For 36 years, neighbourhood Indian takeaway Fortess Tandoori knocked out the aloos, jalfrezis and vindaloos on this site, until the retirement of the owner family earlier this year.
Over recent months, a new husband and wife team – Joe Stokoe and Ali Dedianko – have been reimagining the place as Ceremony, their dream restaurant, featuring a mostly plant-based menu alongside killer cocktail bar.
“We’d been looking for a site and really wanted to be on Fortess Road, but never considered the takeaway as it seemed so small,” Joe tells us. However when the couple looked around inside, they soon realised the footprint of the property went back – way back.
“We found that there was actually enough room to seat 40 people,” he says, “and there was a huge garden that was completely overgrown, with piles of discarded washing machine motors in the undergrowth. When we cleared it all out, we couldn’t believe the size of the outdoor space.”
That’s how their fledgling restaurant gained its very own onsite herb and vegetable garden. They’ve since worked with local gardening experts Of Butterflies and Bees on developing the space with planters, so dishes and drinks can contain produce of extremely local provenance.
On our inaugural brunch-time visit, despite having only just opened, service is slick. The kitchen is coping ably as a stream of curious locals occupy the Scandinavian-styled booths in the bright, lofty restaurant space. It’s a pity there’s no coffee machine, just a cafetiere, but the fresh juice is just-squeezed and generous.
Dishes are twists on the favourites, so a chunky challah French toast (with fluffy bread from Spence Bakery opposite) smothered in berries and cream, rich orange-hued sweet potato pancakes oozing maple syrup, or a fried egg croissant-wich, based on Ali’s own go-to breakfast at home, manages to layer many more flavours than its simple name implies.
“We serve vegetarian food that’s not trying to be good for you,” she tells us, of their approach. “It’s just meant to be delicious.”
American-born veggie Ail grew up in Baltimore, then New York, but failed to unearth the kind of restaurants she loved from her youth when putting down permanent roots in NW5 years ago. “You’ve got your Mildreds and your Mannas,” she says, of London’s finer meat-free specialists, “but we wanted to play it down here, and just be a place for excellent food and a good time, regardless of the fact the menu happens to involve no meat.”
With increasingly debauched vegan streetfood creations dominating the media right now, it’s fair to say the couple are already riding atop the crest of the zeitgeist. That’s no surprise though, as they’re both seasoned hospitality pros. Joe runs his own drinks and events consultancy, having worked as a bartender around the world, including stints at Milk & Honey, Trailer Happiness and more.
Meanwhile Ali is the creative director of London Beer Week, having previously worked for Belvedere Vodka and in bars and restaurants across the US.
As you’d expect, quality booze is a priority at Ceremony. At brunch, the Hail Mary is Joe’s signature take on the vodka/tomato juice combo, and contains cold-pressed beetroot for a more delicate, if no less potent hangover-buster. In the evening, try his asparagus negroni, which is similarly a subtle and refi ned riff on a classic, or a Rosadita, where he’s slowly infused fresh grapefruit into vodka and Manzanilla.
Keenly priced, the bar here is new outpost in Kentish Town’s ‘cocktail quarter’, a short walk from the established cluster.
Dinner is also when the menu most impresses. A starter of crispy duck egg atop truffle-heavy polenta delights, with its theatrical exploding yolk and winning combination of textures. Meanwhile, a tranche of aubergine scattered with pomegranate and a dollop of smoked yoghurt tastes as vibrant as it looks.
The charred leek rarebit proves to be the ultimate in comfort-food, pitting the sweetest of baby veg up against a robust parmesan-like (but vegetarian) hard cheese that Ali stumbled upon shopping at Earth Natural Foods.
The menu has come from her carefully considered personal experimentation, now entrusted in the hands of head chef Kinga Jablonka. She started off locally in the kitchen at Bintang and Guanabana, later working her way through the likes of Marylebone’s Michelin starred Dinings and D&D’s Fish Market, before arriving here.
Her white bean broth with cavolo nero and dumplings is exactly what a main should be; complex and rich enough that it simply couldn’t be improved by adding anything of animal origin. The stock is a real sensation, surpassing the weak, salty veggie clichés for an umami-laden chowder that requires being fully mopped up with remaining hunks of bread.
A risotto, that starchy staple of pub dining for meat-dodgers, is nothing to dread here. Light, almost pudding-like rice is lifted by hazelnuts and another of those exploding eggs, for a dish a world away from the steaming towers of gloop.
After your meal, you’ll find that tipping is not expected; paying staff well enough not to have to rely on extras is something they are keen to champion, as explained on the menu. On our first visit, there certainly seems to be a rare camaraderie among the busy team.
Returning a few weeks later without a booking, we realise how popular the restaurant already is, but we manage to get a stool at the counter, before being moved to a cosier booth: and the food impresses again, especially a simple starter of grilled rainbow carrots with puy lentils (way more tasty than that sounds) and pappardelle with pea and celeriac (a rather steep £17, however). The only difference this time is that service is less assured, a little frosty to begin with before a very long wait between starters and main, which involves eeking out a bottle of wine. We also think that a set weekday dinner menu would encourage repeat local custom, as the prices a la carte do swiftly add up.
But on a Tuesday night – that was quiet elsewhere in the area – our second visit underlines how Ceremony is as much of a destination joint as a neighbourhood one. But there’s no need, of course, to act like territorial carnivores.
Additional words and second visit reporting by Stephen Emms. This article was updated on 27th October.