Only a bold heart would call a dining spot Joy in 2020. Some people will be upset you’ve even suggested it; others might expect you to provide it. But joy is exactly the emotion I crave right now. When I saw my friend Hugh marching through Joy last weekend, I was overcome with giddiness. It was six months since I’d last seen him. Now, here he was, strutting past a large table of organic farm produce from The Goods Shed in Kent for sale in the entrance, all set out like a 1980s methodist primary school harvest festival. Or at least how a harvest festival table was supposed to look: at my school, there would have been much more tinned rice pudding.
“At last,” Hugh said, then we picked up our menus and began gossiping, picking up from where we were pre-Covid. Joy is a different thing from happiness, and is much less oppressive in its demands. Joy is a momentary burst of feel-good – a menu, a glass of wine, friendship – that reminds us life is worth living.
The fact that Joy sells fresh vegetables, as well as offering a chance to order organic meat, is highly symbolic of hospitality land right now. This is the year for ripping up rulebooks and flying by the seat of your pants. Anything goes, so long as it means you can afford to keep the lights on, and we’re going to see more and more of it as time goes on.
This new venture by Stevie Parle and Tom Dixon feels more like a hub, making all the use it can of a gargantuan space on Portobello Dock in Ladbroke Grove, west London. Joy is home to a take-home bottle shop by Uncharted Wines and Biercraft, plus a honey store selling the backlog of fresh London and Kent produce not used by Parle’s other locked-down restaurants. On the weekend I visited, thousands of dahlias, rescued from the compost heap after Hampton Court flower show was cancelled, had been sculpted into a temporary, bee-friendly garden.
Flora – the name of the actual restaurant within this mayhem – sometimes lives outside on the cobbles, alfresco, while at other times it’s dragged indoors to avoid downpours, or to stop the wind taking your hyper-seasonal plate of spray-free crudités with cod’s roe and blowing it into the canal. It’s worth reminding people that all British restaurants that have managed to stay afloat this summer by using terraces, gardens and rooftops are now being hit with autumn temperatures, downpours and a whole new set of challenges.
That cod’s roe is feisty stuff, by the way, with vegetables served Bugs Bunny-style, whole and raw. The menu changes rapidly, according to what is fresh, and on the evening we dined, there was a watermelon salad with crumbled feta, mint and a bombardment of chilli, a classic Tuscan tomato-and-bread soup and a large bowl of fresh clams with guanciale (cured pork cheek) all steamed with fino and butter.
Flora offers imaginative, assertive Mediterranean cooking to be shared or gobbled up separately – fans of one of Parle’s previous restaurants, Sardine, which announced its permanent closure over lockdown, will not be disappointed. Plentiful slabs of moist Loughton Farm chicken breast, stuffed with ricotta and cooked over wood, came on juice-soaked sourdough toast. A plate of rare wood-grilled beef came courtesy of the award-winning Duncan Anderson’s Hole Street Farm in Kingsdown, Kent. “Lockdown lobster” with lardo and rosemary butter arrived with a story about an industrious lobster fisherman who, as the restaurant world shut up shop, began selling his wares via Twitter.
Vegans and vegetarians will do well here: grilled courgette with green wheat, roast tomato and tahini was marvellous, and you really must order the fresh, earthy borlotti beans; there are also vegan “meat” balls with judicious inverted commas, plus a lush, Kentish tomato salad with basil, and glorious new potatoes served with smoked butter.
Pudding was a bowl of strawberries with cream and meringue. “I couldn’t call it Eton mess,” Parle explained. “Not now. It just didn’t seem right.” The chocolate cake is a dark, rich slab of twice-cooked deliciousness served with fresh raspberries and creme fraiche. They tend always to have a fruit pie on the go, too, sometimes cherry, sometimes peach, but always locally grown fruit, served warm with cream. Actual happiness is slim on the ground out there right now, but there is joy in Portobello.
• Flora at Joy Portobello Dock, 344 Ladbroke Grove, London W10. Open Weds-Sun, noon-late (4pm Sun). About £40 a head for three courses, plus drinks and service.