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Upstairs at The Ten Bells: Isaac McHale Zings Up East London

Hip – young – and – British!

Last year Isaac McHale & James Lowe of The Young Turks together with Johny and Daniel of The Clove Club took over the space (literally) “Upstairs” at Spitalfield’s infamous pub The Ten Bells (known for its association with hookers slaughtered by Jack the Ripper) and transformed it into a fixed menu pop-up restaurant. That was finished. James & Isaac have recently parted ways to pursue their solo projects. An amicable “divorce”, according to Isaac who carries on at Upstairs with the boys and along with the introduction of ex-Ledbury Giorgio Ravelli to help helm the kitchen. These boys – with the now running, semi-permanent Upstairs – are also cooking up a new, so-mother-f**kingly-awesome-I-am-not-allowed-to-announce venture.

For the time being I returned to Upstairs at The Ten Bells.

The menu at Upstairs champions British cooking and comfort with thoughtful, inventive twists. It is also A La Carte – a major adjustment to the fixed tasting menu that The Young Turks were famed for – with “Snacks” (£4.60-£5.20), “Starters” (£5.50-£6.20), “Mains” (£14.30-16.60) and “Desserts” (£6.20-7). There remains an unofficial and unprinted option of a tasting menu of sort for those unable to make up their mind (me and my friends). The signature nibble of Fried Buttermilk Chicken (£5.20) still boast earth-shattering crust and pine perfume. Lardo & Walnuts (£4.60) had a balanced proportion of salt, fat and pork; the walnuts contributed extra powder and crunch. My friends and I were indecisive with the starters, so the kitchen kindly prepared us miniature portions of the all three items on the menu. (Bear in mind your full portion will be MUCH larger). Salad of Tomatoes was a rather delicate dish noted for a playful contrast of warmth and icy-ness. The heritage tomatoes were served at room temperature; the baby plum tomatoes were carefully roasted for juicy sweetness. I found the mint-y burst from the torn shiso leaves – coupled with mild peppery-ness from the rocket leaves – an uplifting departure from the convention of tomato-basil pairing. The granita of goat’s milk left a pleasant aftertaste of cream and ephemeral chill, while my tongue was being tickled by the fried sandy crumbs. Pheasant Egg was a kickass hybrid of your British favourites. Isaac gave you not cauliflower cheese, egg or cheese on toast but an exclusive, superfluous all-in-one option (!!). On a piece of crusty toast sat a well-timed poached egg, leaking a golden lava of yolk. It was toppled with piping hot cheese fondue and garnished with two textured cauliflowers (boiled&buttered and carpaccio-ed). The good graciously delicious grease was well boosted by spicy watercress and a crispy, high-acidity sliver of pickled gherkin. (I could eat two more of this). My parade of starters gathered momentum with Courgette Soup. First there was an ensemble of pan fried Jersey Royal discs, textured courgette and razor clams. The latter were sliced into almond size and poached in five-spice brown butter. The soup itself – served chilled – was prepared with a well contemplated infusion of razor clam juice and mint. Together it was packed with refreshing punch. The minty chill jostled with a subtle note of zingy spices. The essence of razor clam provided a macho touch. Just. Brilliant.

The mains were tasty spectacles of British comfort. My friend raved at her Plaice with Elderflower and Wild Fennel and refused to give me any (BBbbbrrrrr). I somehow managed to nibble a few bites off Roast Lamb (bone) with Spinach and Anchovie (toppled with fried spaghetti-ed potato!!). The lamb was very tender; the two-way anchovies – marinated and as cream – completed the dish with not only with a silvery sparkle but also layers of sea-salty depth. MY Smoked Pork Belly (which I also refused to share) was a gargantuan stack of meat (now thinking of calories I maybe should have shared). The fatty layers partially dissolved into gelatinous essence and injected moisture to the very firm meat; the skin was separately crisp-ed up, broken and scattered about. The combination here – of parsley pure, pork jus, braised radish and squeaky, risotto-like oat groats – leaned towards the hearty traditional but skillfully assembled. There were two desserts on the menu and I got to sample both. The winner by a small margin was Strawberry Tart. It arrived a cream-filled UFO of brik pastry (almond meal, sugar and brushed with butter) with fresh strawberry slices. I loved the juxtaposition of the tart’s very fragile texture and its rich, nutty sweetness. I also loved the aromatic milky-ness from the white chocolate and elderflower ice cream (Giorgio’s invention). Together with the fresh strawberry (good acidity) the dish created an idyllic English vision of sort – a typical English open field and a typical English summer (when it doesn’t rain). The other dessert – Blueberry Mousse, Milk Crisps and Tarragon Cake – was a good, but not as brilliantly orchestrated dish. The wave-like blueberry mousse swept across the plate. The mousse itself had a fine, fruity taste. I would have preferred it a little lighter, as with the cake, the dish became quite heavy. That said, the moss green tarragon-accented sponge was to die for, and the milk crisps, which dissolved in my mouth, were a joy to eat.

Upstairs has ticked so many boxes for me. Unfussed and creative, Isaac’s post-Young Turks cooking is also notably more restrained and refined but without losing the heart and soul of what The Young Turks was all about. And judging from my dinner that night I should perhaps head East more often ^_^



84 Commercial Street
E1 6LY

Tel. (not quite confirmed but) 0753 049 2986 (but it’s probably easier to make a reservation on Toptable).

Upstairs at the Ten Bells on Urbanspoon


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