The heyday of rave may be some twenty years past, but it has left an indelible mark on the culture that spawned it. The loved-up beats and bleeps may have been supplanted by the urban uneasiness of dubstep, and the late-night cruises round the M25 given way to grime nights in Bow, but in members of a certain generation there seems to remain an almost atavistic urge to stay glued to their mobile phones, anxiously awaiting news of the evening’s chosen venue. Of course, the original cheesy quavers are a couple of decades older and, in some cases, wiser; the intervening years have seen the rise of the celebrity chef and a concordant, Jamie-led interest in all things gastro. The recent popularity of the pop-up restaurant phenomenon can perhaps best be seen through this prism, the desire for a proper banging night in a disused warehouse tempered by the twin pressures of work and babysitters.
Thankfully, alongside efforts from established names such as Bistrotheque, or the Nordic art extravaganza that was Hel-Yes, there are still folk out there keen to keep to the guerrilla spirit of the early parties alive, always on the move and in search of the next big high. The latest to enter an already crowded arena are the team behind the Gingerline, who have substituted the environs of the capital’s vast, constricting ring-road for the box-fresh pleasures of Transport for London’s newest addition, the East London Line.
The youthful associations of the ‘pop-up’ terminology were confirmed by the pilot event, with diners directed to follow a Hansel and Gretel trail to the soon-to-be-opened Still Moves gallery, the folkloric breadcrumbs replaced with strategically placed strands of orange string. The choice of a gallery as the opening venue was an apt one, as the Gingerline project is an intriguing mix of art and cuisine: the menu for each event is custom-designed by a member of the loose Gingerline collective, in this instance the charming, Tove Jansson-esque pen drawings of Alisia Casper.
It’s fair to say that the average art gallery is not well blessed in terms of its culinary amenities, but it is testament to food enthusiast and amatuer chef Susannah Mountfort’s skills that she not only negotiated use of the facilities of a nearby café, but managed to present a dinner of three fine courses, which began with a highly toothsome mezze of rice-stuffed courgette, cauliflower and cumin fritters, stuffed vine leaves, lime yoghurt and red pepper bruschetta. This was followed by a judiciously roasted, sumac-spiced chicken, served on a bed of expertly prepared puy lentils, the potential blandness of these ingredients offset by a piquant preparation of goats’ cheese and beetroot. A dessert of ‘chocolate delight’, accompanied by a delicious vanilla and cardamom ice cream, brought to a close a night that was, if slightly lacking in atmosphere, unfaultable in terms of execution.
If the pilot was a tentative, if well placed, first step, the latest event demonstrated the imagination and talent at work behind this venture. Given the participation of Rotherhithe’s Brunel Museum, it should have come as no surprise that diners were greeted from the train by a charming crew bedecked in top hats and crinolines. More unexpected was the move into the long-abandoned stairway that originally led down into the Thames Tunnel, the first tunnel in the world to be constructed under a navigable river. Having been plied with an excellent cocktail of champagne and homemade blackberry vodka, being plunged into sudden darkness was less of a discomfiting experience than might be anticipated, but any immanent sense of anxiety was soon amplified by a series of spooky projections of Victorian-clad women (put together by photographer Emli Bendixen), whose garb and gestures were reminiscent of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. This ghostly spell was further enhanced by the presence of Kerry Adamson, vocalist for up-and-coming indie band The Complete Short Stories, swinging an oil lamp and mournfully intoning Ewan MacColl’s “Sweet Thames Flow Softly”.
Although the foregoing was enthralling, thankfully dinner was held in the Thames Tunnel’s former engine room which, despite its industrial past, was transformed into a cosy and convivial dining space. The Victoriana theme was continued with the night’s menu, which was based on the sort of dishes which might have been served at the banquets which provided the funding for the Thames Tunnel’s completion. The effects of changing gastronomic fashions (and, perhaps more likely, culinary ignorance) led to many debates about the precise meaning of such terms as ‘coddled egg’ and ‘hogget’, but whilst opinions on semantics may have differed, there was a unanimous feeling that the cooking was both deft and satisfying.
Presenting egg as a starter combined with cream ran the risk of beginning with a dish whose richness would overshadow the following courses, but a light application of horseradish left diners (whose stomachs had possibly been emptied by the ghostly shenanigans in the tunnel below) hungry for more. Hogget (which, for those readers less familiar with Mrs Beeton’s work, falls between lamb and mutton on the ‘age of sheep meat’ scale) was cooked to a level of tenderness that made serving, if not eating, tricky, as it fell from the bone at the lightest touch. Whilst the supporting vegetable cast was a delight, the meat was the true star of this course, and saw some of the more carnivorous, if less delicate, of the assembled diners sucking on the shank bones like a crack pipe, desperate for more of the sheepy goodness.
To already stuffed patrons, dessert presented something of a challenge, if only in terms of its sheer size. A triumvirate of alcoholic jellies, including port, claret and ‘Russian’ (apparently a type of vodka,) served on a bed of cream and plums and garnished with candied grapes, it left even the hardiest of trenchermen floundering. Yet such griping seems churlish: it is rare that you can complain about a restaurant being too generous in its portions, and any discomfort caused by overindulgence is surely down to the individual, rather than the kitchen.
Upon emerging from the engine room, it appeared that the Gingerline enterprise had been blessed by the gods of coincidence, both by the proximity of the Mayflower (possibly the finest pub in the vicinity), and the presence of an almost Victorian peasouper of a fog which graced the surroundings, conjuring up the most pleasing of Dickensian spirits. Although it can’t be guaranteed that future Gingerline events will be visited by such meteorological serendipity, the artistic and culinary skills on evidence promise a hugely enjoyable evening.