It certainly looks the part, but does this place do justice to the 19th century cultural venue it serves?
The Bishopsgate Institute, as a cultural centre and library, is one of London’s loveliest spaces to study or to simply read, particularly as access is free. It has been in place since 1895, but it took until 2011 for this little restaurant to open alongside. The main entrance to the Institution, on Bishopsgate, looks a little like a squished castle, but the Kitchen’s entrance is round the corner on Brushfield Street. Here, the old red brick north side facade of the Institution has been obscured by the Kitchen’s sleek glass front, which is entirely appropriate to the immediate environs, with the great transparent block of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s headquarters just across the way. This modern sliver of a restaurant has been slotted with skill onto the side of the older structure.
Either side of the Kitchen there’s a Pizza Express and a Starbucks, so it seems the choice between big chain and warm-and-fuzzy independent is stark. But, actually, the Kitchen’s operators are benugo, who have six cafes scattered about the city and are institution-eatery specialists, with contracts at Westminster Abbey, the BFI and Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum.
The company’s overarching ethos is back-to-basics simplicity (you’ve heard that before) and it’s expressed here with a rustic interior that contrasts well with the modernity of that glass frontage. Separating the seating area from the cooking and preparation space is a partition made up of open shelves and pantry-like displays. The wooden beams holding up the roof are like sleek table legs from some giant item of Scandinavian furniture. The 45-cover restaurant has a number of small tables that either back onto the Institution’s once-exterior red brick arches (the Institution’s corridors are visible through the window), or look out onto the bustle of Brushfield Street, with people making their way to and from Spitalfields Market. In between, there’s a big communal table that is laid out with Dualit toasters at breakfast and brunch.
Even when it's busy it seems a little of the library calm seeps in from next door - there's a pleasant, unhurried feel to the place. Folk come in through the door that leads from the Institute and also in from Brushfield Street, a patch of London more saturated with eateries than most. The clientele is mixed, from tourist families to individuals minding their own business and suits from the countless offices hereabouts. It's probably just about smart enough for a meeting, especially as its affiliation to the Institute gives it some added gravitas. Note, they don’t take reservations.
There are separate menus for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and a brunch menu for weekends. The food is served with a great gesture of rustic generosity, yet the prices are relatively high and the quality isn’t always a match.
Price-wise, the breakfast menu runs from a bacon sandwich or Bircher muesli and Greek yoghurt with fruit compote or honey for £5.50 through to the breakfast burrito (£9.50) and scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, or a full English (both £10.50). The latter rather sums this place up. It comes out partly served in a small cast iron frying pan on a wooden board which, in tandem with the rustic surroundings (not to mention the price), generates an expectation that here is something of top quality. Yet, while the sausages are tasty, they are not outstanding specimens, and slices of black pudding are a little too clean edged to be truly rustic. Bread is charred on the griddle but is clearly not anything particularly artisan. The coffee, meanwhile is a rank down from what Londoners have come to expect, and £2.60 is hardly cheap for a latte.
Weekend brunch includes more fancy egg options (benedict with serrano ham is £9.50, for instance) and throws in a burger (£13) and a Reuben sandwich (£10.50).
The lunch menu includes smaller plates from £7.50, including smoked salmon tartar on sourdough, and a pretty good truffle-infused macaroni and cheese with a poached duck egg. Sharing platters are £15 and centre on various cured continental meats, which certainly show some good sourcing. Sandwiches are NYC deli-style (it was these places that first inspired the benugo founders, apparently) and start at £8.50. There are a couple of salads (from £9.50) and a handful of mains (from £12) including spinach and ricotta cannelloni, pork belly stew and moules frites. Dinner is along the same lines, just with a greater number of options.
Puddings (£5.50-£6.50) include a chocolate torte with roasted nuts and salted caramel ice cream, tiramisu, apple and quince crumble and cheesecake. Cheese boards are a reasonable £5. Those attending a ticketed event at the institute can claim a 10% discount off food and non-alcoholic drinks.
Wines start at £5/£18 for the glass/bottle. Heineken is available on draught at a slightly pricy £3.95 for a three-quarter pint. Then there are bottles (all upwards of £4.50) from Dos Equis lager to Sierra Nevada pale ale and Thwaite’s Lancaster Bomber.
The Last Word
Everything’s in place for the Kitchen to become a Spitalfields favourite, but it might have to tweak its quality and/or prices if it wants to stick around as long as the Institution from which it takes its name.