Out of every disaster comes opportunity. Or something like that.
Has there been a more sudden and extraordinary end to a promising eating and drinking spot, than when Raw Duck’s 5 Amhurst Road café literally collapsed back in November 2013? Apparently, plates and glasses were left half consumed, as customers and staff quickly decamped, due to the building becoming unexpectedly structurally unsafe; possibly, maybe, allegedly thanks to a massive Travelodge shaped hole being dug next door.
Thankfully, Raw Duck managed to dust itself off and reopen six months later in a space on the north edge of London Fields, which was formerly occupied by a well meaning but slightly confused dry goods shop and café called Unpackaged.
I say reopen – this is basically a totally different venture under the same name.
Raw Duck mark 1 was a fairly small coffee shop during the day, and natural wine bar at night. Throughout both those shifts it was lined with polished concrete, equipped with a panini press and egg steamer, and soundtracked by a turntable.
That turntable still seems to be a feature in the new version. There’s a fair amount of polished concrete too, and no doubt you can get a light but flavourful breakfast (in fact, the early menu looks lovely). But, beyond that, it’s really quite different.
This is a much larger and altogether more ambitious project. Three long wooden communal tables fill the room, with a few six person concrete tables on one side, and many more potential covers outside. The kitchen is much better equipped than previously. In fact, not only is there actually a kitchen this time (it was a cubby hole before), but the people within it seem relatively adventurous – the USP being an interest in-house made ferments, and vibrant, seasonal, eastern edged food.
My first visit was for lunch. You can definitely construct a full on meal from the midday menu, but it’s probably more in favour of a light graze: you’ll see ‘open on toasted’ sandwiches (my pal had a pretty decent looking salmon, curd, capers and parsley job on rye); a couple of hardier sangers (chilli roast chicken or their take on a Reuben); and four or five salad-like ‘plates’ (a. how strange but indicative of the times that I’ve now started to place inverted commas around single, stand alone dishes as if they’re odd; b. I had a chicken, bonito and buckwheat soba noodle salad – it was fine, thanks, though perhaps in need of a binding feature and more of the advertised pickles; and c. I’m not sure why this is in parentheses).
It was a decent graze, mind, and there were a few things in there that prompted a return. A shared plate of eponymous raw duck with massive prawn cracker on the side was zingy and buzzing. Fresh, acidic orange lightly cured and cut through the duck. Red onion and the odd slice of pickled green chilli added depth, and a red chilli powder provided a definite tingle. The salty, pickled cucumber on the side of my chicken noodle dish made me wonder about the ferments, and tempted me to come back for more. Similarly, a sip from one of their raspberry vinegar based sodas, which was sharp, fruity, cleansing, intriguing.
Roll on to dinner, then.
The menu runs the length of an A4. At the top, a section of fermented vegetables for a couple of quid a hit, or a selection of 3 for £5. Think kimchi, daikon and ginger, cabbage and caraway and carrots with miso. Then there’s a list of salted and pickled snacks, like salty light cucumber pickles, olives, anchovy, thyme and parmesan toasts. Some cheeses and cured meats follow, and, finally, fifteen or so of those ‘plates’. Some are in the £6-£8 mark, so I figure they’re cold starters to share in the whipped smoked cod roe, tomato salad with samphire, and that chopped raw duck vein. Others are between £10 and £14, and more likely to come warm. I note lamb ragu, friggitelli peppers and ditaloni. Because I’ve no idea what ditaloni is.
I loved the selection of fermented vegetables that we received. Each of the kimchi, daikon and cabbage had cracking flavour and a distinct, tongue fizzing character. None were wet, limp or sloppy (as pickles often seem to be) and I could pick no favourite; all three made me want to head home, brine the crap out of the vegetables at the bottom of my fridge, and get some good bacteria into my gut. Along with a plate of salted, pickled cucumbers they made for a lively start to the meal.
The more substantial plates were well conceived: not particularly difficult or technical, rather they included the occasional unusual ingredient, or went one step further than a simple home supper might, thereby ensuring the dish was both successful and worth stepping out for.
Tahini laced yoghurt pulled together a pretty plate of charred courgette, broad beans, peas and pomegranate seeds. Buttermilk fried chicken with a fermented chilli and soy sauce was light, greaseless, moreish. I really, really enjoyed our plate of warm coco beans, pickled girroles, lemon and tarragon (possibly star dish?), particularly when we topped it with the contents of another dish – beautifully cooked hake with warm parsley and capers.
Look, it’s not the perfect restaurant: I have a feeling it’s trying to do too much, be all things, all day, to all people; I’m not convinced everyone, or indeed anyone, really enjoys communal tables and the prospect of being sat next to loud, obnoxious strangers (even if they never materialise); and, as you know, a long menu of seemingly low priced dishes can quickly add up.
But I really like their approach to food. ‘Vibrant’ is the word that keeps springing to mind. Dishes feel healthy and fresh, are interesting and thoughtfully conceived. If the wine list gets a bit too serious towards the bottom half, it’s still well curated and not unaccommodating to lower spenders, and the overall vibe and space is appealing. As far as casual dining goes, Raw Duck is really pretty good. Praise be for the Travelodge builders.
Raw Duck in 3 words
Ferments: food, wine.
Lunch dishes are between £7-£12. One of those dishes could well suit a flying visit. Assume three for a more leisurely feed, and probably £35-£40 pp with wine.
Dinner dishes cost between £2 and £15. You’ll need a selection of them to make a meal. Figure anywhere between £25 and £60 to have your fill and a little libation.
Breakfast menu looks good. Healthy, tasty dishes and drinks for £2-£10.
rawduckhackney.co.uk – 197 Richmond Road, E8 3NJ – 020 8986 6534