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Eating out is hard work. Just when you think you’ve mastered it – you start your cutlery from the outside, order one up from house and never ask for the seafood special on a Monday – along comes a whole new set of rules. Welcome to the world of hipster dining, where burgers are dirty, Negronis come in jam jars, the manager’s on Twitter and an 8pm reservation is a cry for help.
At the heart of the ‘filth’ trend is the burger: always dirty, never gourmet. Yianni Papoutsis is your man here, although Honest Burger, Lucky Chip and Patty & Bun are up there. Expect a sloppy sandwich of aged beef, Kraft-style cheese, Heinz ketchup and a secret sauce to drip down your Tri-Blend tee. If your burger is French-dipped, it’s for dunking in gravy. If it’s on a plate, forget it.
Hot dogs have yet to plumb the same delicious depths, but serving them in plastic baskets with indie Champagnes, streetcart onions, tots (deep-fried potato croquettes)and cheese whizz, as ex-Noma chef James Knappett does at Charlotte Street’s Bubbledogs (pictured above), is inspired.
America’s ‘lardcore’ scene – new Southern cooking that gives low-rent proteins the five-star treatment – has done a lot to bring meat over here. Real barbecue with pulled pork, burnt ends and house pickles is a happy new arrival. Pitt Cue Co even has its own Mangalitsa pigs – go for the specials and a pickleback (whisky with pickle-brine chaser).
Southern fried chicken was the trend that had to happen. Everyone does the definitive version. Jackson Boxer’s at Rita’s Bar & Dining served in a roll in a brown paper bag, and Isaac McHale’s buttermilk chicken with pine salt at The Clove Club and Upstairs at the Ten Bells, are the real contenders.
A knock-on effect of lardcore is bacon every which way. James Knappett’s bacon jam with chicken skin served at the Kitchen Table is addictive; Neil Rankin’s bacon pannacotta at John Salt is a bona-fide destination dessert; and serial popper-upper Dave Ahern does his chips with bacon salt.
Fat is phat now, too; Hackney even has a restaurant named after it (Lardo). Skinny-jeaned hipsters, ironically, love to talk about fat. Fries aren’t just fries; they’re aged beef-dripping fries or chicken-fat fries. There’s dripping in their popcorn (Flat Iron), beef fat in their mayo (John Salt) and back fat on their toast (Master & Servant). And they love skin – crisp and salty, especially pork chicharon (rinds) at Shrimpy’s.
And then there’s deep-fried. Pickles in particular are enjoying a moment; try battered pickles and okra at Duke’s Brew & Que or the pickles and blue-cheese dip on the ‘rabbit food’ menu at Yianni Papoutsis’s joints. Elsewhere, mac ’n’ cheese (a trend in itself) gets the bubbling-fat treatment at Wishbone in Brixton, while on the pudding front, there’s Bea’s of Bloomsbury’s deep-fried brownies, Duck & Waffle’s Mars Bar and John Salt’s priapic banana.
Not all food is stars-and-stripes-waving stuff. Food god David Chang of New York’s Momofuku has got hipsters hooked on Korean flavours. Adventurous types go for the K-Dawg with kimchi (fermented cabbage) at Bubbledogs, there’s kimchi in the pizza and pasta at Hurwundeki, and The Clove Club has got the early adopters started on gochuchang, a Korean chilli paste.
Japanese food has been showing London its seamy side, with 20-hour pork-bone broth, pipettes of fat and cock scratchings (thanks for that, Bone Daddies). The current ramen of choice is the springy, Hakata-style variety from Kyushu in a broth of boiled-up pork bones, fat and collagen.
But for all this talk of lard and chips, don’t think these beanie-clad scenesters have the food tastes of truckers. Above pubs, in warehouses, fine dining (of sorts) is flourishing. Ben Spalding’s Stripped Back is the leanest of the no-frills haute cuisine set, cooking alfresco at the weekly Street Feast night food market in Dalston until last month.
Influences from the New Nordic Kitchen are everywhere, though ingredients are British all the way. Wild greens and foraged herbs please Hackney’s fixie-riding locavores, and help keep final bills down. Raw is important, too; even smoke- and fire-lovin’ Neil Rankin, once of Pitt Cue Co, now of John Salt, is known as much for his raw beef, pear and sesame salad as for his steaks and hash.
Still, it’s smoked, burnt and charred that are the menu adjectives du jour. There’s nothing that can’t be smoked right now, from smoked yoghurt at Dalston newcomer White Rabbit to smoked potato at the Clove Club and cucumber at Upstairs at The Ten Bells. Pickling is catching up fast. Ben Spalding’s famous 50-ingredient salad ticks all the boxes: pickled, raw, cured, wild, delicious and only slightly bewildering.
In fact, the big difference between the new guard and the old is not so much in the food as in the presentation and vibe. The nu-school chefs serve their multi-course tasting menus to tiny slavering audiences – as few as eight at Stripped Back, around 20 elsewhere. And don’t call them restaurants, these are ‘projects’, ‘pop-ups’, ‘residencies’ and ‘collaborations’. The chefs are ‘curators’ (and they double up as waiters).
But be warned – by the time you’ve found your favourite, it will be ready to move on. It’s a hard life, being a hipster.
This article was published on June 2013 in the Square Meal Lifestyle summer magazine.