Shoreditch or Hackney? Both are magnets for hipsters, but which really cuts it as the culinary centre of modern London? Zeren Wilson pokes in a fork

Shoreditch, eh? It feels like forever that this corner of London, hugging the edges of the corporate excesses of the City, has been shackled with ‘trendy’, ‘hip’, ‘hipster’, ‘arty’, ‘fashionable’ and any other moniker which should make anyone hanging out there on a Friday night feel they’re bang up to date. But is its hipster-bearded star waning? Shoreditch itself is officially in the London Borough of Hackney, but Hackney proper has been shuffling up the culinary trend seeker’s pecking order for some time now.

For those of you who are new to London, Shoreditch is a short walk from Liverpool Street station, which in turn sits cheek-by-jowl with London’s financial centre and formerly was the heart of Roman London. Hackney occupies the adjacent sprawl moving away from the centre of town.

Dish at Ellory
Dish at Ellory

The mothership: St John

We must start in Shoreditch at St John, the mothership of British food’s glorious renaissance. It opened in Farringdon in 1994 before following up with St John Bread and Wine in 2003, on Commercial Street. Where else can you prop up a bar with blood cake, fried egg and brown sauce, or grilled kipper and sourdough toast, before leaving with some freshly baked madeleines and a loaf of homemade bread? Nowhere else. St John nails it every time.

Hoxton Square is five minutes walk north of St John. Many London foodies avoid it since it offers slim pickings of real quality, but the owners of 8 Hoxton Square, Luke Wilson and Cameron Emirali, have brought a solid restaurant to the square that isn’t a gimmicky joint like some of the ones that open and close here with alarming regularity: gutsy bistro style cooking drives the menu. Drop in for pork and liver parfait, Middle White pork with sprouting broccoli and anchovy, perhaps finishing with pannacotta with figs and pistachio. No namby-pamby sharing plates here.

Empty tables at 8 Hoxton Square
Empty tables at 8 Hoxton Square

A thing of beauty…

For Thai cooking as lip-stinging and thrilling as it gets, Som Saa just about qualifies as Shoreditch (it’s just by Spitalfields Market). Chef Andy Oliver is one of only two chefs in London that have worked in Thai kitchens with Thai food authority David Thompson (the other is Jane Alty, of Peckham’s The Begging Bowl). The five spice soy braised beef cheek curry is a thing of beauty.

Homeslice cranks out some of the best pizzas in London, and its Shoreditch spot is another gem. Huge 20” monsters plucked from a wood-burning oven (so many in today’s pizza game can’t be bothered with the faff and skill of maintaining one), which covers the classic styles as well as specials like spiced lamb with savoy cabbage and sumac yoghurt.

Display of pizza from Homeslice
Display of pizza from Homeslice

Awards carried with insouciance

Michelin star-bedecked venues The Clove Club and Lyle’s represent two of the finest restaurants in London, and Shoreditch is blessed to have them within staggering distance of each other. Both carry their award garlands with insouciance, eschewing tablecloths and formal service styles with a welcome breeziness. Plenty of cheffy skills here, with pricing to match. Try the bar at The Clove Club rather than the full set menu shebang in the main dining room: many, many highlights here.

A den of iniquity

Meat Mission is a suitable den of iniquity (just off Hoxton Square), serving up cheeseburgers, monkey fingers (battered chicken strips slathered in hot pepper sauce), hot dogs, buffalo wings, and all that Americana jazz – in the sepulchrous surroundings of a former Christian mission. Best after several (nay, lots) of beers to appreciate the meat, grease and salt hit.

While the strip of Vietnamese restaurants on Kingsland Road is a decent hunting ground for a bowl of Pho noodle soup, Cay Tre on Curtain Road is a veritable old timer, and still consistently good. Around the corner Kêu Banh Mi Deli offers the best damn example of the Vietnamese Banh Mi baguette in town, attention to detail stretching to a custom baguette made to their specifications…

Rochelle Canteen, hidden just off Arnold Circus in a former school bike shed, is the hidden spot the hospitality industry doesn’t want you to know about. Co-owned by Margot Henderson (wife of St John founder Fergus Henderson), the menus have more than a shade of the St John DNA: impeccably-sourced produce plated unfussily and with generosity. Nettle soup and snails, rabbit offal, kohlrabi, brown shrimp and chervil, barbecue quail and celeriac remoulade – that kinda stuff. Just don’t tell everyone, as it’s tiny. Cheers.

Rochelle Canteen
Rochelle Canteen

Now to Hackney proper

What of Hackney proper, as we go deeper, as we go north? It’s scuffed around the edges but the last couple of years have ushered in a boom time for restaurants here. Hackney Road in particular seems to have spawned another hot opening every couple of months.

The Laughing Heart arrived towards the end of 2016 and has quickly become an industry hangout (a useful credo: go where the chefs eat, hang where the front of house kick back). The killer detail here is that food is served until 1am. It’s good stuff, too: riffs on Chinese fried rice; fluffy bao buns; wonderful chicken liver parfait with chicken skin crackling; Speckle Faced Mutton tortellini; pak choi in a Shaoxing broth; Sichuan crème brûlée. Sunday is dumpling day, a set Chinese menu which is worth dropping in for.

Big love

One of the first restaurants to make a mark is Brawn on Columbia Road, run by chef-owner Ed Wilson, and the epitome of a solid neighbourhood restaurant. There is always exceptional pasta on the menu, such as girolle tagliolini, or perhaps veal ragù pappardelle. How about grilled bavette with radicchio, or Barnsley Chop with borlotti beans? It floats my boat. Big love.

The Marksman, a couple of minutes away, is notable for its two hugely talented chef-owners, Jon Rotherham and Tom Harris. Still a proper boozer, with the same locals who used to come before it got gussied up, it retains the essence of a pub, with the added bonus of a seriously good kitchen. Enter, order the beef and barley buns with horseradish cream, and a pint. Order these again. Bar snack epiphany. You may be tempted by brown crab and fennel on toast, or veal and girolle pie (good pie skills here), but it’s those buns that will haunt you long after you’ve left.

The Marksman Public House Bar
The Marksman Public House Bar

Meet the Champagne piña colada

Hackney Road continues to spill a couple of worthy options across the path; Morito for admirable Spanish/Moroccan; Sager and Wilde for a thrilling wine list and cheese toasties. A short walk round the corner on Bethnal Green Road is Coupette, a new bar it’s easy to miss. It makes a big play on calvados-based cocktails, cider, and a smart (and booze-soaker-upper) menu. After an evening hitting it hard here you’ll appreciate the croque monsieur. They serve four different ones: the classic is made with ham hock and Gruyère. Champagne piña colada is a thing here, one you’d do well to get acquainted with.

Sandwich at Sager and Wilde
Sandwich at Sager and Wilde

The further sprawl of Hackney (it’s large) heads north towards London Fields (walking distance). Ellory is the pick here, currently running tempting one-dish menus on Sunday, such as beef shin lasagne, Goan fish curry, and fried chicken with a host of grower Champagnes opened by the glass. The wine list is a pearler.

So, conclusion? There’s no waning going on, Shoreditch has reinvented itself with some of the most exciting openings in recent years, and by some form of hospitality osmosis, that movement has pushed out a bit, both northwards and eastwards, into a hitherto unexploited deeper Hackney…and so it will continue.

Right, just heard of some more openings. Off I trot….

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