Although the signature grain of Neal’s Yard’s 26 Grains is the oat – their porridge, both sweet and savoury, is the stuff of some serious oat cuisine – I was here this evening for an evening late. None of the three/four courses on their set supper menu featured porridge, perhaps offering founder Alex Hely-Hutchinson, who was in the kitchen herself this evening, an opportunity to showcase her wider and very well-skilled repertoire.
26 Grains was set up by Alex following a year in Copenhagen. Inspired by how seriously the Danes take their porridge, Alex decided to reinvent the way we use oats. The name refers not to her age but to the number of “ancient” grains and pseudo-grains – such as amaranth and buckwheat (which featured in our desert this evening) – that she cooks with. 26 Grains’ porridges – the menu and their wonderfully photogenic bowls – have been an inspiration for pimping up my own porridges. More than just humble oats and water, these porridges are indulgent, featuring condiments of all forms: spices, salt flakes, homemade fruit compôtes and blitzed nut butters topped with swirls of maple syrup, coconut palm sugar, and this month jaggery (as part of their Sri Lankan guest porridge designed by Emily Dobbs of Weligama). Everyone is falling for her bowls, whether the pear, cardamom and hazelnut combo, the classic cacao, almond milk and chia bircher, or the savoury kale, apple and walnut bowl. In her own words, it’s all about quality, seasonality and simplicity (though they certainly appear far from simple).
Tucked away behind an aged wooden stable door, 26 Grains feels like an artisan’s workshop. On this rainy January evening, the bench spilling out into the yard was, unsurprisingly, closed. In the warmer months though, eating one of their porridges (or bircher bowls) whilst sitting out in the beautiful and bustling Neal’s Yard is a wonderfully simple pleasure. Inside, the cosy small space has a rustic, homely feel with sacks of grains piled up against whitewashed walls, cookery books – including Alex’s own – stacked up to the ceiling besides potted cactus plants, customised ceramic ware, and very small wooden tables and stools for the diners – the bench being uncomfortable for my companion! My view, though not on the bar stools directly opposite the kitchen, did offer a great sight of the three young female chefs at work; watching food being plated up is always a delight.
Our first bite tonight, alongside a glass of wonderfully citrusy grapefruit juice which had a reassuring kick to it, was sourdough rye with tarragon butter. The bread arrived warm and crusty, adding to its sense of freshness – as though it had just been baked on site. The herby butter was vividly green, and paired well with the fresh loaf. Though just bread and butter, it’s wonderful how simple pleasures like these can be so pleasing. No doubt it would pair very well alongside a glass of house red.
Next up was the Celeriac, blood orange, buffalo mozzarella and pistachios. I was delighted to see blood orange on the menu; though currently in season, I haven’t been able to track a single one down. The few segments tasted refreshing and added a gentle tang to the creamy cheese. The lightly pickled celeriac, which I’d watched Alex plating up from the jar, added a welcome salty kick. The textures and flavours of the dish had been well thought out: sweet versus savoury; creamy versus crunchy.
As soon as I’d sat down tonight and read the menu, I’d been looking forward to the next course: Hand cut pappardelle, pumpkin and sage. Whilst the pasta was incredibly fresh and the crispy sage had a welcome bite, I felt the pasta could’ve been a touch more silky – whether by way of a drizzle of olive oil, or more of the creamy pumpkin sauce. A sprinkling of black pepper, which was lacking on the bowl, is also always a must for me on any pasta (not just cacio e pepe).
The vegetarian main for the evening was Purple sprouting broccoli with lentils and aubergine puree. Though the fibrey ends of the broccoli were a touch undercooked, this didn’t detract from the lentils which were an absolute triumph and paired effortlessly well with the babaganoush-like aubergine dip and creamy labneh. Perfectly seasoned, I finished every last spoon.
Our finale this evening was Honey mousse, rhubarb and buckwheat. Light yet rounded, the mousse was mellow and the buckwheat added just the right amount of bite. It finished things off very nicely. That, as well as a fresh mint tea.
Just as porridge spells togetherness, comfort and sharing, this evening’s food, though lacking in porridge, conjured up exactly that. Warming and cosy, the menu and its delivery were virtuously wholesome, a little indulgent and wonderfully comforting. It’s like the culinary equivalent of being wrapped in a mohair blanket. This sort of hygge is just what’s needed on a rainy January night.
26 Grains, 1 Neal’s Yard, WC2H 9DP