Upstairs at The Ten Bells: escalating Spitalfields cuisine to new heights
As far as old boozers in Spitalfields go, they don’t come more historic or vintage East End than the Ten Bells. Perennially packed, with crowds spilling over onto the pavement overlooking the market square, this Grade II listed watering hole is as much a landmark as the market itself.
It’s not just the pub that’s been drawing in the crowds of late though. Since opening its doors in early 2012, the first floor dining room ‘Upstairs’ has become a destination restaurant in itself. What initially started off as a 3 month pop-up by the Young Turks is now a permanent resident by popular demand. Although most of the original collective who set up Upstairs have since moved on to other projects including the nearby Clove Club, the kitchen has been left in very capable hands. Head chef Giorgio Ravelli and team are still serving up some seriously creative and seasonal British fare.
Bathed in natural light by day and glowing with candlelit ambience by night, the dining room and it’s eclectic mix of rustic wooden tables and chairs oozes with Victorian era charm. I live just round the corner and have had dinner here many a time, but it’s their express lunch menu that’s seriously off the charts value-for-money wise. At £17 for 2 courses and £21 for 3 courses, I can only think of one or two other places in all of London where you get such quality for the price you are paying. Fussy eaters should beware though… with only 2 choices per course at lunchtime (there’s a wider selection available for A la Carte dinner, albeit for a few quid more…), what’s on their ultra-short menu may not always be to your fancy. But believe me, if you are free from any dietary constraints, the few dishes they do here, they tend to do pretty darn well.
Buttermilk fried chicken & pine salt
Before you even think about starters or main courses, make sure to order yourself a portion of their gorgeous buttermilk fried chicken with pine salt to pick at. Crisp, succulent and served on a bed of aromatic pine, it’s a chicken nugget on steroids that will leave you wishing you had the whole portion to yourself.
Smoked Mackerel, Buttermilk, ‘Nduja & Focaccia crumb
Onto the starters. Smoked mackerel tartare was beautifully plated – the contrasting colours of the shimmering coriander oil, buttermilk and ‘Nduja sausage crumbs really leapt out of the plate. As you worked through each mouthful, you got layer after layer of flavours, starting with the rich tartare and spicy sausage all the way to the creamy buttermilk and zingy coriander oil on the other side of the taste spectrum.
Sauteed Venison was a less complex, but heartier dish. The strips of Venison were juicy and full of gamey flavour, pairing well with the nutty Ratte potato variety. The real revelation though was the ramson (a.k.a ‘wild garlic) puree on the side. Subtler and sweeter than an aioli, it was the perfect condiment for the venison and spuds.
Sauteed Venison, La Ratte potatoes and Wild Garlic
Braised Ox Cheek, Swede, Onion Rings & Horseradish
The quality in the cooking continued through to the mains. And if one dish really hit the spot, it was the Ox Cheek dish. Slow-braised for hours and hours until the meat literally flaked away with a fork, it was served with a creamy swede mash that had been spiked with horseradish and topped with the crispest onion rings.
The fish course didn’t disappoint either. Fillet of lemon sole was pan-fried to a crispy golden brown… the flesh still velvety and sweet. I particularly enjoyed the Monk’s Beard on the side… a vegetable which I had never tasted before. Crunchy, refreshing with a slightly tart and bitter note towards the end, it complemented the fish and braised leek sauce well. The only element of the dish I wasn’t so sure about was the buckwheat crepe which lacked seasoning and was a tad too thick.
Lemon Sole, Buckwheat Pancake, Leeks & Monk’s Beard
The dessert course we shared could have easily passed off as a work of abstract art. Rhubarb was served two ways – poached and as a sorbet. Buttermilk was similarly served as a velvety mousse and as crispy, meringue-like ‘chips’. The different textures at play were incredible and the tartness of the rhubarb was balanced beautifully by the milky sweetness of the mousse and shards of air-light chips. A stunning dessert that capped off our lunch in style.
Yorkshire Rhubarb, Buttermilk Mousse & Milk Chips
As more and more of Spitalfields’ independent shops and eateries get stomped over by big brands and high street chains, I’m glad there are still gems like Upstairs continuing to thrive. In my 6 years of living in the area, this is simply some of the best food and value for money the neighbourhood has seen. And I hope it’s here to stay.
84 Commercial Street, E1 6LY, Spitalfields | www.tenbells.com | Saturday 23rd March 2013