The best thing about Flat Iron Square isn’t the street food stalls
I’m sometimes asked how I pick which restaurants to review. The number and range of possible criteria is large and diverse, respectively. Some of the most important is that a restaurant has to be interesting and it should be in some way indicative or reflective of London in the way we live and eat, in the recent past as well as in the present and the near future.
Even so, such a deliberately fuzzy, ad-hoc system is open to mistakes and one of the most glaring is that I haven’t reviewed Lupins until now. Even then, it was the fact that Lupins is part of the unusual Flat Iron Square street food and restaurant hall that drew me to this small London Bridge restaurant. Its restrained Mediterranean-ish menu and ambiguous strapline (‘tasting plates with a sunshine influence’) led me to think that this cosy restaurant, divided over two floors, would be the least interesting and enjoyable of Flat Iron Square’s many eateries.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Small plates at Lupins
Lupins often has charred greens on its menu, usually a member of the spring onion family but not always, and it’s well worth snaffling them up when they’re available. Supple, taut and chewy spring onions came dredged in deep-fried batter crumbs of startlingly high quality. Moreish and crunchy yet effortlessly light, they were aptly complimented by a puddle of gently smoky, luxuriantly creamy mayo. The combination of chew, crunch and smoke was nothing short of sensational. Every other restaurant in London serving up half-arsed tempura, tonkatsu, schnitzel and other deep-fried battered dishes should be taking lessons from Lupins.
Another dish of charred greens often available on the menu is one of singed leaves and steams served with ‘pistou’. Although not a traditional pistou, it was hardly worse off for it – the lightly moreish parsely-tinged puree helped bring out the mild smokiness of the taut and slippery greens.
Burrata makes frequent appearances on Lupins’ menu, as well it should as it’s one of the finest things humanity has yet invented. A dish where the burrata had been sliced into small blocks wasn’t the best way to appreciate its taste and texture, but the sweet sourness of pickled cherries and the herby sweetness of its garnishes helped make up for this blunder.
An alternate version saw the burrata sliced into thicker chunks, which made it far easier to appreciate its milky, tautly creamy and chewy qualities. The crunch of batter crumbs contrasted well with the cheese ball, while sliced gage added a berry-like double punch of sour sharpness and sugary sweetness. Spot-on.
‘Jerk’ ‘scotch bonnet’ beetroot was perfectly enjoyable as long as you don’t expect it to taste anything like jerk or scotch bonnet chillies. The earthy yet tender slices of beetroot melded well with bitter cabbage, the vegetables further bound together by a mild peppery heat.
Lupins often has cured seafood, a Scottish and Iberian staple alike, on its menu but the results can be highly variable. Meaty, gently cured strips of trout unsurprisingly bore a close resemblance to smoked salmon. The distinctive flavour of dill, sweet cucumbers and briney radishes all came together to produce a surprising herby bittersweetness which was itself offset by the lightly unctuous cream. The simultaneously multilayered and holistic flavours were as beguiling as they were unexpected.
The fish in the mackerel escabeche came butterflied, its meatiness and boldly distinctive flavour in full evidence. I wasn’t convinced that the slices of chewy potato and sweet, gently sweated onions were the best accompaniments for the cured mackerel, but they didn’t detract too heavily from it either.
Salmon ceviche wasn’t what I was expecting at all. While sliced small, the salmon was nonetheless thick and fatty. The sauce was more like a creamy prawn cocktail marie rose than any leche de tigre or other Latin American brine. It didn’t really suit the salmon, but it was pleasing enough on its own terms.
A bass ceviche was more like a soup with the thick, moreish green puddle reminding me of the ham and pea soups of my childhood. This one wasn’t dotted with suspect cuts of pork though, but chewy medallions of bass, while blackberries provided the sweetness and sharpness to cut through the relative richness of the soup. An unconventional ceviche, but balanced and flavoursome all the same.
Thin yet firm and wide ravioli came stuffed with earthy goat’s cheese, its pastoral potency kept in check by the crunch and salt of samphire. A sauce of reduced nduja gave the pasta envelopes a deeply satisfying meaty undertone, bolstered further by a dusting of crunchy fried nduja cutoffs, its cumulative virile vigour coating my tongue with every mouthful. As well accomplished as the ravioli and samphire were, they would’ve made for a far more restrained and sedate dish without the nduja.
Even for a starter or small plate, the mound of pappardelle was a meagre one. It was also far too soft to be al dente, while the promised chilli was missing in action. It wasn’t a complete loss though – the pungently earthy aroma testified to well-chosen mushrooms, while crisp and chewy crumbs filled in the textural gap left by the subpar pasta.
The bitterness of crisp radicchio leaves was balanced out by the mellow sweetness of both raisins and tenderised slithers of pumpkin. The bitter nuttiness of pumpkin seeds came too late in the game to make an impact, but it wasn’t missed too much as the the tang of both blue cheese and vinaigrette was on hand to add not only another pairing of complimentary flavours, but to bind everything together.
The addition of beetroot to steak tartare was ultimately unnecessary, pleasing though it was with its unexpected fruity sweetness. The puck of raw beef itself consisted of small strips and chunks of dense and fulsomely chewy cow, each one tangy and moreish. The toast somehow managed to stay out of the way, allowing the steak tartare to shine unhindered, despite its crunchy thickness. The sheer quality of this steak tartare meant the attempt to embellish it and add another dimension with the beetroot was never really necessary. But, if nothing else, it’s a sign of a kitchen that cares and tries to innovate in the finer details.
