‘The fat caramelises dark and sticky’: sugar-pit bacon

Daffodil Mulligan, London: ‘A certain optimism’ – restaurant review | Food

Editor’s note: we have decided that, while restaurants remain open, we will continue to review them

Daffodil Mulligan, 70-74 City Road, London EC1Y 2BJ (020 7404 3000). Small plates £6-£14, large plates £17-£32, desserts £4-£6, wines from £23

The area around London’s Old Street roundabout tells us a lot about where we are now. For all the modish apartment blocks, their balconies stacked with top-of-the-range bikes, this is where many people come to work, or did. For now, lots of those offices remain empty. Accordingly, many of the cafés and bars that served them are still closed. Above the door of the coffee shop Shoreditch Grind, one of the few around here to have reopened, is the legend “Alexa skip to 2021”. It’s a slogan we can all get behind.

But here, on City Road, just south of the roundabout, is a pulsing sign of life. Even on a quiet weekday lunchtime, when custom is thin on the ground, everything about Daffodil Mulligan – the food, the staff, the well-spaced sunlit room with its polished concrete floors and olive-green banquettes – thrums with a certain optimism. It’s a slap on the back. It’s a splash of cold water on the cheeks. It’s a crushing bear hug of a welcome.

‘The fat caramelises dark and sticky’: sugar-pit bacon Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Daffodil Mulligan first opened last November as a side project between three Irishmen with oceans of experience in hospitality: the publican Tony Gibney who has Gibney’s of Malahide just outside Dublin, the London-based restaurateur John Nugent, and the chef and restaurateur Richard Corrigan. The name comes from a song by Harry O’Donovan and Eva Brennan about the daughter of Biddy Mulligan, a famous Dublin street seller. According to the lyric, “all the fellas” say Daffodil “is a peach and pearl”. Step in here for a bit of Dublin craic. Inadvertently, in these times, that name has another resonance, for the daffodil is a fighter; one of the first brilliant flowers to break through winter’s gloom. And here, now, is its namesake, complete with roaring grill and a menu full of hilariously huge, uncompromising flavours, standing proud, refusing to back down.

While the head chef is Simon Merrick, what defines the cooking is Corrigan’s career-long bravado. Although he has the undoubtedly fancy Corrigan’s just off Park Lane, he’s always been a pleaser and a feeder. During lockdown I was often asked where I imagined myself once everything reopened. I always said at the bar of Bentley’s, Corrigan’s seafood bistro just off Piccadilly, for the best oysters and spiced mussel soup and fish pie. It’s where I have long taken my own tattered wallet for a moderate to serious spanking.

‘Lubricated with a rich anchovy sauce’: ember-baked gurnard.

‘Lubricated with a rich anchovy sauce’: ember-baked gurnard. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Bentley’s was about to reopen as I visited Daffodil Mulligan, though they were already supplying it with their nutty, treacly soda bread. It arrives alongside their own churned butter the colour of, well, daffodils. This venture is a more moderately priced proposition than either Corrigan’s or Bentley’s. From the small plates, for £6, there are whorls of seashore-rich whipped cod’s roe, with taut cubes of cured salmon, dusted with dried, powdered seaweed. Salt-chilli chicken brings the very crunchiest, curled and bubbled pieces of thigh, caught somewhere between a Japanese karaage and Southern-fried with, on the side, pickled cucumber boosted with chilli. It costs £8.

From the specials board, at £7 there is celeriac, lifted from its pig-ugly origins, to something dark and deeply attractive, courtesy of a salt baking and anointing with an apple-hazelnut brown butter. There is nothing subtle about any of this food. It laughs in the face of subtlety. This is cooking determined to show you a good time, and to wear a party hat while doing so.

‘Bound in a punchy mustard dressing’: steak tartare.

‘Bound in a punchy mustard dressing’: steak tartare. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

In truth, there is a fourth Irishman involved here. I hesitate to mention him, because I’ve mentioned him so regularly, but I don’t hesitate for that long because Peter Hannan’s meat is just so damn good. Here comes some of his famed beef, raised on Northern Irish clover and aged in a salt-lined room which may or may not be the key to its flavour. But then we all love a USP. It’s served raw as a rough chopped tartare and bound in a punchy mustard dressing. It arrives on an oyster shell, itself on a pile of ice, with a big dollop of a funky oyster-flavoured cream and a single oyster leaf. It’s steak tartare with a serious haircut and a bit of attitude.

Hannan’s beef is there on the specials as a big steak for two to share and also, for £17, as a thick-cut sugar-pit bacon rib. Hannan’s sugar-pit bacon is a wonder when simply roasted, so that the fat caramelises dark and sticky. Here, it’s also glazed with fiery gochujang, and laid on a smoked tomato purée alongside Swiss chard, because we must all be good and eat our greens. From the menu section headed “wood oven & grill” we get a thick fillet of ember-baked gurnard, lubricated with a ripe anchovy sauce, alongside bitter leaves.

‘It’s very pretty to look at’: lemon meringue tart.

‘It’s very pretty to look at’: lemon meringue tart. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

This power and depth continues with the sides. Of course the cavolo nero comes with chilli and garlic. Of course the mash is topped with a bone marrow crumb. What’s remarkable is that while it’s all terribly muscular and forthright, it somehow never tips into overkill. It’s a difficult trick to pull off.

Desserts continue the come-hither joys: lime cheesecake with candied jalapeño; baked boozy apple with spiced ice-cream; soft-serve vanilla with caramel popcorn. We have space to share just a lemon meringue tart with clotted cream. It’s very pretty to look at: a dinky, tucked and curved single tart case of golden flaky pastry with a citrus-boosted filling. My only criticism is that it’s small, which means an imbalance: too much pastry to filling. I understand how this reads. I was too full for dessert and am now complaining about the meagreness of my choice. My life is full of such awful contradictions.

The booze list necessarily includes Guinness alongside beers to accompany the wines and cocktails, and downstairs is a wood-clad bar in which to drink them. At the end is a stage complete with a very nice, shiny, well-tuned piano. I know it’s tuned because I checked. Sorry. Couldn’t stop myself. The time for live music will come again. At some point we really will have skipped to 2021. In the meantime, come here to eat.

News bites

Recipe box services like Hello Fresh and Mindful Chef have inspired upmarket competition. Wild Radish, launching this month, is a raw ingredients subscription service of recipes by high-end chefs like Phil Howard, Anna Hansen and Alyn Williams, delivered London-wide for now, before rolling out. The service, costing £50 for two, launches on 12 October with ingredients for baked gurnard with casserole vegetables by Alyn Williams, and a celeriac, potato and pear gratin with wilted greens and chanterelles by Phil Howard. To sign up visit wild-radish.co.uk.

A mixed story from the restaurant world. We wave a sad goodbye to both Kym’s, the Cantonese roast meats restaurant launched by chef Andrew Wong in the City of London in 2018, and Koj, Andrew Kojima’s eponymous Japanese restaurant in Cheltenham. Both blame the closures on the Covid-19 crisis. Meanwhile, say hello to newcomer Maison Francois on Duke Street in London’s St James’s, with a menu of French classics and a doorstop of a wine list (maisonfrancois.london).

And a mark of a shift in eating habits: Europe’s first Plant-Based World Expo, a business to business event for companies and individuals working in the meat-free foods sector, will take place next April at London’s Business Design Centre. To find out more and to register visit plantbasedworldeurope.com.

Email Jay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1

Jay Rayner’s My Last Supper, One Meal a Lifetime in the Making, is published in paperback by Guardian Faber now. Buy it for £7.99 at guardianbookshop.com

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