*Important: Sadly Ben Spalding has left the kitchen, a new team will take over John Salt
Calling John Salt my best meal of 2012 in November is a true statement to say it was spectacular (I’ve been to a lot of restaurants this year). It reminded me of the dishes at Fat Duck where each was uniquely an experience on its own, telling a complex yet well directed story. 12 courses span across three and half hours, but each was thoroughly memorable, even the initial nibbles and each piece of bread. At the end, trying to think of that favourite dish was impossible, oh the salmon, but then what about the beef and as I scanned through the menu again, they were all amazing like I can still taste that beautiful flavour in my mouth.
I want to say John Salt’s success is based on Ben Spalding’s talent and glorious experiences from Per Se in NY, Gordon Ramsay and the most recent Roganic but that almost theatre like experience so well designed for each course must’ve been the amazing work by the whole team. Starting from the space, not formal or stiff but you get the privateness of sitting upstairs in an exclusive area with only 8 tables or so. The noise carries from the downstairs bar to give that casual, weekend vibe but the restaurant itself was relatively quiet. Perhaps what fine dining is heading towards in the future? Culinary experience without the formality of dress up.
Food wise, it’s a place you have to try for yourself to get the magnitude of how amazing it is. The red wine bread was like the lightest muffin in the world, airy inside, hot on the hand and a beautiful nutty muffin top. Something I imagine people would willingly queue for if sold in a bakery, big applauds to the pastry chef! The rest of the dishes broke the barrier of traditional cooking to challenge our tastebuds, especially the scallops. I’ve stopped ordering scallops from fine dining restaurants because they all taste the same with different sauce dots on the plate. But this time, it was dished into a slider sandwiching a piece of kiwi and oh my, the result was a rich, meaty scallop with a subtle hint of sweet and citrusy flavour. Wouldn’t have guessed it was kiwi because it felt like a sauce rather than a fruit. Since designed to be eaten as a slider, warm towels were provided for wiping hands - attention to detail. I can go on and on, but will leave the rest of dish descriptions to the photo section!
On the table, a tube like menu showed the route of our evening from the nibbles to the end of 12 courses, like taking a long journey. It did feel like a marathon at course 5 or 6 (maybe even after bread). I was really full but still managed to wipe clean every dish because it was simply too delicious to miss out. The menu was well designed to place emphasis on each dish rather than heavy mains or desserts. I actually felt refreshed after those clean and light desserts, like I’m energetically ready to kick off a new project of some sort. None of that post dinner sleepiness appeared.
Quite theatrical when this board arrived and no cutlery was given. Special mention to those miso broth, poured from the tea pot with beautiful earthy flavours and surprisingly delicious clams at the bottom.
Bread and Butter
I’ve already mentioned how amazing this red wine bread was earlier, like the lightest muffin on the planet. The chestnut bread were nutty and crispy but felt more like a nibble.
45 ingredient salad
We were actually given a menu of the full list of ingredients used for this salad, including both rare and common vegetables and fruits. It gave many textures at the same time, some crunchy, some juicy and some watery. Together, it was balanced, refreshing, zingy and overall very enjoyable to eat.
Hen of the woods
"Poached & roasted hen of the woods, aromatic ketchup, lettuce and persimmon juice". The most pronounced flavour was the solid earthiness but I really loved that tamarind like ketchup, slightly sweet and acidic, gave the dish a different balance.
Scallop slider with kiwi
One of my favourite dishes (though I really do love 99% the dishes) and what a creative way to serve scallops and so unusual to add kiwi. It actually tasted like a meaty slider and kiwi’s mild citrus flavour even boosted that meatiness, very delicious to eat and the only way to eat it was with both hands, get dirty, how you’d eat a burger.
Chicken on a brick
Out of the entire menu, this was the only dish I didn’t like. The drama of using a real brick was interesting and playful. Watching people lick the brick was funny, how often would you see that in a restaurant. But the caramel was really hard and unbreakable so licking was the only option. The chicken liver cream wasn’t so interesting compared to other dishes, not enough flavour and confusing on what it’s trying to achieve. None the less, it’s nowhere close to a bad dish.
It’s the first time I’ve tasted salmon this mellow and subtle, like it’s just there to provide a smooth and creamy texture. The lime creme fraiche and rotten mango juice was so fragrant, it could’ve been a little dessert with added crunch from those toasted almonds. Together, it was unbelievably enjoyable to eat, really well thought out.
I was dreading this dish because risotto sounds really filling, especially when I was really full. Thank god the portion size was small and the use of cream was minimal. Beautifully cooked risotto and lovely crunch from the crispy duck skin.
Heel of beef
No doubt the hit on the menu, the beef was so tender it simply broke into tiny strips and melted away. Though it had the strongest flavour in the 12 course menu, the whole dish was well balanced. Kimchi sounds spicy and too Korean but was kept in the background for a stew like flavour, wouldn’t have guessed it was kimchi if not mentioned.
Cleanser - warm spiced apple and pomegranate fizz
Loved this little frizz, like spiced apple bubble gum made into a winter drink.
Cucumber and peanut butter
This was the most unexpected dish on the menu. The sound of cucumber and peanut butter creates a horrible clash, how would they go together? But it turned out to be amazing, really refreshing cucumber juice, topped with mint oil with a back texture of sandy peanut butter.
Another clean and refreshing dessert.
Even this tiny jar of chocolate mousse was light. Really loved how they designed the menu to not give heavy desserts.
Verdict - 5/5
Food (an unique experience) - the 12 course menu could have been a culinary show with each dish well designed to elicit a certain emotion. Scallop slider was creative and you have to get hands dirty to eat it, the chicken on a brick was encouraged to lick the caramel on the brick. The beef was meltable tender, the desserts were beautifully refreshing. Overall, a superbly designed menu and the evening was the best meal I’ve had in 2012.
Service (casual yet private) - the restaurant is upstairs with only 8 tables or so which felt quite private yet without the formality of fine dining. Service was really good, the right amount of descriptions for every dish and no wait between anything. Downside is you do have to book way ahead due to its popularity.
Cost (£100+pp) - only the 12 course menu was available for weekend dinner, which was priced at £85pp. The drinks menu was short but does include some reasonable options.
131 Upper Street, Islington
London N1 1QP
020 7704 8955