Acme Fire Cult, Abbot Street, London E8 3DP. Snacks and small plates £3-£9, large plates £14-£24, dessert £6, wines from £31, beers £5-£6
When chefs Andrew Clarke and Daniel Watkins announced their latest venture together, in London’s Dalston, it was described as, “More than just a restaurant.” Real? What is it? An amusement park? A fetish club? An Ikea branch? One of these may be useful. “It’s a cult.” oh my. Honestly, if you were on the hunt for a London cook to lead a furious, devoted religious movement, Clarke would be the way to go. He has a three-foot beard that can accommodate small mammals or be braided into viable rope, and so many tattoos that he’s become a walking secular challenger from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Or maybe not. While he may be a good figurehead, I know him as an attentive fellow, who probably wouldn’t be comfortable with all the coercive control a real cult requires. He has been involved in major projects addressing mental health issues in and around the hospitality industry, and has spoken in an engaging manner about his own challenges.
So take the bombast of the Acme Fire Cult name with a pinch of quality, artisan sea salt. It’s really no more than a restaurant. There are tables and chairs both in the functional dining room and on the rugged deck outside, where heat lamps dangle. There are menus and waiters. You order and they bring, from the wood fired grill outside, their only kitchen. It’s an interesting development in the live-fire cooking movement, which Clarke helped popularize through the much shinier restaurant in St. Leonard’s he ran with Jackson Boxer in Shoreditch. For obvious reasons related to the caveman images of burning logs and woolly mammoths, cooking with live fire has associations with chunks of meat. If you have the time, it can be a good way to make the cheaper cuts from corners of the animal that, after working harder, have more connective tissue and take longer to break down.
Some of it is on this menu, developed during a series of popups over the years. For the most part, though, it’s exciting, impressively vegetal-led, part of a self-proclaimed determination to get away from the whole “guy food” culture around fire and smoke. For this reason, I want it to be so much more than a cult, because cults tend to implode quickly under the weight of their own filthy impropriety. This must endure. Acme is also a partnership with 40ft Brewery with whom they share a space, in a shaggy old garden next to the Dusty Knuckle Bakery, the source for much of North London’s over-developed sourdough habit. The brewery does not only provide beers that go with the food. Brewing by-products, such as yeast and spent grains, are used to make ferments and sauces.
So far, so painful “grim in the north of London”, for the private eye readers among you. Explanation of the obvious: none of this would matter if the food wasn’t good. A big beard, tattoos and jumping flames are not dinner. Fortunately, much of it is good. We start with their deviled eggs. Mary Berry, I think, would give this one a basilisk look. In the traditional 1960s, the boiled eggs were halved, the yolks removed, mixed with mayo and cayenne pepper and so on, beaten and returned. Here the eggs are cooked so that the yolks have reached a perfect jelly state. Then they are soaked in a sweet and sour tamarind-like sauce and sprinkled with crispy fried onions. While I wish the devil had more voice, a theme in some dishes that eschews the heat of chili, I could do damage to consecutive servings of this. They also make their own Bombay mix. It is rich in roasted peanuts and cashews, which are usually scarce for cost reasons.
There’s a certain amount of what might come off as innovation because of the small plates, except it all works. Leeks are grilled to the point of surrender, when they are sweet and tender. They are then served at room temperature with their own version of romesco sauce, in which the ground almonds have been replaced with ground pistachios. It is a study in green shades of green. The grainy romesco has a welcome acidity. New potatoes are smoked and slathered with a tahini mayonnaise and a nutty chili oil, or rayu, made with grains from the brewery. Grilled cauliflower florets come in a ripe, buttery Indian-accented sauce under pickled onion ribbons.
Meat and fish only appear on the large plates on the menu. There’s mutton merguez with a wild garlic salsa verde, which I pray the ingredients weren’t harvested from Dalston’s fox-sprayed canal verges. There is a Tamworth pork chop and a whole butterfly mackerel. We order the ox cheek. It is the least overwhelming of all dishes. The mustard greens have weight and there’s a potent umami-tasty ancho chili koji condiment. But the cheek just hasn’t spent long enough on the grill. It fights back against knife and fork. It almost wins.
So much tastier is the plate of veggies from the oven, a fantastic collection of meaty roasted tomatoes, zucchini and fennel, with white beans and pumpkin puree, topped with another great old salsa verde. This unique £14 dish sets the stage for the whole business. It is a demonstration of the virtuous interplay of the best vegetables and the most acutely managed indirect heat and smoke. There’s only one dessert tonight: a deep, dark chocolate ganache topped with hazelnuts and beer molasses. It’s impressively potent, but could have used a soothing dollop of chilled whipped cream.
It’s clear they want you to be deeply entrenched in the brewery’s offerings with this food: in beers with names like Dalston Sunset and Disco Pils, all for £5 or £6 a pint. There are only half a dozen wines, and the cheapest white, a dry Tokaj, costs £38 a bottle, which is unfriendly. It is also at odds with the reasonable food prices. Maybe they just don’t care much about wine drinkers – which, I guess, is fair enough. On the other hand, I came here for dinner, rather than for an act of unquestioning cult worship. And dinner, a very exciting one, is what they gave me. I may not be a devout follower of the cult. I may not be on my knees in front of the blessed grill. But I do have faith.
The rise of top steak continues. Hawksmoor has announced that, after opening in Manchester, Edinburgh and New York, they are now expanding to Liverpool. The steakhouse group has always used great buildings with history and the same is true again. Hawksmoor Liverpool will be located in the landmark India Building on the corner of Brunswick and Fenwick Street and will open later this year. “It’s a great site,” said co-founder Will Beckett. ‘We are very excited to do justice’ (thehawksmoor.com)†
The always interesting chef Jay Morjaria is on his way to his next project. After completing his Korean-inspired JAE residency at the Untitled bar in London’s Dalston in February, it is now open at Shelter Hall food market on Brighton’s seafront. Tiger and Rabbit offers Morjaria’s take on Korean barbecue, with rice, lettuce wraps and appropriate spices including samjang aioli and kimchi (shelterhall.co.uk)†
And while there are new openings, there is also bleak news. More than 1,300 British restaurants went bankrupt in the year to the end of March 2022, according to accounting firm Price Bailey. This was a significant increase from the previous 12 months when 926 restaurants went bankrupt. The increase is attributed to the end of the government’s various programs to support the industry during the pandemic.
Email Jay at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1