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Menuwatch: Acorn House, London

17 May 2007

Amid all the praise for this London restaurant's environmental approach, the food has often been somewhat overlooked. Tom Vaughan goes to find out what's on the menu

It's nothing out of the ordinary for a restaurant to open to critical admiration. It is, however, unusual that within weeks of opening somewhere should be touted as a business "all restaurants should emulate" by the London Evening Standard‘s Fay Maschler or, more notably, "the most important restaurant of the past 200 years" by Giles Coren of the Times.

The reason that critics wax lyrical about Acorn House is its dedication to the environment. Since Arthur Potts Dawson, formerly head chef at Fifteen and the River Café, and James Grainger Smith, who helped set up Fifteen back in 2002, opened the restaurant in November 2006, initiatives implemented include compulsory recycling and composting, the sourcing of only sustainable produce, and chilled, purified tap water sold instead of air-freighted mineral water.

Accolades

But, despite gathering accolades such as the Observer Food Monthly Best New Restaurant award, executive chef Potts Dawson is worried that too much emphasis is being placed on the ethos of the restaurant as opposed to the food. "If the press was bad on our food, then people would be saying ‘Great idea, but we're not coming back'," says Potts Dawson. "I'm happy for the food to be taking a back seat, because it's still driving the restaurant."

The light, airy space was a former office near King's Cross, and squeezes in a remarkable 68 seats. The kitchen is similarly small and, as a result, a lot of the produce is kept on shelves in the restaurant, giving the impression of a rustic deli. Occasionally chefs have to ask diners to pass over a rhubarb stalk, say, as they prepare lunch.

The menu changes on the first of every month, but some dishes have proved so popular that they've stayed on. Beetroot, cardamom and sour cream soup (small £5.50, large £6.50) has been a mainstay since January, despite its earthy richness lending more to the colder months. Tomato, cucumber and marjoram soup (£5.50/£6.50), though, is more suited to the hotter weather.

At lunch, salads can be ordered on their own or as an accompaniment to main courses, with an assortment of three priced at £8, or four at £10. Asparagus, peas and mint offers sweet English asparagus, while Cornish greens, juniper and pancetta is balanced perfectly between the hearty produce of winter and the new season's treats. Tom's Royal Jersey salad braised Bright Lights chard, pale miso and lentils and violet artichokes "erbette" make up some of the remainder.

Additional starters join the evening menu, including smoked mackerel, baby leeks, spinach and pickled ginger (£9.50) and spring beetroot, Jersey Royals, Amalfi olives and chilli (£8).

Dinner dispenses with the salads but still carries the same pasta offering: capellacci (bishops' hats) with new-season lamb (lunch £10/£12, dinner £14), and sustainable prawn risotto, anchovy and pangritata (lunch £10/£12, dinner £13.50).

Main courses are the same on both menus, with roast pork chop, vin santo, rosemary and mascarpone, (lunch £13/£15 with two/three salads, dinner £17.50) a popular choice. Pan-fried organic salmon fillet, cherry tomatoes and basil (lunch £13/£15, dinner £17) has also proved a hit, while aubergine, spinach, goats' cheese and grilled red chilli sauce (lunch £13/£15, dinner £14) for me became the Holy Grail of all vegetarian dishes by proving more appetising than most of the meat options.

Desserts

The desserts are simplicity itself: poached rhubarb, sable stars and custard (£6.50), rice pudding, baked nespole and hazelnut biscotti (£6.50), caramel ice-cream and rhubarb sorbet (£4/£6 for one/two scoops).

The restaurant may have been showered with praise, but there's no rocket science involved. "What we're doing here is simple, sustainable and seasonal," says Potts Dawson. "We're not trying to be clever."

With the restaurant eyeing new sites and planning to take on 10 students in a three-year training programme in the coming months, this approach clearly has a big future.

What's on the menu

  • Mozzarella di bufala, artichokes and aged balsamic vinegar, £9.50
  • Prosciutto di San Daniele with melon, £10.50
  • English asparagus, Stilton and marjoram, £11
  • Duck confit and braised Savoy cabbage, £17
  • Chargrilled leg of lamb, anchovy and rosemary sauce, £18.50
  • Chargrilled fish of the day, cardamom and horseradish, £15.50
  • Apple pie, cinnamon and clotted cream, £6.50
  • Spiced warm flourless chocolate cake and ginger ice-cream, £6.50
  • Selection of fine English cheeses, £5.50/£7.50/£10.50

Acorn House, 69 Swinton Street, London WC1X 9NT. Website: www.acornhouserestaurant.com

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