Review: Upstairs at the Ten Bells, Shoreditch

I’m a tad late to the party on this one, the Ten Bells has been generating a lot of blog inches with plenty of praise when the Young Turks took over the upper floors as a popup restaurant. A group of like-minded, up and coming chefs, their “Upstairs” restaurant was received very well. Now, one of the Turks, Isaac, has continued solo with the venture and is serving up similar food. And apparently the pub was once run by Jamie Oliver’s great grandfather, so make of that what you will.

Pushing our way through the busy noisy pub on a Wednesday night up the original (and very “distressed”) staircase we knew we’d arrived in Shoreditch. The vibe is French Boho chic (natch), with mismatched furniture albeit with a Tracey Emin neon and a Peter Blake hanging on the wall. It reminded me of upstairs at The Fox nearby, albeit that was ten years ago. But it’s perfectly functional and has its own charm and quirks, plus the focus is of course the food as arguably it should be. Service was friendly but still very efficient, we were seated quickly. We were initially offered a sharing table which I don’t think is entirely on when we’ve had a table booked for 2 for our anniversary for a couple of months, but found an alternative in the end, maybe I’m just getting more curmudgeonly about these things.

The wine list is mainly old world and focused especially on the French side of things, plus a couple of Italians and Spanish numbers. They brought us a taste of a Spanish bottle and grape I wasn’t familiar with, just as well as I wasn’t overly keen and we settled on a very nice Saint Aubin to try and match across all the varied snacks and courses we had chosen. Being dark these pictures are even worse than usual so apologies.

Bread Signature pine salt chicken Westcombe cheddar baby leeks Venison and grainsThere are a mix of snacks and starters, both priced around £4-£7 which gives you quite a few options when deciding how to begin your meal. I’m a fan of this style, it allows more variation and a bit of sharing with some smaller plates plus gives the kitchen a chance to show off individual elements more easily. Bread was brought to the table and this was definitely noteworthy, it had an excellent thick crisp crust to reveal a soft interior. The butter was good although unsalted, but it was soft and there was salt on the table so all good. Our snacks were the signature pine buttermilk chicken and leeks with Westcombe cheddar fonduata (cheese sauce). The chicken was presented very well, nestled snugly in some big pine needles for a lovely aroma. They were covered in a crisp salty piney shell and underneath was the softest chicken thigh I’ve ever had. They were on the verge of too salty for me, but as a morsel they were very delicious. A high end chicken nugget effectively. I wondered if a sauce might help but decided it would distract from the wonderful texture of the chicken. The tiny baby leeks came dipped in a bowl of rich and earthy cheddar sauce. Initially seeing the amount of leeks for £5 I was a tad disappointed, but they tasted fantastic slightly charred and combining the leftover sauce with the bread made up for any price worries!

The starter was the least successful for me, deer tartare with granola and pickled elderberries. The tartare came as neat cubes of fallow deer, surrounded by a nutty granola mix, slices of pear, pickled elderberries and topped with a few nasturtium leaves. All very Rogan-like in fact. I loved the sound of it, but putting it altogether I found it dry and couldn’t help but imagine I was eating a tracker bar with bits of deer. The elderberries were sweet with only a light pickle taste, the pear was obviously sweet and a bit grainy but there was a lot of savoury granola that I felt texturally ruined the soft deer and became quite a chewy blob. The wife was more forgiving of it and didn’t mind the texture so much, I felt the deer was lost in there though. Adjusting the ratios and playing with the pickle would help.

Fish and "porridge" 11-IMG_2831 12-IMG_2832

 

Mains next. I opted for the beef rump. It came rare (I don’t think I was asked actually) and very well rested so it remained juicy and beefy. Obviously rump is never going to be the most tender of options and it did need a steak knife (a very scary looking hunk of Sheffield steel they brought over) but for the chosen cut, it was admirably soft. Alongside it was a buttery portion of potato flavoured with bone marrow for even more richness. Maybe not quite as rich as my recent Pitt Cue version but it worked well with the beef. An aubergine cake was a bit mysterious (I had to ask what it was actually) and had an odd texture, a bit like a nod to those French vegetable mousses you get (and I’m not a big fan of). But it did add moisture along with the excellent sauce. A couple of slices of courgette were well grilled, and the onion rings added a good textural component. On reflection it was a very good dish, and at £17.50 is great value for a well cooked steak and interesting pairings.

Th wife opted for cod with bagna cauda and barley porridge. Very well presented again, the cod looked spectacular with a thick piece of snowy white flesh and seriously crispy skin here, nothing soggy in sight. It was a very well cooked piece of fish, soft and flaking. The bagna cauda solidified the dish with its richness and slight anchovy tang. The barley porridge was an unusual take on the usual carb sides and I was a big fan. A great dish and serious bargain at under £17.

Brik pastry fig tartFeeling quite full at this point we opted to share a dessert (and were even debating if we needed that). I’m not always the biggest fan of figs, probably because if you catch them at the wrong time they are either lacking in flavour or a horrible texture. So, fig tart was a risk, and entirely worth taking since they were perfectly ripe, sweet and firm but with enough give. This is probably the best fig dish I’ve tasted (including my famed fig canapés), combining crisp thin brik pastry with fig jam and fresh figs. What could have been cloying was just perfectly sweet and the brik pastry was slightly salty, cutting through everything. Atop all of that was a hay ice cream, very fresh and light rather than sweet to cut through the dish (although I couldn’t detect much hay). Finally it was drizzled with fig leaf oil, giving more green fresh flavour. This paired with a generous glass of Loire dessert wine may even have been my favourite dish, very rare for me to favour a dessert. A bargain at £7 since it was huge as well.

All in, the bill ended up at around £140 which considering over half of that is wine (the Saint Aubin wasn’t cheap) is amazing value. The food was consistently excellent and most importantly every single dish had interesting elements and there were a lot of components or combinations that were new to me, something that isn’t that easy these days on the London dining scene. There were definitely elements I didn’t entirely like, but I much preferred the fact they were on there and we talked a lot about the dishes throughout the meal. My high expectations after reading so much were met and I’ll be back soon. Just make sure you bring some hipster headwear to blend in to the pub downstairs.

 

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