After making a name for himself on Great British Menu and losing the rights to use it, James Cochran is thriving in his own Islington site, developing his cooking style and delivering ‘flavour bombs'. Vincent Wood reports
Cochran, meanwhile, is thriving at his new 48-cover site on Islington's Upper Street. Despite the area having claimed the scalps of more than a few restaurateurs over the last year – including 1251's former tenants, Chinese Laundry – the restaurant is full on a Monday night.
It's good news for back of house, as Cochran is building his "old school, shabby chic" kitchen as the business progresses: "I think at one point I had no Robot-Coupe, no Thermomix, no Kitchenaid – I had to use a Vita-Prep to blend and that leaked. It was a nightmare. Trials and tribulations of being an owner and a chef, I guess."
Adding restaurateur on top of acclaimed chef to his CV is just one way Cochran has developed since the move, growing his style along with his four-chef brigade. Plates are rich and attractive, but a million miles from the ultra-refined, multi-ingredient dishes often associated with fine-dining restaurants such as Cochran's formative kitchen, Brett Graham's the Ledbury in Notting Hill.
Cochran says: "You work in Michelin-starred restaurants and have that embedded into you – it's taken me a few years to know my direction in the flavours of food. I think you saw the cusp of it at EC3, but I'm more happy with my style of food now. It's not too over-complicated; you don't have 18 components per dish. It's about working with really good produce and letting it speak for itself."
Each mouthful has impact; you are unlikely to find a subtle forkful in Cochran's dishes. But his palate is no blunt instrument, rather offering myriad levels of complexity. "There's always something a bit unusual, like different textures, but it's always for the flavour bomb. That's been my whole ethos from day dot."
Earthy ingredients like smoked eel, asparagus and barbecued leek run through the core of his menu, paired so dishes shoot off in different directions. His favourite dish, a roast haunch of new-season lamb, is brined in a mixture of soy, mirin and fish sauce, served with Roscoff onion, sheep's curd, mint, gremolata and almond. The barbecued leek dish is led by the core ingredient combined with rich, aromatic truffle and an egg yolk. While shiitake mushrooms and hazelnuts ensure the earthiness is accentuated, a hidden burst of feta makes the dish soar with a savoury burst.
Cochran's approach is forward-thinking, not looking to past recipes as much as painting with the flavours available to him now. Miso accompanies braised beef short rib and bone marrow. Peppercorns offer punch to a lemon meringue dessert. Pork is accentuated by smoked eel in a pan-fried slice of sausage reminiscent of saucisse de Morteau. He adds: "It's about textures, acidity, a good balance of richness… If I marry that all together and have it going well, then I think I'm onto a winner. I think we're moving in the right direction so far. As long as I'm putting smiles on people's faces, I'm halfway there."
Much like his kitchen, Cochran's offering develops over time on both his £75 eight-course tasting menu and the Á la carte, where dishes range from £7 small plates to £24 mains. Dishes are added every few days in a gradually evolving menu with a seasonal core. Another recent development for Cochran has been in his desserts. Although the chef spent three years on pastry at the Ledbury, he notes, "that was a very long time ago".
"I think this is the first time since we've opened that I've been happy with my desserts," he says, referring to a deconstructed lemon meringue pie made up of lemon curd, yogurt sorbet and meringue; and a chocolate mousse millefeuille made with feuille de brick, served with milk sorbet and Crunchy Nut cornflake-esque 'cereal crunch', based on a recipe from the Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook by Christina Tosi and David Chang. What is prevalent, particularly in the latter, is a pure childhood nostalgia embedded in his approach to pastry design.
Cochran explains: "You can't beat a classic. You have this nostalgic feeling when you have a dessert from when you were younger – whether it's apple crumble with custard or a good lemon tart. I'm just trying to make a twist on a classic."
On the menu
- Malt cracker with carrot, sesame seed and blue cheese
- Pork and smoked eel sausage, smoked eel gravy mayonnaise, hen's egg and capers
- Asparagus with a slow-cooked poached egg, sunflower seeds, smoked mayonnaise and wild garlic
- Barbecued leek with truffle, egg yolk, shiitake mushroom, feta and hazelnuts
- Roast haunch of new season lamb with Roscoff onion, sheeps' curd, mint, gremolata and almonds
- Slow-braised short rib of Dexter beef, wild garlic, miso, salsify, oyster leaf, bone marrow
- Lemon, yogurt sorbet, pink peppercorns and meringue
- Chocolate mousse and milk sorbet with cereal crunch
Eight-course tasting menu, £75; eight-course vegetarian menu, £65
107 Upper Street, London N1 1QN www.1251.co.uk
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