The Modern Menu: James Lowe cooks turbot, fennel and potatoes with bitter leaves and blood orange at Lyle’s in Shoreditch
What does a restaurant included in ‘The World’s 50 Best’ list, with a Michelin star to its name and an endless footfall of food tourists from America to Japan look like? Never-ending tasting menus, gimmicky presentations, snooty sommeliers and chichi interiors? Not so, at least not at James Lowe’s Lyle’s in Shoreditch.
Rather, a reassuring lack of theatre is performed in Lyle’s airy dining room. There are tables and chairs, there is a kitchen, and there is a bar. There are handsome loaves of bread stacked on top of each other. And, with the same light-handed touch with which it converted a 1930s tea factory to call home, dishes at Lyle’s are constructed with reverence to raw ingredients and lack of ego.
‘The Modern Menu’ takes you behind the pass with our favourite chefs, to hear about how home cooking shapes and reflects their work. Here, we talk to James Lowe about his formative food experiences, why common-sense cooking best describes his approach and the difference a good kitchen makes. Plus, James shares his recipe for turbot, fennel and potatoes with bitter leaves and blood orange.
James: “I always get in trouble with my mum because I’ve never been very complimentary about the food I ate growing up. I wonder if I should tread carefully!
“We lived in Qatar until I was five. I don’t remember anything about what I ate there apart from Mr Kipling’s French Fancies, which isn’t very foodie.
“My family love the fact that I grew up to be a chef because I was a very picky eater as a child, and quite awkward. I’d make everyone’s lives pretty troublesome because I didn’t eat certain things – mum says I grew up eating bacon.
“One of the best things my mum used to make, though, was tomatoes on buttered toast. Normally tomatoes are associated with the Mediterranean, so olive oil. But there’s something about great bread, excellent butter and great roasted tomatoes – I used to serve that all the time when I was head chef at St. John Bread and Wine.
“One of the reasons I love food so much or, specifically, why I love restaurants so much is that going to restaurants meant quiet, focused family time. If we went out to eat, we’d all be together and there weren’t too many distractions – we were concentrated on eating and being with each other.
“My real discovery of food came when I left home – I just really wanted to see new things. I went to study in Canada at university, which was an eye-opening experience because Vancouver has large Chinese and Japanese populations.
“All of a sudden I was going to sushi restaurants, dim sum restaurants, and good Chinese restaurants. I realised how little I knew about all of it and I also loved realising how wrong my preconceptions were – I woke up to the fact that Chinese food isn’t just sweet and sour pork.
“I wanted to be a pilot when I left university but then 9/11 happened and British Airways immediately stopped their sponsored programme, meaning I wouldn’t be able to start the training for at least a year.
“Suddenly, I had no direction and a lot of time to fill. I started working in a restaurant as a waiter and remember thinking that the guys who worked in the kitchen were just really cool – I loved how passionate and driven they were.
“The head chef at the restaurant started recommending restaurants to me, and I started reading tons of cookbooks and Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, which I loved for its rock-and-roll portrayal of working in a kitchen brigade.
“One week, he sent me to The Fat Duck and St. John within two days of each other. They were incredible meals and halfway through the menu at The Fat Duck I remember thinking to myself, ‘I want to open a restaurant’.
“I started cooking at home a lot after that. I did really silly stuff, like trying Heston’s recipes that take three days, but also simple stuff like roasting fish on a barbeque I set up on my balcony.
“In fact, whole-roast fish is sort of my defining home dish and the first thing I made for my girlfriend. When I was picking something to do for this, I had three or four ideas in mind, which included game strew. I was trying to decide what to do when my girlfriend said, ‘Why don’t you stop worrying and just cook what we eat at home: whole-roast fish?’ So I did.
“It’s the best, not just because of how it tastes, but also because it’s very easy. It’s about the simplicity of cooking, understanding ingredients and working with beautiful products like good olive oil, vinegar and anchovies. And then using what you have: in summer you can grill the fish outside, but during winter you should put it in the oven.
“There’s no desire or ambition on my part to do a sort of ‘One Pot Meal’ or ‘James’ 10-minute Cookbook’, but this is as easy as cooking gets.
“I love cooking with heavy-duty cast-iron pots and trays at home because they retain heat so well, which means you don’t have to worry about timing so much: you can just take things out of the oven and leave them to sit, staying warm.
“They also collect juices so well. People get so hung up on making the perfect sauce at home but the cooking juices that come from things, if seasoned with a good palette, are all you need.
“’Keep it simple’ is as overused as ‘farm-to-table’ or ‘nose-to-tail’. We try so hard to avoid using those phrases here, and the best we have come up with for the food we serve, and our approach, is ‘common sense’.
“Everyone looks really deflated when I say that because it’s quite boring and not very rock-and-roll. But it doesn’t need to be anything more than serving good food for good value, made and served by people who care about what they are doing.
“In the evening, you don’t have to decide what to eat and we just serve a menu. But it’s a short menu, and it comes from wanting to look after people, as you would do at home, not from a desire to be too clever.
“I’ve cut down my hours a bit now that I have a child. I found that I wanted to cook at home more, and it became more enjoyable.
“I also have a fairly decent set up now, with a nice oven that works and an induction stove. For a long time, I lived in Hackney in a flat that had electric coils and no extractor fan, so you couldn’t cook anything in there.
