Grouse sausage and a mussels flatbread in Hoxton
‘We’ll need the table back in two hours’ is a familiar phrase for restaurant-going Londoners, but is utterly alien to many foreign visitors – especially those from the Continent. For many of our European cousins, the notion of table time limits is utterly incompatible with the very idea of hospitality.
It’s an understandable point of view. For a restaurant to explicitly say when they want you to leave before you’ve even sat down seems like the exact opposite of a warm welcome. But table time limits are not only acceptable, but even desirable for the many Londoners eager to not only eat at the latest oversubscribed restaurant, but to bookend the experience with visits to the pub and other nocturnal activities.
But there’s an implicit promise of efficient, quick-footed service in the idea of table time limits. Without it, the mechanisms of turning tables, profit margins and managing covers are laid bare, tilting the balance between caterer and guest far too much in favour of the former. Telling your customers to piss off at the earliest opportunity, while simultaneously serving them at a pace slower than the aging of wine, is the height of cheek.
While Two Lights in Shoreditch insists on having a two-hour time limit, the service was not only efficient across all my visits but warm and welcoming too. This was the case whether I sped through my meal in an hour or nursed a post-gorging tonic water right up until the ‘last’ minute. You’re unlikely to do the latter though if you sit at the counter or bar, where the stools are unforgivingly hard.
While Two Lights describes itself as American, the wide-ranging eclecticism of its kitchen defies pigeon-holing of any kind. What’s important is that, like its cousins The Clove Club and (to a somewhat lesser extent) Luca, the seemingly simple nature of Two Light’s dishes should rarely be taken at face value.
First things first
Katsu sandwiches are enjoying a surge in popularity in London, but Two Lights’ version eschews the usual pork (as well as the common but inferior chicken alternative) in favour of sardines. It works brilliantly with the briney, salty fish encased in a thin, crisp, lightly malty batter. The white bread was just a functional utensil, as expected.
Beef shortrib, served off the bone in slices, was expertly cooked – neatly browned on the outside, tender and richly moist on the inside. It didn’t just rely on its own charms though. The gently umami jus and the surprising fruity sweetness of the razor-thin mushroom and radish shavings were perfect bovine accompaniments. It was as if they were made to be eaten together.
Dense, coarse slices of grouse sausage had a flavour that was somehow earthy and florally sweet at the same time. Firm, buttery beans and an umami jus were well-judged accompaniments, complimenting the grouse sausage rather than clashing with it. Only the sugary figs were out of place.
While this dessert may look like a creme caramel from a demented parallel reality, it was actually more like a quirky reimagined crumble. The malty, lightly caramelised flavours of the refreshingly cold brown bread ice cream dovetailed neatly with a base of crunchy, wholesome hazelnuts and gently tenderised pears that somehow retained their crisp sweetness. Everything came together beautifully.
Going back for seconds
Flatbread topped with mussels and torn brussels sprouts was smaller than a royal wedding commemorative plate. Although somewhat miserly in size, this didn’t detract from either the tearable elasticity of the bread or from the surprisingly complimentary toppings. Briney mussels and bitter sprout leaves meshed together beautifully. This lip-puckering combo was in the same vein as the New England clam bake pizza once available at Temper Covent Garden, although the flavour wasn’t quite as intense.
Creamy, elastic burrata with its cool, milky centre would’ve been perfectly enjoyable on its own. It was taken to a whole new level of visceral pleasure though when joined by bitter kale and salty seaweed. Combining milk fats with salt and bitterness may be one of the most basic ways of enhancing flavour, but I really don’t care when the results are this sublime.
Ray is the happier-go-lucky, more sustainable alternative to skate and Two Lights’ roasted ray wing was a corker. A perfectly crisp, golden crust hid smooth, glossy and moist strands of pearlescent fish. The sauce may have been thin, but it nonetheless went perfectly with the fish due to its bold, dill-accented creaminess. Briney pickles cut through the richness of the sauce, neatly leading back to the gossamer-like delicate softness of the fish. Superb.
Small carrots were almost like sweet potatoes in their tender sweetness, but with an aniseedy edge. They didn’t really need the chewy, fatty strips of seductively translucent lardo which were best enjoyed separately.
