There’s a poem by Ogden Nash that goes, “I have a bone to pick with fate,/Come here and tell me girlie,/Am I just maturing late?/Or simply rotted early?” I must say that I thought my eyesight had rotted early on the gloomy January evening when I walked past Caravan twice before I realised that it wasn’t an abandoned site. It was the way it was lit, so environmentally-friendly that the life inside was almost undetectable to the naked eye. There’s a fine line between needing to limit the damage to the environment and creating a Stygian gloom.
Caravan is an arriviste in Exmouth Market, which is bidding to become London’s premier eating theme park. There’s Moro, and the mini-Moro Morito, Medcalf, Santore, Cinnamon Tree, Gulshan Tandoori, Dollar Grills and Martini, Sade Restaurant & Bar and others too numerous to mention. I bet the Guardian apparatchiks regret deserting the fertile feeding grounds around Farringdon for the gastronomic wastes around King’s Cross.
The chef at Caravan, Miles Kirby, is a graduate of Providores, the Marylebone High Street multi-functional eatery guided by Peter Gordon, the long-time presiding genius of London’s “fusion” circuit. Kirby’s new place has been hailed as one of the bright new openings of 2011, though some critics have taken a rather different view. It’s a salutary lesson in the esteem in which restaurant critics are evidently held that Caravan was packed and buzzing this Thursday night, and everyone gave the appearance of having a splendid time, an experience helped by some very good service.
Obviously they had better eyesight than I did. The effect of the crepuscular lighting system was compounded by the typeface in which the menu was printed. Now that I look at it in the clear light of day, the type looks handsome but close-packed, designed for effect rather than readability. In the half-light of the restaurant, it was all but unreadable. After a good deal of close-up scrutiny, Fosdyke and I managed to order edamame purée, pickled mushrooms, radicchio and Jerusalem artichoke crisps; turmeric-roasted cauliflower, Ogleshield cheese sauce and Parmesan crumbs; squid pancake, Japanese brown sauce, mayonnaise and seaweed salt; crumbed lamb’s sweetbreads, roast tomatoes, lamb’s lettuce and brown lemon butter; and venison minute steak, cassava fries and mushroom butter. If this seems rather a lot, you would be right, but we were fooled by Kirby’s generosity – those dishes were all chosen from the part of the menu called “Small Dishes”.
I give the menu poetry in all its glory a) to show what kind of food Kirby likes to cook up, a kind of omni gatherum from around the world; and b) to make the point that it’s bloody difficult to pull this kind of thing off. It calls for a thorough understanding of the characteristics of each ingredient, and subtle judgment in how they may best be held in balance. It requires precise handling of texture as well as of flavour. It needs a chef of startling gifts. Gordon is such a chef. Sadly, Kirby does not seem to be one.
It’s a bit difficult to know where to start. Actually, it’s quite easy really, because there was a fault that unified virtually every dish, a general gloopiness of texture and muddle, not to say murkiness of flavour. It was food for the dentally challenged and the gastronomically casual. Take that tempting-sounding squid pancake. Squid is a cephalopod that calls out for bright, clean flavours and a treatment that plays upon its very particular dense texture. To be honest, I couldn’t tell that I was eating squid at all in Kirby’s version. There was plenty of pancake, though, made soggy by being overloaded with Japanese brown sauce (inferior, on this showing, to HP) and mayo.
It was difficult to detect the turmeric in which the cauliflower had been roasted beneath its dense overcoat of powerful cheese sauce. The sweetbreads were nice, as sweetbreads always are, and meticulously cooked, but roasted tomatoes [ITAL] and [END ITAL] brown lemon butter [ITAL] and [END ITAL] fleshy lamb’s lettuce leaves? The venison was decent enough, and put up a game fight until succumbing to the teeth, but the mushroom butter was pretty nasty. And as for the cassava fries, I can well believe they are an acquired taste, but it’s one I don’t think I am likely ever to have.
The single redeeming dish was the edamame purée with knobs on. I have issued a personal fatwa against edamame beans, which are the lazy, thoughtless and generally tasteless ubiquitous nibble of the moment. However, Kirby rather rescued them from the compost heap of oblivion in a dish that was everything the other dishes were not – clear, balanced and tasty. Perhaps my irritation at having my prejudices thwarted informed my reaction to the other dishes.
The bill came to £100 for two, which seems pretty much the norm by London standards these days, particularly as we downed £52- worth of a fine German riesling, which lit up the gloom and lighted the culinary murk with a brilliance, poise, balance of fruit, acidity and sweetness that were sadly lacking in the food.
Caravan 11-13 Exmouth Market, London EC1R 4QD. Tel: 020-7833 8115, http://www.caravanonexmouth.co.uk/