L MNT is in Hackney, on the grubby Queensbridge Road near
grubby Dalston and exactly opposite a vast estate that is so boarded up it’s not so much ‘sink’ as ‘sunk’. ‘Oops,’ I think, as we park up. I am with my brother and my sister-inlaw and they are quite smart people; much smarter than me. ‘Are you sure this is the place?’ asks my sister-in-law, whom we shall call ‘Mary Ross’ — née Jacobs — because that is her name and she longs to see it in print. ‘Yes,’ I say, while swivelling my head Exorcist-style, which is what you have to do when you’re looking out for hoodies. Have I hugged a hoodie today? I have not, I confess, and I have probably misunderstood them as much as anyone. You know — and I’m ashamed to tell you this, but will anyway — a few weeks ago I was at home, heard a noise, came downstairs to investigate and found a hoodie in the living-room with our DVD player under his arm. How I wish, now, I hadn’t screamed and got all hysterical and phoned the police, and had simply hugged him instead and said I was glad he’d smashed the bay window because now I could call in the emergency glass people to massively overcharge me. I can be a terrible, ignorant, prejudiced fool, I know.
Anyway, the exterior of LMNT isn’t exactly reassuring. It looks like a tatty old pub. It does have ‘gastro’ painted on the front but my brother thinks this might be short for ‘gastroenteritis’. We gingerly push open the front door, expecting what? Swirly, beer-stinking carpets and a nicotinestained ceiling and pee-stinking toilets with scorch marks around the seat rims? (A home from home, then, at least for me.) Or a gang of misunderstood hoodies with a much misunderstood dog called Killer who looks vicious as hell and has probably eaten six OAPs and 24 postmen already today but would make an excellent guide dog for the blind anyway? Poor, poor, misunderstood Killer.
Well, it would be all that, if it were, but it isn’t. Instead you gingerly push open that door and you get — oh, I forget now. Yeah, right. You get: massive stone sphinxes with fireplaces between their paws; candlelit, gaping gods; wild hieroglyphics; a pastiche mosaic floor; balconies and curtain boxes at the top of spindly staircases; a table for four in a giant Ali Baba urn. It’s as if Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen had a go at it while on crack, having just seen Carry on Cleo via I, Claudius.
We are speechless. Even my sister-in-law, Mary Ross (née Jacobs) is speechless which, believe me (and I think my brother will back me on this), is a first, at least in living memory. LMNT — pronounced, I later discover, ‘element’ rather than ‘elementee’ as I’d supposed — describes itself as ‘London’s most eccentric dining-room’ and you know what? I’m not going to argue. (As it happens, when I later spot the owner, who calls himself ‘Dragon’, and I ask him ‘why?’, he responds with ‘and why not?’ which is fair enough, as why not ‘why not?’) So, anyway, we are taken to our table, which is wooden and fried-egg shaped in a little cubbyhole booth. Our waitress asks if we’d like a drink. We muse over the cocktail list. Mary Ross says she may have a ‘Multiple Orgasm’. My brother says, ‘Oh, do. It’ll save me a lot of time later.’ But then Mary Ross says she is not in the mood for a ‘Multiple Orgasm’ and switches to a ‘Bleeding Cleopatra’. I don’t want to be seen having a ‘Multiple Orgasm’ all on my own, so I also switch to a ‘Bleeding Cleopatra’. It is Absolut Citron mixed with fresh raspberries and strawberries and lemon juice and it is quite lovely — fresh and fruity and clean-tasting with a good vodka kick. The Mary whom we have called Mary, because that is her name, pronounces it ‘absolutely delicious’.
If the decor is overstated (just a little!) then the menu, which is modern European, is understated, which is good, because as you know I loathe too many choices. There are nine starters and nine mains, priced at £3.45 and £8.95 respectively, and it’s even cheaper at lunch: £2.45 and £6.95. At these sorts of prices, you know you’re not going to be in for a Michelin-starred event, but if the food is decent enough, then this is a true and wonderful find.
And? It is all rather hit and miss. My starter of grilled mackerel is a somewhat sad affair; an overcooked, tough, dried-up piece of fish served with a potato and dill salad that looks as if it’s been tipped from a tin. ‘Oops,’ I’m beginning to think again. But then my next course — the fish stew is delicious, with huge chunks of moist, fishy things (salmon, cod, mussels, clams) served in a very decent, saffron-flavoured (I think) sauce. Mary Ross — for it is she — starts with the mussels steamed with ginger, lemon grass and chilli peppers, which she thinks fantastic — fat, juicy mussels, beautifully fragrant — but then her breast of duck is a dry old thing. My brother, in turn, is happy with his millefeuille of mushrooms, which oozes with mushrooms, but thinks his lamb chops in a caper jus rather ordinary. So that’s a hit and a miss each, but this is not taking into account the sides (snowpeas, garlic mash) which are excellent, and the puddings, which are divine. We share a banoffee shortbread with rum and raisin ice-cream and a pistachio crème brûlée, and they’re both brilliant.
I think what you have here is an aspirational kitchen working within tight budget constraints, which means sometimes the cooking works and sometimes it doesn’t, but I kind of admire this place for that. Plus it is incredible value for money. Our bill, which also includes the cocktails and a bottle of wine and beer and coffees, comes to £76 and you could get away with a lot less (I’m greedy, remember). Popular? LMNT is packed all evening and the atmosphere is really buzzy and fun. One last thing, though: the toilets. I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but will by telling you that the decor in there is very, very x-rated and Karma Sutra-ish. I blushed pink. I may even have blushed pinker than Mary Ross does whenever she has ‘Multiple Orgasm’. I bet she’s happy I named her now.
LMNT, 316 Queensbridge Road, London E8; tel: 020 7249 6727.