Monday, 29 February 2016

P Franco, Lower Clapton Road, E5

The first post-gentrification closures are starting to roll in. Maeve's Kitchen up by Clapton Pond closed it's doors over Christmas, and The Plough on Homerton High Street - one of my favourite bars in the area (but clearly not frequented enough) - shut its doors at the end of January. I suspect a few more may decide to shut up shop over the coming months, if trade doesn't quite pick up.

Despite the climate, Lower Clapton Road's perpetually steamed up wine shop and bar P Franco has recently started doing food, and it's heaving - even on a cold Sunday evening. There's good reason: a man called William Gleave, a Tasmanian export, who ran an acclaimed restaurant in Hobart. He took up residence at P Franco in November, cooking a short menu from a tiny kitchen attached to the big communal table in the middle of the shop.

I had seen the menus pop up on my feeds for months and seen very alluring snippets and snaps on Twitter, but a succession of belt-tightening months had me dialling down my eating out for a while.

The wait is worth it. My discerning friend and I are naming it the best meal we've had in ages mouthfulls into the first dish that's brought out: raw chopped beef (soz, 'crudo'), with crispy shards of dried seaweed (like nori), crumbed anchovy, rocket and mayo-like emulsion, and powdered seaweed. It's cool, creamy, firm, crispy, leafy - a gorgeous mixture of temperatures and textures, borrowing from Japanese and Italian flavours and ingredients.

Next up is a "risotto" without the rice - it's all toasty seeds, pine nuts, orzo pasta, and two types of wheat in a thick, luscious nettle sauce, topped with crispy kale and tiny shards of broccoli, topped with parmesan. There's an egg yolk buried in the risotto, and we're encouraged to pierce it and blend it into the sauce. This is a stunning looker - all rich, emerald green - but it's a proper taster too. It's the most extravagant vegetarian dish I've had without any of the usual buttery, creamy cliches of extravagance. 

A chicken broth with cuttlefish comes out next. The cuttlefish is cut so thinly it's almost like rice noodles, ghostly floating in the rich, fully flavoured broth, topped with just-blanched squares of greens, and then generous glugs of rich, fruity Le Coste olive oil. It's simple, fresh, under-stated.

We climax and conclude with the pasta dish. There's always a pasta dish on the menu, and I've recently spied a food blogger call this some of the best pasta in London. Uhuh, yup. The pasta is rough cut, wide sheets - somewhere between papperdele and lasagne, with a good bite to it. The sauce is a simple tomato sauce, topped with basil and generous parmesan, and the quality of the ingredients just sing. My highlight is a creamy curd cheese, like that in the middle of treasured burata. It's utterly luscious, and nicely chilly against the warm, fruity, acidity of the tomato sauce. It's made by Gleave every day, and I'm already making plans to make my own...if only I could find some buffalo milk.

There's a great selection of wine, as you'd expect from a wine shop. The pricing is simple - just add £10 to any bottle on the shelves, which are chiefly from small producers, often natural/organic/biodynamic, and most supplied by esteemed suppliers Tutto. They have a couple of red and a couple of white open for pouring by the glass, which suits us as a way to try a few interesting glasses between us over the course of the evening. 

We get the impression that most people here are pretty serious about their wine, many in a professional context - perhaps working in other East London restaurants. It feels the slightest bit sceney, and sometimes it's not clear who's working and who's a guest. But there's a welcome for everyone, and the food prices are exceptional value for the quality - ranging from £8 - £10. While there isn't a wine list, the wines are very clearly priced on the shelf, with bottle prices from £9 (before the £10 corkage), which compares favourably with house wines at other local restaurants.

By the end of the meal we're sure it's the best we've had in ages. So simple, so concise, so on the mark. I'm already formulating plans to take various friends here for a relaxed evening of wine and inventive dishes brought out in gently paced succession. Don't delay, this is the real deal.

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