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Sorrel, London

17 November 2005

The City of London is awash with purveyors of meat and two veg. City folk may have lots of money, but when it comes to food their tastes and demands are usually simple: large portions that taste good, served briskly.

This is exactly the market Benjamin Tish, head chef and co-owner of new restaurant Sorrel on the eastern edge of the City, is chasing. There are a handful of notable fine-dining establishments in the Square Mile, but the bulk of local operations are midmarket restaurants, or wine bars with extended menus.

"Lots of midmarket restaurants in the City are still very expensive," says Tish. "If you look around here, there isn't anyone doing what we are for the price. We are confident people will go for it."

What he is doing - modern European food with an Italian slant - could strike the perfect note. All starters are priced at £7, while mains come in at £14 - although some dishes have supplements.

First courses include proven winners like scallops with crisp, sweet pancetta, to which Tish adds Italian know-how with braised trevise. The large head of tangy green leaf is given a syrupy unctuousness by braising it in fish stock, thyme, sugar and lemon juice. A little more technical sophistication is shown in the pollack and Tardivo (a prized variety of wild radicchio) carpaccio. Both are underused ingredients, but here Tish combines them into an object of desire.

The whole fish is skinned and filleted then cured for an hour in sugar, thyme and salt. This is wiped off - not washed - and the fish butterflied, with three incisions lengthways. Into these cavities go braised leaves of Tardivo. The fish is then rolled into a cylinder, wrapped in clingfilm and frozen before being thinly cut to order. Bottarga sprinkled over the slices adds an extra fishy kick, and finally the dish is dressed with condimento morbido, a sort of white balsamic vinegar.

Bottarga, Tardivo and the white balsamic are typical of the speciality Italian ingredients which pepper the menu. Although Tish has never cooked in Italy he was head chef at Claudio Pulze's Mayfair operation Al Duca, where he worked with Richard Martinez, now Sorrel's restaurant manager and, together with Tish, the restaurant's co-founder. The third partner in the collaboration is Richard Saunders, who opened Glas in Borough Market. Saunders himself is an ex-City broker - offering yet more experience of what Sorrel's audience want.

Main courses feature lots of red meat, like sirloin of Speyside beef, rump of lamb, and wood pigeon. Tish stuffs the whole bird with ricotta curd and oregano."The suits like that. It looks impressive," he says. The dish is served with Parmesan mash, also available as a popular side dish. "Almost every table has some at lunch," says Tish.

The four-course structure, with pastas as a second, adds flexibility to the menu but also allows guests to gorge, especially on Thursdays and Fridays when the restaurant is busiest. In fact, this being the City, lunch is the lifeblood of the operation, although Tish says they are working with local hotels to encourage more evening trade. Average spend on food is between £25 and £30, says Tish, "but the dining room is full". Wine currently tops out at £58 per bottle, although Martinez does plan to raise that soon to exploit the spending power of the diners.

Already the team have taken over a gastropub called Betjemans near Smithfield Market, which ties in well with their mission. "Richard and I have worked together in more fine-dining operations," says Tish, "but now we just want to serve relaxed food at reasonable prices." The new local audience won't be standing in their way.

What's on the menu

  • Organic polenta, pan-fried cèpes, duck egg and Parmesan
  • Pressed terrine of ham hock and ox tongue with caper berries and aïoli
  • Home-made reginette with wild buck ragoût, roasted swede and pecorino sardo
  • Wild sea bass fillet, lentils, cèpes and mussels with caramelised organic lemon
  • Marinated and grilled rump of lamb with braised fennel, ricotta gnocchi and fresh herbs
  • Roasted loin of free-range pork with smoked garlic, borlotti beans and gremolata
  • Lemon and thyme crème brûlée with an almond biscuit
  • Caramelised quince cheese cake with orange flower ice-cream

Sorrel, 5 Minories, London EC3N 1BJ. Tel: 020 7481 1779. Website: www.sorrel.co.uk

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