A slice of egg custard tart doesn’t sound terribly exciting, but I’d learned by now not to doubt the kitchen’s prowess. While the pastry was rather pedestrian, this did allow the bold eggy creaminess of the custard filling to shine. The smoked caramel initially seemed like a mistake as its brash caramelised sweetness and smoky tang overwhelmed the custard’s more genteel charms. The combined mouthfeel of the two more than made up for this clash of flavours though. Taken together, custard and caramel were one of the silkiest, smoothest things ever to pass through my lips and slide down my gullet. As my eyes rolled back in my skull and my toes curled, I had to resist the urge to audibly moan in guttural satisfaction.
‘Chips’ were more like potato crackling, perfectly crisp and golden but surprisingly hollow and topped with shrug-inducing crab head meat. This small dish was essentially an amuse bouche, but a rather ineffective one that was neither titillating nor particularly interesting.
Strips of ‘flamed’ mackerel were smooth and lightly smoky, but without the boldly distinctive taste that the fish is known for. The modestly sprightly sauce wasn’t enough to rescue this disappointing dish.
Although prepared and served like a sausage, the stuffed guinea fowl was reminiscent of a Christmas dinner – except it was actually worth eating, unlike its festive forebear. Smooth, moist poultry was bound together with porky sausage in a skin that was chewy in places, crisp and gamey in others. A puree of broccoli tinged with yuzu was reminiscent of kale and brussels sprouts in its bittersweet herbiness, acting as a counterweight to the moreishly gamey meat. It was all perfectly poised and eminently satisfying.
The sweet tang of the grape granita tasted like Welch’s grape juice, itself based on Concord grapes. Its bracing iciness combined with the minty fresh ice cream and crunchy meringue all made for a surprisingly summery dessert. It’s best suited for combatting heat and humidity, rather than coddling one’s cockles in the gusty throes of autumn. Some variation in texture (perhaps from a cake) to blunt the crunchy coolness may have made this otherwise delightful dessert more appropriate for the season.
Go fourth and multiply
Bread rolls made with potato flour were fluffy, light, moreishly malty little things. They were made even better by smearing on the ethereally thin yet intensely creamy butter tinged with the smoky richness of cured fish roe.
Grilled, lightly seasoned fish is one of the simple, unsung joys of eating at an izakaya or a ryokan in Japan. Two Lights’ bonito special was better than some of the grilled fish I had in Japan – salted, licked with an umami glaze and grilled just-so, it was a moreish delight from beginning to end.
If globe artichokes were available during the northern hemisphere’s winter, then I’m convinced it would be the perfect centrepiece in a vegetarian Christmas dinner. The sweet fleshy tips of the inner petals, paired here with a starchy, yeasty and creamy dip, was fulsomely satisfying and arguably better than the overrated heart.
A knotted tangle of wrinkly, springy mushrooms were effortlessly addictive with their woody, nutty flavours and even more so with the lightly creamy, eggy topping. This proved to be one of those rare vegetarian dishes where the absence of meat was hardly noticed.
The brown butter ice cream with hazelnuts and pear was just as superb as it had been the first time around.
Two Lights, like Luca, is a spin-off of The Clove Club. It feels much like the latter in its cooking – deceptively simple dishes based around a few core ingredients used to sublime effect – but with a more consistent level of execution with the duds few and far between. When it comes to service, it feels like a happy medium between the two mixing the informality of The Clove Club and the polished efficiency of Luca.
Two Lights nevertheless stands out and apart from the shadows of its cousins – the precise, nuanced complexities of its deeply satisfying cooking proved to be as quietly confident as it was impressive. All of this more than makes up for the uncomfortably hard counter seating and the more inconsiderately loud members of its clientele. Two Lights may be new, but it’s already one of my favourite restaurants in London. I think you’ll love it just as much as I do.
Name: Two Lights
Address: 28 Kingsland Road, Shoreditch, London E2 8DA
Phone: 0203 976 0076
Opening Hours: Wednesday-Saturday noon-14.30 and 17.30-22.30. Sunday noon-21.00. Closed Monday-Tuesday.
Reservations? highly recommended.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: £65 approx.