Alma Mediterranea by Marcia Barrington

Follow Alma Mediterranea's Food Stories & Musings

Marcia Barrington writes beautifully about the inspiration behind her Mediterranean, North African and Middle Eastern inspired cookery and ingredients.

Jolene, Hackney

Vanilla Madeleine

I wrote this little review in early March. Finally, I pushed the button. So, here it is.

The interior styling was polished. As was the well-considered lunch menu, teasing my palette with a chalked-up list of moreish picky bits and a smattering of heavier blokes food, that I didn’t really notice I was dining in a former garage. I dived straight in. Propped up on a communal dining table, I worked my way through a couple of small plates styled with Mediterranean ingredients. A plate of just cooked winter to spring artichokes, followed by Jamón de Teruel, sliced thinly with its delicate taste and perfect balance of white fat to ham, felt at home in my mouth. Always a benchmark for me, jamón. I know Spanish food well and can’t get along with folk who interpret it badly. The kitchen got it right. I, on the other hand, was not in fine fettle - and while twisting little folds of jamón on my fork, was struck down with the most embarrassing compulsion to hurl. Not the restaurant’s fault. Simply the start of a four-day virus contracted as most parents do at some point in the school year. Shame, I rather fancied pudding. So, I jumped at the chance to meet an old friend at the new bakehouse cum restaurant of the successful team behind Primeur and Westerns Laundry, just up the road in Newington Green.

My gran (whose real name was Florence) only ever answered to the name Dolly. We never called her granny or grandma - just good old Dolly.  She lived in London and was born not too far away from this gem of a neighbourhood restaurant. A wall flower she was not - and after a couple of well-poured port and lemons, Dolly P’s begging could often be heard playing on the music centre in the back room on a Saturday afternoon.  I was only five when Jolene hit the charts, yet the repetitive lyrics and infectious chorus are still as catchy today as they were in the seventies. Tapping into cultural memory can be exciting as well as nudge new thinking. Maybe, then, naming your restaurant Jolene gives a big fat nod to the good old days, a reference to times past as well as the here and now. To be fair, this part of Hackney has reinvented itself. The Victorian houses still stand solid and elegant but Stokey, these days, is brimming with creative and media types drawing energy from the vibrant mix and prosperity from Islington and the alternative vibe of Hackney, making this local bakehouse a guaranteed till ringer for Jeremie Cometto-Lingenheim and David Gingell. Who else could pull off a combined bakery using heritage, ethically sourced grains to make bread, pastries and pasta with restaurant and wine bar in a converted ground floor space of a three-storey block of flats on Newington Green?

I stepped inside.  An attentive server led me to a table along the back wall. Neat, with two chairs and a small banquette. It was a prime spot to observe all that was going on. Why was there a vintage, solitary gold tap sticking out of the wall next to me? Had I fallen into some sort of oneiric daze? As I gazed from side to side I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to stroke the walls and their uneven surfaces. Pull at the scraps of vintage, upcycled linen dotted about the place, and look at my face - close up - in the shiny, immaculate coffee machine. And at the bar, on a high counter seat, read the labels of the thirty or so mixed up wine bottles hanging on the uneven biscuit-baked wall. There was random hand thrown pottery filled with tall blossom stems and rows of dense toffee coloured breads and deeply glazed pastries all laid out on trays, and an open kitchen - where I could watch the chefs cooking and playing their part. The ladies loo, with its huge white porcelain trough for hand-washing and folded cotton towels, had a whiff of come-dream-with-me fresh fragrance - not dissimilar to freshly washed, just pegged out sheets (has to be sheets) drying on a Mediterranean breeze. Oh please, pass the bucket you say, but honestly, every last detail had been thought about. I wasn’t expecting a sensory experience like that. Not in Stokey on a Thursday lunchtime. Oh, how I wanted to start snapping and tagging. But I didn’t dare. I couldn’t risk mugging myself off trying to capture it all. No. What Gingell and Lingenheim were begging me (and you if you fancy it) to do was interact with the space: inhale the aromas and the effortless cooking, listen to the hum of chatter, admire the attention to detail and then let go. It was otherworldly, for sure.  

The media gal arrived, tall and elegant as ever. I had studied over and over the menu so knew exactly what I wanted to eat. The black-board, not crowded had a selection of small bites and main course dishes that were all contenders in my eyes. I noticed yet another plate of jamón, this time with fried eggs and potatoes. I wasn’t hung over (huevos rotos is a ubiquitous Spanish classic comprising eggs, potatoes and hammy bits, perfect for soaking up your previous night’s cerveza) so I opted for a fishcake with spinach and chive butter instead. The fishcake came with a very toothsome thick slice of freshly baked bread, with chewy crust and soft, slightly sour dough - and little pats of salted butter that took the humble fish cake to another level. Mopping up a silky, herb butter spiked with a spritz of lemon with bread from Jolene is a lunchtime ritual I intend to repeat. We were at this point feeling almost carb-happy but decided on two pots of green tea with a couple of buttery vanilla madeleines to finish off. Without any wine, just two fishcake mains, bread and butter, tea and madeleines the bill came in at just under thirty-five pounds. A bargain in my book. I am not sure where else you could eat sustainable, ethically sourced, almost everything made from scratch cooking at that price point. We didn’t indulge in the belting selection of wine, but still. Worth every single penny and more. Next time, I’ll be back for dinner. Jolene is a triumph for Hackney: a true chart-topping banger.