Trying too hard, yet paradoxically needs to try harder
Karpo bills itself as a diner, but apart from a small hatch through which dishes are passed from the kitchen to the main dining room, this restaurant is completely unlike any diner I’ve ever been to. This is especially true when one takes the plant-festooned wall and industrial-style decor, with its bare concrete and wire-link fenced mezzanine, into consideration. The menu is also very un-diner like. As other bloggers have pointed out, the menu is oddly structured and sprawling pulling in influences from numerous places, including Europe and the Middle East, and not just the US.
First things first
My first dinner at Karpo occurred just a few days after opening, but the service already felt like a well-oiled, efficient machine but with plenty of welcoming grace and human warmth. The warm welcome was spoiled by their apparent refusal to supply me with tap water and I was offered filtered water, still or sparkling, instead. Although hardly extortionate at just £1, I demurred on principle and ended up sipping on Nigerian Fanta instead. Oddly flat and much sweeter compared to the garden variety Fanta, it reminded me of Lucozade that had gone flat.
While I surveyed the expansive menu, I nibbled on some bourbon and chilli pecans. Thankfully unboozy, the addictively moreish pecans had a sweet, caramelised taste peppered with a mildly spicy kick every now and again.
Southern fried quail with celeriac slaw is an evocative sounding dish and one that my novelty-seeking brain could hardly pass up. The tender meat, which looked like half of a spatchcocked quail, was succulent with a crisp batter coating that was fluffy and remarkably unoily. It had a touch of silky creaminess to it which suggested the use of buttermilk. Although pleasing, the quail could really have been replaced with any chunk of poultry and one would be hard pressed to tell the difference, but then quail does have a certain draw to it. The slaw was firm with a taste of capers to it, but otherwise didn’t taste of much and was excessively creamy which wasn’t to my liking. An interesting dish, but it’s not compelling enough that I’d order it again.
Grits, a ground maize meal dish from the Deep South similar to polenta, is a beautiful foodstuff that deserves to be more widely eaten. Here, it takes the form of a soft and smooth cake-like cube rather than the coarsely textured mash that I had been expecting. It’s far from unpleasant and is quite tasty in its own right, but I’d personally prefer the more traditional preparation. There were no complaints about the toppings scattered on top of the grits though, from the fresh and firm prawns to the flecks of chewy, slightly smoky pancetta and the firm, slippery, buttery mushrooms. A fine dish overall, despite my reservations about the grits.
The Boston baked beans proved to be a fine accompaniment to the grits. The firm beans were swimming in a sweet and tangy sauce that was also blessed with tender chunks of slow cooked pork.
For dessert I had a coarse, large crumbed pistachio polenta cake. Although flecked with green, it tasted much more of polenta and than it did of pistachio. If it had been served on its own, then the one-dimensional cake wouldn’t have been very interesting, but thankfully it was paired with some candied kumquats. These were juicy and sweet with a tart edge and were easily the best thing about this dessert, almost to the detriment of the cake – I would have preferred less cake and more kumquats.
Going back for seconds
Karpo is located almost exactly opposite the King’s Cross/St Pancras mainline rail station and almost exactly outside one of the Underground station exits on the south side of Euston Road, so it was a doddle to make a second visit when I was in the area again and in need of an interesting dinner. Sadly, the warm service from last time was a distant memory. My waiter this time around, while superficially polite, had a clipped, perfunctory and rushed manner which I did my best to ignore, grating as it was.
I started off with the speck and pickled quince. The speck, a cured ham from the Tyrol, was streaked with flavoursome fat and had a subtly woody and peppery taste to it. The tartness of the pickled quince was in danger of overwhelming the flavour of the meat though. I found it best to save the quince until the end and use its tartness to cut through the fatty aftertaste of the meat lingering in my mouth.
I couldn’t help but have another starter in the form of Jerusalem artichoke soup flavoured with black truffles. It’s certainly creamy and rich with a sharp edge, but it’s not as viscerally pleasurable as I would have hoped for a soup enriched with truffles.
Rhubarb, chilli and mint sound like odd bedfellows for mackerel, but the combination works surprisingly well. The chilli was largely absent, but the mildly tart rhubarb and the refreshing mint complimented the firmness and distinctive taste of the crisply grilled fish, cutting through the comparative oiliness of the flesh. A cynic would argue that it’s a simple dish involving little actual finesse on the part of the kitchen, but it’s still a light and refreshing yet satisfying dish.
As a hearty antidote to the mackerel, I chose the rather odd sounding champ – mashed potato with cabbage mixed in. It’s very creamy with the firm cabbage adding not only some bite, but some variation in texture too.
One of the most intriguing sounding desserts on the menu is the pink peppercorn meringue served with passion fruit flavoured frozen yogurt. The meringue has a skilfully thin, crisp exterior that gives way to a slightly chewy interior tinged with a slight pepper kick. The passion fruit frozen yogurt only really tasted of passion fruit when biting into one of the actual passion fruit seeds drizzled into the yogurt. The yogurt was otherwise surprisingly tame and didn’t really add much to the meringue.
I have very mixed feelings about Karpo. The food is by no means bad, but it’s not as consistently accomplished, finessed or as inventive as it should be to justify its relatively high prices. This also means it’s not quite cheap enough to be a reliable comfort food fall-back when you’re in need of a hearty feed. You could do far worse in the King’s Cross area, but there are few compelling reasons to seek out Karpo specifically unless you happen to be in the neighbourhood.
Address: 23-27 Euston Road, London, NW1 2SD
Phone: 020 7843 2221
Opening Hours: seven days a week 07.00-22.30.
Reservations: probably a good idea.
Total cost for one person inc soft drinks: £40 approx.