Going out for a Sunday roast in Islington presents two initial concerns: (1) I’m a bit over Islington. Upper Street restaurants in particular seem to leave me cold. I can’t even place why. I feel like names and owners change but that, ultimately, the same 6/10 experience lies in every eatery from Angel to the Almeida; (2) restaurant roast potatoes never come up to the standard of roast potatoes cooked at home – assuming the meal is provided by your mum or a very competent cook. I’m happy to report that both concerns were completely dashed during a wonderful meal at 12:51, whose head chef is James Cochran of Ledbury and Great British Menu fame.
12:51 is a plain place, in physical terms. Its main room is long and narrow, like a corridor. A shabby, thrown together kind of theme governs the décor in a manner so haphazard that I can barely call it a theme at all. I wish I could be more positive about the dining space but it simply isn’t appealing. What they may lack in visuals, they make up for in friendly service and (as I came to find out) food. Straight away, two staff members were bringing drinks and menus and settling me in. Their warmth and, moreover, a sense of happiness in their work was clear.
A full foray into 12:51’s menu is not achievable on a Sunday due to the roast takeover. The snack list nonetheless demonstrates Cochran’s flair and propensity for experiments – such as in the mackerel with cucumber, ‘Nduja sausage and pork crackling, or the eel and cauliflower veloute with apple, miso and seaweed. There is not one cuisine at play; he is (as so many chefs do now) fusing and borrowing left, right and centre to create what presumably pleases him.
There is a lot to the meal and the quality is in orbit. You could knock off a tenner, or maybe even £15, on a roast at a nearby pub. But the small saving would be a net loss indeed.
On the day, chef Ellie ran the kitchen. First up, the mackerel came in two forms: torched (as is current convention) and cured. Whilst this tiny dish might have been more accurately described as an amuse bouche, the zing of the pickled cucumber, spiciness of the ‘nduja sausage and crunch of the pork crackling sprinkled on top made for a satisfying start to proceedings, washed down with their Douglas fir G&T.
Onto the main event – what I was really there for – of an uber-roast: sirloin and shin of beef, dripping roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, kale, carrots, truffle cauliflower cheese, smoked bone marrow, horseradish cream and gravy. Yes, it tasted as good as it sounds. The judicious use of truffle added a double-savoury note to the cheesy cauliflower. The sirloin meat came perfectly rare and, as for the shin … just wow. Pulled, torn and shredded, the beef shin was almost illegally tender and hearty to the nth degree. Were the flavours not so obviously true, you’d think the bowl was doused in Bovril, OXO and fat. Calling back to the start of the review: those potatoes. Crispy; fluffy; superlative. During no prior restaurant or pub experience had I been presented with a product of the humble spud as outstanding as this offering by 12:51. And, from a Sunday dining perspective, once the meat and potatoes are chalked up as fab, the rest falls into place. I hardly noticed the horseradish cream or carrots, and yet all sundries tasted divine.
As much as being an experience in pro-roasting, it was an experience in total satisfaction. Great food, hyper-friendly service and good portion sizes all came together for a comforting, long-nap-inducing Sunday afternoon in town.
12:51 roast dinner for two is £50, which feels about right. There is a lot to the meal and the quality is in orbit. You could knock off a tenner, or maybe even £15, on a roast at a nearby pub. But the small saving would be a net loss indeed. I’m already planning a revisit to 12:51.
107 Upper Street
by C Ley