Tom Brown continues to conjure up predictably stunning seafood in Hackney and banishes my childhood aversion – 9.5/10
I never really liked seafood. As a kid, we didn’t have fish very often and, when we did, it was limited either to an admittedly lovely baked salmon cooked by my mum with soy and honey or, occasionally, a soul-sappingly greasy piece of semi-endangered cod from our local chippy, the somewhat ominously-named “Mr. Ho’s”. It’s a testament to my childish dislike of fish that I would always prefer to ingest that bastion of British beigery: the battered saveloy – a horrifying thought in hindsight, although I do still get a nostalgic twinge for it from time to time. Molluscs didn’t fare much better. Mussels repulsed me; oysters turned my stomach; scallops were barely tolerable, and that was only because they tasted a bit like chicken.
In April 2011, that all changed. My dad and I took a trip over Easter to Port Appin, a pretty, secluded fishing village on the west coast of Scotland, just north of Oban. We hiked around the village and up into the dewy, heathered hills. A little ferry chugged us across Loch Linnhe to the tranquil island of Lismore. On the Port Appin side, the Pierhouse Hotel stands quite isolated on the shores of the loch, like a short, stubby lighthouse with its conical slate roofs and whitewashed walls. As the sun set on our first night there, we ate dinner overlooking the billowing folds of the water: a parade of langoustines, scallops and mussels, cooked expertly with a few basic ingredients within 100 yards of where they are caught. My eyes were open to a whole new world of edible aquatic creatures.
Since Tom Brown opened his first solo venture in the far-flung depths of Hackney Wick, Cornerstone has garnered glowing reviews from pretty much everyone who eats food and then puts pen to paper: Jay Rayner, Giles Coren, David Ellis, GQ, the Financial Times, numerous others. Although I had read the thoughts of all of these learned foodies before visiting for dinner on a sunny Thursday evening, my subconscious suspicion of seafood still lingered. It would be great to tell you that I have something new and original to add to the world with this review, but sadly, from the first bite, it was clear I would simply have to find my own verbs and adjectives to describe just how bloody delicious Cornerstone is.
As I sip a delightfully strong negroni in the semi-industrial, grey and silver space, a couple of slices of toast arrive. It’s not unusual for me to wax lyrical about bread, but honestly, those chunky, buttery, almost malty slices of bread are the best damn pieces of toast I’ve ever had. Just look at them! Do yourself a favour and go and eat them immediately.
They are quickly followed by a pair of oysters: one raw with seaweed hot sauce and one pickled with celery, horseradish and dill, both huddled over attentively by the kitchen. My travels around Russia left me with an irrational, Stockholm Syndrome-like loathing/love for dill, so I pick the piquant, raw fellow to be safe.
The next dish is an absolute highlight: smooth, almost buttery mackerel pâté covered by a thin layer of zesty cider jelly. On top, gently seared slices of warm mackerel add temperature and texture, each with its own crisp leaf of sea purslane. On the side, a dense muffin of treacle bread breaks apart into sweet, spreadable hunks. It’s sensational.
Our first of the larger dishes is no less impressive. Two gigantic scallops, not seared (as is most common) but perhaps gently poached in a butter made of their own ground coral (the orange roe of the scallop) to almost marshmallow-esque softness.
One of the most remarkable things about Cornerstone is the pervasive air of calm in the kitchen. It has the kind of atmosphere you would expect in a time-tested restaurant that has been going through the motions with the same old dishes for years, not in a relatively new place that continues to experiment with weekly, seasonal changes to its menu. In terms of landing on his feet, Tom Brown is apparently the Nadia Comaneci of the culinary world.
My friend recommends the much-Instagrammed crab crumpet, which comes with rarebit and Worcestershire sauce. If you’ve ever wondered where the word “rarebit” comes from and whether it actually has any connection to our furry, long-eared friends, it is a corruption of “rabbit“, although there is no evidence that any bunny was ever harmed in the preparation of the dish. The addition of “Welsh” may have been adopted either from an old English use meaning “foreign” or from the simple fact that the Welsh were considered especially fond of cheese – I like to think the latter. Either way they have adopted it as a national dish: 3 September is Welsh Rarebit Day. Even in France, it’s known as “Le Welsh”.
The recipe has a mystifying number of variants, some with mustard and butter, others with beer or wine. In my head at least, a classic Welsh rarebit is a slightly runny cheese-on-toast, with a dash of mustard and Worcestershire sauce. Cornerstone’s interpretation is a thick disc, bronzed by blowtorch and dotted with hefty sea salt flakes and rosemary leaves. It’s not runny, but the smooth, rich crabmeat and buttered crumpet underneath add enough moisture.
Our waiter – a terribly formal way to describe such friendly and casual service – recommends the whole John Dory with chicken butter sauce: an intriguing concept but a little steep for us at £30 for a relatively small fish. Instead, we go for the cod, which comes with a confusing combination of pickled green chilli, French onion (in both purée and soup form, I think) and roe mousse. It’s sweet, tart, spicy and salty all at once, which completely overpowers a delicate piece of fish. The only dud dish of the evening – perhaps there was a reason he recommended the John Dory.
Fortunately, Mr Brown does not go completely mental and include fish-based desserts on his menu. Instead, he adds his own twist to a couple of classics. A cracking, cracked meringue comes with tart poached rhubarb and an enriched spoonful of clotted cream. Some pretty ginger jelly cubes balanced on top keep the whole dish fresh. An individual banoffee tart is a beautiful creation: firm pastry and lip-smacking lime ice cream, although I would have preferred real slices of banana to the slightly fancier banana mousse.
We wander out into the Hackney night, satisfied and bleary-eyed, dreaming of that mackerel pâté and those slices of toast, wondering how great it would have been to combine the two. I am reliably informed (by Instagram) that it was Cornerstone’s one year anniversary yesterday. I think it is safe to say that it has already cemented its reputation among the London seafood stalwarts and, surely, will be heading towards yet more accolades in the near future. For me at least, it has affirmed my growing belief that there are delicious things to eat under the sea and, even better, that you don’t have to travel to the shores of a Scottish loch to discover them. Hackney’s really not that far.
Dinner for two with a couple of cocktails and a carafe of Gavi cost us £164.69. I couldn’t think of a more lovely way to spend the money.
A Moveable Feast