives and provides a ready clientele. Despite that, it is only a quarter full at 7pm on the Thursday night that we visit. Yes, it is half term, but still. And given that there is clearly no pressure on tables, it is odd that they tell you that they want the table back after two hours (which I hate) and that it takes them over forty minutes to get the first course on the table.
Whilst we are waiting, we polish off the superb sourdough, more holes than bread, elastic and spongy with a crust to travel for. There is an insufficient amount of the (excellent, salty) butter. The bread comes from the Dusty Knuckle bakery, which works with disadvantaged young people and ex-offenders, early school leavers and the long-term unemployed. They make the bread in a shipping container in a Hackney carpark. Dusty Knuckle haven’t been going for very long, but on the strength of the sourdough, I predict great things.
What we are waiting for whilst hoovering up the bread is the set menu: five courses at a reasonable-looking £38. You could have small plates from the bar menu, but given that we have all made something of a journey, we are keen to have a proper meal.
Neither S or I fancy the sweetbreads so we ask for them to be left out. We are told that we will get the vegetarian version. What we get is an entirely different dish, fennel, feta and chicory salad, which is far less interesting than the sweetbreads. The feta is top quality but I’d have liked a bit more than the few slivers and really, this is something I could put together in five minutes at home and the ingredients are good but not sufficiently interesting to operate as a course. A side dish, maybe. I ask for more bread. The waiter tries to conceal his surprise.
Cockles, dulse (seaweed) and white asparagus is tasty and interesting and slightly spoilt by the addition of unadvertised grapefruit segments which just jar. A dish of brill, baby artichokes and lardo is fairly lukewarm, not even restaurant hot. It looks gorgeous though, with its dark pink Treviso (a type of radicchio) garnish and the tiny deep-fried baby artichokes bring oohs and aaahs from the table. If you didn’t know what lardo was (an Italian delicacy, basically cured fat with herbs) you might just think that the gelatinous layer on top of the lukewarm fish was congealed skin. The flavours were good here though, a salty rich gravy working well with the fish, and unadvertised baby turnips adding crunch and that slight sulphur hit, which meant that there was a lot going on in this dish, taste-wise.
Saddleback loin, puntarelle and wild garlic had us hunting for the garlic. Wild garlic is usually such a flavour-thug that it’s a challenge to restrain it in a dish. Here, they manage not only to restrain it, but to make it disappear altogether. The loin was so pale it looked like it had been cooked sous-vide but we were told it was pan-fried. The flavour was good and the gravy (which we were advised contained the wild garlic) was rich and tasty, but not tasty of any garlic.
We ordered the extra cheese course, because we could. Served with what appeared to be homemade and excellent crackers, the log of Stawley and the slab of Durrus were perfect. I am not sure that they merited £9 per person though. Before service.
The cow’s curd and ginger granita came with crunchy granola-y topping and assaulted the tastebuds after the cheese, but in a good way. There was a table dispute on this dish (cheese too heavy) but we were a hung jury, as two of us (including me) thought it was punchy and interesting. The ginger granita was memorable.
By the time we left, the restaurant was still only a quarter full. We finished at around ten fifteen, way over our permitted time-slot. I’m not sure how they’d cope if the restaurant was full. There seemed to be quite a few people milling around looking serious in the tiny kitchen, but there was no sense of that urgency you see in most professional kitchens. I noticed that it was heavily staffed by youngish men, save for the one lone woman spotted in the kitchen. It feels quite male and serious, geeky, almost.
The verdict: Compared to Mayfields, what was lacking here was joy and soul. I like a bit of brutal minimalism but the room was a little too cold and uninviting for my taste. Compared to Lyle’s, which does a similar format, what was lacking here was technical accomplishment and generosity. The food was on the austere side. Some dishes came with an ingredient which wasn’t mentioned at all but was key to the dish. Much of what we ate almost worked, but an odd ingredient here and there caused some furrowed brows. The bill ended up being somewhat bigger than we expected (£80) mostly because we were there for quite a long time, so we ended up drinking a fair amount.
These days, I tend to do at least two visits to anywhere I review but I confess that this was a one-off and I suspect it will stay that way. Ellory: apparently it means cheerful. Maybe no-one’s told them that.