Lyon’s Seafood and Wine Bar, 1 Park Road, Crouch End, London N8 8TE (020 8350 8983). Small plates £2.50-£9, main dishes £12.50-£17.50, desserts £7, wines from £21
Many years ago, I was a regular carol singer around the streets of Crouch End in north London, which was an odd pre-Christmas night out for an atheist Jew. Then again, very few of those in our group had much interest in the baby Jesus. We just liked the tunes and the potential for fundraising. From these repeated trips I learned two things about Crouch End. The first is that, compared to many other parts of London, it’s a right pain in the arse to get to. Tube and train lines have no desire to go anywhere near it, which means it’s a bus ride or nothing.
And secondly, well-heeled Crouch Enders like it this way. They’re generally well dragged up, so try not to sound too smug about it, but will still tell you about the village feel and the sense of community, and have you tried the sourdough from the new place just past Waitrose? Recently a Crouch Ender launched a crowd-funder for a thrilling new sourdough project. There’s already a lot of sourdough in Crouch End, she said. It just isn’t very good sourdough. It’s that sort of place.
All of this has an impact on the restaurants that thrive there. They are what we sometimes casually dismiss as neighbourhood places. They are the ones you go to at the last minute because you can’t be fagged to cook, or because you need a debrief with your pals over a few bottles of New Zealand’s finest. There’s the French bistro and the Greek taverna and the pizza joints (sourdough crusts up the wazoo). If all of this sounds grossly privileged, well of course it bloody is. In the most unflashy of ways. It’s Crouch End.
The site occupied by Lyon’s Seafood and Wine Bar has been many things over the years. The white tiling behind the bar, with its old-school jade green and floral edging, hints at a past as a butcher’s. Our waiter thinks it may also have served as one of those pre-supermarket branches of Sainsbury’s with counter service. And then of course, it was a series of neighbourhood restaurants.
This latest incarnation could be mistaken for more of the same: a great local standby. Obviously, you could pop in for a quick something to eat. They’d be pleased to see you. But there is rather more going on here. The owner, Anthony Lyon, comes with time at Hix, the Wolseley and Colbert on the clock. When it opened a year ago, the head chef was Talia Prince, who had worked at the Fat Duck and Le Gavroche (though she has recently moved on). The proposition: “Fin-to-tail seafood and small-batch wines”.
It lives up to that. One main is a plate of salmon collars, that bit at the back of the head just behind the gills, which has lots of good flesh if you’re willing to get stuck in. Fancier kitchens might take them home for the cat. Here, they are tandoori paste-rubbed, then roasted until the skin is crisp, and the oily, pink flesh beneath is falling away. It comes on a bed of spiced coconut quinoa with, on the side, a pot of their own quite spectacular mango chutney, full of intriguing depths and corners. The dish costs £12.50. You can roll your eyes at a restaurant flogging what might once have been scraps, or recognise the war on waste and the work that’s gone into making it something much more than itself. I’m in the latter camp.
Early on we have a couple of their dressed rock oysters. One comes with the crunch and vigour of pickled cucumber and a dollop of dill mayo; another, with taramasalata and a scoop of caviar. It’s the oceanic version of denim on denim, but in a good way. The nearest thing to straightforward are three tiger prawns, grilled in chilli and garlic-spiked butter. Head suckage is mandatory. Or you could get some of their sourdough. Well of course. There really would be a mob outside with pitchforks and burning stakes if they didn’t offer sourdough.
Both of the smaller plates I try are strikingly precise. They feel like two courses in search of a tasting menu. A small piece of warmed smoked eel sits on a golden tangle of slow-cooked Lyonnaise onions. On the top are the thinnest slices of green apples, laid across each other like scales. A warm, limpid oniony broth is poured all around. It’s only a couple of mouthfuls but they are two spectacular mouthfuls. On another plate are thick pieces of salmon, cured in doom-black nori, then pressed together. They are laid on a punchy wasabi cream and dressed with slices of radish and crisped skin.
Our other main is two soft-shell crabs, thickly battered, deep-fried and laid on a bold mess of turnip and kimchi – a Korean dish called kkakdugi – which keeps all that rich, deep-fried shellfish in line. All these dishes are properly worth our time, money and attention, though the menu does lack balance. There’s the offer of a whole grilled seabass for two at £35, which apparently comes with a bit of foliage. The nearest thing to a side dish is a bowl of padrón peppers, a miso-grilled aubergine or a take on hash browns, engineered as Jenga bricks. It’s all mostly brown. A salad wouldn’t go amiss. Dessert is just creamy things set in bowls earlier in the day so they could get on with the rest of the prep: a fair enough lemon posset or a sturdy chocolate mousse with a bit of honeycomb and dulce de leche. Their heart really isn’t in it.
Still, the wine offering really is as diverting as they promise, with a selection of bottles I had never heard of and had to ask many questions about. Our first waiter puts her hands up admirably, says it’s her first day, and sends over the friendly chap who knows everything. We end up with a txakoli, a crisp white from the Basque country – a name spelt with an “x” like that is always a giveaway – which makes me feel travelled and adventurous.
During lockdown Lyon’s restyled itself as an online store, selling great produce. At the time of writing, the garbled website hasn’t recovered from that. But the restaurant is very much back, in a moody, globe-lit, wood-floored dining room built for social distancing. The locals of Crouch End have an intriguing thing on their doorstep. The rest of us should consider getting on the bus.
The Korean British Cultural Exchange, a charity promoting Korean culture in the UK, has launched a new kimchi recipe book, featuring contributions from members of the North and South Korean and Korean-Chinese communities in the London Borough of Kingston. The recipe book comes ahead of the Kimjang Festival, celebrating all things kimchi and held on New Malden High Street, the heart of the UK’s Korean community, on Saturday 23 November. For more info visit kimjangproject.com.
Amid all the news of closures it’s good to be able to announce openings. The upcoming W Hotel in Edinburgh will be home to a Sushisamba when it launches within the St James Quarter development in 2022. The rooftop restaurant, which fuses Japanese and South American cooking styles, will be the international group’s third in the UK and first outside London, and joins others n Dubai, Amsterdam and Las Vegas. sushisamba.com
Much has been made of the cost to the government of the Eat Out To Help Out scheme in August, but it’s become clear that there were also revenue benefits to the treasury. According to industry bodies, £150m was saved in furlough costs for staff going back to work as a direct result, there was £30m in VAT from the additional food sales, and £65m from the purchase of alcoholic drinks to accompany all those meals, which was not included in the scheme.
Email Jay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1
Jay Rayner’s My Last Supper, One Meal a Lifetime in the Making, is published in paperback by Guardian Faber now. Buy it for £7.99 at guardianbookshop.com