The restrained style and minimalist presentation belies the complex cooking at James Lowe's Lyle's, says Andy Lynes
James Lowe is not one for florid language. When you order a starter of beetroot, cured beef and walnuts at Lyle's, the chef's 50-seater minimalist restaurant in Shoreditch, east London, you know what's going to be on the plate, but not what's gone into the dish or where any of the ingredients have come from.
And when it arrives, the crimson chunks huddled beneath a canopy of thinly sliced, cured topside, sheltered from a shower of nut gratings, you're still not prepared for the sheer intensity and clarity of the flavours. The food sounds simple; the reality is more complicated.
"It takes two days to make. We cure our own beef. We buy topside from Warren's in Cornwall and we hang it," says Lowe. "We cook and cut up the beetroot, dehydrate it until it's crispy and gnarly and then vacuum-pack it with beetroot juice. We warm it in the wood oven, so you pick up the smoke, and the juice glazes. We split the beetroot sauce with beef fat because animal fats are such a good way of getting flavour into something without making a stock."
How a dish is worded on the menu matters to 36-year-old Lowe, whose CV encompasses La Trompette, the River Café, the Fat Duck and St John Bread & Wine, where he was head chef. "I just don't like descriptors on menus. It's a reaction to things like ‘on a bed of'. There's a modern version of that, ‘the first of the season's kale leaf wilted in a warm pan'. It's bullshit; it's the same old trick," he says. "It's about not forcing a story on people. If they're interested, they'll ask what it is. It's a way of creating dialogue straight away with the waiter."
The Michelin-starred restaurant (part of JKS Restaurants, which includes Kitchen Table, Bao and Trishna) offers an à la carte lunch menu and a set four-course dinner menu plus two or three introductory snacks that costs £49 or £44 for the vegetarian option.
"Elements of the menus change every day. My grand plan before we opened was that the menu shape, size and structure change every night as well," he explains.
"One night it starts with sharing plates, then maybe there's a cured fish dish and then a pheasant for two to share and then a dessert; just getting rid of the whole veg/fish/meat thing and doing truly what you think is best to balance the meal. When you have to translate that to five chefs every day, 70 covers a night, it's so hard. I've begun to question whether the stress that puts the team under is worth it, but I think that idea has to stay, because it would be a very cool thing."
Seasonal ingredients are central to Lowe's food, but the chef has a particular take on it: "The seasons are all twisted because people get obsessed with putting something on their menu first. But the first stuff of the season is never the best. When peas start from Italy I don't order them. I usually put peas on the menu when other people have had them on for six or seven weeks. And when we do put them on, they're better than everyone else's."
Another ingredient close to Lowe's heart is game, and he also organises deer stalks and bird shoots for fellow chefs. "We have about six suppliers for game. I buy birds from Essex, deer comes from the Cairngorms, pheasants from the south coast and grey partridge from Arundel in Sussex."
A recent lunch dish encapsulated Lowe's approach to British game cookery: breast of mallard served with celeriac and blackberries.
"The celeriac is sliced and dehydrated so it goes crispy and looks like giant cornflakes. We rehydrate it in stock and it turns into a pasta-like texture. It's not an aim of the restaurant to do things where people don't know how it was made, but it's quite fun," says Lowe.
The dish is finished with stock from the braised mallard legs and split with brown butter and vinegar from blackberries pickled in the restaurant.
Lyle's has also become well known for its Guest Series, occasional menus cooked by young and up-and-coming chefs from all overthe world. Most recently, Jeremiah Stone and Fabian Von Hauske of Contra and Wildair in New York prepared a set menu for £59.
Lyles also opens from 8.00am for coffee and baked goods. "We've never done breakfast - we do a pork fat canelé or a cross between a kouign-amann and a brioche with quince. We don't put out 10 things - we do one thing and do it nicely. It's not a huge selection, but it's all good and it's all done right."
From the menu
Smoked eel, kale and dulse £9.50
Pumpkin, whey butter and chestnuts £9.50
Mackerel, lardo and crab apple £8.90
Plaice, black cabbage and fermented gooseberries £19.50
Dexter flank, bitter leaves and anchovy £18.70
Elena plum Bakewell tart £6.50
Pink Pearl apple and curd £5.90
Lyles, Tea Building, 56 Shoreditch High Street,
London E1 6JJ
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