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London’s first sustainable restaurant

When I say that Acorn House is the most important restaurant to open in London in the past 200 years, there is a danger that you might misunderstand me. You might think I mean “important restaurant? merely in the way that restaurant critics usually mean it, which is that it represents a small potential change in direction for one wing of the catering business – the way people once talked of such joints as Kensington Place, Gordon Ramsay’s Aubergine, the Eagle, St John and Yo! Sushi. But Acorn House is a different kind of important.

Acorn House is life and death important. Because it is London’s first truly environmentally sustainable restaurant. Don’t you dare titter! Don’t you dare yawn and turn the page to see what Robert Crampton has been up to! Don’t you dare curse me for a credulous tree-hugging Cameronian payer of lip service to ideas I do not fully understand!
This stuff matters. The Stern Report is true. Everything we are and have ever been is going to disappear unless we do something very serious about global warming very soon.

If you really are one of those right-wing nincompoops who think that it’s all a big con by the “eco lobby? to keep themselves in hemp underpants, and that everything will all turn out fine because everything always does, and in fact there’s a completely independent scientist on the White House payroll who has proved that the world is getting colder and what we need is more carbon dioxide to stop the ice-caps getting too frozen, then, actually, you can turn the page. In fact, why don’t you burn it, too. No, I know, why don’t you roll it up into a taper and use it to set fire to a penguin.

The rest of you, who are maybe just beginning to turn off the odd stand-by switch, have stopped revving your engine at the lights to make old ladies cross the road quicker, and no longer leave all the lights on when you go out at night to discourage burglars (because you’ve grasped that burglars are all so wiped out on crack these days that they don’t have the mental quickness to associate the ideas of light and habitation the way they did in the good old days), well, you’re all heroes. But I’ll wager you still go out for dinner occasionally.

And there is nothing in the world so wasteful of resources as a restaurant. Apart, possibly, from a war. If we really cared about the future of humanity we would stay home and cook. Or we would go to Acorn House, which is built from organic and recycled materials, composts or recycles 100 per cent of its waste, demands positive animal husbandry, avoids industrial farming, uses green electricity, buys Fairtrade where it can, and pledges never to use airfreight.

When transporting within London, Acorn uses bio-diesel, take-away containers are eco-sensitive, and they purify water on site, so there are no road miles and no wasted plastic or glass (I’d rather share my table with a child murderer than a man who drinks Fijian water). And if you do want bottled water, there’s Belu, sourced and bottled in Shropshire, carbon-neutral and non-profit-making, with all proceeds going to fund water projects in drought-afflicted areas (Africa, principally, one assumes, rather than London and the Southeast).

I know it might all sound a bit mental and over the top, but it’s not. It’s just sensible. Every restaurant in London could operate like this. And the ones that can’t should close. I understand that you have to take your kids to school in something that, in extremis, would keep them safe from lion attack and nuclear war, but these are just restaurants. We don’t, truthfully, need them at all.

And the thing is, Acorn House isn’t a compromise. It is a great little restaurant. (In fact, all other restaurants are a compromise – we tolerate shortening the life of the race in return for a good nosh.)

I was sceptical at first. So sceptical that I went down for lunch on the day I had booked supper there with my girlfriend to make sure she wouldn’t be disappointed.

It is in King’s Cross, an area that is not only as impoverished by carbon fuel emissions as anywhere in the world (I believe the Euston Road, which begins here, is the most polluted in Britain), but is where all our problems began. For King’s Cross Station, gateway into town for the produce of the mines and factories of the North, made the Industrial Revolution, and all the consequent horrors through which we are now living, possible.

Acorn House is not a cutesy little tree house all in green and beige, but a long, cool, modern room with lots of produce and upmarket condiments and utensils on shelves, uncovered tables laid with linen napkins along both walls, a bar, and a visible kitchen at one end. It reminded me of Ottolenghi on Upper Street.

At lunch they do three soups, eight salads, three pastas and six mains, priced so that a main with two salads comes out at £10, or with three salads, £12. I had mackerel (a very sustainable fish), grilled, filleted and cutely split vertically along the spine to create, from one fish, four firm cigars of oily flesh, nicely punctuated with grill bars. But it wasn’t lovely and hot off the grill. Whether a batch was grilled earlier for lunch service or this had just sat around at the pass, I don’t know, but it made the dish a lot less exuberant than it might have been.

Most notable in the salad was the romanesco. You know romanesco, it’s that stuff they have in Waitrose that looks like a cauliflower crossed with a leprechaun. Here it was dressed with some tomato and looked foresty and festive. There was roast salsify, which I love, and long, straggly leek skins that feel good and roughagey going down, but are so fibrous they do sometimes go all the way through you undigested (I happen to have noticed). The Jerusalem artichokes were not on top form, a bit soft and wan – so I took my revenge by going back for dinner just when, after an afternoon simmering in my gut, the chokes were ready to parp their familiar song of joy.

In the evening, with candles and low light, it looked quite romantic. Celeriac and horseradish soup was chunky and sweet and not afraid of its ingredients (unlike those celeriac mashes you get which are all potato); autumn salad of pheasant, pomegranate and dandelion was rather less than the sum of its parts, and a bit fiddly; but the mozzarella di bufala was staggeringly fresh, given the ban on air travel. It came by train, apparently. Damn fast train. Drizzled with chilli flakes and olive oil and served with fennel and Amalfi olives it was a fine way to save the planet.

My shoulder of mutton was OK, but a bit dry (though I’m all for mutton over lamb for both flavour and sustainability), and needed the wetness of its accompanying quince. Pappardelle with lamb ragout was so-so. But I was deliriously happy to see that fried salmon and barley broth came in at only £13 (or £10 with two salads for lunch), despite being both wild and Scottish. If they can do it here then why does everyone else think they can charge that (and more) for farmed, flabby, world-killing fish?

In the end, not bad cooking, some excellent stuff, and at the end of the meal the bill comes with what you take for a promotional paper match box, but turns out to be a strip of tiny saplings to take away and plant. You see, it’s about turning carbon dioxide back into carbon and oxygen, not the other way round. Have I made myself clear?

Acorn House is only a start, but it is from such little acorns as these that mighty oaks are said to grow. Let’s just hope there’s time.

Acorn House
69 Swinton Street, WC1
(020-7812 1842)
Meat/fish: 10
Principles: 10
Importance: 10
Score: 10
Price: not the earth

Other sustainable restuarants

Duke of Cambridge
30 St Peter’s Street, N1
(020-7359 3066)

Every bit as impressive as Acorn, but done gastropub style. Not only is the (excellent) menu Soil Association certified, but the electricity is wind and solar-generated, the soap is made from neem oil, and they recycle everything.

Bordeaux Quay
Canon’s way, Harbourside, Bristol
(0117 9431200)

Bristol’s organic king, Barney Houghton, proprietor of the celebrated Quartier Vert, recently launched this vast organic restaurant-brasserie-deli-cookery-school. I haven’t reviewed it yet, but don’t wait for me, get down there.

Article by Giles Coren for The Times magazine, December 10 2006

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