To Eat Like A Girl is an aspiration, not a slight
Update 27/10/2019 – added detail that this is a pop-up at Homeboy
I’ve been writing about London restaurants for close to a decade now, so I’d like to think I’m at least a passable writer with decent judgment in what you should and shouldn’t spend your money on. But I would never dream of serving my own cooking to the paying public, with the possible exception of the odd cake or tart. I can cook well enough to keep myself nourished and alive, but that’s about it – if I were to ever review my own efforts then the resulting display of introspective self-loathing would be enough fodder to keep my team of therapists employed for decades to come.
I therefore have immense respect for Niamh Shields, aka Eat Like a Girl on Twitter and Instagram, who’s not only had the stones to take up food writing as her full time occupation, but to serve a selection of dishes to paying patrons Homeboy in Islington. Fittingly for an Irish-owned and operated bar in one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, both her dinnertime and weekend brunch menus start off with a few Irish familiars before quickly diversifying into more eclectic territory.
The results at this pop-up are a sight to behold.
Brunch at Homeboy
I’ve always been inherently skeptical about the entire concept of ‘brunch’. It has always seemed like a cunning marketing wheeze rather than an actual meal worth eating. Take any average dish and serve it with extra booze and/or eggs, then you have a license to charge middle class people with dubious tastes and unacknowledged drinking problems at least 15% extra for the privilege.
Homeboy avoids that trap by sticking to breakfast dishes embellished with tasteful touches rather than bottomless gimmicks. Our cousins across the narrow sea may well laugh, but I’ve fallen deeply in lust with boxty after having tried Myrtle’s dumpling-esque version. The version here was more of a pancake, with a firm bite and soft follow-through – a mouthfeel surprisingly reminiscent of the fishcakes found in a Japanese oden.
While the accompanying cut of bacon will of course vary naturally, the streaky bacon languishing seductively next to my boxty was as far removed from the charmless, overly crispy American preparation as it’s possible to get. Narrow and thin, but with the meat-to-fat ratio skewed heavily in favour of the former, it was hearty and slicked with slowly rendered fat while avoiding an overdose of salt. The sun-coloured yolk of the egg was as rich as it was runny. A seemingly simple yet well-formed start to any weekend.
I still don’t understand the fervent devotion that some people have for fried chicken and waffles, but Niamh’s version does have a lot going for it. Soft, gently chewy waffles with a light eggy richness came topped with generously plump chunks of fried chicken. Crunchy, airy and free of almost any grease, the almost seamless batter gave way to reveal hunks of moist, meaty but otherwise quotidian chicken. A modestly piquant gochujang-esque mayo and crisp, sharp spring onions bound proteins and carbs together to create a brunch dish that helped me power through the rest of the day.
If that sounds a bit much, then there is a lighter alternative where the waffle comes topped with aubergine instead. Although the aubergine wasn’t cut as thickly as I would’ve preferred, some of the eggplant’s fleshiness and distinctive flavour still managed to shine through. The latter was neatly complimented by the nutty, creamy umami of a cashew-miso cream which was itself augmented by an aromatic dusting of finely ground peanuts. Although not perfect, this was nonetheless a satisfying dish and an emblematically vegetarian one too – it not only didn’t need meat, it wouldn’t have been improved by the presence of it.
The Full Irish breakfast has some stiff competition from neighbouring caffs which can conjure a respectable fry-up at lower prices. Thankfully, Niamh’s fry-up is a worthy competitor and starts by dispensing with all that baked bean, mushroom and tomato nonsense. It goes straight for the crown jewels with the plate dominated by slices of black pudding in all their meaty, oaty, earthy, hearty and salty glory. While this may be colour placebo kicking in, the white pudding just wasn’t as satisfying with its lighter, sweeter qualities. Even so, dunking either pudding in the rich, runny yolk made for sumptuous eating.
The streaky bacon was more conventional this time around, the rasher more evenly split between fat and meat. Even so, it was supple and tender – as bacon should be – rather than crispy. There was no filler in the dense, meaty sausage, while the airy yet hearty and tangy doorstops of soda bread came massaged with creamy, lightly salted butter. There’s no toss-up with this fry up – it’s a breakfast for the ages.
