As you’ll know if you read my blog regularly, I recently travelled to London to attend Notting Hill Carnival after Travelodge kindly provided me with two nights’ complimentary accommodation in their Covent Garden hotel. While in Covent Garden, I seized the opportunity to explore the area, including its vibrant arts and cultural scene and, of course, its restaurants and fancy food shops.
Being the food fiend that I am, I thoroughly researched the local food scene beforehand so I’d know exactly where I wanted to go during my three-day visit. As the restaurants I wanted to visit were fairly popular, I thought it best to book tables in advance.
When Michelin-owned Bookatable contacted me to ask if I’d like to review their online restaurant booking service, it was perfect timing. It was easy to book a table – I just tapped ‘Covent Garden’ into the search box on the website, and it brought up over 50 different restaurants, which could be filtered by cuisine. Each restaurant profile contains a detailed overview, user reviews, price range, opening hours and a location map.
When you find a restaurant you like, you simply select your desired booking date, time and no. of guests and submit the booking, and you receive a confirmation email straightaway. On the day of the booking, the restaurant called me to confirm that we would still be coming and kindly upgraded us to the Chef’s Table at no extra charge (a complimentary service available to all diners if the Chef’s Table is free).
Native in Neal’s Yard, Covent Garden
After scrutinising the different restaurants in Covent Garden listed on Bookatable, I eventually decided upon Native in Neal’s Yard, Covent Garden. It seems I have good taste, as just a few days ago, it was named as one of Time Out magazine’s Top 100 restaurants in London.
With a focus on wild food and minimal waste, Native was opened early last year by husband-and-wife, Ivan and Imogen. After working at River Cottage HQ, Head Chef Ivan was inspired to open his own restaurant serving sustainable food. With Imogen’s experience of running her family falconry business, it made sense to place somewhat of an emphasis on game.
The seasonal set menu focuses on quintessential British dishes crafted using honest, natural and in some cases, slightly unusual or unheard of, locally sourced ingredients. Many of the ingredients are foraged by hand and besides using them to concoct delicious courses for the menu, the chefs use them to create their own bespoke ingredients, like vodka and rapeseed oil.
The options were limited to three choices per course, so we weren’t exactly spoilt for choice. However, going by the amount of time we spent just drooling over the list of ingredients packed into each dish before we even got round to ordering drinks, this was probably a good thing. Two courses will set you back just £30, but I recommend coughing up an extra £37 to include a third course. Drinks and sides are priced as extras.
In addition to the set menu, Native offer a constantly changing ‘wasting menu’ comprising of small dishes based on leftover ingredients that are nearing their sell-by-dates, but still fresh and worth using up.
Perched at the Chef’s Table, we were practically sitting on top of our Chef, Will Budden and the food preparation area. Upbeat, friendly and down-to-earth, Will was a skilled multi-tasker and effortlessly juggled the cooking with answering the seemingly never-ending questions we bombarded him with about each dish.
As we perused the menu, we sipped on a zesty, refreshing ‘Melilot Mule’ cocktail of Native’s own Melilot vodka, freshly squeezed lime juice and organic ginger beer (£10); made all the more delicious by the salt and sugar coating around the rim of the glass.
Chunky slices of pillow-soft ciabatta with pungent garlic rapeseed oil teased our taste buds as we waited for our starters to arrive.
We kicked off with a couple of dishes from the wasting menu, setting the bar for the courses to follow. Native’s summer rolls (£4) were a piquant offering of pickled cabbage, summer veg and lovage encased in English miso leaf. Reminiscent of a healthy take on Chinese crispy spring rolls, the tangy tones were perfectly offset by a slightly salty soy sauce.
Meanwhile, a combination of creamy, slightly sour labneh with plump blackberries, crunchy dukka, crisp pea shoots and lovage oil (£4) boasted an interesting range of textures and fresh, bold flavours.
