Double Dragon, 84 Rosebery Avenue, London EC1R 4QY (020 7683 0326). Lunch £7 to £13, all dishes £5 to £14.50, desserts £8, wines from £23
In the 1970s, my late mother, Claire, became a regular at a restaurant called Thomas De Quincey’s in Covent Garden. It was named after the 19th century essayist who had written his most famous work, Confessions of an English opium eater, while living in the same building. If any editor or publisher needed a chat, she would lunch them there and then talk breathlessly about the ethereal light pike mousse dumplings they were serving, but she never took me out. I understood that Thomas De Quincey was part of the glamorous world of adults to which I had not yet had access.
A few years ago I first ate at Angela Hartnett’s lovely Café Murano and realized it was in the same building at 36 Tavistock Street as Thomas De Quincey’s. As a die-hard atheist, I cannot use the language of ghosts. There is no beyond. But there was something delightful about sitting in a dining room once so often occupied by my mother. Parts can ring softly with quiet echoes.
Before being Café Murano, it was a branch of Sofra, because in large cities buildings often retain their essential function over decades. In the middle of the 19th century, for example, 160 Piccadilly, now home to the Wolseleys, was a grand restaurant called the Wellington, which served natural consommé, white bait and pudding a la d ‘Orsay.
Which brings me to 84 Rosebery Avenue in Clerkenwell, London, not far from where this newspaper’s offices once stood. There have been a series of pizzerias in recent years and before it was a Chez Gérard, which served me very useful steak frites. Long before that it was, like so many great dining rooms in London, a bank; their underlying architecture suits the modern affairs of tables, chairs and food. The buildings remain the same. Only the restaurants change.
And so I return once again to 84 Rosebery Avenue, which now has the words Double Dragon affixed above the door in bright red neon. Perhaps it’s a reference to the Japanese-made video game, featuring martial arts masters Billy and Jimmy Lee fighting their way through a dystopian New York. I’m not sure, but don’t study the term on urbandictionary.com unless you have a strong constitution; definitions range from deeply scatological to deeply gross. Either way, it’s described as an extended pop-up that may well become permanent and is owned by Aussie chef Scott Hallsworth. He was once head chef at Nobu London before going it alone with his particularly boisterous brand of Asian-inspired boom and blast, smoothed in miso and dribbled in crowd-pleasing ponzu. He opened Kurobuta, before selling and opening Freak Scene. Which closed during the pandemic. The website describes this new venture as a izakaya, serving food to accompany drinks. I can attest that the food goes very well with the drinks.
The menu on the current website is long. There’s a mouth-watering section of wood-fired dishes, using the oven left over from pizzerias. Slightly disappointing, the menu currently on offer is shorter and looks like edited highlights. Shame. I really liked the sound of kombu roast sea bass with spicy shiso ponzu and wood fired jumbo prawns with a spicy lemon dressing.
That said, all the things they serve really do the Hallsworth jazz hands thing of scrolling across the table and repeatedly slapping you on the chops. The last time I ate his food at Kurobuta, I complained that while I liked his cooking, it was expensive. This iteration is much better value. There is also a pleasant bustle. We start with a generous £5 dish of Padrón chillies, roasted in a wood oven, sprinkled with sesame seeds and drizzled with a mustard miso and lemon vinaigrette. Padrón peppers in sauce: it should always be a thing.
The nasu dengaku, or grilled eggplant with a miso glaze, is as good here as I remember from Kurobuta and comes with the added joy of candied walnut. Be sure to order the crispy glazed pork belly, in soft folds of doughy bread, with the sticky peanut soy sauce and homemade pickles. The fanciest dish is a couple of perfectly cooked and glazed scallops with a yuzu truffle sauce. She is a Dutch woman who has travelled. An observation: it is difficult to eat a whole scallop with chopsticks while looking elegant. Maybe they could cut them in half. Or I could abandon the redundant notion of elegance.
Echoing its Nobu days, but at a fraction of the price, there’s a salmon sashimi ‘pizza’ for £10.50, served on a golden cracker disc and bubbling with truffle-ponzu and wasabi fish roe . Textually, it’s a joy, but lacks enthusiasm at the beginning. No matter; after last week’s buttered hispi cabbage, here’s the great brassica scorched once more in big leaves with an invigorating ponzu, browned butter and dried miso vinaigrette. A few drops of this on the salmon sashimi and it comes to life. We also use it as a dipping sauce for well-done spicy tuna maki. These are described as “roulette” because one of them has been seasoned with a very hot sauce. It comes with a shot of cucumber sake for whoever pulls the gourmet trigger. It’s very silly, of course, but like so much here, it’s also a lot of fun.
There are only two desserts: a chocolate mousse with coconut ice cream and a blueberry cheesecake and a speculoos crumb. Both are served in glasses and go back to the same idea: creamy things piled on top of each other. They do the work. You can take a look at my photos of these dishes on Instagram where I follow @jayrayner1, but know that some serious effort went into making them work. The cream-coloured dining room with its open kitchen is bathed at night in neon electric purple light that drains the colours. The iPhone torch had to be turned on to get a reasonable shot. Expect to see plenty of these torches on display here, because if ever food was made for social media, this is it. For once, I say it in a good way. Not all restaurants have to be deep. Not all restaurants have to be fancy. Sometimes it can just be a great night out. Double Dragon has transformed what once housed many quiet restaurants into just that.
Industry body UKHospitality has called for the expansion of pavement licensing, a feature of the pandemic, to be made permanent. The scheme, which was introduced last April and is due to expire in September, has allowed restaurants to maintain business despite restrictions introduced to stop the spread of Covid-19. Kate Nicholls, the group’s chief executive, points out that the scheme, aided by caps on application fees, has spurred innovation and revenue from a sector that badly needs help, and has also reinvigorated centers- cities.
2016 semi-finalist on MasterChef: the professionals has been hired to run the kitchen of a new bar and brasserie in Harrogate. Josh Whitehead, former executive chef of the Harewood Estate in Leeds, has crafted a menu celebrating “outstanding British produce” for the 180-seat restaurant, located on Cheltenham Crescent. It will open later this month, visit samsonsrestaurant.com.
In a bid to bolster its lunchtime business, Pizza Express has launched a line of what they call “pizza wraps” which, with their cardboard packaging, look a lot like a savory version of a McDonald’s apple pie. . The products, which contain just under 600 calories each, come in five versions echoing the chain’s classic pizzas, including American Hot, Padana and Pollo ad Astra. Currently they are available for takeaway and delivery and cost £9.50 with a salad. AT pizzaexpress.com.