Nick raves about Cornerstone.
Perhaps the only unusual aspect of Tom Brown's excellent fish restaurant Cornerstone is its location. Just round the corner from Hackney Wick Overground station, and close to a graffito that reads 'Shithouse to Penthouse', the restaurant had a bleak aspect on a grey, wet January day. But not even this should put off any fish enthusiast.
This is the only use of the adjective 'bleak' I could find to describe what was my second, fascinating lunch here.
Brown is simultaneously a chef of the old school and a chef of our times. Born in Cornwall, he took to cooking in Nathan Outlaw's prestigious fish restaurant in Port Isaac like a, well, fish to water. When Outlaw opened his restaurant in London's Capital Hotel, Brown moved too and helped to establish its reputation. (This restaurant closed shortly after the hotel was sold and Outlaw will open a brand new restaurant in the Goring Hotel, Victoria in late May). He has therefore had a thorough apprenticeship.
When Brown left The Capital his primary thought was to start somewhere himself. He has a thick beard, tattoos on both arms and has named his restaurant after his favourite Arctic Monkeys song – these are his claims to being a modern chef. He had a limited budget however. The death of his grandmother and the subsequent sale of her home was enough to provide the £100,000 capital he thought he required. But even with the relatively low rents of Hackney coupled with his limited interior design ambitions, this was not quite enough, and Brown went £40,000 over budget. Crucially, with the support of his family, Brown was not to be deterred. Cornerstone opened in May 2018.
The restaurant has a simple design. The kitchen is in the centre of the room so that everyone has a good view of what is going on. There are several seats at the bar but otherwise the wooden tables are simply set. There is a changing exhibition by local artists on the white walls as well as a clever, fish-based black and white painting that envelops the entrance to the lavatories. A wine list and menu, both printed on brown, obviously recycled paper, appear quickly.
The menu is simply and cleverly arranged. Nocellara olives with rosemary and sourdough bread with Netherend Farm butter are offered to start and then four cold first courses are listed down the left hand side and four more complicated hot main courses are listed down the right. Underneath are a cheese course and three desserts, of which one, the pavlova, was spotted immediately by my Australian friend.
Our meal began with an oyster each, pickled with celery and horseradish. Then we moved on to two very clever first courses, a round dish of soy-cured gurnard, spiced up with ginger, lime and thin slices of cucumber followed by Brown's version of a classic mackerel pâté, served with his spectacular treacle bread, more a treacle roll and irresistible. As was the pâté topped with slices of mackerel. This modern interpretation of this old classic gave me the opportunity to waffle to my much younger friends about how this dish was a dinner-party standby for British domestic cooks 40 to 50 years ago.
We then moved on to Brown's main courses, although there was a slight interruption for a particularly well-executed vegetable course. This involved three steamed carrots, topped with a pistachio sauce and with a creamy cod's roe to the side. This was absolutely delicious and provided some sustenance to the one member of our party who really did not enjoy eating either fish or shellfish.
But even he was impressed by the technique and precision of the main courses. A crumpet stuffed with potted shrimps (their source unspecified) has become a Brown trademark with considerable justification. The sweetness of the crumpet, some butter, and the extra sweetness of the tiny shrimps made for several, but sadly not too many, delicious mouthfuls.
A dish described as smoked haddock brandade was much more complex, the joy of this dish owing as much to the bright yellow egg yolk as to the slices of garlic and the plethora of wild mushrooms underneath, which I had just seen Brown preparing. A combination of anchovy and chilli provided well-judged spice to a fillet of Cornish hake leaving pride of place to the final dish of a John Dory with a rich roast-chicken sauce. As well as providing the opportunity for me to show off my carving skills, dividing the fish into six equal portions, the combination of this extremely fresh fish with the unctuous meat-based sauce adorned with diced spring onions was both unusual and exceptional.
All of this left room for just two desserts. The highly anticipated pavlova served with a vanilla custard, blackberries and plums received full marks from my Aussie friend, the meringue meeting her criteria of being slightly chewy and not too gooey. So too did the hazelnut tart, topped with vanilla ice cream, from the lady on my other side who had declared herself no fan of tarts but was seen finishing this one off.
Cornerstone's menu eschews side dishes, potatoes, vegetables and salads, as well as tea and coffee – although there is the very good Pearl Café almost next door ( www.pearlhackneywick.com). It is about fish, for fish enthusiasts and led by a chef who is passionate about sourcing and cooking the freshest.
This approach was reinforced by two brief conversations with Brown, before and after our lunch.
When he came to our table we asked him about where he sources his fish from. 'Mainly from Cornwall', he explained, 'but also more locally from the Bethnal Green Fish Company. It is run by Serge whom I feel I can go out and have a pint with. He's the kind of person I want to buy fish from.'
Then there was the rather unusual welcome. Having received a very firm handshake – the typical chef's welcome – I asked Brown how he had enjoyed his Christmas break. 'It was fine', was his response, 'but it went on too long.'
Brown is such an enthusiast cook, one who should not be kept away from his stoves for too long.
Cornerstone 3 Prince Edward Street, London E9 5LX; tel +44 (0)20 8986 3922