What’s Kentish Canteen like nowadays?

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Peri Peri chicken at Kentish Canteen. Photo: Joe Sarah
Back in 2010 longstanding West End restaurateurs Wendy and Owen Sinclair decided to open an all-day brasserie closer to their north London home.

It’s hard to believe now, but the former police station that houses the Kentish Canteen had remained boarded up after local butcher Harry’s R.E.D joint stumbled, despite early success.

It’s also easy to forget that Kentish Canteen was revolutionary in opening the door to the flurry of new businesses that have flooded the area since. The decor was airy and light, with pendant lighting, booths and a laidback New York-vibe, while a counter heaved with Ottolenghi-style salads and pastries. On one wall arty black and white pictures of Kentish Town encouraged local pride and a sense of identity – an act in itself which seemed slightly daring.

The opening has a special place in the history of Kentishtowner too. Impressed by an impromptu visit, and proud of what seemed a smart new opening on a boarded-up stretch, I hastily wrote a hundred words and created a blog to publish it. And so Kentishtowner was born.

Eggs benedict at Kentish Canteen, voted #1 Breakfast venue by readers in 2012
Eggs benedict at Kentish Canteen, voted #1 Breakfast venue by readers in 2012
Since late 2010, the landscape, of course, has changed hugely, and the Canteen, with the opening of Shebeen, has spear-headed another trend in central NW5, the subterranean cocktail bar.

But back upstairs, over the years the food has been hit-and-miss. Initial fanfares from Giles Coren and Time Out meant the Canteen was rammed for a while –but like many an instant celebrity, the pressure began to show. Readers tweeted us about inconsistency and occasional service issues.

Nowadays, it’s a reliably solid option for brunch, a candle-lit dinner or daytime bite. The wine list is competent (with house starting at £17 a bottle), there are, of course, fantastic cocktails and a decent selection of Camden Brewery bottled beers. The current head chef, Leroy Flavien (ex-Joe Allen) is doing mostly good things. We’ve been recently three times to write this review and never had a dud, although some items we’ve enjoyed more than others. Peri-peri chicken marinated in spices (£11.95, with chips, main pic above) hit the spot with an Aperol Spritz, although the poultry was not quite in lip-smackin’ Chicken Shop territory.

Lunch a few weeks later was a game of two halves: Dorset crab linguine with chilli and lemon oil (£13.95) was oddly less than the sum of its parts: under-seasoned, the delicate white fish didn’t yield the hoped-for umami flavours. Much more successful was a “Moroccan Style” lamb burger served with harissa and yoghurt (£11.95, with chips): juicily medium-rare, it was as impressive in its tenderness as its ability not to collapse.

The interior was the first of a  new spate of openings to celebrate NW5
The interior was the first of a new spate of openings to celebrate NW5
We visited a third time the other week to eat a full evening meal. A starter of crab cakes (£7.50) was moist, with a lemon aioli, while even more tangy was a crayfish and avocado salad (£7.50), its Bloody Mary dressing adding a fiery kick.

Of the mains, a saffron bouillabaisse of now-fashionable Cornish hake with mussels (£14.50) was compromised by slightly woody samphire; far more memorable was mozzarella and tomato gnocchi with spinach, courgette and pine nuts (£12.95) – outstandingly soft, packed with texture, and fresh and zingy. Service, under general manager Scott Quinn-Yumusak (previously at the Owen’s former restaurant PJ’s in Covent Garden) adds a touch of friendly old school formality to Kentish Town’s rather relaxed dining scene.

So like any old friend, the Canteen can infuriate and delight in equal measures – but don’t neglect it, as chains like Starbucks and Foxton’s have long been circling.

This is box title

But what’s the history of this unique building?

Kentish CanteenThis striking landmark from 1862 was originally a police station to house Y (or Highgate) Division, conveniently located next to the Assembly House, a notorious Kentish Town drinking haunt. Patrons would have inevitably, from time to time, ended up in one of four police cells under the street (now Shebeen).

