No restaurant critic can outrun the inevitable crankiness of old age. I am just about enough of a millennial to generally find loud restaurant music to be a thrill rather than a reportable act of violence; the mere sight of the words “small”, “plates” and “concept” do not yet cause me to reflexively grind my teeth.
And yet, we begin, this week, with one of the first sure signs that I am shuffling happily towards what we might call my Curmudgeonly Uncle Era. Which is to say, I visited a brand new, sizzling hot wine bar called Ken’s and I left feeling more than a little perplexed by both the outlay and the thinness of the experience.
It’s not that this place — an Exmouth Market sibling to Dan’s in Dalston — completely wants for crackling atmospheric cool, well-chosen drinks and memorable, rough-hewn flavours. It is more that, as an opening, it falls into an awkward middle ground between an ambitious, bistronomie kitchen and a wet-led bar where the focus is very much on decanting things from fancy packets and tins. There is pleasure in Ken’s dance of casualness. But I don’t think I will be alone in questioning the exact justification behind many of its steps.
The weather may not have helped. On a recent Thursday night, the scene outside this purportedly Basque-accented bar was more soggy weekend in Skegness than mini-break in San Sebastián. Rain hammered down into the giant, sploshing puddles all the way along Exmouth Market’s parade of bars and restaurants. Ken’s — a deep, bottle-lined vault of flickering candlelight, stripped, building-site walls, and preserved signage from the space’s previous life as a pharmacy — looked like the best sort of insider secret: a storm sanctuary replete with tuna-and-guindilla-pepper skewers, burbling yacht rock, and what felt like about a dozen sets of female friends in sodden Bella Freud jumpers.
Nipping in solo, my early positivity did not fully survive first contact with the pointedly short menu. Pan con tomate, presented on Coombeshead Farm sourdough and startled by slivered boquerones, was competently put together. But I can’t, for the life of me, work out why I was given two piddling soldiers of mostly crust, rather than a whole slice of bread. I am all for an artful bit of plating; I would just prefer it if a £7 snack didn’t look quite so much like the repurposed leavings from my six-year-old’s breakfast toast.
Calamarata was far more successful: thick, bouncy bands of pasta, generously jiggled in a rugged tomato and ‘nduja sauce, and defined as much by throat-tickling heat as the leavening influence of burrata. Cornish cod — crisped on top, just cooked to vogueish, medium-rare in the middle, and accessorised with black lumpfish roe, a thin vin jaune velouté and a single, griddled yellow carrot — had an uneven, scattergun sort of appeal to it; a grab-bag incompleteness that, in a more expansive restaurant, might have been anchored by the presence of a crowd-pleasing side dish. Here, it is another round of sourdough or nothing. And the overriding sense, again, was of a clearly able chef — in this instance, Quo Vadis alum Fergus Shields — working within boxed-in, P Franco-ish limitations for no discernible reason.
I am all for an artful bit of plating; I would just prefer it if a £7 snack didn’t look quite so much like the repurposed leavings from my six-year-old’s breakfast
I should declare that I wasn’t drinking and so not able to avail myself of the vast, varied cellar of bottles or the by-the-glass options given larky, democratising names on a central blackboard (“trad fizz”, “turbo red”). And, yes, OK, a temporarily teetotal critic at a wine bar feels about as useful as a eunuch at an orgy. But when I think of all the best expressions of this genre — Cadet, Lulu’s, Quality Wines — they are places where the cooking is so undeniable that you could have a great time there drinking nothing stronger than Vimto.
I finished with a passable, rosemary oil-trickled chocolate mousse, paid a niggly £80 bill, and spotted, inevitably, a doll of Barbie’s namesake boyfriend wedged in among the bottles behind the bar. Ken’s is, to slightly misquote that pink-hued cultural juggernaut, just Ken’s. Take away the softening glow of free-flowing grenache, and I’m not sure that is quite exciting enough.
51 Exmouth Market, EC1R 4QL. Meal for two plus drinks about £160. Open Tuesday to Thursday from 5pm-11pm and Saturday and Sunday from noon-11pm; quitegood.uk