There are lots of reasons to visit The Kitchens, the new food court at Spitalfields market. Too many reasons, in fact. How to choose between top Mexican food at Breddos, freshly-steamed bao at Yum Bun, or top-end shwarma from Berber & Q? Usually in these food markets there are (at best) a couple of standout names to bring the crowds in, and a whole lot of more workaday operations (often chain restaurants hiding behind a new hipster identity) to make the numbers up; not here, though. Not a bit of it.
So though we’d have been equally happy at Nordic smokehouse Rök, or Shanghai dumpling specialists Dumpling Shack, or with an ice cream sandwich from Happy Endings, we had on this occasion to put the blinkers on and stick to our assigned mission – dinner at British nose-to-tail eatery Flank.
Though really, it was no hardship. The menu is a beautiful thing, full of familiar names given interesting offal-ly twists, so that choosing just one or two bits and pieces is a real headache. We recommend taking a friend or two and sharing, or – even better – snagging one of just five spots at the kitchen bar and putting your evening in the hands of chefs Tom Griffiths and Drew Snaith, who (like most chefs, understandably) will relish the opportunity to show off first-hand what they’ve been working on.
‘Beans on toast’, slow-cooked to a cassoulet-style sticky, salty stew, thickened with pig’s trotters and slicked with bone marrow, was the first to arrive, and was a thoroughly impressive bit of work. It’s this more surreptitious use of offal – as a way of enhancing the texture and flavour profile of otherwise more familiar main ingredients – that will be the ‘hook’ for introducing a greater section of society to the joys of nose-to-tail eating. Flank, very cleverly, have the ‘normal’ dining population in mind as well as Fergus Henderson fans.
Of course, reveal yourself as a fan of all things St. John and Henderson, and there’s every chance you may be treated to an off-menu special. This is a huge slice of ox tongue, beautifully soft and full of flavour, with beef fat turnips and a nice sharp sauerkraut, proving that when Flank want to make offal the main focus in a dish, the results can be just as enjoyable.
Sirloin steak was, because it was from Cornish butchers Warrens, absolutely brilliant: full of flavour, with a fantastic bite. It came accompanied by bone marrow gnocchi, little fluffy pillows of joy which I’m happy to say are available as a side for £4, as they absolutely should not be missed by anyone.
‘British stew’ was a wonderful thing too – cubes of tongue and ribbons of oxtail bound together in a thick gravy, on a bed of buttery mash. We could have perhaps done without the ‘beef fat dumplings’, which had a slightly challenging funky note, but we’re prepared to believe this could have just been us. Topped with some house pickled fennel – when has anyone not loved pickled fennel? – this was a huge and deeply satisfying plate of food for a tenner: the perfect advertisement for British food.
Because, yes, Flank is unashamedly a British restaurant, and it’s exciting to see this kind of thing – not just offal, but stews and steaks and, yes, beans on toast – showcased in a genuinely innovative and vibrant new environment. It’s not long since home-grown cuisine was either completely ignored in London or trussed up as something vaguely geographically non-specific; even St. John took a good while to get people eating bone marrow and bacon-rolled spleen without a sense of muted apology. That Flank sits alongside very good indeed Mexican, Taiwanese, Nordic and Chinese kitchens and doesn’t seem out of place at all shows how far we’ve come.
As the winter closes in, snuggling up to a bowl of Flank stew in your hat and scarf will be an increasingly attractive proposition, and we’re sure will be a huge hit with the passing trade in Spitalfields. Yes, it’s familiar to anyone who grew up in this country –and there’s nothing wrong with that – but this food isn’t easy, or timid; it’s just plain good, and there’s a hugely rewarding experience to be had either perched at the bar watching your personal offal chefs creating a menu just for you, or grabbing a takeaway and eating it elsewhere. Flank may yet turn out to be the best ambassadors for British cuisine since a certain spot on St. John Street. Who saw that coming?
JOL was invited to review Flank on a complimentary basis. We retain full editorial control.