Smoke and Salt in Brixton
Walking into Smoke and Salt — a restaurant packed neatly into a shipping container at the back of Pop Brixton — you could be forgiven for thinking yourself suddenly in Brooklyn: the glossy dark wood walls, soft ship lighting and the gleam of brass fittings make the containment itself feel deliberate and intimately so. Stumbling in from a rain-soaked evening, it might have looked as if there were too many staff for the narrow space, but once tucked safely to one side, next to a rain-washed window, we felt suddenly cast off at sea and grateful for such an attentive crew.
Whisky holds particular appeal when it rains. Cheered by the quiet buzz of conversation and songs we haven’t heard for years, we ordered drinks from a reassuringly small list, opting for a Boston Sour with sorrel and a Rose Mary Berry. We took our time over the menu — divided between tidbits, kitchen plates, grilled plates and pastry (a misnomer, but we’ll come to that) — and though the place was packed to capacity, we never felt crowded or rushed. The whisky sour was a verdant green and left a banana-smooth residue which it took us a while to identify as a touch of egg white. The gin-laced Rose Mary Berry was prettier (pink, picnicky, spiked with raspberries and rosemary) but unexceptional — better sipped perhaps on a scorching day.
Though on trend with its underpinning of smoking, curing and preserving, this menu can be a bucket of cold water in the face of expectations. A Summer Tomato Salad tempted us, but we couldn’t resist the Sourdough Bread and Butter (from the old post-office bakery). The sourdough was rich and satisfying, and the malt butter looked like toffee ice cream or whipped peanut butter, generously sprinkled with crystals of rock-salt. Airy rather than thick, we scooped it up like a dip, and when a (beautiful) waiter with sparkling eyes asked whether we wouldn’t rather keep it, we were grateful.
From the kitchen plates, my omnivore dining companion rhapsodised over the Creedy Carver Duck: tangles of slow-cooked meat, tender and falling apart atop a homemade naan-looking flat bread. Fatty in a good way, and full of salty umami flavours, the duck stood up to the sprinkle of dried lavender, as pretty as an afterthought but more meaningful than that.
On the other side of the table, I had difficulty giving up my plate of Trombetta Courgettes, which were perfectly cooked, and everything you might want from a summer salad: yellow peppers, a toasted walnut crumble and a sauce with hues of pesto – but more pungent, which left an oily residue on the lips. (A glass of Portuguese red wine, the only one offered on the menu, was delightful with this).
The grilled plate wasn’t as exciting; the constituent parts didn’t quite add up. The despondent heap of Hispi Cabbage seemed more intimidating than you might want a vegetable to be. But then, the more you cut into it (discarding the heap of coriander and smoky tofu dressing, piped in lines like at Yo Sushi) and focussed solely on the flavour — and delicious additions like the pickled peanuts — it made a strange sort of sense. Small plates, particularly vegetarian ones, risk conjuring Ottolenghi, and I found myself wishing for a bowl of shredded leaves, rather than half a cabbage like an upside-down tortoise on a slab. The Miso and Honey Glazed Lamb Belly was flawlessly cooked, and the fat had rendered nicely. Leaning towards extremes, like all good food here, the miso lingered, and there was a clever use of summer peas, lively and green. The gooseberry though was fleeting, and my fellow diner remarked, somewhat wistfully, that he would have liked more.
Flavours like this walk the line between exciting and confusing, but for these impressive prices (around £40 with drinks for two) you don’t usually get to experience something this playful, attentive or new. The dessert — a Harvest Pudding — was as mixed up as it sounded: grilled amarillo peaches, English strawberries, sweet corn gel. The omelette-like appearance of the pudding didn’t assuage our initial concerns (has the phrase “sweet corn gel” ever made anyone swoon?).
But then you take one bite, then another, and suddenly it’s gone. Like two desserts crammed into one bowl, strewn with a handful of popcorn confetti, this is the kind of food that keeps you talking about it afterwards, like children who have accidentally stumbled into a festival, not entirely sure what’s going on but excited about figuring it out.★★★★★Food ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮Drinks ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮Service ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮
Photos: Daniel Masters
To book a table at Smoke and Salt, Pop Brixton 49 Brixton Station Road London SW9 8PQ, call 07421 327556 or visit here.