Acme Fire Cult, Abbot Street, London E8 3DP. Snacks and small plates £3-£9, large plates £14-£24, dessert £6, wines from £31, beers £5-£6
When chefs Andrew Clarke and Daniel Watkins announced their latest venture together, at Dalston in London, it was described as: ‘More than just a restaurant’. Really? What is it then? An amusement park? A fetish club? A branch of Ikea? One of them might come in handy. “It’s a cult.” Oh my. In all honesty, if you were looking for a London cook to lead a raging and devoted religious movement, Clarke would fit the bill. He has a foot-long beard that can house small mammals or be braided into viable rope, and so many tattoos that he’s become a walking secular challenger on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Or maybe not. While he might make a good figurehead, I know he’s a thoughtful guy, who probably wouldn’t be comfortable with all the coercive control that a real cult demands. He has been involved in important projects addressing mental health issues in and around the hospitality industry, and has spoken compellingly about his own challenges.
So take the name bomb Acme Fire Cult with a pinch of quality artisanal sea salt. It’s really no more than a restaurant. There are tables and chairs, both in the functional dining area and on the sturdy terrace outside, where heat lamps hang. There are menus and servers. You order and they bring, from the wood-fired grill outside, their only cooking. It’s an interesting development in the live-fire cooking movement, which Clarke helped popularize through the much more successful St Leonard’s restaurant he ran with Jackson Boxer in Shoreditch. For obvious reasons related to caveman imagery of burning logs and woolly mammoths, cooking over high heat is associated with cuts of meat. If you have the time, this can be a good way to cook the cheaper cuts of animal wedges which, after working harder, have more connective tissue and need more time to break down.
There are some in this menu, expanded over a series of pop-ups over the past two years. For the most part, though, it’s excitingly and impressively led by vegetables, part of a self-proclaimed determination to move away from the whole “dude food” culture around fire and smoke. For that reason, I want it to be much more than a cult, because cults tend to implode quickly under the weight of their own filthy irregularity. It must last. Acme is also a collaboration with 40 foot brasserie with whom they share a space, in a raw old courtyard next to the Dusty Knuckle Bakery, the source of much of North London’s overdeveloped sourdough habit. The brewery doesn’t just provide beers to accompany the food. Brewing by-products, such as yeast and spent grains, are used to make cultures and sauces.
Until now, so painfully “dark in North London”, for the Private detective readers among you. Statement of the obvious: none of this would matter if the food wasn’t good. A big beard, tattoos and leaping flames don’t make dinner. Fortunately, much of it is good. We start with their deviled eggs. Mary Berry would give them, I think, a basilisk look. The traditional 1960s mainstay involved hard-boiled eggs being cut in half, the yolks removed, mixed with mayonnaise and cayenne pepper, etc., whipped and turned. Here the eggs have been cooked so that the yolks have reached a perfect gelled state. They were then dipped in a sweet and sour sauce similar to tamarind and sprinkled with crispy fried onions. Although I wished the devil had more of a voice, a theme in a number of dishes that eschew the heat of chilli, I could damage successive servings of these. They also make their own Bombay blend. It is rich in roasted peanuts and cashews, which are usually in short supply for cost reasons.
There’s a certain amount of what might come across as innovation in itself among small plates, except it all works. The leeks are grilled to the point of abandonment, when they are soft and chewy. They are then served at room temperature with their own version of romesco sauce, in which the ground almonds have been replaced by ground pistachios. It is a study in verdant shades of green. There is a welcome acidity to the grainy romesco. The new potatoes were smoked and lubricated with a tahini mayonnaise and hazelnut or rayu chili oil, made from grains from the brewery. Grilled cauliflower florets are served in a ripe, buttery Indian-flavoured sauce under ribbons of pickled onion.
Meat and fish only appear on the menu on the large plates. There’s mutton merguez with a wild garlic salsa verde, the ingredients I’m praying for weren’t harvested from the fox-sprinkled canal sides of Dalston. There’s a Tamworth pork chop and a whole butterfly mackerel. We order the beef cheek. It is the least overwhelming of dishes. The mustard greens pack a punch and there’s a powerful umami-tastic ancho chili koji condiment. But the cheek just didn’t spend enough time on the grill. He fights against knife and fork. It’s almost won.
So much the better is the hearth vegetable plate, a fabulous collection of beef-roasted tomatoes, zucchini and fennel, with white beans and squash purées, seasoned with another great old salsa verde. This singular £14 dish makes the case for the whole company. It is a demonstration of the virtuous interaction of the best vegetables and the most finely managed indirect heat and smoke. There’s only one dessert tonight: a deep dark chocolate ganache topped with hazelnuts and beer molasses. It’s incredibly potent, but could have been done with a soothing dollop of chilled whipped cream.
It’s clear they want you deep in the brewery’s offering with this food: in beers with names like Dalston Sunset and Disco Pils, all at £5 or £6 a pint. There are only half a dozen wines, and the cheapest white, a dry Tokaj, costs £38 a bottle, which is not friendly. This is also at odds with reasonable food prices. Maybe they just don’t care much about wine drinkers – which I guess is fair enough. Again, I came here for dinner, rather than an unconditional act of worship. And dinner, really engaging, is what they offered me. I may not be an avid follower of the cult. I may not be on my knees before the blessed grill. But I have faith.
The march of the best steak continues. Hawksmoor have announced that, after openings in Manchester, Edinburgh and New York, they are now expanding to Liverpool. The steakhouse group has always used grand buildings steeped in history and so it is. Hawksmoor Liverpool will be located inside the Grade II listed India building on the corner of Brunswick and Fenwick streets and will open later this year. “It’s an amazing site,” said co-founder Will Beckett. “We are really happy to do him justice” (thehawksmoor.com).
The ever-interesting chef Jay Morjaria is on his next project. After completing his Korean-inspired JAE residency at the Untitled bar in London’s Dalston in February, he has now opened at the Shelter Hall food market on Brighton’s seafront. Tiger and Rabbit offers Morjaria’s Korean barbecue, with rice, lettuce wraps and appropriate condiments including samjang aioli and kimchi (refugehall.co.uk).
And while there are new openings, there is also bad news. According to accountancy firm Price Bailey, more than 1,300 UK restaurants became insolvent in the year to the end of March 2022. This is a significant increase from the previous 12 months, when 926 restaurants went bankrupt. The increase was attributed to the end of various government programs to support the industry during the pandemic.