Pre-theatre dining can be a stressful experience. For the majority of people, work finishes around 5:30pm, which gives you 120 precious minutes to meet your friends (assuming you’re a sociable creature), pick a restaurant, scan the menu and pick the first dish that leaps off the page. Only then do you have the time to relax and unwind. If you’re like me you also gaze around and spot three other dishes that give you food envy for being too rash in your dinner choice. Now, imagine if you had to do all this whilst also asking for a gluten/ dairy/ nut-free menu first, only to be greeted with a vacant expression that belies the server’s feeling of panic at a customer asking questions about allergy options. Nightmare…. Or is it? Enter Niche, an entirely gluten free restaurant whose staff are more than happy to substitute out dairy, eggs, nuts or any other ingredients that might cause a touch of anaphylactic shock. It also serves up a pre-theatre menu and is just around the corner from one of my favourite international dance venues, Sadlers Wells. So for a foodie-cum-theatregoer like myself, it’s already ticking all the boxes.
I have to admit that my first experience of Niche was not in a pre-theatre capacity, giving me much more freedom to peruse the menu at leisure and carefully select a dish, which of course was not as visually appetising when compared with all of my other friends. In fact, one of the party recommended this place because she has so many allergies that I’m surprised she actually ever leaves the house, thereby testing the limits of any restaurant server’s allergen expertise. But I did return here on a further occasion for a pre-theatre dinner, which surely proves that the food was good enough for me to come back, no?
So, first things first: decor. Think clean, think Islington, think allergen free… OK even I don’t know what the last criterion would look like. But Niche is simple, cosmopolitan and white. Dual aspect with exposed brickwork, the restaurant has a light and airy feel, which provides a great space for London photographer Matthew Burlem to display some of his latest works. Indeed the whole atmosphere of the restaurant was encouraging of creativity, with the white-washed walls providing a great canvas for Matthew’s colourful prints in an art gallery style setting. During the day, it would easily appeal to the creative industry professionals, sipping a flat white as they fire up their Macbooks and settle down for the day to dream up their next inspirational piece of work . In equal measure, you can imagine Niche also providing sanctuary to the full-time mums; laden with bags and babies, they can feel right at home sipping on an organic, chai tea and praising each other for continuing to follow the latest health craze sweeping the nation. That is, until they delve into a celebratory slice of Bitter dark chocolate & salted caramel tart, which I tried on one occasion by the way. As a huge salted caramel fan, I could have easily had more in this dessert, but I did appreciate the bitterness of the chocolate – always a nice offset against the sickly sweetness of an otherwise very rich and devilish tart.
This moves me nicely onto my next point: the food (well it wouldn’t be the best review without mentioning it really). For those of you that assume gluten-free meals are not as tasty as their ‘gluten-full’ equivalents, let me tell you something now… In the majority of cases, I completely agree with you. So, the biggest compliment that I can give to a gluten-free meal is that it is as flavourful as its wheat-filled counterpart; The Beef & Chorizo Pie that I had on the second occasion at this establishment is most definitely is a worthy recipient. Yes, the pastry has a slightly different texture, but as a hot water crust it is still flaky and rich. So often you see this kind of pastry being rolled out too thick and ending up a bit like cardboard. Not so here – just the right thickness to keep the structure of the pie and mop up the deeply-flavoured red wine gravy inside. I don’t give praise for pies easily (I am a Northerner after all), but “that pie were reet grand” as my old man would say.
It’s time for another admission – as a foodie, I am ashamed to say that the first time I came here I actually ordered… a salad. Sorry Dad, very metropolitan of me. A Beetroot Gravalax Nicoise salad, it ticked all the boxes for a pleasant meal as opposed to a plate of lettuce leaves; a slight criticism in that the green beans could have been cooked a touch more, but that’s personal preference as I don’t really do raw vegetables. You can see now though why I had some serious food envy on my first visit, as I was picking apart this lovely bowl of freshness and my friends were devouring pies or The Victorian Sausage & Mash – a delicious-sounding mix of ground pork belly, mutton and beef. I like to think though that I had my own personal victory, patting myself on the back for not showing any outwards signs of jealousy. I also then got my own back when ordering dessert, since the rest of the table were in too much of a food coma to contemplate the tarts or brownies that were on offer (see above for what they were missing).
So, inoffensive decor and warming food that won’t make the more allergic of us keel over. So far so good, but in order to successfully execute a pre-theatre dinner, you need to know that you will be served promptly and can leave with enough time to spare – ‘Eats, Shoots & Leaves‘ this is most certainly not. So many times I have been forced to wolf my meal down, simultaneously asking for the bill and inhaling any ordered beverage before dashing out the door to the theatre. Of course, even getting there with a few minutes to spare is useless – the stitch incurred in literally ‘dining and dashing’ stays with you for a good portion of the first half of a performance. Not so with Niche. Arriving at 6pm gave the two of us ample time to order, drink wine, catch up and eat pleasantly without feeling rushed or pushed for time. It’s great to find a place that can speed up the orders but still keep the relaxed atmosphere.
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