Anyone who tells you big beards are dead need only push through the fashionable crowds of Shorditch on the way to Lyle’s to know their demise is somewhat exaggerated. Indeed, when you arrive you are greeted by a handsome, Amish-looking gentleman called Harvey, who sports a fine, bushy beard, white shirt and black suit. I failed to see if his trousers stopped just short of his ankle. I’m happy to note, however, the waning of the waxed moustache in East London’s restaurant scene.
Lyle’s is that sort of restaurant in that sort of area. If food historians want to discover the definitive on-trend foods of fashionable London in 2016 then a copy of Lyle’s menu will be of some help. Agretti, tick; ramsons, tick; calçot, tick. Oats, whey and pig’s head, tick, tick, and tick again. Do they name the breed of animal used in each dish? You know they do. As I doubt you have a waiter beside you to explain everything, I wonder if I should include a glossary at the end of this.
I was with Camilla, with whom I eat often. We were at Moro the other week. Camilla has taken a three-month course at Ballymaloe, worked with Heston, Jamie, Simon, Gary, Skye and Claudia and is now with Gordon. She has eaten the £100 truffle-stuffed chicken at Le Gavroche and I’d say she knows more about food than I do; at my local greengrocer the other day I held up a small bouquet of floppy green things and asked if it was agretti. They told me, in a very patient way, that I had in my hand some wilting chives. I can tell you that agretti, an Italian green vegetable, which I ate at Lyle’s, is the same thing as monk’s beard. They are all equally fashionable.
The room itself is like a sybaritic monastery, if such a thing can be imagined. Beautiful in a spare way, and a fine reflection of the food served there. It’s all quite minimal. The decor is polished-concrete floor and white walls, pale wooden furniture and a flash of aluminium from the (of course) open kitchen with an orange burst from the (of course) wood-fired oven. The food is white and green, brown and white, on white or the palest grey plates. There may be a flash of the blue of blue cheese for technicolour exuberance. It’s like eating dinner at Philip Glass’s with Helmut Lang and a crowd of young architects.
One of the many things I liked about Lyle’s was the space between tables. No eavesdropping, no elbows knocking. It felt like a real luxury in those cool surroundings. It’s open for breakfast and there’s an à la carte menu at lunch, but in the evening there are two set menus – carnivorous or vegetarian. Both vary each day, changing with the season and what’s good. It was the second dinner in a row where we’ve eaten the same as each other and we decided this was a good thing. It allowed us to talk about what was in our mouths and for that, for once, to mean something to the other. It may become a feature of our evenings.
Our waiter asked if we had any allergies. We don’t, although we each have strong dislikes. Me: beetroot, Camilla: beans. Of course, I love beans and Camilla likes beetroot. Jack and Mrs Spratt. We were both safe but I think they would have prepared the meal without those items if necessary.
We ordered a carafe of Folle Blanche, a bargain at £20, which I’m sure was at the ‘right’ temperature but wasn’t cold enough for my taste. I like white wine wine to be chilly and a la plouf. I asked for ice and pretended it was for my water. I realise I’m a philistine and can only apologise. It was so much better. Oh, it was delicious colder.
Pre-menu tidbits came: a bowl of mussels, soft as marshmallows, in a buttery liquid that tasted of the sea, and two open sandwiches of soft pig’s head. Camilla, I know, wanted to put the bowl to her lips and drink the mussel liquor. We asked for bread to mop it up. Excellent sourdough arrived with butter that had been, of course, made on the premises. It was the best butter I’ve ever eaten and I’m now thinking about buying a churn. I think I could live on the off-menu extras, just as I’d be happy to spend every weekend in Paris and only ever watch Hitchcock. Indeed, as if to prove my point, with the bill came two sharp-cornered chocolates with liquid salted caramel centres and two doll’s house cakes, hot from the oven, crusty without, soft within, tasting like something you could never have enough of.
The first course proper was calçots with a sous vide egg from a Cotswold White, and crunchy barley, like the most refined rice krispies you’ll ever know. Calçots are a sort of spring onion. There is a town in Spain that has a calçot festival every February, as does Morito, half a mile away. They have caught on in this sort of dining room in this part of town. The egg white was too close to its raw snot-like state for me to really relax, but it was a very clean, somewhat soothing dish. I learn from Camilla that it’s pronounced ‘kal-sott’.
Then was a piece of mutton, from a Blackface sheep, with a small quenelle of mash and ramsons, which are wild garlic leaves. They were very garlicky. The meat was the definition of savoury. Low-carbers won’t have much to fear at Lyle’s.
My favourite dish of the evening was turbot with a whey-butter sauce, pale and beautiful to look at, with those agretti making a dramatic splash of emerald. The sauce, by itself, was too saline, but a forkful of everything together was perfect. It was my dish of the evening and probably of 2016, so far.
We said yes to the cheese, which is from Neal’s Yard and a salty £9 extra, too. Colton Bassett and Edmund Tew are from the salty end of the cheese board, but we managed to finish them. The biscuits that came with were sensationaly good.
Desert was a salt experiment that failed. A perfect Concord pear sorbet with a scattering of oats on top and curls of more Edmund Tew over everything. After one taste I brushed away the cheese and enjoyed the sorbet by itself. Both of us enjoy salt, and throw handfuls into almost everything we cook, but even so, there was a lot of it in this meal. The sorbet was dreamy.
Two days later and I’m still thinking about that meal. It wasn’t perfect, but I loved the best bits and I loved sitting in the room eating it. It came to £132 for us both, including the wine and cheese. Without exception, the waiters and chefs were charming, friendly and well-informed. I honestly can’t wait to go again.