This week I ate at Sardine, which is just off the City Road, a location that, I think, a few years ago would have been unthinkable for a smart restaurant. Even now, with every other building around it an art gallery or architect’s office, this area between Hoxton and Islington is slightly forbidding and unknowable. Further East is where the centre of the city’s new restaurant vanguard lies, with The Clove Club and Lyle’s and the rest. But rather than the New British cooking they offer, Sardine’s style is food from Southwest France cooked over a wood fire. It had been a dull, damp day in high summer and we were ready for it.
Sardine opened only a few weeks ago. It is new enough that photos of it and the food it serves pop up on my Twitter and Instagram feeds every few minutes. I expect it’s called Sardine because diners are fitted in like fish in a can. You knock the backs of peoples’ heads as you squeeze through to your seats. It was almost full, so there were many heads to knock. The chairs, Thonet bentwood, reminding us that we’re eating French food, were arranged close together along a communal, zinc-topped table. There are smaller tables along one side, and an open kitchen along the other. You may be more comfortable in either. The room is loud with the noise of people trying to be heard over other people trying to be heard. We ordered a pichet de rosé and some glaçons. We looked at the reassuringly short menu; better to do a few things well than many things badly.
I was with Camilla, of course, who has just returned, appropriately enough, from a few weeks in Bordeaux, where, just as appropriately, I’m going in September for a week or ten days. We both love the area and its food. I’m expecting to reduce the region’s stocks of foie gras and rôti de veau substantially while I’m there. Also, this is the first time we’ve met since I decided to leave the country. My dinners with Camilla will be one of the things I miss most when I move in October. We have much to discuss.
We ordered three starters; an artichoke niçoise, a tomato stuffed with pork and veal, and, who could resist, a toasted Comté sandwich, which was the best of them. It had a very satisfying crunch to it and maybe too much tarragon.
We talked about many things, work, families, the things we always talk about. We discussed where I’ll have my leaving party and where we’ll have our leaving dinner, just us. I know, I know, I can and will come back to London. I can’t imagine never being here again. But, still, I have been walking around this city, where I’ve lived all my life, growing nostalgic for forgotten corners, pubs where I once had a drink, places and people.
Our mains came. I had lamb with white beans. It was cooked à la ficelle, which I learn is a technique where the meat is tied up with string and cooked in front of an open fire. If ever I live somewhere with an open fire, I will buy some string. The sauce with the beans was very garlic-y, quite lovely. Camilla had onglet with chard, which she thought perfectly cooked. We had a side of fine-sliced potatoes, drenched in clarified butter, browned and puffed under a grill, that I want to eat at every meal for the rest of my life. The food was authentically southern French, but much better cooked than you often find there. London-standard cooking of French food is the definition of joy to me, something else you might not have said a few years ago.
We needed dessert, to counter the bittersweetness. Camilla had a chocolate mousse, fruity with brandy and a prune, with a slick of cold cream on top, a perfect dot of chocolate showing through. I had nougat ice cream with a fennel biscuit. Both added to our happiness.
All this came to around £100, which didn’t feel too much. Les prix de Londres, innit.
Sardine, 15 Micawber Street, London N1 7TB