As we couldn’t decide on just one dish to order for each course, we shared dishes. Our first starter was Yorkshire grouse with salt-baked beets, cobnuts and hedgerow berries. The menu warned that because the game is wild, you might find a shot in the meat and, sure enough, I found a small lead shot in my grouse. The grouse was lean and tender, with that unmistakable game-y taste; although as this was a young grouse, it had a less distinctive flavour. In any case, a handful of sweet raspberries and mellow cooked beetroot in a lip-smacking buttermilk sauce served to neutralised its slight bitterness.
We enjoyed watching Will make our second starter of fresh corn with a 62 degree hen’s egg, pickled girolles, alliums and chickweed. Serving a 62 degree poached egg with the yolk intact demands a great deal of attention and precision, as we saw when Will’s first two attempts resulted in the yolk popping. The egg was nestled inside a pyramid of corn crackers, made by pressing corn purée flat under grease proof paper and shallow-frying it to form a crisp sheet of savoury yellow goodness. Surrounding this delectable structure was a shallow pool of creamed corn, interspersed with grassy chickweed.
On to on our mains, and first up was the Dorset hake with seashore vegetables, celeriac, lovage and naked barley. A deep golden brown in colour, the surface of the hake was mouthwateringly crispy, while the flesh was succulent and flaky; an effect achieved by frying the fish skin-down. The hake was teamed with barley that had been removed from its husk, ground and cooked with butter before being blitzed into small, gritty morsels, in addition to celeriac purée balls and salty fingers (an edible leaf which tastes just as the name suggests). At the table, a small jug of buttermilk sauce was poured over the plate as a finishing touch, moistening the ingredients.
The second main was the Longhorn ox cheek. Slow-braised for three to four hours, to say the ox cheek melted in our mouths would be an understatement. The crunchy bone marrow topping was a real delicacy. This was served with burnt beets, girolles, a fluffy-centred Yukon Gold potato fondant and peppery nasturtium leaf.
Feeling comfortably full after our mains, we moved on to dessert. An intense raspberry and basil sorbet was surrounded by vibrant Hereford raspberries topped with pumpkin seed granola and accompanied by a dollop of meadowsweet cream to soften the sharpness of the sorbet. A trio of wafer-thin meringue fragments elevated the presentation of the plate.
The sorbet was followed by the Douglas fir and millet cake. Served on a tree trunk, a crumbled, green pine sugar-infused polenta cake was mixed with dill oil and topped with a spoonful of decadent white chocolate cream and milk crisp. The aniseedy flavour of the cake paired beautifully with the subtly sweet white chocolate.
We sealed the deal with an interesting offering of petit fours consisting of desserts normally served in bigger portions, but kindly reduced in size for us by Will as we wanted to sample them all. The beetroot marshmallow fluff (normally £2) was as light as a cloud and sinfully sweet, while the ‘Marrowmel’ – white chocolate and bone marrow caramel (£3) – wouldn’t have been out-of-place in an extravagant box of chocolates. As a big truffle enthusiast, I adored the indulgently rich, caramelised honey truffle. However, as much as I like to venture out of my comfort zone when it comes to trying new foods, the Kentish wood ant fudge (£3) was a step too far for me. I couldn’t even bring myself to put it in my mouth, although my guest managed half and seemed fairly impressed by it.
The total bill came to just over £120. It certainly wasn’t cheap; especially when you consider that a lot of the food we ate had been foraged for. However, it was worth it to experience Native’s concept of wild food and minimal waste, and to see how simple, natural ingredients can be transformed into awe-inspiring dishes – not to mention the opportunity to grill Will and his team for cooking tips!
Native in Neal’s Yard, Covent Garden gets my full seal of approval and I would go back for seconds in a heartbeat. Book yourself in at the Chef’s Table and allow yourself to be amazed – tell ’em I sent you!
3 Neal’s Yard,
020 3638 8214
Should we be making more of an effort to eat wild foods and minimise waste? Are you brave enough to eat ant fudge?!