Ever agonized over the perfect place to go on your first date? The right choice can affect on how well it goes – the wrong choice can end up in tumbleweed silences and a polite handshake goodbye. Well no more, because food writer/single girl and new Grazia Daily columnist Tess Ward is on a mission to roadtest the perfect restaurants you can take a date to. Tess Ward is a food writer, Le Cordon Bleu trained chef and host of West London’s exclusive tailor-made cookery programmes. She is also a twenty-something singleton, on the hunt for the best date-night eateries in our new weekly column. We will follow her from her awkward first date icebreakers to the third date clinchers, with a lot of tartar, steak, linguini and cocktails between. Check here every Thursday for a nibble of the action…
THE DATE: LET'S CALL HIM THE CHEMIST
This week’s date night dinner is yet another first… (what can I say, I am picky about who I take on a second) - I was set up by my assistant. If we are talking about mixing work and pleasure, than this is it! It is an occupational hazard of this column to run out of men, especially as I tend to prefer dating out my pool of friends and acquaintances. Of course there was a criteria, an essential ticklist of the absolute essentials which read as follows: A) Funny: there is no way I can handle 2 hours of monotonous boring chat. B) Clever: If you are learning from your dinner companion, you are onto a winner. Finally C) Attractive: well, I do have to sit across from them all night, eye candy certainly helps if criteria A and B is lacking. A wave of her fairy wand and this weeks date was booked, my companion for the night being an oxford uni graduate, with a job in renewable energy. Charming, nice and attractive enough to tolerate (only joking he certainly wasn’t bad looking at all), let’s just call him The Chemist…
THE VENUE: GRAIN STORE
Dinner this week was held at Bruno Loubet’s restaurant Grain Store, located in a redeveloped old warehouse, right on King Cross’ Granary Square. After a weekend of festival street food, greasy chips and rich fatty pulled pork, Grain Store was like the green juice to my hangover. Not decipherably one cuisine or another, their menu focuses on celebrating the versatility of the humble vegetable. It is by no means a vegetarian restaurant, but one with the philosophy that meat need not be at the center of every plate. As such they boast a wonderful variety of unusual vegetable and grain based creations with weird and wonderful flavour pairings. Ironic you might think that a French chef should be the championing force behind such a restaurant so clearly not floating on a river of butter.
THE LIGHTING: A LITTLE BRIGHT IN PLACES
The vibe of the place, was as expected light, airy and packed full of the kitsch little touches to remind us, in case we had forgotten, that we were in a converted grainstore. The restaurant itself was bordering on lab lighting, certainly not ideal for hiding the post-festival bags, so we set up camp in the bar area for the evening.
THE COCKTAILS: LETHAL BUT LOVELY!
The meal began with the first hour spent cocktail tasting. Flanked on both sides by suits, and seated opposite a former masterchef winner (Tim what’s his name), we slowly made our way through the list. Toasted butter and hay-smoked liquor served with champagne was a real highlight, as were the innovative variations of mustard and horseradish distilled vodkas and the frozen green tomato bloody marys.
THE MENU: VARIED AND INTERESTING
Once we’d exhausted all hope of walking out of the restaurant unaided we got ordering, in the hope that a little food would mop up the booze. Feeling experimental we opted for a wide selection of starters: charentais melon gazpacho (granted, an odd choice), sprouting seeds & grains with chicken skin, sardines with a spiced aubergine puree and a peach, fennel and poached salmon salad with elderflower dressing. For mains, we ordered the hake in vanilla butter with seaweed sushi rice and finally what I can only assume was the summer vegetable risotto with lemon, but unrecognisable as such for its abundance of truffle. Against recommendations I stuck to frozen tomato bloody marys and didn’t cocktail match to the menu. I didn’t think my liver could handle it.
The gazpacho came out first. A fruit puree, not dislike the sort of you get in a tube, labelled as a ‘sex on the beach’ mixer, it was tooth achingly sweet, and most certainly not what I had in mind for a starter. I was hoping for something a little more along the sweet and savoury, with a hefty dose of lime and a hint of spice. Two slurps were all I could handle.
The sprouting seeds, served with a well-spiced aubergine puree, were crunchy and crisp, and a delicious riot of textures. The crisp chicken skin and potato wafer putting the kibosh on any notions of it being a hippified health food dish and transporting it into a happy realm of textural deliciousness. It was particularly well paired with the sardines, on smoked aubergine.
The hake, although plump, inviting and beautifully presented, was decidedly lacking in the promised vanilla taste and rather bland. The rice was also rather dry and cloying, the black smeared garlic puree minimal, which as the only flavouring for the dish was disappointing. A drizzle more of vanilla beurre noissette and a lacing of lemon would have done wonders to lift it. The risotto on the other hand was nothing short of full-bowled heavy truffled glut. Moreish, rich and happily al dente, it was certainly my favourite of the two.
THE DATE: NEEDED TO GET SOMETHING OFF HIS CHEST
Another round of cocktails, and a confession of a girlfriend came out in the lag between courses. Unsurprisingly I was a little perturbed, but not particularly surprised (I know the things young men do in the hope of a free meal). Truthfully I had established very little in common with The Chemist at this point and there was very unlikely going to be a second date, but the news appalled any notion I may have had of his chivalry. I don’t dispute that dating etiquette comes with an abundance of grey area, but this sort of behaviour left a lot to be said for his manners.
THE PUDDINGS: MADE UP FOR THE DATE’S RUDENESS
The final two dishes to hit the table were the rhubarb rice pudding brulee and the chocolate & red bean pot. Both were good, although the chocolate was in truth little more than a fondant, the red beans completely undetectable and the cardamom ice cream lacking in spice. Although I was sceptical about a rice pudding brulee, it was certainly the favourite. A great balance of fruity and creamy, with a proper sugar shell to crack on top.
THE VERDICT: A SECOND VISIT IS ORDER… WITH A NICER DATE
For the fun, buzzy atmosphere and their extensive cocktail knowledge I would certainly recommend Grain Store for a fresh date. All the better to go whilst the weather is nice and you can enjoy your cocktails al fresco. I will certainly be going back next time, but hopefully with a more promising dinner companion next time. There are still a few cocktails I am yet to try…
GRAIN STORE, 1-3 STABLE STREET, LONDON, N1C 4AB, 0207 324 4426
London Foodies, if you have any suggestions for date hotspots you love in london, please do tweet me @tesswardchef