In the manner of a daily red-top, I’ve elected to start with the headline. And it’s this: I can’t fully work out my feelings for The Drunken Butler.
Background: as I see it, 2018/19 has become the era of the hipster wankfest, in gastro terms. This applies particularly to restaurants in east London postcodes (as you’d expect). If you want to get caught up in the Shoreditch hype, try restaurants such as Clove Club (above average but highly imperfect) and The Picklery (don’t get me started). You’ll see how you’re pulled into a kind of latticework of manufactured wow (like a culinary Matrix) where much effort is made to persuade you that you are immersed in an ocean of live-action brilliance. During a recent meal at Clove Club, the waiter postured, with a straight face somehow, that the fish being served was hand-caught by some charitable sorority on the south coast that had been fishing for 100 years, reeling in catch every Saturday etc. etc. Then I thought – hang on: it’s Thursday! This fish had either been frozen since the weekend or was off! And so it goes on.
A great many writers and gastro-enthusiasts have issued warm reviews of restaurants out east. Even here, on this platform, the genius within Cornerstone‘s cooking has been lauded. I just get the feeling (it’s all subjective) that the cool set who both frequent and operate these eastern venues are pulling the wool over my and their eyes … and that, worse almost, I see through it.
Back to the Drunken Butler: I ate there for the first time and was astounded. I attended two weeks later by way of a confirmatory referendum and could see cracks appearing in the experience; subtle differences emerging between genius-level culinary innovation and the results of repetition and dilution.
In terms of what Drunken Butler is mastering, I have to firstly admire the personal service rendered by chef Yuma Hashemi on visit #1. He is likeable, attentive and omni-present. His touches are seen everywhere, from the Iranian-inspired menu to the dining chairs and traditional rugs hauled from the family home in which he grew up. Very kindly, he took the time to discuss the changing wine list with me and to chit chat during some quiet moments (though there was more of this in visit #1).
Next, I have to commend the amuse-bouches which are as plentiful as they are tasty. A stand-out example was the duck mince with herbs, rolled into coarse, savoury parcels with mint leaves. It’s a fact of life that punters like being looked after as soon as possible upon arriving at a restaurant, and that a good amount of free stuff as you settle in sets the tone for the meal. Restaurateurs note: people like several helpings of free food.
The room, presumably engineered by Hashemi, is a pleasant clash of mid-century, Scandi decor and hipster-chic – in the latter case through the use of mismatching woods, Tuscan-rendered walls, a curtain as a divider and some haphazardly placed fridges. Each table is large enough for four diners and there are no more than 20 covers. The overall effect is a success; lots of personal space with a relaxed ambience. In terms of a dining area, this is virtual perfection.
During both visits, I went for the five-course, blind tasting menu. The opening dish of scallops, squid ink crisp and pistachio sauce was a hit and set the tone. Getting the diner on-side with good amuse-bouches and a first course of such flavours is a recipe for success on Hashemi’s part.
Another course boasted a historical reference in the form of a slow-boiled egg, mimicking eggs carried in the pockets of old Japanese geezers walking through old Japanese geysers. The result is … well, semen-y, but some innovation lay in the surrounding broth of forest mushrooms; giving umami zing to the wet and wobbly bowl of protein.
During the journey of the tasting menu, I did try to order a bottle of Schioppettino (the daddy of Friuli reds, IMHO), but was turned down by the attendant worker who had, on visit #2, been put up in Hashemi’s stead. I was warned that the new wine list didn’t reflect the cellar – but it rather begs the question: why not stock the cellar first and then draw up the wine list? I didn’t understand.
Possibly my favourite course was one of duck breast with minced duck side (visit #2). Now, the duck was pink, perfectly cooked with crispy skin and all the things the dish should be – imagine your best duck breast experience, free from chewiness, and this is it, with an Iranian frisson of spice on top. But was the minced duck a cop out? It tasted wonderful – but was seen 40 minutes previously in the amuse-bouches. I ask myself: does it matter? Is it better that I adore the savoury, terrine-like goodness of the mince and rejoice in its double appearance? Or do I take marks off for the restaurant’s laziness in using the same paste twice – particularly given that a tasting menu’s essence is the distinctness of each plate?
On visit #2 I could see the sparkle coming off. Firstly the chef taking a slight step back in putting forward his waiting staff re customer interface. Secondly the repetitious use of ingredients. Thirdly the maddening wine list which was beautifully conceived but needlessly premature in its presentation. I don’t know. I love this restaurant, truly, but can’t help but wonder if Farringdon is simply an extension of London’s trendy east-end. There is a new breed of clever-but-stealthy restaurant that carefully curates its wow factor without diner ratification (until some smart-arse comes along, peels back the veneer and offers up a review).
The “experience” at The Drunken Butler was such that I don’t need to attend again for a long while having been twice in short order. I’m not in need of pocket egg or the intimacy of an open kitchen again just yet. But this saturation does not detract from my ability to recommend this restaurant, despite its minor faults. Indeed, I would end on a compliment to chef Hashemi: for the first time in many months, I witnessed an eatery full of young people. Probably an average age of 35. Normally bills and social factors see a much older clientele in London – or so I have experienced. It is further proof that chef Hashemi is doing many things well and deserves to succeed.
20 Rosebery Avenue
by Cristian Ley