Last Updated on August 26, 2021
Vintage cars and Mediterranean cuisine on the menu.
The outer reaches of the Northern Line is not renowned for its restaurants. Undoubtedly, there is a wide selection of Japanese, Jewish, Indian, Italian, Turkish and Thai eateries that satisfy local needs and I am not complaining about the variety of takeaway options I have. Yet many of these eateries lack ambience. Now diners can alight at East Finchley station safe in the knowledge that at The Engine Rooms an unusual venue and a Mediterranean inspired menu are on offer.
I have driven past this venue countless times and always assumed it was a car dealership called Hexagon Classics. I was not wrong – the street-facing showrooms are filled with a magnificent selection of vintage cars, this being one of the foremost classic car dealers in the UK. A few years ago, one of the buildings was given over to a small deli and wine shop along with a gallery. As it is a section of the Great North road one tends to navigate on the way to somewhere else, I had not noticed it. Now, the owner of Hexagon Classics has opened a restaurant in an inner courtyard. There are also several private events spaces which can be hired for weddings and functions. Clearly a man with ongoing ambitions beyond his lifelong love of cars, he has turned his hand to being a restaurateur which is no mean feat in the shadow of the pandemic. Or perhaps, it is very well-timed indeed as people yearn to re-engage with socialising.
I arrived at The Engine Rooms with no expectations other than sitting outdoors on a warm evening – a pleasure I do not take for granted during this rather wet summer. One enters the building through a bar area with a wonderful collection of modern art – I spotted a Miro print on one wall – and a view through a glass wall onto the vintage cars. There was no stopping my son who leapt at the opportunity to have a nose around these wonderful vehicles. Having only that day achieved his provisional driver’s licence, he was eyeing up the Ferraris with new interest.
Since we were at The Engine Rooms to eat rather than indulge in fantasies, we proceeded into the restaurant, passing a large, open plan kitchen where the chefs were busy behind an expanse of marble worktop. There is indoor seating as well as a mezzanine which will be opened up in the winter and these are beautifully designed with great art, lighting and seating that could be described as industrial chic. Back at ground level, we walked out into an internal courtyard which has an electric awning, thankfully not needed during our visit. The sides of the warehouse have been painted black – as is the decking – and furnished with olive green, designer outdoor seating and tables. The staff were casually dressed in blue jeans, white t-shirts and trainers. The whole effect was more California than North London. As the evening drew on, effective patio heaters kept the temperature just right.
What impressed me before I ate a morsel of food at The Engine Rooms was the quality of the service. Amina, our server, was joyful. It is rare that I would say that the service enhanced the experience of the meal but in this case it is true. I was very impressed by how knowledgeable she was about the menu and its ingredients, how interested in our experience of the meal, how she helped us negotiate the menu and the wine list – bringing us taster glasses to help us select the right bottle to complement the food choices. I know that restaurants are struggling to recruit staff – both chefs and front of house – but I have hope that the industry will train its staff to the standard at The Engine Rooms. The staff all wore masks and the venue felt Covid secure.
The all-day menu was exciting to read as it leaned towards the pescatarian diet which suits my eating habits perfectly. There were all sorts of interesting dishes, and we were rather spoilt for choice. The advantage of the all-day menu is that one can curate the meal, either choosing to eat a pizza or a salad or go the whole three courses.
We perused the menu while nibbling on squares of warm garlic and rosemary focaccia dipped into a grassy olive oil. Amina recommended three starters each of which was spot on. My favourite was the grey mullet ceviche, confit tomato dressing, cured egg yolk, samphire, pistachio. The cured egg looked like a fiery sun setting and gently opened into a puddle of yolky sauce. With the slight crunch of green samphire and pistachios plus sliced red tomato, it added up to a dish I will want to return for. The bowl was beautiful too as was much of the crockery.
Burrata, fig jam, radicchio, pomegranate dressing, dukkha spice crumb, baby mint brought a very creamy burrata offset by the slight bitterness of charred radicchio. The toasted dukkha was an excellent addition to texture and taste and pomegranate seeds are welcome almost anywhere in my view. Another good-looking dish.
