Heritage grains. Now there’s a dull phrase. Unless, of course, you’re like me and have come to regard wheat as both catnip and kryptonite. I love it, but I know, deep down, that it does not love me. It’s a situation I’ve come to accept, for, as WH Auden once put it, ‘If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me.’
Except that, once more, there’s excitable chatter regarding heritage grains — you know, those long-neglected varieties like teff and spelt, which are less refined than the grains we’ve grown so used to, and therefore, so the argument goes, more digestible. In short, grains that might just return my affections.
And so, it’s with a heart full of hope that I head to north London’s Newington Green, to try out Jolene, one of a gaggle of restaurants in the capital putting ancient grains at the heart of their offering. Crucially, it has its own on-site mill, where organic grains supplied by DJ-turned-farmer Andy Cato are turned into the flours that form the basis of breads, pastries and pastas, all made from scratch on the premises.
By day, Jolene is a bakery/cafe, and while things get a bit more serious after 7pm, there are enough casual touches to keep things suitably informal: a short, daily-changing menu is scribbled on a blackboard; dishes come as and when; there’s a random rake stuck to the wall; and a row of stools by the main counter somehow look like they might just be the best seats in the house. What’s more, there’s that pleasing background buzz you tend to find in restaurants that have prioritised atmosphere.
The food largely delivers too, from the wondrous portion of sourdough that kicks things off to an implausibly tasty plate of raw Brussels sprouts, rendered so much more than merely palatable by the addition of chestnuts and pecorino. It’s a triumph not quite matched by an accompanying plate of radicchio, celeriac, walnuts and grapes, which — despite the walnuts being among the finest I’ve ever eaten — feels a little thrown together.
Things get back on track quickly, however, with a small plate of gnudi selected from the pasta menu — delicate, featherlight parcels whose thin skins dissolve effortlessly to reveal the welcome flavours of pumpkin and sage. It’s a tough act to follow, and, indeed, the whole roast brill I share shortly after is delicate and sweet, but not at that moment quite what I fancy, and I find myself throwing longing looks at passing plates of venison and pork belly. Next time.
Things end with a satisfying slice of chocolate cake, made with hazelnuts, but, ironically, without flour. After which, I’m sorely tempted just to hang around till closing time to explore what remains of the wine list. It’s that type of place. Which is lucky, because it occupies a tricky spot on the quieter side of the square that’s easy to miss. If Jolene is to thrive, I feel it will probably need to ensnare local drinkers as well as curious diners. But there are fun nights to be had here, both for those who find themselves intrigued by ancient grains — and those who’ve never given them a second’s thought. Three courses with wine approximately £40.