I’ve read many a favourable review of Eastside Inn since it opened its doors back in May 2009. Run by husband and wife team Bjorn and Justine van der Horst, Eastside Inn boasts a casual bistro with an open kitchen, as well as a separate restaurant serving more refined cooking. Chef van der Horst is no newcomer to the London fine dining scene, having worked as executive chef at the Greenhouse and more recently, the short-lived Ramsey venture, La Noisette. While researching BYO in London restaurants earlier this month, I learned through Justine that they did not charge corkage – a real anomaly for high-end establishments in the British capital. With many good bottles at home ready for drinking, this discovery compelled me to make the trek to East London and finally cross Eastside Inn off the ‘To Do’ list.
I arrived at the restaurant on a wet Friday evening, bottle of Romanée-Saint-Vivant (Nicolas Potel, 2000) in hand and was greeted cordially but somewhat unenthusiastically by the front of house. The sparsely-furnished dining room was completely empty and its drab interiors did little to improve my first impressions, nor did the fact that the waiter failed to offer me a menu to peruse while waiting for B. I sat for a good 15 to 20 minutes switching between staring into space and fiddling with my blackberry – the noise filtering in from the bustling bistro next door made me feel like I had wound up at the wrong party.
Thankfully the diners began to trickle in, elevating the ambiance a touch, and with the arrival of B and a glass of brut I was a lot more jovial by the time we were presented with our menus. Unlike the bistro which has a standard format menu, Eastside Inn’s “gastro” offers a choice of 2, 3 or 7 courses created from the Market Basket – a list of 13 or so ingredients that changes daily depending on what is fresh and available. You can of course advise the kitchen of any dietary restrictions, likes or dislikes, but as there are no descriptions as such, everything brought to the table is a surprise. The novel concept was one we approved of; not only was it fun but it also meant we were theoretically treated to the best of the market’s bounty.
We went with 3 courses and choose to forgo dessert, with the request for the food to be tailored to complement the burgundy we had brought along. Our opening amuse bouche (top image) was a rather forgettable stodgy cheese scone filled with bacon cream. The sliced Ballotine of Foie Gras on toast which followed however was melt-in-the-mouth and everything foie gras should be – sweet, rich and velvety. Anxious that our wine had remained sitting on our table unopened, we called over the sommelier who I was convinced had been avoiding our table like the plague ever since I walked in with my own bottle (although B attributes it to the service being traditional, and very French). He uncorked and tasted the wine, poured for us, then swiftly left to make his recommendations to the chef. The Romanée-Saint-Vivant was soft and succulent with red berry and violet undertones. Admittedly it could do with 2 or 3 more years in the cellar but it was drinking very well nevertheless with the tannins coming through on the finish, yet still elegant and rounded on the palate.
When our starters arrived we were delighted to find they were different, allowing us to taste a wider selection of what the kitchen has to offer. B’s was a Seared Scallop and Spare Rib, with Carrot Purée, Liquorice and Lemon Oil – the scallop perfectly caramelised and the braised ribs tender and perfumed with star anise. Each element tasted great on its own but as a whole it was a little unbalanced, more acid would have helped to bring all the intense flavours together.
Mine was a Winter Salad of Smoked Duck Ham, Duck Gizzards and Black Truffle. Not something I would naturally pick off a menu but I did enjoy the almost rare gizzards (soft and not at rubbery) and the proscuitto-like duck ham with the refreshing mélange of grapes, carrots, apples, endive, walnuts and pomegranate.
Next up were two offal dishes – Veal Sweetbreads with Brussel Sprouts and Calf’s Brains with Fennel. The sweetbreads were slightly heavy on the salt, but paired well with the bitter sprouts, red cabbage and luxurious bone marrow sauce.
The calf brains served with a fennel salad and crunchy croutons on the other hand, was not as successful. Despite being well-balanced texturally, the dish somehow managed to be bland yet overly acidic at the same time.
With regards to our main however, there were no complaints. Wheeled to us on a trolley and presented whole at the table, the John Dory to share came dressed with clarified butter, grapes, hazelnuts and lemon. The fish was lovely and moist, benefiting from the wonderful smokiness of the toasted hazelnuts and the sweetness of the grapes. It was served with a side of new potatoes and the impeccable creamed spinach (possibly the best I’ve ever tasted).
Two cappuccinos and a selection of petits fours rounded off our meal. The silky coconut square with a brownie base and chocolate covered macadamias were the standouts, while the caramel and hazelnut praline and the slightly odd granny smith and bubblegum lollipop were just ok.
So did Eastside Inn live up to the hype? The cooking is indeed refined, albeit slightly patchy, but at a steep £170 for two (3 courses, 2 glasses of house champagne and 2 cappuccinos), it is hardly value for money. It would seem we aren’t the only ones who thought so as the small restaurant was not even half full – pretty poor showing for a Friday night. Apart from the high price point, the service is a real let-down and one would expect a much slicker operation for an establishment with michelin-star aspirations. The stiff and lacklustre wait staff were a stark contrast to the bubbly Justine, who floated in and out throughout the course of the meal like a breath of fresh air. Her warm farewell at the door left us with every intention of returning, not to the restaurant, but the relaxed environs of the adjoining bistro.
40 St John Street
London, EC1M 4AY
t. 020 7490 9230