Cornerstone is the debut solo venture of Tom Brown, a young Cornish chef who was a finalist on BBC’s Great British Menu in 2017 and until late last year worked as head chef for Outlaw’s at The Capital. With such a CV, and the hype around its opening, my expectations of Cornerstone were high. I’m pleased to say they were met, if not exceeded.
Hackney Wick may seem an adventurous choice of locale but as the tectonic plates of London’s fashionable restaurants and affordable housing move eastwards it’s not all that surprising. Although easily accessible by the Overground, the restaurant itself can be slightly tricky to find for the uninitiated. Or maybe that’s just me – I can’t even build an IKEA desk without calling for help. I took a wrong turn into a building site and had to ask a hipster on a skateboard for directions. I also took some time to appreciate the street art nearby: the walk from the station includes a veritable gallery of graffiti which perfectly captures Londoners’ exasperation with the times we live in.
I took an immediate liking to the ambience, the layout and the overall absence of fuss – a relaxed thread that runs through everything
The restaurant itself has a calming and minimalistic faux-industrialism. On my visit the soundtrack in the background shuttled between The Cure, The Clash and The Stranglers: alternative rock bands all formed in southern England in the 1970s. Personally, I was in music heaven. I took an immediate liking to the ambience, the layout and the overall absence of fuss – a relaxed thread that runs through everything. In the centre is a showpiece kitchen and small dining counter. These central cooking areas are en vogue at the moment, but if they help to break down barriers so what? And in the central kitchen is the man himself. Let’s hope Tom actually hangs around and isn’t there just to guide the restaurant through its infancy. As Cornerstone is his baby, I suspect he will stay for some time.
The wine selection is equally modern, if a little outré, taking a similar approach to Neptune with an emphasis on natural wines. I only tried the Il Bianco from Umbria, which I regretted somewhat – just a personal thing but it wasn’t for me. It tasted like an alcopop. The aperitifs are unabashedly local, with a Shoreditch blonde for their solitary beer choice and the Cornerstone G&T which uses gin from a distillery down the road. That gin was a pleasant surprise: infused with apple and even notes of seaweed in the botanicals, it makes for a great pre-prandial that evokes a sense of the coast, getting you in the right mood for the fish.
And what fish. It was explained to me that the menu is designed so you work through it sequentially, rather than cherry-picking options like a hapless Cabinet minister. I admire this approach – it smacks of a chef who really knows what he wants, reminiscent of concept albums of yore. But we’re now in the ‘on demand’ Spotify age with folk who want to sample bits of different things when they want according to their whims – the idea of a concept album which you work through from start to finish may be lost on most millennial diners, and indeed the small plates aren’t exactly that cheap (my lunch with two drinks came to £80), so the average punter will be prohibited from sampling everything anyway.
That said, the food I tried was not only technically faultless but effing amazing. Even the little things like the bread don’t escape Tom Brown’s attention. London’s obsession with sourdough continues unabated, but the sourdough toast here is off the frigging charts: just ever so crispy on the outside but soft and doughy in the centre with that just-baked smell, it’s an unalloyed joy – even more so when used to scoop up and melt the homemade salty butter. I’d happily have that as a meal in itself.
And Tom isn’t shy about his use of butter, another thing earning him instant respect. The grey mullet with roast chicken butter jus and samphire was a showstopper in terms of flavour and simplicity.
The linecaught cod was another simple dish that spoke volumes about Tom’s less-is-more, stripped-back philosophy: just two or three well-sourced natural ingredients are allowed to speak for themselves, brought out of their shells (in some cases literally) by careful cookery. The cod melted in the mouth and the accompanying Café de Paris hollandaise was worthy of all the OMG hashtags: Café de Paris sauce is one of those cheffy secrets, seemingly simple but with some 20 or so ingredients it’s actually one of the most difficult things to get right. The rendition at Cornerstone was a thing of pure beauty. I think I detected shallots, parsley, maybe even a little curry and anchovy in there lurking in the background, but after that my palate was lost in its complexity.
just two or three well-sourced natural ingredients are allowed to speak for themselves, brought out of their shells (in some cases literally) by careful cookery
It’s always an interesting test to see if a chef specialising in fish and seafood can handle the pastry section just as well. The Cornish millefeuille with fresh raspberries and saffron rounded things off well, even if the brandy snap layers struck me as a controversial choice (but at least not burnt, unlike Neptune’s).
Overall, there is no wacky presentation. There wasn’t a single dud dish either, so top marks too for consistency.
If I have a single issue with the place it is a shade overpriced but other than that I can’t heap enough praise. They’re re-opening in August after a short summer recess so now is the time to go. Go to Cornerstone. Go!
3 Prince Edward Road
by J A Smith