I take only partial credit, but since I moved in, Islington has changed. Sure, there were diamonds in the rough before – but as the process of buying an engagement ring has taught me, those diamonds need a lot of additional precious stones around them to really pop, to catch the light just so. For years Islington was a culinary punch-line, all alfalfa sprouts and lentils, its proximity to the fertile soils of Clerkenwell ignored, and the emergence of an Ottolenghi or a Trullo heralded with all the ceremony of a tree falling down unnoticed in the middle of a forest.
The most dreaded question you can ask at 10AM on a Saturday morning: “Where are we going for brunch?”
By my reckoning, the revolution started at Le Coq. This is surely the platonic ideal of a neighbourhood restaurant: inexpensive, comforting, but with just enough wit and variety – a menu that changes weekly helps in this regard – to keep you coming back for more. Après ça, le déluge: adult restaurants (Galley), cheffy restaurants (Oldroyd), Corbin and King restaurants (Bellanger), inexplicably popular grease-taurants (Meatliquor). All of them wonderful and welcome additions to the landscape, but none of them providing any sort of answer to the most dreaded question you can ask at 10AM on a Saturday morning: “Where are we going for brunch?”
Now. Hating on brunch is de rigueur, and has been for ages (‘Brunch is for Jerks’ proclaimed the New York Times, as far back as 2014). The brunch experience is so cliché that writing an effective takedown of brunch cannot help but stray into cliché too: Instagram, avocado toast, latte art. But where we can give the supine figure of brunch a quick kick in the ribs, we should – because it is in danger of becoming an all-consuming ritual, something we do unthinkingly, just because. In a world where someone (Taylor Swift?) is the goddess of basicness, brunch is our new communion: this toasted sourdough is my body (take, eat); this cortado is my blood.
This is a bad thing for many reasons, but my main issue with brunch is that it is boring. Not conversationally (at least, not always), but in terms of the procession of bland ingredients you mindlessly pile into your mouth whilst discussing how much of a total bitch one of your dearest friends from university has become. Sure – a place might distinguish itself by serving Monmouth or Climpson and Sons, but it’s the same miserable procession of produce. Fridge-cold avocado, margin-bolstering cruelty eggs, rock-hard sourdough from last night’s service. Add bacon for £2.50.
That’s why, in the past, I’d spend every Saturday morning frantically negotiating an alternative, which would almost always involve a considerable schlep away from Upper Street, and a similarly significant concession on my part. Let’s go to Beigel Bake – then we can go shopping in Spitalfieds? Let’s go to Royal China – we could maybe invite your family? Let’s walk to Broadway Market – don’t you have a couple of episodes of Dance Moms saved down that we could watch when we come back?
Let’s walk to Broadway Market – don’t you have a couple of episodes of Dance Moms saved down that we could watch when we come back?
Those days are gone. Now we have not one but two actually exciting places to eat on a Saturday morning. I’d already fallen head over heels for Black Axe Mangal when it opened as an evenings-only place: a place cooking food actually able to cash the cheques written by its shouty rock n’ roll swagger (Meatliquor, take note). In the mornings it’s still unapologetically loud (I can’t believe I’m about to write this, but maybe… too loud?) and there’s no drop-off in quality: highlights are a banana-cinammon flatbread for the ages, and “pastrami-style” smoked salmon with squid-ink bread and some bracingly Ashkenazi accoutrements. You will note that these are not huge departures from the canon of brunch dishes – the difference is that these things have been made with love, charred over real heat and seasoned with spices that pack a genuine punch. The one bum note just goes to prove that even a skilled kitchen can’t save conventional brunch from itself: even on top of more exquisite flatbread, avocado and a poached egg remain a horrible, slimy mess.
Closer to Angel – or further away from the Highbury Corner axis of off licenses and betting shops – is Chinese Laundry. I’d done dinner there once, during the fag-end days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and had been quietly appalled, especially after a gently bemused but broadly positive Giles Coren review. But I am nothing if not willing to experiment (or desperate to avoid queuing for 45 minutes at Maison d’Etre), so I took another crack, in the morning this time. Another mixed bag, with the same otherworldly service, but some definite improvements on your usual eggs benedict. It might be the house special, but don’t order the peanut milk: I’d seen it and been transported back to the ambrosial World Peace digestif served at State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, but this tasted more like what you’d get if you rinsed out a jar of Skippy for re-use. Definitely do order the bing – a crispy scallion pancake which, whilst not as intensely savoury as the ones you can get for literal pennies in Shanghai and Singapore, is filled with bacon and egg and a gochujang-like chilli sauce and reveals the Dishoom bacon naan as the over-hyped also-ran it so undoubtedly is (come @ me, Dishoom apologists). Finally, if you’re really hungry or are imminently embarking on an Antarctic crossing, consider the “big baozi”, a steamed bao of comically large proportions and indecently rich and gelatinous filling, stuffed as it is with pork belly and other red-cooked bits of goodness. I can’t promise you won’t find yoga a struggle later, and I’m not sure if any of the fats involved are the good kind – but that’s a small price to pay for saving you, your weekend, and your weekends still to come. C