Review: 'Nuala prides iteslf on how it handles potatoes'
Nuala, 70-74 City Road, London EC1Y 2BJ. 00 44 203 904 0462
What's that line about it being unfortunate to lose one parent, but careless to lose two? It was ringing in my ears as I took my solo seat at the bar of a newish Irish-ish restaurant in London on the day before St Patrick's Day.
It was lunchtime and, all around me, the craic was if not exactly mighty, then certainly with the potential to head in that direction over the next few hours. The St Patrick's Day Spotify mix was on repeat, and the bar downstairs looked to be gearing up for a late one.
But I'd been let down not just by one but by both of my lunch dates...
Perhaps Nuala mightn't have been my first choice if I'd known that I was going to be lunching solo. I might instead have been lurking on Twitter to see if I could get one of those last-minute seats that come up every now and then at the tiny Sushi Tetsu, or pleading at the door of The Araki to squeeze me in, or lining up with a (thick) novel in my hand in the hope of eventually getting fed at the no-booking Sabor - the new restaurant from the team behind Barrafina - before I had to high-tail it to City Airport. But by the time I found out that instead of being (as I thought) Katy Lots of Pals, I was in fact Katy No Mates, it was too late to make a new plan, so I called Nuala to explain my reduced circumstances and hopped on the Tube to Old Street.
I know that it's very sophisticated to enjoy eating on one's own, but so much of the pleasure that I get from food and restaurants derives from the shared experience - not to mention the opportunity to try at least twice as many dishes - that it's not something I'd ever choose to do. That said, the staff at Nuala did their best to make me feel less awkward about it and checked in with me often enough to be friendly, but not so many times that I got the impression they were feeling sorry for me.
Nuala occupies a large corner premises less than a minute's walk from the Tube station (make sure to take the right exit, or you will end up on the other side of a very large roundabout), and the décor is all concrete and exposed pipes softened by tobacco leather booths, with an open kitchen at one end. It feels spacious, contemporary and welcoming, with none of the 'too cool for school' vibe that you sometimes find in trendy restaurants.
The co-owner and executive chef at Nuala is Niall Davidson from Derry, who came to London initially to work as a butcher and has stints at St John Bread and Wine and Chiltern Firehouse on his CV. There's an Irish-y shtick to the place, but it's contemporary rather than diddley-eye.
I'd been reading about Nuala since it opened a couple of months back, and a few dishes kept recurring in dispatches, so before I even got there, I had a good idea as to what I was going to order. It made sense to choose a few starters so that I could try more dishes than if I stuck to the starter-main-and-pudding format.
Obviously, I wasn't going to miss out on the beef tartare served with extra stout sauce, egg yolk and dripping fries - which has to be the most Instagrammed dish on the menu - and neither should you. A thing of beauty, the elements combined deliciously; the chips are especially good (Nuala prides itself on how it handles potatoes) and perfect for dunking into the yolk and sauce.
And how could I not order veal sweetbreads and cauliflower rarebit? The sweetbreads were intensely savoury, with an umami-rich caramelisation that put me in mind of Marmite, but the cauliflower was undercooked and lacked cheese - a fatal flaw in a rarebit to my mind.
Crab with lardo and lovage on toast sounded unmissable, but the lardo was cut way too thick. The whole point of lardo is that it should be wafer thin, so that it almost melts at room temperature. Here it just made the dish too heavy; the crab would have been better without it.
The excellent house bread came with dulse butter and left me wondering if bread should ever be served in any other way. I think dulse, a seaweed, is my new favourite ingredient; it can do no wrong. And then there were the dauphinoise potatoes with lamb-fat gravy, which I felt I had a moral duty to investigate on your behalf. (Nuala is VERY good at potatoes.) I only just stopped myself from ordering the other much-talked-about potato dish, the Maris Piper champ, on the grounds of decorum.
To counteract all of the above, a bitter-leaf salad with burnt honey dressing was the most beautiful-looking salad I've seen in a long time (all pink and yellow and lovely), and a perfect counterpoint to the richness of all that had gone before.
I fell at the last hurdle and didn't manage to order a dessert - although I very much liked the sound of the chocolate mousse with coffee and smoked chocolate crumble, or the selection of Irish cheeses that was on offer.
The bill for all this food - which would have been enough for two people eating more modestly - came to £81.56 including service and a carafe of good Zweigelt. I would like to go back with a gang, depending, of course, on whether I could rustle one up.
8/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
Bread and butter, with the excellent tartare and a side of those dauphinoise potatoes, will cost £17.50 for one.
ON A BLOW-OUT
Veal sweetbreads, followed by Galloway ribeye to share, with a couple of sides, dessert and cheese, will cost in the region of £120 for two before drinks.
THE HIGH POINT
The dulse butter was outstanding, and I could eat those veal sweetbreads again right now.
THE LOW POINT
Lunching alone is no way to eat, especially when the food is as naturally good for sharing as it is at Nuala.