caravan [ˈkærəˌvæn] n
a. a large enclosed vehicle capable of being pulled by a car or lorry and equipped to be lived in (US and Canadian name trailer)
b. (as modifier) a caravan site
2. (esp in some parts of Asia and Africa) a company of traders or other travellers journeying together, often with a train of camels, through the desert
3. a group of wagons, pack mules, camels, etc., esp travelling in single file
4. a large covered vehicle, esp a gaily coloured one used by Gypsies, circuses, etc.
(Collins English Dictionary)
Odd name for a restaurant, Caravan. I don’t imagine the name appeals to many people, at least not at first instance. I would guess that most people associate the word with either 1(a) or 4 above. Which means people are thinking traffic jams and wet bank holidays for 1(a), and/or slightly scary travelling folk (small hands, smell like cabbages) for 4. Are these the images that the the Antipodean owners of the “restaurant, bar & roastery” on the corner of Exmouth Market had in mind when they decided to call it Caravan? Probably not.
I’m a firm believer, though, in not judging a restaurant by its name, so happily agreed to eat there on Monday evening.
My first impression (once I’d put the name to the back of my mind) was that it is a good venue. Like most of the restaurants in Exmouth market, Caravan has a decent number of outside tables, which enables it to take advantage of the ambient buzz that the location provides. The inside space is nice too: it felt trendy, but not overly so; smart, but not too chic.
My second impression (once I’d stopped checking out the furnishings and once I’d been shown a menu) was, well, um, I don’t know. I may have passed out. I might have started speaking in tongues. I think my mind went blank and stopped functioning for about 30 seconds. I was definitely really confused.
You see the majority of the menu is made up of “small plates” which seem to have no connection to each other. Take a look for yourself, there’s a photo of the menu at the bottom of this post (just be warned that it may induce a seizure). What’s the theme? What’s the common thread? It looks as though someone travelled round the world, enjoyed a few exotic (i.e. Asian) meals, but at the same time pined for Western food. Then they came to London, decided to open a restaurant, had a brain fart on a piece of paper and titled it “menu”.
It was suggested to me that this is probably what is sometimes called “Antipodean Fusion Food”.
Holding back a small rant, I took a take a deep breath and resolved, whilst the nice waitress was taking our drinks order, to be open minded and to concentrate on which dishes looked good (btw, the waitresses were doing very well by giving us tap water without us asking).
And so, with drink in hand (a very pleasant glass of Prosecco Bernardi NV), I started to form my third impression. Which was that much of this brain fart looked quite appealing. Why not try the Edamame puree, pickled mushrooms, radicchio and Jerusalem artichoke crisps? Or the Arabica oxtail, herb salad and creme fraiche polenta? Or the cured salmon, sesame cucumber and crumbs…? Ultimately, I liked the look of a number of the dishes, but, in the end, we settled on just five.
We were attracted to, and enjoyed, the Edamame puree and mushrooms. Simple and clean flavours. Nothing wrong with it.
I’m a sucker for falafel at the moment, and Caravan’s falafel served with apple and pepper relish, tahini and coriander was as good as I’ve had for a while. The outside was hard and crispy, but the inside remained soft and moist. There was a good hint of coriander and a little chilli kick. The apple and pepper relish was nice and tangy and was a good contrast to the chickpeas. Yum. A shame there were only 3.
We also had the goats curd, lentils and tomato which was served with a sumac crisp. The curd was lovely and creamy. The crisp was a good accompaniment (salty and brittle). The lentils were so so.
The cured salmon, the peppered tuna with broadbean and ginger vinaigrette and the mackerel, corn, avocado and jalapeno had battled it out to be our fourth dish. The tuna won. But we were a little bit disappointed. It wasn’t bad. But if you get only three small (like 4cm sq and 1/2 cm thick) pieces of tuna for £8, you expect a big flavour hit. And we didn’t get one.
Finally, our fifth choice was the squid pancake, served with Japanese brown sauce, mayonnaise, and seaweed salt. Sounded pretty bizarre; tasted pretty good. There was a good amount of tender squid in the pancake and I liked, in particular, the seaweed salt. This was a very nice sharing dish.
All the dishes tasted good and were presented very well. My only real complaint is that the portions were a bit measly and subsequently felt overpriced. Looking at other people’s dishes too, most things seemed about £1-2 more expensive than they should have been. I think if, as our neighbours had, we had ordered a side of sourdough bread, I would have complained at having to pay £2 for the two very small and thin slices of bread that were served. I didn’t see what the portion size of any of the “large” plates looked like so can’t comment on those.
Having said all that, the meal was still very enjoyable and we didn’t actually resent the cost. So we ordered an affogato, a chocolate espresso pudding with creme fraiche sorbet and a couple of glasses of rosé and carried on.
Pick of the above was the creme fraiche sorbet. Really bloody good (exactly what your man Bruno Loubet should be serving with his chocolate tart, not the off-milk flavoured ice cream he’s currently got going on). The chocolate pudding itself was ok. The espresso in the affogato was a little too bitter for our taste (worryingly for somewhere that sells itself as a supreme coffee house with it’s own ‘roastery’ in the basement). But well done for pouring the shot of coffee over the ice-cream at the table (nothing worse than receiving a bowl of melted ice-cream in cold coffee – I’m thinking of you, @PolpoSoho).
Overall, the name is a bit crap, the price/portion ratio is a bit of a downer, and the “small plates” section of the menu is a bit of a confused head f%(k. But the food was nice and we left feeling satisfied, so something must be a bit good about it.
caravan [ˈkærəˌvæn] n
5. An enjoyable restaurant, perhaps a touch on the steep side.
2 glasses of Prosecco (£11), 2 glasses of rosé (£10.50), edamame puree (£5.50), goat’s curd (£5.50), falafel (£4.50), squid pancake (£7.50), Tuna (£8.00), affogato (£5.00) and choc pudding (£7.00) = £64.50 plus service.
caravanonexmouth.co.uk – 11-13 Exmouth Market, EC1R 4QD – 020 7833 8115