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“We went foraging for these elderflowers over on Hackney Marshes this morning” says Stuart as he serves our cocktails. “It’s only fifteen minutes away, and it helps to give us ideas for our menus”
Do you like east London? Specifically, Hackney? I hope you do. Victory Mansion is very east London. The staff all own the restaurant. They forage for ingredients. There’s a pop-up mescal bar in their basement. I am south London. In my basement there is a broken vacuum cleaner and a mattress box.
But forget about all that hipster nonsense. Victory Mansions rises above these stereotypes. This is a place where people are passionate about food and drink, and share their enthusiasm with you. Show up, sit down and let the knowledgeable team take charge.
Victory Mansions serve small plates, but the flavours are always big. Eyeing up the menu, we’re drawn to the Thai-style pork sausage, apparently accompanied by crispy sweet potatoes and umami paste. After making him promise to bring us the sausage, we let the Stuart select the rest of our meal. He knows what’s good. After all, he foraged for it that very morning.
We’re seated outside, on a ramshackle two-seater wooden ensemble more suited to a quick drink than a five-course tasting flight. Among discount clothes racks and phone shops, just where the Kingsland Road fades into Stoke Newington High Street, Victory Mansions feels both incongruous and totally at ease. Of course there’s a co-op small plates neighbourhood bistro and cocktail lab here.
“This stretch of road used to be a bit of a wild west” explains Stuart as the first plates touch down. “We were sort of in between two communities, and fortunately since we’ve been here it’s all sprung up around us”
With food like this, I’m not surprised. The Thai sausage is all it promised to be and more. Two rich, pattyesque discs of coarsely-ground spicy sausage, stacked upon one another and crowned with a bouffant of thatched sweet potato and green beans. A surrounding coastline of the anticipated umami paste is the savoury glue which holds the flavours together.
A few mouthfuls in and it’s all we can talk about. There’s that lovestruck collision of sweet and salty which underpins many Thai dishes, and an unapologetically meaty haymaker which only a disc of sausage could deliver. A neighbouring dish of asparagus slathered in a soupy sauce of sprouting broccoli, seaweed and kaffir lime is an intelligent accompaniment. It cools and cleanses the palette without doing away with the oriental flavours.
An orange wine (where white wine grapes are processed in the way that red wine tends to be – with the skins left on to produce tannins), cloudy and crispy like a top cider, serves as the refreshing interlude between dishes.
Do-it-yourself ramen, served chilled, is better than it sounds. A huddle of spicy shitake, sweet potato and fermented kelp await the splash of dashi sauce, held in a complementary jug (£6). It’s a nice take on a popular dish, but as someone who’s never understood the delight of the dashi I’m still unconvinced.
Bigger flavours lie in store. Sea bream bursts into the scene with a mandarin and peanut sambal (£9), elbowing its way into the palette. The fish is cooked to perfection, with a honey-coloured glaze to the skin, but there are a few too many flavours competing. Citrus here, lettuce there, it’s a bit of a riot. Not that we don’t wipe the plate clean.
Cuttlefish doesn’t often make the menu beyond the coast, but Victory Mansion make excellent use of an underrated flavour. Described as a ‘dumpling’, what we actually receive is a delicate assembly of crispy deep-fried lotus root, pea shoots and edible flowers, with ribbons of cuttlefish threading through each layer like a double-helix, a swamp of rich watercress paste lying beneath.
It’s one of those dishes that you approach tentatively, unsure of where your fork should go. In the end we turn them sideways, using the blunt edge to audibly crack the lotus root, scooping the thick watercress paste with a sliver of cuttlefish. Like a cross between squid and octopus, the subtly lilting flavour of the cuttlefish is coaxed free by the watercress, with the lotus adding a welcome crash of crunchiness. You can almost taste the chef’s imagination at play.
A cleansing sorbet gives us a final taste of freshness, before heading inside to explore El Bandito, that basement Mescal bar. An hour later and we’re even happier with our evening.
Creative, fresh and inspiring: whatever you think of east London, Victory Mansions is the type of restaurant which would do well anywhere.
18 Stoke Newington High St
Tel: 020 3441 6900