As incubators go, it might seem a strange choice of vessel, but that is precisely what the humble shipping container is doing for a new breed of London restaurants. Saw off one end, put a kitchen at the other, sling in a few tables and chairs, and – while it is hardly Le Gavroche – an enterprising restaurateur can offer his or her wares to the public at a fraction of the cost of a bricks-and-mortar site.
Just as importantly, it is the perfect shop window for potential investors. Take Pop Brixton, for example, a higgledy-piggledy assortment of 55 businesses housed on disused ground in Brixton, among them a clutch of interesting restaurants: you will search in vain for a branch of Pret A Manger or PizzaExpress.
On my first visit, I ate at Kricket, a small but perfectly formed Indian joint, run by two twenty-something friends who met at Newcastle University. They set up their business for £50,000, garnered excellent reviews and a loyal clientele, attracted new investors, and now have smart, permanent premises on Denman Street, Soho.
When I returned late this summer, their 40ft-long steel box had been commandeered by Smoke & Salt, and the owner/drivers this time are chefs Aaron Webster and Remi Williams. As the name suggests, the menu is dedicated to the arts of food preservation, featuring such exotica as smoked ricotta, duck “jam” and pickled gooseberries. Their clever, rather beautiful creations are served on small sharing plates (the greedy Gannet views that phrase as fundamentally oxymoronic, but hey-ho), allowing those in search of a proper meal to try everything on the menu.
Jolly good it was too: the smoked ricotta lent a smooth, creamy depth to a salad of notably sweet tomatoes; the duck jam had been slathered over a flatbread and grilled; fried plantain had beer-braised onions and a skewer of chicken hearts for company; a chicken leg had been boned and grilled, paired with carrot and radish slaw and doused with a truffle and ponzu sauce; and grilled amarillo peaches were matched with strawberries and popcorn. Smoke & Salt deserves a wider audience: given the site’s track record, I suspect it might attract one.
As might its neighbour Franzina Trattoria, whose delightful Sicilian menu features proper, orange-sized arancini: wild mushrooms and toma (a fresh cheese) packed into soft, yielding rice before being lightly breaded and fried. The same cheese oozes from involtini of pork and pine nuts , served on a skewer with a rich, sweet-sour caponata.
Franzina’s springy, sinuous tagliatelle is the best I have tasted in London; sauced with a Sicilian beef ragù dotted with peas, it was heavenly. The sweet of tooth will visit just for their doughnuts, strafed with sugar and cinnamon, partnered with sheep’s milk ricotta and chocolate buttons. Franzina feels like another fledgling ready to flee its steely nest.