Epicurus, Unit 90, The North Yard, Camden Stables Market, London NW1 8AH. Small dishes £3-£12, larger dishes £11-£16.50, dessert £8, wines from £29
If you decide to go to Epicurus and you probably should, perhaps when drunk, be prepared to power up Google Maps. Maybe carry a sheaf of the Ordnance Survey’s finest and a compass. Better still, go with a young person who is used to navigating the cobbled, labyrinthine mess that is the refurbished Stables Market at London’s Camden Town. In the early 80s, when I was a 16-year-old regular round here, I recall it as an architectural bin-fire of grand old red brick, fox-scented, guano-smeared ramshackle outbuildings; a superb place in which to witness Doc Marten-wearing skinheads fronting up gangs of aspiring psychobillies hot out of the nearby Electric Ballroom.
Now it’s a veritable food-hatch Babylon. The air smells heavily of wok-scalded noodles and angry, indeterminate proteins slathered in soy-boosted sauces the colour of Donald Trump. There are chicken shops and waffle shops, over-stacked burgers and plant-based options, which look no healthier. If I was 16 once more, I know I would still be here an awful lot. Instead, I am 40 years older and reminded, as I often am, by the response of a conscripted soldier, temperamentally unsuited to battle, writing home from the First World War trenches: “Darling, the people! And the noise!”
We traipse and we stumble, curve back on ourselves, and eventually find our way to a special kind of desolation: the vaulting railway arch that houses Epicurus, with its red-brick ceiling and outbreaks of magnolia anaglypta. It’s completely empty. Music thrums in lieu of atmosphere. One very bored looking waiter is slumped behind the bar. One very bored looking cook is poised to do absolutely nothing by the fryers. We are seated at a large table by the wall and brought paper menus so badly printed, the first column of dishes is only half on the paper. Key ingredients are unreadable. Our waiter wanders off to the far end of the room and the music suddenly doubles in volume. I beg her to turn it down. After all, we’re the only people here. She tells me she didn’t touch it; that it’s something the sound system does by itself every now and then. Happily, she turns it down.
These are our first impressions. Epicurus, which opened in April, feels like an idea somebody got very excited by and then very bored with at equal speed. For a moment, we search on our phones for other nearby restaurant options. Eventually, we decide we should make a go of it. Partly, this is out of solidarity with the two stoical women here who are required to soldier on when there is seemingly nothing to soldier on for; those diligent souls who are the very backbone of hospitality, sometimes called upon to do a thankless job through the stuttering gloom. Both have suddenly come alive. Partly it’s because we have now been given a new copy of the menu. We can finally read the dish descriptions and frankly it all seems rather jolly.
Epicurus is a side project by two ex-Palomar chefs, Shiri Kraus and Amir Batito, who already have a steakhouse in Camden called the Black Cow. This venture describes itself as an American diner, but one that’s been hanging out in Tel Aviv, and has picked up a distinct Middle Eastern accent. Take the Sloppy Joe, that ludicrously impractical, properly messy diner staple of sauced and seasoned ground beef in a hamburger bun. Here, it gets tidied away into a big purse of crisp, golden deep-fried borek pastry, with melty, stringy cheese. Behold the Sloppy Yossef. Obviously, you should drink responsibly at all times. But if you accidentally did drink irresponsibly, this may be the dish for you. Partner it with one of their boozy, grownup shakes: there’s baklava, honey and whisky, or banana, date and rum, and so on. You get the idea.
Crisp-skinned chicken wings come slathered in a prickly, sweet-sour sauce of pickled mango and scotch bonnet. It’s like meeting an old friend who is proudly showing off a new outfit. There are salty, fried padrón peppers, with bouncy pieces of okra showered with a spice blend – cinnamon, sumac, ground cardamom and the rest – associated with the famed Jerusalem mix of grilled chicken hearts, livers and thigh sold by street vendors in the city.
A huge, golden-toasted brick of brioche, has a pocket cut into it, which is filled with creamy, squeaky prawns, with a mound of whipped blue cheese on the side. Squint at it and you could interpret this as a witty take on a tuna melt made by someone who had none of the ingredients to hand. Or have the dry-aged smash burger, the mellifluously named Esh a la Golesh, topped with tzatziki, pickled onions and a deep-fried, soft-shell crab, for no good reason other than that the surf ’n’ turf textures and flavours dance as if they’re at a beloved cousin’s wedding. Oy and vey and so on. At which point perhaps you should take refuge in the iceberg salad with a remoulade dressing, then topped with pieces of seeded cracker, parmesan crisp and smoked almonds.
Desserts are as ludicrous as those boozy shakes. A tightly coiled cinnamon bun is speared with shards of crisped maple bacon under a cream cheese glaze. It’s a little dense. Instead have the Messy Bamba, a sundae by any other name, in which a metal cup of dondurma or Turkish ice-cream comes mined with chunks of praline brownie, puffs much like sweet Wotsits and a chocolate caramel sauce. It’s topped by a soft peak of whipped cream, with a literal cherry on the top.
Taken at one sitting like this, the effect could sound and, in some ways, really was deadening. It’s an effusive, ululation of way too much, but only because we ordered way too much, hence a bill of £140, including wine. Sometimes it’s possible to see the virtue in a cascade of dishes like this while also recognising they’re not aimed at you, or the you that you happen to be now. It’s food for a gang of younger people feeding the deep carb-calling hunger they’ve nurtured. Sometimes it’s also possible to see through the less-than-ideal circumstances. The night we were there Epicurus felt like a ghost restaurant, sailing an almost empty sea. But there’s dollops of culinary wit here and technique, and the two noble women entrusted with the all-but-empty vessel for the night really did do a bang-up job. It deserves to be full. Perhaps I am not the only one struggling to find the way into the place.
Let’s give a big welcome to Sharing Plate, a lovely new podcast in which people from all over the world who have made the UK their home, tell their story through the dishes which link them to their country or countries of origin. The food and the stories stretch from Uganda and Kenya to Iran, Turkey and the Caribbean. The stories are as compelling as the food. Find Sharing Plate wherever you get your podcasts, or here
The Jolly Sportsman pub at East Chiltington on the edge of the South Downs National Park is staging a mini-festival next weekend, 1- 3 September, celebrating local food and wine. There will be local wines, various menus of local produce, food stands offering produce to buy alongside live jazz in their gardens. Visit thejollysportsman.com
Finally, industry legend Rowley Leigh of Kensington Place, Le Café Anglais and so very much more will be popping up at Laylow in London’s Notting Hill from 13 September until the end of the year. Chez Rowley will offer an Italian-influenced menu of sharing plates, the star of which will be a whole chicken roasted with anchovies, black olives, garlic, thyme and white wine. chezrowley.com
Email Jay at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1