Confit duck salad didn’t fail to satisfy either the carnivorous or the verdant elements of its menu description. The shreds of bird were dense, lightly chewy and fatty. That unctuousness was neatly counterbalanced by a combination of sharp orange segments, bitter raddichio and chewy grains. It was almost like a lighter duck a l’orange, reimagined and recomposed to remarkably tantalising effect.
Main courses at Lupins
Crab Thermidor didn’t look like much, but the cumulative richness of this dish soon made its presence felt. It was as if the kitchen had melded a crab bisque with weaponised quantities of butter and brown head meat. The turbo-boosted, slow-release crab meat received a further boost to its umami and creaminess from the punch and crunch of garlic bread. An eminently rewarding main course.
I’ve often considered risotto to be one of the dishes so perfectly well-formed as to have no need for meat whatsoever, only for Lupins to almost upend that notion. Reduced nduja gave the almost congee-like rice an intense smoky spiciness, which itself never became overwhelming due in part to the touch of creamy milkiness courtesy of coolea cheese. Only the hake, meagre and overcooked, let the side down.
If I had only dined once at Lupin’s, then I would’ve come away thinking that the kitchen had a cack-handedly clumsy way with meat. Pork belly arrived overcooked and stodgy with a hard, largely inedible crust of fat. Sweetness from tenderised quince and touches of aniseed were the only redeeming features, but they were too little and too late.
Smoked goose breast was a world away from the pork belly, so much so that they could’ve come from two different kitchens. Like a cross between venison and duck, the slices of Daffy were dense and thick. This muscularity was deftly enhanced by a perfectly rendered rim of fat tinged with smokiness, while a lightly peppery crust was the crowning glory. Only the berries failed to make an impression, but they couldn’t detract from this remarkably elegant example of carnivorous flavour and neatly composed textures.
Tender and modestly umami onglet wasn’t anywhere as characterful as the onglet steak sometimes available at the neighbouring Bar Douro. Still, it was far from joyless – especially when taken with the crisp, lightly chewy artichokes and roast potatoes, crisp-crusted and slicked with unctuous fat.
Spatchcocked quail was similarly outshone by a counterpart dish from Bar Douro. Even so, the meat was still succulent while the supple, dimpled skin came in a lightly sharp and sweet sauce – qualities emphasised by thin slices of apple. The meat wasn’t absorbent enough to soak up those qualities though.
Lupin’s penchant for goosing its dishes with potent nduja appeared once again, this time adding fattily piquant character to tenderised chickpeas and chunky yet light fillets of pollock. It was relatively subdued compared to some of the other nduja-bolstered dishes here, lessening the need for the palate-cleansing properties of the sweet and sharp fennel. Still, a neat and tidy fish dish through and through.
Desserts at Lupins
Dark chocolate ganache is a staple dessert on Lupin’s menu and for good reason. The buttery soft chocolate dollops had a dark bittersweet flavour that grew in intensity with every mouthful. Peanut brittle added a malty popcorn-like flavour as well as snap and crackle to the proceedings. This is how you do a chocolate dessert.
Cherry and almond frangipani tart was almost like muesli encased in pastry – but in a good way. The coarse, nutty and bittersweet filling had its fruity elements enhanced by a dollop of thick cream, while the pastry was thick and satisfyingly crunchy.
Tiramisu had been reimagined with a bottom layer of tangy sweet prunes taking the place of the usual coffee-chocolate combo. Its sugary tang was especially welcome given the damp squib of the upper layers, where there was never enough biscuit or cream. An ultimately disappointing dessert.
Crumbly shortbread wasn’t quite stiff enough to act as a scoop for the thick lemon posset. Slathering its lightly tart and zesty folds over the baked triangle, before devouring each and every morsel was hardly a burden though.
The light yet cosseting warmth of rice pudding wasn’t just a comfort in its own right, it also provided a suitable canvas for equally soothing toppings. Rhubarb, taut and tender with tartness and sweetness, alongside the crunch of crumbed biscuits.
The ironic thing about Lupins isn’t just that I would never have eaten at this small yet characterful restaurant if I hadn’t been reviewing the wider Flat Iron Square market. It’s the fact that Lupins is so much more delectable than any of its neighbours – with the exception of Bar Douro – that it’s actually embarrassing.
Lupins consistently light and unstodgy food isn’t vegetarian, but a large proportion of its ever-changing menu is dominated by meat-free dishes. They’re often just as good or even better than the carnivorous options. The flesh-and-bone dishes haven’t stood still though, leaping dramatically higher in quality over the course of my many meals here.
Quiet, unassuming and steadily more assured in their culinary craft. That isn’t the most glitzy or eye-catching of hooks to consider when choosing where to eat, but it is one of the most important. Lupins is a neighbourhood treasure and I hope it continues to get the appreciation it richly deserves.
Address: 66 Union Street, London SE1 1TD
Phone: 0203 908 5888
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday 08.00-15.00 and 17.30-22.00. Closed Sunday.
Reservations? highly recommended on and around weekends.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: £40 approx. (£25-30 approx. if you order light)