This review is in partnership with Match.com. That means they reimbursed me for the cost of the first meal in this review, but apart from asking me to include an evaluation of how romantic this restaurant was, they had no say over the content of this review.
Finding a romantic but affordable place to have dinner in London is tricky. There are the obvious silver service options such as Clos Maggiore, but for most people the high prices rules them out for all but the most special of occasions – engagement proposals and anniversaries rather than first dates. I decided to try out The Grain Store, the newest restaurant in Granary Square near King’s Cross and right next door to Caravan. To help me out, I brought along The Flame Haired Squelchie who was the perfect choice as she’s my go-to sensei when it comes to the wooing arts.
Grain Store is an informal place, letting in scruffy sods like myself and the Squelchie. Given the building’s heritage as a warehouse/granary, it has a suitably post-industrial look with the now pre-requisite exposed brick walls, ventilation ducts, worn-looking furniture and funky lighting. The open-view kitchen spills out into the dining room, fulfilling another restaurant design cliché.
The high ceilings and big open windows, which let in lots of light during daylight hours, give it a very airy feel. However the high ceilings, along with the bare floors, means it can be quite a loud, bustling place which doesn’t lend itself to whispering sweet nothings. The Squelchie and I had to raise our voices when discussing gonad-pleasing tongue tricks, which elicited disapproving stares and bewildered gawping from the provincial housewives at the next table.
A slightly quieter alternative are the handful of tables for two sequestered away in ‘booths’. These small brick alcoves contain three tables for two on the east side of the restaurant and provide a little more privacy. At least the deeply undignified table of shame as spotted by Cheese and Biscuits has been seemingly decommissioned, although the libido-killing stool seating near the entrance to the toilets remain.
All in all, the atmosphere at Grain Store isn’t terribly romantic, but it’s not completely devoid of charm either. It’s best suited for a third or subsequent date when you’re just out for a laugh, rather than a first date when you’re trying to get to know someone. Still, the illuminated fountains outside and the nearby stretch of Regent’s Canal with waterside seating do provide some potential for some post-meal canoodling.
First things first
The Flame Haired Squelchie is a vegetarian which often poses problems when we eat out, but that wasn’t an issue at Grain Store. Although the eclectic menu is not exclusively veggie, more than half of the small plates and a third of the large plates are vegetarian. A handful of them are suitable for vegans too. Between the both of us, we managed to order all but one of the vegetarian dishes on the menu.
Onion bread doesn’t sound like an exciting dish, but it is when the fluffy bread tastes very strongly of sweet, caramelised onions. It was far more interesting than the focaccia, although that bland bread was made palatable by its accompanying dukkah dip – a dry mixture of what Squelchie thinks was ground coriander and fennel seeds among others, although she wouldn’t bet on it.
Crudités at most restaurants usually consist of a few derisory stalks of celery and carrot sticks, but here an interesting gaggle of vegetables was charmingly presented in a small plant pot. The fresh spring onions, asparagus, broad beans, cherry tomatoes, fennel and radishes were great for dipping in the tahini-like dip which apparently was made from cashews and yeast. I wasn’t sure what to make of the dried, crushed, mildly salty olives though.
Squelchie is a big fan of beetroot, while I’m more cool on the earthy vegetable which only works for me in some dishes. The beetroot served here with the goat labneh was rather muted, as was the labneh itself. A sort of goat’s milk yoghurt, it lacked the bold earthy muskiness I usually expect from goat’s milk products. At least the accompanying pickled onions were tart and sharp.
The seared asparagus was tender and made even more delicious by the sweet, herby moreish sauce. I’d happily chow down on a bowl of the sauce with some onion bread, although I’d never have guessed that it was based on gazpacho. I wasn’t a fan of the melba toast layered on top though – the thin, stale, soggy bits of cardboard were totally unnecessary.
The endive, pear, green bean and roquefort salad served with smoked pepper jelly and toasted hazelnuts sounds like an unholy mish-mash, but it all came together very nicely to form a crisp and refreshing dish. The roquefort was surprisingly mild though and I could’ve done without the sweet chilli sauce-like smoked pepper jelly in favour of more crunchy hazelnuts.
One of the best dishes of the evening was the butternut squash ravioli. The thick, supple skins were filled with a distinctly sweet and nutty filling. I could happily have scoffed whole cauldrons of them, but the accompanying apricots didn’t leave much of an impression.
