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Cadet, in north London’s Newington Green, is billed as a wine bar, which is probably why it didn’t ring my alarms until I found out it kept an interesting charcutier in the basement. I’d travel anywhere for a good charcutier. Even Newington Green.
George Jephson is the man. A talented hand whose work I’d admired via his website, meatfishcheese.com. He’s worked around food most of his career and, inspired by time in France, taught himself charcuterie from scratch. A fortuitous meeting with wine importers Tom Beattie and Francis Roberts got him a basement kitchen at Cadet and the rest will be history.
Pork rillettes sit in a row of Kilner jars along the back of the bar. They have their dates of interment written on them in Sharpie, but no attempt is made to fancy things up. Someone grabs a handful of toast slices, grilled to a dark walnut colour (I’m assuming Dusty Knuckle, but there are many other candidates in the neighbourhood), and bothers the rillettes into a little mound on the plate. The pickles are cucumber, with a sweet-sour flavour that’s a touch braver than the Japanese quick pickles cropping up everywhere now, cut into thin, round slices. A bar snack-sized serving that absolutely hits the spot.
On the rillette spectrum, I favour pork-flavoured fat, not fat-bound pork. At room temperature, they should smear on to the bread like clotted cream. These were a kind of apogee. The traditional cornichons would have been pleasant and tart, but the cucumber pickles bring a new sweetness that I applaud enthusiastically.
If, as I hope we established last week at Midland Grand Dining Room, a pâté en croûte is the test of a good charcutier, then Jephson scores 100 per cent, gets a medal, a certificate and a sticker to take home. Honestly, I wish I was French right now so I could vote him into an arcane fraternity where he’ll be presented with a hat, a cloak and some sort of sash.
The pastry is absolutely on point. It needs to be strong enough to hold everything in but light enough not to feel like Chobham armour, defending your dinner from you — a point, it pains me to admit, on which our British pork pies too often fall short. A thin, tan layer of crust contains an even thinner veil of dark jelly and then a . . . do you remember when you could buy “Neapolitan” ice cream as a brick, and your mum would slice it across, creating a perfect little tricolore? It’s that, only with meat.
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Let’s start at the top, like archaeologists, and work down through the strata. There is a chunky layer of boudin noir. Fudgy texture and, I’m guessing, made with plenty of cream — the usual tool for mitigating the iron-y taste. Next down is a terrine containing pork and what appears to be white meat. Chicken? Rabbit? Beneath that, could it possibly be foie gras? It looks like it, but judging by the postcode we’re eating in, laudably unlikely. It turns out to be a mousse de canard (which I infinitely prefer anyway). At the bottom lurks pork terrine, shot with green peppercorns and — fruit klaxon — a single Agen prune.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there aren’t two bits of matching crockery in the place, which I admit I find endearing. The fromage de tête (definitely not a cheese) looked like a fragment of a papal worktop in pietra dura, an effect only enhanced by delivery on a saucer apparently nicked from a seaside tea room in 1932. In this dish, the jelly is the thing, so it’s served cool, a heterogenous slab that, quite ridiculously, conspires to be light and refreshing. The pickled cucumbers made a welcome return, sliced longitudinally this time, displaying a regard for presentation that distracted from the repetition.
While I busied myself with the charcuterie, the chef arrived. Jamie Smart, formerly of St John and Lyle’s. There was only one thing on the menu that required cooking, but it was little short of mind-altering. The menu said it was lamb shank and peppers but, just ahead of serving time, the waiter quietly mentioned that the padrón peppers had arrived “too hot”, and would I be happy with peas and mint?
They’d cooked the shank overnight in a very low oven, so there was no fat or connective tissue about it. It was as tender as poached chicken and flaked back into its own entirely clear and pure broth. The peas had been left in their pods, sliced right down the middle and then just barely poached in the liquid.
It was just insane. Are they ferrying these guys around different restaurants, serving one single life-changing dish in each before they disappear into the Hackney night? It was broth of a kind you’d expect fettled by the most experienced Japanese chef. The cheapest cut of English lamb, treated with such delicacy and care that, although I’m not sure you can say this about a dead animal, it could express itself. And the peas, cleanly popping, fresh as a morning without a hangover and just touched, entirely appropriately, by mint. The mint definitely felt like it was there for the peas and not for the lamb.
Cadet is trying hard to resist classification as a restaurant. The surroundings are austere and I think I’m supposed to be here for the wine, but the charcuterie exceeds anything else I’ve eaten in London, and if my main course really was an expedient lashing together of available ingredients, we may be looking at one of the most intuitively brilliant chefs I can remember. I must have more. I hope my hunch is right. I just need a bit more supporting evidence.
Actually, there’s a thought. Why don’t you go and check it out for me?
57 Newington Green, London N16 9PX; 020 4531 5302; cadetlondon.com
Small plates: £8-£22