The police station replaced a row of cottages which in the 18th century was called Hayman’s Row (after the name of the field that lay beneath). It was part of a bequest to the poor of St Pancras by a merchant adventurer John Morant way back in 1547, an early example of the duality of wealth/poverty that still exists in the manor today.

The current building took the north side of a large cobbled yard which can still be seen in nearby Leverton Place. The police station moved out to Holmes Road in 1896, and in the 1950s the original space became residential and the cells were used as coal depots.

By the 1970s it had been converted into two shops – which later became Ace Sports and, in the 1990s, a small Spanish restaurant Triñanes with 4am licence.

Which, of course, brings us full circle to Harry the butcher’s R.E.D venture (Really Excellent Dining) and the present.

Find Kentish Canteen 330 Kentish Town Road NW5. Starters from £4.75, mains from £10, set menu £11.95, open daily till late

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  • Show Comments (9)

  • ckazok

    Have been there a couple of times as we live pretty close. Best to order are the buffalo wings. Don’t know what they put into the sauce, but you would find hardly any better in London.

    However unfortunately the rest is so so. The crab linguini mentioned in the article, once ordered, we couldn’t finish because the chili was so much, we didn’t taste anything but chili.

    A recent pumpkin gnocchi order was also good on consistency, but poor on taste. So, I will probably visit them again, but I guess only to eat wings.

  • DF

    Sorry never again after being served a portion of fish for a main no bigger than a birdseye fish finger. Not the only place serving up starvation portions. Try the Shoe Shop if you really want to lose some weight. It’s great we have so many places to potentially get a good meal but they often fail on the basics like stingy portions and serving food luke warm. I try all these new places but one crap meal and the rule is never again. If they’re going to charge me £50 – £80 for a meal for 3 at least make some effort.

  • Alistair McIntosh

    I’m a regular – I pay for my meals unlike this reviewer – do you need three free nights out to make up your mind – I like the linguine – wtf is umami – very pretentious review – good and friendly restaurant

    • Kentishtowner

      We state clearly on the rare occasions we now accept a comped or ‘free’ meal. In this case we paid three times to write as accurate an account as possible. And like you, we’ve been regulars over the years.

  • Clare

    Umami is a taste like sweet , sour salty etc – marmite , cheese on toast , chicken skin , roast meat etc

  • alistair mcintosh

    well done for stumping up – umami wow – http://www.umamiinfo.com/2011/02/What-exactly-is-umami.php

  • Jon

    I just wish they would change their menu. In the two years I have been living here it’s been exactly the same! I’ve stopped going completely now having tried everything. Brunch however is always a treat and the staff are always lovely.

  • Feather

    Hmm, it’s a tough call. They do brunch ok (except for the time they gave us a bowl of sautéed mushrooms with hairs in it, and then accused us of putting it there!!) and their burgers are alright, but let’s face it, their salad and pastry display is hardly comparable to Ottolenghi, Stephen. C’mon!

    Overall, really hit and miss. the interior needs updating – those faux leather banquets and crap ‘local’ wall art has got to go – and the menu, as others suggested, could do with being kept fresh n snazzy. If it doesn’t raise it’s game, it may get left behind.

  • Hannah

    Over the last year or so we’ve had varied experiences about this place. The food has always been consistently lovely and what we’d consider good value for money, the staff however are a bit of a minefield… The general waiting staff have always been nothing short of brilliant, the problem unfortunately lies with whoever is in charge.
    On several occasions we’ve visited and witness the managers being either rude to each other, their staff or the customers; all rather indiscreetly and unnecessarily which has made for a bit of an uncomfortable time as a diner.
    Although none of this behaviour has been directed specifically at us, I’d be reluctant to take friends there or recommend it at this stage as it could potentially be quite embarrassing, all that’s needed is a little chat to the management about keeping any issues or stresses away from the front of house areas and it’ll be on track as the great local restaurant it should be.
    As it stands at the moment we tend to favour going elsewhere for a generally more enjoyable experience unfortunately.

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