A motor garage may seem an unlikely location for setting up a restaurant but perhaps less surprising for the forward-thinking residents of the leafy Canonbury-Stoke Newington border. Serving up modern European bistro fare at a fair price point, on a daily-changing menu, is a formula that usually works, and does so at Primeur (despite my reservations, which I’ll come on to).
Canonbury doesn’t feel like London, really. For crying out loud, the houses have gardens here. This is where Corbyn and Diane Abbott’s constituencies meet and on my 5 minute walk from the Overground station to the former garage I noted the Vote Labour posters in virtually every front room window – they are, after all, on a permanent election footing.
Perhaps in line with the left-leaning literati of its environs, the table set-up at Primeur is communal (but not full-blown communistic). There are two large tables in the centre, school dinner style, the chairs in dark marigold upholstery. You’re either comfortable with this way of dining or you’re not. Like with plane seats, it’s a lottery really – you may very well end up landlocked between strangers. Fortunately when I turned up on spec I had a whole table to myself, like some medieval baron purveying maps of his fiefdom with a flagon of mead. But it could’ve just as easily been packed to the rafters. I don’t think it’s always the case you would have to share your intimate supper with Johnny B. Random – there are a few other bits of space for solo diners and smaller groups around the periphery, and I commend them for this.
All the dishes are served in a presentation style I call “purposeful slapdashery” – no delusions of Michelin grandeur, no edible flowers, just food plonked on the plate
I liked its blackboard menu, a hand-written version of which is posted on Instagram each day. You can safely assume that you would never have the same meal twice at Primeur.
I liked its open kitchen (the brigade therein being presentable and having an average age of about 22). From this very kitchen came two knock-out dishes. A vegetarian-friendly spelt and courgette risotto that had just the right amount of bite, with the parmesan adding enough of a salty tang. Not quite one of your five a day, but it was enough for me to justify a meat course next.
The onglet didn’t fail to impress. Unctuous, medium rare, with a beautiful creamy shallot sauce. The only thing missing was a decent knife (the one I had couldn’t cut butter). All the dishes are served in a presentation style I call “purposeful slapdashery” – no delusions of Michelin grandeur, no edible flowers, just food plonked on the plate. And what plates – they look like they were acquired from a flea market, all seen better days, chipped and with ghastly patterns. It’s a bit hipsteresque, but this does border Stoke Newington.
I liked the jazz funk and Motown on the sound system, peppered with Bob Dylan and gentle folk rock.
And I thanked all the Gods that the fluorescent tubes attached to the ceiling were only dimly lit. A Five Guys this is not.
But here’s the kicker. They don’t serve coffee. At all. Pas de tout. Full stop. Period.
This is a problem. An error and an omission. When you go to a restaurant you expect it to be somewhat of a one-stop shop: you can open proceedings with a pre-prandial (and indeed most restaurants upsell this as soon as you sit down) and you can close proceedings with a hot beverage or digestif. For me I like to end with an espresso. It’s the ribbon that ties the wrapping together – you’ve eaten well, had a little wine, and need something to set you on your way home. I know that’s what I do but I’m fairly confident in saying a lot of other people like to do this too, even more so amongst the Europhiles of north London.
When I enquired about their no coffee policy I found the response exasperatingly annoying. It wasn’t the waiter’s fault (his service, by the way, had been faultless until this point), but he just said “well we feel that we should just focus on the food. We don’t need feel we need to provide coffee and there are plenty of coffee shops nearby.”
That’s not satisfactory. What else will they cut back on for this streamlined food-only philosophy? No toilets? No tap water?
It just doesn’t make sense. I’m sorry. It doesn’t. If you’ll indulge me I’ll give you three reasons. Firstly, there’s clearly a demand for it – I was the third customer in 20 minutes to ask for a coffee to round off their meal and the third to voice disappointment. Secondly, they’re turning their noses up at a source of profit – everyone knows the profit margins of coffee are huge (cf: every franchised coffee outlet). Thirdly, unless I somehow passed out from a caffeine-deprived coma on my walk back to the station, I didn’t see any coffee shops nearby – not a single one.
If you don’t drink coffee you’ll think this complaint is all inconsequential and you’ll be wondering why I’m making such a fuss about this. But there’s more to it than that. It’s arrogant thinking you know better than your customers – and this is the worst thing you can do in hospitality. This is severely damaging for Primeur and for this reason alone I’m not in a rush to go back. Even if they just installed a bog standard Nespresso machine I’d be prepared to forgive them.
I finished with the only dessert available: a chocolate ganache with raisins soaked in rum. I left feeling less hungry than when I arrived, but in desperate need of an espresso.
116 Petherton Road
by J A Smith