Deep in the mind of mood-makers, fashionistas, hipsters, influencers and Kanye, there probably exists a bell-curve of coolness, an intangible barometer of what’s hot, not and now in the worlds of couture, cars, jewellery, travel and food. When it comes to the latter, it has to be said that London is on the way down. The Big Smoke has had its time in the sun and has slowly but surely been passing the baton to other places. Berlin and South America, by many accounts. The European has a friend who posts about food more than I do; he has recently relocated to the German capital, and is posting more now than ever before.
But, if you don’t fancy eating your ethically-sourced sauerkraut with a side of Teutonic efficiency, or dealing with the thin air of Bolivia, then there is still hope! All that is trendy hasn’t completely vacated London; as we found out when we visited the suspiciously-named Untitled, a modern Japanese eatery-cum-cocktail bar in Dalston, a neighbourhood where East+London still = chequered shirts, unnecessary hats, barque tattoos and a cloud of youth that hangs over me now like ominous thunder clouds.
Untitled is located on Kingsland Road, very near two branches of the Overground; it’s served by both Dalston Junction and Dalston Kingsland stations. It is also always close to the sound of police sirens and surrounded by a slight but standard feeling of unease or dread that comes from frequenting a very gentrified establishment in a half-gentrified neighbourhood. Ergo, there are bouncers on the door after six in the evening. But that’s all part of the fun, right?
Diving in through the front door as a police car wailed past (actually it was two, plus a van), we were plunged into Untitled’s anteroom, a large space dominated by a humongous, granite-like slab of a table, at the head of which is the dispense bar. One of the long, grey walls is adorned with oversized black-and-white photos and sketches, most of which are simply propped up rather than hung. The other wall serves as some overflow counter seating. We were greeted by a waiter in an awkwardly-fitting monochrome Hawaiian shirt, and escorted to the dining room at the back, up a small flight of stairs. The dining room has a lower ceiling, is more intimate and is a haven from the noise of the bar, which was dead when we arrived but packed when we left. Beyond the restaurant there is a beer garden. Untitled call it their ‘Moon Garden’, but it’s a beer garden. In any case ,we didn’t feel young enough to go out there.
Untitled’s food menu (it’s changed somewhat since we visited) gets full marks for originality. The simplest way to explain it is that it’s Asian-slash-Japanese tapas. You order bits and bobs as you usually might do when faced with such a menu, or if you are greedy or C.B.A. to pick, Untitled will serve you the whole menu for around £fifty for two people, which is smashing value and allows you to get stung on the drinks. So, we fell into that trap; ordering a couple of beers to start, followed by 250mls of Junmai Ginjo ‘Silver’ sake and for me, a refreshing and long cocktail called ‘Monochrome’ (angelica-infused gin, lemon juice, almond and soda). We took the whole menu, as if you needed to ask.
Just like regular tapas, the food is brought out with haste, ‘as and when’ and in waves. There was some intelligence to the order; we were eased in with lighter bites such as a herb and fig salad, thin slices of cucumber with kimchi, pickled daikon (radish) with lemon and The European’s favourite, crispy kale. I was smitten with the cumber, which was surprisingly crunchy and textured and perfectly spiced, but really everything here was great and was a smooth intro into the next round. Seabass sashimi arrived and I was in heaven. It was super fresh, deftly seasoned with ginger and yuzu, was very moreish. We were then served lamb brioche with shitake. This was very different; a glazed dough with sweet, tender lamb, completely winning over two very anti-lamb individuals. Nevertheless, I was allowed to finish that as long as The European could finish the boneless chicken wings. Described to us as something of an Untitled signature dish, they were some of the best wings I have tasted in a long while. They weren’t too fatty, and melted in the mouth, filling your chops with just the right amount of sweetness, afforded to them by the sweet kimchi sauce – I would have finished the whole plateful if it weren’t for our broche/wings arrangement. Untitled isn’t afraid to test the patrons with controversial or challenging arrangements. A savoury mochi – we expected ice cream – was actually the sugar casing alone with strangely textured beetroot cream inside. A skewer of marinated cauliflower was so vinegary it was almost inedible. But the misses were far outweighed by the hits.
As we wrapped up, the restaurant was almost full with an eclectic crowd. At the table next to us, there was some kind of book deal happing – two editors were busy discussing the merit of a couple of novels they were looking at. Behind us; a birthday party, and in the corner, an obviously uncomfortable first date. The servers bound around with their Hawaiian shirts, are knowledgeable and know it – they’re never too far away with a recommendation or, more accurately, an opportunity to upsell. We were going to share a green tea ‘Magnum’, a frozen dessert shaped like the eponymous ice cream, and I got suckered into ordering one final cocktail; a deliciously dark and stormy ‘Aztec’, made with cacao-nib tequila, buckwheat and caramel. The drink was rich and flavoursome, a taste was soon replaced with overriding bitterness when we were presented with the astonishingly expensive bill.
The naysayers will be able to easily call Untitled one of the last or latest additions to gentrified East London, right through from the way it looks, the concept, the Hawaiian shirts and the small plates of food. They might be correct. There is however, no denying that the food here is very good and very different, helped along with an experience that fuels the imagination and oozes quality. Despite the hefty price tag, we left Untitled feeling replete and relaxed, right up until we left its front doors to witness three more police cars racing up Kingsland Road, ignoring a fight between two inebriated ruffians on the opposite pavement, while a collection of beardoes recorded the whole thing on their phones.
Ah, to be back in London…
Two people can eat very well here for £fifty total. Our bill, with a few cocktails, two beers and a small bottle of sake, came to £one hundred and thirty, meaning that we ate bread and water for the rest of the month.
Untitled’s postcode is E8 4AH. It’s located on Kingsland Road (A10), 170m from Dalston Junction (Overground) Station, or 380m from Dalston Kingsland (Overground) station.