The House of Wolf Islington
181 Upper Street, Islington, London, N1 1RQ
Islington’s The House of Wolf describes itself as a ‘multi-functional, multi-sensory pleasure palace, dedicated to the creative pursuits of dining, drinking, art and entertainment.’
What that means in practice is a ground floor Victorian-era styled pub area known as the Music Hall Bar serving superior bar snacks, an experimental cocktail department, located in The Apothecary on the first floor run by cocktail maestro Stephen Quainton and his team, and a fine dining restaurant on the top floor. The interior of each area offers an atmospheric and quirky take on gothic Victoriana; but don’t be put off by the edgy aura of Islington cool that the venue emits, because the staff are friendly and unlikely to need a stake driving through their hearts this side of a full moon.
The House of Wolf operates a series of chef residencies, essentially a rolling season of popups, and the latest chef to accept the challenge is an Irish chap called David Ahern who is resident until April 27th. He is a slightly larger than life personality who has only been cooking professionally for two and a half years and is not only fronting a kitchen in Islington’s most self-consciously cutting edge restaurant, but has also taken it upon himself to feed London’s homeless by sending out tureens of stew to the needy. But we are not here to judge his charitable efforts but the five course £42.50 tasting menu that is the offer in the House of Wolf restaurant.
Ahern describes his food as being ‘reverse engineered’; he starts from a conceptual vision and builds the dish from there. He has made his name cooking at The Ship, The Engineer and Bens Canteen as well as at Burger Breakout, a one day pop-up that transformed into a 6 month residency. So with such a diverse background I was unsure what to expect.
Our first course was described as an SBLT, a fishy take on the classic BLT sandwich. Using a cured piece of the fatty flesh by the salmon’s stomach and placing it between some good white bread, this was a melt-in-the-mouth experience. A liquid tomatoey lettuce butter added moisture and richness and the whole dish felt really integrated with a terrific mouth feel. It reminded me of Jeremy Lee’s Smoked Eel Sandwich at Quo Vadis and is just as good.
We were drinking a 2011 Alpha Zeta Garganega (£21) from near Verona that had a grassy nose and citrus and elderflower notes. It cut through the delicious salty fatty SBLT very effectively.
Heritage Beetroots, pearl spelt, wild herbs and pickled berries was a dish from the vegetarian menu; a terrific construction of natural flavours and textures that took me into a northern wilderness far wilder than Upper St.
Quails Nest, was a nest made from quail leg confit, spelt and herbs, with a warm devilled quail’s egg inside. Fiona from London Unattached described the quail as being sweet and moist with the ‘nest’ being made up of the same elements as my non-meat version.
Our next course was a deconstructed chowder, with scallops, mussels and cod cheeks, served with bacon and sweetcorn milk jellies and a fish broth. This was a playful and light version of a chowder, the milky jellies and the purity of the fish broth redolent of the nursery and not overwhelming the protein elements which were perfectly cooked.
Beef Cheek was a dark, sticky and unctuous dish, braised for 12 hours with wild mushrooms, horseradish purée and mustard mash , beef tendon puffs and a black garlic jus. It had terrific depth of flavour
Mustard Gnocchi with wild mushrooms was the vegetarian alternative to the Beef Cheek. The gnocchi were light and well-matched with the umami flavours of the mushroom.
At this point we entered the Pop tarts and lollipops segment of the menu and a surprise Red fruit Slush Puppy cocktail turned up-a mix of Prosecco with cherry and raspberry liqueur. It was a bit too sweet for me.
Dessert took us on a trip to the funfair with a Rhubarb poptart, apple lollipops with dipping sherbert, an unsweetened Deuchars IPA beer custard and a cold candy floss infusion. In a good sense this dish was as chaotic as a trip to the fair. The beer custard was properly bitter and played against the subtle sweetness of the ‘candy floss’. It would have been fun if the apple lollipops had been covered with toffee but I do love sherbert…
Dave Ahern is a brave chef with a respect for ingredients and the natural world . But there is also a more sophisticated urban sense of playfulness in his food that makes me look forward to his next professional move. I don’t know who will be the next occupant of the House of Wolf’s kitchen, but I do get the sense that this is a location that is finding its own identity and in giving talented chefs an outlet to experiment, should be supported.
Disclosure: The Hedonist was a guest of The House of Wolf