Here’s my article from The Toronto Star, February 23, 2008, that I wrote about Acorn House after a recent visit to the U.K.
“Acorn House is the most important restaurant to open in London in 200 years,” Giles Coren, The Times magazine (December, 2006).
LONDON – I’m out of breath, having scrambled up a steep metal staircase behind fleet-footed, 6-foot-6 chef Arthur Potts Dawson to check out the composting system and rooftop garden of Acorn House located a stone’s throw from King’s Cross station.
I’m on my annual U.K. pilgrimage to visit my mum who lives not far from here in the more fashionable but less grittily interesting neighbourhood of Primrose Hill.
She’s sipping coffee in the long, narrow 60-plus-seat dining room. Its ambience is warm and welcoming, the decor comfortable urban chic. We’ve just had a luscious lunch of assorted salads and antipasti selected from a menu that’s big on vegetables.
It’s my second meal here. A few days earlier, a friend and I savoured dinner. While she devoured slightly chewy but flavourful Roast Partridge Wrapped in Pancetta with Chestnut Cavalo Nero (the latter is sometimes called black kale), I relished a superb dish: juicily tender Pan-Fried Line-Caught Sea Bass Fillet with Quince Aoili.
An aficionado of the Eccles Cake, I shared one with my companion for dessert. Surrounded by custard drizzle, its deeply delicious dried fruit filling was encased in crisp puff pastry – a fine specimen of this traditional British confection.
That meal with two cocktails and one glass of wine cost $200 with gratuity. Lunch with mum (no alcoholic drinks) was terrific value: $70 before tip.
In keeping with the Acorn House credo, almost everything we ate was organic and sourced locally in season. There’s even British wine. A few items like prosciutto are imported. Water is purified on site. Various portion sizes can be ordered to reduce leftovers.
But food’s not the only domain in which green reigns supreme. There’s a policy of no air-freight. The eatery uses a bio-diesel van and provides large recyclable plastic containers to suppliers.
To conserve energy, the place is designed so it’s an average of 18 feet/5½ metres from the kitchen’s delivery door to the dining table. There’s no walk-in fridge. Food, delivered daily, is mostly stored in pantries. Packaging is not allowed into the building. No chemicals or bleach are used.
Up on the roof, I’m scribbling frantically on both sides of the page – waste not, want not is also a credo of mine – as the fast-talking Potts Dawson waxes eloquent about his consuming passion: compost.
He opens the lid of a large metal compostor and runs his hands through the black/brown mixture inside. It resembles coffee grounds and has virtually no smell.
The device, made in Korea, is state-of-the-art. “It macerates, dehydrates and dessicates,” he says in rapid patter, adding that this machine made by GOC Technologies cost $40,000 and is “the only one in the Western world.” Amazingly, it reduces “the 100 kilos of raw waste generated in a day to 10 kilos.”
Potts Dawson has twinkly green eyes that match the T-shirt he’s wearing bearing the restaurant’s name. He says he’s “a London boy with country roots” who’s been thinking and acting green for 20 years. “I have a personal love for seasonality, young people and children,” he says, adding, “I want to lower our impact on the environment.”
Composting, then recycling the rich results to fertilize the large amount of produce he grows on this roof is a no-brainer to him. “Not wasting energy and sustainability are the two biggest issues for urban life,” he notes and who can argue with that?
Acorn House has been cheekily called “greener-than-thou” by Jay Rayner in the Observer – but don’t get the wrong idea. This is a busy, professionally-run restaurant with well-trained staff and a small but innovative menu yielding excellent food. Best of all, eating here is as inspiring as it is fun.
Potts Dawson and general manager Jamie Grainger-Smith, both in their mid-30s, have worked at top London restaurants including Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen.
Their year-old eco-eatery, named Newcomer of the Year for 2007 by the Observer Food Monthly magazine, operates under the umbrella of the Shoreditch Trust: a charity devoted to regenerating inner London.
They’re committed to training 10 “eco-restaurateurs” a year and work with the local community preparing healthy meals for children.
I follow Potts Dawson as he bounds down the metal staircase and quickly becomes embroiled in a discussion with his chefs. Then he turns to me. “We believe in waste management and ethical principles,” he enthuses. “It’s also about food and service. We serve good, honest food that I trust based on how I eat – sustainable produce I’d feed to my own children.”
He sums things up: “The staff realize they’re part of a food revolution. We’re in an urban setting delivering a sustainable restaurant.”
Mum and I are handed our coats by the friendly young maitre d’. On our way out, I grab what I think is a package of Acorn House matches. That night, I open it up to light a candle and guess what? Inside are cardboard compost sticks complete with instructions on how to use.
Adapted from an Acorn House recipe, this a version of the Eastern European borscht – complete with vodka. For shorter cooking time, chop peeled beets in food processor.
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp butter
5 celery stalks, chopped
1 medium red onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 tsp ground cardamom, optional
2 kg/4 lb beets, peeled, sliced
1 cup vodka
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
6 cups vegetable stock
250-mL container sour cream
Kosher salt and ground pepper to taste
Garnish: Sour cream and chopped fresh dill or parsley
In large saucepan, heat oil and butter over medium-low heat. Add celery, onion and garlic; cook about 7 minutes or until golden. Add cardamom; cook about 2 minutes more. Add beets, ¾ cup of vodka and ¼ cup of vinegar. Bring to boil over high heat until most liquid evaporates and vegetables begin to stick to saucepan. Add stock; bring to boil. Reduce heat to low; cook, partially covered, about 1½ hours or until beets are soft. Cool.
In batches, puree beet mixture in blender, adding some sour cream along with reserved vodka and vinegar to each batch until used up. Add salt and pepper.
To serve, re-heat and add a spoonful of sour cream topped with dill to each bowl.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.