Jolene, London N16: ‘Earthy, imaginative, slightly saintly’ – restaurant review

Jolene, N16: A ‘great restaurant for a date’.

First, the restaurant’s name, because names are very important: Jolene. It is, of course, also a song that’s the dictionary definition of “plaintive”, in which Dolly Parton nails the agony of having one’s life bulldozed, just for kicks, by a flame-haired supervixen. Jolene, I always sensed, was the type of woman who would pay little heed to Dolly’s beggin’ – the game was already over. And, 45 or so years on, this woman’s name still holds connotations of lost love and the inevitability that people will behave like garbage.

It is, therefore, a bold set of restaurateurs who would create a beautiful, candlelit space this close to Hackney with a bakery attached, and call it Jolene. That said, if I had to spend an evening listening to some claptrap excuse about why my man “talks about you in his sleep”, I’d want it to occur at a Jeremie Cometto-Lingenheim and David Gingell restaurant. Try to break my heart on a Friday night at Westerns Laundry in Holloway, north London, their previous opening before Jolene, if you dare. That place is so damned affable, and Gingell’s rum baba so sensational, you could announce that you and Jolene were eloping to Bogotá, and I’d grunt, “Ooh, never mind, we got a Friday night table at Westerns.” Then I’d continue stuffing back the tallegio-drenched potato gratin. Every cloud and all that.

‘A beautiful, candlelit space with a bakery attached.’
 ‘A beautiful, candlelit space with a bakery attached.’

In actual fact, Jolene is a great date restaurant. Service is immaculate and, being in the spacious converted bottom floor of a three-storey block of flats, the tables aren’t cramped. There’s lots to chat about, too. There is a sense with Jolene, much as with both Westerns Laundry and its owners’ original venture, Primeur in Stoke Newington, that these are people ploughing their own furrow. Yes, small plates, blackboard menus and open kitchens won’t have anyone clutching their pearls nowadays, but at some point in the Jolene incubation, someone flourished a hand over an unlovable industrial space and said something along the lines of, “And here, friends, here is where we will mill pasture-based, chemical-free spelt from the farm of Andy Cato from Groove Armada and turn it into slow-fermented doughs and rustic stews. Let us make the walls uneven hydrolime and decorate the shelves with vintage Hungarian meat troughs, and make our own curtains from vintage linen, embroidered with haunting lyrics from Jolene, such as ‘My happiness depends on you’.” Oh, how I love writing descriptions of cool restaurants that make readers outside London rise from their morning coffee, like someone in Bird Box on Netflix, and start headbutting a wall.

Jolene’s small evening menu is, as one would imagine, ever-changing. There was, on the midweek evening I popped by, a smattering of charcuterie – lombo and jamón de Teruel – plus a freshly baked, intensely garlicky garlic bread. All the following dishes I recall as being quite wonderful: nutty brown jerusalem artichokes roasted in rosemary with just the right level of crispness and mushy give; a “risotto” made from spelt with sage-roasted pumpkin and crunchy walnuts; and a plate of fresh, lemon-enlivened tagliatelle with capers and oregano. There were quails in muscat grape sauce on offer, too, and pork loin in apple sauce, but we opted for a chunk of fresh and brilliantly judged hake that came dressed in a green cloak of slightly intoxicating olive salsa. A side of cavolo nero turned up in an oil, garlic and chilli dressing and tossed though with salted ricotta.

Jolene’s ‘fresh, lemon-enlivened tagliatelle with capers and oregano’.
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 Jolene’s ‘fresh, lemon-enlivened tagliatelle with capers and oregano’.

There’s bias in this review, for sure, because this is my sort of food. Earthy, imaginative, slightly saintly, but with a dirty underbelly of oily, salty largesse in each forkful of spelt, cruciferous veg or sustainably harvested, starchy carb. Yes, Jolene may not be for everyone – Charles put his foot down over the parsnips roasted with pears because, being of French stock, he still holds firm that parsnips are suitable only as donkey sustenance. Jolene also has an all-natural winelist, just as Westerns Laundry does, an occurrence that made my beloved colleague Jay Rayner so fractious that he had to play Autumn Leaves, jazz-piano style, for days, until we found him a decently priced, regular-intervention glass of claret.

Jolene’s cavolo nero dressed in an oil, garlic and chilli dressing and tossed with salted ricotta.
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 Jolene’s cavolo nero dressed in an oil, garlic and chilli dressing and tossed with salted ricotta.

For me, at least, Jolene is a great place to have up your sleeve. It’s neighbourhoody and completely welcoming, but still ever so slightly pretentious in places. You will leave well fed, and possibly waddling, after the praline choux ring smothered in chocolate sauce. Please take one, just because you can.

 Jolene 22 Newington Green, London N16, 020-3887 2309. Open Tues-Sun, 10am-3.30pm (last orders), 6-9.15pm (last orders). About £35 a head, plus drinks and service.

Food 8/10
Service 9/10
Atmosphere 8/10

  • Grace Dent’s restaurant reviews appear in the award-winning food magazine Feast, along with recipes by Yotam Ottolenghi and more top cooks, with the Guardian every Saturday.

 

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