Simple treatment of top-notch produce makes a menu that sings with the flavours of the season. Neil Gerrard reports
London's Newington Green seems to have become a magnet for a new wave of restaurant openings, with one of the latest, Perilla, occupying what used to be a family-friendly café called That Place on the Corner.
Certainly, the area has proved enough of a draw to convince young restaurateurs Ben Marks and Matt Emmerson to give it a try, with a little help from such luminaries of the hospitality industry as Thomas Kochs, Phil Howard and Martyn Nail, who are all backing the project.
There are few pretensions to fine dining here. The friendly and engaging service, â¨coupled with a pared-back space free of tablecloths, exposing industrial-looking wooden tables with cast iron bases, create a relaxed environment. The side of the restaurant that looks out onto the street is made up of huge windows, creating the perfect setting to watch the bustle of north London from a table.
"The idea is to take top-end food and put â¨it in a casual, relaxed, informal atmosphere," explains Marks. "We run a five-course set menu for £38 and we try to make sure we have nothing on the Á la carte that exceeds £20. Sometimes it happens, but in general, main courses are £17-£18 and starters are lower than £10."
That's a tough ask for a restaurant that, as Marks explains, is quite happy to eschew local produce for the likes of Rungis market in Paris. "It is difficult. We use only top-end â¨suppliers and top-end products, but we have to work harmoniously with the seasons and have very little waste. It is something that we are starting to get to grips with," Marks says.
The food is, for the most part, light and healthy, epitomised by dishes such as grilled Italian courgettes with Pecorino and basil (£8.50) or Cornish mackerel with horseradish and sea kale (£12). In fact, London Evening Standard critic Grace Dent awarded the restaurant 4/5 for its food and said in her review: "While Perilla isn't a clean-eating restaurant, swimsuit models could eat there without fretting about post-lunch bloat. There are no sides and not much is fried. The most waistband-tightening item on offer is a marvellous seaweed bread that arrives brushed with lamb fat, with a generous fistful of wild garlic butter."
Nonetheless, Marks isn't deliberately â¨aiming to make healthy food - it's more a product of the fact that he is cooking in accordance with the seasons. "We have been working with a lot of vegetables in the spring and summer and not a lot of dairy, but that will change - it will be heavier in the winter," he says. "I don't want to appear unhealthy, but there also isn't a strong focus on being super-healthy."
A top seller is the cuttlefish Bolognese, which consists of minced cuttlefish wrapped around monk's beard (£11). "It sells really well and sums us up," says Marks. "It is simple, with a focus on flavour - and I think it's delicious."
For the summer, Marks has also devised a pistou soup (£10) that he also claims is "very us". It's made up of a lemon verbena pesto, a broth of shiitake mushrooms, fresh peas, Jersey Royals and herbs, making it refreshing and vibrant. "I have a thing with soups - they get boring as you eat them. But this has such a different selection of herbs that it remains interesting throughout - you taste tarragon and lemon verbena, then lovage and basil," he says.
So where does Marks find his inspiration? â¨"I have two incredibly talented sous chefs who come up with a lot of the ideas. We have a really nice atmosphere in the kitchen and we are able to talk about the food constantly. So during the mise en place, we talk a lot and brainstorm, and people have an input."
It's also important not to forget that this is â¨a neighbourhood restaurant and the pair don't see their role as anything other than to serve delicious food. "It is incredibly important to us to make sure that everyone feels like they are laid back and able to enjoy the food in an atmosphere they are used to," Emmerson says.
In any case, the 44-cover space does have its limitations - chiefly the size of the kitchen. "We are in a tiny kitchen and we can do 80â¨covers with four chefs. We don't want people to wait for their food - I feel very strongly about that - so it has to be quick to get out, delicious and consistent," Marks explains. "That plays a massive factor in what we can put on the menu. It's unfortunate in a way, but it's also â¨a great inspiration - it pushes creativity."
From the menu
•Seaweed bread with lamb fat butter £3.50
•40-day aged pork chop with sea kale £17
•Jersey Royal dumplings with â¨spring mushrooms £9
•Pot-roast broccoli with hung yoghurt â¨and pickled cucumber £13
•Poached pear with sour apple and â¨soft herbs £7
•Set buttermilk with strawberries £9
Perilla, 1-3 Green Lanes, â¨Newington Green, London N16 9BS