When I told my parents I’d booked a table at Phil’s Kitchen for dinner on Saturday night, Dad’s response was, “Who is Phil? And why doesn’t he have a dining room?” Stoically ignoring the dad joke of the year and attempting answer those questions literally: Phil is Phil Clark, an alumnus of Meredith’s and SIDART (inter alia), with an extended stint on London’s restaurant scene under his belt. As for my father’s second query, I assume “Phil’s Dining Room” just didn’t fit on the sign.
Situated next door to a typically-packed Canton Cafe, Phil’s Kitchen opened in late March this year and is a welcome addition to the busy Kingsland precinct, adding a touch of fine dining class to what is traditionally a cheap-and-cheerful locale. The menu changes regularly and tonight it is mathematically pleasing: four starters, four mains, and two side dishes. A three-dessert anomaly messes with the balance somewhat, but feng shui is restored by the wine list: two sparkling, four white, four red, two sweet, and all representing different varietals. My glass of syrah from Redmetal Vineyards in the Hawke’s Bay is a local option, but French, Spanish and Italian drops are also on offer.
Small and perfectly formed, spheres of house-baked bread are served warm, pre-buttered and studded with rosemary. Their arrival is followed almost immediately by the starters. We share two: crispy pork belly with musket grapes and hazelnut, and smoked marlin with grapefruit and truffle. The hot-and-cold contrast between the two dishes is serendipitous ordering on our part, and the quantity is just sufficient to give us a tantalising sense of the quality to come.
Something of a hiatus between courses follows, but this is quickly forgotten when the mains arrive. Between the four of us, we manage to cover all bases. It is “fine dining”, I suppose, but it’s not pretentious: corn-fed chicken with field mushrooms and truffle; smoked duck breast with doris plum and cabbage (Doris has done a great job); slow-cooked kid/goat with peas, pumpkin and hazelnuts; poached salmon with beetroot, French white beans and pancetta. The portions are generous and the flavour combinations pleasingly traditional. Mum thinks the kid/goat tastes like lamb; Dad thinks there’s something decidedly goaty about it. I’m just thankful for the menu’s clarity – slow-cooked kid without the reassuring “/goat” would have been slightly discomfiting.
An appropriately hearty side dish of dauphinoise potatoes is served in a cast-iron pot; the green salad is perhaps superfluous to requirements. We are preoccupied trying to identify the provenance of a white powder garnishing the duck breast – doesn’t it look a bit like goats cheese? Can you taste a hint of caraway? It is some sort of pureed nut? It is, in fact, aerated duck fat, our learned waitress informs us, flavoured with fennel. OK, maybe a little pretentiousness doesn’t hurt. We tell ourselves that if it’s aerated, the calories don’t count.
Two of the three desserts seem suitable for the wintry tempest outside. We share cinnamon doughnuts with soft caramel; lightly whipped cream laced with nutmeg perfectly offsets the centrepiece’s sweetness. Dark chocolate cake is served in a manner best described as “broken”, fondly mended by chocolate parfait, salted caramel and roasted hazelnut. Lemon and black plum meringue sounds virtuous by comparison, and it is hence ignored.
Testament to the maître d’s efficiency, it takes a full two courses for us to realise that she is, in fact, flying solo. The restaurant may be compact, but regardless, one waiter expertly handling the entire front of house is a laudable feat.
As if in fortuitous response to Dad’s initial (ironic) query, the man himself steps out of the kitchen and shakes my father’s hand as we leave. There you go, Dad. That’s Phil, and you’ve just spent a delightful evening in what is, in a strict sense, his dining room.
479 New North Rd, Kingsland
Open from 5pm Tuesday – Thursday and 12pm Friday – Saturday
Closed Sundays and Mondays