Do you remember your first pet? Mine was a black cat called Blackie. That’s not very original, is it? It was the 1980s. I don’t think you’d get away with a name like that today. You probably couldn’t back then. But the naivety of my parents knew no bounds. We lived in provincial Kent, so shouting “Blackie!” in the back garden wasn’t going to cause offence.
I ask because Imogen Davis, one half of Native’s patron pair, grew up in Northamptonshire with a falcon. A BLOODY FALCON! A bird of prey. Like she was Billy Casper in Kes or Rutger Hauer in Ladyhawke. Beat that.
Imogen has a hawk now called Rufus and he has more Instagram followers than you. When he’s not eating country mice, Rufus is working at Billingsgate fish market or his summer job at Wimbledon, patrolling the skies and scaring away curious pigeons. I learnt all of this from Imogen while eating at Native, Neal Yard’s newest addition to the courtyard culinary scene.
On the evening of my visit they had placed 14th in Time Out’s 100 Best Restaurants in London. As Native had only been open for three months, that immediately set the bar very high. I don’t know who votes, counts, and measures these lists, but I order as much as I can from the menu to make up my own mind.
They’re hot and crunchy, the best I’ve ever eaten. Less is more here
And so, croquettes arrive. Three deep-fried, hefty morsels of rolled smoked ham hock (pigs head) served with a burnt apple béarnaise and lovage salt. They’re hot and crunchy, the best I’ve ever eaten. Less is more here. The quality of these ingredients sing. The meat is rich and punchy and I could eat another three, but choose instead to savour what I’ve already devoured. Then there is the pigeon kebab…
Chef Ivan Tisdall-Downes, formerly of River Cottage, tells me that the pigeon kebab is Native’s staple, the dish most asked about and certainly the one most photographed. I order it more because of curiosity than description, and what arrives is a beautifully constructed assembly of vibrant elements – wood pigeon, beetroot hummus, pickled cabbage and harissa – mounted on top of warm organic flatbread. It’s a popular construction from Ivan and Imogen’s street food days in Hackney and it was never not going to feature on the Native menu. It’s earthy and rich, creamy from the pink beet hummus, and impossible to pick up.
Sitting at the kitchen table I’m able to see Ivan and his sous chef work. It’s a winning seat. The small kitchen is neat but busy, and as hot as a firepit. Ingredients fill baskets and bowls, ready to be measured, weighed and prepped to order. Iron skillets bubble with hot oil and the large, an American-style fridge in the back hums melodically. “It’s simple, seasonal ingredients,” Ivan tells me. “Nothing complicated, really. Just good, clean, fresh English produce.”
Lincolnshire Poacher is a common thread throughout the menu, featuring in both a starter and my venison main. South Downs venison is perfect pink, served with cauliflower purée, an astringent salsa verde of tarragon, parsley, capers and wild garlic, and strips of Lincolnshire Poacher. There’s also pickled pear with Lincolnshire Poacher and herbs and strips of Lincolnshire Poacher with rhubarb puree and slices of roast quince on crispbread. “We get it from Neal’s Yard Dairy next door,” Ivan says, “literally the other side of that wall. And I was on the phone this morning to our clam supplier in Poole, Dorset.”
Then, I’m handed a slice of oak, upon which are two plump, black ants. This does not feature on the menu, but is instead a Noma-inspired amuse-bouche promoting entomophagy. “They’re foraged from forests in Kent,” says Imogen. I pop the fattest in my mouth and crunch hard. There’s a squirt of innards. Not mushy, but bitter like licking a lime. It tingles on the tongue.
Desserts are straightforward. Berkshire raspberries are served with meadowsweet cream and a sweet meringue. There’s individual caramelised honey and bay leaf truffles and my punchy affogato with hay-smoked ice cream sends me gently buzzing into the night.
To source, prepare and cook with regional, seasonal food is nothing new. It’s not even very special. But, few do it with such enthusiasm. Imogen runs through the pulled, plucked and uprooted ingredients like she’s speaking about her children, grinning with pride. That farm-to-fork philosophy has inspired these two restaurant first-timers to give it a go in the capital. But really, it’s we who benefit. There’s a genuine excitement and energy at Native. C