In a nutshell: you can do better
On the face of it, a menu of small plates intended for sharing amongst multiple people seems like an oxymoron. It’s child’s play to share a heaving slab of roast, a cauldron of casserole or a heap of noodles with your gathered friends and family. It’s much harder to share a grab bag of snack-sized tapas, dim sum or pintxos, but that flaw may be a blessing in disguise. The smaller portion sizes not only allow you to try a broader array of dishes, it forces you to be more conscientious about your fellow diners in taking just enough rather than too much. If a dish turns out to be a duffer, then the pain is over with quickly. If a dish is a hit, you can order more.
Sharing small plates won’t be suitable for everyone or for every occasion. Nutshell’s selection of small plates means it certainly won’t be the restaurant for you – or for your friends, family and co-workers – if one insists on jealously guarding a plate at all times. Despite the seeming sprawl of the menu at this Iranian restaurant straddling the border between Covent Garden and The Strand, it’s actually quite compact if you’re sharing everything with a willing and able cadre of dining companions.
Mezze at Nutshell
Given how wondrous Iranian breads can be, it’s surprising that there’s just one to choose from at Nutshell. The ‘Bazaar’ bread was nonetheless a crowd pleaser. Thin, yet crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside, it proved to be a gently moreish pleasure.
Olive tapenade wasn’t as richly moreish as I was expecting, even with the addition of feta, pomegrante and extant black olives. It was still pleasing enough, especially when spooned on top of the bazaar bread.
Brik sambusach is a close relation of the samosa, its airy and crispy double-hulled triangular pastry a vessel for a mass of fluffy potato (or possibly mashed lentils). The coarsely chopped tomato sauce on the side was a surprisingly timid affair though.
Panir sabzi should not be overlooked. The salty, briney feta had a whipped, creamy texture almost like that of a burrata, rather than the crumblier form most of us are used to. Its supple, seductive charms were strong enough to overwhelm those of the accompanying walnuts, onions and herbs, but I’m not complaining too much.
Mast-o-khiar was a refreshing, but not especially distinctive serving of yoghurt topped with cucumber pieces and crushed pistachio. Still, it served as an adept palate cleanser after the relative richness of the brik sambusach and panir sabzi.
A puree of smoky aubergine was unsurprisingly reminscient of baba ghanoush, but with the added crispness of sliced radish and the crunch of pomegranate. It wasn’t quite as silky smooth and richly flavoursome as other aubergine purees I’ve had, but it was still pleasurable enough in its own right.
A mixture of spinach and chard was oddly watery, diminishing whatever charms the yoghurt and saffron may once have had.
‘Stove’ dishes at Nutshell
Nutshell’s beef dumplings will draw inevitable comparisons with the equivalent dish often available at Fitzrovia’s Kyseri. Nutshell’s version wasn’t as superlative, but it was still a richly layered dish. The reasonably supple and firm pasta envelopes came filled with a musky, earthy mince that melded seamlessly with the almost treacle-like sweet sourness of the thick cherry-based sauce.
Nutshell’s khoresht bademjan was more Instagram-friendly than the version at Soho’s Berenjak, but it wasn’t as well accomplished where it mattered most – in the mouth. While the aubergine was fleshy and lightly smoky, there wasn’t enough of it with most of the plate occupied by crisps, tomatoes and chickpeas that brought surprisingly little to the proceedings. The sweet, sweated pearl onions were delicious in their own right and would’ve been a fine counterbalance to an equal amount of aubergine. But there just wasn’t enough eggplant to go around, whether you’re having this dish all to yourself or sharing with others. Unbalanced and disappointing.
A selection of mussels, prawns and white fish were suitably evocative of the sea in their zingy, briney saltiness, but they were almost all upstaged by the exceptionally moreish sauce. Apparently made from just tamarind and chilli, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was more to this deeply satisfying condiment.
Veal Smasher couldn’t wait to dig into the kofte, which took the form of a large meatball rather than a lengthy lozenge. Coarse, loosely ground and and chunkily grained, it came dotted with bits of dried fruit and walnut. While far from inedible, it was neither one thing nor the other – neither a viscerally meaty indulgence nor a cleverly sweet and nutty invention. Instead, this kofte occupied the shrug-inducing middle-ground.