Robata grilled octopus, cauliflower puree, heritage cauliflower tabouleh, romesco sauce was a riot of colour. The rust coloured romesco was eye catching perched on the creamy cauliflower puree while the grilled octopus was laid out alongside an intriguing purple speckled tabouleh. Continuing the cauliflower theme, the chef had used a purple cauliflower to great effect in the tabouleh, and this set my fingers twitching to try this out in my own kitchen. I love when a meal out inspires the home cook to experiment.
We bypassed the salads and the three pizzas – any of which I would have been happy to eat as a main course and will return one lunchtime to do just that. I don’t usually eat pizza but would be hard-pressed to turn down one with Swiss rainbow chard, confit leeks, pancetta, and walnut pesto.
The main course section of the menu has one chicken and one lamb option, two creative vegetarian dishes (one is vegan) and five fish or seafood items. I had trouble deciding between the whole robata grilled monkfish tail or the giant king prawns. My husband chose the halibut t–bone steak which sounded intriguing. Amina recommended the grilled hispi cabbage and the BBQ sweet potato as sides. What a feast!
Two monkfish tails were glazed in miso and soy and served with a lovage aioli on which were arranged cubes of purple viola potatoes, samphire, crispy capers and pickled shallot rings. I could have eaten a whole dish of those piquant shallot rings. The monkfish was slightly salty for my taste but very well cooked. Grilling on a robata grill takes skill as the temperature is super hot and cannot be turned down. Only the height of the grill tray can be raised or lowered. The food takes on a flame-grilled flavour.
The halibut was an impressively large, thickly cut piece of fish. It was beautifully laid down amongst Wye Valley asparagus – both white and green – and strewn with capers and small pieces of crayfish. It all sat above a puddle of a tartar butter emulsion. A colourful dish, artfully created.
The giant king prawns were whoppers. Four huge prawns were beautifully grilled and, continuing with the Japanese influence of the robata grill, were served with roasted nori and yuzu cultured butter. Excellent all round.
I have eaten my body weight in hispi cabbage, a vegetable that has certainly been having its moment in the sun. This version was one of the best I have enjoyed. Grilled to melting texture – not something one usually associates with cabbage – it was anointed with creamy, wild garlic aioli and topped with crispy shallots and chilli crumbs. Wonderful.
The BBQ sweet potato was large enough to feed a family and was served with shaved salted ricotta and chopped, toasted walnuts. BBQing sweet potato is also having a moment in restaurants these days and is a healthier alternative to chips. That said, The Engine Rooms menu does offer a side of skinny fries to which can be added truffle and Berkswell cheese. It would be churlish not to and on my next visit I will be trying these out.
We drank a bottle of Pequenos Rebentos, Loureiro, Vinho Verde, Portugal, 2020 which suited all the fish dishes we had chosen. I will be looking to buy in a few bottles when I visit the wine shop which was closed by the time we sat down for dinner. There is a short selection of wines by the glass and a longer list of bottles.
Who needed a dessert after this generous and delicious meal? My son declined but my husband and I could not resist. I tried the baked custard which was just set – so often they are overcooked – and topped with tiny cubes of stem ginger and poached rhubarb. As a home cook, I know how difficult it can be to poach rhubarb without it turning into mush. These poached cubes were crunchy. Another note to self to try this at home. I love rhubarb with stem ginger so this was a very successful dish for me. As if this was not already lovely enough, the dish was served alongside a honeycomb ice cream, the scoop balanced on two batons of poached rhubarb and enclosed with crunchy shards of honeycomb that had been lightly charred.
My husband had a beautifully constructed hazelnut praline parfait which was artfully topped with triangles and ribbons of roasted peach, raspberries, shards of white chocolate and micro basil. The dish sat on a pool of raspberry consommé. The parfait was light, creamy, cold, crunchy with praline bits that emerged from the middle.
I left The Engine Rooms relaxed, very well fed and delighted to have found a neighbourhood restaurant I would be happy to recommend to friends and look forward to returning to. The Head Chef, James Harrison, has pulled out the creative stops and has taken great care with the balance of the dishes each of which is not only colourful and texturally pleasing but very well executed. This was the case from starters to desserts. This is a restaurant in a most unusual location and perhaps is all the more interesting for that. It is literally a hidden gem. To top it all, at the end of the evening, I could walk home. I often envy restaurant reviewers who rave about eateries that have become their locals. Now I have one too.
The Engine Rooms
82 -92 Great North Road