Dinner at Homeboy
The cloudy, moreish broth of the Irish stew was dotted not only with tenderised carrots, onions and potatoes but lightly tangy bits of lamb too. It made for a warmingly wholesome and fortifying meal, especially when taken with the soda bread which was as superlative as ever.
The name ‘taco fries’ doesn’t do this decadent heap of carbs and protein justice. Soft, chunky potato wedges came slathered not just with creamy, melted cheddar but a condiment oddly reminiscent of burger sauce with the two meshing together surprisingly well. All of this was just a conveyor for the black pudding ragu though, which distilled all the beauty of Niamh’s well-chosen black pudding into a coarse, sticky milt that was more meaty relish than ragu. The addition of a mild chilli kick was the crowning glory on what I had thought was impossible until now – a version of black pudding that’s even better than its classic form.
The oddest thing about the Irish nachos isn’t the name, but the very fact that it exists at all. It’s effectively a remix of the taco fries utilizing many of the same basic elements. In this upside down alternate world, the thinly sliced, light fried, gently crisped potatoes were the best thing going – especially when taken with the cheddar which came both melted and in crumbs, the latter allowing its robustly mature flavour to shine through. The black pudding ragu was considerably less satisfying this time around – possibly due to its finer ground as well as the presence of sour cream. In any case, the Irish nachos won’t be displacing the taco fries from my affections any time soon.
It’s not possible to have too much black pudding, so you should also order the black pudding croquettes. The term ‘croquettes’ isn’t quite right though – each batter shell was really a skimpy, feathery crisp negligee barely holding in a buxom, fulsome puck of thrusting black pudding. While some of the airy battered shells contained white rather than black pudding, it was the former that I enjoyed scoffing the most. Although the chipotle ketchup didn’t quite have the complex and layered smoky spice of the very best chipotle, it still brought a tingly heat to my already drooling, grasping lips.
Unlike most Canadian poutines which use gravy, the one here used a chip shop-style curry sauce. Although mild, it wasn’t cloyingly sweet which allowed the soft and milky, halloumi-like dairy curds to shine through. The combination of crisp, fluffy, chunky chips, squidgy milky curds and moist curry sauce was an unexpectedly bewitching one.
The fried chicken sandwich was an immense construction, gliding and emerging into my field of vision like a surfacing submarine. The charred yet crisp then soft bun stayed out of the way, allowing the karaage-esque chunks of fried chicken to hog the spotlight. It was much like the chicken that graced the waffles, but a tad more crunchy and dotted with a few more crisp air bubbles. The spring onions and gochuang-ish mayo also made a repeat appearance, but all these garnishes were curiously concentrated on one side of the sandwich. This lopsided distribution meant one side of the sandwich was noticeably drier and less interesting to plow through than the other. There’s the core of a good dish here, but it’s in need of refinement.
If none of Niamh’s dishes have enough meat for you, then order a side of the maple candied bacon. The rashers were soft and supple with a gentle chew, rather than hard and excessively chewy as I expected. Although made from streaky rather than back bacon, the corpulent fattiness makes sense in a side/topping. As if that salty fattiness wasn’t enough, each strip was also bursting with the sweetness of maple syrup that never became overbearing or outstayed its welcome.
I’m not grading on a curve, pulling my punches or giving any kind of favourable treatment to a fellow writer when I laud and applaud Eat Like A Girl’s cooking. The eclectic menu at Homeboy is full of bold yet soulful and satisfying dishes that use a few key ingredients to often deliriously delicious effect. The superlative cooking was matched only by the irrepressibly warm, jovial and welcoming service from the bar staff at Homeboy. We live in an age where hospitality in public life is often in short supply. This is almost certainly made worse by the many people seemingly willing to ignore, disregard or outright exploit the people who serve us, clean for us and drive for us. So the very least I can do is champion the staff at Homeboy – Niamh’s food is made all the better by their efforts.
Food of champions and sterling service – if that’s not worth writing home about, then I don’t know what is. Eat at this pop-up before it disappears forever.
What to order: Almost everything…
What to skip: …except possibly the Irish nachos
Address: 108 Essex Road, Islington, London N1 8LX
Phone: none listed
Kitchen Hours: Wednesday-Friday 17.00-22.00; Saturday noon-16.00 and 17.00-22.00; Sunday noon-16.00.
Reservations? not taken.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: £20-25 approx. (£15-20 approx. at brunch)