‘Grill’ dishes at Nutshell
Nutshell’s skewered poussin is an eye-catching sight with the charred meat-on-the-bone looking yellower than a Simpsons character clutching a bouquet of daffodils. While reasonably moist and meaty, it wasn’t anywhere as smoky and succulent as the poussin at Berenjak and certainly not as generously sized. Despite its Homeric hue, it wasn’t anywhere as richly saffron flavoured as the jojeh chicken kebabs also at Berenjak. A second-best effort.
Nutshell’s take on octopus was similarly fine, but ultimately lacking in comparison to the competition. It was moderately firm and bouncy on the outside. But its surprisingly hollow flavour and lack of textural follow-through made for a shallow octopus dish compared to the versions at, say, Santo Remedio and Yeni.
Even if the accompanying butterbeans had been more competently executed, they wouldn’t have been able to compensate for the unbalanced octopus. I found some solace in a side order of alabaloo polo, with the taste of sour cherries infused into the separated yet fluffy, small grains of rice.
Tender, gently earthy lamb cutlets were almost veal-like in their delicate sweetness. While not the best lamb dish you’ll find in this town, it was one of the most distinctive with the tangy, sour and sweet cherry-based sauce suiting the cutlets surprisingly well.
Desserts at Nutshell
Porn Master was taken with the densely creamy and bittersweet charms of the flourless chocolate cake which arrived in a long finger slice. It also came topped with dried flower bits in a vain attempt at chasing Instalikes.
The mango sorbet was spoilt by the crunchy ice crystals scattered throughout. The Lensman was also troubled by its excessive sweetness, but this was balanced out by squirting it with zesty, sour lime. If only its textural flaws were so easily fixed.
Although the zulubia pastries weren’t quite as exemplary as the very best equivalent jalebi available from London’s higher-quality Bengali bakeries, they still had much to offer. Ethereally airy, yet gently crispy and chewy, they were the perfect conveyors for the nuanced flavours of the fig ice cream. Almost akin to a rum and raisiny strudel, it would’ve been a winner on its own terms. Paired with the zulubia and it was nothing short of delightful.
Although coffee-flavoured ice creams fall into the same uncanny valley of food flavours as prawn cocktail crisps, they’re not without their charms when made and used right. Nutshell paired its refreshing version with sugary fig and an orange-flavoured sponge that was resplendent in its fluffy billowy softness. It was as if the pastry chef had refined the garish flavours of a Quality Street tin and them poured them into forms with just the right mouthfeel.
I don’t know how Perisan the Persian sundae really is, but it was undoubtedly delicious. Crunchy, chunky slabs of nut and puffed rice contrasted neatly with the smooth, refreshing ice cream and the stridently sweet and sour cherries. A winsome threesome.
Nutshell has won already plaudits in the short time between its opening and this review’s original publication date. Those have been awarded for the comeliness of its pink pastel interior, though, which is obviously only of secondary importance – and merely a means to an end. If its interior decor helps bring Iranian food to an ever wider audience, then I’ll paint my insides pink if that helps. It’s therefore a shame that Nutshell’s cooking isn’t nearly as good as the somewhat less ambitious but more focussed menu at Berenjak. That JKS-backed restaurant in Soho also has the benefit of a generally more convivial, jovial and vivacious atmosphere than Nutshell’s more sedate vibe. Even if that wasn’t the case, its bigger servings will – in some situations – be preferable to Nutshell’s small plates which really won’t suit everyone. Still, every little helps in the neverending quest to woo people away from drearily mediocre chains and their ilk.
What to order: Bazaar bread; panir sabzi; beef dumplings; almost all of the desserts
What to skip: Spinach and chard; mango sorbet
Address: 30 St Martin’s Lane, London WC2N 4ER
Phone: 0203 409 7926
Opening Hours: seven days a week, noon-14.45 and 17.00 – 23.00.
Reservations: probably a good idea
Average cost for one person including soft drinks when shared between five: £46 approx.