12:51 in Islington: British and Jamaican flavours that will linger long after you leave
It’s not long after we’ve nestled down in the narrow confines of 12:51 that we notice someone breezing by in a beret and flares. Such is the hipster presence in Islington that the recycled tile coasters, exposed lightbulbs and vinyl albums barely register. But while in other local joints this understated aesthetic might scream of pretension, this cosy (and slightly cramped) corridor-like space is refreshingly down to earth. Chef James Cochran is fairly new to the block, but unlike many of his neighbours, his fusion food doesn’t seek just to be noticed, but rather to be remembered.
Cochran’s journey has been rocky, to say the least. The 34-year-old chef rose to prominence after opening his own eponymous restaurant in 2016, but things turned sour when he departed and found his trademarked name – and his recipes, to boot – were no longer his own. In 2018, the tides turned once again when he charmed the nation on The Great British Menu, taking the title. At his latest venture, 12:51, he serves up food that makes you think, borrowing from his unique heritage, with influences ranging from the Caribbean and the wilds of Scotland to the more familiar Kentish coast.
Settling in nicely with a chatty service, we start with a couple of customary cocktails. What a Pear is just what the doctor ordered: a satisfyingly smooth and sweet concoction to soothe any thirsty throat. The Bloody Mary Martini, on the other hand, prescribes a more aggressive revival, and comes with a hefty kick.
Accompanying the drinks are an array of intriguing snacks. You couldn’t hope for a better start than the Buttermilk Jerk Spiced Chicken. Tender inside, fried to crisp perfection on the outside, coated with a sweet yet sassy scotch bonnet jam and then finished with a dash of fresh coriander. The pheasant sausage is just as well balanced: the egg on top lends the dish the feel of a refined Full English, yet the bird sits in a delightfully punchy chicken stock mayonnaise packing all the flavour of a Sunday roast. The flatbread continues to defy expectations, underlaid with that distinctive chargrilled barbecue taste but dripping with indulgent smoked pork butter and sprinkled with pork scratchings.
Next up, the Bombay Swede brings with it the full power of the Indian spice rack, but what really elevates the plate is the decision to serve it cold, making it a lighter, salad-like alternative to its popular potato cousin. The Warm Broth of Smoked Scottish Mussels rounds off the snacks with all the depth of a classic moule bisque, a lacing of jalapeños bringing the pleasure of a chunky chowder consistency and leaving in its wake a gentle heat.
After indulging in these “snacks”, it’s fair to say we are already feeling well-fed. Indeed, when it comes to scale, the menu is a little off-kilter. The mains prove to be an altogether more dainty affair (not mean, by any standards, but a bemusing step down from their generous predecessors). The celeriac arrives as an uninspiring beige disk – the one bright element, the confit egg yolk, is hiding underneath – but the notes of intense parmesan which explode from this humble vegetable are enough to paint a colourful picture. The sprouts are another cheesy vegetable delight, reminiscent of a broccoli and stilton soup but retaining the firm texture of Christmas’s most underappreciated dinner guest.
The fish ramps it up to the next level; gurnard, also often overlooked in gastronomic circles, is allowed to shine alongside wonderful bursts of nduja, crackling and fresh yoghurt. Hake is given another surf and turf spin, lifted with chorizo and a peppery puree, alongside crispy semolina-coated broccoli and an assertive acidic mayonnaise.
When we get to the meat, our friendly server informs us that the restaurant is dedicated to using every part of the animal, and the cuts we are served certainly do justice to the departed. The Slow-Braised Pork Belly has an East Asian-style seasoning, finished with a zing of pickled leek, apple and granola. Last but not least, the Poached Roast Breast of Pheasant is a hearty finale. Rich shiny sauce mingles beautifully with the gamey protagonist, crunchy grains adding texture along with a silky celeriac puree. If there’s any criticism, it’s that the cabbage feels fairly redundant on an otherwise stellar plate.
Finally, we just about have room for dessert, and we opt first for the chocolate tart with salted caramel ice-cream and honeycomb. This plate is a comfort eater’s dream, though nothing revolutionary. Far more exciting is the Yorkshire Rhubarb, which rests on a cushion of “toasted” (blow-torched) marshmallow, the soft sweetness perfectly offsetting the sharp fruit and tart yoghurt sorbet. It’s like rhubarb and custard after it got the promotion.
The dishes at 12:51 are hardly gallery-worthy, for the most part, and the menu is a little erratic when it comes to portion size. But though Cochran is yet to convincingly conquer that oh-so-difficult spot between casual and fine dining, when it comes to flavour, he’s got character in spades. The chef is confidently reclaiming his image and identity through food crafted to linger not on your Instagram wall, but on your tastebuds.
★★★★★Food ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮Drinks ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮Service ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮
Photos: Filippo L’Astorina
To book a table at 12:51 In Islington, 107 Upper Street The Angel London N1 1QN, call 079 3420 2269 or visit their website here.