Eis – Rafe Castleman Reviews

Illustration from The Fat Duck Cookbook, Cape Press 2008
Illustration from The Fat Duck Cookbook, Cape Press 2008

North Central London, a district still lit by real light, glowing in the virtual with a million competing projections. Flying over the city at night, perhaps low in a glidesuit from any one of the tourist platforms, you can see a street that runs north to south from Holloway to Angel, gleaming a retro sodium orange like a slit in the side of a black-skinned clementine.
This is Upper Street, the restaurant mile. A thousand years ago herds of cattle walked the same rise and fall to Smithfield, where they were slaughtered. And nowadays? It’s seen the blood run from the jugulars of hundreds of hope-drunk restauranteurs.
Swooping lower, where the street kinks a little to the west, you might see one of the many queues outside the tip and ontrend eateries, one particularly buzzing with the auras of gastros and yupsters and coolhunters. They were queuing, this particular night, for tables at Eis, which had opened the same week. They had all traded their entitlements with their own consort for credit with Sysbiowynstay, calling in favours, momentarily faking their birthdates, finding codes for free trials at higher grades than they could afford, all so they could boast of eating where the ice-cream was savoury and the ideas fresh.
I was at the front of the queue. Eating at a new place on the first night is a waste of my time. By the fifth, it’s old hat. My predatory window opens at thirty hours and closes at around eighty-five, but it depends on a lot of things. I’d scheduled this months ago, when I’d observed Shasta Boering resigning her role in the development kitchen for Worpledeenhus. An ice-cream impresario like her needed careful watching and when I found she was going to be working for SBS, I knew another launch would be on its way. I’m rarely left to wait for the press releases, you see. If my agent could do no better than that I’d be out of influence and out of work pretty quickly.
So I’d booked my table before they’d even decided what they were going to call this place.
At seven the doors plasticised and melted away. Mirror-glass had prevented us from seeing in, so I felt the queue behind me lean forward and lose some of its definition. There was nothing particularly spectacular about the interior – physically. But the lay was a welter of virtual tags, linking and looping with wall-art and a broad menu that slid over the classic banquette booths, plainly the work of one of the artier studios. A momentary facial query gesture set my agent about it, and momentarily the signature of Hoppenscotch Restaurant Overlay glowed across the tiled floor. I smiled to myself. I’d seen their work before. These sort of mid-level interactivities everywhere – nothing too pretentious and nothing too patronising either. I dialled it down into the background and trusted to my old-fashioned intuition and people skills to tell me the rest.
The queue had behaved themselves, so I found myself a seat at the bar from where I could turn and survey the entire room. I was there to review the food primarily, but without a good sense of the entire restaurant, I wouldn’t be able to make much of a recommendation of the experience of being here. And the experience was what all these people were here for.
“Have a good one,” a barperson greeted me. “What would you like?”
The drinks menu rippled slowly across the polished wood. “Gin and Tonic,” I replied. It’s a clean way to prepare my mouth. “Then I want to try your tasting sequence.”
“Will that be the full forty-five, sir?”
“It will,” I replied, drawing out my DoubleDiamond card. She zip-read it and smiled.
“Absolutely sir. Your ice-creams will begin to be with you in just a few moments time. Enjoy the evening with us.”
I could bore you about ice-cream. I didn’t want to bore my readers about it. But to understand what these people were doing here at Eis (awful name) and specifically to understand the quality of the work Boering had been doing in the kitchen, you’re going to need to know a few things.
Firstly, this wasn’t the first time someone had come up with the idea of a mainstream restaurant which exclusively served ice-cream, or ice-cream as a medium for savoury flavours, or the first time that SBS had plumped for a narrow-band foodie gamble like this. But the combination was new, as was the scale of ambition, because Chef Boering had not simply managed to recreate everyday foods as ice-cream flavours or to balance the nutritional content of her dishes with something like a regular meal. That had been done before. Now she was really beginning to experiment and to create within the realm of ice-cream-as-food.
Secondly, as far as a restaurant goes, it was a sweet deal. No need for more than a token kitchen staff creating fresh sauces and glazes. Other than that it needed someone handy with a scoop – although of course in a high-class place like this, it was a high-class scoop, wielded so that customer could eat the Eiffel tower in oxtail sorbet or their own face in kiwi and caragena gelato. But nobody can pretend that’s real cooking.
