Tom Brown is a man making his mark on the British food scene, from a meteoric rise through the ranks in his early years to appearances on Great British Menu and This Morning, to acclaimed collaborations abroad. He’s a true pioneer of British produce, with a focus on seafood stemming from his proud Cornish roots. The Handbook writer Katie Renouf samples his first solo restaurant venture, Cornerstone in Hackney.
It’s not often that I find myself headed to Hackney on a dark autumnal evening, not least out of fear that Hackney might expose my lack of coolness. But tonight’s outing sees me happily strolling through the art and food truck-dotted streets to our venue.
Nestled in a cosy nook, away from the throng of stylish commuters, is Cornerstone by Chef Tom Brown. The restaurant interior is trendily minimalist, with a large open cooking station in the centre of the room. It is touching to spot some family possessions dotted throughout the space – London’s a long way from home and I like that Tom’s chosen to bring some of that with him.
Restaurant manager Maria greets us and explains our dining experience for this evening; the “Chef’s selection” tasting menu and wine pairings. Marvellous.
Service begins with a duo of amuse bouches; gorgeous, fluffy parmesan gougères filled with a light yet flavour-packed salmon mousse, and dainty mackerel “boquerones”; skewers with olive and green pepper. The lightly cured fish with the salty and spicy veg delivers a deliciously piquant flavour. We’ve barely begun, and my palate is already singing.
Next we are served two perfectly plump wedges of homemade sourdough, hot out of the oven and accompanied with a crab butter and homemade chilli oil infused with crab. The earthy brown crab notes really shine through in the butter, but the oil is the star of the show for me. The crab essence gives a real depth and umami complexity. I tell Tom he should bottle that stuff and sell it. I really mean it.
The bread is joined by some glistening, sunset-coloured slivers of trout pastrami; each mouthful is perfectly firm from a light cure, and delivers creamy, rich flavours without being overpowering.
I am very excited when two beautiful oysters arrive, lightly pickled and perched on top of crunchy cucumber, dotted with horseradish cream and dill oil. I manage to knock it back in one and I am taken from salty, vinegary oyster with texture of crunchy cucumber, to creamy yet punchy horseradish, ending with a cleanse of the herb oil. This dish looks deceptively simple but it takes real skill to marry flavours in this way.
The next arrivals are the raw dishes, starting with sea bream tartare. The presentation cleverly mimics a steak tartare, a golden egg yolk perched on top. The egg has been lightly cured in soy – not just any soy, however; produced in 150-year-old barrels in a Tokyo factory that Tom has visited. The flavour is quite extraordinary; rich egg yolk, the enchantingly deep and dark soy and that beautiful fish.
The second raw dish is cured gurnard, served in a chilled soup of almond milk, apple juice and garlic dotted with jewel-coloured nuggets of apple puree, celery, grapes and almond. The dish delivers a texture and flavour that is an exquisite combination of a ceviche and a Waldorf salad.
The next dish is the one that immediately caught my eye when scanning the menu; crab bun with kohlrabi kimchi and gooseberry hoisin. I love that the hoisin is made with a different fruit base through the seasons. The bun is substantial yet feather-light and we cut it open to reveal scores of beautiful flaky white crab meat. The kimchi is mouth-puckeringly tart and zingy, which perfectly marries with the sticky, decadent hoisin. This dish is an absolute 10.
Our final savoury course is a gorgeous shiny white piece of cod, served with Roscoff onion, smoked roe and a lightly spiced roast onion dashi. It is the perfect offset to the previous dish; this bringing gentle aromatic flavours, flanked by the smoky earthiness of the onion. I could happily mop up that dashi broth with a slab of bread.
Our first dessert tests the palate, as tangy Lancashire cheese is paired with ginger cake and glazed pineapple. I personally love this pairing, seeing it as a happy throwback to nineties cheese and pineapple, with a backdrop of ginger that brings gentle heat.
Our final dish is warm, syrupy sponge with poached quince and baked cream. This is an impeccable, accomplished dessert – the cream balancing out the sweet and heavy aspects, a light wafer adding texture, and tiny tendrils of lime zest bringing a gentle sourness. We scrape the plate clean.
When it comes to the wines, Maria’s sommelier background has clearly been put to good use. This evening’s pairings are all white – as expected, given the seafood focus – but each brings an additional dimension to every dish. Riesling, Chenin Blanc and Gewurztraminer all feature, as well as a delectable Sauternes that rounds out our evening.
In summary, I loved this restaurant. With a fantastic team hosting us, Tom sharing his story behind many dishes, excellent wines, and the sensational food itself – it was an experience every bit worthy of the journey.