Upstairs @ the Ten Bells

I had been looking forward to a dinner at “Upstairs” for a while – I had read good reviews and liked the menu I saw online (which changes frequently). While waiting for my friend (who was stuck in Olympic-induced traffic, oh the joys of being a Londoner at the moment), I ordered myself a Strawberry Fizz at the recommendation of the waitress. Now, you cannot really go wrong with a drink that mixes something sparkly with a fruit that is in season, like strawberries in July. Yet, the drink managed to taste rather strongly of something more reminiscent of strawberry jam diluted with sparkling wine. If that was the intention behind the Strawberry Fizz, so be it, we will just have to agree to disagree. But even then, it would strike me as odd to not use fresh strawberries for a drink like this when they are in season even in this country. In any event, I had expected something of the Strawberry Champagne Cocktails my sister, our friend Katya and I would drink at Browns in Brighton whenever our pocket money would allow and sadly this drink did not deliver.

However, things definitely started looking up when my friend arrived and we shared a snack of buttermilk fried chicken with pine salt while waiting for our starters. The chicken was perfectly juicy, came in a crisp shell (which looked like it contained polenta) and the pine salt was a nice addition (although the pine flavour was not very strong).

After great reviews I went with the curried courgette soup over razor clams as my starter. And this was spot on. The seasoning was subtle enough not to overpower either the courgette or the razor clams, the soup was wonderfully creamy and was a perfect example of how well Indian spices go with seafood (which reminds me to maybe veer off the well trodden path of Moules Marinieres and try something a bit more exotic next time I fancy mussels). My only complaint is that I couldn’t figure out whether the soup was meant to be served luke warm or whether it had just been sitting for too long. While not unpleasant it was just slightly odd to have a somewhat luke warm soup served over ingredients that were neither hot nor cold as well.

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(picture of my friend’s brisket starter)

My friend ordered the brisket which came with bone marrow and beets. We both liked the brisket, tender strips of meat, nicely seasoned and greatly complemented by the earthiness of the beets. We did not care much for the bone marrow though. There were a few gelatenous lumps dotted around the plate and in all honesty, I had only come across roast bone marrow before (together with some toasted Brioche this is often served as a starter in restaurants in Brussels), which I much prefer. The bone marrow reminded us of pork belly fat and did nothing to cut through the richness of the brisket. That was probably our only real complaint about the dish – there was not much on the plate to contrast and cut through the rich brisket and the bone marrow, something acidic (whether something vinegary like pickles or capers or something citrussy like orange) would have made this dish stand out more for me.

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(picture of my courgette soup)

As my friend does not eat seafood we went with the two meat dishes for our main courses and split them in half. That way we both got to try “Pork Chop, Sugar Snaps, Sweetcorn & Peaches” and “Roast Lamb Saddle, Dates & Pickled Aubergine” (though, if I were to go again I would definitely try “Trout, Mustard, Celeriac & Gooseberries”). Both of us felt somewhat underwelmed by the two dishes. Both cuts of meat we had were pretty fatty and, again, there was nothing on the plate to cut through this.

I started with the pork chops and while I am still dreaming about the little dot of sweetcorn polenta on the side I was a bit disppointed by this dish overall. It was served with a quite pretty looking line of sweetcorn and sugar snaps – but they tasted no different to a bit of steamed vegetable with melted butter you might make at home which made it appear a bit lazy. And the peach? A classic Southern addition to pork yet there was so little of it on the plate compared to the hunk of pork there was barely enough to complement two bites of the pork (although the peach went rather nicely with those two bites). All in all, the meat was cooked well, I definitely want the recipe for the polenta but the dish itself was just not quite there for me.

Sadly, the saddle of lamb dish evoked similar feelings. The lamb was perfectly seasoned and cooked well but again, a pretty fatty cut of meat served with a variety of creamy textures and fairly bland tastes. Yes, there was pickled aubergine, but it was a tiny serving and it was not very acidic at all. The creamy date puree was a nice idea but it was pretty tasteless – surprising given how flavourful even the 99p Medjool dates I can buy at Tesco’s are. There was also a bit of tabbouleh on the side, again though, this cous-cous based salad was rather on the bland side. A pity really as I am a great fan of this fresh and zingy salad, typically full of tiny chopped vegetables and a pile of fresh herbs.

After our mains left us in a bit of a “meh” feeling and we were rather full after the rich dishes we had, we ended up saying no to desserts, although both the “Blueberry Mousse, Milk Crisps & Tarragon” and the “Strawberry Tart, White Chocolate & Elderflower Ice Cream” sounded great.

So would I go again? Maybe. I certainly like the idea of entering a pub for a dinner and being served something a bit different. And we only got to try about half the menu so I would certainly like to drag Alessandro there or a fish-eating friend. And not trying the dessert section of a menu is positively sacrilegious in my world. Yet, overall, “Upstairs” just did not excite me. Maybe my expectations were too high (I had been hoping for dishes similar to what we got to experience at the Sven Wassmer’s Supper Club at the Bottle Apostle or the food served at North Road in Farringdon), maybe it was an off day (for me or for the restaurant), who knows.

One thing you cannot complain about at “Upstairs” are the prices – mains average around £15, starters are between £5-7. Pretty typical of gastropubs around my neck of the woods in London and then the idea behind “Upstairs” is obviously to serve you something better than your typical gastropub fare.

I should also mention that all the staff were phenomenal and very kind and not only was our waitress knowledgeable about the wine menu (full of lesser known reds and whites – I could have tested the entire menu up and down!) but she was positively excited about some of them and did a great job at selecting a beautiful Valpolicella for both of us.

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