I salute the chef’s courage in opening a fine dining restaurant in a shipping container, especially in the current climate, but …
Wildflower in north London is no doubt named after its intent to celebrate foraging, but instead it caused me to revisit that incredible moment in British pop culture when The Cult released the album Electric, from which “Wayyyy-flaahr” was a huge hit. Or at least that was how Ian Astbury screamed the word in full Bradford-via-Los Angeles hair-metal mode, which, being a fan of boldly incongruent things, I loved. Which brings me right back to Wildflower, where chef Adrian Martin has taken a shipping container in Camden and turned it into a prim, slightly chintzy space with tablecloths, teal velour chairs and otter-grey shagpile that serves a tasting menu featuring scallops with miso, wild garlic and onion.
Wildflower is on the new Buck Street Market, close to the hot-pink terrace designed for selfies and street-food kiosks with names like Killa Waffles, Studmuffin and Lord of the Wings. So far, 2020 has offered me a rich glut of awry dining experiences, but Wildflower trumps them all with its attempt to meld Eleven Madison Park with a corner of Zeebrugge shipping port, let alone opening during a pandemic, meaning the staff are masked and footfall is obliterated. Adrian Martin, sir, I salute your courage, strength and indefatigability. Martin, from Cavan in Ireland, is 28, has been cooking since he was 16 and his website claims he was recently dropped in a forest in Dorset by a TV crew and challenged to roam free and cook using only found items. In the olden days, we simply called this ancient art Wombling.
Wildflower’s seven-course evening tasting menu began with “snacks” of a slightly dry parmesan choux “profiterole” and an oyster strewn with cubed cucumber and purslane. Soda bread was served with butter perched on a rock. “I’ll leave you guessing what the secret ingredient is in the oyster,” the server said, like an MR James character. He never did tell us. This already felt as if it could be a rather long meal, despite a cold glass of côtes de gascogne, while Smooth Operator by Sade blared over the stereo before merging into Bon Jovi’s Livin’ On A Prayer.
“What we have done with the hen of the woods is to serve it classic, but with a twist,” the waiter informed us while revealing the said fungus smothered in viscous oozings, foamy puddles and grated truffle. (The speedier lunch menu seems heartier, with slow-cooked pollock and raspberry soufflé on offer.) Still, we’d committed to the full yahoo. Summer minestrone was my favourite course: a sharp, joyous, well-balanced bowl of fresh tomato, broad beans and peas with a dressing of yarrow, which grew abundantly in the north when I was small and never struck me as something to cook, though I suppose that’s exactly the point of this restaurant.
The main event – a generous chunk of salt-aged lamb rump – arrived sitting on, we were told solemnly, “last year’s plums”. After almost five months of not laughing much at all, I think the phrase “last year’s plums” has finally given me back my sense of humour. I sat rocking with laughter, attempting to enjoy the bitter slices of red fruit. “I can see why they had some left over,” Charles said sadly. A pudding of caramel tart with dandelion root ice-cream was delicious – it was simply proper home cooking; a tiny pre-dessert of beetroot, white chocolate, yoghurt and pistachio was similarly delightful.
Still, Wildflower is a bumpy ride. After our first glass of wine, no one asked if we wanted another. This is the folly with offering exciting new slants on fine dining: it either is or it isn’t, and Wildflower doesn’t even have a bathroom of its own. There is a communal loo for all the shops and kiosks outside and up a set of stairs. It was spotlessly clean and guarded by a gang of bouncers, but as I’ve written before, about places such as Wapping Wharf in Bristol, this kind of thing lends a different edge to dinner. Wildflower is peculiar, but it’s a night I won’t forget.
Wildflower Buck Street, Camden Market, Camden High Street, London NW1, 07799 357396. Open lunch Thur-Sat, noon-3pm; dinner Weds-Sat, 6.30-11pm. Set menus only, three-course lunch £30, seven-course dinner £60, both plus drinks and service.