One of the very few ersatz meat dishes, so typical of less imaginative vegetarian-friendly restaurants, were the vegetarian merguez sausages. The chickpea and bean-based sausages managed to recreate the initial coarseness of a meat merguez, but they were ultimately fluffy rather than dense and hearty. Instead of creating a chilli or spice-based accompaniment to the sausages, the kitchen went for a milder, sweeter creation instead pairing the merguez with sweet, nutty and fluffy cubes of butternut squash and buttery courgettes which also had a zesty hint to them. It sounds a bit scattershot, but it was a very tasty dish indeed.
Moving on to dessert, the Squelchie and I shared two scoops of salted caramel ice cream. The tangy taste was more reminiscent of toffee than salted caramel, but the two are closely related and it was still a smooth, creamy, chilly treat.
Neither of us were quite satiated, so I moved onto the goat’s milk panna cotta served with spiced, candied tomatoes. The soft, wispy and milky panna cotta was perfectly decent, although I’d be hard pressed to tell it apart from a standard cow’s milk panna cotta. Far more interesting were the small, wrinkled little tomatoes which had a sharp, tangy sweetness that was reminiscent of both ketchup and balsamic vinegar. It sounds bizarre and although the two halves of this dessert never really came together, I enjoyed it nonetheless.
Squelchie opted for the apricot tart. The sharp, sweet, juicy, fleshy squidges of apricot were almost like candied fruit in their yumminess. The hard, cardboard-like pastry was almost inedible though – it was as if the kitchen had steamrolled a few layers of filo pastry together which is just as unappetising as it sounds. A dessert of two halves.
I don’t drink booze, but the Squelchie does and she noted the dominance of whites over reds on the wine menu, all of which are available by the glass, carafe or bottle. She chose a 500ml carafe of Viognier, a French white wine from Domaine La Bastide, and found it dry and refreshing.
Going back for seconds
I hadn’t intended to return to Grain Store, but the need for a late night feed meant that I found myself back all by lonesome. This gave me the opportunity to try out some of the meat dishes, but these turned out to be far less impressive than the vegetarian ones.
Duck confit is a staple of many French and European restaurants, but Grain Store serves up a salmon confit instead. Salmon confit is a new one on me, but this dish left me cold. The fish had the appearance of hot smoked salmon, but it tasted utterly bland. Even the soft, flaky texture was uninteresting. The salad of crisp salted watermelon and sweet peaches was the most interesting part of this dish, but it couldn’t make up for the tasteless salmon.
The pork belly served with a corn and quinoa tamales was better, but still flawed. The pig was the best part of this dish – tender, moist and oozing with partially melted fat, while the exterior had been brushed with a sweet, sticky marinade. The tamales consisted of a mixture of large corn kernels and quinoa seeds steamed inside a corn husk, but the corn and quinoa was largely a tasteless mush making it a poor compliment to the pork. A more traditional tamales filling of polenta-like corn meal would probably have worked far better.
Horseradish ice cream with strawberry and balsamic jam sounds like the results of an industrial accident rather than a dessert, but it was the most interesting and successful dish of this second meal. The distinctive spicy heat of horseradish in a cool ice cream with sprigs of rocket-like nasturtium leaves on top was an odd, but ultimately pleasing delight. Even better was the mildly thick but intensely sweet jam generously studded with squidgy bits of preserved strawberries, although any hint of balsamic vinegar was very muted at best. The chilled heat of the ice cream and the intense sweetness of the jam didn’t really compliment each other, but each half of this dessert was enjoyable on its own.
Grain Store won’t ever be known as one of London’s most romantic restaurants, but it does serve up some sterling vegetarian dishes that throw down the gauntlet to other restaurants. If this newcomer can come up with meat-free dishes that are interesting, varied and accomplished, then other eateries have no excuse for failing to do so too. Grain Store’s menu isn’t perfect though – it’s hit and miss with some dishes far better than others, but if you choose carefully then an excellent meal can be had by all. Go now, whether you’re dating or not.
Name: Grain Store
Address: Granary Square, 1-3 Stable Street, King’s Cross, London N1C 4AB
Phone: 020 7324 4466
Kitchen Hours: Monday-Friday noon-14.30 and 18.00-22.30. Saturday 11.00-15.00 and 18.00-22.30. Sunday 11.00-16.00.
Reservations: highly recommended
Total cost for one person including soft drinks: £30-40 approx. (add at least £15 if you’re drinking wine)