Lee Skeet at Stage 3, Hackney Empire

Playing with FoodThey’re all the rage and generally I’m a fan, so, when a Twitter message arrives from a chef with a Michelin pedigree asking you to come and review his pop up restaurant specialising in fish, it piques your interest, an interest that is piqued further when you look into his background. Over the years, Lee Skeet has worked as sous chef at Gordon Ramsay at Claridges, before heading to Marcus Wearing at the Berkeley, and later to Tom Aikens. Along the way, he has worked with other distinguished names across the globe: Nuno Mendes, Juan Amador, Tim Raue, and Matthias Schmidt, before becoming head chef at the Hedone where he held a Michelin star.

Skeet has now called on this training and his childhood spent on the beaches of North Devon for his first solo venture – a pop up restaurant at Stage 3, Hackney Empire, where he is dishing up a four-course set menu of fish followed by dessert. And boy, has he pulled out the stops and succeeded; undoubtedly this was one of the most exciting and enjoyable meals I’ve eaten.

The set up is designed to transport you to the coast and in this it succeeds without question. So often an environment merely reminds you of a place, but in this case you feel like you’re truly there. This is an impressive feat, given you are sitting on a mezzanine level above the bar at Stage 3 while a superb jazz band plays below (a feature of the bar every Thursday). All they have done by way of decoration is to paint the walls a deep turquoise blue and hang a few small black line prints of fish and shellfish on the walls, while the tables and chairs are wooden slats.

skeet baked oyster

The meal got off to a great start with a baked oyster topped with bone marrow and parsley acting as an amuse bouche, a definitive marker for the meal ahead. Fresh, warm and rich, it coated the mouth in an unctuous parsley butter that still allowed the oyster to shine through. Even this single oyster was enough to whisk your tastebuds to the beaches, and the cocktails grounded you there even more. The barman at Stage 3 has put together a cocktail and wine list specifically designed to accompany the seafood and invoke perfectly complementary thoughts and memories. It is an expert list of creations that are stars in their own right and make for a triumphant combination with the food. The Salty Sea Dog, with its sea beet and tarragon and served in handled jars, had a murky colour to it. With the whole sprigs of tarragon it gave the impression of having just been dunked into a rock pool and filled from there. Helped along by the seaweed salt, it was a wonderful drink that tasted of the cold, fragrant, salty sea breeze on a winter’s day. My Zizou Sour was an equal accomplishment and can best be described as a margarita with the additional inclusion of a smoky salt flavour.

Success was followed by success with the tartare of squid with apple and a kelp and coriander stock. This stock burst with flavour, the coriander adding a beautiful touch by making the dish more rounded and intricate. The squid, I would suggest, may not be to everyone’s taste given its texture, but certainly there was nothing wrong flavour-wise, though two at my table commented that a little more apple would have been nice.

The mackerel that followed was the stand-out dish of the meal, and I’d even go so far as to say that it is one of, if not the best, mackerel dish I’ve ever had the joy to eat. A fillet of mackerel chargrilled on the skin side and very quickly on the other side was accompanied by a cucumber and cider vinegar puree, a seaweed puree, and was topped with beautiful clams. One mouthful, and we all had images of cooking fresh caught mackerel on the beach. There was not a single fault with this dish; all the flavours paired flawlessly with the seaweed, extending and rounding out the cucumber and mackerel, the flesh of which was so fresh, moist and almost raw in parts; true perfection with its charred skin.

lee skeet mackerel

The main of slow baked turbot with grilled greens, crab and crab sauce was yet another wonderful creation. Turbot, so easy to ruin, was here cooked perfectly, while the salty greens seasoned the dish nicely. In fact, the whole meal was faultlessly seasoned, an accomplishment even some of the most highly skilled and awarded chefs fail to achieve.

After the mackerel, for me the other star dish was the dessert of pistachio crème patisserie and gin soaked cherries. At once it was a delicately flavoured dish – not overly sweet, acting as a palate cleanser after the other courses, and didn’t send you running for something to tone down the flavours left in your mouth when it was finished. It was the perfect end to a nigh-on perfect meal from a highly-talented chef.

This is a must try restaurant from a chef who will be a growing star over the next few years. The level of skill is clearly on display in this adeptly executed and balanced menu, a highly impressive achievement given it is only Skeet and one other in the kitchen, and one working front of house (Emily running front of house is the perfect host, taking you through each dish in an engaging and friendly way). What Skeet and his team are offering is worthy of Michelin recognition and shows his undoubted ability. The evocativeness of the food surpasses that of all other food I’ve eaten that tries to do the same and, as a meal focused on the bounty of the sea, it far surpasses Mark Sargent’s Rocksalt and Nathan Outlaw at The Capital.

lee skeet dessert

A permanent restaurant in a relaxed setting with the same food, cocktails and even the jazz band (minus the microphones) would be a huge success with accolades flowing its way. Somehow I think it would be most successful away from the coast so as not to detract from the accomplishment of the food in invoking a seaside setting. I confidently predict that we will be seeing and hearing more of Lee Skeet as he steps out on his own. He is clearly one of the most impressive, talented and interesting chefs coming through at the moment and, in a few short years, will be recognised as one of this country’s top seafood chefs. The pop up is not there for long, so book now

£38pp for a set meal of 4 courses
Wednesday – Saturday
8th July – 1st August 2015
Tickets available from Billetto

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