The Proud Archivist

Update October 2016: The food’s a bit different now. Decent enough place to sit and have an informal lunch or brunch, though.

The link between restaurants and art is pretty interesting. Well, sort of. Well, a little bit. Well, whatever, there’s a link. You just have to consider how striking it is when there is no art, just bare walls (e.g. St John), to see that the relationship is a strong one.

In fact, the bond between art and restaurants is so fervent that if you Google the appropriate words, you’ll note that it provides enough material for handful of broadsheet lifestyle pieces on the subject every year. With a number of gallery restaurants opening in the last few weeks, I predict there’ll be a spate of not so unique pitches making their way to editors as I type.

Maybe some of those will be commissioned – there’s certainly potential for insightful commentary on the topic (for once); because it’s odd that gallery restaurants (where art and restaurants are closest/fully intertwined) actually represent the space where the two worlds don’t work harmoniously. Here, the restaurant has to play second fiddle to the art collection and this seems to jar. Can a gallery restaurant ever really be more than a place to stop for tea and cake? Can a gallery restaurant really be a destination, or will it inevitably end up simply as a place for a convenient bite? (And when that harsh reality bites, does the food always tail off into mediocrity?)

So look out for features sparked by The Keeper’s House at the Royal Academy; the appointment of well regarded FOH Jon Spiteri suggesting that they are at least starting out as a serious restaurant, not just another Peyton and Byrne concession. You won’t need to keep your eyes particularly peeled for The Magazine restaurant at the Serpentine’s new Sackler gallery, as I suspect there’ll be a fair bit of coverage; their launch was very Valentino dahling and press will follow. I’m intrigued as to whether (and how) the chef fuses all his influences together, and how that sits (and who sits) in the space.

Way under the radar, though, is a new gallerycaférestaurantspace out east, on Haggerston’s section of the Regent’s canal: The Proud Archivist (TPA) (which, it turns out, is not part of the Proud Galleries group, despite the name and art world connection).

TPA have started with a retrospective of Storm Thorgerson album covers: an extremely eclectic, accessible and instantly recognisable set of work. Most of the art is displayed in a defined gallery section; though 3 or 4 large blocky tables infiltrate this area. A few other pieces are dotted around the space that’s more obviously café/restaurant. So though there is some separation, the intention must be that the space as a whole is shared, unrestricted and at once able to be a gallery, a platform for comedy or music, a place for events, a day time café, a neighbourhood brunch spot … and an evening restaurant. Of course, the problem with being a jack of all trades is there’s a distinct possibility you master none.

That said, the food on offer in the evening is currently much more than a side show.

The menu is designed to be shared, “but you don’t have to if you don’t want to”. There are around fifteen savoury options, divided equally into vegetarian, fish and meat. Nothing costs more than £11.50 and the vegetable courses are mostly under £5. All feature seasonal ingredients and interesting combinations. Think mallard, spiced broth, salsify, walnuts, chicory and orange (£10); kale, pickled mushrooms, oak smoked carrot (£6.50); house cured salmon, lacto-fermented whey pickles and own-baked rye bread (£8.50). Convenient prices but proper food. (I note there’s also a nightly special ‘feast’ option – like whole plaice or bone-in sirloin steak – which costs in the region of £20-25pp.)

That kale and smoked carrot dish was superb. The smoking was spot on – an enhancing rather than acrid smoke, which the sweet carrots carried well. The kale was dressed but raw (maybe softened by a gentle massage) and the sharpness of the pickled mushrooms cut through it all. “Banging“, is the technical term, I believe.

Cauliflower, almonds and sage (pictured) was a masterclass in wasting nothing: the cauli appearing pureed and roasted, and its leaves dressed in a sharp vinaigrette. A bargain at £3.80. A sizeable bowl of Jerusalem fartichokes (£4.80) were simply boiled then coloured a little in brown butter – lovely. Only herby Ratte potatoes (£4) disappointed – maybe needed a longer time in the boil and less marjoram. I really enjoyed the fact the vegetables were served confidently and unapologetically as self standing dishes.

Fowey mussels came in a very good beer and smoked garlic broth – lots of them too for £6.70. That mallard and broth dish (£10) was strong – with an enjoyable hit of anise.  A plate of chopped venison tartare, studded with girolles, beetroot, celeriac purée and hazelnuts (£8.50) vied with the kale and cauliflower for the ‘stand out dish’ award. A warm chocolate tart with molten centre and ginger ice-cream (£7.30) and a good plate of tymsboro cheese with spiced Commis pears (£6.90) rounded things off nicely.

I’d say all that suggests they’re knocking out unfussy but interesting food at extremely fair prices. A gallery restaurant that’s holding its own, then?

Hmmm. TPA is, categorically, a shared space. And that appears to mean that the restaurant part doesn’t function perfectly. Front of house were lovely but not on top of the menu or drinks list (of what was on it or how to serve it – spoons would have been good with the mussel and mallard broths, or even an up-sell of bread). There was no obvious leader. These could easily be teething problems. However I do feel a shared space potentially limits the constituent parts. Large, chunky, unvarnished tables, anglepoise lamps and generic pop soundtrack feel more art workshop than modern restaurant or café. Those tables in particular confuse the site and are out of kilter with the stylish open kitchen, the (now ubiquitous) Eames DSW chairs and, even, the art work.

Evening food at TPA is a bargain and certainly enjoyable. I imagine there’s great potential for brunch and day time dining too. It would be a shame if the food offering got diluted in response to the variety of the site’s other uses (which of course all have their own value). Maybe this is inevitable when art and restaurants get really, really close – though I’d be delighted if it’s not.

The Proud Archivist in 3 words

Gallery or restaurant?

The Bill

Great value in the evening. 3 of us had 2 bottles of wine, a beer each and 9 dishes (which was plenty) for £45 pp. Under £25 each including service if you take off the booze. – 2-10 Hertford Road, N1 5ET (on the canal) – 020 7749 6852