More than referendums or Marmite, it’s the pub quiz that reveals two personality types. Down every local University Challenge in Britain you’ll find two specific sorts of people: the focused, and the fun. The dogmatic, and the one who’s petting Quiztina Aguilera’s dog. The real question, though, is what’s more important, being right, or having a right laugh?
We asked ourselves this question each time we ate at Perilla in Newington Green. Somewhere in between crunching through one of the best sourdoughs around, and wondering whether a blob of silky, technically faultless, whip it, whip it good, brown butter is nicer than, say, something salty and yellow? In this case, it isn’t.
Perilla is a casual fine dining restaurant. Which is like someone stressed hissing that they’re not stressed. It’s got a tasting menu. It’s got tarted up fish with curry sauce. It’s got seaweed in its bread, its risotto, and its crème caramel, and there are no prizes for guessing the incorrect answer out of those three. Most of the menu is inspired by classic dishes. For example: a Sunday lunch of deconstructed roast pork belly is served alongside a singular carrot on its own side plate, and several other dishes of tiddly bits. It’s delivered solemnly, explained like a sermon, and acts as a convincing advert for Toby Carvery and its insulation-worthy stuffing. It’s refined, cooked well, and it tastes nice. But something’s gone wrong in the process.
You see so much of Perilla is correct. Like, spot on. It’s a gallery-ish looking neighbourhood space lit yellow by candles and frequented by tote bags from every major fashion week. Lots of the food is cooked to perfection, even if it doesn’t always taste it. Take the burnt onion soup. It’s a bowl or rather, a hollowed out scorched onion, smouldering like Sauron hand picked it from his allotment and filled it to the brim with a warm, grey, caramelised, smoky liquid. It’s undeniably different (it’s grey) and it tastes quite nice, but a cheesy lump of bread certainly wouldn’t go a miss.
When Perilla’s food does hit, like with the mushroom tart or the lamb with grilled courgette, it has the ability to be completely delicious. But too often things come across as tasty and correct, as well as pernickety and booksmart, as is the case with the gooseberry-topped fried whiting and chip shop curry sauce. And even if you do luck out and finish on the salted caramel and peanut chocolate tart, this isn’t really a neighbourhood restaurant you’ll come back to weekly, or even monthly. Because for somewhere that’s as vein-throbbingly focused on perfection as Perilla is, it feels like it’s missing something else. Something harder to perfect. Something enjoyable.
Seaweed Sourdough With Brown Butter
Served in a ‘très-rustic’ brown paper bag alongside a blob of room temperature creamy brown butter, this is excellent bread. The crust is crunchy like an autumnal leaf, and there’s the perfect amount of chewiness and air bubbles.
Burnt Onion Soup
There’s something a little I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here challenge about this. We’re not sure what, but anything could be in that unknown grey liquid. Couldn’t it? As it is it’s a tasty onion of smoky onion soup.
Fried Whiting In Beef Fat With Chip Shop Curry Sauce
A la carte this comes as a slab of knuckle-cracking batter topped with curry leaves and gooseberries. As part of the tasting menu it’s a smaller (but meatier) version. Either way it’s very nice, and the curry sauce is lightly but excellently spiced. Put it in a bag along with some chips and we’d be very happy.
An oddly sauceless and somewhat nondescript bowl of little pork and veal meatballs. You might not find much to say about these, apart from that they aren’t on the menu anymore. Which says something, we guess.
A perfectly cooked and totally inoffensive risotto. The seaweed is a background salty note, though it becomes more in your face as it cools - which is a good thing.
Lamb With Grilled Courgettes, Berkswell, Basil
If your idea of a happy lamb is it sitting on a brilliant green field, then ours is this. The meat is perfectly cooked and the basil sauces are very, very moppable. Whether you choose to do that with your finger or bread is up to you.
Chocolate Tart With Salted Caramel And Roasted Peanuts
Things that work together: chocolate, caramel, nuts. Things that work about this dessert: absolutely everything.
Salted Seaweed Crème Caramel
Hello seaweed our old friend, it’s time to put you in something yet again. Only you really, really shouldn’t be in here. No thank you.