Thirdly, ice-cream is really whatever you want to call ice-cream. There’s no legal content reqirements and UDIT didn’t have a good category for this place, so they more-or-less let it write its own rules as far as quota and entitlement. Smart move SBS. But what most gastros call ice-cream is a churned mixture of a few important ingredients, flavoured and combined to the chef’s delight. You need milk fat, what they call MSNF – milk solids not fat – sugar of some sort, an emulsifier and then some stabilisers to help the thing stay together. You mix it, churn it, flavour it, serve it, get paid. You can go all artisan and organic, you can go all high-science, you can do both – for as I’m constantly trying to get people to realise, chemistry does not mean anti-organic and sometimes the most ‘traditional’ methods require the most complex science. Not just in icecream by any means. But now I’ve begun to rant.
Forty-five flavours in sequence, ranging from the complication of sloth-and-plantain condensed cream to the freshness of brocoletti sorbet. If the chef knew what she doing, the sequence itself would develop and escalate, ebb and flow, educate the taster as it was eaten, displaying the versatility of the medium, the skill of the creator and the good taste of the customer all in one gut-busting avalanche of frozen milk.
There were things here I’d never eaten in combination. There were juxtapositions I’d enjoy – raw rabbit-liver scoop followed by raspberry champagne tickler. It had pitched carefully. Time and time again I write about this. You can create something homely or something out-of-this-world, but you have to know who’s going to eat it. Looking around at the developers, the employment consultants, the estate agents of Islington, the laycoders, the ramwriters, the opinion-sharers, the well-off and the competitive cyclists, the gardeners and the linkers, the musicians, auras ablaze with ideas and opinion, I knew the place had been pitched well. What I hadn’t decided was my opinion about it.
The food would matter. In fact, even as I thought about it I was squarely into my own ice-cream marathon, enjoying the tannin mouthfeel of a chai masala cream presented with a dry fennelseed biscuit, preparing me, I was sure, for the next and more savoury offering. I could have looked at the menu to see what was next, but I enjoyed my ignorance. Information kills surprise and surprise is a vastly under-appreciated ingredient in the cook’s armament.
So even while I put down that spoon and paused a slightly-longer-than-average eighty-two seconds before the next dish was laid before me, proving indeed to be a lipsmacking mushroom and whisky granita, I considered what the market required.
SBS had been locked in a four-way tussle over the yupster calorie with Monocle, GruppoBimbo and Cornucopia for the last six months. Customers had flowed first one way and then the other – a sign of prosperity within the internation young urban professional class, as Bengt put it. Monocle had launched a new contract that allowed their customers to stay at home and have a different meal delivered every night – at least in London, Manchester, and cities larger than 1.2 across select parts of the Western hemisphere. The Gruppo had responded with a lifestyle-changing contract that challenged people to set their own targets for appreciation of modern international cuisine – that had been popular. Now SBS were unveiling a series of new restaurants, including this, one or two in all their major power bases, with a diverse palette of styles but a theme of cutting-edge food technology. Commit your calorie entitlement to SBS and no-one can call you backward.
The thing was, we still had to choose which way to bet. My hunch had been with SBS – the slightly more international of the four, with partnerships in West Africa, Singapore, much of China and even India. But Monocle hadn’t shown all their hand yet and Cornucopia had seemed to do nothing and still retain eighty-five percent of their customer base within the demographic. Something was really working for them.
If I could pivot this on a really influential and referenced review, we could watch our holdings in SBS double their value since last year’s crash. But any time Cornucopia could reveal their move – which I hadn’t been able to second guess. If I flattened SBS’s growth rate by junking this place, it might bring Cornucopia out into the open. And I dearly wanted to know what they had been working on. Good business sense, however, said not yet.
I drew Max’s call on the condensation on the side of my glass and waited a moment. I only requested aural and then I got him in my right ear.
“Yes, Rafe?”
“You see anything yet?”
“No, still very quiet. Got to make our call tonight. What’s your feeling?”
I licked the remainder of an apple-lavender puddle from my plate. “It’s very good here. Well-pitched. Could run at least a year. I think they’ve got this.”
“So we’re holding with SBS?”
“Have you got those emergency buyers lined up?”
“Yeah, but they won’t give us more than sixty in the pound for the whole bundle, aggregate. That’s got to be a last resort.”
“Well, start looking on the grey side. I figure there’ll be a lot of movement in about half an hour.”
“What are you up to, Rafe?”
My visual was open to him,if he had wanted it. My aural augmentation was looped in and I could even have transmitted the flavour of the apple-lavender into his own, entry-level diagnosts if he had wanted me to. But he was really asking me what I was going to do, and there’s no augmentation yet that will tell you that.
“I’m going to spike it,” I said. “Just find those buyers. Zahra Fukasawa has just walked in.”