“It was so bad that I just wouldn’t cook in it. Aesthetics are important: it was a kitchen I just didn’t like standing in, so I didn’t.
“Good cooking can create quite a lot of noise, smoke, and smells. It’s fine in the restaurant because everything is steel and easy to wipe down and the extractor is really powerful. As soon as you cook at home as you would in a restaurant, you realise how much you need a good kitchen.
“I think the way I cook is quite inspired by Italian food in some ways, especially at home. The simplicity, the ingredients and the way I structure a meal. In the restaurant I refine the cooking and add elements: the character food takes comes from being cooked in the wood-fired oven or over the charcoal grill, or the use of ingredients from a supplier that only produces enough to supply a handful of restaurants.
“I feel that the principles of good food are the same whether at home or in the restaurant: use good ingredients, when they’re in season and at their best and try to serve them in a way that makes them shine.
“Last summer was great. We had this plan to make an Argentinean parrilla-style grill in the garden but I started worrying about the number of complaints we would get from the neighbours. I really miss the grill and wood oven when I’m at home, but to be able to light a barbecue is a good compromise.
“People hate inviting me for dinner – I feel really sorry for them. But, if I went to someone’s house and they cooked me beans on toast, I’d be happy. It’s a lovely thing to cook for someone, and to be fed. Although I know it causes a lot of stress there’s almost nothing I can do about it: if I go in the kitchen to try and help, you can see them panic and think they’re being judged. So, I just have to stay out of it!”
James’ recipe for turbot, fennel and potatoes with bitter leaves and blood orange
“This is the sort of thing I cook at home and I feel it’s an easy thing for others to replicate. It’s perfect because the prep time is pretty short, it’s easy to clean up afterwards and you can get away with the timing of all the dishes not being spot on because it all sits and holds really well. You could actually argue that the potatoes and fennel are better after sitting together for a further 15 minutes once cooked.
“The success of this dish, much like the food at Lyle’s, is based on the quality of the raw ingredients. It only works when they are fabulous. The better the blood oranges, the better the vinaigrette for the salad, the better the anchovies, the better the dressing: the better end result.
“It is so important not to scrimp on your ‘store cupboard’ ingredient. Buy the best olive oil and use liberally, buy the best vinegars and anchovies and they will elevate what you’re eating immediately.”
For four people
1.5kg turbot (whole fish)
Best quality olive oil
2 garlic cloves
3 sprigs of marjoram
Ask your fishmonger for a whole flat fish and have the roe, blood line and gills removed. Brill is a good alternative to turbot, and this would also all work nicely with a sea bass or some large bream.
Cut a piece of baking parchment that’s larger than the fish and place in the bottom of a heavy roasting dish (this will make cleaning and getting the juices from the pan easier).
Rub oil and salt on to the fish and place in the tray with a couple of smashed cloves of garlic and the torn-up sprigs of marjoram.
Roast at 200C for 15 minutes. You’re looking for the skin to take some colour.
After this time baste the fish with the juices and oil from the pan. With a skewer, attempt to push it through the meat – if it resists, put it back in the oven for another 5 minutes. When the meat is cooked you should have no trouble pushing it through.
Take the fish out and leave to rest in a warm place. Squeeze over the juice from one lemon.
800g of small, waxy potatoes
3 heads of fennel
Juice of two lemons
4 sprigs of thyme
Cook the potatoes in salted water until soft.
Once they are cooked, leave to cool and then cut into halves.
Cut each head of fennel into 8 pieces.
Mix the fennel and potatoes together in a mixing bowl with a very liberal amount of olive oil.
Season with salt and juice from 1 lemon.
Lay out in a roasting dish and cook in a 190C oven with fan on.
You are aiming to get crispy browned potatoes and for the fennel to colour along its edges.
Once the potatoes and fennel are half-way there (30 minutes maybe) add the thyme and give it all a stir through.
Once coloured, take out of the oven, eat a potato to check the seasoning and maybe add some more lemon and salt, and a couple of turns from a pepper mill.
Handful of parsley
Handful of chervil
2 sprigs of marjoram
70ml olive oil
80g of best quality anchovies (Ortiz)
1 tbsp of capers
50ml red wine vinegar
Finely chop the green herbs and place these in to a mixing bowl with the olive oil so they don’t oxidise.
Finely dice the shallot and add these.
Roughly chop the anchovies and capers and add.
Mix well, add red wine vinegar and probably some salt.
This is a condiment so you must remember that it should be punchy. By this I mean high salt, strong anchovy component and zingy acidity.
3 slice of sourdough bread
50ml olive oil
200g of radicchio (grumolo)
3 blood oranges
Tear the bread into small chunks, season with olive oil, a little salt, and bake into croutons in a 180C oven.
Cut the radicchio into leaves, trimming away roots.
Cut the skin away from two of the oranges while still whole and segment the fruit (imagine you’re making a fruit salad for a hotel buffet, but don’t worry, this will be a million times nicer).
Zest what’s left of the segmented oranges and the third whole one.
Season this juice with a little salt and add an equal amount of olive oil to it.
Once all the rest of the food is ready and on the table, use the juice and oil mix to dress the leaves and croutons and serve.