We were originally tempted to give John Salt a try during Ben Spalding’s short stint in charge around the turn of the year. In the end though, we decided that “brick licking” didn’t really appeal, so we gave it a miss.
In fairness to Ben, his arrival put John Salt on the map and paved the way for what’s happening there today. When he made his unscheduled exit a few months ago, former Pitt Cue Co head chef Neil Rankin was brought in and although the food has changed direction, the buzz hasn’t diminished. I’m also glad to say that the only bricks I saw on this visit were out the front, being used as ashtrays.
We’ve seen so many good things written about this place lately, that we decided that we were missing out and this visit felt overdue. We both liked the look of the main menu, but the Hog was particularly keen to try their “two cut” Sunday lunch, so off we went.
We arrived and were seated on a communal table for ten (which we felt would comfortably seat six). I initially felt pretty disgruntled about this and would’ve requested a table for two if I’d known in advance. I think communal seating is fine at places like Busaba or Wagamama, but I don’t think it works here.
In fairness, this wasn’t helped by one of the people on our table being loud and brash, but that’s always going to be a danger. I’m sure he wasn’t particularly enamoured by us taking food photos either, but there you go.
Anyway, back to the food. We were particularly looking forward to the chicken skin hash, which a friend of ours described as one of the best things he’s ever eaten. However, we were disappointed to hear that sides aren’t available on a Sunday. Another dish we’d seen widely praised, the crab and fennel on pork skin wasn’t on the menu either, so we had to have a rethink. In the end, we settled on the raw beef with pear and sesame and the grilled mackerel to start.
The beef came diced and covered in sesame seeds and chopped spring onion. It had a distinctly Asian aroma (from sesame oil) and tasted delicious. It also had a real kick to it, which was a surprise as it wasn’t listed as being spicy. The sweetness of the pear balanced out the other flavours. It was simple food done brilliantly. If anyone’s unsure about trying raw meat, this could be a great dish to put it to the test.
The mackerel looked appetising and tasted fresh. The menu says the sauce is ponzu and shrimp, which surprised us because we couldn’t detect any citrus (which would’ve been welcome) and we thought it tasted more like soy. The peanut added to the texture but it was a little too salty and one dimensional.
For our main courses, we ordered roast beef and roast pork, both of which turned out to be the stars of the show. The pork dish was outstanding, comprising of pulled shoulder meat and slow cooked belly. The belly was soft, flavoursome and succulent, with crispy fat on top. Not to be outdone, the shoulder meat was packed with flavour and too not shredded. I also really enjoyed the tangy apple sauce that accompanied it.
The roast beef was equally delicious, comprising of a piece of soft short rib and a lovely, juicy slice of sirloin. Both mains came served with an interesting selection of vegetables, including roasted fennel as well as potatoes, garlic and wild garlic leaves. Both also came with gravy and a Yorkshire pudding. The Hog and I disagreed on which was the best tasting dish, but suffice to say that both were excellent.
We could clearly see the influence of Pitt Cue on the cooking style, but the absence of BBQ sauce helped to remind us that we were somewhere else. It was a welcome change to the usual Sunday roast and having two different cuts of meat on the plate added welcome variety in terms of flavour and texture.
For dessert, we went for Oreo, peanut and chocolate tart and a good “old fashioned” trifle. The trifle tasted fantastic, I particularly liked the blobs of meringue on top of the thick cream. The rest of it was a little too wet for my liking, but the Hog declared it delicious nonetheless. The Oreo tart was a winner too, chocolatey and rich, with a nice savoury hit of peanut and a good crunch from the Oreo base.
Another thing that impressed me about John Salt was the accessibility of the wine list. You can get a bottle from a very reasonable £15, and the by-the-glass prices are similarly competitive. They also have a good selection of craft beers. Service was very good on our visit, efficient and friendly.
We both really enjoyed our meal here and will definitely return to try the main menu. It is a shame about the seating, but seeing as they position themselves as “a neighbourhood bar” first and a restaurant second, we’ll forgive them. For the sake of the great food, I think I can get over it and put up with an annoying neighbour or two – as long as I can have the chicken skin hash next time.
Lunch for 2 with drinks and service approx £85.
Address: 131 Upper St, Islington, London, N1 1QP