This just in from Robyn, our Stoke Newington correspondent, who previously introduced us to the wonder that is 19 Numara Bos Cirrik. Here she lets us into a little secret...
Home restaurants are the latest trend to hit the foodie scene. As the recession-struck restaurant industry fights it out above ground for our shrinking disposable incomes, London’s nouveau poor are flocking to places like The Underground Restaurant, run by food blogger MsMarmiteLover, and The Secret Ingredient, where Horton Jupiter knocks out six courses of Japanese-style food for £15 a head.
Both The Underground Restaurant and The Secret Ingredient rely on Facebook, the blogsphere and word-of-mouth to generate bookings. Recent articles in The Guardian and Metro have seen their popularity swell and what started as cooking dinner for friends and friends of friends, has grown into an illicit, alternative dining scene where keen amateur cooks seat strangers in their living rooms and serve a prix fixe menu.
Located in Stoke Newington, The Secret Ingredient is hidden away on an ordinary seeming council estate. The restaurant seats 12 with sittings at 7pm and 9.30pm every Wednesday night. It’s BYOB. In my haste to get there I dropped the nice looking bottle of rosé I’d bought at City Bev and had to make do with a bottle of Jacob’s Creek Dry Riesling from the local offie.
We arrived bang on 7pm and made our way through some back gardens to the last on a row of little houses. We were greeted by a flustered and clearly excited Horton, who hastily explained that he didn’t know where his waiter was and was running behind with the food. First to arrive, we were seated at one of three tables in the makeshift living room restaurant. We were soon joined by Ben and Mina who opted to sit with us to make up a table of five.
Our waiter Taishi eventually turned up with some last minute decorations, beautiful pink cherry blossom nabbed from a tree outside. Taishi disappeared again to get changed, appearing minutes later in a vintage kimono-style outfit which had belonged to his grandmother, the long sleeves of which turned out to be a little impractical for waiting duties (more than one drink got knocked over). By this time two more guests had arrived and been seated at a tiny table in the corner. We introduced ourselves and made conversation whilst nibbling our way through little bowls of Japanese rice crackers.
Horton came through from the kitchen, in a Dennis the Menace apron, to explain that the other guests had got lost trying to find the place but were just round the corner. When they finally arrived Taishi brought out the first course, a potent appetiser of raw onion, umeboshi plums and dried fish flakes. This was followed by a tile of beautifully presented vegetable fancies including seaweed and Chinese cabbage rolls, glazed green beans and carrot sticks wrapped in nori, a carved radish with a refreshing lemon and apple dressing and some punchy grated ginger with fresh red chili served on a presumably edible leaf. I’d scoffed it down before anyone thought to ask.
Next up was a tasty salad of potato, red pepper and seaweed sprinkled with togarishi, the Japanese equivalent of Chinese five-spice made with chili powder, orange peel, nori and sesame seeds. This was followed by a sharing plate of slow braised shiitake mushrooms, grated daikon radish and moreish gammodoki tofu nuggets. Plenty of umami deliciousness here.
A penultimate course consisted of sushi rice with a sprinkling of furikake seasoning, miso soup and some crunchy pickled vegetables. Then finally dessert, a pretty morsel of starfruit with berries and a sugar and mirin syrup served with a flask of hot sake.
We finished eating just as the second wave of diners began to arrive, prompting us to all get up to leave at the same time and causing a bit of a jam. Our delighted host grabbed his camera and snapped a photo of his hallway chock full of people. It turned out it was the first time that all the people booked in for dinner at The Secret Ingredient were total strangers to Horton, a sign that word is spreading and there is a demand for this kind of alternative restaurant experience. I’d certainly go again but judging by the number of fans on The Secret Ingredient’s Facebook profile, it might be awhile before I can get another table.
The Secret Ingredient, Somewhere in Stoke Newington.