Food As God Intended – it’s Native, Covent Garden

13 Oct 2016

The very best native cuisine is visionary. Take Brazilian chef Alex Atala. His DOM in São Paulo transforms home-grown Brazilian ingredients and the wild products of indigenous tribes into a sophisticated, beautiful cuisine. Strange fish from the Amazonas. Ants that taste of lemongrass and ginger. Here in Europe, René Redzepi has become a household name by plating up the Nordic wilderness.

In a discreet corner of Covent Garden, more home-spun talent glimmers.

Wild, foraged, seasonal and home-grown are Native’s buzzwords. Its heritage is appropriately folksy: head chef Ivan Tisdall-Downes trained at River Cottage HQ and Imogen Davis on front of house was a falconer. After a pilgrimage through street food stalls and supper-clubs, the couple opened Native in Neal’s Yard to a gaggle of accolades early this year.

A single table and four covers at the chef’s counter greet the diner on entering. Down a dizzying spiral staircase, a dining room decked in birch and game-feathers seats no more than twenty. It could be a bijou gem. But upstairs, in the open kitchen, dirty crockery stands at the sink. Below deck, service is muddled, if charming. My glassware is smeary. Teething troubles, I think to myself hopefully.

All the same, Native’s cooking won my heart, from the first sip of my ‘Native’ Negroni, whose English Vermouth, Sea Buckthorn and Eau de Vie proved a spirituous and fabulously effective sharpener.

The Native Bread Board provided an abundance of salty focaccia beside starters all well under a tenner. Pine-like scents of Provence and an intensely pungent purée dressed the freshest of English cheese in Confit Garlic, Cows Curd and Marjoram. Lyme Bay Scallops, Trealey Farm Sobrasada and IOW Tomatoes was a street-brawl in a dish between a fiery redhead, and a sweet, butter-wouldn’t-melt blond. Sobrasada is a soft-textured cousin of chorizo from the Balearics, but hotter, more intense – think Sicilian nduja. Its scallops preserved all their buttery sweetness. But, as fire to ice, the redhead totally thrashed them.

Yorkshire grouse with fermented cream, berries and heritage beets at £16.50 was an earthy showcase of British native ingredients in their seasonal prime, with layer on layer of dark flavour. Chichester Aubergine, English Quinoa, Miso Caramel, Tzatziki at £13 was a more understated plate, with the politeness of its namesake cathedral city spiked with shots of coriander seed and umami.

Berkshire Raspberries, Buttermilk Ice Cream, Wood Sorrel, Honeycomb at £6.50 was a pudding as beautiful as it sounds to the eye and tongue alike. And – indulge me here – I fancy that Clym Yeobright would happily have handed over £4.50 for Hay Ice Cream Affogato.

Like Thursday’s child, Native’s wines have a way to go. The Three Choirs ‘Classic Cuvée’ was fine as a cheeky fizz at £8 a glass, but England offers far superior sparkling whites. A soft, ripe Mas de la Source Pays d’Oc red and a suitably inky Rocca Nero d’Avola held no suprises at a fiver a glass. But I wanted something more aspirational to match the cuisine.

I’m told I should go back for the wood-pigeon kebab, which sounds the epitome of Native’s kaleidoscopic kind of native. In one ear the darkling thrush sings among the tangled bine-stems. In the other, the muezzin calls faintly from the mosque. Sometimes – pace Alex Atala – I hear there are Kentish ants.

I get the sense that Native’s story is just beginning, and hear murmurs that the colony may soon have a new hive. So watch and wait. In the meantime, just don’t mess with the redhead…

Matthew

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