The only other time I have eaten at Caravan was for a very hungover brunch, and all I can remember is that the Bloody Mary was strong and provided the right dose of hair-of-the-dog and that the ham hock filled the right hole. All as I have heard since then off everybody who has been is how brilliant Caravan is. And since we couldn’t get a table at the new venture in the now-trendy Kings Cross, we settled for Exmouth Market, and after a great meal I get what all the fuss is about.
We turned up at eight without a booking, having been told over the phone that they would do their best to find us a seat despite it being fully booked. This usually means seating you up at the bar for an hour and letting you spend a good whack on cocktails before giving you a pokey little table in the basement. Not at Caravan. As soon as we got to the door a smiley waitress welcomed us, and promised us she would get us seated.
We then ordered the cocktails- a summery fruity one with gin, and something that the guy next to me was drinking that had rum in it. They were both great and got us on a roll. All of the staff were brilliant. Attentive, chatty and knowledgable. They seem happy to be working in this trendy joint and they do their best to make sure you share the fun. The waitress soon came back and offered us a table. There was no ‘we need it back by 9’ that so often seems to be the case these days in restaurants. Instead the service was friendly and relaxed, matching the vibe of the restaurant.
She told us a little bit about the menu, how it’s named after a spice caravan to reflect the owner’s travels, and so it has a little bit of everything. As is the fashion the food is to be shared, with around five dishes between two of you the amount they’d recommend. You’d have to be pretty comfortable with the person you’re eating with to share the soup.
We went for a sharing board that was made up of cheese, ham, an egg deep with a crispy batter, spicy sausage, green beans and a tomato salsa. No picture or description can do this justice. Every ingredient tasted far better than it sounded, and as sharing boards go this was a great one to kick off any meal. Then came the barrage of sharing plates. First the ham croquetas with a fiery mustard sauce, that we could have easily eaten double the amount of- not because the portion was small, but because they were that good. The turnip bhaji split opinion. My girlfriend thought it was burnt and didn’t like it, but I thought the charred finish added to the texture and flavour. The ribs were simply good ribs. Plenty of meat on the bones and a sweet sticky sauce, although not something I’d choose next time.
The one let down was the quail. It came with cashews and pak choi, but it was all a bit watery and the sauce lacked the spice it promised. Maybe I just like my food to have a real kick, but it seems that too often a dish claims to be spicy and doesn’t deliver on it. The quail skin would have been nicer had it been crispy, and the cashews lacked a crunch.
To finish we shared a banoffee pie, and it came with a shard of dark chocolate and was light and rich. We washed it down with the renowned Caravan coffee that they roast on site in the basement. The flat whites were as good as they get, and the perfect way to end a meal.
The bill came to just under £100, and at £50 a head it sounds a little expensive. But the service is the best I’ve had for a long time and made the whole experience worthy of the price. I was in Gaucho Piccadilly the following night and paid twice the price for a meal and the waitress was rude and uninterested, and you remember the bad service more than the quality of the meal. We did have three cocktails and a beer each, so if you aren’t drinking as much this could be closer to the £35 a head mark. It’s worth going either way. Perfect for every occasion, even if you’re just nipping in for a coffee and a quick read of the paper.
Caravan, 11-13 Exmouth Market, London, EC1R 4QD