Vegetarian London: Riverford At The Duke Of Cambridge
In this series, we review restaurants from an entirely vegetarian angle. While some restaurants will be specifically vegetarian, others will be mainstream. We’ll be tasting everything from veggie burgers, to posh meat-free menus. Along the way, we’ll try to find out, as far as possible, whether chicken stock, cheese made from animal rennet, gelatine, fish sauce and so on are not lurking in the supposedly vegetarian dishes.
Londonist Rating: ★★★☆☆
Islington's The Duke of Cambridge may look like an ordinary boozer, but it’s pretty special. It was established in 1998 by Geetie Singh, a woman of Indian and English parentage raised in a Midlands commune: rather unique in itself. It’s Britain’s first — and claims to be the only — pub certified as wholly organic by the Soil Association. It was ground-breaking in its day, but what’s even more surprising is that 17 years later, when our food and drink culture has changed so dramatically, it remains so: no other drinking establishment has followed suit. At the end of last year, it teamed up with Riverford — of the organic veg box scheme fame — to introduce a revamped menu of vegetable-centric dishes.
The look is old-school rustic that doesn’t seem to have changed over the years. There’s a bar at the front, and a separate dining area to one side: all browns, creams, deep reds and bare brick walls. There’s sturdy, recycled and second-hand wooden furniture, candlelight throwing shadows across the cosy tables. It’s not shiny or chic; more a cardigan-and-slippers lived-in feel. A little bit Cranks-meets-gastropub circa 2000. And we mean that in a nice way. You’ll at once feel at home, regardless of whether or not you’ve visited before.
Singh married Riverford’s owner Guy Watson last summer, so the two multi-award winning businesses (and individuals) have joined forces — the Brad and Angelia of the organic food world, if you will. As the foundations of both businesses are strongly ethical, sustainable and environmentally-friendly, this makes logical sense. There’s an a la carte blackboard menu, which changes twice a day depending on the availability of seasonal produce at the time. It’s a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach to cooking that suits the venue's casual, relaxed vibe. The succession of ‘field to plate’ dishes, brought to the table banquet-style, mirrors the family-run farm’s own highly acclaimed Field Kitchen restaurant in south Devon (we had a taste of it some years ago before ‘small plate dining’ became ubiquitous and Ottolenghi was barely on anyone’s radar: it was fresh and exciting).
There are around half a dozen ‘small plates’ (almost all vegetarian on our visit, but only one at the time of writing), about the same number of ‘large plates’ (always two vegetarian, two meat and two fish), a few side vegetables, and four puddings, including a cheese board. You can treat the small plates as starters and the large as mains, as we did, or mix and match at whim. There are no rules. (We’re pretty sure if we’d eaten the entire meal in a reverse order, starting with the puddings, staff wouldn’t have batted an eyelid — it’s that kind of a place). Vegetables and fruits are very much at the heart of every dish, but these are not flagged up as vegetarian as such, and some contain fish sauce, cheeses with animal rennet and so on – so do check carefully.
To start, frilly leaves of kale, which have retained their bright verdant colour by being cooked just right, nestled among mounds of chunky beetroot and snowy peaks of sparklingly fresh ricotta, is a beautiful-looking dish. The soft cheese is offset by the crunch of toasted pine nuts and sunflower seeds, and it’s a soothing, mellow combination of flavours. Next is another small plate of warm, meltingly tender roasted aubergine and courgette slices, with cool, creamy tsatziki perched on top and a dollop of nutty tahini on the side. It’s a reliably good combination of Middle Eastern flavours, and the contrasting temperatures work surprisingly well together.
A large plate of sunset-coloured pumpkin braised with tomato and chilli promises bold flavours, but is in fact a little too mild-mannered with barely-there chilli heat. The squash pieces are unevenly cooked – some are soft to the point of mushy, others a bit hard – and the dish is too dry. The accompanying sweet, slightly nutty coconut rice and buttered cabbage are perfectly cooked and delicious, however. Perhaps the kitchen here would benefit from a less restrained, more gutsy approach — a generous handful of fresh herbs here, a surprising combination of ingredients there, something to make us go ‘wow, I didn’t see that coming!’ To finish, apple, pear and sultana crumble is like something your granny might have made: fetchingly presented in a retro white-and-blue dish, it has a sharp filling (perhaps a little too sharp), and a good, sweet crust. Mellowed down with thick cream with an impressively old-fashioned homemade taste, the dish achieves a wonderful balance of flavours.
Not all the fruit and veg are supplied by Riverford’s farms in the UK and France — most are, but the rest come from small, independent producers and growers around the country. Milk, cream and yoghurt are from the Riverford Dairy, and the cheeses from some of UK’s small producers. Beers, wines, spirits and soft drinks are either organic, biodynamic or Fairtrade; no multinational brands are used. Our three-course dinner with a glass of wine, soft drink and service cost around £30-£35 each.
We were wowed by the service. Staff were notably smart, friendly, knowledgeable and on-the-ball. Nothing was too much trouble and the dishes — which take time to arrive as they seem freshly cooked to order — were delivered with a smile. Unfussy, unpretentious ingredient-led cooking like this only works if the ingredients themselves are fresh. Here they’re so vibrant, so lively and sprightly that you can close your eyes and easily imagine yourself in an organic farm in Devon.
The Duke of Cambridge, 30 St Peter’s Street, Islington, N1 8JT. Tel: 020 7359 3066.
We review strictly anonymously, and pay for all the food, drinks and service. Images supplied by the restaurant.
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Previously in this series
Last Updated 30 January 2015