Aug. 29 (Bloomberg) -- Shrimpy’s is a visual joke: A restaurant housed in a former gas station, where the neon letters “Filling Station” shine out over a shrunken forecourt, without pumps or other signs of life.
Even if you squeeze round the back, where Shrimpy’s is hidden, there’s no sign. The dining room is behind an al fresco bar that isn’t part of the restaurant. The look is midcentury U.S. west, somewhere between “Psycho” and the Beach Boys.
Shrimpy’s is the creation of the team behind Bistrotheque, a quirky East London restaurant where the dissonant industrial ambience is offset by the presence of a pianist: Where there is discord, let us bring harmony. The brunch is good, too.
The new restaurant picks up the offbeat style and runs away with it. The dishes are inspired by visits to the Americas, especially the Latin parts. The cocktails are unusual, particularly the Blue Rinse (Tequila, lavender, blue curacao, lemon juice) which lives up to its name, looking like shampoo.
The menu isn’t long and the food is good. The signature dish is soft-shell crab burger, which you might imagine as a fishy patty. Well no, it is a crab stuck in a seeded bun, with avocado on top. It’s messy to eat and is fun enough to make Shrimpy’s worth visiting at least once. It costs 16 pounds ($25.40).
My reservations about Shrimpy’s are unrelated to the food. There’s just something so cool about the place, I found it uncomfortable. The tables are squeezed into a narrow space. You’re so close together, the next table engaged us in conversation about my decibel counter, whose numbers were bounding around below 70. That’s a good number because it means the place is quiet enough to chat to your neighbors.
Over three visits, the service was sometimes friendly and efficient and at other times distracted.
I don’t mind too much -- I can be easy to ignore when I put my mind to it -- but Shrimpy’s isn’t cheap, and more consistency would be welcome. Invisible restaurants don’t need invisible diners.
Among the starters and snacks, the sweetcorn chowder, salsa, sour cream has a deep smoky flavor, then Parmesan and paprika straws have a real kick, and the grilled cheese and pimento sandwich is a gooey delight. The veal heart, chorizo, caper dressing is as challenging as it sounds; the salt-cod croquettes and the seabass ceviche are fine.
My favorite main after the soft-shell crab is the chicken, poached in buttermilk and then deep fried and served with red peppers. The flavor is all there and the contrasting textures are a pleasure. I feel sure that Colonel Sanders would approve.
The desserts are worth holding out for. There’s an excellent chocolate brownie (with pistachio sundae) or you may prefer poached quince with creme-fraiche almonds.
I enjoyed a couple of good lunches at Shrimpy’s, which I would have enjoyed more if they had cost less. By the end of my third visit for dinner, I felt the life was being sucked out of me by the chill wind of cool, which can be the Dementor of the restaurant world.
After dinner, my guest and I escaped to the warm embrace of Caravan, a New Zealand-owned venue that has opened nearby. Smiles? Friendly staffers? The feeling you are welcome? Sometimes, those little things taste better than good food.
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost? About 50 pounds a head, including wine.
Sound level? Below 70 decibels.
Inside tip? Caravan is good for a coffee or drink after.
Special feature? Filling-station chic.
Will I be back? Wouldn’t rule it out.
Date place? OK if you enjoy eavesdropping.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Shrimpy’s, King’s Cross Filling Station, Goods Way, N1C 4UR. Information: +44-20-8880-6111, http://www.shrimpys.co.uk
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 65-70: Office noise. 70-75: Starbucks. 75-80: London street. 80-85: Alarm clock at closest range. 85-90: Passing bus. 85-95: Tube train.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Mark Beech on rock music, Martin Gayford on art, Ryan Sutton on U.S. restaurants and Hephzibah Anderson on fiction.
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