It took a few moments to sink in. No, I wasn’t dreaming. I was actually in a restaurant. With other people. After 4 months of incessant washing up, staring at the same walls and forays into inventive store cupboard cookery, finally I was back in a restaurant. And a good restaurant at that.
Nestled in the capillaries behind Covent Garden and Trafalgar Square, Nutshell opened almost a whole year ago, long before any whisper of Covid19 and the tumultuous effect it would have on all our lives. It seems a lifetime ago but this restaurant was one of the first to re-open in July 2020. Perhaps brave of its Iranian owners Mohammad Paknejad and Marwa Alkhalaf, considering that (at the time of visiting) the theatres haven’t re-opened, and the two-floor restaurant is hardly a small space to fill. Combined with the current ‘no show’ crisis and depleted footfall I wondered if it would be quiet. To my astonishment, almost all of the tables were occupied and there was a buzzing atmosphere, albeit a little muted. Groundhog Day is now over and it seems Nutshell is the place to be for post-hibernation victuals.
Reassuringly, various social distancing measures were in place: a one way system, the menu by QR link that can be scanned by your phone, the staff (all of them lovely) wearing face masks.
Nutshell does require a caveat though: if you don’t like or can’t eat nuts – ditto pomegranate – you may be rather stuck as these ingredients are the leitmotif through almost every dish. Perhaps I didn’t see it but there wasn’t much accommodation for those with allergies on the menu. Nevertheless, head chef Jeremy Borrow (formerly of The Palomar) has devised a menu packed full of flavour and Persian intrigue.
For a sharpener we dived in with Iranian Negronis. I get nervous about any twist on the essential triptych of vermouth, gin and Campari, but this was a beautifully bittersweet concoction of sour cherry wine, spiced Campari and an undeclared saffron-infused gin. To nibble, we tore off chunks of bazaar bread – a long, almost cylindrical seasoned piece of bread which could probably double as a Rounders bat or police truncheon.
The sharing plates began with a statement of intent. Behold the “Aubergine Dolmeh.” It may look like a bit of roadkill skid-marked across the plate but this baked aubergine with split chickpeas, slow roasted tomatoes and coriander was a delight, if a little safe.
Bandari poussin with a celery salad was delicately spiced with the occasional satisfying crunch of pomegranate and the aniseed cleanliness of fennel. The bird itself was beautifully cooked.
For me, a scene-stealing highlight was the Mazandarani lamb. The fat within the lamb was counterbalanced by an apricot relish with saffron and tomato salsa, giving the dish a little heat, and some of that expensive spice from the Silk Road. The meat itself was cooked medium rare (how it should be) and utterly delicious.
Similarly joyful was the “Mahi” – grilled salmon, tamarind and sour cherry broth with that ubiquitous pistachio – though a little on the pricey side at £17. All of this was accompanied beautifully with a bottle of Pinot Noir from a well-devised wine list.
Full as an egg(plant) from all the savoury small dishes we couldn’t face desserts but noted how much the next table were enjoying their aptly-named “Goosh Fil” (doughnuts dunked in rose sugar and cardamom custard). Perhaps next time. And there will be a next time.
Maybe there could be a little more kick and pizzazz. I also query if dishes based entirely on aubergine and other vegetables can justify a £14 price tag. But Nutshell is an unadulterated joy and the kind of restaurant we need right now.
30 St Martin's Lane
by J A Smith