Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and pictures on Twitter… is how I am thinking about Oldroyd in Islington, built by the eponymous Tom and his noble, loving, hands-on dad. I have been following the restaurant’s progress online. It is small — snug is a word that has occurred — a former caff, now painted a cool shade of blue-grey, in a street where big chains shoulder the catering minnows out of the way.
Before buying, renovating and launching his own business, Tom Oldroyd was chef-director of Russell Norman’s Polpo restaurant group. Venetian small plates; that is what they do. Just as formative was working with Alastair Little when he was in Frith Street, with Jacob Kenedy at Bocco di Lupo and to round out the CV and add empathy, stints working front of house.
In his own place Oldroyd’s menu roams Europe — snubbing Germany, Alexis Tsipras and I are pleased to note — with dishes in sizes and modest prices that encourage sharing but also invite self-fulfilment.
My first meal is lunch on the official day of opening. The end of trial-run pricing turns what was apparently a crowded house into a sparsely populated one. Beth and I get pole position by the window on the first floor. A kitchen counter downstairs heaped with produce in its lush prime inspires some of the choices but now, looking again at the menu, foolishly not the bellini made with white peaches. Reason number one to return.
Radishes of different hues recline on a well-balanced purée of cod’s roe — taramasalata come good — a sprinkling of celery salt vying with the innate pungency of the fish. Smoked pork belly and fresh pea croquettas are out of the frying pan onto the table in a trice and are as ideal a contrast of brittle and yielding as anyone could devise. Truffle mayonnaise provides a soothing balm.
Squid, confit rabbit and broad bean paella (picture: Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures)
Vitello tonnato made with cured Welsh veal, which I really want, is sadly not available. Lamb and almond meatballs, chosen instead, are three spheres the size of a small child’s fist coated in a vivid, nubbly salsa romesco and scattered with slices of pickled garlic, a very substantial offering for £7.50. Squid, confit rabbit and broad bean paella served with a dollop of aioli has the rather odd inclusion of melted cheese as if it is a pasta dish rather than a rice-based one. Excuse me for a moment while I look up paella recipes to see if any contain cheese. They don’t.
However, it is a beguiling assembly in its greenery-yallery way with the skinned broad beans channelling emeralds. There are too many enquiries from the American waitress as to whether we have enjoyed everything culminating with, “Did you enjoy your espresso?” Perhaps this will fade when the room fills up.
Dinner another day is on the ground floor where there is space — though not much — for walk-ins (upstairs tables can be booked). My pals respond positively to what one of them describes as “the unavoidable engagement with the kitchen when you come in” and later one notices with pleasure, as do I, the urban rooftop jigsaw seen from the window of the one lavatory upstairs. Oldroyd, with design details such as rough linen wrapping the curving staircase, feels like a small, carefully constructed world encapsulating someone’s passion — and the sweat of his brow.
The fairly short menu is more or less the same as at lunch — and still no vitello tonnato — but there is in addition a dark-green glossy artichoke that would win first prize at any village fête, which we share. Later Edward admires its “magnificent simplicity with a perfectly balanced dressing… for me a treat with minimal adornment but the added theatricality of eating an artichoke”. Edward is a very sound companion.
Crab tagliarini gets compared favourably with River Café pasta dishes and the zucchini fries are pronounced better than those at that restaurant. They are an ethereal tangle handing a dullsville vegetable an unexpected sultry edge. Grilled pork rib-eye with chard and borlotti beans dressed with a hazelnut pistou may lack finesse and dignified comportment but it tastes extremely good. Peach and cow-curd panzanella, broad beans and mint divides opinion: one of us thinking it belongs among the desserts. Best of these are apricot and brioche pain perdu with vanilla ice cream and the cherry and melon sorbets.
Weekend brunch holds promise. It includes a kick-starting Oldroyd Mary made with spiced vodka, chipotle and pickled peppers and — N1 residents breathe a sigh of relief — avocado on toast with salsa romesco and basil.
Three or four stars? That is the question. Oldroyd squeaks four for enlivening food made with obvious knowledge and affection but also for the generosity of spirit (and servings) and the fairness of pricing extending to the wines. Recently in restaurants I sometimes feel like Rip Van Winkle waking up to find to my distress that the cheapest wine on the list is £50. At Oldroyd the Montesierra Blanco Somontano starts the bidding at £22 and nothing goes beyond £45. Cheers.
344 Upper Street, N1; oldroydlondon.com. Open Mon-Thurs noon-11pm, Fri noon-midnight, Sat & Sun 10am-mdnight (10pm Sun). A meal for two with wine, about £85 including 12.5 per cent service.